A wealth tax (also called a capital tax or equity tax) is a tax on an entity's holdings of assets. This includes the total value of personal assets, including cash, bank deposits, real estate, assets in insurance and pension plans, ownership of unincorporated businesses, financial securities, and personal trusts (a one-off levy on wealth is a capital levy). Typically, liabilities (primarily mortgages and other loans) are deducted from an individual's wealth, hence it is sometimes called a net wealth tax. Wealth taxes are in use in many[clarification needed] countries around the world and seek to reduce the accumulation of wealth by individuals.
clarification needed] require declaration of the taxpayer's balance sheet (assets and liabilities), and from that ask for a tax on net worth (assets minus liabilities), as a percentage of the net worth, or a percentage of the net worth exceeding a certain level. Wealth taxes can be limited to natural persons or they can be extended to also cover legal persons such as corporations. In 1990, about a dozen European countries had a wealth tax, but by 2019, all but four had eliminated the tax because of the difficulties and costs associated with both design and enforcement. Belgium, Norway, Spain, and Switzerland are the countries that raised revenue from net wealth taxes on individuals in 2019 with net wealth taxes accounting for 1.1% of overall tax revenues in Norway, 0.55% in Spain, and 3.6% in Switzerland for 2017.[
According to an OECD study on wealth taxes, it is "difficult to firmly argue that wealth taxes would have negative effects on entrepreneurship. The magnitude of the effects of wealth taxes on entrepreneurship is also unclear".
Iceland had a wealth tax until 2006 and a temporary wealth tax reintroduced in 2010 for four years. The tax was levied at a rate of 1.5% on net assets exceeding 75,000,000 kr for individuals and 100,000,000 kr for married couples.
Similar to Iceland, Denmark taxed household income above a certain exemption threshold, which was about the 98th percentile of the wealth distribution, until 1997. A dozen OECD countries imposed similar taxes until the 1990s, but the Danish wealth tax was the highest of its kind. Until the late 1980s, the marginal tax rate on wealth was 2.2 percent, leading to a very high rate on the return on wealth. After minimizing the tax for some years, the Danish government eventually abolished the tax altogether in 1997.
Some other European countries have discontinued this kind of tax in recent years: Germany (1997), Finland (2006), Luxembourg (2006) and Sweden (2007).
In the United Kingdom and other countries, property (real estate) is often a person's main asset, and has been taxed - for example, the window tax of 1696, the rates, to some extent the Council Tax, municipal property taxes, and a new mansion tax proposed by some political parties.
Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders included a billionaire wealth tax in their campaign platforms during the 2020 United States Presidential Election. A February, 2020, poll found 67% of registered American voters supported a wealth tax on billionaires to reduce inequality, with support at 85% of Democrats, 66% of independent voters, and 47% of Republicans.
In 2014, French economist Thomas Piketty published a widely discussed book entitled Capital in the Twenty-First Century that starts with the observation that economic inequality is increasing and proposes wealth taxes as a countermeasure. The central thesis of the book is that inequality is not an accident, but rather a feature of capitalism, and can only be reversed through state interventionism. The book thus argues that unless capitalism is reformed, the very democratic order will be threatened. At the core of this thesis is the notion that when the rate of return on capital (r) is greater than the rate of economic growth (g) over the long term, the result is the concentration of wealth, and this unequal distribution of wealth causes social and economic instability. Piketty proposes a global system of progressive wealth taxes to help reduce inequality and avoid the trend towards a vast majority of wealth coming under the control of a tiny minority. This analysis was hailed as a major and important work by some economists. Other economists have challenged Piketty's proposals and interpretations.[excessive citations]
In 2021, Patriotic Millionaires, a coalition of wealthy individuals who push for progressive policy changes, protested in front of Jeff Bezos's homes. Chairman Morris Pearl, said that, ending up with a few rich people and a lot of poor people is not a way one can run a sustainable society.
In order to bridge the wealth gap between rich and poor in Germany, the Social Democratic Party of Germany called for a nationwide wealth tax to be reintroduced in 2019. According to the proposed tax reform, wealthy households would be required to pay an extra tax between 1% and 1.5%. A single household would need to pay 1% of their net worth on every euro surpassing EUR2 Million and married couple would have to pay for every euro surpassing EUR4 Million. A married household with a combined net worth of EUR4.2 Million would have to pay an annual wealth tax of EUR2,000.
