New era of inequality: Billionaires pay less in taxes than the working class

Economist Gabriel Zucman's analysis reveals that for the first time, U.S. billionaires have a lower effective tax rate than working-class Americans, sparking a renewed debate on wealth tax.

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Economist Gabriel Zucman’s analysis reveals a troubling milestone: U.S. billionaires now pay a lower effective tax rate than working-class Americans, marking the first time this disparity has been recorded. This revelation, published in The New York Times, highlights the growing chasm between the ultra-rich and the average worker, sparking renewed calls for comprehensive tax reform.

Zucman’s research illustrates a historical shift in tax burdens. For the first time, America’s wealthiest individuals pay a lower effective tax rate than the working class. In 2018, the average tax rate for billionaires was 23%, while working-class Americans paid an average of 24%. This reversal is attributed to the unique tax mechanisms that billionaires employ to minimize their taxable income, predominantly through stock holdings and tax-free loans.

Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk exemplify this phenomenon. Although both report modest salaries, they leverage their vast wealth in company stock to access loans that fund acquisitions and luxury purchases. By borrowing against these assets, they generate significant cash flow without triggering taxable events, thereby keeping their effective tax rates extremely low.

These findings raise concerns about the societal impact of growing wealth inequality. Zucman argues that the ultra-rich’s ability to live off their wealth while contributing less in taxes undermines the principles of fairness and democracy. Rakeen Mabud, chief economist at the Groundwork Collaborative, echoes this sentiment, calling the trend “absurd” and urging lawmakers to raise taxes on the wealthy and large corporations.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), chair of the Senate Budget Committee, finds the data “disgraceful” and advocates for immediate reforms. He believes addressing the tax disparity can bolster funding for Social Security and Medicare. Zucman himself proposes a minimum tax on billionaires to help reverse the decades-long surge in inequality.

Comparing current wealth concentration to historical periods like the Gilded Age, Zucman highlights a striking pattern. Today, the world’s 2,781 billionaires hold $14.2 trillion in combined assets, with American billionaires alone accounting for $5.7 trillion. This concentration has grown largely due to systematic tax cuts and policy changes.

In the 1960s, the wealthiest Americans paid more than half of their income in taxes. By 2018, their effective tax rates had plummeted. Recent changes, such as the reduction in corporate taxes from 35% to 21% in 2018, and the erosion of estate taxes over decades, have further enabled billionaires to accumulate immense fortunes while paying proportionally less.

Calls for progressive taxation have gained traction in light of Zucman’s findings. However, achieving legislative change remains an uphill battle. The political climate is deeply polarized, and attempts to introduce wealth taxes often face strong opposition. Critics argue that accurate wealth valuation is impractical and fear adverse economic effects.

Despite this, proposals for a global minimum tax on billionaires and other wealth tax reforms are gaining momentum. Advocates contend that targeting stock holdings and other assets could provide a fairer and more sustainable fiscal structure. Zucman emphasizes that while this is only a starting point, a coordinated tax strategy can reduce inequality and support critical public programs.

Zucman’s analysis lays bare the unprecedented tax disparity between America’s wealthiest and its working class. These findings challenge the nation to rethink its tax policies and address systemic inequality. As Mabud and Whitehouse assert, failing to act only widens the gap and leaves critical social programs underfunded. But implementing a fair tax system requires political will and widespread advocacy to counter deeply entrenched interests.

“The idea that billionaires should pay a minimum amount of income tax is not a radical idea,” Zucman concludes. “What is radical is continuing to allow the wealthiest people in the world to pay a smaller percentage in income tax than nearly everybody else.”

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