Friday, September 23, 2011

All Sizzle, No Steak

Ask a Wall Street financial expert to name the most high-profile resident of Nebraska. They'll probably answer Warren Buffett, the legendary investor and "Oracle of Omaha." Now ask a Nebraska farmer. They'll probably answer Tom Osborne, the legendary football coach of the Nebraska Cornhuskers.

In Nebraska, Cornhusker football is a quasi-religious experience. When the 'Huskers play at home, their stadium becomes the third-largest city in the state (behind Lincoln and Omaha, Buffett's home city). While the 'Husker fans take their teams seriously, they don't converge on Lincoln solely for the football. With college football, comes serious tailgating. And with serious tailgating, comes grilled meat for the inner caveman.

During a 'Husker tailgating party, when the charcoal starts glowing, fans break out the brats and burgers and steaks. Nebraskans want their steaks fresh, juicy and big, with an anonymous American beer on the side. They're looking for the steak in steak, not the sizzle.

On Monday, September 19, President Obama announced five principles of tax reform (part of his plan for economic growth and deficit reduction). As I discussed in my last post, the fifth principle is "observe the Buffett rule." The Buffett Rule says that people making more than $1 million a year should not pay a smaller share of their income in taxes than middle-class families pay.

The rule is all sizzle, no steak. That's ironic, given its namesake. Then again, mega-billionaire Buffett would probably be more comfortable at an Obama fundraising event than a 'Husker tailgating party.

Sizzle, Drizzle, Fizzle

The Buffett Rule attracted immediate criticism. For tax professionals and economists familiar with tax data, the premise of the Buffett Rule didn't pass a "smell test." It just didn't seem like a widespread problem that should become a central plank of tax reform. Gene Sperling conceded as much this week on a White House blog post "clarifying" the Buffett Rule.

The $100 Million Man

For several years, Buffett has claimed that he pays a lower effective (or average) tax rate than his secretary, who earned $60,000 in 2007. Buffett claimed that he paid tax at a 17.7% average rate (for example, $1.77 million in tax on $10 million in income). He claimed that his secretary paid tax at a 30% average rate ($18,000 of tax on $60,000 in income).

The numbers recited by Buffett never made sense to me. I understand why an uber-wealthy individual taxpayer might pay a low effective tax rate. More on that below. I don't understand how a secretary earning $60,000 could get stuck with tax at a 30% rate. As discussed in the next section, it seems unlikely (impossible?) that Buffett's secretary pays tax at a 30% average tax rate.

Why can an uber-wealthy individual taxpayer pay a low effective tax rate? Seems kind of unfair, right? Under current law, qualified dividends and long-term capital gains are subject to tax at a 15% rate. The 15% tax rate is intended to reduce the double-taxation dilemma that occurs when a corporation distributes its previously-taxed earnings to its shareholders. If a high proportion of an individual's taxable income is derived from dividends or capital gains, that individual's effective tax rate gets "averaged" down towards 15%.

In fact, under current tax rules, a mega-millionaire could earn millions from tax-exempt bond investments, and pay an effective tax rate of zero! Imagine a successful Internet entrepreneur cashed out at the top of the bubble in 1999, paid taxes on his fabulous gains, and rolled $100 million of cash into tax-exempt bonds yielding 5%. His tax-exempt bonds would generate annual cash income of $5 million. However, the income from the bonds is exempt from federal income tax. Zero tax on $5 million in income results in a 0% effective federal income tax rate. That's a lower rate than Buffett, his secretary, and the other 99.99% of us endure.

Of course, Congress didn't exempt state and municipal bond income from taxation as a favor to our $100 Million Man. The exemption for interest paid on tax-exempt bonds represents a subsidy to state and local governments. The federal tax subsidy reduces the cost of financing by permitting state and local governments to issue debt at lower yields. The subsidy reflects a policy choice, and arguably a "bad" policy choice that encourages undisciplined spending by state and local governments.

Note that Congress could increase the 0% effective tax rate applicable to our $100 Million Man by eliminating the tax subsidy for states and municipalities. Eliminating the tax subsidy would increase borrowing costs and decrease the funds available for other state and local objectives. Maybe that's better policy in the long run. But the political left assaults common sense when it demagogues "millionaires and billionaires" who benefit from structural policy decisions (like the tax subsidy for state and municipal bonds). Our $100 Million Man isn't "gaming" the system to achieve a 0% effective tax rate. He's simply playing by the rules of the game that Congress put on the table.

Numbers Don't Lie

Let's get back to Buffett and his secretary. Buffett has complained that he pays a higher effective tax rate (at 17.7%) than his secretary (at 30%). President Obama has seized Buffett's complaint and incorporated it into his "principles" that should guide "fundamental tax reform."

Because the President has made Buffett's complaint a prime-time issue, it raises three questions. Is the complaint accurate, i.e., does Buffett really pay a lower effective tax rate than his secretary? Is the problem widespread based on existing tax data? And is Buffett's concern fundamental to our long-term fiscal solvency and economic competitiveness?

