Romney’s taxes and (almost) everybody else’s

Which tax loopholes would Romney want to cut?

‘Loophole’ is an elastic term, defined adequately for now by the free dictionary:

“A way of escaping a difficulty, especially an omission or ambiguity in the wording of a contract or law that provides a means of evading compliance.”

Broadly defined, tax loopholes are legal ways to escape paying taxes.

Easy question: What tax loopholes right now do wealthiest individuals benefit from most?

 

Mortgage interest deduction

Quick answer:

Wealthy individuals receiving income from capital gains, including hedge fund managers, get their income taxed at the capital gains rate, i.e. a top rate of 15 percent. For some reason, buying and selling assets for money is not income the way working for money is. From a public policy standpoint, this means that some of the powers that be consider buying and selling assets more difficult than, say, laying a railroad. Or else they consider the former more socially productive–even after the mortgage-derivatives meltdown.

 

Capital gains tax and wealth

Bringing this tax issue swiftly down to the current presidential race, President Obama has supported changing this policy. There is effectively zero chance that GOP nominee Mitt Romney will support such a change. As previously written, Romney has used the capital gains advantage to great benefit in his own tax returns, and makes no bones about it. Romney’s 14 percent tax rate for 2011–voluntarily higher than it had to be, at that, and maybe temporary–has been widely reported.

Candidate Romney has been vague, to put it nicely, on what tax loopholes he would close. But this helpful article by one of the rightists at The New Republic provides a list of convenient targets. In all probability, a President Romney would look here first. First, note that almost all of these provisions–nine out of ten–benefit individuals rather than corporations (which are “people, my friends”). Furthermore, almost all of them benefit the middle class, people of ordinary wealth, income and assets.

Drum roll, please. Here are some of the top tax ‘loopholes’ in descending order of effectiveness, i.e. in taxes from the middle class lost, so to speak, to the Treasury. Reading each of these knots in the rope for the middle class, ask yourself one key question: Is there any realistic possibility that a President Romney and a Republican Congress would not target it for elimination? Note: If not, why not?

  • Employer contributions for employee health insurance/health care are excluded. Can you see a Romney-Ryan administration not trying to tax these?
  • The home mortgage interest deduction. The GOP platform coming out of the Republican National Convention left this one wide open.
  • Step-up basis of capital gains at death. With all the Republican hue and cry about inheritance taxes as a ‘death tax’, this one may be safe. Currently, capital gains on assets held at the owner’s death are not subject to capital gains tax, regardless of your income. The assets are valued at market on the date of death, again regardless of your income. Here, look out for state or county ‘recording fees’, and bank administrative fees, etc., that regressively burden a small inheritance more than a large estate. Not that one should be over-confident. Reps like Eric Cantor and Paul Ryan are entirely capable of finding additional federal ways to limit the benefit of the step-up for middle-income heirs.
  • 401(k) plans. Really. Seriously. Can you imagine a Romney-Ryan administration boosting, leaving in place or in any way supporting private pension arrangements that might benefit a large number of middle-class workers or retirees?
  • Imputed rental income is excluded. Creates an advantage for owning over renting, thus creates an advantage for stability and greater economic security for middle-class voters. Is there a realistic chance that this one would not be a target?
  • State and local taxes are deducted. Romney himself benefited heftily from this deduction, according to his 2011 IRS filing.
  • Accelerated depreciation of machinery and equipment. Can benefit most the business persons who need it most. See the bull’s-eye?
  • Capital gains. Well, there’s one in every bunch.
  • Deduction for charitable contributions. They’ve already started going after this one, so they can hardly claim they won’t be trying further. Admittedly many wealthy individuals benefit from this deduction–but so do the causes to which they donate, including House of Ruth, Disabled Veterans of America, and countless food banks.
  • Exclusions for employer contributions to employee pension plans. See the first and fourth items, above.

 

The TNR author has a valid point that many, many dollars in tax ‘loopholes’ benefit individuals in the big middle of the U.S. economy. Another way of looking at the same topic–rather than suggesting 90 percent of the population as a giant larder to be raided by the one-percenters–would see most of these exclusions and deductions as reasonable ways to shore up individuals throughout all ranks of society. Thus it would seem to be a key question for campaign 2012: Which tax loopholes, Governor Romney, would you close? Maybe that question will be asked in one of the debates. It has not been effectively posed by the national political press so far, at least not effectively enough to get a clear answer.

Meanwhile, along with the big-ticket items above that allow the middle class to survive, there are some intriguing smaller items benefiting a far smaller cohort.

See for example this piece from Andrew Sorkin, from 2011. As the author points out, an oddity of the tax code benefits day traders and speculators who buy and sell futures contracts–even in comparison with traders in stocks or mutual funds.

“For years, futures contracts, which are essentially bets on the price of commodities, stock indexes and the like, have received a more favorable tax treatment than stocks. A trader who buys and sells an oil contract in less than a year—even in a matter of minutes—pays no more than a 23 percent tax on the profits.

Compare that with the bill for flipping shares of Google, General Electric or even a diversified mutual fund in the same time period. Those short-term investment gains are treated like ordinary income, meaning the rate can run as high as 35 percent.”

The biggest beneficiaries, Sorkin continues, “seem to be day traders and speculators.  Long-term investors account for only 20 percent of the activity in the commodities future market, according to a report published last week by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, the industry regulator.”

Incidentally, the fact that short-term gains can be taxed at a higher rate also means that a short-term (paper) loss can be a significant write-off. As previously written, Mitt Romney has taken full advantage of this one, too.

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