Opinion

David Cay Johnston

You’re not paying the tax rate you think you are

David Cay Johnston
Feb 21, 2012 21:42 UTC

If you make more than about $33,500 a year, your federal income tax burden is probably lighter than you think.

The portion of your income that you pay in taxes is your “effective tax rate.” But when politicians and pundits talk about effective tax rates, the data they typically use relies on an incomplete measure for income. Use an incomplete measure for income and your tax rate calculation comes out high.

In a new analysis the Tax Policy Center, a nonpartisan Washington research organization, used a wider measure of income to calculate effective tax rates. The rates are much lower using this broader measure of income.

The Tax Policy Center computer model of the tax system, which estimates how changes in the law would affect tax burdens, has repeatedly made projections that subsequent events showed were accurate. The center is a joint project of two Washington research organizations, the Urban Institute and the Brookings Institution. The George W. Bush administration went out of its way to praise the reliability of the center findings even when they were not helpful to administration policy.

The incomplete measure is called “adjusted gross income,” or AGI. This is the number on the last line of the front page of the standard tax return.

How to avoid a securities class action

David Cay Johnston
Feb 11, 2012 00:01 UTC

For years, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has pressed Congress to restrict securities class action lawsuits, saying they put a damper on economic activity.  Securities lawyers argue that such suits act as a crucial protection for investors, who deserve their day in court when deceitful actions by executives cost them money.

Now, some new research sheds light on this question.

Jonathan Rogers, an associate professor of accounting at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, led an investigation into why some companies get sued while others do not.

Rogers, his Booth colleague Sarah Zechman and Andrew Van Buskirk of Ohio State University identified 165 companies that were sued because their share price fell after an earnings statement had pointed to strong future performance.

How Romney would tax us

David Cay Johnston
Feb 7, 2012 19:41 UTC

With so much attention placed on Mitt Romney’s verbal blunders, much less has been given to his written plans for the economy and taxes.

The Republican frontrunner’s 160-page “plan for jobs and economic growth,” which he released in September, contains some sound ideas. He would encourage more Americans to save and invest. And one of his proposals would strengthen America’s status as a technological powerhouse. See the plan here.

But there’s a side to the plan that would raise taxes on the poorest 125 million Americans while tilting tax cuts further toward the rich.

Newt and the NEWT Act

David Cay Johnston
Feb 3, 2012 21:41 UTC

Newt Gingrich’s 2010 income tax return inspired a quick response from U.S. congressman Pete Stark.

Twelve days after Gingrich, a Republican presidential hopeful, made his return public, Stark proposed the Narrowing Exceptions for Withholding Taxes (NEWT) Act.

This proposal has an uncertain future in Congress, but it would be a good addition to our tax laws, closing a significant loophole that Gingrich took advantage of.

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 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.

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