9 Things The Rich Don’t Want You To Know About Taxes
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April 13th, 2011 DAVID CAY JOHNSTON | Cover Story
As millions of Americans prepare to file their annual taxes, they do so in an environment of media-perpetuated tax myths. Here are a few points about taxes and the economy that you may not know, to consider as you prepare to file your taxes. (All figures are inflation-adjusted.)
1. Poor Americans do pay taxes.
Gretchen Carlson, the Fox News host, said last year “47 percent of Americans don’t pay any taxes.” John McCain and Sarah Palin both said similar things during the 2008 campaign about the bottom half of Americans.
When it comes to state and local taxes, the poor bear a heavier burden than the rich in every state except Vermont, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy calculated from official data. In Alabama, for example, the burden on the poor is more than twice that of the top 1 percent. The one-fifth of Alabama families making less than $13,000 pay almost 11 percent of their income in state and local taxes, compared with less than 4 percent for those who make $229,000 or more.
2. The wealthiest Americans don’t carry the burden.
It’s true that the top 1 percent of wage earners paid 38 percent of the federal income taxes in 2008 (the most recent year for which data is available). But people forget that the income tax is less than half of federal taxes and only one-fifth of taxes at all levels of government.
Social Security, Medicare and unemployment insurance taxes (known as payroll taxes) are paid mostly by the bottom 90 percent of wage earners. That’s because, once you reach $106,800 of income, you pay no more for Social Security, though the much smaller Medicare tax applies to all wages. Warren Buffett pays the exact same amount of Social Security taxes as someone who earns $106,800.
3. In fact, the wealthy are paying less taxes.
Despite skyrocketing incomes, the federal tax burden on the richest 400 has been slashed, thanks to a variety of loopholes, allowable deductions and other tools. The actual share of their income paid in taxes, according to the IRS, is 16.6 percent. Adding payroll taxes barely nudges that number.
4. Many of the very richest pay no current income taxes at all.
Lots of other people live tax-free, too. I have Donald Trump’s tax records for four years early in his career. He paid no taxes for two of those years. Big real-estate investors enjoy tax-free living under a 1993 law President Clinton signed. It lets “professional” real-estate investors use paper losses like depreciation on their buildings against any cash income, even if they end up with negative incomes like Trump.
In Wisconsin, Terrence Wall, who unsuccessfully sought the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate in 2010, paid no income taxes on as much as $14 million of recent income, his disclosure forms showed. Asked about his living tax-free while working people pay taxes, he had a simple response: Everyone should pay less.
5. And (surprise!) since Reagan, only the wealthy have gained significant income.
Those at the top did better. The top 1 percent’s average income more than doubled to $1.1 million, according to an analysis of tax data by economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez. The really rich, the top one-tenth of 1 percent, each enjoyed almost $4 in 2008 for each dollar in 1980.
The top 300,000 Americans now enjoy almost as much income as the bottom 150 million, the data show.
6. When it comes to corporations, the story is much the same—less taxes.
Corporate profits in 2008, the latest year for which data are available, were $1,830 billion, up almost 12 percent from $1,638.7 billion in 2000. Yet, even though corporate tax rates have not been cut, corporate income-tax revenues fell to $230 billion from $249 billion—an 8 percent decline, thanks to a number of loopholes. The official 2010 profit numbers are not added up and released by the government, but the amount paid in corporate taxes is: In 2010 they fell further, to $191 billion—a decline of more than 23 percent compared with 2000.
7. Some corporate tax breaks destroy jobs.
Despite all the noise that America has the world’s second-highest corporate tax rate, the actual taxes paid by corporations are falling because of the growing number of loopholes and companies shifting profits to tax havens like the Cayman Islands.
And right now America’s corporations are sitting on close to $2 trillion in cash that is not being used to build factories, create jobs or anything else, but acts as an insurance policy for managers unwilling to take the risk of actually building the businesses they are paid so well to run. That cash hoard, by the way, works out to nearly $13,000 per taxpaying household.
8. Republicans like taxes too.
President Reagan signed into law 11 tax increases, targeted at people down the income ladder. His administration and the Washington press corps called the increases “revenue enhancers.” Reagan raised Social Security taxes so high that by the end of 2008, the government had collected more than $2 trillion in surplus tax.
George W. Bush signed a tax increase, too, in 2006, despite his written ironclad pledge never to raise taxes on anyone. It raised taxes on teenagers by requiring kids up to age 17, who earned money, to pay taxes at their parents’ tax rate, which would almost always be higher than the rate they would otherwise pay. It was a story that ran buried inside The New York Times one Sunday, but nowhere else.
In fact, thanks to Republicans, one in three Americans will pay higher taxes this year than they did last year.
9. Other countries do it better.
Compare this to Germany, one of many countries with a smarter tax system and smarter spending policies.
Germans work less, make more per hour and get much better parental leave than Americans, many of whom get no fringe benefits such as health care, pensions or even a retirement savings plan. By many measures the vast majority live better in Germany than in America.
To achieve this, unmarried Germans on average pay 52 percent of their income in taxes. Americans average 30 percent, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
David Cay Johnston is a columnist for tax.com and teaches the tax, property and regulatory law of the ancient world at Syracuse University College of Law and Whitman School of Management. He has also been called the “de facto chief tax enforcement officer of the United States” because his reporting in The New York Times shut down many tax dodges and schemes, just two of them valued by Congress at $260 billion. Johnston received a 2001 Pulitzer Prize for exposing tax loopholes and inequities. He wrote two bestsellers on taxes, Perfectly Legal and Free Lunch. Later this year, Johnston will be out with a new book, The Fine Print, revealing how big business, with help from politicians, abuses plain English to rob you blind.