With record inflation now squeezing American household budgets, you can thank our Senior Fellow Emeritus Steve Entin for shielding U.S. workers from being pushed into higher tax brackets. If ever there was a paycheck protection program, defending people from bracket creep may be the most important one ever designed.
It all started some 40 years ago. After Ronald Reagan was elected President, Steve Entin, who had previously served as a staff economist on the Joint Economic Committee and studied under notable professors like Milton Friedman at the University of Chicago, was invited to work at the Department of the Treasury as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Economic Policy.
As many at the Tax Foundation can attest, Steve’s stories about his time in the Reagan administration are legendary, but one stands out. Steve did something that every household in America should be grateful for—he convinced President Reagan to call for indexing the tax code to inflation.
At the time, American taxpayers were subject to bracket creep, which occurs when inflation pushes taxpayers into higher income tax brackets or reduces the value of credits, deductions, and exemptions. The bracket thresholds failed to keep pace with inflation, resulting in an increase in income taxes without an increase in real income.
Indeed, President Reagan used the chart that Steve drew for him during a televised address asking Americans to call their members of Congress and demand they index the tax code. People did. And it worked.
In case you are thinking, “Well, the rich make more, they should pay more,” the top 1 percent of taxpayers account for 20 percent of all income (AGI). So, their 40 percent share of income taxes is twice their share of the nation’s income.
Similarly, in 2018, the top 0.1 percent of taxpayers paid $311 billion in income taxes. That amounted to 20 percent of all income taxes paid, the highest level since 2001, as far back as the IRS data allows us to measure. The top 0.1 percent of taxpayers in 2018 paid a greater share of the income tax burden than the bottom 75 percent of taxpayers combined.
According to estimates conducted for Ms. Warren by University of California-Berkeley economists Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, only about 100,000 families, or “less than 1 out of 1,000,” would pay the tax, which they estimate would raise “around $3 trillion over the ten-year budget window 2023-2032, of which $0.4 trillion would come from the billionaire 1% surtax.”
Yet Tax Foundation economists discovered a surprising consequence when we ran the proposal through our general equilibrium tax model last year. The model showed that despite being a massive tax, raising nearly $300 billion a year, the tax had only a modest impact on gross domestic product. How can that be?
The model predicted that wealthy U.S. citizens would sell their assets at fire-sale prices to pay the tax. Because the U.S. is an open economy, many of these assets would be bought by foreign investors at the discounted prices. Thus, while a wealth tax wouldn’t shrink the U.S. economy much, it would change who owns U.S. assets. What Jeff Bezos, Warren Buffett and Mark Zuckerberg sell, Jack Ma, Carlos Slim and the sultan of Brunei might buy — and they’d be exempt from the U.S. wealth tax.