It is hard to grasp the enormity of the tax increases Bernie Sanders is proposing, how far out-of-step he is with recent economic history in the U.S., and what a stunning contrast he presents with Republican presidential hopefuls. Where Sanders backs tax increases of more than $1 trillion a year aimed mostly at high income households, GOP candidates are proposing massive tax cuts that would largely benefit those same taxpayers.
Compare Sanders with Donald Trump, and the revenue swing is more than $2 trillion annually, or in excess of 10 percent of Gross Domestic Product.
With just a few exceptions, tax cuts have been a pillar of U.S. fiscal policy for a half century. When lawmakers did not cut taxes, such as in the Tax Reform Act of 1986, their revisions raised roughly the same amount of money as the tax code they were amending. Even in 2013, when Congress and President Obama allowed tax rates to return to 2000 levels, the move was carefully described as merely restoring the status quo ante rather than increasing taxes (an argument that will never be resolved in the land of dueling baselines).
Not Sanders. No ambiguity for the Denmark-loving, Vermont social democrat. He is proposing enormous, massive, unapologetic tax increases. He’s got an ambitious social agenda, including free health care and free college education. And to help pay for it, he wants to raise taxes on nearly everyone, but especially on high-income households.
He estimates his “Medicare for all” health plan alone would cost nearly $1.4 trillion annually. To help finance it, he’s proposing a 6.2 percent employer tax, which he calls an “income-based health care premium” (and which would likely be passed on to workers). And a 2.2 percent income-based tax on most households. And income tax rate hikes on income in excess of $250,000, with a top rate of 52 percent, a level the US has not seen since 1981. And big rate hikes on most investment income, which would be taxed at the same rate as wages. And he’d expand the estate tax and cap the value of deductions at 28 percent for those making $250,000 or more.
While Sanders describes his top rate as 52 percent, top-bracket taxpayers would be paying up to 58 percent rate (the 52 percent base rate, plus the 2.2 percent health premium, plus the Affordable Care Act’s 3.8 percent surtax on investment income, which Sanders would keep).
Sanders estimates the employer tax would raise $630 billion annually, the individual income tax hike would bring in about $210 billion, the rate hikes on ordinary income would raise $110 billion, and the tax hikes on capital gains and other investment income would bring in $92 billion. That’s a $1 trillion-a-year tax hike.
Those estimates may be high, and the Sanders tax increases may not be quite as big as he claims. For instance, a rough back-of-the envelope calculation shows the 6.2 percent employer tax is more likely to raise about $500 billion than $630 billion. The Tax Policy Center plans on modeling the Sanders plan soon, as it has with Trump and Jeb Bush and will for other candidates as well.
Sanders also backs a financial transactions tax. His “Robin Hood” tax—which would fund his proposal for free college tuition-- would impose a 50 cent per $100 tax on stock transactions (with lower rates on trades involving bonds and other securities). There is no formal revenue estimate for Sanders’ proposal, but my Tax Policy Center colleagues estimate a similar plan could raise up to $50 billion-a-year.
Sanders also says he backs a carbon tax. Again, he has not made a formal proposal, and there are many variations of such a levy, but TPC figures a representative carbon levy could raise taxes by $50 billion to $90 billion annually, after a rebate to soften the blow on low-income households.
All this is in stunning contrast to the GOP presidential hopefuls, all of whom are proposing tax cuts similar in size to the tax increases Sanders is proposing. Trump, for example, has proposed a tax cut that TPC estimates would reduce federal revenues by nearly $1 trillion annually. Jeb Bush is proposing tax cuts averaging nearly $700 billion-a-year. And while Sanders aims his tax hikes on the wealthy, Trump, Bush, and other Republican presidential hopefuls would lavish tax cuts on those same high-income households.
You can safely say this: If Sanders gets the Democratic nomination for President, the contrast would give voters their starkest choice since 1964. At least when it comes to tax policy, voters would have, as Barry Goldwater said that year, “a choice, not an echo.”
This article first appeared at TaxVox.