The New York Times
By: Nicholas D. Kristof
July 6, 2011
The House speaker, John Boehner, suggests that the Republican threat of letting the United States default on its debts is driven by concern for jobs for ordinary Americans.
"We cannot miss this opportunity," he told Fox News. "If we want jobs to come to America, we've got to give American businesspeople the confidence to invest in our economy."
So take a look at one of the tax loopholes that Congressional Republicans are refusing to close -- even if the cost is that America's credit rating blows up. This loophole has nothing to do with creating jobs and everything to do with protecting some of America's wealthiest financiers.
If there were an award for Most Unconscionable Tax Loophole, this one would win grand prize.
Wait, wake up! I know that "tax policy" makes one's eyes glaze over, but that's how financiers have gotten away with paying a lower tax rate than their chauffeurs or personal trainers. Tycoons have bet for years that the public is too stupid or distracted to note that in many cases they're paying just a 15 percent tax rate.
What's at stake is the "carried interest" loophole, and President Obama is pushing to close it. The White House estimates that this would raise $20 billion over a decade. But Congressional Republicans walked out of budget talks rather than discuss raising revenues from measures such as this one.
The biggest threat to the United States this summer probably doesn't come from Iran or Libya but from the home-grown risk that the nation will default on its debts. We don't know the economic consequences for America or the world, and some of the hand-wringing may be overblown -- or maybe not -- but it's reckless of Republicans even to toy with such a threat.
This carried interest loophole benefits managers of financial partnerships such as hedge funds, private equity funds, venture capital funds and real estate funds -- who are among the highest-paid people in the world. John Paulson, a hedge fund manager in New York City, made $4.9 billion last year, top of the chart for hedge fund managers, according to AR Magazine, which follows hedge funds. That's equivalent to the average per capita income of 184,000 Americans, according to my back-of-envelope calculations based on Census Bureau figures.
Mr. Paulson declined to comment on this tax break, but here's how it works. These fund managers are compensated mostly with a performance bonus of 20 percent or more of the profits they make. Under this carried interest loophole, that 20 percent is eligible to be taxed at the long-term capital gains rate (if the fund's underlying assets are held long enough) of just 15 percent rather than the regular personal income rate of 35 percent.
This tax loophole is also intellectually vacuous. The performance fee is a return on the manager's labor, not his or her capital, so there's no reason to give it preferential capital gains treatment.
"The carried interest loophole represents everyone's worst fear about the tax system -- that the rich and powerful get away with murder," says Victor Fleischer, a law professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, who has written about the issue. "Closing the loophole won't fix the budget by itself, but it gets us one step closer to justice."
At a time when the richest 1 percent of Americans have a greater collective net worth than the entire bottom 90 percent, there are other ways we could raise money while also making tax policy more equitable. The White House is backing some of them in its negotiations with Congress, but others aren't even in play.
One important proposal has to do with founder's stock, the shares people own in companies they found. Professor Fleischer has written an interesting paper persuasively arguing that founder's stock is hugely undertaxed. It, too, is essentially a return on labor, not capital, and shouldn't benefit from the low capital gains rate.
Likewise, Europe is moving toward a financial transactions tax on trades made in financial markets. That is something long championed by some economists -- especially James Tobin, who won a Nobel Prize for his work -- and it would also raise tens of billions of dollars at a time when it is desperately needed. It makes sense.
The larger question is this: Do we try to balance budget deficits just by cutting antipoverty initiatives, college scholarships and other investments in young people and our future? Or do we also seek tax increases from those best able to afford them?
And when Congressional Republicans claim that the reason for their recalcitrance in budget negotiations is concern for the welfare of ordinary Americans, look more closely. Do we really want to close down the American government and risk another global financial crisis to protect the tax bills of billionaires?
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