Opinion: Wealthy Americans like us aren't taxed enough
Editor’s Note: Abigail Disney is an Emmy-winning documentary filmmaker, activist, and member of the Patriotic Millionaires. Her latest film, “The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales,” co-directed with Kathleen Hughes, made its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Morris Pearl is the chair of Patriotic Millionaires, and former managing director of BlackRock. The opinions expressed in this commentary are their own. View more opinion on CNN.
Tuesday is Tax Day in America, one of the most stressful days of the year, when many taxpayers will finally end their procrastination, file their federal returns, and hope for a refund from the IRS. But for many of the nation’s wealthiest, it’s just another Tuesday.
Tax Day isn’t just a filing deadline — it’s also an annual reminder that the ultra-rich exist in an entirely separate world when it comes to taxes. For us, the loopholes are bigger and the rates are sometimes lower. Meanwhile, the rich keep getting richer, with the wealth of billionaires in particular growing by more than $1.5 trillion over the last few years.
This status quo is unfair, but even more importantly, it’s unsustainable. Such high levels of inequality are pushing our economy and our democracy to their breaking points. That’s why we should examine how we can set our country up for long-term stability and prosperity. And we should start by ensuring that the ultra-rich pay more of what they owe the country that made their success possible.
There are three changes to the tax code that would help us do just that:
Right now, the US tax system values money over sweat. If you work hard for your money instead of earning it passively, you’re essentially penalized for it. People who earn a salary pay significantly higher tax rates on their income than wealthy investors who passively earn capital gains income.
Inheriting money is an even better deal. Thanks to former president Donald Trump’s 2017 tax law, the first $12.92 million (or $25.84 million for a married couple) is completely exempt from any estate tax, and the stepped-up basis loophole allows wealthy families to permanently erase millions in capital gains taxes by resetting the market value of those assets to their value at the time of the original owner’s death. With this, it becomes relatively simple for the rich to inherit tens, even hundreds of millions of dollars, and pay almost nothing in taxes. Someone working for that money, on the other hand, would pay over a third of it in federal income taxes.
Why do we have a tax code that says working people should be taxed more than wealthy investors and those who got rich just by virtue of being born into the right family? At the end of the day, money is money, whether you worked for it or whether you inherited it. As an heiress and an investor, we should not be paying lower tax rates than people who earn their money from working.
It’s time for the tax code to treat all income equally by taxing all capital gains over $1 million at the same rates as ordinary income, and replacing our loophole-ridden estate tax with a simpler inheritance tax that treats inherited wealth as income.
We can’t just focus on income, however, because many of the richest Americans earn basically no taxable income of any kind in a typical year. Capital gains are only taxed when assets are sold, so instead of selling them, the ultra-rich use their assets as collateral to borrow vast sums of money at extremely low interest rates to live on, and then declare little or even negative “income” on their tax forms. This “Buy, Borrow, Die” strategy is a major reason billionaires paid a lower effective tax rate over recent years than working-class families.
By rethinking what is taxable, we can get access to the trillions of dollars of billionaire wealth that is untouchable under our current tax structure. That’s why President Biden has proposed the Billionaire Minimum Income Tax, which would tax the unrealized capital gains of the wealthiest households and why others have proposed wealth taxes on billionaires.
Finally, one of the most straightforward changes needed is to simply tax the extremely rich more than the merely rich. Our income tax caps out at a top rate of 37% for any income over $578,125 (or $693,750 for married couples). No matter how much more someone makes, they’ll never pay more than 37% in federal income taxes.
While someone earning $600,000 is certainly making enough to live a very comfortable life, they’re in a different world than someone making $600 million a year. In order to reflect the real differences between the rich and the ultra-rich, we need to return to the top rates we had through the most prosperous decades of the 20th century and add significantly more tax brackets. They should reach up to 90% for people making more than $100 million a year.
These three changes certainly won’t fix all our country’s problems on their own, but they would go a long way in stopping the steady flow of our country’s wealth toward a smaller and smaller group of people, a change that would make both our democracy and our economy more stable. The tax code can be a powerful tool for both social and economic change. We just need to use it more effectively.