The billionaire’s guide to doing taxes

“Do you want to pay less taxes? Great. Step one, be a rich person. Then, buy a yacht. Or a sports team. Give a lot to charity. Lose some money in the stock market. Above all, make sure most of your money exists in the form of assets, not cash — stocks, real estate, a Dutch master painting, fine jewelry, or whatever else strikes your fancy.
They say that money is a universal language, but it speaks at different volumes. When you have a fathomless bounty of wealth, money doesn’t quite register as an expense until you add a lot of zeros to the end — so spending a lot to save a lot is a no brainer. It’s why the mega-rich often hire expensive tax lawyers, wealth managers, or even set up a whole office dedicated to tax strategy. “It’s not just preparing the return,” says Paul Wieseneck, a tax accountant and director of the Fuoco Group. “There’s so much more involved in planning, in accumulating, offsetting, and trying to mitigate the taxes as best as possible.””

“Jeff Bezos, when he was still Amazon CEO, had a base salary of around $80,000 a year. Elon Musk doesn’t take a salary at all at Tesla. Apple CEO Tim Cook does get a $3 million salary, but it’s a small slice of the $63 million he received overall last year. Most wealthy entrepreneurs are paid in bountiful stock rewards; Musk is currently fighting to keep his record-breaking Tesla pay package, made up of a bunch of stock options and now valued at almost $56 billion. ProPublica found that, because their income fell below the threshold, at least 18 billionaires got a Covid-19 stimulus check.

Paul Kiel, a ProPublica reporter who was an integral part of the newsroom’s billionaire tax return stories, says the income versus wealth divide was crucial in helping the public understand how differently the wealthy operate. “If you can avoid income as it’s defined in our system, and still get richer, that’s the best route,” he tells Vox.

Stocks aren’t taxed until they’re sold — and even then, what’s taxed is the profit on the sale, called a capital gains tax. Billionaires (usually) don’t sell valuable stock. So how do they afford the daily expenses of life, whether it’s a new pleasure boat or a social media company? They borrow against their stock. This revolving door of credit allows them to buy what they want without incurring a capital gains tax. Though the “buy, borrow, die” strategy isn’t quite as sweet right now because interest rates are high, a Wall Street Journal piece from 2021 notes that those with $100 million or more could get interest rates as low as 0.87 percent at Merrill Lynch. The taxable value of a stock also resets when it’s passed on to an heir, so that if a wealthy scion chooses to sell their inherited stock, they’d only pay a tax on the increase in value since the original owner’s death.”

““We’ve talked to a lot of former IRS agents, and they would often hear the line that for wealthy taxpayers, their tax return is like an opening offer,” says Kiel.”

20 Percent of Welfare Spending Goes to the Households Taxed To Fund It

“About one in every five dollars that passes through the federal welfare system ends up right back where it started, according to a new report.
It’s not robbing Peter to pay Paul. It’s more like “robbing Peter to pay Peter,” wrote the report’s author, Judge Glock, director of research at the Manhattan Institute.

As the federal welfare state has grown to a point where many middle-class and even some upper-income households receive benefits, it has become more common for the same households to both pay federal taxes and collect federal transfer payments. Glock’s paper shows how significant that overlap is: About 20 percent of the annual funds in the federal welfare system are simply returned to households that paid that amount in federal taxes.”

“Dollars returned in the form of welfare transfers are often restricted—food stamps can only be used for certain purchases, for example—in ways that dollars never taxed away from someone’s paycheck aren’t. Or the funds might only be available at certain times of the year, as is the case with welfare delivered via refundable tax credits. There’s also the cost of cycling that money through the system: paying for the IRS to collect it and various bureaucrats in other places to oversee its return.”

Could this obscure tax idea reshape American housing?

“For nearly all of US history, American property taxes have taken a pretty standard form. Individuals pay a tax based on the assessed value of their land, buildings, and any other improvements to their property combined. If you renovate your house and make it nicer, for example, your overall property tax could go up. The proposed land-value tax in Detroit, by contrast, would effectively tax land at a higher rate than any buildings or amenities on the property.
Mayor Duggan, who is spearheading the effort, hopes this land-value tax idea will incentivize development on blighted property as well as offer some tax relief to homeowners, who bear some of the highest rates in the country. The Duggan administration estimates that under his proposal 97 percent of Detroit homeowners will see an average decrease of 17 percent in property tax. The proposal is not about lowering taxes generally, but about increasing taxes on those who own vacant land (a big problem in the city) and decreasing future taxes on people who develop their land.

“I think it is an important idea for any place where people are holding onto valuable land that could be used for more productive purposes,” James Hohman, the director of fiscal policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Michigan, told Vox.”

Americans Are Still Fleeing High-Tax States

“”The IRS data show that between 2020 and 2021, 26 states experienced a net gain in income tax filers from interstate migration—led by Florida (+128,228), Texas (+82,842), North Carolina (+40,828), Arizona (+32,636), and Tennessee (+30,292)—while 24 states and the District of Columbia experienced a net loss—led by California (-158,220), New York (-142,109), Illinois (-53,910), Massachusetts (-25,029), and Louisiana (-14,113),” write Yushkov and Loughead.
“Consistent with last year’s version of this publication, it is clear from the 2020-2021 IRS migration data that there is a strong positive relationship between state tax competitiveness and net migration,” they add. “Overall, states with lower taxes and sound tax structures experienced stronger inbound migration than states with higher taxes and more burdensome tax structures.””

Democrats Say They’re Fighting Inequality. But Many of Their Policies Favor the Rich.

