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“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

“A Nation Of Takers?”: Demanding Cuts In Public Assistance To The Poor, While Ignoring Public Assistance To The Rich

In the debate about poverty, critics argue that government assistance saps initiative and is unaffordable. After exploring the issue, I must concede that the critics have a point. Here are five public welfare programs that are wasteful and turning us into a nation of “takers.”

First, welfare subsidies for private planes. The United States offers three kinds of subsidies to tycoons with private jets: accelerated tax write-offs, avoidance of personal taxes on the benefit by claiming that private aircraft are for security, and use of air traffic control paid for by chumps flying commercial.

As the leftists in the George W. Bush administration put it when they tried unsuccessfully to end this last boondoggle: “The family of four taking a budget vacation is subsidizing the C.E.O.’s flying on a corporate jet.”

I worry about those tycoons sponging off government. Won’t our pampering damage their character? Won’t they become addicted to the entitlement culture, demanding subsidies even for their yachts? Oh, wait …

Second, welfare subsidies for yachts. The mortgage-interest deduction was meant to encourage a home-owning middle class. But it has been extended to provide subsidies for beach homes and even yachts.

In the meantime, money was slashed last year from the public housing program for America’s neediest. Hmm. How about if we house the homeless in these publicly supported yachts?

Third, welfare subsidies for hedge funds and private equity. The single most outrageous tax loophole in America is for “carried interest,” allowing people with the highest earnings to pay paltry taxes. They can magically reclassify their earned income as capital gains, because that carries a lower tax rate (a maximum of 23.8 percent this year, compared with a maximum of 39.6 percent for earned income).

Let’s just tax capital gains at earned income rates, as we did under President Ronald Reagan, that notorious scourge of capitalism.

Fourth, welfare subsidies for America’s biggest banks. The too-big-to-fail banks in the United States borrow money unusually cheaply because of an implicit government promise to rescue them. Bloomberg View calculated last year that this amounts to a taxpayer subsidy of $83 billion to our 10 biggest banks annually.

President Obama has proposed a bank tax to curb this subsidy, and this year a top Republican lawmaker, Dave Camp, endorsed the idea as well. Big banks are lobbying like crazy to keep their subsidy.

Fifth, large welfare subsidies for American corporations from cities, counties and states. A bit more than a year ago, Louise Story of The New York Times tallied more than $80 billion a year in subsidies to companies, mostly as incentives to operate locally. (Conflict alert: The New York Times Company is among those that have received millions of dollars from city and state authorities.)

You see where I’m going. We talk about the unsustainability of government benefit programs and the deleterious effects these can have on human behavior, and these are real issues. Well-meaning programs for supporting single moms can create perverse incentives not to marry, or aid meant for a needy child may be misused to buy drugs. Let’s acknowledge that helping people is a complex, uncertain and imperfect struggle.

But, perhaps because we now have the wealthiest Congress in history, the first in which a majority of members are millionaires, we have a one-sided discussion demanding cuts only in public assistance to the poor, while ignoring public assistance to the rich. And a one-sided discussion leads to a one-sided and myopic policy.

We’re cutting one kind of subsidized food — food stamps — at a time when Gallup finds that almost one-fifth of American families struggled in 2013 to afford food. Meanwhile, we ignore more than $12 billion annually in tax subsidies for corporate meals and entertainment.

Sure, food stamps are occasionally misused, but anyone familiar with business knows that the abuse of food subsidies is far greater in the corporate suite. Every time an executive wines and dines a hot date on the corporate dime, the average taxpayer helps foot the bill.

So let’s get real. To stem abuses, the first target shouldn’t be those avaricious infants in nutrition programs but tycoons in their subsidized Gulfstreams.

However imperfectly, subsidies for the poor do actually reduce hunger, ease suffering and create opportunity, while subsidies for the rich result in more private jets and yachts. Would we rather subsidize opportunity or yachts? Which kind of subsidies deserve more scrutiny?

Some conservatives get this, including Senator Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma. He has urged “scaling back ludicrous handouts to millionaires that expose an entitlement system and tax code that desperately need to be reformed.”

After all, quite apart from the waste, we don’t want to coddle zillionaires and thereby sap their initiative!

 

By: Nicholas D. Kristof, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, March 26, 2014

March 28, 2014 Posted by | Corporate Welfare, Poor and Low Income, Poverty | , , , , , , | 6 Comments

“Days Late, Dollars Short”: Mitt Romney’s Tax Returns Still Incomplete

After months of withering attacks, Mitt Romney has finally (sort of) lifted the veil of secrecy around his personal finances. At 3 pm, his campaign released his full 2011 tax return and a summary from PriceWaterhouseCooper of his tax filings over twenty years, from 1990–2009.

