How US Billionaires Can Avoid Paying Income Taxes

On April 15th Americans filed their taxes with the Internal Revenue Service (or IRS). But on the same day ProPublica was reporting a difference between "the rich and the rest of us" — that their wealth just isn't easily defined: For one, wages make up only a small part of their earnings. And they have broad latitude in how they account for their businesses and investments. Their incomes aren't defined by a tax form. Instead, they represent the triumph of careful planning by skilled professionals who strive to deliver the most-advantageous-yet-still-plausible answers to their clients. For them, a tax return is an opening bid to the IRS. It's a kind of theory.... We counted at least 16 other billionaires (along with hundreds of other ultrawealthy people, including hedge fund managers and former CEOs) among the stimulus check recipients. This is just how our system works. It's why, in 2011, Jeff Bezos, then worth $18 billion, qualified for $4,000 in refundable child tax credits. (Bezos didn't respond to our questions.) A recent study by the Brookings Institution set out with a simple aim: to compare what owners of privately held businesses say they earn with the income that appears on the owners' tax returns. The findings were stark: "More than half of economic income generated by closely held businesses does not appear on tax returns and that ratio has declined significantly over the past 25 years." That doesn't mean business owners are illegally hiding income from the IRS, though it's certainly a possible contributor. There are plenty of ways to make income vanish legally. Tax perks like depreciation allow owners to create tax losses even as they expand their businesses... "Losses" from one business can also be used to wipe out income from another. Sometimes spilling red ink can be lots of fun: For billionaires, owning sports teams and thoroughbred racehorses are exciting loss-makers. Congress larded the tax code with these sorts of provisions on the logic that what's good for businesses is good for the economy. Often, the evidence for this broader effect is thin or nonexistent, but you can be sure all this is great for business owners. The Brookings study found that households worth $10 million or more benefited the most from being able to make income disappear.... In the tax system we have, billionaires who'd really rather not pay income taxes can usually find a way not to. They can bank their accumulating gains tax-free and deploy tax losses to wipe out whatever taxable income they might have. They can even look forward to a few thousand dollars here and there from the government to help them raise their kids or get through a national emergency. This system also means it's much harder to catch underreported income on the tax returns of the wealthy, the article points out. And with so many legal deducations, it's also hard to prove the low incomes really exceed what the law allows. Even then, the wealthy can still hire an army of the best tax lawyers to make their case in court. And now thousands of auditors have left the agency — and have not been replaced. The end result? "Audits of the wealthy have plummeted. "Business owners have still more reason to be bold...."

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