Taxing Social Security Taxes

The Fiscal Responsibility Cliff

– By: Larry Walker –

When I went to work for the IRS back in 1988, the first few weeks were spent in tax law courses. I distinctly remember, at the time, that the base amounts used in determining the taxability of Social Security benefits were $25,000 for single taxpayers and $32,000 for married taxpayers filing a joint return. For some reason when the topic came up this year, during annual continuing education, with all the talk of looming fiscal responsibility (errantly referred to as a cliff), combined with having been read the riot act by several seniors over the past year, it suddenly dawned on me that the base amounts are exactly the same in tax year 2012 as they were in 1985 –– $25,000 and $32,000. What’s wrong with this picture? The same thing that’s wrong with Barack Obama’s $250,000 top tax bracket argument, a failure to adjust for inflation.

My first brush with tax law was actually through a Junior College course in 1981. I helped prepare tax returns commercially for several years thereafter while attending college. Needless to say, I left the IRS in 1994 and moved on to brighter horizons. I returned to my first love in the year 2000 and am still involved in the industry today. With that out of the way, what’s both interesting and disturbing to me is the fact that Social Security benefits were tax-free prior to 1985, but then Congress, in its wisdom, changed the law to ensure that wealthy seniors were paying their fair share, which by my logic merely amounted to forcing them to pay taxes on the taxes they had already paid.

It was in 1985 that a neat little formula was devised whereby if one-half of a taxpayers Social Security benefits plus their other income (both taxable and tax-exempt) was more than the base amount (mentioned above), then up to half of their Social Security benefits would become taxable. As a consolation, if a senior’s sole source of income was Social Security, in other words if they were living near or below the poverty line, then none of the benefits were taxable.

According to the formula, if you are single or married filing separate and did not live with your spouse for the entire year, the base amount is $25,000. If you are married and file a joint return, the base amount is $32,000. And if you are married filing separate but lived with your spouse at anytime during the year, the base amount is $0. To determine how much of your benefits are taxable, you add one-half of your Social Security benefits to other income received from pensions, interest, dividends, capital gains, rental income, business income, tax-exempt interest, etc…, and then subtract from this the applicable base amount. If the result is positive, then the taxable amount of your Social Security benefits is the lesser of one-half of the result, or one-half of your Social Security benefits. Got it?

The obvious dilemma is that the base amounts are exactly the same today as they were in 1985 –– $25,000 and $32,000. Something is deftly wrong with this, because when adjusted for inflation the base amounts become $52,263 and $66,896. That’s a material difference, more than double. In my opinion, if Congress would simply index all limitations, base amounts and tax brackets for inflation (the AMT comes to mind), then the U.S. income tax system would be fair, but as it stands today for many it is not.

Making matters worse, beginning in 1994 Congress decided to up the ante. Taxing 50% of Social Security just wasn’t enough for really rich old folks, so Congress added a second set of base amounts, whereby up to 85% of benefits could become taxable. To distinguish wealthier seniors from the rest, the original base amounts were raised by $9,000 for single filers and by $12,000 for joint filers. Thus, if one-half of your Social Security benefits, plus other income (both taxable and tax-exempt) was greater than $34,000 or $44,000, respectively, then up to 85% of the difference, or 85% of your Social Security benefits were taxable, whichever was less. The same amounts are in force today. There has been no inflation adjustment to the 85% base amounts since 1994.

If the 50% and 85% base amounts were rightly adjusted for inflation, then the former would rise from $25,000 and $32,000, to $52,263 and $66,896; and the latter would increase from $34,000 and $44,000, to $65,923 and $85,110 (see table below).

Now that’s more like it. It’s not all that, but it’s better than what we have today. Inflation Indexing should be an integral part of tax reform. It’s not right to screw our seniors out of money, when an automatic adjustment is granted in other areas of the tax code. We should have more respect for our elders. But even though my proposal would be an improvement, still the premise behind taxing Social Security benefits is errant.

Can you understand why so many seniors complain? Here’s what one fellow said to me recently, “What do you mean 85% of my Social Security is taxable? It wasn’t taxable at all last year. Just because I was finally able to make a little extra money this year, you mean to tell me that now I have to pay half of what I made in taxes? You’re telling me that I’m going to owe about half of what I’ve been able to save this year in taxes. I paid into the system my whole life, that money should be tax free. I might as well just stop working if I’m going to owe half of what I make in taxes, but then how am I supposed to live?”

I basically agreed with him. What he said is true. If you are self-employed and on Social Security, and make around $50,000 on the side, by the time you add in 85% of your Social Security benefits, $50,000 suddenly becomes $60,000 or more. Then when you add together the applicable self-employment taxes, federal income taxes and state taxes, the marginal tax rate quickly approaches 50%. I opined that I think anyone over 65 should be exempt from paying into Social Security while they are receiving benefits, and that the benefits should be tax free. I qualified this by adding that I don’t write the laws, I just apply them.

Congress should recall that we pay Social Security taxes in order to receive a basic subsistence in the future. The Social Security taxes we pay are a tax. Then the federal government has the nerve to turn around and tax seniors on the taxes they have already paid throughout their lives. In effect, what seniors are asked to do is pay a tax on a tax. How much sense does that make in the era of fair this and fair that? You have to admit that this is messed up. So fix it! It’s real simple.

Congress should either increase the Social Security base amounts for inflation, or go back to the pre-1985 policy making Social Security benefits non-taxable, and let the cards fall where they may. Make a choice and live with it. Anyone in Congress, or the White House who doesn’t have a clue about what’s in the current tax law, should study up, shut up, or just resign. Anyone who takes the time to examine what’s actually in the Code will come to the realization that some of this stuff is completely ridiculous. Under current law, it is entirely possible to make over $250,000, write it all off through new equipment purchases, other credits and gimmicks, and end up paying nothing in taxes. Yep, that’s right!

In my opinion, what we need to do is get rid of all of the temporary 2010 provisions including –– repeal of the Personal Exemption Phase-Out (PEP), repeal of the Itemized Deduction Limitation (Pease), 0% Capital Gains Tax, expanded Child Tax Credit, expanded Dependent Care Credit, increased Adoption Credit, increased Earned Income Credit, refundable Education Credit, Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) patch, Bonus Depreciation, extended Section 179 Deduction, Payroll Tax Cut, and the vast array of Energy Tax Credits, and then go back to the 1986 Code and adjust all limitations, base amounts and tax brackets for inflation. In most cases, just like with Social Security benefits, the results will favor those who are the most deserving. We got by without this chaos before 2010, and we can get by without it today.

Fiscal responsibility isn’t a cliff, it’s an opportunity to correct our errant ways. Respect your elders. By the way, the notion of lowering the top income tax bracket from the current inflation adjusted amount, to the 1993 unadjusted top bracket of $250,000 is equally offensive. That’s not forward thinking. In fact, it’s so backwards it’s laughable. Think inflation!

References:

U.S. Inflation Calculator

1985 IRS Publication 915

1993 IRS Publication 915

1994 IRS Publication 915

2011 IRS Publication 915

Related:

Obama’s 1950s Tax Fallacy

Real Effective Tax Rates | Romney’s versus Obama’s

Content of Character ::

According to a report released by the Tax Foundation, an effective federal tax rate of 14.0% is higher than what 97 percent of Americans pay.