Revenue from a wealth tax scheme depends largely on the presence of net wealth and wealth inequality within the target country. Revenue depends on the plan that is in place, but it generally can be modeled as , where t represents the tax rate and w is the amount of wealth affected by that tax rate. Many plans include tax brackets, where a certain portion of the individual's wealth will be taxed at a given rate and any wealth beyond that amount will be taxed at a different rate.
A small number of countries have been using wealth tax regimes for some time. Revenues earned from wealth tax schemes vary by country from 0.98% of GDP in Switzerland to 0.22% in France, for example. 2020 United States presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren claimed a wealth tax plan could generate 1.4% of GDP in revenue for the United States.
According to data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the revenues generated from wealth taxes account for about 0.46% of all tax revenue on average in 2018 for companies which have wealth tax schemes in place. However this varies from country to country, the highest would be that of Luxembourg where it accounted for 7.18% of total tax revenue in 2018, the lowest would be Germany where it accounted for 0.03% of total tax revenue in 2018.
|Country||Recurrent Tax on Net Wealth||Total Tax Revenue||Wealth Tax over Total Tax Revenue|
Estimates for a wealth tax's potential revenue in the United States vary. Several Democratic presidential candidates in the 2020 election have proposed wealth tax plans. Elizabeth Warren, for example, has proposed a wealth tax of 2% on net wealth above $50 million and 6% above $1 billion. The conservative-leaning nonprofit Tax Foundation estimates revenue generated by Senator Warren's proposal would total around $2.6 trillion over the next 10 years. Separate estimates from campaign advisors and economists Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman put the revenue at about 1% of GDP per year, in alignment with USD revenue estimates. These estimates put Senator Warren's tax plan revenues at about $200 billion in 2020. The sum of United States tax revenues in 2018 were $5 trillion in 2018, meaning the tax collected by this plan would be equal to 4% of current tax revenues. Additionally, the Tax Foundation estimates 2020 presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders' wealth tax plan would collect $3.2 trillion between 2020 and 2029.
Previous proposals for a wealth tax in the United States had already existed. Senator Huey Long of Louisiana proposed a wealth tax as part of his Share Our Wealth movement in 1934. Eileen Myles proposed a net assets tax in her presidential campaign in 1992, as did Donald Trump during his presidential campaign in 2000.
A net wealth tax may also be designed to be revenue-neutral if it is used to broaden the tax base, stabilize the economy, and reduce individual income and other taxes.
A wealth tax serves as a negative reinforcer ("use it or lose it"), which incentivizes the productive use of assets (rather than letting assets accumulate without being used). According to University of Pennsylvania Law School professors David Shakow and Reed Shuldiner, "a wealth tax also taxes capital that is not productively employed. Thus, a wealth tax can be viewed as a tax on potential income from capital." Net wealth taxes can complement rather than replace gift taxes, capital gains taxes, and inheritance taxes to increase administrability and the effectiveness of enforcement efforts.
In their article, "Investment Effects of Wealth Taxes Under Uncertainty and Irreversibility," Rainer Niemann and Caren Sureth-Sloane found that the effects of wealth taxation on investment mainly depends upon the tax method employed and the broadness of the wealth threshold for taxation. Niemann and Sureth-Sloane found that, "Broadening the wealth tax base tends to accelerate investment during high interest rate periods." Caren Sureth and Ralf Maiterth concluded that wealth tax revenues from entrepreneurs may decrease in the long term and the revenue from a wealth tax may be negative if the wealth taxation thresholds are too low.
Saez and Zucman are two economists that worked on the "Ultra-Millionaire Tax" proposed by Senator Elizabeth Warren. In their paper, "Progressive Wealth Taxation," they assert that a potential wealth tax in the United States needs necessary parameters to limit detrimental effects on investment. One parameter is a high wealth threshold to limit direct taxation on small business and entrepreneurship. The academic literature on the effects of wealth taxation on investment incentives are inconclusive in the United States; Saez and Zucman assert there are three reasons wealth taxes in European countries are weak comparisons to the United States when analyzing potential effects on investment. First, they claim tax competition between European countries allows for individuals to avoid taxation by allocating assets to a different country. Reallocating assets to avoid taxation is more difficult in the United States because tax filings apply equally to United States citizens no matter the country of current residence. Second, low exemption thresholds caused liquidity problems for some individuals who were on the lower end of wealth taxation thresholds. Third, they contend European wealth taxes need modernization and improved methods for systematic information gathering.
