Casting the tax debate as an argument in which liberals want to use the tax system to reduce income inequality after the fact by taxing the wealthy at higher rates than middle and lower income classes, while conservatives favor flat taxes that tax rich and poor at the same rate, misses the main point. Deregulation of the financial system over the last 35 years and tax preferences that benefit corporations and wealthy individuals have done much to increase the before-tax incomes of the top 1 percent. An army of tax accountants, many of them recruited from the IRS, has figured out how to push the envelope on tax avoidance for the big businesses and wealthy individuals that can afford their high-priced services. For these folks, tax accounting has been transformed from a service that makes sure that required taxes are paid to a profit center that manipulates the tax code to generate huge returns at the expense of the tax-paying public. Increasingly what we see in the United States is the growing importance of tax-payer financed capitalism.
There is no economic reason that the debt taken on by corporations should be treated differently in the tax code from the equity invested by shareholders, but it is. Corporations get to deduct the interest paid on debt from their earnings, thus reducing the corporate income tax they have to pay. The tax code also provides an incentive for private equity firms, which plan to hold companies they acquire for their portfolios for just a few years, to load these companies with debt. In good times, this greatly increases the returns to investors. In poor economic conditions, this greatly increases the risk of financial distress and even bankruptcy, and imposes great costs on workers, creditors and communities. For investors with a time horizon measured in years and not decades, this is a risk worth taking for the promise of higher returns.
Tax preferences mean that income from owning stock is taxed at a far lower rate than income from working—a point made by Warren Buffet who famously pointed out that his secretary pays a higher tax rate than he does. The fiction that bonuses earned by partners in private equity and hedge fund firms is ‘carried interest’ that should be taxed at the lower rate on earnings from owning stock, rather than at the higher rate on ordinary income that ordinary workers and managers pay on their bonuses, boosts the income and wealth of these already wealthy economic players.
The use of aggressive tax avoidance schemes is rampant among big businesses and wealthy individuals. Setting up a subsidiary that lives in a file drawer in a tax haven and owns the company’s intellectual property and collects the royalties on it, or that owns the loans the company has made and collects the interest, allows financial institutions, pharmaceutical companies, and IT companies to park their profits outside the United States and defer taxes on this income indefinitely while waiting for a tax holiday to bring their profits home. Setting up so-called blocker corporations in offshore tax havens to launder taxable income for foreigners and pension funds, and turn it into nontaxable income is another favorite scheme.
Tax preferences and tax loop holes enrich the already wealthy and increase their incomes while starving the country of much needed tax revenue. The meaning of this rise in tax-payer financed capitalism is that the rest of us must either pay higher taxes or do without necessary services.
By: Eileen Appelbaum, U. S. News and World Report, September 19, 2012
Unlike Mitt Romney, most Americans who will pay their taxes today can’t afford fancy accountants. But Romney has reluctantly made public his tax returns, and thus shared valuable strategies to ensure that he pays a far lower rate than, say, Warren Buffett’s secretary. Citizens for Tax Justice recently waded through Romney’s 2010 return—in which his $22 million in income was miraculously taxed at just 13.9 percent—to come up with a handy primer for how you, too, can beat the IRS at its own game. To paraphrase:
1. Don’t work for a living
The tax rate on money earned actually working (“salaries and wages”) can be more than double the rate on money earned sitting around watching your investments go up in value (“capital gains”), thanks to the work of other people. Almost all of Romney’s income is taxed as capital gains.
2. If you work, disguise your compensation as capital gains
About half of the $15 million in capital gains and dividend income Romney reported in 2010 was actually compensation for his work at Bain Capital. But using a tax loophole favored by private-equity guys, he was able to get paid by taking equity stakes in deals that he put together (“carried interest,” in tax parlance) instead of in the proletarian form of a fully taxable salary. Bonus: This allowed Bain to avoid paying Medicare payroll taxes.
3. Give to charity—but not with cash, checks, or money orders
In 2010, Romney was able to write off $1.5 million worth of Domino’s Pizza stock he donated to a charity. It is likely that he originally received the stock as compensation from Bain, in which case the price he paid for it would have been close to zero. In this scenario, by donating the stock instead of selling it and donating the cash, Romney would have saved about $220,000 in taxes.
4. Give to charity—but not now
Romney’s return reports income from the W. Mitt Romney 1996 Charitable Remainder UniTrust. Not only is the trust tax exempt, but when Romney set it up 16 years ago, he got a tax deduction for making a charitable donation. Though the money in the trust is eventually supposed to go to charity, Romney can receive income from the trust for a number of years—quite possibly for the rest of his life.
5. Give to charity—your own
In 2010 Romney made a tax-deductible, $1.5 million donation to the Tyler Charitable Foundation, which he controls. Commanding your own foundation allows you to curry favor with political and business allies by donating money to their pet organizations and causes. For instance, in 2010 the Tyler Charitable Foundation donated $100,000 to to the George W. Bush Library.
6. Do not invest in America
Certain foreign investment vehicles allow you to avoid certain taxes. For example, Romney’s Individual Retirement Account could bypass the Unrelated Business Income Tax by investing through a foreign corporation. Though it’s hard to know whether Romney availed himself of those kinds of savings, he has invested substantially in foreign entities, including ones based in offshore tax havens such as Bermuda, the Cayman Islands, and Luxembourg.
