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More on Private Equity, Carried Interest, Wealth, and Romney

by Linda Beale

More on Private Equity, Carried Interest, Wealth, and Romney

Those who’ve read much of this blog are aware of the various arguments against the notion that private equity firms are “do-gooders” that we should encourage and even subsidize (through the carried interest provision). On the whole, I believe they are part of a harmful trend towards consolidation of enterprises that weakens links to communities, makes caring for workers seem like too great a cost, and encourages over-leveraging and instability that ultimately is devastating to the economy. Add to that the egregiously inappropriate tax treatment of “carried interest” paid to managers, and you have a wealth-building machine for a small, elite group that does not pay its fair share of the tax burden and whose activities are likely a net social detriment.

Specifically, private equity firms historically have looked for good, stable businesses with decent cash flows, low leverage and decent but not high profits that they can take over, leverage highly (to pay for the acquisition and to provide quick funds to fuel their own ultra-high profit demands), with the cash flow from the ongoing business paying off the debt. The result in these leveraged buyout cases may be that a stable busienss with a profit of 5-6% that spent what was needed on maintenance and new investment, expanding gradually and paying its workers a decent wage and its owners a small but decent profit becomes an overleveraged company that is less stable and has to use more of its cash flow to pay off the debt.

One result of excessive debt is that expenditures for maintenance and investment in new equipment are deferred. and business stalls for the time it takes to pay off the debt. Sometimes that stall is merely a bad time for the business (and often its workers). Liquidity problems can result in proclaimed “efficiency” decisions to fire or lay off hundreds of workers and to reshape benefits like pensions and health care. That’s if the company stays in operation. Sometimes the debt service and resultant deferral of investments and change of focus of the business will be fatal. Costly leverage results in bankruptcy or in the business being broken up and sold in pieces, either way with many workers losing jobs (and benefits) and many communities suffering dire consequences. Whatever happens, the equity fund managers gets high fees and “carried interest” profits taxed at inappropriately low tax rates. Romney, for instance, continued to get a “carried interest” cut from Bain Capital’s activities in compensation for past work done, long after he retired from doing any work at the firm in 1999. See Romney using ethics exception to limit disclosure of Bain holdings, Washington Post (April 5, 2012).

And of course, private equity firms do not necessarily invest only in domestic companies. They may hold considerable assets offshore–possibly in some of those very companies that represent low-wage, low-benefits, and low-worker-rights havens for US multinationals that end US jobs here in order to hire more cheaply abroad….. Romney, for instance, has holdings in “a high-tech sensor control firm that has moved U.S. manufacturing jobs to China.” Id. (noting that these holdings were revealed through SEC filings).

One wonders if those realities of equity funds is a reason that Romney has used an ethics exception to limit his disclosure of Bain holdings. See Romney using ethics exception to limit disclosure of Bain holdings, Washington Post (April 5, 2012).

By offering a limited description of his assets, Romney has made it difficult to know precisely where his money is invested, whether it is offshore or in controversial companies, or whether those holdings could affect his policies or present any conflicts of interest.
In 48 accounts from Bain Capital, the private equity firm he founded in Boston, Romney declined on his financial disclosure forms to identify the underlying assets, including his holdings in a company that moved U.S. jobs to China and a California firm once owned by Bain that filed for bankruptcy years ago and laid off more than 1,000 workers.
***[M]ost of the underlying assets — the specific investments of Bain funds— are not known because Romney is covered by a confidentiality agreement with the company.
Several of Romney’s assets — including a large family trust valued at roughly $100 million, nine overseas holdings and 12 partnership interests— were not named initially on his disclosure forms, emerging months later when he agreed to release his tax returns.
Several outside experts across the political spectrum, however, say Romney’s disclosure is the most opaque they have encountered, with some suggesting the filing effectively defeats the spirit of disclosure requirements.
[Romney’s failure to disclose these assets, and the inapplicability of conflict-of-interest “must sell” requirements to a President, mean that we may never know and that Romney may continue to hold positions that would be inappropriate for a sitting president.] Although still subject to the disclosure requirements, a president cannot be compelled by OGE to sell undisclosed assets, according to an OGE official. Romney’s would be the first presidency to face this circumstance. Id.

As the article notes, one reason Romney doesn’t disclose Bain’s underlying assets is that Bain (a fund he created) requires its participants to enter into confidentiality agreements. Handy for a politician with considerable wealth that the institution he created “requires” him to keep its investments secret. But not so handy for the people whom a president is supposed to serve. As Democratic Party lawyer Joe Sandler noted, “Romney’s approach frustrates the very purpose of the ethics and disclosure laws.” Id. The disclosure is intended to “allow the public to identify potential conflicts of interest and the personal economic priorities of candidates and elected officials.” Id. (quoting Fred Wertheimer, an advocate who worked on getting the law passed after Watergate). The right answer to a refusal to disclose is that the candidate should divest or else not run for office. Id. (noting that various Washington lawyers provide this advice to candidates who cannot disclose underlying assets).

