Opinion

David Cay Johnston

The richest get richer

David Cay Johnston
Mar 15, 2012 16:18 UTC

The aftermaths of the Great Recession and the Great Depression produced sharply different changes in U.S. incomes that tell us a lot about tax and economic policy.

The 1934 economic rebound was widely shared, with strong income gains for the vast majority, the bottom 90 percent.

In 2010, we saw the opposite as the vast majority lost ground.

National income gained overall in 2010, but all of the gains were among the top 10 percent. Even within those 15.6 million households, the gains were extraordinarily concentrated among the super-rich, the top one percent of the top one percent.

Just 15,600 super-rich households pocketed an astonishing 37 percent of the entire national gain.

The different results in 1934 and 2010 show how a major shift in federal policy hurts the vast majority and benefits the super-rich.

Obama’s hamburger problem

David Cay Johnston
Mar 8, 2012 17:42 UTC

If President Barack Obama can persuade Congress to reduce the corporate income tax rate to 28 percent from 35 percent, he will move tax rates closer to what other modern countries charge.

But his plan to treat “manufacturing” as a special category, with a 25 percent tax rate, brings us to what I call Obama’s hamburger problem.

The problem is how to define manufacturing. To paraphrase Justice Potter Stewart on obscenity, I know manufacturing when I see it; I just don’t know how to define it in tax law.

Congress’ potential faulty tax logic

David Cay Johnston
Mar 2, 2012 21:13 UTC

With President Barack Obama and leaders in both parties favoring lower corporate tax rates, Washington seems poised to enact change next year. They need only resolve details like how much the rates should be cut, which tax avoidance strategies should be barred and whether to give manufactures a discounted rate.

If the corporate tax rate is cut, should the rates for dividends and long-term capital gains be increased?

That issue was inadvertently put on the table by a leading free market organization, the American Enterprise Institute. The AEI, as part of its support for cutting the corporate tax, promoted the idea last month that workers, not investors, bear the burden of that tax. In taking that line, however, the AEI has undercut its own argument for tax relief for investors. Indeed, it shifts the debate toward higher taxes on capital gains and dividends and lower taxes on wages.

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.

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.

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.

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