Analysis & Comment

A Voluntary Tax

It’s been a back-and-forth struggle over the course of American history: How much tax should the wealthy pay?

In colonial times, parts of the North taxed the rich more than Europe did, with Massachusetts going so far as to enact a wealth tax that covered financial holdings, land, jewelry and more. Southern colonies, by contrast, kept rates low and collection ineffectual, to prevent taxes from undermining slavery by eroding the wealth of slaveholders.

After the country’s founding, the low-tax advocates generally won out — until the 20th century, when soaring inequality, two wars and the Great Depression led Washington to create the world’s most progressive tax system. Then the situation flipped again, and top tax rates have plummeted over the last few decades.

Yesterday, the news organization ProPublica published a scoop, based on the tax returns of thousands of wealthy Americans, including Jeff Bezos, Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, Rupert Murdoch, Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg. An anonymous source sent ProPublica the material after the organization had published articles about the I.R.S.’s lax enforcement of taxes on the wealthy. (Here’s ProPublica’s explanation of why it decided to publish the new story, despite privacy concerns.)

The tax returns offer details on a story that has long been clear: The wealthy now pay strikingly low tax rates.

To take one example, Bezos’s wealth soared by $120 billion from 2006 to 2018, and his federal taxes during that time amounted to only 1.09 percent of the wealth gain. The situation for the average household was radically different: Its taxes amounted to more than 100 percent of its wealth increase.

‘Buy, borrow, die’

A central reason that very wealthy people can avoid taxes is that the U.S. system taxes only so-called realized gains — like wages or stock sales. But the wealthy often live off unrealized gains — in the form of stocks and other assets that grow more valuable over time. The wealthy borrow against these assets to pay for houses, islands and private planes and then use a variety of strategies to avoid paying taxes on the debt repayment.

One such strategy is waiting until after death to repay the loan — or what Edward McCaffery, a tax expert at the University of Southern California, calls “buy, borrow, die.” Robert McClelland of the Tax Policy Center called it the main revelation of the ProPublica story.

All the while, the wealthy are often able to keep their taxable income low. In 2011, Bezos reported so little income that he qualified for — and claimed — a $4,000 child tax credit. In both 2016 and 2017, Carl Icahn, who’s a billionaire, paid no federal income taxes.

Legal tax avoidance by the wealthy has become more widespread over the past half-century for several reasons. For one, inequality has soared, meaning that the rich have more wealth to protect. And tax rates have fallen significantly.

“It’s amazing how much we’ve cut taxes even since 1997 — on dividends, the estate tax threshold, capital gains and the top rate,” Owen Zidar, a Princeton University economist, told me. “All of those things have become more favorable to the top of the distribution.” The decline in the corporate tax rate — effectively a tax reduction for shareholders — has also been important.

You sometimes hear the cynical view that raising taxes on the wealthy is pointless, because they have the resources to evade any taxes the government tries to impose. But history suggests otherwise.

While some tax avoidance is inevitable, the federal government has largely succeeded in raising taxes when it has tried. The very richest Americans paid more than 50 percent of their income in federal taxes during the 1950s and ’60s (and were less successful at shielding their wealth from taxation). Today, that percentage has fallen below 30 percent.

There are three main ways to reverse the decline in tax payments by the wealthy, Gabriel Zucman of the University of California, Berkeley, said. One is a direct tax on wealth, like those proposed by Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Two is a tax on unrealized gains — assets that have become more valuable — as Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon has proposed. Three is an increase in corporate taxes, as President Biden favors. There are also more modest ideas, like a larger estate tax.

Societies can choose how much they do or don’t tax their wealthiest people, Zucman said. “For billionaires,” he added, “the federal income tax — the pillar of the U.S. tax system — has become a voluntary tax.”

Reactions to the story

Michael Linden, Biden administration official: “We already knew that some of the biggest corporations pay no income tax. Now we know that some of the wealthiest people can also get away with paying no income tax. Time for reform.”

Binyamin Appelbaum, New York Times Opinion: “The wealthy are living by a different set of rules, lavishly spending money that isn’t taxed as income.”

Jody Avirgan, podcast host: “There’s already a jaded take emerging around the ProPublica IRS reporting, along the lines of ‘what’s the scandal, this is all stuff that any rich person or financial journalist already knew about.’ But, like, that’s the point!”

Megan McArdle, The Washington Post: “I thought the ProPublica analysis of billionaire taxes was going to be exciting. Instead, it told me things I already knew. … The most exciting thing is wondering who gave them the information, and how long that person will spend in jail when they’re caught, as I suspect they will be.” (Federal authorities are investigating the leak.)