As the campaign progresses with continuing claims by GOP advocates that Romney’s “entrepreneurial” activity at Bain demonstrates that he has the business sense we purportedly need in a president, more scrutiny will fall on his current holdings as well as Bain’s past and present activities and just how well such an organization does (or does not) support the country’s economy.

crossposted with ataxingmatter

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Explaining Why Low Tax Rates are Correlated with Slower Economic Growth, Once Again

by Mike Kimel

Explaining Why Low Tax Rates are Correlated with Slower Economic Growth, Once Again

One of the regular mysteries facing economists is why the US economy fails to display evidence of a relationship that everyone seems to accept implicitly, namely that lower taxes lead to (or even are correlated with) faster economic growth. Sure, the argument is sometimes made by academics using rather heroic assumptions. The paper everyone seems to cite these days uses the assumptions made by politicians before a change in the tax rate as the “effect” that actually occurred after the change in the tax rate. Non-academics rely on other heroic assumptions. My favorite is attributing the rapid growth during the three years of the Kennedy administration to a cut in tax rates that occurred the year after he died. (Actually, even Alan Greenspan made this one well before he made the transition from Maestro to goat.)

I’ve taken a crack at explaining that puzzle, most recently here:

people will want to minimize their tax burden at any given time subject provided it doesn’t decrease their lifetime consumption of stuff plus holdings of wealth. Put another way – all else being equal, peoples’ incentive to avoid/evade taxes is higher when tax rates are higher, and that incentive decreases when tax rates go down. Additionally, most people’s behavior, frankly, is not affected by “normal” changes to tax rates; raise or lower the tax rates of someone getting a W-2 and they can’t exactly change the amount of work they do as a result. However, there are some people, most of whom have high actual or potential incomes and/or a relatively large amount of wealth, for whom things are different. For these people, some not insignificant amount of their income in any year comes from “investments” or from the sort of activities for which paychecks can be dialed up or down relatively easily. (I assume none of this is controversial.)
Now, consider the plight of a person who makes a not insignificant amount of their income in any year comes from “investments” or from the sort of activities for which paychecks can be dialed up or down relatively easily, and who wants to reduce their tax burden this year in a way that won’t reduce their total more or less smoothed lifetime consumption of stuff and holdings of wealth. How do they do that? Well, a good accountant can come up with a myriad of ways, but in the end, there’s really one method that reigns supreme, and that is reinvesting the proceeds of one’s income-generating activities back into those income-generating activities. (i.e., reinvest in the business.) But ceteris paribus, reinvesting in the business… generates more income in the future, which is to say, it leads to faster economic growth. To restate, higher tax rates increase in the incentives to reduce one’s taxable income by investing more in future growth.

Restating again: when the tax rate is 75%, a business owner has a strong incentive to reinvest all his/her profits in the business rather than take those profits out and consume them. This is because reinvesting in the business means the profits aren’t pulled out and thus aren’t recognized as income by the IRS. Reinvesting in the business also increases the business’ chances to do well in future years, which generates growth for the economy. On the other hand, when the tax rate is 15%, there is more of an incentive to take out profits and engage in consumption of the type that does not generate much growth.

David Glasner has another (albeit complementary) suggestion:

The connection it seems to me is that doing the kind of research necessary to come up with information that traders can put to profitable use requires very high cognitive and analytical skills, skills associated with success in mathematics, engineering, applied and pure scientific research. In addition, I am also positing that, at equal levels of remuneration, most students would choose a career in one of the latter fields over a career in finance. Indeed, I would suggest that most students about to embark on a career would choose a career in the sciences, technology, or engineering over a career in finance even if it meant a sacrifice in income.  

If for someone with the mental abilities necessary to pursue a successful career in science or technology, requires what are called compensating differences in remuneration, then the higher the marginal tax rate, the greater the compensating difference in pre-tax income necessary to induce prospective job candidates to choose a career in finance. So reductions in marginal tax rates in the 1980s enabled the financial sector to bid away talented young people from other occupations and sectors who would otherwise have pursued careers in science and technology. The infusion of brain power helped the financial sector improve the profitability of its trading operations, profits that came at the expense of less sophisticated financial firms and unprofessional traders, encouraging a further proliferation of products to trade and of strategies for trading them.


