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“On Tax Deductions, Sanders Is No Hypocrite”: Conservatives Confused About How Hypocrisy Works On A Conceptual Level

When Bernie Sanders said his tax returns would turn out to be pretty boring, he wasn’t kidding. After a bit of a delay, the senator’s campaign released his 2014 returns last Friday night, and as expected, there wasn’t much in there of interest.

At least, that’s what I thought. National Review published a piece this week making hay of the senator’s deductions.

Sanders released his 2014 tax return this weekend, revealing that he and his wife took $60,208 in deductions from their taxable income. These deductions are all perfectly legal and permitted under the U.S. tax code, but they present a morally inconvenient, if delicious, irony: The Democratic socialist from Vermont, a man who rages against high earners paying a lower effective tax rate than blue-collar workers, saved himself thousands using many of the tricks that would be banned under his own tax plan. […]

What Sanders did, using every option and advantage available under a Byzantine tax code to minimize his tax payment, is a normal practice for many Americans. But it’s also exactly what the targets of his anger do. You can argue about whether or not that’s greed, but it’s impossible to argue that it isn’t hypocrisy. The paragon of liberal purity is not as pure as he’d like the world to believe.

Actually, it’s quite possible to argue that this isn’t hypocrisy, because, well, that’s not what hypocrisy means.

Current tax laws allow Americans to take a variety of deductions, and Sanders followed the laws as they’re written. Does Sanders hope to change the laws related to deductions? He absolutely does, even if that means he and his family have to pay more. But those changes haven’t yet happened, so the senator continues to do what he’s permitted to do.

As Mother Jones’ Kevin Drum put it, “If you don’t like the designated hitter rule in baseball, does that mean you should send your pitcher to the plate just to prove how sincere you are? Of course not. You play by the rules, whatever those rules are.”

All of which leads me to an ongoing point of concern. When I argue that many conservatives don’t seem to understand what hypocrisy means, I’m not being coy or snarky. I mean it quite literally: some on the right throw around accusations about various figures on the left being hypocrites in a way that suggests they’re genuinely confused about how hypocrisy works on a conceptual level.

A few years ago, for example, President Obama attended a fundraiser with some wealthy donors. The Republican National Committee insisted it was “the definition of hypocrisy” for the president to “run against” the wealthy while seeking campaign contributions from wealthy contributors.

The trouble, of course, is that this wasn’t even close to the “the definition of hypocrisy.” Having a policy agenda that asks more from the very wealthy does not preclude seeking contributions from those who also support that agenda, including accepting donations from the very wealthy.

Last year, Hillary Clinton was accused of being “hypocritical” for criticizing the existing campaign-finance system, even while raising money within that system. But again, that’s not what “hypocrisy” means – there is no contradiction when a candidate plays by the rules while hoping to someday change those rules.

Circling back to an old post, hypocrisy in politics is not uncommon, and it’s worth calling out once it’s uncovered. But can we try to separate legitimate instances of hypocrisy and stuff that looks kind of funny if you don’t give it a lot of thought? They are two very different things.

 

By: Steve Benen, The Madow Blog, April 20, 2016

April 21, 2016 Posted by | Bernie Sanders, Conservatives, Hillary Clinton, Tax Code | , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Real Welfare Cheats”: The Big Problem Of Welfare Dependency In America Now Involves Entitled Corporations

We often hear how damaging welfare dependency is, stifling initiative and corroding the human soul. So I worry about the way we coddle executives in their suites.

A study to be released Thursday says that for each dollar America’s 50 biggest companies paid in federal taxes between 2008 and 2014, they received $27 back in federal loans, loan guarantees and bailouts.

Goodness! What will that do to their character? Won’t that sap their initiative?

The study was compiled by Oxfam and it comes on top of a mountain of evidence from international agencies and economic journals underscoring the degree to which major companies have rigged the tax code.

O.K., O.K., I know you see the words “tax code” and your eyes desperately scan for something else to read! Anything about a sex scandal?

But hold on: The tax system is rigged against us precisely because taxation is the Least Sexy Topic on Earth. So we doze, and our pockets get picked.

John Oliver has a point when he says, “If you want to do something evil, put it inside something boring.” The beneficiaries of tax distortions are counting on you to fall asleep, but this is a topic as important as it is dry.

It’s because the issues seem arcane that corporate lobbyists get away with murder. The Oxfam report says that each $1 the biggest companies spent on lobbying was associated with $130 in tax breaks and more than $4,000 in federal loans, loan guarantees and bailouts.

