MacKenzie Scott has given away over $8 billion since divorcing Jeff Bezos, but her wealth keeps rising thanks to Amazon’s soaring stock price

Mackenzie Bezos
MacKenzie Scott.

  • MacKenzie Scott has given away over $8 billion since divorcing Jeff Bezos.
  • She recently gave $2.74 billion to charity, but she’s still worth around $60 billion.
  • Scott owns a 4% stake in Amazon, whose share price has continued to skyrocket during the pandemic.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

MacKenzie Scott has given away over $8 billion in the last year, but it hasn’t made much of a dent in her net worth – in fact, her fortune keeps rising.

Scott, a philanthropist and the ex-wife of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, announced on Tuesday that she had given away $2.74 billion to 286 organizations. The donations were given in “categories and communities that have historically been underfunded and overlooked,” Scott said in a blog post.

The latest round of donations brings Scott’s total to about $8.5 billion. In July 2020, she revealed that she had donated $1.7 billion to 116 organizations since her divorce from Bezos in 2019; last December, she announced another $4 billion in donations to help those who were affected economically during the pandemic, including food banks and relief funds.

Despite the billions Scott has given away throughout the last two years, she remains one of the richest people in the world with a net worth of around $60 billion – since June 2020, Scott’s fortune has increased by $1.31 billion overall, according to Bloomberg’s Billionaires Index.

Scott and Bezos finalized their divorce in July 2019. The high-profile split left Scott with a 4% stake in Amazon and instantly made her one of the richest women alive.

Read more: Bill Gates and Warren Buffett got 211 billionaires to pledge half their wealth to charity. But some are moving slow – and still getting massive tax breaks.

Prior to the divorce, Scott announced that she had signed the Giving Pledge, a committement created by Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, and Melinda French Gates that asks the world’s wealthiest people to pledge to give the majority of their fortune to charity. Scott revealed earlier this year that she had married Dan Jewett, a former Seattle chemistry teacher, and added him to the pledge.

Bezos has not signed onto the Giving Pledge, but his $10 billion donation to help fight climate change was the single-largest charitable gift in 2020.

Amazon shares climbed throughout 2020 as demand surged amid the pandemic. The company added hundreds of thousands of additional jobs at its fulfillment centers over the last year and opened new warehouses throughout North America.

The company currently has a market value of over $1.7 trillion, and sales have continued to soar in 2021: Amazon reported $108.52 billion in revenue in the first quarter, a 44% increase year-over-year.

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The 10 wealthiest American families saw their wealth increase by $136 billion during the pandemic

Lauder family
The Lauder family has gained the most wealth of any other American family during the pandemic.

The rich continue to get richer.

America’s 10 wealthiest billionaire families saw their median wealth grow by 25%, per a new report from the left-leaning Institute for Policy Studies. Their net worth collectively increased by $136 billion since the pandemic began in March 2020.

Titled “Silver Spoon Oligarchs,” the report examines the growing concentration of wealth in the US by looking at the top 50 dynastically wealthy families from Forbes’ inaugural ranking of America’s wealthiest clans, published in December 2020, and data from the Federal Reserve‘s Survey of Consumer Finance.

Each family’s wealth comes from companies started by an earlier generation, whether a parent or distant ancestor, according to the report, and each represents a wealth dynasty passing generation to generation.

The ranks of these dynastic fortunes have remained largely unchanged for decades, per the report, and their wealth has grown exponentially during the pandemic.

The Lauder family, the cosmetics magnate behind the Estée Lauder empire, gained the most during the pandemic, nearly doubling its wealth with 83% growth. Even the family with the smallest wealth gains, SC Johnson, saw 9% growth – an increase of just over $1 billion.

“At a time when unemployment rates have skyrocketed and many American families have been struggling to get by, the very wealthiest families in the country have watched their assets multiply,” the report reads.

Read more: Dynastic wealth may be fueling the widening gap between America’s rich and poor – here’s how the wealthy keep their money in the family

The pandemic exacerbated America’s wealth disparities

It’s the latest in the story of America’s K-shaped recovery. The pandemic widened wealth inequality in America, exposing preexisting disparities in wealth, in the sense that when the recovery began, upper middle class and wealthy Americans formed an upward leg of a K shape, while the rest saw their fortunes worsen.

Higher-income Americans – especially those in industries like tech and software – have seen jobs return and their incomes grow. Throughout the pandemic, higher-income people have consistently been spending less than lower-income Americans, meaning they saved more money, creating increasingly larger cushions.

Billionaires in particular have seen their net worths grow, exceeding $1 trillion, while their frontline workers have foregone hazard pay and fallen ill. The bottom of the K found themselves jobless, struggled to pay bills, and fell into poverty.

But some billionaires have been thinking twice about how they’re tackling generational wealth. Bill Gates and Warren Buffett plan to give most of their money away through the Giving Pledge, instead of keeping it in the family.

Buffett has long been vocal about his efforts to reduce the vast wealth sitting in the hands of a few influential people. “Dynastic wealth, the enemy of a meritocracy, is on the rise,” Buffett said during a Senate Finance Committee hearing about the federal estate tax 2007. “Equality of opportunity has been on the decline.”

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A business ethicist explains why billionaires like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos shouldn’t use tax avoidance strategies, even if it’s legal

billionaires 04
Ordinary people don’t have access to tax avoidance strategies like the superrich do.

  • Some US billionaires reportedly pay minimal amounts of federal income tax, or sometimes nothing at all.
  • While not illegal, tax avoidance strategies can seen as unethical, says business ethics scholar Erin Bass.
  • Regardless of ethics, if the super rich avoid taxes, it could encourage the public to do the same.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Some of the US’s wealthiest individuals reportedly pay just a tiny fraction of the billions of dollars added annually to their fortunes in federal income tax – sometimes they pay nothing at all.

Investigative journalism outlet ProPublica says it has obtained a “vast cache” of information from the Internal Revenue Service that purports to show the lengths that American billionaires go to to avoid paying taxes.