The bottom line: as everyone suspected, Romney pays a lower tax rate than the typical middle-class family—and he seems to have purposely engineered a higher rate for himself for optical reasons. Moreover, by only summarizing the past twenty years of returns, there’s a lot we don’t know.

Here’s a look at what we learned so far—check back for updates.

2011 returns

The top-line takeaway from the returns isn’t particularly good—his 2011 tax rate was 14.1 percent, below the effective tax rate for most Americans despite Romney’s vast wealth. (The middle 20 percent of households paid a 16 percent federal income tax rate in 2010). Most of Romney’s income is from capital gains, which is taxed at a lower rate than income—and Obama wants to change that and raise the rate, while Romney does not.

The returns are sure to underscore the absurdity of someone who made $13,696,951 last year, as Romney did, paying a lower tax rate than, say, a plumber in Memphis.

Additionally, by the campaign’s own admission, Romney purposely did not deduct all of his charitable giving—claiming only $2.25 million out of about $4 million—to make his rate “conform to the Governor’s statement in August…that he paid at least 13% in income taxes in each of the last 10 years.” If he did the deductions in full, he would have paid around 9 percent. (By Romney’s own standard, this disqualifies him: he said on the trail that “frankly if I had paid more than are legally due I don’t think I’d be qualified to become president. I’d think people would want me to follow the law and pay only what the tax code requires).

So here’s a guy who made over $13 million last year, paying a lower tax rate than most Americans, and purposely paying more to the IRS so as not to seem too rich. If this is what Romney’s campaign wanted to change the conversation to, they must have been really unhappy with what it was.

The 1990–2009 Summary

Romney’s trustee, Brad Malt, has a summary of the summary on the campaign website. (Note that Malt oversees Romney’s supposedly blind trust, which makes it interesting he’s also serving a campaign function here). It says:

  • In each year during the entire 20-year period period, the Romneys owed both state and federal income taxes.
  • Over the entire 20-year period period, the average annual effective federal tax rate was 20.20%.
  • Over the entire 20-year period period, the lowest annual effective federal personal tax rate was 13.66%.
  • Over the entire 20-year period period, the Romneys gave to charity an average of 13.45% of their adjusted gross income.

This is a really sneaky maneuver. The tax rate averages out to a semi-respectable 20.20 percent, but what does that really tell us? It’s still possible that in really high-earning years, Romney paid an absurdly low tax rate. If he paid a normal rate in lower-earning years, it could still produce that average.

And if Romney did pay really low rates during high-income years, what mechanisms did he use? What sort of tax shelters might he have employed? We don’t know that either, and aren’t likely to find out unless Romney releases the actual returns—something he required of all his potential vice-presidental nominees.

 

By: George Zornick, The Nation, September 21, 2012

September 22, 2012 Posted by | Election 2012 | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Why The Rich Should Pay Higher Taxes

Wealthy Americans will recoil at the suggestion, likely responding with the tired mantra that the top earners pay most of the income tax. But two points can be made in response to that: (1) federal income tax is only a small part of the burden on the middle class.

Based on data from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, the total of all state and local taxes, social security taxes, and excise taxes (gasoline, alcohol, tobacco) consumes 21% of the annual incomes of the poorest half of America. For the richest 1% of Americans, the same taxes consume 7% of their incomes. And (2) the richest people pay most of the federal income taxes because they’ve made ALMOST ALL the new income over the past 30 years. Based on Tax Foundation figures, the richest 1% has TRIPLED ITS SHARE of America’s income since 1980, AFTER TAXES.

But there are better reasons why the rich should pay higher taxes.

The very rich benefit most from national security, government-funded research, infrastructure, and property laws. Defending the country benefits the rich more, because they have more to defend. Taxpayer-funded research at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (the Internet), the National Institute of Health (pharmaceuticals), and the National Science Foundation (the Digital Library Initiative) has laid a half-century foundation for their idea-building. The interstates and airports and FAA and TSA benefit people who have the money to travel.

Over a hundred years ago, Teddy Roosevelt, facing an epidemic of inequality not unlike today, reminded us that “Great corporations exist only because they are created and safeguarded by [democratic] institutions; and it is therefore our right and our duty to see that they work in harmony with these institutions.”

Here’s another good reason for the rich to pay more taxes: With the drop in tax revenue, funding for the preservation of American culture is disappearing. Do we want our national treasures deprived of maintenance because of budget cuts, as is currently happening in Italy? Do we want our national parks sold to billionaires? Do we want programs for music and the arts eliminated from schools, so that only children of the wealthy can participate in them?

