On February 13, Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) and seven co-sponsors introduced a bill that would impose a tax on securities transactions. The 0.25 percent tax would be imposed on the value of the securities traded. Rep. DeFazio proposes the measure as a way to pay for the various Wall Street bailouts.
This proposal would, in theory, raise revenue from the folks who benefitted from the bailouts. But there's another proposal we like better. Congress should simply eliminate the loophole in the income tax for long-term capital gains and corporate stock dividends, which subjects these forms of income to a top rate of just 15 percent.
People who earn wages must pay income taxes at progressive rates as high as 35 percent, and the first $102,000 a person earns in a year is, in addition, subject to payroll taxes of around 15 percent. So allowing people who live off their investments to pay a tax rate of only 15 percent is grossly unfair. As Warren Buffet recently pointed out, he pays a lower tax rate that his secretary, thanks largely to the loophole in the federal income tax for capital gains and dividends.
And it truly is the wealthy who primarily benefit. A report issued by CTJ in May of last year found that 70 percent of the benefits of President Bush's tax cut for capital gains and dividends goes to the richest one percent of taxpayers. The report also cited IRS data showing that in 2005, this loophole cost the Treasury $91.7 billion.
So getting back to Congressman DeFazio's proposal, we find several advantages of a higher capital gain rate over a securities transaction tax:
- Taxing capital gains at a higher rate would tax only those transactions that resulted in a gain, while a securities transaction tax would be imposed on every trade, whether or not there was a profit.
- A higher capital gains tax rate would be imposed on all capital gain transactions, not just those that arise from exchange-traded securities transactions. (Many derivative transactions are not traded on an exchange.)
- Taxing capital gains at ordinary tax rates would make the tax system much more fair and progressive. Taxpayers in the lower rate brackets would pay a lower rate on their capital gains while taxpayers in the higher brackets would pay a higher rate.
- Taxing capital gains at the same rate as ordinary income would eliminate the many, many tax avoidance schemes that taxpayers use to convert ordinary income to capital gains.
- Taxpayers would make decisions based on economics -- not on the tax treatment of different investments -- eliminating a lot of market distortion.
Unfortunately, many lawmakers feel a strong urge to expand the most egregious loophole in the federal income tax rather than repeal it. On the same day that the DeFazio proposal was introduced, Rep. Walter Jones (R-NC) introduced a bill to raise the capital loss limitation from the current $3,000 per year to $10,000 per year. This would provide another tax break for the wealthy. Generally, taxpayers can use capital losses to offset capital gains, and if they have net capital losses, they can deduct $3,000 of that against ordinary income. The rest is carried over to future years. If there were no limit, investors could choose to sell only assets that have a loss and offset other types of income, even though they might have unrealized gains in other capital assets. An October, 2008 CTJ report analyzed a similar proposal made by Senator John McCain (R-AZ) during his presidential campaign and criticized the idea for the same reason.