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Senate Dems unveil their tax cut proposal

by Linda Beale

Senate Dems unveil their tax cut proposal

Senate Democrats, led by majority leader Harry Reid, unveiled a $26 billion tax-cut bill on March 26, 2012. See, e.g., Richard Rubin, Senate Democrats Said to Prepare $26 Billion Tax Cut Measure, San Francisco Chronicle (Mar. 26, 2012).

The proposal revives the lapsed 100% expensing provision for capital investments, extending it through the end of 2012 and would provide a tax credit for businesses that expand their payrolls this year.

The expensing provision is foolish, but it looks like Senate Democrats are more interested in playing the bipartisanship game than they are in good legislation. Why is it foolish? For several reasons.

1) there is already a (temporary) bonus depreciation deduction of 50%.

2) an expensing provision that applies retroactively to already-purchased capital equipment cannot, by definition, have incentivised the purchase of that equipment.

3) providing this kind of additional break to large corporations is a corporate subsidy that has little to do with creating jobs and nothing to do with good tax policy. It has little to do with creating jobs because corporations will simply accelerate purchases to garner the benefit but may not increase production correspondingly. It has nothing to do with good tax policy because accelerated depreciation already allows deductions faster than economic lossm amounting to yet another pure tax subsidy for businesses.

4) Companies that need to purchase equipment in order to compete will make the appropriate decision to purchase based on company revenues and expenses, without needing a subsidy from the tax code. For businesses where some investment in capital equipment is expected eventually, it is likely that the provision will subsidize an acceleration of an investment that would have been done anyway, amounting to a mis-allocation of resources to garner the extra tax break, while temporarily available.

The subsidy for payroll expansion is at least more directly connected to a desired social goal of creating more jobs to reduce the unemployment problem and something that both small and large businesses can benefit from. The proposal calls for a 10% tax credit for the first $5 million of payroll expansion in 2012, capped at half a million. Payroll expansion can be either new hires or wage increases.

Meanwhile, the GOP-led House is planning about double that amount as an outright giveaway to business. Cantor sponsored a 20% tax cut for all businesses with fewer than 500 workers. Those businesses are not necessarily “small” and the provision is not linked to payroll expansion, as Schumer noted. Id.

crossposted with ataxingmatter

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Is Congress drinking Grover Norquist koolaid? (or will it fund IRS appropriately

by Linda Beale

Is Congress drinking Grover Norquist koolaid? (or will it fund IRS appropriately)

IRS Commissioner Doug Shulman testified before the House Appropriations Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee on President Obama’s proposed 2013 budget for the IRS. Shulman wants Congress to provide adequate funding to the IRS to support its enforcement function. The IRS has 5000 fewer employees this filing season than in 2011, and Shulman is worried about the impact of that decline in enforcement capability on compliance and collections. See Rubin, IRS Eliminated 5,000 Jobs in past year amid budget cuts, Bloomberg (Mar.21, 2012).

Now, those “starve-the-beast” types that drink the Grover Norquist koolaid are generally just eager to kill all government, and particularly government programs that help ordinary people, are concerned with the general public good, or help ensure the vitality of important government programs.

  • So it seems that the right has no trouble talking about a need to return the US’s dismal health care system back to what it was before the little bit of progress accomplished in the Obama health reform legislation–they talk about eliminating government interference, but what they mean is letting health care profit centers, doctors, and insurers continue to rip off the American public that can least afford it with rentier profits.
  • And the right has no trouble with unfunding the EPA or enacting foolish laws restricting the agency’s ability to protect ordinary Americans’ health, livelihood, and simple quality of life through much needed environmental regulations that protect, air, water, land, and natural resources for the future. Two examples–the right’s push to “drill, baby, drill” with the claim that a trickle more of US oil will dent world prices (nope); and the right’s push for the Keystone Pipeline no matter what the cost in aquifers or natural environments, even though the benefits are likely to be miniscule (VERY few jobs; no real impact on world energy prices).
  • The right wants to privatize Medicare–that means that it would take a program that has proven it can deliver health care more affordably to all its participants than privately financed “competitive” health care, and make it into its poorly functioning cousin. One suspects that the goal here is to bury a government program that is working as intended, so that it will be even harder to move to the obvious solution for health care that the rest of the developed world recognized decades ago–Medicare for all, or a “single payer” system that has clout, provides portability and fairness.

And a component of the “starve-the-best; no-tax-increases-ever” koolaid package seems to be a desire to let the rich (the natural constituents of the right) get richer by continuing to be let off the hook on paying their fair share of taxes, while the overwhelming majority of Americans slip back into a much less hospitable context of just barely getting by. Taxes, of course, are one of the ways that is done, because it is so easy to hide the real purpose under a facade of caring about deficits (cut “entitlement” programs to save money) or growth (expand subdidies for the rich, to “grow” the economy).