The 1912 book “Promised Land” by Mary Antin revealed the wonder of a Russian immigrant coming to the U.S.: “In America, then, everything was free…light was free…music was free.”

Not that capitalist markets don’t have their place. But the current view of democracy has gone to the other extreme, in which individualism and personal gain trump societal responsibility, and growing inequality makes community support and safeguards unnecessary for the privileged elite.

Finally, back to the tax statistics. Why should financial earnings (i.e., capital gains) be taxed less than wage earnings from actual work? The richest 10% of Americans own over 80% of the stocks, the gains from which are taxed at a 15% rate. Most wage earners pay more.

Furthermore, over the past 15 years millionaires have seen their income tax rates drop from 30% to 22%. During approximately the same time period, American economic growth declined from an annual 3.2 percent rate to 1.7 percent. Lower taxes for the rich do not lead to productivity.

Will the rich stop investing or move to another country if their taxes are increased? Not likely. They have it too good here. As Warren Buffett recently stated, “I have worked with investors for 60 years and I have yet to see anyone – not even when capital gains rates were 39.9 percent in 1976-77 – shy away from a sensible investment because of the tax rate on the potential gain.”

Mr. Buffett is admitting what everyone else is beginning to realize. The rich take much more than they pay for.

By: Paul Buchheit, CommonDreams.org, August 22, 2011

August 23, 2011 Posted by | Capitalism, Class Warfare, Congress, Conservatives, Corporations, Democracy, Democrats, Economic Recovery, Economy, Equal Rights, GOP, Government, Ideologues, Ideology, Income Gap, Jobs, Liberty, Middle Class, Politics, Public Opinion, Republicans, Right Wing, States, Tax Loopholes, Taxes, Teaparty, Wealthy | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Corporate Tax Cuts Don’t Stimulate Job Growth

Prevailing conservative  wisdom dictates that businesses need tax cuts—and investors need capital  gains tax cuts—to get the economy moving. But two very well-executed articles  on wages and taxes published recently suggest that targeting tax cuts at  business executives may do little to improve the dismal unemployment picture.

The Washington Post offers a startling  analysis of income disparity, noting that the gap between the very rich and the rest of us has  grown dramatically in the past few decades, reaching current levels that have  not been seen since the Great Depression. In 2008, the Post reports, the top one-tenth of one percent of earners took in  more than a tenth of the personal income in the United States. But the moneyed  class is not dominated by professional athletes or big-name artistic performers  or even hedge fund managers, the Post found.  Instead, it is due to a big increase in executive compensation, even as real  wages for some of their workers have dropped:

The top 0.1 percent of earners make about $1.7 million or  more, including capital gains. Of those, 41 percent were executives, managers  and supervisors at non-financial companies, according to the analysis, with  nearly half of them deriving most of their income from their ownership in  privately-held firms. An additional 18 percent were managers at financial firms  or financial professionals at any sort of firm. In all, nearly 60 percent fell  into one of those two categories.

The New York Times has a fascinating story that serves as an unwitting companion piece to the Post story. Corporate executives, the  paper reports, are clamoring for a tax holiday to encourage them to bring their  offshore profits back to the United States. And the money in question is big,  the Times notes: Apple has $12 billion  in offshore cash, while Google has $17 billion, and Microsoft, $29 billion. The  companies with money sitting offshore argue that if the federal government were  to offer them a huge tax break—say, a one-year drop from 35 percent to 5.25  percent—the businesses would bring the money home and operate as a  private-sector economic stimulus.

However, the Times notes:

(T)hat’s not how it worked  last time. Congress and the Bush administration offered companies a similar tax  incentive, in 2005, in hopes of spurring domestic hiring and investment, and  800 took advantage. Though the tax break lured them into bringing $312 billion  back to the United States, 92 percent of that money was returned to  shareholders in the form of dividends and stock buybacks, according to a study by the nonpartisan National Bureau of Economic Research.

Who needs a tax cut, then? The U.S. economy is  very much consumer-driven; companies aren’t hiring, many business owners say,  because people aren’t buying. The past behavior of corporations that have  received huge tax cuts has not necessarily been to use the money to hire more  people; the Bush-era tax cuts have been in place for a decade, and the  unemployment rate is still 9.1 percent. And executive compensation has grown.  Executives may feel entitled to earn more and more if their companies are doing  well and expanding. But without customers, those companies will go bust.

By: Susan Milligan, U. S. News and World Report, JUne 20, 2011

June 23, 2011 Posted by | Businesses, Class Warfare, Congress, Conservatives, Consumers, Corporations, Economic Recovery, Economy, GOP, Government, Ideology, Income Gap, Jobs, Labor, Middle Class, Politics, Republicans, Taxes, Unemployment, Wealthy | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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