Beyond a “Buffet tax”

America's enormous wealth gap is widening. It's time to add a surtax on the super rich

Topics: U.S. Economy, Great Recession,

Beyond a "Buffet tax" Billionaire Warren Buffett (Credit: AP Photo/Shuji Kajiyama)
This originally appeared on Robert Reich's blog.

Let Santorum and Romney duke it out for who will cut taxes on the wealthy the most and shred the public services everyone else depends on.

The rest of us ought to be having a serious discussion about a wealth tax. Because if you really want to know what’s happening to the American economy you need to look at household wealth — not just incomes.

The Fed just reported that household wealth increased from October through December. That’s the first gain in three quarters.

Good news? Take closer look. The entire gain came from increases in stock prices. Those increases in stock values more than made up for continued losses in home values.

But the vast majority of Americans don’t have their wealth in the stock market. Over 90 percent of the nation’s financial assets – including stocks and pension-fund holdings – are owned by the richest 10 percent of Americans. The top 1 percent owns 38 percent.

Most Americans have their wealth in their homes – whose prices continue to drop. Housing prices are down by a third from their 2006 peak.

So as the value of financial assets held by American households increased by $1.46 trillion in the fourth quarter, the wealthiest 10 percent of Americans became $1.3 trillion richer, and the wealthiest 1 percent became $554.8 billion richer.

But at the same time, as the value of household real estate fell by $367.4 billion in the fourth quarter, homeowners – mostly middle class – lost over $141 billion (owners’ equity is 38.4 percent of total household real estate).

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Presto. America’s wealth gap – already wider than the nation’s income gap – has become even wider. The 400 richest Americans have more wealth than the bottom 150 million Americans put together.

Given this unprecedented concentration of wealth – and considering what the nation needs to do to rebuild our schools and infrastructure while at the same time saving Medicare and reducing the long-term budget deficit – shouldn’t we be aiming higher than a “Buffet tax” on the incomes of millionaires?

There should also be a surtax on the super rich.

Yale Professor Bruce Ackerman and Anne Alstott have proposed a 2 percent surtax on the wealth of the richest one-half of 1 percent of Americans owning more than $7.2 million of assets. They figure it would generate $70 billion a year, or $750 billion over the decade. That’s half the savings Congress’s now defunct Supercommittee was aiming for.

Instead of standing empty-handed while Santorum and Romney dominate the airwaves with their regressive Social Darwinism, Democrats need to be reminding Americans of what’s happening in the real economy – and what needs to happen.

The wealth gap is widening into a chasm. A surtax on the super rich is fair — and it’s necessary.

Robert Reich, one of the nation’s leading experts on work and the economy, is Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley. He has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton. Time Magazine has named him one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the last century. He has written 13 books, including his latest best-seller, “Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future;” “The Work of Nations,” which has been translated into 22 languages; and his newest, an e-book, “Beyond Outrage.” His syndicated columns, television appearances, and public radio commentaries reach millions of people each week. He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine, and Chairman of the citizen’s group Common Cause. His new movie "Inequality for All" is in Theaters. His widely-read blog can be found at www.robertreich.org.

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