Further proponents for a wealth tax claim it could have positive effects on investment in the United States. Some extremely wealthy people use their assets in unproductive ways. For example, an entrepreneur could generate much higher returns (though could conversely lose much more capital operating on leverage) than a wealthy individual with a conservative investment such as United States Treasury Bonds.
A wealth tax could lead to negative effects on investment, saving, and economic growth. In the article, "Economic effects of wealth taxation," Kyle Pomerleau states, "A wealth tax, even levied at an apparently low annual rate, places a significant burden on saving." The degree of this impact on savings and investments is reliant on the openness of the United States economy. A wealth tax would shrink national saving and increase foreign ownership of assets. The potential decrease in national savings leads to a decrease in capital stock. An estimate from the Penn Wharton Budget Model indicates that if the revenue from the wealth tax proposed by Elizabeth Warren were used to finance non-productive government spending, GDP would decrease by 2.1 percent by 2050, capital stock would decrease by 6.5 percent, and wages would decrease by 2.3 percent. Some opponents also point out that redistribution through a wealth tax is an inherently counterintuitive way to foster economic growth. Richard Epstein, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, contents, "The classical liberal approach wants to simplify taxation and reduce regulation to spur growth. Plain old growth is a much better social tonic that the toxic Warren Wealth Tax."
Unlike property taxes that fall on the full value of a property, a net wealth tax only taxes equity (value above debt). This could benefit those with mortgages, student loans, automobile loans, consumer loans, etc.
There are many arguments against the implementation of a wealth tax, including claims that a wealth tax would be unconstitutional (in the United States), that property would be too hard to value, and that wealth taxes would reduce the rate of innovation.
A 2006 article in The Washington Post titled "Old Money, New Money Flee France and Its Wealth Tax" pointed out some of the harm caused by France's wealth tax. The article gave examples of how the tax caused capital flight, brain drain, loss of jobs, and, ultimately, a net loss in tax revenue. Among other things, the article stated, "Éric Pichet, author of a French tax guide, estimates the wealth tax earns the government about $2.6 billion a year but has cost the country more than $125 billion in capital flight since 1998."
In 2012, the Wall Street Journal wrote that: "the wealth tax has a fatal flaw: valuation. It has been estimated that 62% of the wealth of the top 1% is "non-financial" - i.e., vehicles, real estate, and (most importantly) private business. Private businesses account for nearly 40% of their wealth and are the largest single category." A particular issue for small business owners is that they cannot accurately value their private business until it is sold. Furthermore, business owners could easily make their businesses look much less valuable than they really are, through accounting, valuations and assumptions about the future. "Even the rich don't know exactly what they're worth in any given moment."
Examples of such fraud and malfeasance were revealed in 2013, when French budget minister Jérôme Cahuzac was discovered shifting financial assets into Swiss bank accounts in order to avoid the wealth tax. After further investigation, a French finance ministry official said, "A number of government officials minimised their wealth, by negligence or with intent, but without exceeding 5-10 per cent of their real worth ... however, there are some who have deliberately tried to deceive the authorities." Yet again, in October 2014, France's Finance chairman and President of the National Assembly, Gilles Carrez, was found to have avoided paying the French wealth tax (ISF) for three years by applying a 30 percent tax allowance on one of his homes. However, he had previously converted the home into an SCI, a private, limited company to be used for rental purposes. The 30 percent allowance does not apply to SCI holdings. Once this was revealed, Carrez declared, "if the tax authorities think that I should pay the wealth tax, I won't argue." Carrez is one of more than 60 French parliamentarians battling with the tax offices over 'dodgy' asset declarations.
Opponents of wealth taxes have argued that there is "an undercurrent of envy in the campaign against extremes of wealth." Two Yale University/London School of Economics studies (2006, 2008) on relative income yielded results asserting that 50 percent of the public would prefer to earn less money, as long as they earned as much or more than their neighbor.
Many analysts and scholars[who?] assert that since wealth taxes are a form of direct asset collection, as well as double-taxation, they are antithetical to personal freedom and individual liberty. They further contend that free nations should have no business helping themselves arbitrarily to the personal belongings of any group of its citizens. Further, these opponents may say wealth taxes place the authority of the government ahead of the rights of the individual, and ultimately undermine the concept of personal sovereignty. The Daily Telegraph editor Allister Heath critically described wealth taxes as Marxian in concept and ethically destructive to the values of democracies, "Taxing already acquired property drastically alters the relationship between citizen and state: we become leaseholders, rather than freeholders, with accumulated taxes over long periods of time eventually "returning" our wealth to the state. It breaches a key principle that has made this country great: the gradual expansion of property ownership and the democratisation of wealth."