No, no, and no.

[1] Buffett's claim does not seem accurate, much less possible, based on prevailing tax rates. Of course, we don't have complete facts on Buffett's secretary. Is he or she married? Does he or she have children? If married, what kind of earnings does his or her spouse bring to the table? The list could go on for 10 paragraphs.

Having been deprived of the actual facts by Buffett and Obama, I plugged some assumptions into a tax calculator. I assume that Secretary reports $60,000 in taxable income, claims the standard deduction ($5,700), a single exemption ($3,700), and takes advantage of the reduced Social Security tax rate in 2011 (4.2%). On my assumptions, Secretary is in the 25% tax bracket, but pays income tax at a 17.3% average rate. (For another cut at the exercise, see this hypothetical from Peter Pappas.)

We'll never know if Buffett was exaggerating the numbers, confused about the fact that marginal tax rates exceed average tax rates, or had special knowledge about his secretary's tax position (e.g., secretary is married to a spouse with a $200,000 income). However, it seems highly unlikely that Buffett's claim was accurate. So the fifth "principle" guiding Obama's tax reform platform is based on exaggeration, confusion, or some combination of the two.

[2] The "problem" identified by Buffett (based on exaggeration or confusion) is inconsistent with the existing tax data, as discussed here and here.

The nearby table is copied and pasted from the Wall Street Journal article. Although the mega-billionaire Buffett (at 17.7%) may pay a lower effective tax rate than an average working professional married couple with taxable income of $250,000 (at 19.6%), that is not the case for the average "millionaire or billionaire." Both the average millionaire (at 23.3%) and the average working professional married couple (at 19.6%) pay significantly higher effective tax rates than the average middle-class secretary (at 8.9%, assuming taxable income in the $50,000 to $100,000 range).

[3] Finally, the "problem" identified by Buffett (based on exaggeration or confusion) is not fundamental to our long-term fiscal solvency or economic competitiveness, as I discussed in my last blog post.

White House Spin Fizzles

In light of the numbers, the Obama administration went into spin mode. Gene Sperling posted this defense of the "Buffett Rule" on the White House blog last week. Sperling clarified several of the questions that jumped to my mind when I heard about the proposal. Ironically, however, Sperling's attempt to rebut criticism of the proposal confirmed that the "principle" is a class-warfare tactic that will distract from actual tax reform.

So what did Sperling say?

[1] The Buffett Rule will only potentially apply to those with taxable income over $1 million -- approximately 0.3% of American taxpayers. We're off to a shaky start. I thought this was supposed to be a "fundamental" principle of tax reform. And it only potentially applies to 0.3% of taxpayers?

[2] Even among that 0.3% of American taxpayers, it affects only those within that group that pay low tax rates:
In fact, many — if not most — of the few true small business owners making over $1 million already pay ordinary income tax rates (and not the preferential rates) and thus would not be impacted at all by the Buffett Rule.
Okay, so the Administration believes that "many" but not "most" taxpayers reporting more than $1 million in taxable income pay tax at ordinary income rates (35% in 2011). That seems consistent with the data (see table above; the average tax rate paid by taxpayers in this group was 23.3%). However, now we're talking perhaps 0.1% or 0.2% of American taxpayers under the microscope.

[3] The Buffett Rule is not about "all taxpayers." It is about those taxpayers who are able to pay at lower tax rates than middle-class families:
Take IRS data on the taxes paid by the 400 highest-income households in 2008, all making over $110 million per year and making an average of $271 million per year. Some of those 400 taxpayers do pay their fair share, but according to that data, one-third of this group pays less than 15 percent of their income in taxes and 85 percent pays less than 30 percent.
Now, we're getting somewhere. It appears that the Administration is obsessed with roughly 133 taxpayers (one-third of 400). Because 133 taxpayers recognize a disproportionate amount of income from qualified dividends and capital gains (see above), the Buffett Rule has become a central plank of tax reform? Excuse me while I read the White House blog again, because I must be missing the joke.

[4] Sperling then launches into a series of hypotheticals where he, perhaps channeling Buffett, confuses marginal tax rates for average tax rates.


I'm pretty much sick of Warren Buffett and his bumbling foray into tax policy. Team Obama has taken an alleged "problem" involving 100-200 uber-wealthy taxpayers, and begun marketing the "solution" as fundamental tax reform. The emphasis on average tax rates might be a good class warfare tactic, but it misses the critical question. The critical question is: how much of the total income tax burden should we impose on the top 0.1% of taxpayers (or top 0.3%, or 1%, and so on). Perhaps we'll look at the numbers and conclude that they're paying their "fair share." Perhaps we'll conclude that they're not. A focus on "average tax rates" simply distracts from the question.

Meanwhile, the Nebraska Cornhuskers are 3-0 going into a game against Wyoming. Break out the steak, and leave the sizzle to Team Obama.

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