Five years ago, the billionaire Warren Buffett highlighted the fact that although the top marginal tax rates were rising for the wealthiest Americans, his effective tax rate was lower than his secretary’s. Buffett was (and still is) in favor of increasing taxes for America’s wealthiest, and the White House subsequently named an initiative after him: Under the Buffett Rule, proposed by Obama in 2011, Americans who make more than a $1 million a year would be taxed at a minimum rate of 30 percent. The rule, though, was blocked by Senate Republicans the following year.
Tax season and election years inevitably raise questions of whether taxes should go up or down, why, and for whom. No presidential candidate has been more vocal on the need for taxes than Bernie Sanders, who promises he’ll raise taxes on everyone—especially the highest earners—in order to fund a number of initiatives that he believes will reduce inequality.
One thing that's often missing from this debate: historical context. Relative to the past 200 years of U.S. history, how heavily are the rich being taxed today? Kenneth Scheve and David Stasavage, professors of political science at Stanford University and New York University respectively, looked into when countries have taxed their wealthiest citizens most heavily, and what societal conditions might have produced those tax rates. In a project that took five years, the two constructed databases of tax rates and policies in 20 countries over the last two centuries in order to answer those questions. They recently published this research in a book, Taxing the Rich: A History of Fiscal Fairness in the United States and Europe.