HOW THE RICH GET RICHER #2

Here’s number 2 in a series of posts on how the rich get richer, generally at the expense of the rest of us. (See number 1 here.)

The U.S. tax system favors the rich with:

  • Lower tax rates on the types of income (i.e., unearned income) that are prevalent among the wealthy,
  • Tax loopholes that allow the wealthy to significantly reduce the amount of income tax they pay,
  • Weak enforcement of tax laws that allows the wealthy to engage in substantial illegal tax evasion, and
  • The lack of a wealth tax on anything other than one’s home.

First, unearned income (e.g., income from dividends and the increased value of investments, aka capital gains) is generally taxed at a lower rate than earned income (i.e., income from wages). The wealthy, of course, receive the lion’s share of unearned income.

The overall federal tax rate on earned income for a typical household is 29.65%. The income tax rate is 22% on middle income households. The tax for Social Security is 6.2% and is matched by one’s employer. The tax for Medicare is 1.45% and is also matched by one’s employer. Income tax rates on earned income begin at 10% for lower income households and increases to 37% (on income over $622,000). Social Security only taxes earnings up to $142,800, so the effective tax rate for those with higher incomes declines as income increases. Therefore, the highest overall federal tax rate on earned income today is just about 40%. (Historically, the maximum federal income tax rate was 70% in 1980 and over 90% in the 1950s, compared with 37% today.)

The federal tax rate on most unearned income is roughly half of that on earned income – 15% for middle income taxpayers and a maximum of 20% for high income taxpayers. The tax on long-term capital gains (i.e., the increase in value of investments owned for more than one year) is zero for lower income households and increases to 20% (on income over $434,550). Most dividend income is taxed at the same rates as long-term capital gains. Unearned income  is not subject to Social Security and Medicare taxes. By the way, billionaires in the U.S. gained about $1 trillion in wealth due to the increased values of their investments during the pandemic year from March 2020 to March 2021.

In early 2011, the very wealthy investor Warren Buffett publicly stated that he believed it was wrong that rich people, like himself, paid a smaller portion of their incomes in income taxes than  middle class people, like his secretary. President Obama and some in Congress proposed changes in income tax laws to ensure that the wealthy paid more in income tax, but these proposals were not enacted.

Second, the broad variety of tax loopholes that benefit the wealthy constitute a form of welfare for the wealthy that is rarely discussed using this terminology. One of the most egregious loopholes is the so-called “carried interest” loophole. It allows managers of real estate, venture capital, private equity, and hedge funds (who are invariably wealthy) to claim the income they earn from their jobs to be capital gains (i.e., unearned income), which cuts the income taxes they pay roughly in half. This loophole is estimated to cost the federal government about $1.4 billion a year in lost tax revenue. [1]

An individual can make a gift of up to $15,000 per year to anyone they want to (e.g., children and grandchildren) and to as many people as they want to. The recipient(s) do not have to pay any tax on the gift they receive. Only the wealthy can afford to make gifts of this magnitude, of course.

An individual can contribute up to $19,500 ($26,000 if over 50) to a 401k retirement savings account and reduce their taxable income by the amount of their contribution. In some cases, an individual could also contribute $6,000 ($7,000 if over 50) to an Individual Retirement Account (IRA) and reduce their taxable income by this amount as well. Clearly, only wealthy individuals can afford to make contributions of this magnitude to retirement accounts, so this is another way the rich can dodge income taxes.

When a wealthy individual dies, roughly $11 million of their estate can be passed on tax-free. As a result, only about 3,000 estates are subject to the federal estate tax each year. The maximum tax rate on the assets passed on by an estate is 40%. Some in Congress have proposed eliminating the estate tax completely.

If investments or assets are left to children when a wealthy parent dies, the children never have to pay any tax on the increased value of the investment during the parent’s lifetime. If they were to sell the investment or asset on the day they received it, they would owe no tax. So, for example, Bill Gates can leave his billions of dollars of Microsoft stock to his children and they can sell it when they receive it and owe no tax, so no tax would ever be paid on the billions of dollars of increase in its value from the day Bill Gates got the stock.

Any homeowner can deduct the interest paid on up to $1 million of mortgages to reduce the amount of income on which they owe tax. (This limit has been reduced to $750,000 for mortgages obtained after 2017.) This applies to mortgages on first and second homes. This tax break costs the federal government more than it spends helping poor families pay rent and avoid homelessness. Homeowners can also reduce their taxable income by up to $10,000 for property taxes they paid. [2] This $10,000 limit was imposed in 2017; the deduction used to be unlimited. These tax breaks have the greatest benefit for the wealthy, of course.

The cost to the federal government of lost revenue due to the various income tax breaks (aka loopholes) is huge – more than $1.5 trillion a year, which is more than the cost of Social Security or of Medicare and Medicaid combined. The bulk of the benefits from these income tax breaks or loopholes goes to wealthy individuals, of course.

Third, the wealthiest 1% of U.S. households don’t report over one-fifth of their income costing the federal government an estimated $175 billion every year. Some simply don’t report all their income, but many use complex tax strategies to dodge income taxes. Because the IRS rarely audits wealthy taxpayers (only 6% of those with income over $10 million), much of this tax avoidance is never subject to enforcement actions. Budget cuts and staff shortages at the IRS are partly to blame, but policy decisions have also contributed to the fact that the poor are audited at about twice the rate (roughly 0.7%) of the overall population. [3]

Finally, wealth is not taxed in the U.S., with the exception of the major asset or investment of the middle-class – one’s home. The property tax on one’s home, typically levied by local government, is the only wealth tax in America. It ranges from a high of 2% per year to a low of an effective rate of 0.3%. Ownership of all other wealth, other assets or investments (e.g., stocks, bonds, and other financial instruments), which are mostly owned by the wealthy, are not taxed.

The wealthy and their political supporters have lots of rationales for why they shouldn’t pay more taxes. Many of these rationales contradict ones they present to argue against public assistance for the poor or increased unemployment benefits or an increase in the minimum wage.

The bottom line is that by pretty much any measure and also from an historical perspective, the wealthy are not paying their fair share. The U.S. tax system is rigged in favor of the wealthy. When the wealthy and their political supporters say the country can’t afford to help low- and middle-income people with health care, child care, higher education, or housing costs, or that Social Security benefits need to be cut, remember that the wealthy are getting hundreds of millions of dollars of benefits each year from the provisions or loopholes of our tax laws. On top of this, there would be additional hundreds of millions of dollars of revenues for the federal government each year if the wealthy were paying their fair share.

My next post will present a variety of proposals and strategies to make our tax system fairer.

[1]      Reich, R., 4/2/21, “Tax the rich. Here’s how,” Common Dreams (https://www.commondreams.org/views/2021/04/02/tax-rich-heres-how)

[2]      Buchheit, P., 3/22/21, “The boundless advantages of the welfare state – for the rich,” Common Dreams (https://www.commondreams.org/views/2021/03/22/boundless-advantages-welfare-state-rich)

[3]      Johnson, J., 3/22/21, “ ‘This is tax evasion’: Richest 1% of US households don’t report 21% of their income, analysis finds,” Common Dreams (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2021/03/22/tax-evasion-richest-1-us-households-dont-report-21-their-income-analysis-finds)

2 thoughts on “HOW THE RICH GET RICHER #2

  1. The cap on social security tax is one upsetting issue. Raising or removing that cap eliminates all the concern about funding social security (I think).

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