– By: Larry Walker, Jr. –

And according to The Tax Policy Center, the average effective federal tax rate for all Americans, as a percentage of cash income, was only 9.3% in 2011. Those in the Top 20 Percent (with incomes over $103,465) paid an average of 14.9%, while those in the Bottom 20 Percent (with incomes below $16,812) received back refundable tax credits averaging 5.8% of their incomes.

Within the Top Quintile, the Top 1 Percent paid an average rate of 20.3%, while the Top 0.1 Percent paid an average of 19.8%. It’s important to note that these are averages, which means that within each quintile some pay more than the average and others less. But overall, since the average effective federal tax rate for all of America is 9.3%, this represents a kind of minimum benchmark. What’s your effective federal tax rate?

Under the traditional model, in 2011, Mitt and Ann Romney paid an effective federal tax rate of around 14.0% (see definitions at the end), while Barack and Michelle Obama paid 17.8% (see table below). So does that mean the Obamas are more patriotic? Before you answer that, consider that the Romneys paid a total of $1,912,529 in federal income taxes, versus the Obamas $150,253. So does this give the Romneys the upper hand?

Digging a little deeper, it turns out that the Romneys paid an effective state and local tax rate of 11.3%, compared to the Obamas 7.0%. The Romneys also paid $1,541,905 in state and local taxes, compared to the Obamas $59,804. Shouldn’t state and local taxes be counted as well, since they are, after all, taxes? Yes, of course.

So when all taxes are on the table, the Romneys overall effective tax rate was 25.2%, compared to the Obamas 24.8%. And, the Romneys paid a total of $3,454,434 in federal, state and local taxes, versus the Obamas $209,057. So in light of these facts, is one of the two presidential candidates better suited for the Oval Office than the other? Is one a tax deadbeat and the other a saint? If a presidential candidate’s effective tax rate matters, then this election should be a toss up. But if it doesn’t, then Barack Obama’s entire – fair share monologue – is nothing but rubbish. The question is – what really matters?

Real Effective Tax Rates

Perhaps a more suitable measure of patriotism may be found in one’s real effective tax rate. One way of lowering U.S. tax liabilities is through charitable giving. When gifts are given to charity, the taxpayer no longer controls the assets, and so is granted a deduction against his (or her) taxable income of as much as 50% of adjusted gross income. Depending upon one’s marginal tax bracket, the tax savings may be as high as 35% of the amount given.

What happens to the money once it has been gifted? It gets spent by recipient organizations on salaries and wages, goods and services, real property, or is otherwise invested toward its charitable endeavors. Thus, charity is wealth redistribution, or if you will, a type of voluntary taxation. I would add that charitable giving is a much more efficient means of spreading the wealth than the U.S. government’s wasteful method, which after a certain limit may be summed up as little more than legalized robbery.

In 2011, the Romneys gave away $4,000,000, or about 29.0% of their income, although they only chose to claim a tax deduction of $2,250,772. The Obamas donated $172,130 or about 20.0% of their income. When we add this voluntary taxation to the total amount of taxes paid, we find that the Romneys paid a real effective tax rate of 54.4%, compared to the Obamas 45.1% (see table below).

Just to add some perspective I included data from the Roosevelts and the Carters tax returns (above). It’s interesting to note that in 1937, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt donated $3,024, or only about 3.2% of their income, while in 1978, Jimmy and Roselynn Carter gave away $18,637, or about 7.0%. When we add the amount of the couples voluntary taxation through charitable gifts, to the total amount of taxes paid, we find that the Roosevelts paid a real effective tax rate of 33.3%, compared to the Carters 45.6%. So was FDR a slacker? Was Jimmy Carter slightly more patriotic than Obama? And isn’t Mitt Romney a better man than them all?

Note: The Roosevelts income of $93,602 in 1937 is equivalent to $1,504,178 today, while the Carters income of $267,195 in 1978 is equivalent to $948,325. A study of historical Presidential tax returns is interesting, informative, and highly recommended for anyone serious about tax reform, as is a study of historical income tax rates.

Tax Return Analysis: Romneys versus Obamas

Following are some other key statistics from the Romneys and Obamas tax returns:

It’s notable that 94.8% of the Romneys income came from investments – interest, dividends and capital gains, versus -12.8% for the Obamas. The Obamas tax return includes a capital loss carryover of $116,151, a consequence of failed investments from the past. That’s interesting, since Barack Obama is the one always harping on the idea of government investment, yet all the while it turns out that successful investing is a trait beyond the scope of his expertise. Small wonder his taxpayer-funded green energy investments have turned out to be dismal failures.

What’s even more notable is the fact that roughly 62.4% of the Romneys income came from capital gains and qualified dividends which, based on current law, are taxed at a maximum rate of 15.0%. In contrast, around 99.0% of the Obamas income came from wages and net book sales which are taxed at ordinary rates of as high as 35.0%. Thus the Romneys effective tax rate should be considerably lower than the Obamas; but it turns out that both couples effectively paid about the same overall effective tax rate, 25.2% versus 24.8%, as explained earlier. So in spite of favorable capital gains rates, overall effective tax rates tend to balance out. One reason for this phenomenon is that most of the States don’t reciprocate (i.e. there is no favorable capital gains rate at the state level).

Next, we find that the Romneys paid $102,790, or 0.8% of their income, in foreign taxes, while the Obamas paid $5,841, or 0.7%. Thus, on a percentage basis, both families earned about an equal amount of their income from foreign sources. So is either candidate more likely to outsource American jobs than the other? I guess Obama could limit sales of his books to the USA, and cut-off the rest of the world, as if that would make any sense. I’ll let you figure that one out.

Next, we discover that the Obamas claimed a retirement contribution deduction of $49,000, or 5.8% of their income, while the Romneys claimed none. Foul! The question is that since Barack Obama now qualifies for a $191,000 a year presidential pension, why is he continuing to maximize the simplified employee pension account (SEP) deduction? In the private sector, the most anyone can exclude from income for retirement purposes, including employer matching contributions, is $49,000 per year. Yet Barack Obama gets to claim this maximum deduction, while at the same time deferring taxes on the annual contributions the U.S. Treasury makes to his pension account. Does that sound fair to you? Is Obama paying his fair share?

Is a guaranteed $191,000 a year for life, on top of a virtually unlimited presidential expense account, insufficient for Mr. Obama? In stark contrast, Mitt Romney refused to take a salary while he served as Governor of Massachusetts. So has anyone bothered to ask if he would waive his presidential salary? Would he also consider waiving the presidential pension and lush lifetime expense account? Somebody needs to ask that question. By the way, Mitt Romney could have claimed exactly the same SEP-IRA deduction that the Obamas did, based on his net business income, which would have further reduced his tax liability, but chose not to. So what does this say about character?

Next, the Obamas also claimed a $47,564 home mortgage deduction amounting to 5.6% of their income, while the Romneys claimed none. Wow! So since the Obamas claimed both a $47,564 home mortgage deduction, and the $49,000 maximum retirement contribution exclusion, while the Romneys claimed neither, this gave the Obamas an 11.4% handicap. Note: According to the Internal Revenue Service, in tax year 2010, only 25.8% of tax filers claimed the home mortgage deduction, which kind of makes the case for placing limits on this deduction.

Now when it comes to charitable contributions, as stated earlier, the Romneys gave $4,000,000, or around 29.2% of their income, while the Obamas gave $172,130, or 20.4%. But since the Romneys only chose to write-off $2,250,772, their actual deduction amounted to just 16.4% of their income. So once again the Obamas had a slight advantage, yet when their total itemized deductions are compared, we find that the Romneys amounted to 34.2% of their income, while the Obamas amounted to 33.0%, or about the same.

