2021 NYU Tax Policy Colloquium Week 1: Brooks and Gamage on drafting a constitutional wealth tax, Part 1

 This past Tuesday (on September 14), Jake Brooks and David Gamage jointly appeared at the colloquium (Gamage by Zoom) for a discussion of their paper, The Indirect Tax Canon, Apportionment, and Drafting a Constitutional Wealth Tax. 

This was the first of our seven public colloquium sessions for the year (the other 6 meetings are just with the enrolled students, and generally serve to gear us all up for the public session). It was the first time we’ve had a “hybrid, ” live plus Zoom colloquium, although last year we were all-Zoom. I thought the hybrid aspect went decently well, although Zoom participants could only see the stage (with Jake Brooks and myself), rather than all of the speakers. I gather that the acoustics were also mainly okay, although the fact that all live participants were wearing masks surely did not help in this regard. [Footnote: I hate masks, necessary though I agree that they are.]

I look forward to our having more remote attendees in the future, including perhaps from even faraway time zones. (We had a few Zoom attendees from well outside NYC on Tuesday, although technically I think they were all in EST.)

We conducted the discussion on Tuesday in two distinct segments. The first was the paper’s discussion of using apportionment to render a wealth tax constitutional after all if the Supreme Court were to hold that it was a “direct tax” and thus unconstitutional otherwise. The second topic was “everything else.”

Apportionment logically comes second as a discussion topic, and indeed that is how the paper is organized. But the novelty of the paper’s approach to this issue, which I think the authors would agree is its most important new contribution, supports putting it first for our purposes.


Two points have generally attracted near-consensus in the literature discussing the possible enactment of a federal wealth tax. The first is that, if  the infamous 1895 Supreme Court case, Pollock v. Farmers’ Loan & Trust Co., is binding precedent, then a federal wealth tax is a “direct tax” under the Constitution, making it unconstitutional unless duly apportioned between the states. The second is that so apportioning a federal wealth tax is impossible and unacceptable, with the consequence that applying Pollock would be a death knell for such an enactment.

On the first of these two standard claims, the paper adds context and background regarding Pollock‘s status (well-known to the cognoscenti) as a truly rogue case by a blatantly political Supreme Court that did not care about precedent, history, or the basics of coherent legal reasoning. It also argues that Pollock has been subsequently overruled in large part, not just by subsequent cases but also (beyond just the boundaries of the income tax, they argue) by the Sixteenth Amendment. But I will return to this in Part 2 of this discussion.

More notably, the paper also rejects the second of the above claims. It argues not only that apportionment between the states has frequently been done before – albeit, not for some time – but also that it can politically, practically, and reasonably be done today, with regard to the wealth tax or even certain expansions to the income tax that the current right-wing Supreme Court might strike down.

Apportionment is a bit of an intricate thing, so a simple hypothetical may help to present clearly what we are talking about here.

Apportionment hypothetical: Suppose there are just 2 states, New York (NY) and Alabama (AL). Each has a population of 10 people. Congress enacts a 10% wealth tax on wealth above a statutory threshold, yielding the following toy example:

                        Population     People Subject to WealthTax            $$ Subject to Wealth Tax

NY                       10                                3                                                 $500

AL                        10                                2                                                 $300

Unapportioned Wealth Tax: Absent apportionment, this 10% tax on wealth above threshold would raise $50 from New York and $30 from Alabama, for a total of $80.

Apportioned Wealth Tax: If the Supreme Court held that this was a direct tax requiring apportionment, then,the two states’ equal populations would mean that equal $$ had to come from each. Thus,  assuming it was still raising $80 of total revenue, both NY and AL taxpayers would need to supply $40.

Solution: The standard response would be to say: In that case, the wealth tax rate must be 8% in NY and 13.3% in AL, thus raising $40 from each. But this is assumed to be crazy. A higher tax rate in the state that, at least only counting $$ above  the threshold, is poorer??

Drawing on 19th century precedents, the paper suggests instead doing something like the following:

(a) 8% wealth tax in both jurisdictions, raising $40 in NY and $24 in AL.

(b) To make up AL’s shortfall, raise an additional $16 there through, say, a federal tax on AL’s real property base, using AL valuations, and perhaps exempting, say, the bottom 5 (or whatever) of AL’s taxpayers, based on their personal income or wealth,

(c) What’s unfair here, they argue, is not AL’s taxpayers paying higher rates on something as such – given federalism, taxpayers in different states pay different net state and local tax rates all the time – but rather, AL’s not getting the money from this extra $16 federal tax. This does indeed relate to the apparent reasons for the apportionment rule, which related to the feds using tax bases that applied unevenly in practice, such that some states ended up contributing excessively (in relative terms) to the common federal purse. So they say, all we need to do is give Alabama $16 (or so back), in a manner that is sufficiently independent of and unlinked to the $16 levy here that the Supreme Court will not in good faith be able to group this return of the $$ with the extra $16 levy and disregard the latter as a sham.

