“By the sweat of your brow
you will eat your food
until you return to the ground,
since from it you were taken.”
One of the enduring mysteries of the U.S. tax code is why the system is harder on those who earn their income by the sweat of their brow as opposed to those who get money from their investments.
The tax code’s main purpose, of course, is to fund the activities of the government, and Americans have been having a lively discussion about the proper scope of government activities and how to pay for them for more than 200 years.
Over the years, however, the tax code has been used to encourage certain behaviors and discourage others. In its current incarnation, for example, we give deductions for contributions to some retirement savings accounts, because that’s a good thing. We levy tax penalties on early withdrawals from retirement plans, because that’s often a bad thing.
There are plenty of things to argue about with these types of tax incentives. What is curious, however, is the favorable treatment of investment returns over ordinary income. Currently, for example, employment income is taxed at a maximum 39.6%, while long-term capital gains are taxed at a maximum 20%.
Ostensibly, the lower tax rate for capital gains – the difference between your purchase price and sales price on a winning investment – is to encourage investment. As such, it has some merit: Congress cut the capital gains rate from 28% to 20% in 1982, and the stock market took off. (On the other hand, Congress returned the capital gains rate to 28% in 1987, and the stock market generally rallied until 2000).
Nevertheless, we as a nation tend to encourage hard work and look down on those who work as little as possible. And here we come to a paradox between the admiration for hard work and the tax code. Consider this comparison of two people, each with $300,000 in income, presented by Ben Steverman of Bloomberg.
Our first taxpayer is an emergency room surgeon. The other plays video games all day, thanks to his inheritance.
Now, as with all things taxable, there are some important caveats here. One is that under current law, if the heir’s parents gave him his capital in their will, the estate is liable for taxes under estate tax law. (Heirs don’t pay estate taxes.) That said, it’s unlikely that the parents paid estate tax: It doesn’t kick in until $11.2 million for a couple and $5.6 million for a single individual. About 11,300 estate tax returns were filed for people who died in 2013, of which only 4,700 were taxable, fewer than 1 in 550 of the 2.6 million people who died in that year, according to the Tax Policy Center.
This is largely an investment blog, so it’s useful to point out that lower corporate taxes in the new tax bill means that companies are more likely to increase dividends, buy back stock, or increase merger and acquisitions. All told, it’s hard not for investors to like the bill, because it will help returns from the money you earn while you sleep. But we’re a country that admires hard work. In the end, however, even with a tax break, those who earn their living by the sweat of their brow still wind up paying more.