Finally, the Romneys federal taxes included an Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) of $674,512, representing 4.9% of their income, while the Obamas incurred a liability was $12,491, or 1.5%. The AMT limits certain deductions and tax preferences to ensure that high income earners pay at least a minimum amount of tax. So what will happen when the AMT is eliminated? Will the rich pay less in taxes? Not necessarily, because if the same deductions and tax preferences for high income earners were eliminated from the get go, then the AMT wouldn’t be necessary. Isn’t this the objective of tax reform, to eliminate deductions and preferences, lower tax rates, and thus simplify the tax code? So when tax rates are cut by 20% in the next year or two, and that’s where we’re headed, the first place to look for deductions and preferences to eliminate is within current AMT regulations.

Content of Character

So what’s the point? First of all, we learned that in 2011, the Romneys paid a total of $3,454,434 in federal, state and local taxes, while the Obamas paid $209,057. When state and local taxes were added to the mix, we found that the Romneys paid an overall effective tax rate of 25.2%, versus the Obamas 24.8%. But when charitable contributions were figured in, we discovered that the Romneys paid a real effective tax rate of 54.4% compared to the Carters 45.6%, the Obamas 45.1%, and the Roosevelts 33.3%.

What should be clear is that measuring a person by the size of their effective tax rate reveals nothing about their character. If those who pay the largest share of taxes are the most patriotic among us, then that all but eliminates everyone except for the Top 1 Percent. If effective tax rates are so important, then why not simply convert to a flat tax (i.e. the FairTax)? That way the concept of effective tax rates becomes meaningless. In a perfect world it seems this would be the goal.

Is paying more taxes than absolutely necessary savvy? No, but anyone who voluntarily pays more must really love this country. Mitt and Ann Romney didn’t claim all of the charitable contributions they could have, and thus paid a higher amount in taxes than legally required. When it comes down to it, no one that I know cares anything about increasing their own personal effective tax rate; most are like the Obamas, preoccupied with finding ways to reduce it.

The main point of this post has been to prove that measuring any American by the size of their effective tax rate reveals next to nothing about the content of their character. Thus, Barack Obama’s entire fair share mantra turns out to be nothing but rubbish. The rich already pay more than their fair share sir. It’s time to bring on a business guy, someone who really understands what’s going on in this country. It’s time to lower income tax rates, limit deductions and preferences, broaden the tax base, and reduce the size of government. It’s time to lower the federal deficit and move towards a balanced budget. It’s time to purge Barack Obama’s jaded philosophy of – do as I think, not as I do.

Definitions:

(a) The Traditional Model – Under the traditional model, the effective tax rate is calculated by dividing total income taxes (before tax credits and other taxes), by total income (before exclusions and deductions).

(b) Effective Federal Tax Rate – The effective federal tax rate is determined by dividing total federal income taxes (before tax credits and other taxes), by total income (before exclusions and deductions).

(c) Effective State and Local Tax Rate – The effective state and local tax rate is determined by dividing total state income taxes, real estate taxes, and personal property taxes claimed on federal Schedule A, by total income (before exclusions and deductions).

(d) Overall Effective Tax Rate – The overall effective tax rate is calculated by dividing total federal income taxes (before tax credits and other taxes), plus total state and local taxes as in (c), by total income (before exclusions and deductions).

(e) Real Effective Tax Rate – The real effective tax rate is calculated by dividing total federal income taxes (before tax credits and other taxes), plus state and local taxes as in (c), plus charitable contributions, by total income (before exclusions and deductions).

References:

The Romneys 2011 Tax Return

The Obamas 2011 Tax Return

The Roosevelts 1937 Tax Return

The Carters 1978 Tax Return

Romney’s Taxes: A Window Into Charitable Giving

Even at 14%, Romney Pays a Higher Rate than 97% of His Fellow Americans

Ex-presidents have huge expense accounts

President Obama’s Taxpayer-Backed Green Energy Failures

Taxing Inflation, Part 3 | Romney vs. Nothing

“We are in the midst of yet another great American discussion about taxation. Perhaps no policy area has become more sensitive or controversial. At stake are two vital concerns for the American future: How will we generate sufficient revenue to balance our budget without discouraging economic activity, and will the burden of taxation fall equitably on all Americans?” ~ Mitt Romney

Faith vs. Hopelessness | Independence vs. Dependence

– By Larry Walker, Jr. –

Under Mitt Romney’s tax proposal, no one making less than $200,000 a year is taxed on interest income, dividends or capital gains. For more on why this is just, see Parts One and Two, but to be brief, when investments are losing purchasing power at a faster pace than current returns, a tax on investment income merely acts as a second tax on top of inflation. In addition, under Romney’s plan, income tax rates are cut by 20% across the board, with the bottom tax bracket reduced from 10% to 8%, and the top bracket from 35% to 28%. The last President to lower top tax rates to 28% was Ronald Reagan, and we all know what happened back in the 1980’s. Romney’s game plan also eliminates the alternative minimum tax (AMT), which deserves to die, since Congress has failed to peg its exemptions to inflation.

Aside from the above, Romney eliminates the death tax and caps corporate tax rates at 25%. Altogether Romney’s strategy is pro-growth, one fully capable of giving our stagnant economy the boost it needs to reach a full recovery, and place us back on the right track. Although Romney’s proposal isn’t perfect, it’s far better than the alternative, which can be pretty much summed up as nothing to less than nothing. That’s right! Barack Obama’s scheme omits economic growth as a viable possibility, instead settling on sanctimonious indignation against high achievers, especially business owners who would be hit by his proposed tax hikes.

Obama’s blueprint offers nothing for 98% of Americans, those making less than $157,197 in 1993 dollars (the equivalent of $250,000 today). In other words, you won’t see your taxes rise or fall by one dime, except of course for those new health care taxes. And for the remaining 2%, those making more than $157,197 in 1993 dollars (the equivalent of $250,000 today), Obama offers to hike tax rates to 36% and 39.6%, and to raise the capital gains tax from 15% to 30% or more. In short, under Obama’s outline, 100% of the 51% of Americans who pay income taxes will either receive nothing, or less than nothing. But the most glaring flaw in Obama’s program is that it omits incentives capable of stimulating private sector investment, and thus growth. And without private sector growth, there will be even fewer jobs to go around, and only more of the same — temporary, deficit-financed, government boondoggles.

A Dearth of Gross Private Domestic Investment

Gross Private Domestic Investment is one of the four components of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). In the United States, real gross private domestic investment currently represents just 14.1% of real GDP, or $1.9 trillion. But after the Republican-led Congress passed a tax-relief and deficit-reduction bill in 1997, real gross private domestic investment subsequently peaked at 17.5% of GDP in the year 2000. The 1997 bill lowered the capital gains tax from 28% to 20%, which induced greater levels of private domestic investment, leading to a higher rate of GDP growth, and increases in economic activity, employment and tax collections. Contrary to popular opinion, it was actually the 1997 tax cuts, not the 1993 Clinton tax hike, which produced the boom of the 1990’s (see chart below).

