Opinion

David Cay Johnston

Romney’s gift from Congress

David Cay Johnston
Jan 31, 2012 16:09 UTC

When the Romney campaign disclosed in December that the couple’s five sons had a $100 million trust fund, I suspected that, in setting up the fund, the Romneys used a tax strategy that allows some very rich people to avoid paying gift taxes. But it was impossible to know if this was the case without seeing their tax returns going back years.

So when Mitt Romney released the family’s 2010 tax return last week, I went looking. I found a hint on pages 132 and 134 of the return. It showed that the value of property placed that year into another family trust, the Ann D. Romney Blind Trust, was, for tax purposes, zero. The Ann Romney trust is not the same trust as the one that holds the Romney sons’ $100 million, but I wondered if the Romneys used the same approach in prior years when it came to valuing property placed into the sons’ trust.

Reuters emailed the Romney campaign spokeswoman to ask how much the Romneys paid in gift taxes on assets put into the sons’ trust over the last 17 years. The spokeswoman, citing Brad Malt, the Romney family tax lawyer, answered: none.

The idea that someone could pay zero gift taxes on contributions to a $100 million trust fund may surprise people who have heard arguments that the wealthy are overburdened by gift and estate taxes. But the Romneys’ gift-tax avoidance strategy is perfectly legal.

Under tax rules, wealthy people must pay a gift tax of 35 percent on gifts above a lifetime limit known as the “unified estate tax credit.” That limit was $1.2 million for a married couple in 1995 when the sons’ trust was created and $2 million in 2009, but is now $10 million.

The siren call of austerity

David Cay Johnston
Jan 27, 2012 21:28 UTC

The World Economic Forum opened in Davos amid choruses of central bankers and economists calling for governments to cut spending.

This message of austerity is like the call of the ancient Sirens, whose music lured sailors to shipwreck.

We should take a lesson from Odysseus, who poured wax into the ears of his crew and had himself lashed to the mast of his ship to resist the Siren call.

Tax advice for those who want to be like Mitt

David Cay Johnston
Jan 24, 2012 14:50 UTC

What advice do tax lawyers give private equity managers about saving on taxes as they build wealth?

We may get a first glimpse at the answer on Tuesday when, bowing to public pressure, Mitt Romney promises to release his 2010 tax return and a tax estimate for 2011. (See the returns here.)

To get a full picture of Romney’s taxes while he made his multimillion-dollar fortune, we would need to see returns going back to 1984-1999, which is when he ran Bain Capital Management. So far, the Republican presidential candidate has not committed to release those returns.

The burden of Romney’s tax returns

David Cay Johnston
Jan 20, 2012 18:49 UTC

A tax return says a lot about a man, especially one aspiring to be president.

If Mitt Romney makes good on his promise during Thursday night’s Republican candidates’ debate to release “multiple years” of his returns, it will likely stir up rather than calm the political storm unless he makes public all of his returns from 1984 through 1999. Those are the years when he built a fortune of more than $200 million while running Bain Capital Management.

There’s no suspicion that Romney has done anything illegal. But what should be secret about the taxpaying relationship between a presidential hopeful and his government?

Romney himself said late on Thursday: “I’m not going to apologize for being successful.”

Honey, they shrunk the IRS

David Cay Johnston
Jan 17, 2012 15:04 UTC

Congress will spend a trillion dollars more than it levies this year, so how do Washington’s politicians respond to the 11th consecutive year of federal budgets in red ink? They plan to shrink the IRS.

Go figure. Cutting the IRS budget by more than 5 percent in real terms makes as much sense as a hospital firing surgeons or a car dealer laying off salespeople when customers fill the showroom.

Shrinking the IRS makes sense if you believe government is too big and that cutting everywhere is the best way to shrink government. But this is the staff that generates revenue, and there is easy money to be made.

A corporate tax code for a different century

David Cay Johnston
Jan 13, 2012 21:12 UTC

Big business is lobbying for a major cut in the corporate income tax rate, and both President Barack Obama and key congressional leaders are on their side. But the evidence that a rate cut will boost the economy is weak. What’s needed is comprehensive reform that includes a simpler, fairer and more transparent corporate tax code. But more on that later.

Consider what President George W. Bush‘s Treasury Department said in a report in 2007: big countries, such as the United States, receive far less economic benefit from lower corporate tax rates than smaller countries do. For large countries, cutting corporate tax rates “would result partly in increased capital inflow and partly in lower world interest rates.”

While other large countries have cut their corporate tax rates since then, lowering the U.S. rate would just encourage other countries to go even lower. Since we are cutting spending in the very areas that build wealth – education, infrastructure and research – a corporate tax rate cut would increase the pressure for further cuts in those areas, making us poorer.

The hidden dangers of low interest rates

David Cay Johnston
Jan 10, 2012 13:21 UTC

The Fed’s campaign to hold short-term interest rates near zero is a loser for taxpayers. A rise in rates would also burden taxpayers, but it would come with a benefit for those who save.

Low rates keep alive the banks that the government considers too big to fail and reduce the cost of servicing the burgeoning federal debt. Low rates also come at a cost, cutting income to older Americans and to pension funds. This forces retirees to eat into principal, may put more pressure on welfare programs for the elderly, and will probably require the government to spend money to fulfill pension guarantees.

Raising interest rates shifts the costs and benefits, increasing the risks that mismanaged banks will collapse and diverting more taxpayers’ money to service federal debt. On the other hand, higher interest rates mean that savers, both individual and in pension funds, enjoy the fruits of their prudence.

Time to junk income taxes?

David Cay Johnston
Jan 6, 2012 20:27 UTC

This is America’s 100th year for individual income tax, a system as out of touch with our era as digital music is with the hand-cranked Victrola music players of 1912. It is also the 26th year of the Reagan-era reform for both personal and corporate tax, a grand design now buried under special-interest favors.

With U.S. elections in November, and the George W. Bush tax cuts due to expire at the end of 2012, it’s time for a debate that goes beyond ginning up anger over taxes and the superficial issue of tax rates.

It’s time to consider whether to get rid of income taxes, personal and corporate. What are the strengths and weaknesses of our current system? Should we tax individual and corporate income — or something else?

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