So the IRS suffered from budget cuts that reduced its enforcement personnel. The result, of course, means fewer trained government officers to audit taxpayers and to investigate scandals like the wealthy millionaires and billionaires hiding their wealth overseas to avoid paying their fair share of taxes. And the danger is that criminal and civil tax evasion will be missed, because there are so few audits (only 1% audited annually) or that even compliant taxpayers will start to take their chances with the audit lottery once they realized that the IRS is part of the beast that the right is starving to death.

So Shulman is worried, he says, that budget cuts will erode voluntary compliance. He wants $12.8 billion for the IRS for the new fiscal year, an 8% increase. Rubin, IRS Eliminated 5,000 Jobs in past year amid budget cuts, Bloomberg (Mar.21, 2012).

He should get it. Every dollar spent on enforcement brings in multiples of revenues, so the cost-benefit analysis clearly favors adequately funding the IRS enforcement budget so that it can do its job. That helps in two ways–it produces revenues that reduce the deficit, and it reminds people that our voluntary compliance system is backed up by enforcement of the laws–they can’t just cheat and play the audit lottery with high hopes of getting by.

And cutting the IRS does “long-term damage”. Jose Serrano, Id.

So will Congress keep swallowing the Norquist Koolaid, or will it buckle down and make decisions that support the wellbeing of our nation and of our people? We will see.

crossposted with ataxingmatter

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Still haven’t filed your FBAR? Don’t wait till you get hit with forfeiture

by Linda Beale

Still haven’t filed your FBAR? Don’t wait till you get hit with forfeiture like this Alaska Plastic Surgeon

It looks like the leads from the various voluntary disclosures are beginning to pay off, as the U.S. is beginning to develop high stakes cases related to Americans who have tried to maintain secret caches of cash offshore–to hide from the taxman and from their ex-spouses! The forfeiture complaint in the case, filed Feb. 9, 2012 in California’s Central District, is available here.

The government seized $4.656 million belonging to Michael and Sheila Brandner (he’s the plastic surgeon) from an account at Bank of America in the name of Evergreen Capital LLC, an entity set up by Brandner and under his (hidden) control. The government’s tale is a sordid one–In the middle of Brandner’s divorce proceedings in May 2008, he drove to Panama where he deposited checks worth about $3.5 million in a non-US bank, with the purpose of concelaing the assets from his soon-to-be ex-wife. A person who became a “cooperating witness” helped him open the account and told him about the FBAR requirement, but Brandner didn’t file the required report. A few months later, Brandner transferred an additional $1.4 million, mostly from his pension fund, to that account (also to conceal it from his wife. The pension fund was awarded to his wife in the divorce proceedings, and when Brandner learned that the Panama account might be susceptible to discovery, Brandner moved the money through wire deposits in 2011 into the Bank of America account of Evergreen Capital, allegedly to conceal it from the IRS and from his ex-wife.

As the Atkinson story notes, this mess was doubly stupid. It was stupid of the surgeon to try to cheat his wife of assets and it was really stupid to do it in a way that could well ultimately subject him to criminal charges. See Jay Atkinson, Brandner: Alaska Plastic Surgeon Faces Forfeiture Of $4.656 Million For Undisclosed Offshore Account Used To Attempt To Cheat Ex-Wife, Forbes (Mar. 17, 2012). Anybody else that is still waiting out there with millions in an undeclared offshore account, watch out. The time to file and pay up has arrived.

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More on Greg Mankiw’s weak arguments for the Bain capital gains preference

by Linda Beale

More on Greg Mankiw’s weak arguments for the Bain capital gains preference

A few days ago, I commented on the weak arguments Greg Mankiw had put forth in his op-ed to support the preferential treatment of compensation for private equity and real estate partnership “profits” partners. He points out the categorization problem–that it is not always easy to be sure what is a “capital gain” and what is “ordinary income”. I concluded along the lines of arguments I have repeatedly made on this blog: the main thing the categorization problem teaches us is that we should eliminate categorization problems that create inevitable inequitable differentiations by eliminating the category difference.

Get rid of the preferential rate for capital gains (and with it the need to distinguish capital gains from ordinary income), and you will in one stroke simplify corporate and partnership and individual taxation tremendously. Much of the Code is invested in trying to prevent smart tax lawyers from using tax alchemy to convert one type of income into another. See, e.g., section 1059 (extraordinary dividends to corporate shareholders), section 304 (sales between affliated corporations treated as redemptions), section 302 (providing tests that, if not satisfied, treat redemptions as dividends if there is e&p), etc.

