(CBS NEWS) – The U.S. tax system is supposed to be progressive, meaning that wealthier households pay a larger share of their income to the taxman than the middle class and the poor. Yet after the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, that’s no longer the case: For the first time in a century, America’s 400 richest families now pay lower taxes than people in the middle class.
That’s according to an analysis of tax data by two prominent economists, Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman of the University of California at Berkeley, that is a centerpiece of their new book, “The Triumph of Injustice,” to be published on October 15. Saez and Zucman, who have worked with the noted French economist Thomas Piketty to produce seminal research on inequality, also advised Senator Elizabeth Warren on the Democratic presidential candidate’s plan to impose a wealth tax on ultra-rich families.
The tipping point came last year when the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which was signed into law by President Donald Trump at the end of 2017, took effect. While Mr. Trump vowed that middle-class families would be helped by the tax overhaul, experts say most working-class families saw only a minimal benefit, while the wealthiest citizens got the lion’s share of breaks. In fact, Saez and Zucman argue, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act turned the tax system on its head.
“In 2018, for the first time in the last hundred years, the top 400 richest Americans have paid lower tax rates than the working class,” they write. “This looks like the tax system of a plutocracy.”
Factoring in all federal, state and local taxes, those ultra-wealthy households pay a total rate of about 23% — that compares with 24.2% for the bottom half of households, which includes many in the middle class. The richest families also pay a lower rate than those in the upper middle class and even those in the top 1%, who pay closer to 30% of their income in taxes.
Why do the super-rich pay lower taxes?
Zucman and Saez, who base their analysis on income tax returns, tax audits and other data, argue that in recent decades the tax system has tilted in favor of the highest earners, with the most recent push coming from the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.
“In 1970, the richest Americans paid, all taxes included, more than 50% of their income in taxes, twice as much as working-class individuals,” the book notes. “In 2018, following the Trump tax reform, and for the first time in the last hundred years, billionaires have paid less than steel workers, schoolteachers and retirees.”
Today, the tax rates enjoyed by the richest Americans are at levels last seen in the early part of the 20th century, when the U.S. government was a fraction of its current size. In 1910, many popular programs credited with keeping millions of Americans out of poverty didn’t exist, including Social Security and Medicare.
The rich pay lower tax rates than the middle class because most of their income doesn’t come from wages, unlike most workers. Instead, the bulk of billionaires’ income stems from capital, such as investments like stocks and bonds, which enjoy a lower tax rate than income. It’s the same reason why Warren Buffett famously said his tax rate was lower than his secretary’s.
The 2017 tax law amplified that trend, according to the new analysis. The tax rate for corporations was slashed to 21% from from 37%. And business income for many taxpayers now enjoys a 20% deduction, thanks to the new tax code, which places more income out of the IRS’ reach.
“The only category of income that does not benefit from any exemption, deduction, reduced rate or any other favor is wages,” Zucman and Saez write. “At any income level, wage earners are thus more heavily taxed than people who derive income from property.”
In effect, they add, capital income “is becoming tax-free.”
Why it matters
Although advocates of low taxes argue that slashing rates on the rich and corporations boosts economic growth, there’s little evidence for that. Instead, the U.S. is facing a number of risks by shifting to a more regressive tax system, the authors say.
For one, the federal government is losing out on a massive amount of tax revenue by slashing levies on the rich. Secondly, that lost revenue must be found elsewhere, which means the middle class and poor are likely to be stuck footing the bill.
But the most important reason, according to Zucman and Saez, is that the U.S. tax system is creating what they call an “inequality spiral.” In other words, the rich are getting richer — that allows them to shape public policies to extract further tax breaks and other benefits, boosting their wealth and political clout.
Of course, tax codes can change, which means the U.S. isn’t doomed to sink more deeply into the quagmire of inequality, Zucman and Saez write. For instance, the economists propose a new national income tax that would tax all income — whether from labor, capital or other sources — as a supplement to the existing income tax. The also favor a wealth tax.
The latter, similar to proposals from both Warren and Senator Bernie Sanders, would tax annual wealth at 2% for those above $50 million and 3.5% above $1 billion.
“A wealth tax will never replace the income tax,” they note. “Its goal is more limited: to ensure that the ultra-wealthy do not pay less than the rest of the population.”