Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) has created quite a stir with his estimates that every household below the poverty level receives an average of $168-a-day (or about $61,000-a-year) in government welfare.
Sessions’ calculations are extremely controversial and overstate the amount of government assistance for those in poverty. But for the sake of argument, let’s assume he’s right. How would $61,000 in direct government spending and refundable tax credits for the poor stack up against tax subsidies for the rich?
It isn’t even close. Indeed, my colleagues at the Tax Policy Center figure that in 2011 households making $1 million and up got that much in average tax benefits from just two deductions–for charitable gifts and state and local taxes. Add a fistful of other preferences–such as deductions for mortgage interest and exclusions such as the one for employer-sponsored health insurance– and top-bracket households got far more in tax benefits than the poor got in means-tested assistance.
These estimates exclude low tax rates on capital gains and dividends which are, arguably, very different from, say, subsidies for mortgage interest or employer-sponsored health insurance. If you include preferential rates on investment income, households making $1 million or more got an additional $119,000 in tax benefits, on average, in 2011.
Keep in mind that tax rates on ordinary income were relatively low in 2011. Now that the rate for high-income households has gone up significantly, their tax subsidies will be even more generous.
I readily admit that on one level, this is a fairly silly exercise. But there is an important point here: In much public discourse, direct government aid for the poor is easily dismissed by the pejorative “welfare.” Yet, spending-like subsidies administered through the revenue code provoke far less outrage. This is true even though many of these tax preferences are economically indistinguishable from direct spending and often add far more to the deficit.
Take housing, for instance. CBO figures that the lowest-income 20 percent of households get an average of about $1,100-a-year in means-tested rental housing assistance. TPC estimates that the lowest-income households got no benefit from tax deductions for mortgage interest and real estate taxes in 2011. But those in the top 20 percent, who make more than $100,000, got an average tax benefit of $2,900. Those in the top 1 percent, who make an average of $1.5 million, did even better. They got an average tax break of $5,700, more than five times the benefit the government provided low-income renters.
As with so much of the tax code, these homeowner tax benefits are upside down. On average, the more you make, the more you get. This seems an odd design in an era when fiscal restraint is all the rage. Yet politicians still recoil when tax expenditures—the vast bulk of which go to middle-class and high-income households—are described as subsidies.
In recent years, both Democrats and Republicans (including their recent presidential candidates) did talk about capping or limiting tax preferences for the highest income households. But so far, at least, that talk has come to nothing. It would be helpful if Sen. Sessions directed some of his outrage to the more than $1 trillion in tax expenditures that litter the revenue code—much of which go to those who need help the least.
By: Howard Gleckman, Tax Policy Center, February 26, 2013
“Cayman Baining”: Mitt Romney Invests In Several Bain Funds That Use Offshore Tax Havens To Boost Profits
Mitt Romney yesterday admitted for the first time that his tax rate is about 15 percent, lower than the rate paid by millions of middle class families. Romney is able to pay such a low rate (even though the top income tax rate is 35 percent) because his income comes overwhelmingly from investments and he is able to use a pernicious loopholeavailable to wealthy money managers.
Romney has been refusing to release his tax returns, finally conceding to releasing his 2011 return after he files it in April. However, only releasing his 2011 returns would give Romney the opportunity to keep under wraps some of the financial engineering he may have done to avoid taxes before the last calendar year. As Reuters noted, those returns “could shed light on how Romney and Bain use offshore strategies to avoid taxes.” In fact, ABC News reported today that Romney has millions of dollars parked in several Bain funds that are set up in tax shelters in order to help their investors avoid U.S. taxes:
Although it is not apparent on his financial disclosure form, Mitt Romney has millions of dollars of his personal wealth in investment funds set up in the Cayman Islands, a notorious Caribbean tax haven…As one of the wealthiest candidates to run for president in recent times, Romney has used a variety of techniques to help minimize the taxes on his estimated $250 million fortune. In addition to paying the lower tax rate on his investment income, Romney has as much as $8 million invested in at least 12 funds listed on a Cayman Islands registry. Another investment, which Romney reports as being worth between $5 million and $25 million, shows up on securities records as having been domiciled in the Caymans.
