• High earnings, low taxes and never a bad year
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     | November 02,2013
     

    For the superrich, 2009 was supposed to be the “annus horribilis.”

    That’s the year that market averages hit their post-financial-crisis lows, and prices of nearly all assets plunged. Since the superrich depend disproportionately on assets, rather than earned income, they suffer more during hard times for financial markets since more of their assets are at risk, or so the theory goes.

    Plenty of people did get hit in 2009, including people at the very top. But all things are relative. The fortunate 400 people with the highest adjusted gross incomes still made, on average, $202 million each in 2009, according to Internal Revenue Service data. And this doesn’t even count income that doesn’t show up as adjusted gross income, such as tax-exempt interest.

    Yet the top 400 paid an average federal income tax rate of less than 20 percent, far lower than the top rate of 35 percent then in effect.

    They also paid a lower rate than the top 1 percent, which were people with adjusted gross incomes in 2009 of at least $344,000.

    These affluent but hardly superrich taxpayers paid on average just over 24 percent of their adjusted gross income in federal income tax. Even the top 0.01 percent, people earning at least $1.4 million, paid 24 percent.

    “The top 400 have enormously high incomes even after the dip,” said Leonard E. Burman, director of the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center and a professor of public policy at the Maxwell School at Syracuse University. “It’s still over $200 million each. And yet they’re still paying at a lower rate.”

    Even in a bad year like 2009, the federal tax code at the very top is regressive, not progressive.

    Of course, the top 400 are a tiny fraction of the overall population (there were more than 140 million returns filed in 2009).

    But I’ve always found them to be a useful window to the otherwise hidden world of the ultrarich. And if the tax code is perceived as unfair to the wealthiest citizens, is it any wonder that there’s widespread resentment at lower rungs of the prosperity ladder?

    It may seem surprising that some of the country’s richest people had a banner year in the depths of the recent recession, but recall that 2009 was a year that Wall Street paid itself big bonuses even after taking billions in government rescue money. And while the stock market bottomed in March of that year, it went on to rack up impressive gains. These were especially favorable conditions for nimble hedge fund managers.

    The IRS doesn’t identify the members of the elite 400, but they surely include some top hedge fund managers. In 2009, the minimum income required to make the top 25 in the annual ranking of top-earning hedge fund managers by AR: Absolute Return+ Alpha magazine was $350 million.

    That suggests that all of them would have been among the top 400.

    It remains a pillar of Republican orthodoxy that taxes on unearned income, especially capital gains, should be low, or even eliminated. But it was Ronald Reagan who as president championed taxing capital gains at the same rate as earned income.

    This was a crucial part of his 1986 tax reform, which lowered overall rates by broadening the tax base.

    In the wake of the recent government shutdown, tax reform is back on the table, and should something significant result, it might emerge as a silver lining to the crisis.

    Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., and Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., have been working on a much-anticipated bipartisan approach to tax reform, and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan has said, “They agree on the fundamental principles: Broaden the base, lower the rates and simplify the code.”

    But, Kleinbard said, “You can’t have reform if you can’t agree on what the problem is.”

    He continued: “There’s no agreement what federal tax revenues should be as a percent of GDP. Everyone agrees that tax expenditures” — the economists’ term for tax breaks — “are out of control, but do you eliminate or reduce those in order to increase revenues or only to reduce tax rates?”

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