Opinion

David Cay Johnston

Orwellian tax talk

David Cay Johnston
Oct 11, 2011 12:33 UTC

By David Cay Johnston
The author is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

Political tax talk is becoming Orwellian: Secrecy is Democracy. Auditors Reduce Collections.  Tax Cheats Will Be Caught With Fewer Auditors.

Let’s start in Kansas, where the Lawrence Journal-World broke the news on Sunday that economist Arthur Laffer, father of curve-on-a-napkin tax policy, is advising the state on a new tax structure. The news is not so much that Laffer is getting $75,000 of taxpayer money, but that Governor Samuel Brownback wants advice only from business leaders; no wage earners allowed behind these officially closed doors.

In Albany, state tax authorities issued a statement asserting they already were pursuing the real estate tax cheats I wrote about last week. Never mind the statistics and lack of public enforcement actions. Maintaining this facade will be more difficult going forward as 300 newly pink-slipped auditors turn a drip of leaks into a stream.

Will Governor Andrew Cuomo, who wants to be president and has declared his eternal allegiance to lowering taxes on the richest New Yorkers, keep looking the other way? Will Lieutenant Governor Bob Duffy, who wants to be governor, mimic the boss?  How long will only the little people of New York feel the full force of tax law enforcement under these two Democrats?

Occupy Wall Street

David Cay Johnston
Oct 7, 2011 17:54 UTC

By David Cay Johnston
The views expressed are his own.

Pay close attention to the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations in New York and around the United States, especially if the protests endure through the cold months into the election year spring or if the New York police are ordered to violently end the demonstrations, which would ensure they spread.

The protests show signs of sparking a major change in U.S. politics by creating common ground among people with wildly divergent views. The key to their significance will be whether they foster a wholesale change in political leadership in 2013 or whether Americans return a vast majority of incumbents in both parties at all levels of government.

Occupy Wall Street differs fundamentally from the many demonstrations I have covered over more than four decades. Instead of people with similar specific interests — anti-war, anti-rape, Tea Partiers — these demonstrators come with widely varying views, experiences and backgrounds, yet unite around a common theme: bankers are ripping off America.

“Stateless income”

David Cay Johnston
Oct 4, 2011 21:52 UTC

By David Cay Johnston
The author is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

From the way Washington politicians in both parties tell it, you may well think that multinational companies favor low-tax jurisdictions when investing overseas. They don’t.

The multinationals prefer investing in high-tax jurisdictions because it so happens that is where they can earn the highest returns.

Ignoring tax cheats

David Cay Johnston
Sep 27, 2011 14:05 UTC

By David Cay Johnston
The writer is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

Each year New York State lets real estate investors evade at least $200 million of taxes. In peak years the figure likely rises to $700 million, if known tax cheating in another state is any indication. Some of the investors who cheat New York State also cheat New York City out of at least $40 million annually.

Back in the 1990s Jerry Curnutt figured out how to finger such cheats when he was the top partnership specialist at the Internal Revenue Service. Curnutt’s computer sifted through tax returns until he learned how to separate thieves from honest taxpayers. The tax-evasion estimates of $200 million and $40 million are his.

More for the rich

David Cay Johnston
Sep 20, 2011 13:42 UTC

By David Cay Johnston
The views expressed are his own.

President Barack Obama this week started pitching his plan to cut U. S. taxes for everyone in 2012 and then in 2013 raise income tax rates for high earners, primarily those making more than $1 million, many of whom bear a lighter burden than a cop married to a nurse.

Two responses are certain.

There will be claims that economic ruin will follow once taxes go up. Never mind the proposed 2012 tax cuts are for virtually everyone. Never mind that the modest rate hikes would apply only to those who make more than 97 percent of their fellow Americans with most of the burden on those making more than $1 million. Never mind IRS data showing that tens of thousands of those whose increased taxes would increase their income tax rate by just 1.2 percentage points make more in a year than the median family earns in a lifetime.

Obama has also set a clever trap for anti-tax Republicans. Obama’s American Jobs Act would lower Social Security taxes for all workers and for all businesses in 2012. Republicans who vote against the bill would be voting against a tax cut. They would also be voting against a huge business tax break, letting business immediately write off all capital investments made in 2012.

Shrinking corporate officer pay

David Cay Johnston
Sep 16, 2011 17:25 UTC

By David Cay Johnston
The views expressed are his own.

It’s time to prick the popular image of ballooning executive pay with some sharp new facts.

As a group, corporate officers — executives with broad authority to act on the company’s behalf, not just follow orders from the CEO or some other boss — are making less, not more, my analysis of newly available tax data shows.

This is in sharp contrast with the thoroughly documented excesses at the very top revealed through analysis of disclosures to shareholders. The new tax data includes CEOs, but the few score of wildly overpaid ones at the biggest companies become statistically insignificant within the universe of nearly a million corporate officers covered in the new tax data.

Nonsense posing as wisdom

David Cay Johnston
Sep 13, 2011 13:26 UTC

By David Cay Johnston
The views expressed are his own.

Every day we hear politicians and pundits say that government spending cannot lift the economy out of the worst slump since the 1930s, which is as sensible as saying that 2-1=3 or that water and flour make steak.

Those who said after President Barack Obama’s speech last week to Congress that government does not create wealth, does not create jobs and cannot stimulate the economy spoke nonsense. So do those who say that only private business creates wealth, as if any revenue going to taxes destroys wealth.

Adam Smith, who figured out market capitalism in his 1776 book “The Wealth of Nations,” could set them straight. We have plenty of equally competent economists who understand these issues today. They just do not get the attention that the news media lavish on high-profile politicians and pundits who speak with absolute certainty on matters about which their words show they know nothing.

A simple income tax

David Cay Johnston
Sep 6, 2011 13:29 UTC

By David Cay Johnston
The author is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

Since at least July 1, 1943, the day income tax withholding from paychecks began to finance war and tamp down demand for consumer goods, American politicians have promised a simpler tax system.

But while politicians talked on for seven decades, the code grew ever more complex with favors for this group or that, favors that mostly benefited the rich.

Budget cuts that raise costs

David Cay Johnston
Aug 30, 2011 13:43 UTC

By David Cay Johnston
The opinions expressed are his own.

The Obama administration’s support for killing off the U.S. Statistical Abstract underscores what’s wrong with Washington’s approach to cutting the budget. This nearly thousand-page compendium of official data is in its 130th and evidently last edition since 1878. It is published online and in print.

Taxpayers will save the $2.9 million it costs in a year to compile the data from a multitude of government, academic, nonprofit and industry websites.

But how much time will be wasted hunting for data without this ready reference? How much will state and local taxpayers pay for the extra time reference desk librarians need to answer questions? How many questions will go unanswered? And what of the Statistical Abstract’s value in quickly and efficiently pointing to other sources for a deeper look that spares researchers having to hunt through the vast array of government and private websites?

Wiping out Wisconsin taxes

David Cay Johnston
Aug 26, 2011 21:45 UTC

By David Cay Johnston
The author is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

The heirs of the SC Johnson fortune, the richest family in Wisconsin with four multi-billionaires according to Forbes, paid not a penny of Wisconsin corporate income tax on profits from their global household products business and two smaller companies from 2000 through 2008, public records show.

The smaller companies made more than $400 million in Wisconsin profit. Indications are the much larger household products firm, which is privately held and does not disclose its profits, netted more than a billion dollars, and possibly many billions.

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