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Robert Reich: The Rise of the Non-Working Rich

July 17, 2014

We’re on the cusp of the largest inter-generational wealth transfer in history.

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Neuschwanstein Castle, Bavaria, Germany.
Image: Flickr user suresh_krishna

By Robert Reich
By arrangement with Robert Reich

In a new Pew poll, more than three quarters of self-described conservatives believe “poor people have it easy because they can get government benefits without doing anything.”

In reality, most of America’s poor work hard, often in two or more jobs.

The real non-workers are the wealthy who inherit their fortunes. And their ranks are growing.

In fact, we’re on the cusp of the largest inter-generational wealth transfer in history.

The “self-made” man or woman, the symbol of American meritocracy, is disappearing.

The wealth is coming from those who over the last three decades earned huge amounts on Wall Street, in corporate boardrooms, or as high-tech entrepreneurs.

It’s going to their children, who did nothing except be born into the right family.

The “self-made” man or woman, the symbol of American meritocracy, is disappearing. Six of today’s ten wealthiest Americans are heirs to prominent fortunes. Just six Walmart heirs have more wealth than the bottom forty-two percent of Americans combined (up from thirty percent in 2007).

The US Trust bank just released a poll of Americans with more than $3 million of investable assets.

Nearly three-quarters of those over age sixty-nine, and sixty-one percent of boomers (between the ages of fifty and sixty-eight), were the first in their generation to accumulate significant wealth.

Dynastic wealth is about to become the major source in America—unless, that is, we do something about it.

But the bank found inherited wealth far more common among rich millennials under age thirty-five.

This is the dynastic form of wealth French economist Thomas Piketty warns about. It’s been the major source of wealth in Europe for centuries. It’s about to become the major source in America—unless, that is, we do something about it.

As income from work has become more concentrated in America, the super rich have invested in businesses, real estate, art, and other assets. The income from these assets is now concentrating even faster than income from work.

In 1979, the richest one percent of households accounted for seventeen percent of business income. By 2007 they were getting forty-three percent. They were also taking in seventy-five percent of capital gains. Today, with the stock market significantly higher than where it was before the crash, the top is raking even more from their investments.

Both political parties have encouraged this great wealth transfer, as beneficiaries provide a growing share of campaign contributions.

But Republicans have been even more ardent than Democrats.

For example, family trusts used to be limited to about ninety years. Legal changes implemented under Ronald Reagan extended them in perpetuity. So-called “dynasty trusts” now allow super-rich families to pass on to their heirs money and property largely free from taxes, and to do so for generations.

George W. Bush’s biggest tax breaks helped high earners but they provided even more help to people living off accumulated wealth. While the top tax rate on income from work dropped from 39.6 percent to 35 percent, the top rate on dividends went from 39.6% (taxed as ordinary income) to 15 percent, and the estate tax was completely eliminated. (Conservatives called it the “death tax” even though it only applied to the richest two-tenths of one percent.)

Barack Obama rolled back some of these cuts, but many remain.

The specter of an entire generation who do nothing for their money other than speed-dial their wealth management advisors isn’t particularly attractive.

Before George W. Bush, the estate tax kicked in at $2 million of assets per couple, and then applied a fifty-five percent rate. Now it kicks in at $10 million per couple, with a forty percent rate.

House Republicans want to go even further than Bush did.

Rep. Paul Ryan’s “road map,” which continues to be the bible of Republican economic policy, eliminates all taxes on interest, dividends, capital gains, and estates.

Yet the specter of an entire generation who do nothing for their money other than speed-dial their wealth management advisors isn’t particularly attractive.

It’s also dangerous to our democracy, as dynastic wealth inevitably accumulates political influence.

What to do? First, restore the estate tax in full.

Second, eliminate the “stepped-up-basis on death” rule. This obscure tax provision allows heirs to avoid paying capital gains taxes on the increased value of assets accumulated during the life of the deceased. Such untaxed gains account for more than half of the value of estates worth more than $100 million, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Third, institute a wealth tax. We already have an annual wealth tax on homes, the major asset of the middle class. It’s called the property tax. Why not a small annual tax on the value of stocks and bonds, the major assets of the wealthy?

We don’t have to sit by and watch our meritocracy be replaced by a permanent aristocracy, and our democracy be undermined by dynastic wealth. We can and must take action—before it’s too late.

Robert B. Reich, Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley, was Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration. Time Magazine named him one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the twentieth century. He has written thirteen books, including the best sellers Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future and The Work of Nations: Preparing Ourselves for 21st Century Capitalism. His latest, Beyond Outrage, is now out in paperback. He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine and chairman of Common Cause.

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