It claims to provide an insight into how prominent billionaires such as Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and Michael Bloomberg take advantage of “tax avoidance strategies” beyond the reach of ordinary people.

Though there is general public consensus on the illegality of tax evasion – the act of deliberately not paying taxes that are due – much more variance exists in how the public evaluates and scrutinizes tax avoidance strategies that seek to minimize the amount an individual pays through legal loopholes. There is no suggestion that the billionaires in the ProPublica report did anything illegal.

A poll taken just before the 2016 election found that nearly half of Americans agreed with Donald Trump – another wealthy individual not averse to tax avoidance strategies – who noted that paying minimal or no taxes is “smart.” But two-thirds said it is “selfish” and 61% declared it to be “unpatriotic.”

Read more: ‘I love depreciation’: How big companies use Trump-like maneuvers to play the tax code in their favor

Rights and responsibilities

As a scholar who studies business ethics, I see these differences in how individuals view and rationalize tax avoidance as being dependent on a person’s ethical foundations. Ethical foundations are the principles, norms, and values that guide individual or group beliefs and behaviors. They can shape what people believe is important – such as fairness, care for oneself or others, loyalty, and liberty – and guide judgments about what is right, or ethical, and what is wrong, or unethical.

Philosophers have debated these ethical foundations for centuries, coming up broadly with three different perspectives that are worth exploring in the context of tax avoidance strategies.

Thinkers from Immanuel Kant to John Rawls have offered what has been called the deontological argument. This emphasizes ethics based on adherence to rules, regulations, laws, and norms. Such an approach suggests that “what is right” is defined as that which is most in line with an individual’s responsibility and duty toward society.

Meanwhile, utilitarian philosophers such as John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham put forward an argument that recognizes the costs and benefits, or even trade-offs, in pursuing what is right. Under this belief system, called consequentialism, behaviors are ethical if the outcome is beneficial to the greatest number of people, even if it comes at a cost.

A third perspective comes in the shape of what is called the virtue ethical foundation that is associated with Aristotle and other Greek philosophers. This suggests that what is right is that which elevates the individual’s virtues and efforts toward moral excellence – defined by both avoiding vices and striving to do good. In this way, ethical behavior is that which enables the individual to achieve his or her most excellent moral self.

On morals and money

When applied to the tax avoidance strategies of individuals, each perspective offers a unique understanding of why individuals differ on what they view to be “right.”

An individual who adopts the deontological perspective likely evaluates a public figure’s tax avoidance strategies – and that of others – with less scrutiny. As long as an individual follows the tax code, and acts legally, the tax avoidance strategies are likely to be viewed by that individual as ethical.

In contrast, a consequentialist is likely to evaluate tax avoidance strategies by also looking at how those taxes could have been used to benefit society – by paying for schools and hospitals, for example. When one individual – be it a billionaire or any other person – avoids taxes, it increases the costs experienced by everyone else while also decreasing the benefits experienced by society as a whole.

The cost to society in terms of lesser funding for programs and services supported by tax dollars may be even greater when a wealthy individual avoids taxes, given what is likely a higher tax responsibility than that of individuals with modest incomes. Thus, consequentialist individuals may well conclude that tax avoidance strategies are unethical.

An individual who adopts the virtue perspective of Aristotle might evaluate tax avoidance strategies in the context of an individual’s other virtuous behaviors. If someone avoids taxes but provides financial support to other institutions or entities that are meaningful to the tax avoider but also produce benefits for society, then the virtuous individual may view this behavior with less disdain.

For example, someone may use tax avoidance strategies and direct some wealth to provide funding directly to an academic health care center for cancer research. But if that person employs tax avoidance strategies in the absence of any other virtuous behaviors, then the tax avoidance is likely to be seen and rationalized as unethical.

Social influencers

So whether tax avoidance strategies are viewed and rationalized as ethical or unethical likely depends on the ethical foundations of the person judging such actions.

But when it comes to public figures and the superrich, there are additional ethical concerns at play here. Public figures are evaluated not just on their own personal morality, but also by what influence their behaviors could have on others. If the superrich avoid taxes, it might signal to the public to do the same, which could have greater consequences. The public often demands more of the superrich – and ethics are no exception. The expectation is that these individuals, as leaders in society, should create benefits for society through their behaviors. As a result, these individuals may be held to a higher ethical standard and their behaviors more closely scrutinized.

As such, the question of whether the tax avoidance strategies of the ultrawealthy are “ethical” depends not only on the ethical foundation of the individual who views and judges the behavior but also on the expectation of the ultrawealthy to create benefits for society.

This is an updated version of an article originally published on The Conversation on October 30, 2020.

Erin Bass, associate professor of management, University of Nebraska Omaha

The Conversation
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How billionaires like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk avoid paying federal income tax while increasing their net worth by billions

amazon jeff bezos white house
Amazon cofounder and CEO Jeff Bezos.

  • Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos didn’t pay any income taxes for at least two years between 2006 and 2018, ProPublica reported.
  • Tesla CEO Elon Musk also skipped paying federal income taxes in 2018, according to the report.
  • Billionaires are able to circumvent federal income taxes through legal financial manipulation.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

In 2007, and again in 2011, billionaire Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos reportedly paid nothing in federal income taxes. In 2018, billionaire Tesla CEO Elon Musk reportedly did the same thing.

That’s according to confidential tax documents filed with the Internal Revenue Service obtained by ProPublica, which were revealed in a bombshell new report on some of the world’s wealthiest people.

Bezos is currently listed by Forbes as the richest person in the world, with a net worth of $188.8 billion. Musk isn’t far behind at number two on the Forbes list, with a net worth of $153.3 billion.

How do men with such dramatically high net worths avoid paying federal income tax?

Billionaires like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk derive little wealth from their annual income. Instead, much of their net worth is tied to stock holdings.

