This story was originally published by ProPublica.
When ProPublica compared the richest Americans’ wealth gains to the taxes they paid, we found a system that benefits billionaires. White House economists recently used a similar method to calculate tax rates, revealing stark inequality.
A decade ago, in an essay for The New York Times, Warren Buffett disclosed that he had paid nearly $7 million in federal taxes
in 2010. “That sounds like a lot of money,” he wrote. “But what I paid was only 17.4 percent of my taxable income — and that’s actually a lower percentage than was paid by any of the other 20 people in our office. Their tax burdens ranged from 33 percent to 41 percent and averaged 36 percent.”
The words “taxable income” are doing a lot of work in that sentence.
Buffett owns a substantial number of shares in Berkshire Hathaway, the fabulously successful holding company he founded decades ago. As the company’s shares have soared nearly every year, his wealth has grown by billions. Under the U.S. tax code, none of that is taxed until he sells shares at a profit.
A little math shows that Buffett’s 17.4% rate meant he reported roughly $40.2 million in income in a year where Forbes said his wealth grew by $3 billion. His revelation made it possible to compare how much he was paying the government to the increase in the size of his fortune.
No one did so, and Buffett became something of a folk hero for calling for any increase in taxes.
When we obtained access to a trove of tax data
on the richest Americans, it quickly became clear to our reporters that Buffett’s comparison of his own tax rate to his employees’ vastly understates the inequity of our tax system. Buffett is far from unique; the documents showed that the amount of money people like Michael Bloomberg, Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk reported to the IRS as income was infinitesimal when measured against their annual gains in wealth.
And so the first story
in our “Secret IRS Files” series set out a new concept that makes more sense in our 21st century Gilded Age; we called it “the true tax rate.” We compared the annual taxes paid by the ultrarich to their wealth gains to give readers a sense of how the system really works.
From 2014 to 2018, we pointed out, Buffett paid $125 million in federal taxes. As he said, that sounds like a lot. But according to Forbes, his riches rose $24.3 billion during that period, making his true tax rate 0.1%. In a detailed written response
, Buffett defended his practices but did not directly address ProPublica’s true tax rate calculation.
When we published this story, howls of rage rang out from the freewheeling corners of Twitter to the ornate offices on Wall Street. Some of the most irate critics wrote to me directly and demanded to know whether I was so @#[email protected]
stupid that I didn’t understand the meaning of the word “income tax.”
“This story, sadly, reeks with ‘class envy,’” one angry reader wrote. “If this was intended to get clicks, you made your money.” We’re a non-profit and our revenue from advertising adds almost nothing to our annual budget, but I understand this reader’s larger point, which we noted in the story: The ultrarich are doing only what the current tax code invites them to do.
The debate intensified, and the White House-backed proposals on taxes advanced by congressional Democrats largely followed the traditional approach of raising rates on income. A separate bill introduced by Sens. Elizabeth Warren
and Bernie Sanders
to impose a 3% tax on all wealth above $1 billion is seen as having little chance of passing.
The reluctance to embrace a wealth tax is deeply rooted. The biggest donors to both parties would be hit hard by such a law. Continue Reading…