Even if these funds don’t help Romney directly dodge U.S. taxes, which the campaign claims they don’t, they convey a host of advantages to Bain and Romney, including “higher management fees and greater foreign interest” from investors looking to avoid U.S. taxes. As the Washington Post’s Suzy Khimm noted, “just one of these offshore-linked funds — Bain Capital Fund VIII, based in the Cayman Islands — generated $1 million for the Romneys in 2010.”
Offshore funds are attractive to investors, since they help with tax evasion, and more investor interest translates into more profit for Bain and Romney. As we’ve noted, Romney has a lucrative retirement deal with Bain that is paying him millions each year.
In contrast to Romney’s steadfast refusal to release his tax returns, George Romney (Mitt’s father) released 12 years worth of tax returns when he ran for president in 1968. Those returns showed that the elder Romney paid a 37 percent effective tax rate.
By: Pat Garofalo, Think Progress, January 18, 2012
So what’s the deal with Romney’s tax returns? Or more specifically, what’s the deal with Mitt Romney letting himself get more and more nippy press by refusing to release his tax returns when virtually every serious presidential candidate of the last 40 years has done it? Allow me to explain.
We already know Mitt Romney is a really, really wealthy guy. But there have been a lot of rich presidential candidates. And, though he was born to wealth, Romney also made a lot of money himself. He’s also said he’ll release information about his wealth, his assets … a lot of stuff. But just not the tax returns.
So what’s the deal? It’s pretty simple. We might say that a specter is haunting Mitt Romney — the specter of the Buffett Rule.
That’s right, we haven’t heard a lot about the so-called Buffett Rule in a while but it’s the concept pushed by kabillionaire Warren Buffett and embraced by Democrats and particularly the White House, which says that the superwealthy should not pay lower tax rates than your average secretary or auto mechanic or office manager or anybody else who gets by on a salary.
It’s a very resonant concept. It makes intuitive sense to people. Overwhelmingly the public supports the idea. And it’s very easy to understand.
This is Romney’s problem. While we don’t know the specifics of Romney’s tax returns, we know enough about his finances and sources of incomes to know that he is likely the poster-boy for the Buffett Rule. As Romney likes to say, he’s unemployed. He doesn’t draw a salary. But he seems to still be making big big money off capital gains which are currently taxed at a very low rate. He doesn’t seem to have drawn a salary at any time recently. So he likely pays no payroll taxes. And that’s before you get into legal but aggressive tax-sheltering. It seems virtually impossible that Mitt Romney doesn’t pay the sort of effective tax rate that would make people’s eyes pop when compared to middle income and even relatively wealthy (by normal standards) people who pay considerably higher rates.
That might cause a little problem in any election year. But issues of income inequality and particularly tax policy are right at the top of the political agenda in 2012. And that dictates keeping those tax returns under wraps as long as possible.
By: Josh Marshall, Talking Points Memo, December 30, 2011
Republicans have been preoccupied for much of the year with those Americans who don’t make enough money to qualify for a federal income tax burden. Some are working-class families who fall below the tax threshold; some are unemployed; some are students; and some are retired. These Americans still pay sales taxes, state taxes, local taxes, Social Security taxes, Medicare/Medicaid taxes, and in many instances, property taxes, but not federal income taxes.
This, apparently, annoys the right to no end. It’s why all kinds of Republican officials — including Mitt Romney and Rick Perry — want to “fix” what they see as a “problem,” even if it means raising taxes on those who can least afford it.
This argument is even manifesting itself in a new “movement” of sorts, intended to respond to progressive activists calling for economic justice.
Conservative activists have created a Tumblr called “We are the 53 percent” that’s meant to be a counterpunch to the viral “We are the 99 percent” site that’s become a prominent symbol for the Occupy Wall Street movement. The Tumblr is supposed to represent the 53 percent of Americans who pay federal income taxes, and its assumption is that the Wall Street protesters are part of the 46 percent of the country who don’t. “We are the 53 percent” was originally the brainchild of Erick Erickson, founder of RedState.org, who worked together with Josh Trevino, communications director for the right-leaning Texas Public Policy Foundation, and conservative filmmaker Mike Wilson to develop the concept, according to Trevino.