In the year 2000, the Dot-Com Bubble burst, wiping out a great deal of private capital and reducing gross private domestic investment back to 15.6% of GDP by 2002. So Republicans passed the Jobs and Growth Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2003. The 2003 Act slashed capital gains rates once again, this time to 5% and 15%. This attracted capital investment back into the economy, boosting gross private domestic investment to 17.2% of GDP in the years 2005 through 2006. Then in 2007, global credit markets went haywire, the housing bubble burst, and the Great Recession commenced. Lasting until June of 2009, the most recent downturn dragged gross private domestic investment to a 20-year low of 11.4% of GDP. Although there has since been a mild rebound to 14.1% of GDP, gross private domestic investment remains hopelessly mired in the same doldrums faced in the mid-1990s. Private investors, perhaps with good reason, are still reluctant to place new capital at risk domestically.

The Perils of Government Investment

There is a strong correlation between gross private domestic investment and real GDP growth (see table). Which came first, the investment or the growth? Well, without investment, there is no growth. And investment can only come from two sectors, private or government. Federal government consumption has remained constant, representing 7.7% of GDP in 1995 and 7.6% currently, while state and local government consumption has declined from 13% of GDP in 1995 to 10.6% currently (see table). The federal goverment’s contribution to GDP is already deficit financed, and state and local governments have bankrupted themselves through commitments to union induced pension schemes and Medicaid. So which is likely to succeed, more deficit-financed government investment, or higher levels of private sector investment?

The reason gross private domestic investment remains retarded is due to the policies of Barack Obama. Under Obama’s program, government spending has spiraled completely out of control, resulting in a glut of low interest U.S. Treasury securities, which are siphoning off capital from the private sector, via the lure of a government guarantee. This is doing a great deal of harm to the American economy, since government is incapable of building anything on its own. As a matter of fact, the only accoutrement the federal government has built by its lonesome is a $15.8 trillion mountain of debt, which now amounts to $139,500 for each U.S. taxpayer (subject to increase every millisecond). What’s ironic is that a taxpayer investing in U.S. government securities is also responsible for making interest payments on the same, through income taxes. After all, it’s not like the government has its own private stash with which to pay. Thus, the notion of government investment is but a farce.

The Obama administration’s latest presumption involves purchasing aviation biofuel through the U.S. Air Force at $59 per gallon, while straight avgas is selling for $3.60 a gallon. This they surmise is somehow a good use of taxpayer monies. The Obama administration, in its wisdom, fully expects the price of biofuels to fall by 2015, even if solely through the demand of a single customer – the U.S. taxpayer. Apparently, no private sector airline is dumb enough to join the gala. The major flaw in this design is that the recipient of this generous subsidy, Gevo, Inc., relies heavily on corn in the manufacture of its patented isobutanol fuel. And since day corn prices have jumped by more than 52% in the last month, due to the severe drought, this puppy is liable to go bankrupt by the end of the year, along with the rest of the Obama administration’s not-so-green, government financed, ventures. But at least we can say, “We didn’t build that, somebody else made that happen.” Is converting the food supply into fuel ever a good idea? Hello!

By the way, Gevo’s stock peaked on the NASDAQ exchange at $25.55 per share in April of 2011, but since the end of June has been trading below $5.00 per share. The fact that the stock had already lost over 80% of its value before the drought tells us all we need to know about the current administration’s due diligence. Relying on government investment to make up for a shortfall in private investment is kind of like cutting off your nose to spite your face. Barack Obama’s parting shot, proposing to raise income taxes in the middle of an economic quandary, is about twice as dopey. By now it should be clear that Obama’s big-government dream isn’t the solution to our problems, it is the problem. Government doesn’t know best. In fact, but for the $2.4 trillion a year it collects in taxes from the private sector, the federal government wouldn’t exist.

The Verdict

Raising real gross private domestic investment back to 17.5% of GDP would add as much as 3.4% to real GDP, or the equivalent of $455.6 billion. And since according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, per capita personal income is currently $37,500, that means rebalancing the economy in favor of gross private domestic investment could translate into as many as 12.2 million new jobs.

Mitt Romney’s proposal, to eliminate the tax on interest, dividends, and capital gains for those making less than $200,000, is the only serious plan on the table capable of boosting gross private domestic investment back to 2000 levels, and beyond. And the creation of 12.2 million new jobs through Romney’s strategy is just the tip of the iceberg. Additional jobs are created through increases in personal consumption as the result of cutting income tax rates by 20% across the board, eliminating the AMT, eliminating the death tax, and capping corporate taxes at 25%.

In contrast, Barack Obama’s inflation tax raises taxes on the most productive Americans, those making more than $157,197 in 1993 dollars (the equivalent of $250,000 today), and does nothing for the other 98% of Americans, the combination of which will result in the loss of as many as 12.7 million jobs. So Obama’s notion offers nothing to less than nothing in terms of economic growth.

Mitt Romney’s proposal, on the other hand, leads to higher levels of gross private domestic investment, GDP, economic activity, employment, and tax collections. It’s the best hope for improving America’s economic condition. It’s economic independence versus dependence. It’s faith versus hopelessness. It’s pro-growth versus nothing. Thus, you may place me in the decided column. Was there ever a doubt?

Taxing Inflation, Part 2 | Simple Pro-Growth Policies

Are we interested in treating the symptoms of poverty and economic stagnation through income redistribution and class warfare, or do we want to go at the root causes of poverty and economic stagnation by promoting pro-growth policies that promote prosperity? ~ Paul Ryan

… Promoting Prosperity

– By: Larry Walker, Jr. –

In the United States, real gross private domestic investment currently represents 14.1% of real GDP, or $1.9 trillion. But it only represented 12.6% in 1993, after the Clinton tax hikes. Then in 1997, the Republican-led Congress passed a tax-relief and deficit-reduction bill that was at first resisted but ultimately signed by President Clinton. The 1997 bill lowered the top capital gains tax rate from 28% to 20%. The reduction in capital gains rates encouraged greater private domestic investment, leading to GDP growth, and increases in both economic activity and tax collections. After the bill passed, real gross private domestic investment grew to 15.6% in 1997, and reached a peak of 17.5% by the year 2000. It was actually the 1997 tax cuts, not the 1993 Clinton tax hike, which produced the boom of the 1990’s.

But then the Dot Com Recession began, lasting from March through November 2001, wiping out capital and reducing gross private domestic investment to a low of 15.6% of GDP. Then Republicans passed the Jobs and Growth Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2003. The 2003 Act slashed capital gains rates to 5% and 15%, which boosted gross private domestic investment back to 17.2% of GDP in 2005 and 2006. But then the housing bubble burst and the Great Recession began, lasting from December 2007 through June 2009, eviscerating trillions of dollars in capital. Recessions typically destroy capital, and the Great Recession was no exception. Afraid of losing again, investors have been reluctant to place new capital at risk. Government spending has since spiraled out of control, absorbing capital from the private sector with the lure of low return guaranteed government securities.

Boosting gross private domestic investment back to 2000, 2005 and 2006 levels, or to between 17.2% and 17.5%, would add as much as 3.4% to GDP growth. But Barack Obama, through a series of temporary measures, coupled with threats of higher taxes, has done little to allay investors fears. So the question today is what can the U.S. government do to encourage more private investment in the domestic economy? Following are three simple policies which can and should be implemented right away.

Pro-Growth Tax Policies

Long-term capital gains are currently taxed at a top rate of 15%, while short-term gains are taxed as ordinary income (at rates ranging from 10% to 35%). At the same time, capital losses are limited to the lesser of $3,000 per year, or up to the amount of concurrent capital gains. Interest income and ordinary dividends are currently taxed as ordinary income, while qualified dividends (paid on stocks held for 60 days or longer) are treated as long-term capital gains and taxed at a maximum rate of 15%.