Amazon Jeff Bezos
Jeff Bezos cofounded Amazon in the early ’90s, and still owns a 10% stake in the company.

Bezos, for example, owns a 10.3% stake in Amazon that’s valued at about $170 billion.

The majority of Bezos’ net worth – $170 billion – is tied to Amazon stock, which fluctuates regularly and has even left the billionaire jockeying for the world’s wealthiest title with Tesla CEO Elon Musk at times. At least $19 billion of Bezos’ wealth is not tied to his stake in Amazon.

Bezos can skip paying taxes on his accumulated wealth from the Amazon stock because stock gains aren’t taxed until they are realized by selling off the stock: Since those stocks represent value, but cannot be used as tender, they aren’t counted as “income” – even if they appreciate in value tremendously, like those of Amazon and Tesla.

As a result, though Bezos’ net worth increased by a reported $127 billion between 2006 and 2018, he only reported an income of $6.5 billion for those 12 years, according to ProPublica, resulting in a tax bill of around $1.4 billion.

That puts his federal income tax rate at about 21%, but his reported income doesn’t account for the massive increase in his net worth tied to stock ownership.

If you account for the $127 billion increase to his net worth that came from stocks appreciating in value over time, that $1.4 billion in federal income taxes accounts for just over 1%.

Moreover, Bezos and other stock-holding billionaires are able to turn those stocks into usable cash without having to sell: By borrowing money against their stock holdings, they’re able to lock in a lower loan interest rate than what they would pay through capital gains taxes that are applied after a stock is sold.

Got a tip? Contact Insider senior correspondent Ben Gilbert via email (bgilbert@insider.com), or Twitter DM (@realbengilbert). We can keep sources anonymous. Use a non-work device to reach out. PR pitches by email only, please.

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Warren Buffett is under fire for avoiding taxes. Give him a break.

warren buffett
Warren Buffett.

OPINION

  • Warren Buffett is getting roasted for avoiding taxes after ProPublica’s bombshell report.
  • The billionaire investor is donating almost all of his money to good causes.
  • Buffett lives modestly, supports higher taxes on the wealthy, and doesn’t use popular tax loopholes.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Warren Buffett is being cast as the face of billionaire greed after ProPublica reported this week that he pays very little in federal income taxes relative to his vast wealth.

However, the investor’s minimal tax bill seems far less outrageous when viewed in the context of his modest lifestyle, philanthropic efforts, the nature of his company and its shareholders, his calls to raise taxes on the wealthy, and his refusal to use popular tax loopholes.

The case against Buffett

ProPublica analyzed leaked copies of Buffett’s tax returns between 2014 and 2018, and found the Berkshire Hathaway CEO paid just $24 million in federal income taxes on $125 million of reported income. The non-profit publication emphasized how little tax he paid by pointing out that his net worth grew by an estimated $24 billion in that five-year period.

“No one among the 25 wealthiest avoided as much tax as Buffett, the grandfatherly centibillionaire,” ProPublica declared.

Read more: Warren Buffett is hoarding $80 billion of cash, cleaning up his stock portfolio, and declining to bash bitcoin. Veteran investor Thomas Russo says why that strategy will ultimately pay off.

Politicians including Sen. Chris Murphy, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and Rep. Pramila Jayapal rushed to condemn Buffett and his fellow billionaires, calling for heftier taxes on the super rich and the closure of loopholes in tax laws.

ProPublica highlighted Buffett’s two main strategies to minimize his income, and therefore his taxes. The investor keeps over 99% of his wealth in Berkshire stock – which isn’t taxed until sold – and his company doesn’t pay a dividend, which shareholders would have to pay taxes on.

Not a typical billionaire

ProPublica reported that billionaires such as Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and Tesla CEO Elon Musk paid no federal income taxes in some years, partly by taking out loans and deducting the interest paid on them from their incomes. There’s no indication that Buffett uses the same tricks; the investor said in 2016 that he has paid taxes every year since 1944.

Bezos is reportedly building a yacht so large that it comes with a support yacht, while Musk previously boasted a real-estate portfolio valued at north of $100 million – although he appears to have sold most of it to fund his dream of colonizing Mars.

The 90-year-old Buffett lives far less extravagantly. He resides in the same house in Omaha, Nebraska that he bought for less than $32,000 in 1958 ($290,000 in today’s dollars). He grabs breakfast at McDonald’s on his daily drive to Berkshire headquarters, guzzles Coca-Cola, and snacks on See’s Candies. He treats himself with an occasional trip to Dairy Queen, and entertains himself by playing online bridge.

The investor doesn’t use a company car, belong to any clubs where Berkshire pays his dues, or commandeer company-owned aircraft for his personal use – even though Berkshire owns NetJets, which sells fractional ownership of private jets.

Buffett also buys damaged cars and has them repaired to save money, and drove the same Cadillac for eight years until his daughter told him it was embarrassing and badgered him into upgrading to a newer model in 2014.

Notably, the Berkshire chief has drawn a $100,000 annual salary for the past 40 years – a fraction of the $15 million average pay of S&P 500 CEOs in 2019 – and doesn’t receive bonuses or stock options. While some details might be embellished, it’s clear that he lives a modest lifestyle relative to other billionaires.

Giving it all away

Buffett defended his tiny tax bill in a detailed statement to ProPublica, explaining that he’s pledged to donate more than 99% of his fortune to good causes. He’s donated about half of his Berkshire stock – worth about $100 billion at the current stock price – to five foundations since 2006.

The Berkshire chief told ProPublica that he prefers to hand his money to charitable organizations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation instead of the government.

“I believe the money will be of more use to society if disbursed philanthropically than if it is used to slightly reduce an ever-increasing US debt,” he said.

Read more: Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway has $140 billion in cash, yet it pulled billions out of Apple, Costco, and Chevron. Veteran investor Chris Bloomstran explains why the cash pile isn’t excessive and the sales made sense.

