In response to a discussion about Elizabeth Warren’s so-called “wealth tax,” I recently had someone ask “How exactly does a wealth tax (which is not income) conform to the sixteenth amendment?” (“The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived, without apportionment among the several States, and without regard to any census or enumeration.”)
Well, first let’s discuss the 16th and why it was passed. I will quote from this wonderful new book called “How to Argue the Constitution with a Conservative”:
You’d think it would be obvious that a country can ask its citizens for an income tax, right? Well, the United States had an income tax, too, ever since the Civil War. But when Congress tried to tax income from rental properties, well, that was the last straw. The 1% flew into a rage and a majority of the Supreme Court agreed that some income wasn’t really income. (It’s actually a lot more complicated than that, but let’s not write an essay here.) The only way to overturn a Supreme Court decision is to amend the Constitution, so that’s what we did, while pointing to the 1% and giving a Nelson laugh.
The passage of the 16th amendment doesn’t mean all other forms of taxes are unconstitutional. After all, there are tariffs and capital gains taxes and inheritance taxes and property taxes and so on, and there were before and after the 16th amendment.
And, after all, a wealth tax is an income tax, which is perfectly constitutional under the 16th amendment. It just means that the progressive tax we now have (where the % you pay goes up the more you have) gets to be like it was back when Eisenhower was President.
One problem is that many people don’t understand is how progressive tax works. When you hear that the top tax rate under Eisenhower was 94% you think, “Wow! Millionaires only got to keep 6% of their income?”
But that’s not how it works. You pay a certain percentage up to a specific amount. For instance, our current tax rates look something like this:
10% on taxable income from $0 to $8,700, plus
15% on taxable income over $8,700 to $35,350, plus
25% on taxable income over $35,350 to $85,650, plus
28% on taxable income over $85,650 to $178,650, plus
33% on taxable income over $178,650 to $388,350, plus
35% on taxable income over $388,350, plus
40% on taxable income over $400,000
If you earn more than $400,000, it doesn’t mean the government gets 40% of your $400,000. It means they get 10% of your income under $8,700 and then 15% on your income between $8,700 and $35,350, and so on. The highest rate is only for whatever income you have over $400,000. That’s how we were able to have tax rates in the 90% range on the very very wealthy without bankrupting them (while at the same time providing for budget surpluses). It’s also how we were able to have a balanced budget, pay for infrastructure like highways and roads, have very cheap public colleges, and otherwise do the sorts of things that make America great.