But this is all subject to change next year – with the rate on long-term capital gains increasing to a maximum of 20%, and the tax on interest, ordinary dividends and qualified dividends all increasing to ordinary rates of between 15% and 39.6%. Until Congress either changes or extends the current rates, uncertainty and flagging private domestic investment will prevail. But a more exigent question is whether taxing any form of return on capital investment is fair. What’s a fair tax for the return on investment?

1. Indexing Capital Gains

As discussed in Part I, in India, capital gains are computed differently than in the U.S. Under India’s tax law an investor is allowed to increase the cost of the original investment by the annual inflation index, before computing a capital gain or loss. Capital gains in Israel are also inflation adjusted. And as stated previously, the following countries don’t tax capital gains at all: Belize, Barbados, Bulgaria, Cayman Islands, Ecuador, Egypt, Hong Kong, Islamic Republic of Iran, Isle of Man, Jamaica, Kenya, Malaysia, Netherlands, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Switzerland, and Turkey. Other countries like Canada, Portugal, Australia, and South Africa do levy a tax on capital gains, but the tax only applies to 50% of the gain.

However, in the United States, capital gains are figured without the benefit of an inflation adjustment. What’s wrong with this? What’s wrong is that the U.S. dollar has lost 96% of its value since the Federal Reserve was established and the Tax Code imposed in 1913. Therefore, much of what is thought of as a capital gain in the U.S. isn’t a gain at all, it is rather the recovery of an amount equivalent to (or in some cases less than) the purchasing power of the original investment.

For example, if you had invested $100,000 in 1981, your investment would have the same purchasing power as $261,497 today. That’s because annual inflation has averaged 3.15% in the U.S. over the last 31 years (calculate it here). So an investment of $100,000, 31 years ago, which happened to appreciate by $161,497, hasn’t really made a dime. Yet the federal government will levy a tax of $24,225 (@ 15%) on the investor as a reward for believing in America. But had the same investment been made in India, Israel, or in any of the other 17 above mentioned countries which don’t tax capital gains, the return on capital would have been tax-free. So what’s a fair share?

Does the USA’s current capital gains policy encourage American citizens and corporations to invest more at home, or to move abroad? The answer should be clear. But making matters worse, the tax rate on capital gains is scheduled to increase from 15% to 20% in 2013. And even worse, Barack Obama is proposing to raise the rate to at least 30% on the “wealthy”, while doing nothing for the other 98% of Americans. But on a brighter note, Mitt Romney would eliminate the capital gains tax entirely on taxpayers with incomes below $200,000, while lowering ordinary income tax rates to between 8% and 28%. Romney is on the right track, but he could go a bit farther.

Why not simply index capital gains to inflation, tax real capital gains at ordinary tax rates, and allow an unlimited amount of real capital losses to be claimed within the year recognized? That way it’s not necessary to play the class warfare game. Making capital gains taxes fairer for everyone is a way to increase private domestic investment and GDP, while at the same time attracting capital back to the U.S. and away from what are currently more just investment havens.

2. No Tax on Interest Income

In the U.S., interest income earned on deposits at banks and credit unions, on money market funds, on bonds, and on loans, such as seller-financed mortgages is taxed as ordinary income, subject to ordinary income tax rates. Interest on U.S. Treasury bonds and savings bonds is taxable for federal purposes, but tax-free at the state level. Interest on municipal bonds is tax-free at the federal level and tax-free at the state level if invested within one’s state of residence. Interest on municipal private activity bonds is tax-free for the regular tax, but is taxable for the alternative minimum tax.

Focusing on taxable interest, when the interest rate earned is less than the inflation rate, why is it considered taxable? If an investor isn’t earning at least the inflation rate, there are no real earnings, since the investor suffers a loss in purchasing power. For example, according to FDIC.gov, the national average interest rate paid on bank savings accounts is currently 0.09%, and the average rate on 60-month certificates of deposit, whether over or under $100,000, is 1.06%. Meanwhile, inflation has averaged 1.81% over the last five years (lower than normal due to the recession). So at today’s interest rates, an investor with $100,000 in a savings account is losing something on the order of 1.71% in purchasing power each year. This adds up over time. At current averages it would amount to loss in capital of 8.55% over five years. And that doesn’t include service charges some banks impose for the privilege of having an account.

Interest rates banks pay today aren’t a reward, but rather a punishment. But as if interest rates aren’t pathetic enough, after losing purchasing power while trying to save a dollar or two, the federal government then levies a tax on the decline in value, ensuring that no American will ever get ahead. The return on U.S. Treasury securities isn’t any better. On July 16th, the U.S. Treasury was somehow able to sell 3-year Treasury Notes offering an interest rate of 0.25%, and a yield of 0.366%. That’s laughable especially considering that the interest earned is taxable as ordinary income. Meanwhile, the inflation rate for urban consumers was 2.93% last year, and is expected to reach 3.00% in 2013. Are we paying our fair share yet?

The federal government currently taxes interest income at rates ranging between 10% and 35%, yet those rates are scheduled to increase to between 15% and 39.6% in 2013. Barack Obama’s solution is to do nothing for anyone making less than $250,000, and to raise rates to 36% and 39.6% on those making more. Mitt Romney’s solution is to eliminate the tax on interest for taxpayers with incomes below $200,000, while lowering ordinary income tax rates to between 8% and 28%. But Romney shouldn’t even have to play the class warfare game.

Either taxing interest is fair, or it’s not. And if it’s not fair, then it’s not fair for any American. If the U.S. government is serious about encouraging savings within its borders, then at the very least it will eliminate the tax on interest. It’s that simple. In no case should any investor earning less than the rate of inflation be insulted with an income tax bill. And to be truly fair, a capital loss deduction should be allowed when a long-term saver loses purchasing power by getting trapped at rates below the rate of inflation.

3. No Tax on Dividends

In 2003, President George W. Bush proposed to eliminate the U.S. dividend tax stating that “double taxation is bad for our economy and falls especially hard on retired people.” He also argued that while “it’s fair to tax a company’s profits; it’s not fair to double-tax by taxing the shareholder on the same profits.” Perhaps he was right.

In Brazil, dividends are tax free, since the issuer company has already paid a tax. In Japan, since 2009, capital losses may be used to offset dividend income. But in the U.S. dividend income is first taxed to corporations at rates ranging from 15% to 35%, before being paid to shareholders. Investors then get hit with a second tax on the same income ranging from 10% to 35% on ordinary dividends, or limited to 15% on qualified dividends (on stock held for greater than 60 days). And income tax rates on dividends are scheduled to increase to between 15% and 39.6% in 2013, on both ordinary as well as qualified dividends.

Naturally, Barack Obama’s solution is to raise taxes on dividends. Obama plans to keep Bush’s lower 10% tax bracket in place, but to raise top tax rates to 36% and 39.6% on those most likely to invest in dividend paying ventures, those making more than $250,000. Mitt Romney, on the other hand, would eliminate the tax on dividends for taxpayers with incomes below $200.000, while lowering ordinary income tax rates to between 8% and 28%. I believe that Romney is on the right track; however, if double taxation is unfair, then it’s just not fair – no matter how much income is involved.