Buffett, aware that skeptics would likely dismiss his charity as a tax write-off, added that he’s only garnered 50 cents in tax benefits for every $1,000 he’s donated over the past 15 years.

The investor made a similar point in 2016, after Donald Trump accused him of taking a massive tax deduction. Buffett shared the details of his 2015 tax return, highlighting that he paid $1.8 million in federal income tax on $11.6 million of gross income, and only deducted $3.5 million for charitable contributions despite giving almost $2.9 billion to charity that year.

Moreover, Buffett noted that only $36,000 of his $5.5 million in total deductions that year were unrelated to charity or state income taxes. He added that he’s never used a “carryforward,” which allows taxpayers to deduct losses or tax credits from previous years. He pegged his unused carryforward at north of $7 billion in 2010.

Buffett clearly sees charitable donations as a reasonable way to pay fewer taxes, and has championed them in the past.

“If you want to give away all of your money, it’s a terrific tax dodge,” he quipped in response to an investor’s question at Berkshire’s annual shareholder meeting in 2010. “I welcome the questioner or anybody else following my tax dodge example and giving away their money. They will save a lot of taxes that way, and the money will probably do a lot of good.”

Buffett is also happy to keep his fortune in Berkshire stock. It signals to investors that he’s confident in his company and focused on generating long-term value, and means he has more skin in the game than anyone else. Moreover, he doesn’t feel guilty as his company’s success will ultimately benefit society.

“Many shareholders, including me, enjoy the long-term buildup in value, knowing that it is destined for philanthropy, not consumption or dynastic aspirations,” he told ProPublica.

Buffett also explained that Berkshire doesn’t pay a dividend because its shareholders overwhelmingly voted against one in 2014. They prefer Buffett to allocate Berkshire’s profits across the conglomerate and use them to buy quality stocks and businesses, instead of returning cash to them. Buffett also views buybacks as superior to dividends for several reasons, not just tax efficiency.

Buffett wants higher taxes

While some billionaires complain of excessive taxes on the wealthy, Buffett has called for higher taxes on the richest 1% of Americans, as well as changes to the tax code to prevent tax avoidance.

The investor highlighted more than a decade ago how ridiculous it was that his secretary paid a higher tax rate than him. The revelation spurred President Barack Obama to pursue the removal of tax breaks for the wealthy, and name his ultimately unsuccessful bill after Buffett. “If all the diseases have been taken, I’ll take a tax,” the investor joked at the time.

Buffett has also called for policies to reduce income inequality, such as expanding the earned-income tax credit to help workers get ahead. He once testified to Congress that estate taxes should be higher and better enforced, he told ProPublica, but his “persuasive powers proved to be limited.”

Overall, it’s not surprising that under the current tax rules, a 90-year-old who keeps his fortune in his company’s stock, and funds a simple lifestyle with a modest income, doesn’t pay a lot of tax.

It seems harsh to go after Buffett when he’s giving away virtually all of his money, calling for higher taxes on the wealthy, refusing to use several loopholes to pay less tax, and running a company where holding its stock for the long term and not paying a dividend makes perfect sense.

Read the original article on Business Insider

ProPublica’s billionaire tax data shows the importance of closing 2 key tax loopholes. Here’s how.

taxes
  • Too much of billionaires’ true economic income is not getting counted on their tax returns.
  • We can count more capital gains as income, to make them report more income and pay more tax.
  • To do this, eliminate “stepped-up basis” rules and prevent double deduction of charitable giving.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

ProPublica has obtained years of federal income tax information for the 25 wealthiest Americans, and has released an analysis comparing their federal income tax bills to the rise of their net worth over the period from 2014 to 2018, showing their federal income tax bills added up to just 3.4% of their wealth gains.

ProPublica calls this their “true tax rate.” While I have some quibbles with their analysis, the investigation does demonstrate a real problem: The wealthiest Americans are paying less income tax than our tax policies are supposed to collect from them, and less than is fair.

But I also have a hopeful message. There are solutions available to this problem, and they don’t need to involve a wealth tax, which is appealing as a political soundbite but faces enormous political, constitutional and administrative challenges.

Our income tax is not defining “income” correctly. Adopting a more comprehensive definition of income would make it possible to collect more tax from the likes of Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk. In fact, closing just two major loopholes would get us a long way toward that goal.

What is income?

If you ask an economist what “income” is, they’re likely to point to a concept called “Haig-Simons income,” which says your income for a given period is equal to your expenses plus the change in your net worth. This makes intuitive sense: your income either gets spent or saved, so if you add up your spending and your savings, that’s your income. But unrealized gains create issues for this definition in relation both to the tax code and to popular conceptions of income.

Suppose your house was worth $300,000 a year ago, but is worth $350,000 today. Did your house produce $50,000 of income to you over the last year? Haig-Simons would say so, but few people think about things that way. Your home’s appreciation doesn’t actually feel like income until you sell it. And this is also how the tax code works: Asset appreciation isn’t counted as income until the asset is sold.

This is the main tax “avoidance” strategy demonstrated in the ProPublica article. The wealthiest Americans owned interests in major companies whose stocks rose. They didn’t sell their shares, and therefore didn’t report any income related to that appreciation.

Of course, that’s not cheating – it’s just how the law works. And it would be fine so long as the gains got taxed eventually: if the tax liability is building up and sure to be paid in a future year when the gain actually gets realized, that’s fine. The problem is that our tax code too often allows rich people to never pay taxes on those gains.

Joe Biden wants to close the “step-up in basis” loophole

One of the biggest problems with the way our tax code treats unrealized gains is that you get a big bonus for holding on to your assets until you die.

If you buy an asset for $200,000 and it’s worth $800,000 when you die, the IRS then readjusts the value and your heirs only pay taxes on realized gains above the new $800,000 value. The $600,000 in gains accrued during your lifetime never get treated as taxable income. This creates a huge incentive for wealthy people to hold assets instead of selling them, and is a major way their true economic income gets excluded from tax.

