The Secret IRS Files: Trove of Never-Before-Seen Records Reveal How the Wealthiest Avoid Income Tax

“how do megabillionaires pay their megabills while opting for $1 salaries and hanging onto their stock? According to public documents and experts, the answer for some is borrowing money — lots of it.

For regular people, borrowing money is often something done out of necessity, say for a car or a home. But for the ultrawealthy, it can be a way to access billions without producing income, and thus, income tax.

The tax math provides a clear incentive for this. If you own a company and take a huge salary, you’ll pay 37% in income tax on the bulk of it. Sell stock and you’ll pay 20% in capital gains tax — and lose some control over your company. But take out a loan, and these days you’ll pay a single-digit interest rate and no tax; since loans must be paid back, the IRS doesn’t consider them income. Banks typically require collateral, but the wealthy have plenty of that.

The vast majority of the ultrawealthy’s loans do not appear in the tax records obtained by ProPublica since they are generally not disclosed to the IRS. But occasionally, the loans are disclosed in securities filings. In 2014, for example, Oracle revealed that its CEO, Ellison, had a credit line secured by about $10 billion of his shares.

Last year Tesla reported that Musk had pledged some 92 million shares, which were worth about $57.7 billion as of May 29, 2021, as collateral for personal loans.”

“after decades of wealth accumulation, the estate tax is supposed to serve as a backstop, allowing authorities an opportunity to finally take a piece of giant fortunes before they pass to a new generation. But in reality, preparing for death is more like the last stage of tax avoidance for the ultrawealthy.”

“Normally when someone sells an asset, even a minute before they die, they owe 20% capital gains tax. But at death, that changes. Any capital gains till that moment are not taxed. This allows the ultrarich and their heirs to avoid paying billions in taxes. The “step-up in basis” is widely recognized by experts across the political spectrum as a flaw in the code.

Then comes the estate tax, which, at 40%, is among the highest in the federal code. This tax is supposed to give the government one last chance to get a piece of all those unrealized gains and other assets the wealthiest Americans accumulate over their lifetimes.

It’s clear, though, from aggregate IRS data, tax research and what little trickles into the public arena about estate planning of the wealthy that they can readily escape turning over almost half of the value of their estates. Many of the richest create foundations for philanthropic giving, which provide large charitable tax deductions during their lifetimes and bypass the estate tax when they die.

Wealth managers offer clients a range of opaque and complicated trusts that allow the wealthiest Americans to give large sums to their heirs without paying estate taxes. The IRS data obtained by ProPublica gives some insight into the ultrawealthy’s estate planning, showing hundreds of these trusts.

The result is that large fortunes can pass largely intact from one generation to the next. Of the 25 richest people in America today, about a quarter are heirs”

ProPublica’s Bombshell Tax Report That Wasn’t

“Despite ProPublica’s best efforts to make the information enclosed within seem damning, the data tell us little we didn’t already know. For the 2018 tax year, the last year for which we have data, the top 1 percent paid over 40 percent of federal income taxes, despite earning just under 21 percent of total adjusted gross income (AGI). The bottom 50 percent of taxpayers earned 11.6 percent of total AGI, but paid less than 3 percent of income taxes. The same story holds when looking at all revenue sources too, so it’s not just the income tax that is progressive.

ProPublica, however, tries to make the case that the wealthy are getting away with murder through the tax code, so they “do a calculation that has never been done before,” comparing growth in wealth over the course of a year to taxable income. They use this to calculate an individual’s “true tax rate,” which is sort of like handing out wins in a baseball game in the middle of the early innings and calling it the “true outcome” of the contest.

It’s hard to overstate how nonsensical this comparison is (which is perhaps why it’s never been done before). Our tax system rightly does not tax growth in one’s wealth until it is realized as income. After all, the alternative is a monstrously complex and unfair system of wealth taxation that developed countries have avoided.

The reason that wealth isn’t taxable is fairly straightforward: You aren’t directly benefiting from it until it’s turned into income (at which point it is taxable). Wealthy Americans may not pay taxes on the growth that their net worth sees, but should they wish to sell assets that have appreciated in value, they would be liable for capital gains taxes on that growth.”

How meritocracy harms everyone — even the winners

“the bulk of the reason why our colleges, particularly our elite colleges, are filled with kids of rich parents isn’t that. Instead, it’s that rich parents spend enormous sums of money not on bribing anybody but on educating their children, on getting their children into prestigious kindergartens and high schools, on coaches and tutors and music teachers, and this means the children of rich people simply do better on the merits.

And so the big problem that we face isn’t merely that the rich cheat, it’s that the meritocracy favors the rich even when everybody plays by the rules.”