In 2004, a study by the Institut de l'enterprise investigated why several European countries were eliminating wealth taxes and made the following observations: 1. Wealth taxes contributed to capital drain, promoting the flight of capital as well as discouraging investors from coming in. 2. Wealth taxes had high management cost and relatively low returns. 3. Wealth taxes distorted resource allocation, particularly involving certain exemptions and unequal valuation of assets. In its summary, the institute found that the "wealth taxes were not as equitable as they appeared".
In a 2011 study, the London School of Economics examined wealth taxes that were being considered by the Labour party in the United Kingdom between 1974 and 1976 but were ultimately abandoned. The findings of the study revealed that the British evaluated similar programs in other countries and determined that the Spanish wealth tax may have contributed to a banking crisis and the French wealth tax had been undergoing review by its government for being unpopular and overly complex. As efforts progressed, concerns were developing over the practicality and implementation of wealth taxes as well as worry that they would undermine confidence in the British economy. Eventually, plans were dropped. Former British Chancellor Denis Healey concluded that attempting to implement wealth taxes was a mistake, "We had committed ourselves to a Wealth Tax: but in five years I found it impossible to draft one which would yield enough revenue to be worth the administrative cost and political hassle." The conclusion of the study stated that there were lingering questions, such as the impacts on personal saving and small business investment, consequences of capital flight, complexity of implementation, and ability to raise predicted revenues that must be adequately addressed before further consideration of wealth taxes.
In part because a wealth tax has never been implemented in the United States, there is no legal consensus about its constitutionality. As evidenced below, much scholarly debate on the topic hinges on whether or not such a tax is understood to be a "direct tax," per Article 1, Section 9 of the Constitution, which requires that the burden of "direct taxes" be apportioned across the states by their population.
Barry L. Isaacs interprets current case law in the United States to hold that a wealth tax is a direct tax under Article 1, Section 9. Given the extreme difficulty of apportioning a wealth tax by state population, the implementation of a wealth tax in the United States would require either a constitutional amendment or the overturning of current case law. Unlike federal wealth taxes, states and localities are not bound by Article 1, Section 9, which is why they are able to levy taxes on real estate.
Other legal scholars have argued that a wealth tax does not represent a direct tax and that such a tax could be implemented in the United States without a constitutional amendment. In a lengthy essay from 2018, authors in the Indiana Journal of Law argued that "... the belief that the U.S. Constitution effectively makes a national wealth tax impossible ... is wrong." The authors noted that in the 1796 Supreme Court decision for Hylton v. United States, Supreme Court justices who had personally taken part in the creation of the U.S. Constitution "unanimously rejected a challenge to the constitutionality of an annual tax on carriages, a tax akin to a national wealth tax in that it taxed a luxury property." However, Alexander Hamilton, who supported the carriage tax, told the Supreme Court that it was constitutional because it was an "excise tax", not a direct tax. Hamilton's brief defines direct taxes as "Capitation or poll taxes, taxes on lands and buildings, general assessments, whether on the whole property of individuals or on their whole real or personal estate" which would include the wealth tax. Tax scholars have repeatedly noted that the critical difference between income taxes and wealth taxes, the realization requirement, is a matter of administrative convenience, not a constitutional requirement.
To prevent capital flight, proponents of wealth taxes have argued for the implementation of a one-time exit tax on high net worth individuals who renounce their citizenship and leave the country. An additional constitutional objection to such a tax could be raised on the grounds that it violates the takings clause of the Fifth Amendment, which prohibits the federal government from taking private property for public use without just compensation.
The Federal Constitutional Court of Germany in Karlsruhe found that wealth taxes "would need to be confiscatory in order to bring about any real redistribution". In addition, the court held that the sum of wealth tax and income tax should not be greater than half of a taxpayer's income. "The tax thus gives rise to a dilemma: either it is ineffective in fighting inequalities, or it is confiscatory - and it is for that reason that the Germans chose to eliminate it." Thus, finding such wealth taxes unconstitutional in 1995. In 2006, the Constituational Court revised this decision on the so-called "Halbteilungsgrundsatz", stating that "a generally binding absolute upper limit of the [tax] burden around a halfing devide cannot be deduced from the constitution's principle of guarantee of ownership."