Americans, generally speaking, loathe taxes.
About 51 percent of Americans believe their taxes are too high.
This, according to an April 2015 Gallup poll. A similar Pew Study found that about four in ten Americans say they pay “more than their fair share” given what they get from the government in return. Some politicians have even claimed that “Americans pay the highest taxes in the world.”
Knowing that, it’s hard to imagine that America could get behind presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’ tax plan, especially when he’s proposing a 2.2 percent increase in taxes for almost every American, and an even larger increase for the country's wealthiest individuals.
If you’re anything like me, that might be tough to swallow when you see Uncle Sam take 25 percent of your paycheck every two weeks. But Sanders’ tax plan has the potential to re-shape America for the people who need the most help and ensure a higher standard of living for a vast majority of U.S. citizens.
And that’s why I support it.
First, an important fact: Compared to many of our global peers, Americans don’t pay that much in taxes. The top income tax rate in America is 39.6 percent, putting us in 33rd place among 116 nations listed in a study by the international tax advisory corporation KPMG. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development declared the United States the fourth least taxed nation of the 34 countries who belong to the OECD. Even with the tax increases proposed by Sanders, we’d still be low on the list.
Compared to many of our global peers, Americans don’t pay that much in taxes.
A more important concern ought to be how our tax dollars are currently spent. In 2015, 27 cents of every tax dollar went to the military — last year we spent $400 billion on F-35 fighter jets alone, at $162 million a pop; 26.5 cents per dollar were spent on Medicare and health; 15.3 cents went toward paying off interest on the federal debt; 8.4 cents were spent on Social Security and Unemployment; 5.8 cents went toward veterans benefits; and 5 cents were spent on food and agriculture. Only 2.5 cents of every dollar were spent on education, 1.9 cents on transportation, 1.6 on clean energy, and a meager 1.1 cents on science.
As a nation, we've become so pre-occupied with terrorists and immigration that we’ve largely ignored things that are much more deserving of attention, like our crumbling infrastructure, the effect our energy system is having on the environment, and the frightening amount of Americans living in poverty.
Our roads and bridges are falling apart, our health care system needs an overhaul, we’re falling quickly in education, veterans are not being taken care of, almost 47 million Americans are living in poverty, and we need to transition to clean energy before we destroy our planet.
Simply put, it's not just that there’s insufficient tax revenue, it’s that our tax dollars aren’t going to the right places, and a defining feature of Sanders’ tax plan is that it allocates resources to where they're needed most.
Let’s start with infrastructure. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) recently gave the United States a D+ in infrastructure. Globally, we rank 19th. Economists have made it clear that better roads, highways, bridges, tunnels, water pipes, electrical grids and dams mean more investment in the United States, and more investment means more jobs and a better economy. And yet we currently spend less of our GDP on infrastructure than any other time in the last 20 years. According to the non-partisan ASCE, we need $3.6 trillion invested by 2020 to truly repair our infrastructure.
To address this issue, Sanders has proposed the “Rebuild America Act,” a $1 trillion plan (the largest budget of any candidate) over five years that — among other things — will double the current level of funding for highway and transit accounts, invest $75 billion in freight train rail lines, improve airports across the country, repair high-hazard dams that prevent floods, keep drinking water clean, and drive irrigation for farming. The ambitious plan targets everything from potholes to airport delays to contaminated water.
We’re also seeing our environment collapse around us. Sea levels are rising and natural disasters are occurring with higher frequency than ever before. Coming off the hottest year on record, there is a global consensus among scientists, climatologists, and world leaders that we must address the effect our energy systems have on the environment.
A defining feature of Sanders’ tax plan is that it allocates resources to where they're needed most.
Sanders, of all the candidates in this year’s race, has proposed the most sweeping clean energy policies. He intends to create a clean energy workforce consisting of 10 million new jobs, which will further empower the solar industry (where jobs are being created 20 times faster than in the rest of the economy). His policy also includes a carbon tax of $15 per ton of carbon dioxide put into the atmosphere. That means burning coal, petroleum and natural gasses would come with a much heftier price tag.
“Energy prices do not currently reflect the environmental cost of carbon dioxide emissions,” the non-partisan Tax Policy Center wrote in their review of Sanders’ plan. “Those who benefit from burning fossil fuels generally do not pay for the environmental damage that such emissions cause.” A carbon tax would force corporations to curb their greenhouse emissions and encourage the development of clean energy technology.
The two biggest and most controversial parts of Sanders’ tax plan are a single-payer health care system and free college tuition.
A single-payer system means one entity finances health care for the entire country, streamlining all health services: doctors visits, hospital visits, preventive care, dental, vision, prescription drugs and so forth. (It also means no deductibles and no premiums). These costs would be offset by — yes — an increase in taxes: specifically, a 2.2 percent increase for every American.
To put this in perspective, someone who makes $51,939 (the median income in 2013) would pay an extra $1,299 in taxes each year, which may sound like a lot until you consider the fact that the average American spends $8,233 a year on health care (according to a 2010 study). Translation: savings. Sanders’ campaign estimates the Medicare-for-all plan will save your typical American family $3,855 to $5,173 in yearly health care expenses.
As to what many have described as his "radical" plan to make public college education free, the standard criticism is that Sanders won't be able to to pay for it. In actuality, Sanders has laid out a clear plan to fund college tuition using 75 billion dollars in annual taxes on Wall Street speculation — an industry that leeches money from the economy, destabilizes markets, and which currently enjoys a lower effective tax rate than Americans living below the poverty line. More than 1,000 economists have already endorsed a tax on Wall Street, and 40 countries have instituted similar taxes, including China, France, and Britain.
Perhaps the most legitimate concern about Sanders' tax plan is the most obvious one: how will he get these laws through Congress? The answer, to me, is just as obvious: by people showing up at the polls and voting in representatives who will support them.
While no one likes paying more taxes, the upside is a better health care system, a stronger infrastructure, college education for all Americans, and a cleaner environment.
For my money, it's worth it.
Correction: a previous version of this article misstated the Sanders' plan as saving an estimated $6,934 on Health Care.
Cover photo: Scott Olson / Getty