Presidential Politics and Income Tax Theory – The Super Rich & Tax Havens in the USA ? – By G. Mentz, JD, MBA
No matter how you slice and dice it, it is difficult to swallow when you see Warren Buffet’s taxes or Mitt Romney’s taxes. You may think, how did they get their income tax rates down to 15%? The challenge for many of us is not the tax rates, but the totality of taxes we pay or the type of income we receive or earn. As I have taught on the subject of tax and wealth management and also been a Wall Street Firm Wealth Management Advisor, the analysis of progressive tax rates can be deceiving and tricky.
If you buy and sell something for a long term capital gain, you can receive a low rate of 15%. If you receive dividends, you may be able to capture a low rate of 15%. If you can find bonds that pay tax free, you may also receive a low rates on passive income. If you use a tax deferred vehicle, you can also defer taxes till withdrawal, Examples are 401K, IRA, annuities and such.
Don’t forget that you can avoid state income tax if you reside in one of the 7 wonderful states such as: Alaska, Florida, Nevada, South Dakota, Texas, Washington, and Wyoming. 41 states impose income taxes. New Hampshire and Tennessee apply it only to income from interest and dividends.
Some states actually limit the taxes on certain types of retirement income. Various states exclude Social Security benefits from state income taxes. 27 states & The District of Columbia who have income taxes provide a full exclusion for Social Security benefits — Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Virginia and Wisconsin.
States are also prohibited from taxing benefits of U.S. military retirees if they exempt the pensions of state and local government retirees. Various other retirement exemptions apply to the value of property or the type of income. For example, all citizens of some states may have a exemption of the first 50 thousand dollars of property value.
Numerous states allow special tax benefits to military retirees. Some states, with conditions, which do not tax retired military pay are: Alabama, Alaska, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Kansas, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, , Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming. Mississippi, Missouri, Kentucky, Oregon, and North Carolina have conditions that apply.
Many states still have an estate tax on top of the federal estate tax: States that impose an estate tax are: Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington.
The question of the day is how do the super-rich avoid the taxes that most of us pay? While the super wealthy may pay some of the “working class” W-2 style taxes, they avoid it on most of their income.
An example would be, how can Warren Buffet or Mitt Romney avoid self employment taxes? Well, the law allows business owners to pay self employment taxes on income, but most of the other income may be treated as pass-through, long term gains or non considered self-employment taxable such as interest, dividends, or sale of assets.
In the end, the middle class and upper middle class is getting hit with the bulk of the “nickel and dime” taxes in this country. Think about the taxes on: State income, state automobile taxes, school district taxes, gasoline taxes, utilities, electricity, water, phone, flight and transport fees, cellular, internet cable, luxury, alcohol, tobacco, and a myriad of other taxes and fees. The TOTALITY of these TAXES may put the average middle income taxpaying family in a 50% tax bracket if they earn a combined 60-100 thousand dollar per year.
Remember, the W-2 employee is the least likely to have the ability to deduct business related expenses as per our tax codes. In the end, high paid wage-earners who are employees such as: doctors, lawyers, government employees, pilots, and CPAs probably pay the highest tax rates on earned income.
In contrast, Mr. Buffet who has invested billions for his clients and himself owes no taxes on typical investments until he sells them. Viola, no taxes paid on long term holdings until you capture income from the sale. With that being said, if Buffet owns a company, that company or its employees will pay taxes on all money that comes in and goes out. In theory, corporate welfare is a myth in that even if a company pays -0- taxes at the corporate rate, the 500,000 employees all paid taxes and hopefully kept their jobs.
Tax breaks are for everyone, and I remember reading one of Russell Simmons’ recent success books. He claimed that he felt like he could have paid more taxes after the sale of a company. The capital gains rate allowed him to pay a low rate of 15-20% tax on the sale of the large company. He claims to have had an ah-ha moment and paid all of his employees who helped build the company an extra bonus as a result of the tax relief. In my humble opinion, this is the original intent of the lower tax rates “to begin with” where everybody involved can benefit.
You can theorize that lower long-term rates and lower dividend rates allow communities to benefit from more local income and for retirees to survive on their pensions or investments. Overall, when taxes are too high, investment is reduced because the reward is mitigated. This is probably why people like Buffett were long term holders is that the punishment for a sale was too large.
So, Mitt Romney may just have good quality tax advisors, and there is NO need for any taxpayer to pay more than the law requires as per the US Supreme Court cases. We all remember VP candidate John Edwards. He saved $600,000 in taxes by forming an S corporation. Edwards earned $26.9 million as a lawyer in 1995, and he minimized Medicare taxes by creating his own S corporation. Edwards paid himself a salary of $360,000 each year for four years and then he had the S corporation pay him the rest of the income in dividends. Salary was subject to Medicare taxation at a rate of 2.9%; however, dividends escape Medicare taxation. There is no wage base for Medicare, all wages or salaries are subject to the full tax. Social Security does have a wage base, which means wages above the limit are exempt from the Social Security tax.
In contrast, President Obama may have a different and much higher tax rate. Most of his income comes from his book sales and from his government employment. Book royalties and high government wages are generally taxed at a much higher rate.
If you remember, most NBA and NFL stars will attempt to maintain residence in a low income tax state like Texas or Florida; however, the state income tax authorities may show up to tax any players who visit their “higher tax” state to play a game. You must figure that some players may earn 1 million dollars per game and 8% of that income is nothing to balk at.
Historically, there has been so much wealth created in the last 30 years, it has been amazing. To watch Google and now Facebook go public is truly fantastic. I remember back in the 80s where people would complain that all of the property or wealth was controlled with no more to be had. However, when new property and wealth is created from thin air, it proves that creativity always trumps materialistic scarcity theory. And yes, most of the new wealth from Facebook will take residence in a lower tax jurisdiction before selling their stock. Let’s face it, 6-9 percent state tax on a large sale of stock with a low basis is a lot of money.
In closing, I recall in the late 70s somebody showed me a list the Forbes 400 wealthiest people in the USA. I distinctly recall that the bulk of the list of names inherited the money or started with wealth. In the recent 20 years, we now see that the bulk of the wealthiest are self-made. With that being said, the one thing that changed during this time was the reduction in long-term capital gains rates.
Are taxes good or bad? Everyone knows that those who benefit from society must chip in and everyone must have some skin in the game. However, the other extreme is that “100% taxation is pure economic slavery”. Thus, everyone is against slavery on any level. The major question that looms is : what is fair? And that, I will leave that to the government & politicians who are the servants of the customers, “We The People”.
**Financial, Legal or Tax Advise is not intended to be offered in any way. The Academic Exception is Claimed in this Article. If you need tax advice, legal counsel or financial advice, please see a licensed professional in your jurisdiction.
George Mentz, JD, MBA – All Rights Reserved 2012