Uwe Reinhardt makes a similar argument in the Economix blog carried by the New York Times. See Capital Gains vs. Ordinary Income, New York Times Economix Blog (Mar. 16, 2012). Reinhardt uses Mankiw’s own introductory textbook in microeconomics to make the tax equity argument that many have been making about carried interest–it is unfair to tax a money manager at a preferential rate compared to firemen, postal inspectors, college professors, school teachers and neurosurgeons.

In his popular textbook “Principles of Microeconomics,” Professor Mankiw teaches students that “horizontal equity states that taxpayers with similar ability to pay should contribute the same amount.” Well put.

Consider now a person who bought a vacation home for $500,000 and two years later, during one of our recurrent real-estate bubbles, sells it for $1.5 million. That $1 million profit is now taxed at a rate of only 15 percent. If the home had been the principal residence of this person and his or her spouse, half of the $1 million profit would not be taxed at all.

Suppose next that this tax-favored person’s neighbor were a busy neurosurgeon whose many hours of hard, physical and intellectual work earned him or her a net practice income of $1 million during those same two years. That neurosurgeon would pay the ordinary income-tax rate on that income (on average a bit less than 35 percent, because only income over $388,350 a year is taxed at 35 percent).

By what definition of the term would can one call the glaringly differential tax treatment of the real estate investor and of the neurosurgeon horizontally equitable?

Reinhardt goes on to make another of the arguments that I have been pressing for months in this blog–that the assertion that preferential rates are necessary for stock market transactions because they are rewarding investment in the corporations is baloney–most reported gains on securities are from secondary market trades, not from direct investments in corporations.

[T]he proponents of lower capital-gains taxation conjure up an image of, say, Jones purchasing shares of stock directly from the issuing corporation, which then invests the proceeds in new structures and equipment.

More typically, however, sales and purchases of corporate common stock take place among parties quite outside of the issuing corporation. For example, Jones may buy the stock from Chen, who may have reaped a capital gain from once buying and now selling the stock. Chen may have bought the stock from another person not related to the issuing company.

When Jones pays Chen, it is anybody’s guess what Chen does with the money. For all we know, Chen will spend it on a luxury car. Why, then, should any gain Chen enjoys on his or her investment in that stock be granted a tax preference? No new capital formation was supported by this trade in a stock sold by the company years ago.

The ugly truth about the insistence on the capital gains preference is that it rewards people at the top of the income and wealth distribution and serves to maintain the status quo of the allocation of resources. This is what is really meant by “fiscal conservatism” these days–ensuring that resources remain inequitably distributed to the very wealthy who are the “shakers and movers” of society through the influence their money can buy. The right-leaning Supreme Court has made that even more inevitable than it was before, through the Citizens United decision upholding the right of corporations to contribute any amount to influence political campaigns, based on the laughable assertion that such “super-PAC” rights undergird free speech.

crossposted with ataxingmatter

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Graphs Show It Clearly–the richest are much richer and most of us are poorer

by Linda Beale

Graphs Show It Clearly–the richest are much richer and most of us are poorer

David Cay Johnston has employed a couple of key graphic images that tell a significant story about the way that US laws have favored the rich–including tax administrative procedures that have reduced real audits of the rich and tax laws that have cut the top rates significantly and cut the rates on the “favorite” form of income of the rich to extraordinarily low rates.  See David Cay Johnston, The rich get richer, reuters (Mar. 15, 2012) (noting that the figures he uses here, in 2010 dollars, are from an analysis of IRS data by Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty). [hat tip Francine Lipmann and Tax Prof]

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.

So while the Great Depression acted as a leveler, the cascading impact of tax and other fiscal policies that are extraordinarily favorable to the rich was little influenced by the Great Recession.  Here’re the two telling graphs from the article.

Johnston notes that the story in numbers for adjusted gross income is discouraging:

Saez and Piketty show that the vast majority’s average adjusted gross income, of which wages are just a part, was $29,840 in 2010. That was down $127 from 2009 and down $4,842 from 2000.
Most shocking? The average income of the vast majority of taxpayers in 2010 was just a smidgen more than the $29,448 average way back in 1966.
At the top, the super-rich saw their 2010 average income grow by $4.2 million over 2009 to $23.8 million. Compared to 1966 their income was up on average by $18.7 million per taxpayer.

The graphic illustration shows just how much the inequality we see today is from the richest of the rich getting an indecent proportion of income growth.

Income Growth. top income soared. Johnston 031412.

Is this a problem that needs fixing?  Yes, it clearly is.  We have long recognized the importance of a society where everyone takes part and everyone has at least the minimum essentials for a decent life and a chance for improvement.