Dividends should either be taxable to the corporation or the individual, but not both. And lest we forget, a tax on dividends may also be punitive, in the sense that when an investor’s returns are lower than the rate of inflation, purchasing power is being lost, not gained. If the government insists on taxing both entities, then the tax should only apply to individuals on the amount of return in excess of the rate of inflation.

Summary

No American should have to pay a tax on capital gains or interest income, unless the return on investment exceeds the rate of inflation. No American should have to pay a tax on dividends when the tax has already been paid by a corporation. Whether it’s easier to just do away with investment taxes altogether is subjective, but I do believe that it’s in best interests of the United States to entirely eliminate them for every American. No American should ever be taxed after suffering a decline in the purchasing power of their capital. At the very least, the basis of capital investments should be adjusted for inflation, and capital losses should be deductible in full and concurrently. If the return on investment is less than the rate of inflation, then there is nothing to tax.

Barack Obama has proposed to do nothing for 98% of taxpayers, and to raise taxes on the investment income of those making more than $250,000. He’s so stuck on the class warfare tack that he has totally forgotten to put anything on the table which would encourage greater levels of savings and investment within the United States. If Obama is somehow successful, I would expect more capital and more jobs to be shipped overseas.

Mitt Romney has proposed policies which will encourage greater savings and investment. Although his plan isn’t perfect, it’s far better than the alternative. Romney would eliminate the tax on capital gains, interest and dividends for taxpayers making less than $200,000. He would also lower the bottom tax rate to 8% from 10%, and top rates to 28% from 35%. Romney’s policies are more likely to retain capital within the U.S. and to attract more from abroad, which will lead to increases in gross private domestic investment, GDP, economic activity, employment and wealth creation.

Data: Spreadsheet on Google Drive

Taxing Inflation: Why Americans Invest Overseas

Artificially Raising Taxes Reduces GDP

– By: Larry Walker, Jr. –

“Tax increases appear to have a very large, sustained and highly significant negative impact on the economy.” ~ Christina Romer, just prior to leaving the Obama Administration –

U.C. Berkley Professor and President Obama’s former Chair of his Council of Economic Advisers (CEA), Christina Romer, published a paper in 2010, concluding that a tax increase of 1 percent of GDP, about $160 billion today, reduces output over the next three years by nearly 3 percent, or $480 billion at current GDP figures. And according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, per capita personal income is currently running at around $37,500. Thus, Barack Obama’s plan to raise taxes on the most productive American citizens would result in a loss of around 12.7 million jobs over the ensuing three-year period. But fortunately, U.S. policy makers aren’t naïve enough to place their trust in the hands of a novice. I wonder what India’s economists think.

In India, GDP is expected to grow by 6.5% this year, and by 7.1% in 2013, or more than 3 times the rate of the U.S. And according to the President of the Confederation of Indian Industry, Adi Godrej, “Artificially raising taxes will reduce GDP.” What he says in the following one minute video should be common sense. To paraphrase Mr. Godrej, ‘The tax to GDP ratio is best increased when GDP growth is good. When GDP growth is good, economic activity, tax collections, and the tax to GDP ratio increase. But it goes exactly the other way when GDP growth slows down. Thus, high rates of taxation are against the interests of the country. Reasonable tax rates with policies designed to increase GDP growth is the best way to increase the tax to GDP ratio.’

U.S. Capital Gains Taxes

In 1997, the Republican-led Congress passed a tax-relief and deficit-reduction bill that was resisted but ultimately signed by President Clinton. One of the things the 1997 bill did was lower the top capital gains tax rate from 28 percent to 20 percent. It was actually the 1997 tax cuts, not the 1993 Clinton tax hike, which produced the boom of the 1990’s. The reduction of capital gains rates encouraged greater investment, which lead to GDP growth, and an increase in both economic activity and tax collections.

The same policy will work today. However, what Barack Obama is proposing is exactly the opposite. Obama’s notion of raising income taxes on some taxpayers, health care taxes on others, and capital gains rates on investors, to name a few, amounts to an artificial tax hike, which most economists agree will result in a reduction of GDP. Thus, Obama’s tax hikes are not in the best interests of the country. But he doesn’t appear to care about our common welfare.

Obama’s policies are admittedly not about economic growth, but rather about furthering his self contrived, yet erroneous, notion of fairness. Yet the truth is that the very concept of taxing capital gains is in itself unfair. The method in which capital gains are calculated in the United States is antiquated, illogical, and actually hinders our ability to reach a full recovery. In order to understand the dilemma, one must put himself in an investors place.

An Example: Let’s say an investor makes a five year commitment to invest $100,000 into a public or private company stock. And let’s say the rate of inflation is averaging 3.0% per year. By the time the investment is sold, what cost $100,000 five years ago, may cost as much as $115,000, due to inflation. So if no gain is realized on the investment, the investor automatically loses $15,000 in purchasing power.

Now let’s assume that five years later the investment has grown from $100,000 to $115,000. Under the current U.S. tax code, upon redemption of the stock, the investor is subject to a 15.0% tax on the gain. A capital gain of $15,000 is calculated by subtracting the amount of the original investment from the sales price ($115,000 – $100,000), and the amount of tax due is $2,250 ($15,000 * 0.15).

So to summarize, an investor made a 5-year investment of $100,000, recognized a long-term capital gain of $15,000, paid a capital gains tax of $2,250, and got to keep $12,750, or 85.0% of the gain. Most people think this is fair enough, but there are a few scoffers out there who think a 15% capital gains tax is too low. So let’s examine the question of fairness.

Most of us are aware that the dollar has lost roughly 96% of its value since 1913 (see chart at the top). With that in mind, if instead of investing the $100,000, as in the example, the investor chose to hide it under a mattress, what would happen? For one thing, no taxes would be due. But at the same time, when the money is spent, 5 years later, its purchasing power will have declined by $15,000, again due to inflation. In fact, the reason most people choose to invest their money is to simply maintain the purchasing power of their savings.

In the example, the investment barely appreciated enough to keep pace with inflation. Therefore, no gain was realized. Inflation ate up $15,000 of the investor’s purchasing power, which was merely recovered through appreciation in the stock. But now along comes the U.S. government to lend a helping hand. And because of its antiquated and illogical tax policies, the federal government levies a 15% tax on what, for all practical purposes, isn’t a gain at all. The government then collects what it deems to be its fair share of a gain, but the investor hasn’t actually gained a dime. In fact, once the tax is paid, the investor realizes a loss in purchasing power. Does that sound fair? Who knew that maintaining the value of the currency in ones possession was a taxable event?

Capital Gains in India and Elsewhere

In India, capital gains are computed differently than in the U.S. Under India’s tax law an investor is allowed to increase the cost of the original investment by the annual inflation index, before computing a gain or loss. Had this been done in the example above, the basis of the original investment would have been stepped up to $115,000 before computing a net capital gain of $0 ($115,000 – $115,000). In India, it is considered unfair to tax someone for merely recouping the inflation adjusted value of an investment. It’s unfair because the sales proceeds of an investment are derived from the current value of the currency, whereas its cost was based on a value that existed in the past (five years prior in the example above).

The following countries are even more progressive, they don’t tax capital gains at all: Belize, Barbados, Bulgaria, Cayman Islands, Ecuador, Egypt, Hong Kong, Islamic Republic of Iran, Isle of Man, Jamaica, Kenya, Malaysia, Netherlands, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Switzerland, and Turkey. Other countries, like Canada and South Africa do levy a capital gains tax, but only on 50% of the gain. A few nations even allow their citizens to defer capital gains taxes entirely by allowing them to rollover their gains into a new investment within certain time frames.

