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So why haven’t the rich paid more in taxes?
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One, it has become common for some billionaires to pay very little in taxes, and second it has also become accepted, at least in some parts of the population, for them not to pay taxes, which reflects the dramatic changes in social norms that have happened in the U. She had lots of technocratic fixes to the tax system but not [a] big and radical and compelling solution to the problem of tax injustice. CM: Can you describe the state of our tax system in a way that a layperson can grasp? GZ: When you take into account all taxes paid at all levels of government—federal, state, and local taxes—the U.

So the short characterization is that the U.

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How did we get to a situation where that assertion is actually true? GZ: The main reason is the big decline in capital taxation. And other forms of capital income [are] also taxed less and less—dividends are taxed less than wage income, same for capital gains, same for retained business profits. So you have this process where capital income is taxed less and less and at the same time labor income is taxed more and more because of the rise in payroll taxes.

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GZ: Yes, that is exactly what has happened. Do we see that when we tax capital less, do we have more growth and more income for the rest of the population? And what we find is that there is no evidence. When you tax capital less and less, what you get is that the wealthy have lower tax rates, and there is no evidence that it benefits the rest of the population in any measurable way. The main effect is that it boosts inequality because the wealthy can just save and reinvest a higher portion of their income and you have a snowballing effect where wealth is taxed at a low rate and is saved again adding up to more wealth and so on.

CM: One of the interesting things you point out in the book is that during a number of periods the U. GZ: Yes, the U. For instance the highly progressive income tax system with marginal tax rates of more than 90 percent in the middle of the 20th century.

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That is a U. No continental European country, not even Scandinavian countries, ever had such high marginal income tax rates. The same is true for the second key U. So you have these two traditions in U. We contrast in the book states like Massachusetts, which taxed wealth as far back as the 17th century, and states like Virginia, where taxes were kept low because slaver owners were afraid that taxes would be used to abolish slavery.

A better way to tax the rich

CM: You write that what we have now is this flourishing tax-avoidance industry that employs hundreds of thousands of lawyers and accountants that help the super-wealthy and corporations shelter their money. You mention offshoring money in places like Ireland and Bermuda.

How does this work?

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Companies try to locate their profits in low-tax places. And the way to do that is by manipulating the price of intergroup transactions like intergroup purchases of goods and services or by locating assets in low-tax countries. The most striking example is Google, which, just a few months before being listed as a public company in , sold its own intellectual property, its own algorithms, to its Bermuda subsidiary.

So ever since then the Bermuda subsidiary has been the legal owner of the right to use these intangibles for the non-U. Subsidiaries in Germany or France pay billions of dollars in royalties to the Google holding company in Bermuda, reducing the tax base of Germany and France and increasing it in Bermuda by the same amount, as the tax rate in Bermuda is zero.

CM: You have some policy proposals for dealing with this. GZ: The main idea is pretty simple.

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Some countries choose not to collect taxes, with zero tax rates, but the U. If these profits are booked in Bermuda and taxed at zero percent, the U. CM: Why is the pressure to abandon progressivity happening all over the place? The U. The reasons are ideological and political. And also the failure to think about the real challenges of globalization, a kind of intellectual laziness where people think that in a globalized world nothing can be done.

So why haven’t the rich paid more in taxes?

We are trying to explain how globalization and progressive taxation can be made compatible. CM: The part of your list of proposals that has received the most attention is the wealth-tax part of it, perhaps because Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have embraced some version of it.

What would a wealth tax do? GZ: The wealth [tax] is the proper way to tax billionaires. Because these extremely wealthy individuals can own a lot of wealth while reporting little taxable income. So the proper way to tax the super-wealthy is through a wealth tax.

The top marginal tax rate also rose for the wealthiest wage earners, but since Buffett's income is from investment gains, not wages, that's not a factor. But part of the problem is that his secretary's tax bill also went up since a partial payroll tax holiday ended, raising what she pays for social security by 2 percentage points.

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Elizabeth Warren’s proposed tax on enormous fortunes, explained

It'll be closer, but I'll probably be the lowest paying taxpayer in the office. Related: Buffett worried about Fed policy. Buffett has been advocating for a minimum tax on top wage earners -- those like himself who benefit from the fact that capital gains are taxed at a lower rate than regular earnings. His proposal, popularly known as the Buffett rule , has the support of the Obama administration but is strongly opposed by Republicans in Congress.

Asked if the rise in the capital gains rate and the top marginal tax rate that took effect this year were pointless since he's still paying less than his secretary, he responded, "It was better than no change. Warren Buffett says despite a higher tax bill this year than in , he'll likely still pay a lower rate than his secretary.