And why would a humanitarian nonprofit like Oxfam spend its time poring over offshore accounts and tax dodges? “The global economic system is becoming increasingly rigged” in ways that exacerbate inequality, laments Ray Offenheiser, president of Oxfam America.

One academic study found that tax dodging by major corporations costs the U.S. Treasury up to $111 billion a year. By my math, less than one-fifth of that annually would be more than enough to pay the additional costs of full-day prekindergarten for all 4-year-olds in America ($15 billion), prevent lead poisoning in tens of thousands of children ($2 billion), provide books and parent coaching for at-risk kids across the country ($1 billion) and end family homelessness ($2 billion).

The Panama Papers should be a wake-up call, shining a light on dysfunctional tax codes around the world — but much of the problem has been staring us in the face. Among the 500 corporations in the S.&P. 500-stock index, 27 were both profitable in 2015 and paid no net income tax globally, according to an analysis by USA Today.

Those poor companies! Think how the character of those C.E.O.s must be corroding! And imagine the plunging morale as board members realize that they are “takers” not “makers.”

American companies game the system in many ways, including shifting profits to overseas tax havens. In 2012, American companies reported more profit in low-tax Bermuda than in Japan, China, Germany and France combined, even though their employees in Bermuda account for less than one-tenth of 1 percent of their worldwide totals.

Over all, the share of corporate taxation in federal revenue has declined since 1952 from 32 percent to 11 percent. In that same period, the portion coming from payroll taxes, which hit the working poor, has climbed.

Look, the period of the Oxfam study included the auto and banking bailouts, which were good for America (and the loans were repaid); it’s also true that the official 35 percent corporate tax rate in the U.S. is too high, encouraging dodging strategies. But we have created perverse incentives: C.E.O.s have a responsibility to shareholders to make money, and tax dodging accomplishes that. This isn’t individual crookedness but an entire political/economic system that induces companies to rip off fellow citizens quite legally.

It’s now widely recognized that corporations have manipulated the tax code. The U.S. Treasury, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the European Union and professional economic journals are all trying to respond to issues of tax evasion.

Bravo to the Obama administration for cracking down on corporations that try to move abroad to get out of taxes. Congress should now pass the Stop Tax Haven Abuse Act, and it should stop slashing the I.R.S. budget (by 17 percent in real terms over the last six years).

When congressional Republicans like Ted Cruz denounce the I.R.S., they empower corporate tax cheats. Because of I.R.S. cuts, the amount of time revenue agents spend auditing large companies has fallen by 34 percent since 2010. A Syracuse University analysis finds that the lost revenue from the decline in corporate audits may be as much as $15 billion a year — enough to make full-day pre-K universal.

Meanwhile, no need to fret so much about welfare abuse in the inner city. The big problem of welfare dependency in America now involves entitled corporations. So let’s help those moochers in business suits pick themselves up and stop sponging off the government.

 

By: Nicholas Kristof, Op-Columnist, The New York Times, April 14, 2016

April 16, 2016 Posted by | Corporate Welfare, Tax Code, Tax Evasion | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Acting As Political Human Shields”: The Upper Middle Class Needs To Stop Coddling The 1 Percent

The most criticism I’ve ever received as a writer came from articles suggesting that we curtail tax expenditures that mainly benefit the rich, like the mortgage interest deduction or 529 college savings accounts. (Okay, second-most — the top hate mail–getter, by a large margin, was a quite different issue.)

Why? As President Obama himself found last week, the last people you want to piss off are members of the upper middle class, who are set to a hair trigger when it comes to their personal government handouts. As Paul Waldman writes, they may be “the single most dangerous constituency to anger,” because a) unlike the 1 percent, they are relatively numerous; and b) like the 1 percent, they have a lot of disposable income, which politicians love.

On one level, this is an understandable reaction to a threat to personal economic interest. But on another, members of the upper middle class are being played for fools. They are acting as political human shields for the top 1 percent, which claims more of these benefits proportionally speaking and has been raking in essentially all the benefits of economic growth. The upper middle class (let’s define this as the top income quintile, minus the top 1 percent) ought to demand a lot more than it is getting.

To start, let’s get one thing straight. Tax expenditures are indeed government benefits, economically identical to direct government spending. Preferential treatment in the tax code is just another way of jiggering the national economic structure to direct benefits to one group or another.

Not all tax expenditures are equally terrible. According to a CBO analysis, exclusions for health care and pensions are spread relatively equitably across the population, while the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit are major bulwarks against poverty.