One has to wonder why anyone in their right mind would be encouraged to invest in the United States. Considering that inflation doesn’t stop when an investment is sold, while the money is sitting around waiting for the tax to be paid, it continues to lose value. And once the tax is paid, the remainder continues to diminish in value until it is ultimately reinvested. In light of the colossal decline in the value of the U.S. dollar over the past 100 years, the question we should be asking ourselves is not what rate to levy on capital gains, but rather why the tax even exists?

Pro-Growth Tax Policies

No wonder many Americans choose to invest abroad, and in some cases to renounce their citizenship entirely. These days, if you want a fair shot, and if you want to pay your fair share, you might have to set your sights beyond the shores of the United States. The bottom line is that the U.S. Tax Code needs an overhaul. Our tax policies should be upgraded to something more along the lines of reason and common sense. Like India, we should at the very least index the basis of long-term capital investments to inflation, for purposes of determining taxable gains (and deductible losses). This concept should be applied to all forms of capital investment.

If the federal government refuses to implement policies which encourage GDP growth, then how does it expect the economy to grow? When our wealth is being slowly eroded by inflation, and then we’re taxed on the deteriorating value of our currency, it pretty much makes investing in the U.S. futile. If the federal government wants to encourage investment in the U.S., which is what it should do, in order to stimulate GDP growth and create jobs, then our elected officials should stop talking about raising tax rates on both ordinary income and capital gains, and start discussing ways to lower the tax burden and make our system fairer and comparable to more just investment havens.

Here’s some more food for thought. Why is interest income taxed? When a saver is earning less than 1.0% at a domestic bank, while inflation is running at more twice that rate, why is the federal government entitled to any part of what amounts to a decline in purchasing power? What you earn on a bank account these days isn’t interest income; it’s more like a taxable capital loss. What about dividends? Dividends are already taxed once at the corporate level, are not deductible by corporations for tax purposes, and then are taxed again after distribution to the investor (double taxation)? Taxing interest and dividends isn’t fair either, and the practice should therefore be repealed.

No American should ever have to pay a tax on capital, especially when upon its return the inflation adjusted value is the same or less than the original amount. Is the U.S. taxing the eroding value of the dollar because it makes sense, or perhaps because when the tax code was conceived no one anticipated that the dollar would lose 96% of its value over the ensuing 100 years? If you think our current method of taxing interest, dividends and capital gains is fair, then please explain your reasoning. If you think that taxing the deteriorating value of the dollar is a way to foster economic growth, then why has real GDP growth only averaged approximately 1.5% in the United States over the last 12 years?

“Action expresses priorities.” ~ Mahatma Gandhi

References:

India Tax Laws and Tax System 2012

Tax Rates in India

India Mart – Computation of Capital Gains

Nine Million Dollars – Long Term Capital Gains Tax (LTCG) on Property Sale

Heritage Foundation – Tax Cuts, Not the Clinton Tax Hike, Produced the 1990s Boom

Wikipedia – Capital Gains Tax

U.S. Tax Compliance Costs $44B, not $400B

Tax Foundation’s Runaway Compliance Estimates

By: Larry Walker, Jr. –

“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.” ~ Mark Twain –

According to the Tax Foundation, federal income tax compliance costs were projected to reach $392 billion by 2011, and $483 billion by 2015. Now they say it’s probably in the ballpark of $400 billion as of 2011. So in other words, they figure that it costs taxpayers an additional 20 to 40 percent of the amount paid in income taxes just to fill out and file the forms. However, what people echoing these numbers overlook is the fact that these figures are based on Internal Revenue Service estimates made during an era in which tax forms were completed with a tax booklet, pencil and calculator, a methodology that even the IRS discontinued in 2006.

The fact that the Tax Foundation assigned a dollar value to outmoded time estimates, based on a taxpayer’s average hourly earnings, is even more appalling. The real eye opener ought to be that a huge chunk of the dollar cost mentioned is not money that anyone actually spends. It is rather the value placed on the time each taxpayer would spend preparing their income tax return if (1) they actually prepared their own tax return, (2) they prepared their return with a tax instruction booklet, paper forms, a pencil, and calculator, and (3) they were compensated for their time.

To prove just how bogus this figure is, I pored over the Tax Foundation’s 2005 report. The first thought that occurred to me is that the reason the report hasn’t been updated since then is because the IRS stopped estimating the time it takes to manually fill out tax forms in 2006, and without these estimates, the Tax Foundation’s theoretical foundation disintegrated. And why did the IRS stop making these estimates? Well, primarily because since it began accepting electronically filed returns in 1990, and set a goal of achieving – “80% of all tax and information returns filed electronically by Filing Season 2007″, and with the advent of personal computers and cheap software, the amount of time spent and cost of preparing income tax forms has declined dramatically. Thus, the idea of one toiling for 17 to 23 hours, or longer, over a 2 to 3 page tax return is passé.

One section of the report states that: “When examined by income level, compliance cost is found to be highly regressive, taking a larger toll on low-income taxpayers as a percentage of income than high-income taxpayers. On the low end, taxpayers with adjusted gross income (AGI) under $20,000 incur a compliance cost equal to 5.9 percent of income while the compliance cost incurred by taxpayers with AGI over $200,000 amounts to just 0.5 percent of income.”

What the Tax Foundation is saying is that a person with $20,000 of adjusted gross income would incur a cost of $1,180, or 5.9% of their income, in preparing their income tax return, and a person making $200,000 would expend $1,000, or 0.5% of their income. Does that match your experience, because it’s complete nonsense from my vantage point? Is this even remotely reasonable? Let’s examine this theory in more detail.

Following the Tax Foundation’s logic, we could assign a cost to virtually everything we do, as a function of our annual income. Never mind the fact that we only get paid for the time we actually work. So in other words, if you make $9.61 per hour on the job, and it takes you 2 hours per week to wash your clothes (on your time off), then according to this theory, the real cost of clothes washing is more than $1,000 per year ($19.22 times 52 weeks; plus washing powder, water, electricity, and depreciation of your washing machine and dryer), or more than 5.0% of your annual income.

Carrying this through to its illogical conclusion, for a person who works 8 hours per day, the cost of sleeping 8 hours per night would be equal to their annual income, right? So one can only ponder the cost of watching television, driving to and from work, mowing the yard, etc… You can see how silly this is. To drive the point home, under this theory, if you work 8 hours per day, and have 16 hours of free-time, then the cost of everything you do outside of work would be twice as much as your annual income. In other words, you’re not actually making $20,000 per year, heck, you’re not even breaking even; you’re going in the hole by $20,000 every year. Well, so much for that theory.

Ask an Accountant

I have had the fortune of preparing income tax returns, both in the early 1980’s, before the advent of personal computers, and in the 21st Century with high speed internet and gigabytes of random-access memory. In the early 1980’s it took literally days to complete a complex income tax return. Information would be gathered and written onto data forms in pencil, then shipped off to a main-frame computer processing center. The printed return would then be mailed back in about 3 business days, although a typographical error would easily double this time-frame. Then the taxpayer(s) had to be summoned to come in and sign the return before it could be postmarked.