7. Invest in sexy financial instruments
Romney earned $415,000 from an investment that gets special tax treatment: Through an accounting loophole, 60 percent of the profits from the investment are treated as long-term capital gains, a designation that has tax benefits, no matter how long the investment is held.
8. Borrow money to invest
While you can’t deduct interest from car loans or credit cards, you can write off interest on the money you borrow to make certain types of investments—for instance, if you borrow from a broker to buy stock (a “margin loan”). Portfolio management fees are also write-offs. A fellow like Romney, who makes his millions mainly from investments, could probably deduct a fair sum.
9. Push the limits of the law
When you engage in a type of transaction that the IRS views as potentially abusive, you must disclose it in a separate form. In 2010, Romney filed six such forms.
10. Be part of the 1 percent
When it comes to taxes, it costs money to save money. You’ll need to hire lawyers to help you set up tax-exempt charities and trusts or exploit offshore tax havens—and a professional money manager if you plan to invest in sexy financial instruments. It probably won’t be cost effective if you aren’t already rich, but any hard-working son of a governor can land a job at a private-equity firm and start getting paid in carried interest. Bonus: You might make enough money to one day run for president.
By: Josh Harkinson, Mother Jones, April 17, 2012
Several wealthy bankers, investors, and entrepreneurs have called for higher taxes on the rich as an important part of reducing the nation’s deficit, led most prominently by Warren Buffett. “It is mathematically impossible to invest enough in our economy and our country to sustain the middle class (our customers) without taxing the top 1 percent at reasonable levels again,” wrote wealthy entrepreneur Nick Hanauer in an op-ed last week. “Significant tax increases on the about $1.5 trillion in collective income of those of us in the top 1 percent could create hundreds of billions of dollars to invest in our economy, rather than letting it pile up in a few bank accounts like a huge clot in our nation’s economic circulatory system.”
Joining the list of those in financial positions of power that are calling for higher taxes on the rich is Morgan Stanley Chief Financial Officer Ruth Porat who, as the Huffington Post’s Bonnie Kavoussi reported, said over the weekend that it’s “inappropriate” that income inequality in the country is continuing to grow while taxes on the rich stay low:
“The wealthiest can afford to pay more in taxes. That’s a part of the deal. That makes sense. I don’t know anyone that doesn’t agree with that,” Porat said. “The wealth disparity between the lowest and the highest continues to expand, and that’s inappropriate.” “We cannot cut our way to greatness,” she added.
The rising compensation of executives and those in the banking industry is one of the major factors driving the nation’s income inequality. And at the same time that the rich have been getting richer, their tax rates have been plummeting. It’s refreshing to hear someone in the banking industry acknowledge these truths and want to rectify them, rather than decrying higher taxes on the rich as akin to the Nazi invasion of Poland.
By: Pat Garofalo, Think Progress, December 5, 2011
A number of people are pointing to this scorching quote from Joe McQuaid, the publisher of the New Hampshire Union Leader, explaining the paper’s decision to endorse Newt Gingrich over Mitt Romney:
“I think — and this is crazy, but so are we — that Gingrich is going to have a better time in the general election than Mitt Romney,” publisher Joe McQuaid told FOX News. “I think it’s going to be Obama’s 99% versus the 1%, and Romney sort of represents the 1%.”
Aside from the obvious humor value here, this actually gets at something serious: The possibility that Mitt Romney’s tax rates, and not just his corporate past and support for cutting taxes on the wealthy and corporations, amount to an unexplored vulnerability in a general election. Because he gets income from investments, Romney would have paid roughly 14 percent of his income in taxes in 2010, according to the Citizens for Tax Justice — lower than the rate paid by many middle class taxpayers.
Wait, there’s more. According to Bloomberg News, Romney is now benefitting from the fundraising of Stephen Schwarzman, the chairman of the world’s largest private equity firm, who is also soliciting help for Romney from colleagues. Bloomberg presents this as a sign that Romney is “closing the sale with Wall Street’s wealthiest donors.”
But there’s more to it than this. As Pat Garofalo notes, Schwarzman is also well known as a warrior against efforts to close loopholes that benefit private equity firms. Indeed, this new Romney supporter has even compared his battle against such efforts to World War Two:
“It’s a war,” Schwarzman said of the struggle with the administration over increasing taxes on private-equity firms. “It’s like when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939.”
Obviously, people like Schwarzman will back the GOP nominee, whoever he is, and Dems will likely highlight this kind of thing to paint the eventual GOP nominee, whoever he is, as in the pocket of Wall Street. But the fact that Romney himself personally benefits from aspects of the tax code that Obama wants to change makes him a less-than-ideal messenger to deliver criticism of Obama’s push for tax fairness, and will likely make Dem attacks along these lines more potent. After all, Dems can argue that not only do the Schwarzmans of the world prefer Romney’s policies, but on top of that, Romney himself is actually one of them. You can’t say that about Newt.
This general election vulnerability is being obscured right now, because for obvious reasons, it isn’t an issue in the GOP primary. But the Obama team has taken note of this weakness — and Obama surrogates are likely going to work very hard to exploit it — even if it isn’t getting much attention right now. It seems like Republicans who are evaluating Romney’s strengths and weaknesses as a general election candidate might want to consider how this will play next year, particularly if resurgent populism continues to help shape the political environment, as many expect it to do.
By: Greg Sargent, The Washington Post, The Plum Line, November 28, 2011