However, the big deductions are unfairly skewed. Two-thirds of taxpayers can’t even use the mortgage interest deduction, because you have to itemize your deductions to get it; other countries manage high rates of homeownership without the subsidy. Overall, 1 percenters get 15 percent of the mortgage interest deduction, 30 percent of the state tax deduction, and 38 percent of the charitable contribution deduction.

Preferential tax rates for capital gains and dividends, meanwhile, are even worse. Over two-thirds of the benefits go to 1 percenters. The supposed idea is to incentivize investment and thus economic growth, but there is zero evidence this actually happens. Close analysis of the Bush administration’s cut on dividend taxes finds that it did not change anything except payouts to shareholders. Longer-term studies on capital gains tax rates finds no relationship to investment or broader economic growth. The major effect is a booming industry in legal chicanery allowing people to reclassify regular income as capital gains.

Meanwhile, over the last generation, 1 percenters have been capturing the vast bulk of economic growth, a trend that is only getting worse. Indeed, according to a new analysis at the Economic Policy Institute by Mark Price and Estelle Sommeiller, from 2009 to 2012 1 percenters literally received more than all the income growth. Because the incomes of the 99 percent fell on average, 1 percenters got 105.5 percent of real income growth. Policies that benefit the very top over everyone else are clearly to blame.

Clearly, that’s no good for anyone who isn’t in the 1 percent, including the merely affluent. But with the middle class lacking much punching power, and the poor largely ignored by everyone, the upper middle class really ought to be asking for more than the preservation of their existing government benefits. At the very least, the upper middle class could demand a cut of economic growth.

And if the upper middle class were willing to ally with the bottom and the middle, there’s reason to think it would be able to keep the structure of its current benefits (that is to say, access to college instead of merely some money to pay for it) while cutting everyone in on economic growth. Taxes might go up somewhat, but that would likely be compensated by better wages and universal benefits.

On the other hand, if the upper middle class can manage nothing but a hysterical defense of its own welfare handouts, and the American system keeps brutalizing the bottom half of the income ladder, a genuine mass movement could appear, as it has in the past. Such movements are not likely to be especially concerned with the upper middle class.

 

By: Ryan Cooper, The Week, February 2, 2015

February 3, 2015 Posted by | Tax Code, The 1%, Upper Middle Class | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“A Tax System Tilted Toward The Rich”: Hitting Working Americans With Punishing Rates

Congress managed to pass a tax bill in December — a great relief to tax professionals like myself who are going to spend the next four months preparing returns for clients. But what our legislators didn’t do was address the fundamentally unfair way the United States taxes people who work for a living compared with people who live off of the earnings of their investments.

Our current system hits working Americans with punishing rates compared with what the investing classes are charged. A generation’s worth of legislative twists have left our tax code so warped that during the coming filing season, one married couple bringing in $150,000 in total income from two jobs could find itself paying almost three times as much in federal income taxes as another couple that is alike in every way — except for the source of its income.

The tax code started to tilt in the direction of favoring income from investments — or favoring the 1 percent, if you will — more than 20 years ago. In 1993, the year Bill Clinton took office, a married couple claiming the standard deduction — with no children, tax credits or other adjustments to income — and earning $75,000 apiece in wages, would have paid $35,650 in federal income taxes.

A similar couple, whose income came solely from long-term capital gains, would have gotten a small break thanks to what was then the 28 percent top rate on those gains. Their total tax bill, $34,158, would have been about $1,500 lower than that of the wage earners.

By 2000 — the year George W. Bush was first elected — the tax gap between wage earners and investors had already opened up. In that year, our two-wages couple would have paid $33,607 in taxes. They also would have paid that amount if all of their income had been from stock dividends; there was no preferential treatment for dividends at that point.

But the couple whose income came from long-term capital gains would have paid $23,025 in taxes — almost a third less.

Fast-forward to the 2014 tax season. Our two-income couple are still working full time to make the same $150,000 (not a farfetched scenario in our new-normal era of stagnant wages). After a decade’s worth of inflation adjustments to their tax bracket, their tax bill is now $24,138.

And the couple living off of their investments? Their tax bill — whether their money came from long-term capital gains or qualifying dividends — has been slashed to $8,385, or a little more than one-third of the tax load on wage earners.

Some of my clients who get their money from unearned income find this discrepancy unbelievable when they compare their federal taxes to their state bills. During this tax season, I know I will have clients — in California and Oregon, where I live — who will pay more in state income taxes than they do in federal taxes. I may even have some clients who will be stunned to learn that they face a four-figure state tax bill while paying exactly zero in federal income taxes for the year.