A society where a very few “elite” at the top garner all the benefits of the system and more and more of the income for themselves is not a sustainable society–the top becomes predatory, willing to take gains no matter what the cost to everyone else.  It is the kind of attitude that many who are familiar with Wall Street banks have criticized as endemic to Wall Street culture–and one that was revealed even more starkly by the resignation from Goldman of a star banker who publicly criticized the current culture at Goldman that believes in profits for the firm at the sacrifice of the good of the customer.  See Greg Smith, Why I am Leaving Goldman Sachs, New York Times Op-Ed (Mar. 14, 2012).  Shareholders obviously agree with Smith that the “profit for the firm above care of the client” mentality is wrong.  See Christine Harper, Goldman Roiled by OpEd Loses 2.2 Billion for Shareholders, Bloomberg (Mar. 15, 2012).

[Goldman is worried–I got a release from a PR firm suggesting that Goldman’s profit-making is a boon to the economy and gives its clients great trust in the firm.  I read it and thought–hmm, misses the point.  Smith isn’t condemning profit-making per se.  He is condemning profit-making at all costs, and in particular the “greed is good” type of profit-making that creates conflicts of interest with the client that is purportedly being served but would as soon eat a client as eat a steak, if money could be made for the firm (and the trader’s bonus) that way.]

If we want the kind of society that gives everyone a chance to have a decent education, we have to quit running down public schools and diverting public monies to support private religious schools.   Hold schools accountable, but quit the wasteful focus on testing and assessment.  Do a little assessment and a lot more teaching.

If we want a more equal society, then we have to change our tax laws so that they don’t favor the rich over everybody else.  Reduce the interest deduction, so that leveraged buyouts aren’t a way to take a stable working company, make a huge profit by borrowing, and then dump it (either in bankruptcy or out of it, but nonetheless yoked with the debt that got the private equity firm rich).  Get rid of provisions that are primarily beneficial to the wealthy–reinstate a hefty estate tax, eliminate the preferential rate on capital gains, reinstate the phase out of deductions at high income levels, increase the top income tax rate (let the Bush tax cuts lapse in toto or at least for the top earners), phase out the accelerated depreciation schedules, bonus depreciation and expensing provisions, and otherwise return our tax system to a saner progressive model that can support the important basic research at universities and basic public infrastructure development that are the real keys to economic growth.
The right has bamboozled the public with its tiresome but endless class warfare rhetoric pushing corporatist policies that claim that tax cuts for wealthy corporations and wealthy individuals are the way to boost growth and help the majority of Americans have good jobs and decent wages.  It’s a lie.  The way to do that is by moving to a more progressive tax system and providing more government funding for basic research (NIH, NSF, etc.) and for public infrastructure (mass transportation, rails throughout America and its inner cities, urban development).

crossposted with ataxingmatter

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Public Transit Benefit was down, is now up again (in Senate)

by Linda Beale

Public Transit Benefit was down, is now up again (in Senate)

One of the tax provisions that lapsed last year was a very popular tax expenditure supporting public transportation–a tax credit for commuters using mass transit was allowed to lapse back to a $125 monthly benefit from the stimulus level of $230 a month.  Ironically, in a time of clear importance environmentally of cutting back on cars and increasing use of public transit, Congress had given preferential treatment to support for parking (likely supporting most those commuters at the higher end of the income scale who like to drive their BMWs from Connecticut to New York City, or commuters who don’t have decent access to public transit):  the parking subsidy actually increased to $240 a month.

Today, the Senate passed the Surface Transporation Reauthorization Bill (see summary, here; for text and other actions, see S.1813 on Thomas).  The bill as passed included a provision, retroactive to Jan first of this year when credit lapsed to the lower level, that would restore the public transit credit at the same level as the current parking subsidy.  See PR Newswire, Senate Approves Increase to Pre-Tax Benefits for Public Transportation Commuters, Commuter Benefits Work for (Mar. 14, 2012).  The House may delay action on the bill though Boehner has said he would call the Senate version for a vote if the GOP majority doesn’t agree on an alternative.  See Linda Scott,  Senate Passes Transportation Bill, PBS NewsHour (Mar. 14, 2012).

It’s good to see Congress moving to correct this.  As Sen. Lautenberg noted

“Mass transit boosts the economy, reduces dirty auto emissions and takes cars off our congested roads. We fought hard to include this provision in the bill so that transit riders can enjoy the same benefits as drivers. I’m pleased that this bill finally appears poised for Senate passage, and I urge the House to follow suit and approve this bill immediately.” Lautenberg: Increased transit rider tax benefit would help thousands of New Jersey commuters (Mar. 13, 2012). 

