Bernie Sanders Enters New Territory: A Wealth Tax


Photo: Gage Skidmore

When he introduced his Medicare-for-all bill last week, Bernie Sanders also put down on paper the idea he’s been talking about, sometimes loudly, sometimes with caution, other times not publicly at all, for more than 20 years: a “wealth tax” in the United States.

In 1997, in his book, Outsider in the House, he declared it “high time to establish a tax on wealth similar to those that exist in most European countries.” Nine years later, during his first race for U.S. Senate, his opponent quoted the passage online, printed it on brochures, and pushed it in statements: “Sanders’ European-style wealth tax,” on “everything they own every year. Every tractor, cow, and acre.” In response, the Sanders campaign argued that he had never formally proposed a wealth tax, just floated the idea.

During the Democratic primary in 2016, the Sanders campaign did consider an official wealth tax, two former officials said, but the idea died over concerns about the reality of implementation and that the tax plan would be perceived as far out of the mainstream.

Now, nearly a year after the election, the 76-year-old Vermont senator is one of the most popular politicians in America. Ahead of his Medicare-for-all announcement last week, a total of 16 senators backed the bill, putting about one third of the chamber’s Democrats behind single-payer health care, an almost real-time shift in the party’s baseline.

But few American lawmakers have embraced a wealth tax — an annual federal tax on the net assets of the very rich — though economists and academics, both liberal and conservative, have made the case for one before. Others have argued that any wealth tax would be dauntingly complicated, and potentially unconstitutional. Sanders has described it as one way to spread the concentration of wealth.

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