Less than half a year into the Biden Presidency, the Internal Revenue Service is already at the center of an abuse-of-power scandal. That news broke Tuesday when ProPublica, a website whose journalism promotes progressive causes, published information from what it said are 15 years of the tax returns of Jeff Bezos, Warren Buffett and other rich Americans.
Leaking such information is a crime, since under federal law tax returns are confidential. ProPublica says it received the files from “an anonymous source” and doesn’t know who provided them, how they were obtained, or what the source’s motives are.
Allow us to fill in that last blank. The story arrives amid the Biden Administration’s effort to pass the largest tax increase as a share of the economy since 1968. The main Democratic argument for a tax hike is that the rich should pay their “fair share.” The ProPublica story is a long argument that somehow the rich don’t pay enough. The timing here is no coincidence, comrade.
This still leaves the real scandal, which is that someone leaked confidential IRS information about individuals to serve a political agenda. This is the same tax agency that pursued a vendetta against conservative nonprofit groups during the Obama Administration. Remember Lois Lerner?
This is also the same IRS that Democrats now want to infuse with $80 billion more to chase a fanciful amount of uncollected taxes. As part of this effort, Mr. Biden wants the IRS to collect “gross inflows and outflows on all business and personal accounts from financial institutions.” Why? So the information can be leaked to ProPublica?
ProPublica has obtained a vast cache of IRS information showing how billionaires like Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Warren Buffett pay little in income tax compared to their massive wealth — sometimes, even nothing.
In 2011, a year in which his wealth held roughly steady at $18 billion, Bezos filed a tax return reporting he lost money — his income that year was more than offset by investment losses. What’s more, because, according to the tax law, he made so little, he even claimed and received a $4,000 tax credit for his children.
His tax avoidance is even more striking if you examine 2006 to 2018, a period for which ProPublica has complete data. Bezos’ wealth increased by $127 billion, according to Forbes, but he reported a total of $6.5 billion in income. The $1.4 billion he paid in personal federal taxes is a massive number — yet it amounts to a 1.1% true tax rate on the rise in his fortune.
Author(s): Jesse Eisinger, Jeff Ernsthausen, Paul Kiel
According to estimates conducted for Ms. Warren by University of California-Berkeley economists Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, only about 100,000 families, or “less than 1 out of 1,000,” would pay the tax, which they estimate would raise “around $3 trillion over the ten-year budget window 2023-2032, of which $0.4 trillion would come from the billionaire 1% surtax.”
Yet Tax Foundation economists discovered a surprising consequence when we ran the proposal through our general equilibrium tax model last year. The model showed that despite being a massive tax, raising nearly $300 billion a year, the tax had only a modest impact on gross domestic product. How can that be?
The model predicted that wealthy U.S. citizens would sell their assets at fire-sale prices to pay the tax. Because the U.S. is an open economy, many of these assets would be bought by foreign investors at the discounted prices. Thus, while a wealth tax wouldn’t shrink the U.S. economy much, it would change who owns U.S. assets. What Jeff Bezos, Warren Buffett and Mark Zuckerberg sell, Jack Ma, Carlos Slim and the sultan of Brunei might buy — and they’d be exempt from the U.S. wealth tax.
Biden also wants other big tax changes, such as a higher business tax rate and higher rates for households earning more than $400,000. But he might want to start with capital-gains and estate taxes because they’re easier to target at the wealthy. The top 1% of earners capture 69% of long-term capital gains, while the top 20% of earners earn 90% of the capital gains. That shareholder class has benefited most from fiscal and monetary stimulus that has propped up the stock market for the last 11 months and helped with a decade of generous gains. If anybody can afford it, they can.
As for the estate tax, only about 1,900 U.S. estates are subject to any federal tax, which is less than one-tenth of 1% of the Americans who die in a given year. The number of estates subject to this tax was three times higher in 2009, the last year the exemption threshold was $3.5 million. Since Biden wants to return to that ceiling, assume he’d triple the number of families having to pay some estate tax. It still remains a vanishingly small number. Plus, unlike the wealth tax, it has been the law before, and there’s no question of whether it would work.
Warren is spending this week talking up her “Ultra-Millionaire Tax Act.” It’s essentially a refreshed version of the same idea she proposed during her failed bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. The current measure, like the old one, would tax the net worth of American households with more than $50 million in assets to the tune of 2 percent annually, with an additional 1 percent tax for households worth more than $1 billion. Warren favored the wealth tax in 2019 when the economy was generally doing pretty well. But now, she says, it’s needed “because of the changes in this country under the pandemic.”
That is what happened in San Francisco, where voters passed a wealth tax beyond efforts for the state or federal level. It is described as an “overpaid executive tax” which would apply to those firms in the city which pay their officers more than 100 times the median worker salary. While decisions on whether to enact tax hikes are best left to local residents instead of to the bureaucrats in Sacramento or the District of Columbia, the new wealth tax in San Francisco could now create unintended negative effects, including a significant exodus of rich earners who move out of the city.
The Bay Area is home to the widest income gap in California. Those local residents in the top 90th percentile earned over 12 times more than those local residents in the bottom 10th percentile. The combination of historic market policies and current socialist policies established such separation of classes in the state. The success of the technology industry in tandem with high tax rates and building restrictions created this situation where someone could earn over $100,000 a year and live in his car.
California’s Legislature is considering a wealth tax on residents, part-year residents, and any person who spends more than 60 days inside the state’s borders in a single year. Even those who move out of state would continue to be subject to the tax for a decade — a provision that calls to mind the Eagles’ famous “Hotel California” lyric: “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.”
The California Constitution probably allows a statewide wealth tax on residents, but any effort to create a tax capable of reaching across state borders is likely to run afoul of the U.S. Constitution. Taxing someone who spends only 60 days in the state in any single year — and extending that tax over an ensuing decade — would be something new under the sun.
“Warren’s proposal has a dismal track record in other countries that have attempted wealth taxation,” Senior Research Fellow at the American Institute for Economic Research and economic historian Phil Magness warned. “It simply encourages the wealthy to relocate abroad, taking their businesses with them.”
Economists say that’s why the global trend has not been passing wealth taxes, but repealing them. Edwards pointed out that in 1990, 12 European countries had wealth taxes. Now? Just three still do.
“Even most of the leftist welfare states in Europe have repealed their wealth taxes because of the complex administration, the negative impacts on growth, and the encouragement of avoidance and evasion,” Cato’s Edwards concurred.
Author(s): Brad Polumbo
Publication Date: 4 February 2021
Publication Site: Foundation for Economic Education