Favoring cars over public transit didn’t make sense except as just another example of the way tax expenditures favor high income taxpayers generally–the real face of class warfare in the U.S.A. today. 
(Though of course, it goes to show that it is much easier to get some kind of tax break through Congress these days–in spite of the right’s whining about needing to cut spending–than it is to enact a reasonable program with expenditures specifically targeted at the purpose  intended.  This is why Obama’s corporate tax proposal provides a scattershot corporatist oriented reduction in corproate tax rates for “manufacturers”, instead of doing what we should do, which is leaving the corporate tax statutory rate where it is, and providing an incentive program for corporations that bring significant numbers of new jobs back to the US.)
If you don’t believe my point about class warfare, just look at the way the balance works out between beneficiaries of the various programs that the right likes to refer to as “entitlements” and wants to cut, versus the beneficiaries of numerous tax expenditures in the Code that the right seems endlessly willing to extend, increase, and rationalize.

The result is a general pattern of reallocation of resources in ways that amount toredistribution upwards to those already at the top of the income distribution.  Looks a lot like rewarding rich Congressional cronies while punishing the poor, the elderly and the vulnerable.  See, e.g.,  Eduardo Porter, A Nation With Too Many Tax Breaks, New York Times (Mar. 14, 2012), at B1 (and, off topic but relevant given  Rush Limbaugh’s despicable slurring of the Georgetown student advocating for full coverage of contraception under the Health Care law, notice that Reagan’s signing of the 1986 tax reform act was in the middle of a slew of older white males–not a female in the picture!).  The article compares the distribution of federal benefits (programs like unemployment, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, housing assistance, and food stamps, but not Pell grants or Veterans Benefits) to the distribution of tax expenditures (exemptions, deductions and credits like the preferential rate on capital gains, the home mortgage interest deduction, and the deduction for charitable contributions).

The federal benefits are much more evenly distributed, though the primary benefit does go to those in the lowest two quintiles (as intended by the nature of the programs).  The bottom 40% of taxpayer families by income group get about 60% of the program benefits.  But the tax expenditures–all those goodies built into the Code through crony capitalism–go much more disproportionately to those at the very top of the income distribution:  the top 20% get a whopping 67% of the benefit of tax expenditures, with the second highest quintile getting an additional 14%, adding up to 81% of the benefit going to the top 40% of the income distribution (and this spread may undercount, since it compensates for generally larger taxpaying units in the top income layers).  The lowest 40% get only 11% of the tax expenditures.

There is a good graphic for this, that you can access through this link.

crossposted with ataxingmatter

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Illinois’s Tim Johnson (Rep.) Squirms under Norquist No-Tax-Increase Pledge

by Linda Beale

Illinois’s Tim Johnson (Rep.) Squirms under Norquist No-Tax-Increase Pledge

Back in 2002, Tim Johnson represented a safely red district in Illinois and the radical right was pressing on his back with its reaganomics-inspired program to cut-taxes-to-shrink-(nonmilitary)-government-and-eliminate-public-infrastructure-and-social-justice-programs; de-regulate-to-free-up-big-business; privatize-wherever-you-can-especially-schools-bridges-and-other-essential-services.  Not to be outdone, Tim Johnson signed the no-tax-increase pledge on the dotted line, with his right-hand aide as witness.

In spite of the decades of extraordinarily well-funded anti-tax/anti-government propaganda spewed by purported think tanks like the “Americans for Prosperity” arm of the Koch Bros, the anti-estate tax “American Family” coalition arm of the Walton heirs, the Big-Business oriented Chamber of Commerce and Club for Growth and similar groups, the American public seems to be finally beginning to learn to read between the lines and recognize self-serving propaganda for what it is.    Even with all the money being spent to misrepresent and distort the truth about taxes, it is worth noting that Rasmussen polls (run by a leaning-right head) are finding Americans more willing to support tax increases than they were a few years ago.  For example, back in December 2011, despite the anti-tax nonsense of the Tea Party and other radical right-wing groups, only 52% thought tax cuts would help the economy–in the low end of the 51% to 63% range answering that question affirmatively since July 2008.  Similarly, a recent poll showed that 47% favor a candidate who wants to raise taxes on the rich over a candidate who wants no tax increases.  Back in September 50% of Americans favored a mix of spending cuts and tax increases (but 64% weren’t willing themselves to pay higher taxes, a product of the NIMBY syndrome).  And a March poll found a significant decrease in Americans responding who thought that America is an “over-taxed” nation.

