In “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” Ernest Hemingway takes a thinly veiled shot at his friend F. Scott Fitzgerald, here given the name Julian, and his rather starry-eyed view of the wealthy. “He remembered poor Julian and his romantic awe of them and how he had started a story once that began, ‘The very rich are different from you and me,’” Hemingway wrote. “And how someone had said to Julian, Yes, they have more money.”
I’m not sure Hemingway was right, exactly: having more money isn’t the only difference. Studies show that the rich tend to be less empathetic and more selfish, their fortunes removing them from the hardships and anxieties of those of us living paycheck to paycheck. What’s certain, however, is that just how much more money they have isn’t determined by iron laws of economics or their own brilliance and virtue, but by public policy—especially the rates at which they’re taxed. In today’s grotesquely unequal America, it turns out that billionaires pay a lower tax rate than “you and me.”
That’s the infuriating conclusion of The Triumph of Injustice: How the Rich Dodge Taxes and How to Make Them Pay, a new book by Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, both professors at the University of California, Berkeley. According to the data they assembled, which was featured in recent articles in the New York Times and the Washington Post ahead of the book’s publication, the wealthiest four hundred households in the United States paid an effective tax rate of just 23 percent in 2018—lower than any other income group. The bottom half of U.S. households, for example, paid a 24.2 percent rate.