The overriding message is that the protesters have failed to take personal responsibility, blaming their economic troubles on others.
There are all kinds of problems with the right’s approach here, including the fact that they seem to want to increase working-class taxes and also seem entirely unaware of the fact that it was Republican tax cuts that pushed so many out of income-tax eligibility in the first place. There’s also the small matter of some of those claiming to be in “the 53 percent” aren’t actually shouldering a federal income tax burden at all, but are apparently unaware of that fact.
But putting that aside, take a look at Erick Erickson’s argument, presented in a hand-written message posted to the Tumblr blog: “I work three jobs. I have a house I can’t sell. My family insurance costs are outrageous. But I don’t blame Wall Street. Suck it up you whiners. I am the 53% subsidizing you so you can hang out on Wall Street and complain.”
Just for heck of it, let’s take this one at a time.
The very idea that Erickson works “three jobs” is rather foolish.
Blaming financial industry corruption and mismanagement for Erickson’s troubles selling his house is actually quite reasonable.
If Erickson’s reference to “family insurance costs” is in reference to health care premiums, he’ll be glad to know the Affordable Care Act passed, and includes all kinds of breaks for small businesses like his.
And the notion that victims of a global economic collapse, who are seeking some relief from a system stacked in favor of the wealthy, are “whiners” is so blisteringly stupid, it amazes me someone would present the argument in public.
If there are any actual “whiners” in this scenario, shouldn’t the label go to millionaires who shudder at the idea of paying Clinton-era tax rates?
By: Steve Benen, Contributing Writer, Washington Monthly-Political Animal, October 11, 2011
Over the weekend, the White House leaked word that President Obama will push a new debt-reduction idea: the “Buffett Rule.” Named after Warren Buffett, the chairman and chief executive of Berkshire Hathaway, who’s been urging policymakers to raise taxes on the very wealthy. As Buffett recently explained, millionaires and billionaires “have been coddled long enough.”
We don’t yet know the details of the proposal — most notably, what the new millionaires’ minimum tax rate would be — but Republicans are already responding with predictable disgust.
Here, for example, was House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) yesterday on Fox News, making the case for coddling millionaires and billionaires for a while longer. See if you can pick up on the subtlety of his talking points.
“Class warfare, Chris, may make for really good politics but it makes a rotten economics. We don’t need a system that seeks to divide people. […]
“[I]t looks like the president wants to move down the class warfare path. Class warfare will simply divide this country more. It will attack job creators, divide people and it doesn’t grow the economy. […]
“[I]f we are just going to do class warfare and trying to get tax increases out of this, and I don’t think much will come of it…. He’s in a political class warfare mode and campaign mode.”
So, I guess I’ll put him down as a “maybe” on the Buffett Rule?
By any reasonable measure, Ryan’s arguments aren’t just wrong, they’re borderline offensive.
For a generation, Republican policymakers have rigged national tax policy to reward the wealthy, and then reward them some more. We’ve seen the class gap reach Gilded Era levels, only to hear GOP officials again demand that working families “sacrifice” while lavishing more breaks on the very wealthy.
Remind me, who’s engaged in “class warfare” and “dividing people”?
Also note the larger policy context here. President Obama wants the richest of the rich to pay a little more, but keep tax breaks in place for the middle class. Paul Ryan and his cohorts want the polar opposite — more breaks for the very wealthy and higher taxes for the middle class.
Let’s also not forget that one of the GOP’s more common tax-policy arguments is that nearly half the country doesn’t have any federal income tax burden — and they see that as a problem that needs fixing. As a practical matter, the Republican argument on this is practically the definition of “class warfare.”
I realize much of the political establishment has come to look at Paul Ryan as a wise wonk who deserves to be taken seriously, but it really doesn’t take much to realize how spectacularly wrong the far-right Wisconsinite really is.
By: Steve Benen, Washington Monthly Political Animal, September 19, 2011