[N]ew Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that 56% of Likely U.S. Voters believe America is overtaxed. But that’s down from 66% two years ago and 64% last year. One-out-of-three (33%) now believe the country is not overtaxed, while another 12% are not sure. (To see survey question wording, click here.)

[ASIDE:   The problem with the question about whether Americans are overtaxed–especially in this age of 527 groups spending buckets of money to convince them that they are–is that it depends on who you are asking and what facts they actually know about taxes, the economy, and what the difference is between effective tax rates and statutory rates.  Everybody hears the radical right prattle on about how high our (statutory) tax rates are.  Very few hear much about effective tax rates and fewer still understand the difference.  The wealthy are not over-taxed, though they have spent a good bit of their money to convince typical Americans that they are.  Those who escape federal income taxation because they earn amounts covered by the standard deduction and personal exemptions and earned income tax credits–amounts intended to keep lower income taxpayers from having to pay income tax–nonetheless have to pay signficant state and local property and sales (and often also income) taxes and have to pay significant federal payroll taxes.  Not surprisingly, they may well feel overtaxed when their wages are going down and their tax burden is staying the same and they hear the think tank spew of anti-tax stuff on the airwaves day and night.]

And now Tim Johnson’s district has changed.  He represents a more Democratic electorate, that is less likely to swallow the Tea Party tax aversion hook, line and sinker.  So he is backtracking.  Which is good. It’s a shame he backtracked bit by bit, at first claiming he’d never signed and then suggesting his aide signed for him before he finally admitted he had signed the pledge but just didn’t consider it cast in granite.   See Are you Now and Have You Always Been?, New York Times editorial (March 11, 2012).

But to give him credit, he finally did take a  stand against the idiocy of the tax pledge.   See Pat Garofalo, GOP Rep. Blasts Norquist’s Anti-Tax Pledge as “Disingenuous and Irresponsible”, Think (Mar. 8, 2012).  He ought to do it more straightfowardly–by admitting that it is a mistake to assume that tax cuts are always good or that tax increases are always bad and by acknowledging that there is plenty of room to tax the rich more without harming anybody’s economic recovery.  His statement (quoted on ThinkProgress) weasles by making clear that he is leery of tax increases other than fixing tax loopholes or raising the Social Security tax…..

One hopes that these few quasi- brave Republicans who are beginning to speak out against the idiocy of a “pledge” to cut off a key tax policy tool of democratic institutions for supporting public infrastructure and public needs will cause Norquist’s pledge to go to the same ignominious fate that awaited Joe McCarthy’s anti-liberal binge (under the name of anti-communism) when a lone lawyer questioned his decency.  As a constitutent told GOP representative Rick Berg in a North Dakota town hall meeting (quoted on Think Progress), these guys are supposed to work for their constituents, not for Norquist.

crossposted with ataxingmatter

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Hey, didn’t the GOP say it cared about deficits?

by Linda Beale

 Hey, didn’t the GOP say it cared about deficits?

Just when you think those on the radical right had gone about as far as they could go without recognizing their own zaniness, those in Congress have revived their version of a tax “reform” for businesses.  It was first proposed in 2009–as an alternative to real stimulus spending on infrastructure .  And yes, it is yet another tax cut.  An even zanier one than the rest that they’ve come up with while at the same time whining of deficits and suggesting that longstanding social programs like Social Security and Medicare must be cut back.
Eric Cantor, in a memo last month to fellow Republicans, announced that the House would be putting this proposal forward–let every business with 500 employees or fewer deduct off the top 20% of their income.  And they want to pass this rot by the filing deadline–on the pretense that it will help ordinary folk.
See Richard Rubin, Hedge Fund Tax Break May Come in Republican Small Business Plan, San Francisco Chronicle (Bloomberg News, Mar. 8, 2012).

Now, folks, there are some mighty BIG businesses with fewer than 500 employees.  Like just about every hedge fund and leveraged buyout fund. (The latter, of course, like to call themselves “private equity” these days–let’s people overlook the fact that they have destroyed many a stable, profitable business by loading them up with debt and sucking out all the cash while firing employees or making the business focus on paying back the debt and not on doing business).  Why would the GOP want to reward those funds with even more tax breaks than they already grab for themselves–carried interest, pass-through taxation, and the ability to avoid the payroll taxes since they treat their compensation as though it were an investment gain?  Because that is what they are all about–making sure the richest people in the country get all the breaks.

Then there are sports teams.  Liquor stores.  Golf courses. Gambling dens….. Hotels. Restaurants.  Engineering firms. Accounting firms.  Law firms.  Architectural firms.  Big Business that normally make Big Money.
Just goes to show that the corporatist GOP never saw a tax break for the monied class that it didn’t like.

crossposted with ataxingmatter

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