The Feb. 3 Democratic Iowa caucuses are only weeks away, followed eight days later by the New Hampshire primary.
Prior to these two key skirmishes in the battle for the Democratic presidential nomination, national polling suggests that former Vice President Joe Biden is leading the pack, followed by Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, with South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg in fourth and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg in fifth.
But the eventual Democratic nominee won’t be determined by a national contest (in the same way the Electoral College usually chooses the president), but instead by a series of state primaries and caucuses. For this reason, the betting markets, rather than national polls, are a better indicator of the contest. The betting markets see a very close race between Biden and Sanders, with Warren and Bloomberg third and fourth, respectively. The last two weeks have seen Sanders surge to almost tie Biden, whose chances have fallen somewhat, with Bloomberg, powered by some $200 million of campaign spending from his considerable wealth, muscling out Buttigieg and closing in on a fading Warren.
So what are the stated tax policies of these four leading candidates? Looking at formally prepared position papers on the candidates’ websites as well as public statements (if online material is sparse), we can compare.
Regarding taxation, it’s not a shock to know that the modern Democratic Party has strayed far from President Kennedy’s pro-growth tax cuts; every candidate wants to raise taxes, the only questions are by how much and on whom?
Biden says on his website that “Economic inequality is pulling this country apart” after which he calls for a tax code that rewards the middle class, while calling for the repeal of President Trump’s tax cuts. He also proposes getting “rid of the capital gains loophole for multi-millionaires.”
Sanders will need a great deal of tax revenue, as he proposes multitrillion dollar initiatives, including “Medicare for All,” a “Green New Deal,” “College for All,” expanding Social Security, “Housing for All,” “High-Speed Internet for All,” and “Jobs for All.”
Most of these costly expansions of federal government would likely entail increasing specific taxes to fund them. In addition, Sanders proposes raising several types of taxes, many of them new. For instance, an “extreme wealth” tax on households with a net worth of over $32 million could supposedly raise $4.4 trillion over the next decade while cutting the wealth of billionaires in half over 15 years. A special tax on corporations with revenue of more than $100 million per year would penalize them for hiring the best talent and paying them accordingly, by setting up a progressive corporate income tax linked to CEO pay and average worker pay.
A new progressive death tax would take increasing shares of a deceased taxpayer’s wealth. Sanders proposed a tax hike on capital gains and dividends, as well as a tax on “Wall Street speculators.” And, to ensure everybody pays, his plan includes a beefed-up IRS.
Like Sanders, Warren has expensive new spending plans, among them the Green New Deal and canceling more than a trillion dollars of college loan debt. And, as with Sanders, she sees corporate America as a negative. This leads to her call for “Empowering Workers Through Accountable Capitalism” which would require firms with more than a $1 billion in annual revenue to become workers’ collectives, with the rank and file selecting no less than 40% of the company’s board members while also restricting compensation to senior executives.
She also calls for an “Ultra-Millionaire Tax” on wealthy households. In addition, she proposes a “Real Corporate Profits Tax” that would drastically change the U.S. corporate tax structure, likely precipitating capital flight out of the U.S. by significantly increasing the corporate tax burden. Lastly, Warren proposes an unconstitutional tax on First Amendment free speech that would tax “every corporation and trade organization that spends over $500,000 per year” on lobbying expenses. Note that the tax does not extend to leftwing environmental groups, some of which receive foreign funding, nor does it extend to trade unions.
Bloomberg started his political life as a Democrat, ran as a Republican for mayor of New York in 2001, became an independent in 2007, and then returned to the Democratic Party to run for president. As with the other candidates, he calls for massive new spending proposals, but, unlike Sanders and Warren, he has not embraced the so-called Green New Deal.
Although only in race only since Thanksgiving, his website has a fully-populated menu of issues—but with tax policy curiously not showcased. Here we must rely on his record as mayor and public statements. As New York’s mayor he was elected on a platform on not raising taxes that would “…drive people and business out of New York.” But he ended up breaking that promise in less than a year, when he increased New York City’s personal income taxes and property taxes and then increased property taxes again along with sales taxes and a hotel tax. He then resisted additional tax increases, expressing a concern that they might “drive out the one percent of the people that roughly pay 50% of the taxes, or the 10% of the people that pay 70-odd percent of the taxes.”
On the presidential campaign trail, he lent support to the idea that the rich need to pay more, but he rejected Warren and Sanders heavy wealth taxes, noting that these policies have been tried around the world and “it just doesn’t work.” In this we can likely project that Bloomberg, as with Biden, would support repealing President Trump’s tax cuts.
In sorting through the four frontrunners’ tax proposals—at least as they are today—it appears that Bloomberg has staked out a position slightly to the center of Biden, who has been resisting the pull of the Democratic Party’s resurgent progressive wing, while Sanders and Warren are furiously battling each other for the far left flank.
One last bit of political-economic irony. Sen. Sanders owns three houses and has a net worth of around $2 million while Sen. Warren’s net worth is $4.7 million. Vice President Biden and his wife have about $9 million in assets. Bloomberg is a billionaire. The median net worth of the average American household is $97,300—for those under 35, it’s $11,100. The irony is this: extreme wealth taxes typically create sluggish economic conditions, as the rich shelter their assets and the average worker sees less opportunity. So, the wealth taxes feel good, as a rhetorical appeal to envy, but they don’t do much to address the stated income inequality problem.
Warren, Sanders, and other millionaires, both in elected office and not, will likely not suffer too much, regardless of the tax scheme.