Joe Biden
US President Joe Biden speaks on the economy at Cuyahoga Community College Manufacturing Technology Center, on May 27, 2021, in Cleveland, Ohio.

But the tax code doesn’t have to work this way. In fact, President Biden has proposed to change the law so that death is a “realization event.” If a person has more than $1 million of unrealized gains when they die, those gains over $1 million would be subject to capital gains tax as though they sold them on their death bed. Not only would this generate more tax, it would eliminate much of the incentive for rich people to cling to specific assets, so it would encourage more capital gain realizations (and more tax payments) even before they die.

Of course, there is political resistance to this idea, partly because it would also raise taxes on people who are rich but much less rich than Jeff Bezos.

Still, if the goal is to get these ultra-wealthy to pay more, you could offer an exemption much larger than $1 million per decedent, reducing collections from the merely rich while still capturing much more of billionaires’ true income as taxable income.

Defining income better makes higher tax rates possible

Capital-gain income, income made from selling investments like stocks, bonds, etc., has almost always been taxed at a lower rate than wage income. There are several policy justifications for this, but a major reason capital gains tax rates need to be lower than wage tax rates is that capital gains taxes are relatively easy to avoid.

You can jack taxes on high earners’ wages and salaries up very high – likely 70% or higher – before you have to worry that the higher rate is going to cause them to report so much less income that they pay less tax overall. But economists typically estimate that the “revenue-maximizing” tax rate on capital gains is much lower, closer to 30%, mostly because there are better strategies to avoid capital gain taxes.

But if you eliminate the stepped-up basis loophole, the government can collect more tax in three ways. First, taxes will be imposed directly on appreciated assets at death. Second, the impossibility of avoiding tax entirely through delay will encourage more wealthy people to go ahead and realize taxable gains before they die. Third, with a key avoidance avenue eliminated, the government can impose a higher capital gains tax rate and still expect that high earners will grimace and pay it.

This is why Biden has paired his plan to raise capital gains tax rates to as much as 43.4% on the highest earners with his plan to abolish stepped-up basis at death. The former policy does not work well without the latter one.

Charitable deductions are calculated in a way that is too favorable to the rich

Besides unrealized gains, one of the obvious ways the wealthy people discussed in the ProPublica investigation avoid tax is by giving their wealth to charity.

I am not one of those people who is grumpy about billionaire philanthropy. I think the tax code should reward charitable donations. But the way we hand out tax benefits for charitable giving now is excessively generous to the wealthy, while ordinary people get little or no tax benefit for their own charitable donations. The rules need to change.

Felipe Castro holds a sign advertising a tax-preparation office for people who still need help completing their taxes before the IRS deadline on April 14, 2010, in Miami.
Felipe Castro holds a sign advertising a tax-preparation office for people who still need help completing their taxes before the IRS deadline on April 14, 2010, in Miami.

Suppose you are an affluent person and you donate $10,000 to charity. Your marginal federal income tax rate is 24% and you itemize deductions, so this donation reduces your tax bill by $2,400, or 24% of the amount you donated.

Now suppose you’re rich and you donate $100,000 worth of appreciated stock to charity. You bought this stock many years ago for just $20,000. Donating an appreciated asset is not a gain realization event, so not only do you get to reduce your taxable income by $100,000 – the value of the donation – you also never have to pay the capital gains tax on the $80,000 in value the stock gained. Plus, your income tax rate is higher – 40.8% on ordinary income, though just 23.8% on capital gains – which means your $100,000 deduction reduces your federal income tax liability by $59,840, or 59.8% of the amount donated, compared to if you had simply sold the appreciated stock.

Now suppose you donate $1,000 to charity. Your income is more towards the median for an American family, and you take the standard deduction instead of itemizing. In most years, a charitable donation doesn’t reduce your income tax liability at all. But for 2020 and 2021, there’s a special provision allowing people who take the standard deduction to additionally deduct $300 in charitable contributions. Your marginal income tax rate is 12%, so this deduction reduces your tax bill by $36, or 3.6% of the amount donated.

That all doesn’t seem fair, does it?

We can make charitable deductions more fair while still encouraging charity

There are ways to improve how we use the tax code to reward charity.

One is to close the loophole about appreciated assets – when you donate an appreciated asset, you should be able to deduct only what you paid for it. That still provides extensive tax savings, but does not allow the rise in asset value to be deducted twice. Essentially, it would mean any donation of $100,000 would shield only $100,000 of income from tax, not more.

Additionally, you could cap the value of charitable deductions, as the Biden administration has proposed to do. Regardless of the actual tax rate paid, Biden has proposed that taxpayers should only be able to reduce their tax liability by 28% of the amount of a donation. This rule would reduce the incentive to give to charity among the wealthiest. But it would also generate revenue that could be used to enhance the charitable deduction for a broader swath of the public, for example by converting the deduction into a more generous and more widely available tax credit.

A more democratized approach to tax incentives for charity could ideally maintain the overall level of charitable giving in society while tilting tax liabilities toward the wealthiest Americans and reducing the influence of billionaires on the priorities of charitable institutions.

If we do these two things, we don’t need to do other, harder things

There are other ideas about how to get the wealthiest Americans’ reported income for tax purposes closer to their true economic income about which I am much less eager.

One, discussed briefly in ProPublica’s story, is to switch from taxing capital gains only upon realization to taxing them every year. If your stock portfolio appreciates by $100,000, you’re taxed on that $100,000 this year. If it declines by $50,000, you get a $50,000 tax deduction.

Just because your assets went up in value doesn’t mean you have lots of cash to pay new taxes, but because this system would eliminate the tax implications associated with selling appreciated stock, there would be an easy way for taxpayers to finance their tax bills: by selling stock.

But there are problems.

One is that other assets, like real estate, art, and interests in private firms, are not so liquid as stocks. It’s also harder to figure out what these assets are worth in years when they don’t get sold. So some taxpayers would have good reason to contend their asset appreciation hasn’t made them liquid enough to pay more tax today, and they’d also have more ability to argue with the IRS about what their true “income” really was.