The cost of preparing an itemized Form 1040 with Schedule A, plus a state tax return, back then averaged around $150. Most non-itemized returns were completed on the spot, with pen and calculator, for around $85. What some people miss is that since $150 in 1981 had the same buying power as $380 today, annual inflation over this period being 3.16%, and since the average cost is still around $150 today (in the Southeast), the cost of preparing income tax returns has actually declined by around 61%, over the past 30 years. But you won’t hear about this from today’s rubber stamps.

It was in 1990 that IRS e-file became operational nationwide, and that year 4.2 million returns were filed electronically. I was working for the IRS at the time. Later on, when I started my own practice back in the year 2000, after doing other things for a few years, part of my mission statement read, “To assist the Internal Revenue Service in its goal: ‘To have 80% of all tax and information returns filed electronically by Filing Season 2007’”.

By the year 2007, as per the table below, the percentage of electronically filed returns had only reached 57%, however, many practices, such as mine, were already near the 100% mark. As a result, ever since then, that part of my mission statement has read, “To file 99.9% of all income tax and information returns electronically”. Nowadays, a tax preparer, who prepares more than 10 returns per year, is required to file all returns electronically.

From personal experience, these days it takes about an hour to prepare and e-file the same income tax return that used to take 3 days or longer. Like in many other industries, technology has made tax compliance both cheaper and more efficient. While prices have risen dramatically in other sectors, such as Education and Health Care, the cost of professional income tax preparation has plummeted, on an inflation adjusted basis. Most notably, the time it takes to prepare a return has been reduced from days to minutes. Similarly, the time it takes to receive an income tax refund has been reduced from 6 to 8 weeks, down to 7 to 10 days. This is precisely why the IRS no longer publishes obsolete manual computation time-frames.

The 2005 1040 Instruction Book, on page 79, states, for example, that the time and cost of preparing a Form 1040 with Schedule A and other schedules, but no Schedule D, was as follows (see table below, 3rd row from the top):

  • Self prepared without software – 16.7 hours | $18
  • Self prepared with software – 22.7 hours | $51
  • Prepared by Professional – 12.1 hours | $174

In analyzing this, does anyone out there seriously believe that it would take 6 hours longer to self-prepare a tax return with software, than without? Like that makes sense. And what kind of practice would a professional be running, if it took 12.1 hours to complete each itemized 1040 return? At that pace, a professional would only be able to complete around three 1040 returns per week, and since the regular season only lasts about 12 weeks, would only be able to prepare around 40 returns per season, with a seasonal income of around $6,900. If it really took a professional 12.1 hours to prepare each an every itemized Form 1040, we would indeed have a problem. However, since actual facts and figures reveal that tax preparation really takes a fraction of the time it used to, and costs less than half of what it did 30 years ago, perhaps we don’t have a problem after all, at least not a ‘cost of income tax compliance problem’.

According to Nickel, over at the fivecentnickel.com, his research coming from the National Society of Accountants biennial survey, the average tax preparation fee for an itemized Form 1040 with Schedule A, plus a state tax return, was $229 in 2010. And for a Form 1040 and state return without itemized deductions, the average price was $129. But keep in mind that tax preparation fees vary regionally, so the above averages aren’t necessarily applicable depending on where you live. The lowest costs are in the Eastern South Central region (AL, KY, MS, and TN) where a Form 1040 with a Schedule A and state return averages $137. And the most expensive region is the Pacific (AK, CA, HI, OR, and WA) at $292.

He also found that for those with more complex returns, modern day costs average as follows (again, prices will vary by region):

  • $212 for Form 1040 Schedule C (profit or loss from business)
  • $551 for Form 1065 (partnership)
  • $692 for Form 1120 (corporation)
  • $665 for Form 1120S (S corporation)
  • $415 for Form 1041 (fiduciary)
  • $2,044 for Form 706 (estates)
  • $584 for Form 990 (tax exempt)
  • $58 for Form 940 (federal unemployment)

Here in the Southeast, a professionally prepared itemized Form 1040 with Schedule A, plus a state tax return, takes about an hour to prepare, and the fee averages $150. The question of whether a person making over $200,000 will pay more, or less, is actually not based on their income, but rather on how many forms need to be prepared? So if an itemized Form 1040 with Schedule A, plus a state tax return, costs an average of $150 to prepare, that’s generally how much it costs no matter how great one’s income. That’s because the time it takes to prepare such a return would be about the same. If it costs more, it’s most likely due to additional form filing requirements. Thus, the true modern day cost of $150, to prepare such a return, is a far cry from the Tax Foundation’s estimate of $1,000.

At the same time, a basic Form 1040-A, plus a state return, would take around 30 minutes to prepare, with an average fee of $85 ($60 without the state). This is also a major discrepancy from the Tax Foundation’s estimated cost of $1,180, for a person making $20,000 per year. If we were to follow this artificial tack, then we would have to believe that it would take something in the order of 122.7 hours to prepare a basic 2 or 3 page 1040-A return, at a cost of $9.61 per hour (the hourly wage for a person making $20,000 per year). Therefore, the Tax Foundation’s purported $400 billion per year estimate is grossly overstated.

The act of basing an entire tax reform platform on factitious information is called, “fraud”. So who’s been out on the stump quoting these make-believe numbers? Of late, it’s been Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, previously Herman Cain, and a host of others. But it’s time for the public to wake up and realize that the Tax Foundation’s figures are completely bogus.

Sure, some returns take longer than others, some cost more than others, and most businesses require monthly or quarterly accounting and payroll tax services on top of income tax return preparation. But what’s the alternative for a business, to not have any record of whether it is profitable? Can businesses just do away with all record keeping and financial reporting for the sake of skimping on an ordinary and necessary business expense? I don’t think that would be a wise move.

A Gross Overstatement

To conclude, the Tax Foundation’s estimate is a made-up number, based on obsolete data. The true costs of complying with federal income tax laws have declined dramatically over the past 30 years. Thus, anyone floating figures ranging from $400 billion to $500 billion per year must have their head in the sand.

There’s no way you could ever convince me that it takes 122.7 hours, to enter the amounts contained on a W-2 Form into a computer program, or onto a paper form, in order to file a simple 1040-A return. Nor can you persuade me to believe that the cost of preparing such a return could ever reach $1,180. But that’s essentially what the Tax Foundation’s report says.

The correct method of determining any cost is to add up the actual outlay in cash, but since the Tax Foundation has not chosen this method, I must conclude that their estimate is overstated by as much as 88.9%. How did I arrive at this percentage? By sampling.

The 2005 IRS out-of-pocket cost estimates reveal that the most one would pay is charged by tax professionals. Since the fee charged for a simple 1040-A, plus a state tax return, completed by a paid preparer, is actually $85, not $1,180 as they would have us believe, the Tax Foundation’s estimate is off by 92.8% ($85 vs. $1,180). And since the cost of a professionally prepared itemized Form 1040 with Schedule A, plus a state tax return, is actually $150, instead of $1,000, they are off by 85% ($150 vs. $1,000). Averaging these two percentages together results in an overstatement of 88.9%. Thus, I conclude that the Tax Foundation’s estimate, that federal income tax compliance is costing Americans around $400 billion per year, is in reality probably less than $44.4 billion (11.1% of $400 billion).

Frankly, I would be more concerned about real and verifiable IRS statistics, such as the number and amount of refunds being doled out. For example, in 2010, out of the 142,449,000 returns that were filed, 109,376,000 received refunds totaling $328.4 billion, for an average refund of $3,003 per return. Now that’s real money, which, if you think about it, is being summarily piled on to the national debt. So what’s up with that?

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Cross posted at: Free Republic