The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How to fix our rigged tax system

The Internal Revenue Service building in Washington. (Susan Walsh/AP)
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Elizabeth Warren is a Democratic senator from Massachusetts.

Now that the Senate has passed a budget resolution, we’re one step closer to realizing President Biden’s transformational agenda: a once-in-a-generation investment in child care and Medicare, combating climate change and other efforts that would actually make our government work for families. The other half of the package — how to pay for these investments — is equally important.

The already huge gap between the 0.1 percent and everyone else is just getting wider. Billionaire wealth surged by $1.8 trillion from the early days of the pandemic through last month. The 400 richest Americans had more total wealth, as of 2019, than all 10 million Black American households, plus a quarter of Latino households, combined. Yet the ultrarich pay only 3.2 percent of that wealth in taxes, while 99 percent of families pay 7.2 percent. And scores of giant U.S. corporations pay zero.

I’ve proposed measures that would raise more than $5 trillion in revenue — far more than we need to enact the Biden plan. Though not every Democrat agrees with every one of my ideas, Biden campaigned aggressively on a suite of progressive tax policies, and voters embraced these changes at the ballot box. No matter how loudly Washington lobbyists bleat otherwise, progressive tax policies are wildly popular. Americans understand that our tax system has been rigged to reward the rich and powerful at the expense of everyone else. So let’s fix it.

First, it’s time to start taxing wealth, not just income. When Jeff Bezos takes a joyride to space, he isn’t paying for it with his declared income of $80,000. Bezos, who owns The Post, and lots of other billionaires have gamed the system so they have plenty of spending money and close to zero tax obligations. The best option to stop that is a two-cent wealth tax that applies only to the wealthiest 100,000 U.S. households — with a few cents more for the billionaires. Such a wealth tax would raise roughly $3 trillion in revenue over the next decade, without raising taxes on 99.95 percent of Americans. It’s supported by 68 percent of the country, including a majority of Republicans. And there are lots of ways to advance this principle — including a one-time wealth tax that would raise over $1 trillion.

Second, let’s turn to highly profitable giant corporations. In the three years following the 2017 Republican tax cuts, 39 megacorporations, including Amazon and FedEx, reported more than $122 billion in profits to their shareholders while using loopholes, deductions and exemptions to pay zero in federal income taxes.

These companies boosted their stock prices and increased CEO pay by telling their shareholders they raked in hundreds of millions of dollars in profits, while simultaneously telling the Internal Revenue Service that they don’t owe any taxes. The president supports taxing the profits that large companies report to their shareholders. Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) and I have a plan that mirrors his. We would require any company that earns more than $100 million in profits to pay a 7 percent tax on every dollar earned above that amount. Only about 1,300 public companies would pay the tax, raising nearly $700 billion over 10 years.

Finally, rules don’t mean anything if nobody enforces them, so let’s enforce the law. Currently, the top 1 percent of Americans fail to report more than a fifth of their income. The difference between taxes owed and taxes actually paid exceeds an estimated $1 trillion annually.

The superrich get away with not paying their taxes because decades of politically motivated budget cuts have hollowed out the IRS. Since 2010, the agency’s enforcement budget has declined by more than 20 percent, and it has lost one-third of its enforcers. It’s no surprise that audit rates for taxpayers making more than $10 million have plummeted. This should enrage every American who plays by the rules. That’s why over 70 percent of Americans support giving the IRS more resources to make sure the wealthy and corporations aren’t evading taxes.

Biden has proposed giving the IRS about $8 billion in additional annual funding. I’ve suggested a step further: $31.5 billion in permanent annual funding to track down wealthy and corporate tax cheats. The IRS also needs better reporting from banks and other financial institutions so it can sniff out the hidden cash of the ultrarich. These changes could raise as much as $1.75 trillion from tax cheats.

I’ve put these three proposals — a wealth tax, a tax on real corporate profits and closing the tax gap — on the table. There are other ideas worthy of consideration, but the standard should be writing rules that target wealthy freeloaders and corporate grifters and then enforcing those rules. American workers and families don’t want handouts. They want everybody to play by the same rules. The Democrats’ infrastructure plan is about investments and tax fairness — changes that would help build a strong future for not only a handful of people at the top but for everyone. This is what we were sent here to do. It’s time for us to do it.

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