The IRS is already strapped for enforcement resources, and while I favor increasing the agency’s budget, I am wary of new tax rules that would make enforcement much more complicated and therefore spread even expanded enforcement resources thinly.

IRS
The IRS.

Abolition of stepped-up basis would only require tedious arguments about the true value of illiquid assets when a taxpayer dies – a time when we already have to have those tedious arguments in order to calculate estate tax. Taxing unrealized gains would require having these tedious arguments every year, with the IRS facing off against expensive lawyers retained by wealthy people fighting to keep their tax bills down. It would just be much more costly and difficult to implement.

Other proposals to better capture the income of the very wealthy involve taxing unrealized gains only on easy-to-value liquid assets like stocks. We would keep the old method for assets like private companies and art.

This approach would be relatively easy to administer. But it would also create economic distortions. Wealthy taxpayers would prefer illiquid assets to liquid ones, and might make economically inefficient choices, like taking companies private to avoid the new rules. This could have negative effects on the economy.

There is hope for taxing the rich

Back in 2015, when I was at The New York Times, the paper ran an exposé on how the top 400 taxpayers in the country were paying lower tax rates than they had been two decades earlier. Their effective federal income tax rate had fallen from the 26.4% in the mid-1990s to 16.7% in 2012. The story attributed this to increased use of creative strategies to shield their income from tax.

Hours after the article was published, the Obama Administration responded by publishing data from 2013, showing that in just one year, these taxpayers’ effective tax rate had zoomed back up to 22.9%, closing more than half the gap.

What happened here? Well, tax rates for high earners were cut in 1997, 2001, and 2003. And then, in 2013, parts of the Bush Tax Cuts expired and tax increases on high earners included in the Affordable Care Act came into effect. So the story seems pretty straightforward: cut rich people’s taxes and they pay less in taxes; raise their taxes and they pay more in taxes.

Much of the typical response to stories like the one from ProPublica is unproductive: conservatives pointing out that this is just how and liberals dreaming up extremely complex approaches like wealth taxes that will never be imposed. The experience in 2013 suggests these approaches are both wrong.

Look to 2025

The experience from 2012 to 2013 shows that very rich people’s income tax bills are responsive to changes in income tax policy. We don’t need entirely new taxes to get them to pay their fair share. We just need to define income more comprehensively, make deductions more rational and equitable, raise rates where economically appropriate, and properly fund enforcement at the IRS.

There is a reason the Biden administration is focusing its tax policy efforts in the areas I am describing: These reforms work within our existing tax system and are administrable. And while I do not see major tax increases passing in the current congress, many provisions of the Trump tax cuts are set to expire in 2025. If Democrats control the presidency or either house of Congress then, Republicans will be forced to work with them on a bipartisan deal to set new tax policy terms.

That’s a reason Democrats need to focus on getting Joe Biden reelected in 2024. Just as Barack Obama’s reelection in 2012 paved the way for the tax increases on the wealthy that became effective in 2013, a Biden win in 2024 should set the stage for a tax bill in 2025 that makes billionaires pay their fair share – within the existing income tax system.

Read the original article on Business Insider

Elon Musk’s wealth grew by $14 billion from 2014 to 2018, but he only paid $455 million in taxes, according to a new report

Musk   Photo by Hannibal Hanschke Pool:Getty Images
Tesla CEO Elon Musk.

Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk is one of several megarich citizens who pay a small sum in income tax compared to the amount their wealth balloons each year, according to a report from the nonprofit news site ProPublica published Tuesday.

Over the period from 2014 to 2018 – as Musk’s wealth grew by $13.9 billion – he reported just $1.52 billion worth of taxable income to the Internal Revenue Service, ProPublica reported. If his $455 million in taxes paid are compared to his wealth gains, they equate to what ProPublica calls a “true tax rate” of 3.27%.

That “true tax rate” is less than a tenth of the 37% Musk would need to pay if his wealth was considered income. However, Musk’s gains in net worth come mainly from his massive stakes in SpaceX and Tesla, now the world’s most valuable carmaker. Musk receives a vast amount of stock awards from Tesla as compensation, but under the current federal tax code, he doesn’t need to pay any tax until those assets are sold, or capital gains are otherwise realized.

In 2018, Musk paid no federal income tax, the report said.

The notion that high-net-worth individuals use the tax code to their advantage to pay minimal income tax is nothing new. But ProPublica’s reporting, which draws on more than 15 years of Internal Revenue Service data on thousands of the country’s wealthiest people, sheds light on exactly how much Musk and others fork over in taxes each year – and how much income they actually report.

ProPublica did not publish its source data or disclose how the information was obtained. Musk did not respond to questions from ProPublica, replying with only a “?,” the site reported.

Read more: A judge ordered Tesla to turn over documents related to Elon Musk’s $55 billion compensation plan. Here’s how the elaborate pay agreement works.

The trove of information shows the investments, stock trades, income, and other key data points about the wealth of billionaires like Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, and Rupert Murdoch.

ProPublica compared the amount that these billionaires paid in federal income tax to the amount that their net worth grew over a certain period to develop what it dubbed their “true tax rate.” In reality, taxes are paid based on earned income, which doesn’t include stock awards or the appreciation of investments.

Read the original article on Business Insider

Warren Buffett defends himself after ProPublica says he avoids taxes

warren buffett
Warren Buffett

  • ProPublica reported this week that Warren Buffett pays relatively little income tax, despite huge gains in his wealth.
  • The investor pays minimal tax by holding Berkshire Hathaway stock and not paying a dividend.
  • Buffett pointed out that shareholders don’t want a dividend and he’s giving his fortune away.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Warren Buffett minimizes his personal tax bill by keeping his fortune in Berkshire Hathaway stock and not paying a dividend, ProPublica said in an investigative report published on Tuesday.