Biden leaves today for Europe, where he will discuss China and climate change and meet with Vladimir Putin. (The press plane already left, after cicadas caused trouble.)

By a wide margin, the Senate passed a bipartisan bill to fund technology and manufacturing to counter China.

Biden failed to reach a deal with Senate Republicans on his big infrastructure plan, and signaled he would try to find another bipartisan compromise.

Senate Republicans filibustered a bill that would have made it easier for women and L.G.B.T.Q. workers to sue for pay discrimination.

The Senate confirmed Biden’s first two nominees to federal courts.

Virginia Democrats chose former Gov. Terry McAuliffe as their candidate for governor. In New Jersey, Jack Ciattarelli, a moderate Republican, won his party’s gubernatorial primary.

Other Big Stories

Criminals thought they were chatting on encrypted phones, but the F.B.I. was behind the devices. The global sting led to more than 800 arrests, officials said.

The Pfizer and Moderna coronavirus vaccines may be available for young children in the U.S. this fall.

The wife of the Mexican drug lord known as El Chapo, Emma Coronel Aispuro, is set to plead guilty to having helped run his empire.

“Bosses wear Prada, workers get nada”: Employees of The New Yorker protested in front of Anna Wintour’s house.


“Stop being afraid of a dangerous and diminished man”: Republicans should support investigating the Capitol attack, says Barbara Comstock, a Republican former House member.

Morning Reads

Crying fowl: There’s trouble in Los Angeles: too many peacocks.

The shift: Farewell to the millennial lifestyle subsidy.

Sun’s out: Dig out those eclipse glasses for tomorrow’s sunrise.

Incentives: New job? It may come with unexpected benefits.

A Times classic: The 36 questions that lead to love.

Lives Lived: Douglas Cramer produced some of the most successful television shows of the 20th century, including “Dynasty” and “The Love Boat.” He died at 89.


The relatable angst of Olivia Rodrigo

She’s an 18-year-old pop star with two hit singles and the biggest debut album of the year. She’s been lauded by Taylor Swift and performed at awards shows. But less than a year ago, you probably didn’t know Olivia Rodrigo’s name.

Though Rodrigo grew up in entertainment — she starred in a “High School Musical” spinoff on Disney+ — she found mainstream fame with the release of her blockbuster single, “Drivers License,” in January. Her album, “Sour,” built on that momentum. It’s a searing breakup record, co-written by Rodrigo, that’s full of rage and generational angst. There are pop-punk songs reminiscent of Avril Lavigne and Paramore, and detail-heavy lyrics inspired by Swift.

“It’s moody, poppy, punky, bratty, funny, sweet, sad, and speaks to the crushing feelings of being alive and being in unrequited love,” Scaachi Koul writes in BuzzFeed News.

Rodrigo’s popularity isn’t limited to Gen Z. Older listeners (and critics) have embraced her music. Lindsay Zoladz, writing for NPR, said her teenage self would have been skeptical of Rodrigo’s Disney pedigree. “But in the end, I have to think I would have been pulled in by the oceanic undertow of her music’s subjectivity, an exquisitely detailed, deeply felt, young girl’s perspective.” — Sanam Yar

For more: Music critics go deep on Rodrigo’s success on the latest episode of “Popcast.”


What to Cook

Serve Jamaican curry chicken and potatoes over rice or on its own.

What to Watch

“Loki,” the latest Marvel series on Disney+, follows the Norse god’s antics and offers lighter comedic fare.

What to Read

John Paul Brammer’s book of essays, “Hola Papi,” is both “kind and piercingly funny, often in the same sentence,” Matt Wille writes in a review.

Late Night

The hosts discussed yesterday’s internet outage.

Now Time to Play

The pangrams from yesterday’s Spelling Bee were combatant and noncombatant. Here is today’s puzzle — or you can play online.

Here’s today’s Mini Crossword, and a clue: Blue hue (four letters).

If you’re in the mood to play more, find all our games here.

Thanks for spending part of your morning with The Times. See you tomorrow. — David

P.S. No, The Times does not have evidence of watermelons growing on Mars.

“The Daily” is about the Senate’s technology bill. On “The Argument,” should the police march in Pride parades?

Claire Moses, Ian Prasad Philbrick, Tom Wright-Piersanti and Sanam Yar contributed to The Morning. You can reach the team at

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