So there's been quite a bit of fuss over how the rich supposedly pay lower taxes (proportionally of course) than regular, hard-working Americans because of various tax schemes that "let the rich get richer"

This website - http://www.salon.com/2013/04/12/10_tax_dodges_that_help_the_rich_get_richer_partner/

probably makes the boldest claims - according to it, a billionaire could

  1. avoid even capital gains taxes by borrowing money because the tax isn't due until the shares are sold (and they don't ever need to be sold) - but wouldn't the interest rate over 30 years wipe out the savings? Also, couldn't a regular person do that too?

  2. It then (on #3.) it describes bartering - but I thought bartering was still taxable?

  3. (on #4) it then describes fake charity scams - but wouldn't the IRS (not to mention some other federal agencies) audit multi-billion dollar charities for that?

  4. (on #5) Couldn't a regular employee convince their boss to pay for their car "on paper" and split the tax savings?

  5. (on #6) I always thought you'd go to jail for that stuff?

  6. (on #7) Again, seems like just some more regular business expenses that incentivize R&D

  7. (on #10) I don't understand how an IRA would benefit a billionaire more than a millionaire. Actually, 401(k) plans seem to be better than dividend stocks since they aren't taxed until it's converted to cash.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ You are asking at least 7 different questions, without giving the questions, but just an assumed answer, and only linking to the questions. It is a interesting question, but you should think how you could make this more for this format. $\endgroup$ – Thorst May 5 '15 at 7:09

I understand the core point of your question as, "Do people with extremely high incomes pay proportionately less in taxes than average Americans?"

Yes, extremely-high-income individuals do pay a lower percentage of their income in taxes than do upper-middle-class and high-income households, and even more than many middle-income households, but they tend to pay more in taxes than low-income households.

This is due to a number of reasons, but it has less to do with elaborate tax strategies than it does the simple fact that people with very high incomes tend to derive a larger share of that income from dividends and capital gains than from normal cash compensation. Both of these have lower marginal tax rates than are paid to people who receive relatively high cash compensation— the top tax rate on dividend and long-term capital gains is 20%, which is roughly equal to the effective marginal income and payroll tax rate paid by the top 20% of income earners.

From the Brookings Institution/Urban Institute Tax Policy Center, we can see the total average effective tax rates for different groups (for 2011, the most recent year for which detailed data have been released, but things haven't changed much since then):

   Quintile  Avg Eff Tax Rate
      0-20%:  1.9%
     21-40%:  7.0%
     41-60%: 11.2%
     61-80%: 15.2%
     81-90%: 18.6%
     91-95%: 21.1%
     96-99%: 24.3%
     Top 1%: 29.0%
    Top 400:  <20%

The last line of the table is from the IRS Statistics of Income division, which publishes a distribution of the average effective tax rates for the 400 taxpayers with the highest adjusted gross incomes:

 Rate    Number
 0-10%    32
10-15%   147
15-20%   123
20-25%    40
25-30%    28
30-35%    30
  >35%     0

So you can see that the average effective tax rates rise sharply as you go from the poor to the middle class, then more slowly as you move from the upper middle class through to the top 1%, but once you get to the very top, the 0.1% and 0.01% of income earners, they do actually pay less proportionately in taxes than many middle-income families.

Finally, it's important to note that these statistics will tend to understate the degree to which people with extremely high incomes pay lower taxes than those with moderate incomes to the extent that those with high incomes make use of schemes (like the ones in the linked article) that lower their AGI.

To quickly answer your more specific questions:

  1. No, regular people can't borrow against unrealized capital gains, because by definition, regular people don't own large amounts of capital.
  2. Federal income taxes don't apply to a swap of similar assets (i.e., real estate for real estate). You're probably thinking about "barter clubs," which do trigger tax consequences, but those aren't like-kind exchanges, they're barter exchanges (they're not similar assets).
  3. These aren't "fake" charities that are being described, they're real charities (if I recall correctly, they're required to spend 1% of their endowment annually on charitable purposes, which is more than offset by gains on capital income in most years). This is in fact a real and common tax-avoidance strategy that is entirely legal.
  4. No, a regular person could not legally do this— there has to be a business justification for something to count as a business expense, and while a taxi home from work when working late counts as a business expense, personal autos don't meet the test.
  5. If a tax strategy hasn't been determined to be illegal before it's tried, only civil penalties (i.e., no jail time) apply if it's ruled to be invalid.
  6. The tax benefits they describe in #8 accrue to corporations, which are disproportionately owned by wealthy individuals. (See page 156 of this FRB chart deck on the results of the most recent Survey of Consumer Finances for a quick overview of who owns financial assets in the US.)
  7. You're right that IRA plans benefit all very-high-income individuals equally, but they do provide greater benefits to high-income individuals than middle-income individuals (who are less likely to be able to contribute the maximum).

You're asking questions in a very disorganized manner, which will prevent most people from attempting to answer you. Also, there's an emotional feel to your question - you sound upset that people are avoiding taxes.

This is economics and in economics we often discuss how people behave in the market, whether we like it or not. For instance, socialism, emotionally sounds wonderful, yet anyone who's studied the Soviet Union knows it didn't work ... at all.

Will people avoid taxes? Yes. Do the rich? Yes. Do the poor? Yes. I worked at a bank for a while and we were required to report when we saw suspicious behavior of customers and I can tell you about the number of times I reported to my manager Americans who collected disability or unemployment while also working for people in cash - they were getting free money from the government, but working for people in cash and not reporting the cash (blatant fraud, which taxpayers funded). For instance, this video, which many think is an embellishment, was not uncommon at all.

For some direct answers:

Bartering is one of the best ways to avoid taxes (as is negotiation) because if the bartering is more financially beneficial than the ease of taxes, a person may barter instead of paying income that was taxed. Anyone, of any class, can barter. To prevent bartering, an economic system wants the tax system to be arranged in a way that would make bartering more costly than just paying taxes.

Charity scams will be favored by the rich, and no the IRS can't audit every charity, even if it's a multi million dollar charity. It can only audit some and hope that deters the others; also, some charities, like the Susan G. Komen foundation, might not be audited because the IRS would fear something else, like being accused of sexism, so billionaires would probably choose politically correct charities, knowing they could get the media on their side and the IRS wouldn't touch them (if billionaires were to go this route).

Getting free stuff? Any class can do this; this is really negotiation. Most international people, who live or visit the US, negotiate and it makes sense. Yes, the IRS loses money, but at the end of the day, it's the rational economic decision.

Also, things like cryptocurrencies (speculation) are ways the rich avoid taxes, as well as buying assets privately held in other countries (see the Chinese bureaucrats as examples). The rich have many more ways to avoid taxes than the poor and middle class, though the other two income categories can avoid taxes as well.

Economically, a simple and fair tax system is the best way to prevent all of this. No one wants to avoid something they perceive as easy and fair. What you're seeing is that some don't think this about the U.S. system, whether any of us in particular agree or disagree.

  • $\begingroup$ Yeah sorry about the organization - I've been caught up in a lot of things. Hmm how did I make it sound like I was upset that people were avoiding taxes? Maybe you merely had an assumption that only liberals would discuss this kind of topic? I'm assuming you're saying that the whole "borrowing against shares and never paying it back" deal would actually work? I doubt that cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin would be a realistic way to avoid taxes because the volatility is so high the value not only depends on the belief in further value, but also that it wouldn't get hacked. $\endgroup$ – user3272992 May 5 '15 at 16:30

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.