The billionaire investor and Berkshire CEO defended himself in a detailed statement to the news outlet, explaining that his shareholders don’t want a dividend, and saying he’s on track to give virtually all of his money to good causes.

ProPublica analyzed Buffett’s income-tax returns between 2014 and 2018 and determined that even though his wealth grew by $24 billion in that period, he only reported $125 million of income and paid just $24 million in taxes.

“No one among the 25 wealthiest avoided as much tax as Buffett, the grandfatherly centibillionaire,” ProPublica declared. It added that Buffett’s annual income of $12 million to $25 million between 2015 and 2018 was tiny; more than 14,000 US taxpayers reported a higher income than he did in 2015.

Buffett responded to ProPublica’s main assertions – that he squirrels away his money in Berkshire stock and eschews a dividend to keep his tax bill low – with 23 pages of documents. They included a written statement, as well as excerpts from several of Berkshire’s annual reports, news releases, and photocopies of newspaper and magazine stories.

The investor pointed out that Berkshire shareholders overwhelmingly prefer the company to reinvest its profits instead of paying a dividend, as they know a big chunk of the funds will ultimately go towards good causes.

“Many large shareholders, including me, enjoy the long-term buildup in value, knowing that it is destined for philanthropy, not consumption or dynastic aspirations,” Buffett said.

The investor highlighted that holders of Berkshire’s “A” shares voted 87-1 against a dividend in 2014, and “B” shareholders voted 47-1. He likely wanted to show that Berkshire doesn’t pay a dividend because the vast majority of its shareholders don’t want one, not because he wants to lower his personal tax bill.

Buffett defended his decision to keep virtually all of his fortune in Berkshire stock. The 90-year-old billionaire has pledged to give over 99% of his net worth to philanthropic causes, and has already donated about half of his nearly 475,000 “A” shares since 2006, he said.

Moreover, Buffett calculated the tax benefits from his donations to date at less than 50 cents for every $1,000 he’s given away. He also prefers to hand his cash to charities, instead of giving it to the federal government to pay off the national debt.

“I believe the money will be of more use to society if disbursed philanthropically than if it is used to slightly reduce an ever-increasing US debt,” he said.

Buffett reiterated his support for changes to the tax code that would reduce wealth inequality.

“I hope that the earned-income tax credit is greatly expanded and additionally believe that huge dynastic wealth is not desirable for our society,” he said.

Buffett attached photocopies of a Fortune cover story from 1986 to his statement. It was titled, “Should you leave it all to the children?” and included his advice on how much to pass down: “Enough money so that they would feel they could do anything, but not so much that they could do nothing.”

Read the original article on Business Insider

Warren Buffett defends himself after ProPublica says he avoids taxes and pegs his ‘true tax rate’ at 0.1%

warren buffett
Warren Buffett

  • Warren Buffett’s “true tax rate” is 0.1%, ProPublica reported this week.
  • The investor pays minimal tax by holding Berkshire Hathaway stock and not paying a dividend.
  • Buffett pointed out that shareholders don’t want a dividend and he’s giving his fortune away.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Warren Buffett’s real income-tax rate is 0.1%, and he minimizes his personal tax bill by keeping his fortune in Berkshire Hathaway stock and not paying a dividend, ProPublica said in an investigative report published on Tuesday.

The billionaire investor and Berkshire CEO defended himself in a detailed statement to the news outlet, explaining that his shareholders don’t want a dividend, and saying he’s on track to give virtually all of his money to good causes.

ProPublica analyzed Buffett’s income-tax returns between 2014 and 2018 and determined that even though his wealth grew by $24 billion in that period, he only reported $125 million of income and paid just $24 million in taxes. That put his “true tax rate” below the almost 1% paid by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and well below Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s 3.3%.

“No one among the 25 wealthiest avoided as much tax as Buffett, the grandfatherly centibillionaire,” ProPublica declared. It added that Buffett’s annual income of $12 million to $25 million between 2015 and 2018 was tiny; more than 14,000 US taxpayers reported a higher income than he did in 2015.

Buffett responded to ProPublica’s main assertions – that he squirrels away his money in Berkshire stock and eschews a dividend to keep his tax bill low – with 23 pages of documents. They included a written statement, as well as excerpts from several of Berkshire’s annual reports, news releases, and photocopies of newspaper and magazine stories.

The investor pointed out that Berkshire shareholders overwhelming prefer the company to reinvest its profits instead of paying a dividend, as they know a big chunk of the funds will ultimately go towards good causes.

“Many large shareholders, including me, enjoy the long-term buildup in value, knowing that it is destined for philanthropy, not consumption or dynastic aspirations,” Buffett said.

The investor highlighted that holders of Berkshire’s “A” shares voted 87-1 against a dividend in 2014, and “B” shareholders voted 47-1. He likely wanted to show that Berkshire doesn’t pay a dividend because the vast majority of its shareholders don’t want one, not because he wants to lower his personal tax bill.

Buffett defended his decision to keep virtually all of his fortune in Berkshire stock. The 90-year-old billionaire has pledged to give over 99% of his net worth to philanthropic causes, and has already donated about half of his nearly 475,000 “A” shares since 2006, he said.

Moreover, Buffett calculated the tax benefits from his donations to date at less than 50 cents for every $1,000 he’s given away. He also prefers to hand his cash to charities, instead of giving it to the federal government to pay off the national debt.

“I believe the money will be of more use to society if disbursed philanthropically than if it is used to slightly reduce an ever-increasing US debt,” he said.

Buffett reiterated his support for changes to the tax code that would reduce wealth inequality.

“I hope that the earned-income tax credit is greatly expanded and additionally believe that huge dynastic wealth is not desirable for our society,” he said.

Buffett attached photocopies of a Fortune cover story from 1986 to his statement. It was titled, “Should you leave it all to the children?” and included his advice on how much to pass down: “Enough money so that they would feel they could do anything, but not so much that they could do nothing.”