The reason: The federal code provides that there is no tax on capital gains or qualifying dividends for people in the 15 percent income tax bracket. That means that a Los Angeles married couple filing jointly for 2014 with $94,100 of adjusted gross income, all from long-term capital gains and qualifying dividends, would pay nothing — zero! — in federal income tax. But their California tax bill would be north of $3,000.

How did we get to this point? No legislator ever campaigned saying, “Tax laborers more than investors!” But several changes in the code since the early 1990s, including lowered tax rates on capital gains and lowered rates on qualified dividends, have conspired to produce that result. My high-income clients were dismayed last year by the new 3.8 percent net investment income tax, which applies to joint filers with modified adjusted gross incomes of more than $250,000 ($200,000 for singles), but that affects relatively few filers and, perversely enough, applies to non-tax-advantaged income such as rentals, as well as to dividends and long-term gains.

Neither political party gets sole credit or blame. President George W. Bush was most aggressive about pushing such tax changes, but breaks for unearned income were also passed and extended under both the Clinton and Obama administrations. Supporters argued that lower rates would benefit retirees living on fixed incomes and also spur investments. But the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities says that almost half of all long-term capital gains in 2012 went to the top 0.1 percent of households by income. For the nearly 60 percent of elderly filers who had incomes of less than $40,000 in 2011, the lower rates were worth less than $6 per household.

In 1924 — a different era to be sure — industrialist-robber baron-Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon wrote in support of treating wages more favorably than investments. “The fairness of taxing more lightly income from wages, salaries or from investments is beyond question,” he wrote. “In the first case, the income is uncertain and limited in duration; sickness or death destroys it and old age diminishes it; in the other, the source of income continues; the income may be disposed of during a man’s life and it descends to his heirs. Surely we can afford to make a distinction between the people whose only capital is their mental and physical energy and the people whose income is derived from investments.”

Well, that’s certainly not going to happen any time soon. But leveling out the tax treatment of wages and investment incomes would increase both the perceived and actual fairness of the tax code. It would eliminate preferences that distort investment and financial planning decisions. A fairer code might also increase respect for the system and improve tax collection rates overall.

 

By: Joseph Anthony, The Los Angeles Times (TNS); The National Memo, December 31, 2014

January 2, 2015 Posted by | Tax Code, Tax Rates, Wealthy | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Winds Are Shifting”: How Corporate America Is Losing The Debate On Taxes

If there is one clear loser in President Obama’s budget this year, it’s U.S. multinationals.

With six new ideas designed to plug some major leaks in the tax code, the 2015 budget proposes a total of more than $276 billion in higher taxes on overseas earnings for U.S. multinationals over the next decade, about $120 billion more than last year’s budget. (A sample of the policy just to give you an idea of how deep in the guts the administration is going: “Create a new category of Subpart F income for transactions involving digital goods or services.”)

So much for the White House’s attempts to strike common ground with big company chief executives, who have been howling for years about paying too much in taxes with the federal corporate tax rate at 35 percent. The companies have also poured money into an endless parade of coalitions with names like ACT, RATE, WIN, TIE AND LIFT.

The trouble with the executives’ complaints is that many companies don’t pay nearly the 35 percent rate. GE, for instance, in its most recent annual filing said it paid an effective tax rate of 4.2 percent. (See this graphic we ran last year showing taxes paid by companies in the Dow 30.) These firms insist that the high rate is merely forcing them to find complex ways to lower their tax bills.  But with this budget, it’s clear the administration isn’t buying it.

“The problem is not an international tax system that unacceptably handicaps U.S. businesses,” said Ed Kleinbard, a professor at the University of Southern California’s Gould School of Law who has done extensive research on the way companies shuffle their income overseas to lower their tax bills. “Instead the problem is an international tax system both in the United States and other countries that U.S. multinational firms have demonstrated they are highly skilled at gaming.”

The president’s budget is the latest sign for corporate tax lobbyists that the winds are perhaps shifting against them. Last month’s tax reform plan from House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) also included a number of ideas unpopular with business, including a bank tax. His section on international tax reform was somewhat more generous to big firms, giving them a lower rate on overseas earnings with anti-abuse measures that Kleinbard says don’t go far enough.

Of course, expectations are low that either the president or Camp’s policies will ever make the leap to reality. But after spending hundreds of millions of dollars on lobbyists, corporate America is not exactly seeing its worldview reflected in these blue prints.

 

By: Jia Lynn Yang, WonkBlog, The Washington Post, March 5, 2014

March 10, 2014 Posted by | Corporations, Tax Code | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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