The solution they propose, therefore, is that Congress also enact a fiscal equalization program between states like that which countries, with federal systems, that are more civilized than the US already have. AL, as the poorer state, would be losing in a certain sense relative to NY under the apportioned wealth tax, but winning under fiscal equalization, so overall it would be doing fine. And, we should take the fiscal equalization into account in deciding whether things are fair and just, but the Supreme Court must ignore it because they have no authority in this sort of context to look at EVERYTHING in the federal fiscal system – just at the particular tax instrument that is being tested under an apportionment requirement.

This might be done by enacting the straight-up wealth tax, but with back-up provisions implementing this thing instead if the Supreme Court, as expected given its right-wing political slant, upholds the applicability of Pollock to a modern federal wealth tax. Or maybe a tricky way of doing it is to enact the back-up proposal first – and then, a week later, enact the federal wealth tax, saying that it repeals the apportioned version, but conditional on its not being itself held a direct tax. This might have formal or technical advantages under Byrd Rule angles that I don’t personally know much about.

We had an interesting discussion about all this on Tuesday, which even continued to a degree by emails between some of the participants afterwards. But, for present purposes, I will settle for offering the following discrete comments. (I am hoping that this blogpost will help the paper’s analysis enter the broader dialogue for consideration by lots of people outside this particular space.) Anyway, here with the comments:

1) What with the lack of an explicit link (or one at the margin) to fiscal equalization, this might still be a hard sell politically. Also, if we did fiscal equalization just right but then added this, we would in effect now be giving AL, as the poorer state, too little. But then again, the US has no explicit fiscal equalization program today (although it does of course effectively transfer $$ between states).

2) While the best shouldn’t be the enemy of the good, it is possible that this proposal, as it ended up operating, would be less to the taste of wealth tax proponents than the program that they preferred. A key feature is getting the make-up revenues from people below the top threshold where the wealth tax would otherwise have exclusively applied.

3) In this example, AL is by hypothesis both the poorer state and the one that gets socked with the extra $16 under apportionment. But a state that, in a pure wealth tax, would pay “too little” and thus get hit up for extra would not necessarily win under fiscal equalization that went from richer states to poor states. Suppose Minnesota (MN) is richer than Louisiana (LA) per capital because it has more middle class folks and fewer oppressed poor. But suppose as well that LA has more super-rich people (its oppressing plutocrats), or more precisely more $$ per capital held by rich people that is subject to the wealth tax. In short, while LA is richer at the top, MN is more affluent overall. Then MN would have to pay the supplemental tax under apportionment, AND fiscal equalization transfers might be expected to flow from MN to LA.

4) The paper also discusses doing this for income tax enactments that a right-wing Supreme Court might strike down under the authority (such as it is) of Eisner v. Macomber, with its ludicrously constitutionalized realization requirement. Suppose Senator Wyden’s proposal to tax people above a certain threshold on a mark-to-market basis were struck down by the current Supreme Court – as they would no doubt be slavering to do, and I note that (ever since Barrett joined the Court as right-winger #6) their reluctance to do whatever they want has certainly declined. Applying apportionment here might be trickier, as the rest of the income tax would still presumably be valid. But that is not to say that it would be impossible, e..g, based on “stacking” the income from this provision on top of everything else in the tax code in order to determine its marginal revenue yield that then needed to be equalized relative to population.

5) More on this in Part 2 (which will be a separate blog post), but a Supreme Court that was acting in bad faith, as I for one certainly believe that the current majority does, would surely find a way – or perhaps, many ways – to strike it down, simply because they don’t like it. The paths they might use, if so minded, might include at least the following:

a) Despite the clear precedents in favor of amalgamating the separate pieces of a given enactment – as here, where NY pays “too much” under the wealth tax proper and AL pays “too much” under the property tax add-on – they’d look at each part separately and ruled that both, albeit in opposite directions, violated apportionment. Why would they do this? A better question might be: Why wouldn’t they do this?

b) They could call the extra piece a sham given fiscal equalization, even if the offset was imprecise and the two were not actually linked at the margin,

c) They could say that the interstate competitive pressure on AL to rebate fiscal equalization $$ about equal to the extra property tax placed them under an improper constraint, analogous to the reasons for the Court’s holding that states must be allowed to reject free Medicaid $$ under the ACA.

d) No matter how the residual tax to even up the pure wealth tax part worked, they could say: Sorry, but you didn’t do it just right, so the whole thing is invalid! Again, why wouldn’t they do this?

In my next blogpost, Part 2 on the Brooks-Gamage paper, I will address selected aspects of “everything else” in the paper apart from apportionment.

Let me just say, however, that people who are interested in the prospects for a federal wealth tax – if not this year, than under a future Congress that has not loosed the shackles of a runaway right-wing Supreme Court – should definitely read the article for themselves.