Read the original article on Business Insider

12 of the richest LGBTQ people in the world

Wealthy LGBTQ figures
Tim Cook and Giorgio Armani are billionaires.

  • Some famous LGBTQ figures are worth billions after inheriting empires or building companies.
  • In 2020, Apple CEO Tim Cook officially became a billionaire.
  • Giorgio Armani’s is worth $8.1 billion, while Domenico Dolce is worth $1.6 billion.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
David Geffen, the co-founder of DreamWorks, is worth $9.9 billion, according to Forbes.

David Geffen
David Geffen.

Starting as a Hollywood talent agent, Geffen made the foundation of his fortune when he created record labels Asylum Records, Geffen Records, and DGC Records. In 1994, he created the DreamWorks film studio with Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg. Geffen also has a large real estate portfolio and a $2 billion art collection, according to Business Insider

In 2007, Out magazine called Geffen the most powerful gay man in the country.

Fashion designer Giorgio Armani’s fortune is about $8.1 billion.

Giorgio Armani 2020
Giorgio Armani.

Armani began his career in the military after leaving medical school. In the ’70s, he started designing menswear clothing, but his career really took off when he started designing for Richard Gere in 1980. Since then, Armani’s brand has expanded into an empire, which includes accessories, interior design, and hotels.

The famously private designer spoke about his sexuality in a 2000 interview with Vanity Fair, saying, “I have had women in my life. And sometimes men.”


PayPal’s co-founder Peter Thiel is worth $5 billion, according to Forbes.

peter thiel
Peter Thiel.

In 1999, Thiel co-founded PayPal, which was meant to be a simple way to exchange money via devices. He was CEO of the company up until eBay acquired PayPal, and his stake in the company was said to be worth $55 million. Thiel was also an early investor of Facebook, and he founded a data analytics company, Palantir, which is valued at $20 billion, according to Forbes

He now lives with his husband, Matt Danzeisen, in Los Angeles.

Jon Stryker is an heir to a medical equipment company. Forbes reports his net worth at $4.3 billion.

Jon Stryker
Jon Stryker.

Stryker’s grandfather founded Stryker Corp., which is a medical supply company that sold $14.9 billion in equipment in 2019, according to Forbes. One of the heirs to the family fortune, Stryker is a philanthropist, donating large sums of his money to charities and scholarships. So far, he has given away $585 million. 

Stryker also founded the Arcus Foundation, which fights for LGBTQ rights and ape conservation. 

Norwegian businessman Stein Erik Hagen is worth $2.7 billion, according to Forbes.

Stein Erik Hagen, right.
Stein Erik Hagen.

Hagen founded the supermarket chain Rimi with his father in the 1970s and is a major shareholder of the consumer goods conglomerate Orkla. He was Norway’s seventh wealthiest person in 2020, according to Norwegian business magazine Kapital.

Hagen, who is bisexual, publicly came out on one of Norway’s biggest chat shows, Skavaln, in 2015, saying he only came to understand his sexuality “well into adulthood,” The Local reported.

Jennifer Pritzker, a hotel heiress, is the only openly transgender billionaire in the world.

Jennifer Pritzker
Jennifer Pritzker.

A former lieutenant in the Army, Pritzker inherited part of the Hyatt hotel fortune, giving her a net worth of $2 billion, according to Forbes.

She came out as transgender in 2013 without much fanfare, but she made headlines in 2017 when President Trump announced a ban on transgender people serving in the military. Before this, Pritzker supported Trump and donated large sums to his campaign, but the ban prompted her to support Biden in his bid for the presidency. 

Fashion designer Domenico Dolce is worth $1.6 billion.

Domenico Dolce
Domenico Dolce.

After meeting in a club, Dolce and Stefano Gabbana started a fashion brand together in 1985. The company’s signature animal print made waves at fashion events and even caught the attention of Madonna, solidifying Dolce & Gabbana’s place in fashion history. 

His business partner Stefano Gabbana is also worth $1.6 billion.

Dolce and Gabbana
Stefano Gabbana.

Dolce and Gabbana ended their personal relationship in 2003 but still own the company and design together.

In 2020, Apple CEO Tim Cook officially became a billionaire.

tim cook apple logo
Tim Cook.

Cook became CEO of Apple in 2011 after the death of its founder, Steve Jobs. A decade later, the company is nearing a market value of nearly $2 trillion, making Cook a billionaire.

He is now worth $1.3 billion, according to Forbes. Despite his billionaire status, he lives in a relatively modest home in Palo Alto.

He came out as gay in 2014

Fashion designer Michael Kors used to be worth $1 billion, but today, his fortune is estimated to be $600 million.

Michael Kors
Michael Kors.

Kors began his fashion design company in his mother’s basement in the ’80s and turned it into an empire. In 2011, he took the company public when it was valued at $3.5 billion. In 2004, he became a superstar when he became a judge on “Project Runway.” Ten years later, Kors became a billionaire. 

Today, his fortune is a bit smaller, but he calls downtown New York City home with his husband, Lance Le Pere.

Elton John has been in the music industry for decades, earning a fortune that’s reportedly near $500 million.

elton john
Elton John.

John began his music career in England and became known for his flamboyant and outrageous costumes. Quickly, he became a cultural phenomenon, launching his decade-spanning career. He still tours today and has sold over 300 million records, according to The Times

Plus, John has been with his partner, David Furnish, for nearly three decades.

Ellen DeGeneres’ net worth is estimated at $370 million, according to Forbes.

Ellen Degeneres show
Ellen DeGeneres.

DeGeneres began her career as a standup comedian and eventually landed a successful sitcom titled “Ellen” in the late ’90s. During that time, she came out as a lesbian, and she was blacklisted from Hollywood. In 2003, she made her return as a daytime talk show host, although the show will end after its 19th season airs in 2022.

She’s married to Portia de Rossi and they live in Los Angeles. 

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