“Biden isn’t calling his proposal a wealth tax, of course. It’s the “Billionaire Minimum Income Tax,” and it imposes a minimum 20 percent tax on the income of households with more than—oddly—$100 million in wealth. Biden’s proposal is smaller and more pragmatic than the earlier variants from Sens. Bernie Sanders (I–Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D–Mass.)—par for the course with Biden. Most notable is that even with implausibly optimistic estimates of the federal government’s ability to collect, the whole mess is supposed to raise an average of a mere $36 billion per year over the next 10 years.
The University of California, Berkeley, economist and Warren adviser Gabriel Zucman estimated what several billionaires would pay under the plan’s 20 percent tax on unrealized gains in illiquid assets, pinning Jeff Bezos’ bill at $35 billion, Warren Buffett’s at $26 billion, and Jim Walton’s at $7 billion.
Anyone who has been paying the slightest bit of attention to federal spending over the last several years knows that figures that begin with b instead of t are now considered rounding errors. The point of this wealth tax is not to raise revenue. It has two rather different aims.
The first is pure political calculus. A floundering, unpopular president seeks to demonstrate a willingness to punish a small, unpopular class of people. A Reuters/Ipsos poll last year found that nearly two-thirds of respondents agree that the very rich should pay more taxes: 64 percent either strongly or somewhat agreed that “the very rich should contribute an extra share of their total wealth each year to support public programs.””
“The second aim, which has more far-reaching consequences, is to establish the principle that the U.S. government can tax based on wealth at all. If such a tax were to be put into law—and found constitutional by the Supreme Court, which would be no mean feat—it would be the thin end of a very large wedge. Biden’s proposal will spin up the huge bureaucratic, legal, and accounting support systems, public and private, necessary to support the formal tracking of wealth alongside income.
The utility of permitting individuals to accumulate large amounts of money varies from person to person, of course. There are many billionaires whose fortunes are extractive or confiscatory—that is, they have seized a larger slice of an unchanged pie. But in the U.S. in particular, we specialize in billionaires whose fortunes are clearly related to value creation—that is, they have taken a healthy slice of a pie that they also made much larger.
Sanders and others seem determined to conflate these two groups, applying the term oligarchs to, among others, people whose houses have an excessive number of bathrooms, people who build rockets, and people who own Major League Baseball teams.
People do not need to have been wholly self-made to somehow deserve to keep their money. No billionaire is an island, even if many of them own one. In fact, vanishingly few of us have fates that are wholly self-determined.
As a moral matter, if not a legal one, we might ask what the very rich do with their money as a way of evaluating whether they should keep it. As famously rich person Elon Musk recently tweeted: “Working hard to make useful products & services for your fellow humans is deeply morally good.” Many who support wealth taxes seem to hold the belief that the government would use the resources that the very wealthy command toward more valuable ends. Of course, most of the fortunes of billionaires such as the Waltons, or Musk, or Bezos are tied up in the large and extremely productive firms that made them rich in the first place.”