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Op-Ed

A tax system tilted toward the rich

A couple living off investments has tax load just a little more than a third of what wage earners pay

Congress managed to pass a tax bill in December — a great relief to tax professionals like myself. But what our legislators didn't do was address the fundamentally unfair way the United States taxes people who work for a living compared with people who live off of the earnings of their investments.

Our current system hits working Americans with punishing rates compared with what the investing classes are charged. A generation's worth of legislative twists have left our tax code so warped that during the coming filing season, one married couple bringing in $150,000 in total income from two jobs could find itself paying almost three times as much in federal income taxes as another couple that is alike in every way — except for the source of its income.

The tax code started to tilt in the direction of favoring income from investments — or favoring the 1%, if you will — more than 20 years ago. In 1993, the year Bill Clinton took office, a married couple claiming the standard deduction — with no children, tax credits or other adjustments to income — and earning $75,000 apiece in wages, would have paid $35,650 in federal income taxes.

A similar couple, whose income came solely from long-term capital gains, would have gotten a small break thanks to what was then the 28% top rate on those gains. Their total tax bill, $34,158, would have been about $1,500 lower than that of the wage earners.

By 2000 — the year George W. Bush was first elected — the tax gap between wage earners and investors had already opened up. In that year, our two-wages couple would have paid $33,607 in taxes. They also would have paid that amount if all of their income had been from stock dividends; there was no preferential treatment for dividends at that point.

But the couple whose income came from long-term capital gains would have paid $23,025 in taxes — almost a third less.

Fast-forward to the 2014 tax season. Our two-income couple are still working full time to make the same $150,000 (not a farfetched scenario in our new-normal era of stagnant wages). After a decade's worth of inflation adjustments to their tax bracket, their tax bill is now $24,138.

And the couple living off of their investments? Their tax bill — whether their money came from long-term capital gains or qualifying dividends — has been slashed to $8,385, or a little more than one-third of the tax load on wage earners.

Some of my clients who get their money from unearned income find this discrepancy unbelievable when they compare their federal taxes to their state bills. During this tax season, I know I will have clients — in California and Oregon, where I live — who will pay more in state income taxes than they do in federal taxes. I may even have some clients who will be stunned to learn that they face a four-figure state tax bill while paying exactly zero in federal income taxes for the year.

The reason: The federal code provides that there is no tax on capital gains or qualifying dividends for people in the 15% income tax bracket. That means that a Los Angeles married couple filing jointly for 2014 with $94,100 of adjusted gross income, all from long-term capital gains and qualifying dividends, would pay nothing — zero! — in federal income tax. But their California tax bill would be north of $3,000.

How did we get to this point? No legislator ever campaigned saying, “Tax laborers more than investors!” But several changes in the code since the early 1990s, including lowered tax rates on capital gains and lowered rates on qualified dividends, have conspired to produce that result. My high-income clients were dismayed last year by the new 3.8% net investment income tax, which applies to joint filers with modified adjusted gross incomes of more than $250,000 ($200,000 for singles), but that affects relatively few filers and, perversely enough, applies to non-tax-advantaged income such as rentals, as well as to dividends and long-term gains.

Neither political party gets sole credit or blame. President George W. Bush was most aggressive about pushing such tax changes, but breaks for unearned income were also passed and extended under both the Clinton and Obama administrations. Supporters argued that lower rates would benefit retirees living on fixed incomes and also spur investments. But the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities says that almost half of all long-term capital gains in 2012 went to the top 0.1% of households by income. For the nearly 60% of elderly filers who had incomes of less than $40,000 in 2011, the lower rates were worth less than $6 per household.

In 1924 — a different era to be sure— industrialist-robber baron-Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon wrote in support of treating wages more favorably than investments. “The fairness of taxing more lightly income from wages, salaries or from investments is beyond question,” he wrote. “In the first case, the income is uncertain and limited in duration; sickness or death destroys it and old age diminishes it; in the other, the source of income continues; the income may be disposed of during a man's life and it descends to his heirs. Surely we can afford to make a distinction between the people whose only capital is their mental and physical energy and the people whose income is derived from investments.”

Well, that's certainly not going to happen any time soon. But leveling out the tax treatment of wages and investment incomes would increase both the perceived and actual fairness of the tax code. It would eliminate preferences that distort investment and financial planning decisions. A fairer code might also increase respect for the system and improve tax collection rates overall.

Joseph Anthony is an enrolled agent and tax pro in Portland, Ore. He can be reached at joe@joethetaxguy.com.

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