“The State and Local Tax (SALT) deduction cap, part of the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA), placed a $10,000 limit on the amount of state and local taxes that can be deducted from federal taxable income. This move predominantly affected high earners in high-tax states like New York, California, and many others that are Democratic strongholds.

That’s a tax hike on the rich. This shouldn’t bother Democrats, who are usually happy to demonstrate their egalitarian chops by clamoring for that very thing. Yet this time, by demanding repeal of the SALT cap, they are on the front lines of a battle to restore tax breaks for the rich. As it turns out, when affluent Californians and Northeasterners felt the pinch, Democrats were ready to cha-cha for tax relief.”

California’s Latest Tax-the-Rich Scheme: Electric Bills Based on Income

“Electric power customers typically pay more if they use more. Under a new law, customers of California’s three largest private utilities will be charged a fixed fee based on their incomes, not just how much power they use. The chief motivation behind this scheme is to provide some relief to low-income customers who are being hammered by escalating electricity rates as the Golden State transitions from fossil fuels to wind and solar power.”

“the value of the investments in energy efficiency already made by millions of Californians will be undercut. For example, consider a high income customer who has put in better insulation, bought energy-sparing appliances, or even installed a solar energy system and thereby cut his monthly electric bill to $50 per month. His cost for electricity is now $600 annually. The 42 percent cut in his rates lowers that to $348 per year, but the total fixed fee is $1,536. That results in more than tripling his bill to $1,884 annually.*”

Wealth Taxes Result in Rich People Fleeing, Turns Out

“If your net wealth is approximately $135,000 or more and you live in Norway, you’ve long been subject to a 0.85 percent wealth tax. That rate has, as of this year, been hiked to 1.1 percent by the center-left government, and even more gobs of cash will be taken from rich people worth roughly $1.8 million, who will be taxed at a rate of 1.3 percent.
Unfortunately for the Norwegian lefties—and their American counterparts who argue for similar taxes to be instituted here—this wealth tax hasn’t really generated the revenue they’d expected. It has instead resulted in rich people boarding their superyachts and leaving those fjords behind forevermore.

Per the Norwegian newspaper Dagens Næringsliv, 30 of the country’s multimillionaires and billionaires left the country last year in advance of the wealth tax hike. “This was more than the total number of super-rich people who left the country during the previous 13 years, it added,” noted The Guardian. “Even more super-rich individuals are expected to leave this year because of the increase in wealth tax in November, costing the government tens of millions in lost tax receipts.””

Biden’s ‘Buy American’ Electric Vehicle Tax Credits Go Into Effect

“To qualify for a credit, an E.V.’s “final assembly” must occur in North America. If that sounds complicated for a consumer to figure out, the Department of Energy recommends searching individual cars by Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) “to identify a vehicle’s build plant and country of manufacture.” Past that, at least 40 percent of the battery’s minerals and 50 percent of its components must be sourced either from the U.S. or a country with which it has a “free trade agreement.” Those numbers will go up each year until they reach 80 percent and 100 percent, respectively. Meeting only one percentage requirement and not the other qualifies for half of the credit ($3,750).
The rules were written to exclude China. But China owns or controls the overwhelming majority of materials used in E.V. batteries. Not to mention, the European Union also lacks a free trade agreement with the United States. According to the Energy Department, only 14 vehicle models qualify for the full credit: five from Chevrolet, four from Tesla, two from Ford, and one each from Cadillac, Chrysler, and Lincoln. Some others qualify for half-credits due to sourcing requirements—for example, Ford manufactures the Mustang Mach-E’s battery in Poland—but American companies noticeably account for every single qualifying vehicle.

That’s a great deal for those four companies—Ford, General Motors, Stellantis, and Tesla—but a bad deal for everybody else. Numerous foreign automakers sell E.V.s in the U.S. but are disqualified from tax credits unless they build the vehicles domestically using parts sourced in a very specific way. Meanwhile, two versions of the Chevrolet Bolt—which uses outdated battery technology and was briefly taken off the market in 2021 when its batteries were catching on fire—qualify for the full tax credit under the new rules. So even though a consumer might find the similarly priced Nissan Leaf to be more reliable, a $7,500 tax credit might sway them away from it. That would be a boon to Chevrolet’s bottom line as it still gets to charge full price for the car, and the U.S. government will reimburse the purchaser at tax time.”

What doing other people’s taxes taught me about our broken tax code

“In a 2019 paper, economists Jeffrey Liebman and Daniel Ramsey ran through the changes the US would have to make to adopt this system of exact-withholding. Under this approach, used by the UK, Japan, and others, “the majority of taxpayers do not need to file tax returns. Instead, these countries use withholding systems in which the correct amount of tax is withheld during the year.”
That could be us — so why isn’t it? They offer four big aspects of the US tax code that prevent it.

The first is the complex system of benefits for families with children. Creating a simple monthly child benefit would solve that.

The second is that capital income like interest and stock capital gains aren’t “taxed at the source”: your broker doesn’t automatically tax, say, 30 percent of the proceeds from selling stock and send it to the IRS. Creating a flat tax on capital imposed at the source would eliminate filing requirements for most people with this kind of income.

Third is the numerous deductions in the tax code. Most of these, like the mortgage interest or charitable deductions, don’t come up much in VITA because it’s almost always more advantageous for clients to claim a standard deduction — but things like the education credits do come up, and removing them would simplify our clients’ lives.

Fourth and most important is eliminating joint returns and moving to individual-based taxation. Joint filing makes precise withholding much more difficult because employers would need to know the earnings of each of their employees’ spouses in order to withhold correctly. If everyone’s taxed as an individual, then eliminating joint filing wouldn’t mean couples would have to file two returns: They’d have to file zero because precise withholding would be possible.”