ProPublica, “If You’re Getting a W-2, You’re a Sucker”:
There are many differences between the rich and the rest of us, but one of the most consequential for your taxes is whether most of your income comes from wages.
Nikki Spretnak loved being an IRS agent. Being able to examine the books of different businesses gave her an intimate view of the economy. But over the years, she became more and more conscious of a chasm between the business owners she was auditing and herself. It wasn't so much that they were rich and she, a revenue agent in the IRS office in Columbus, Ohio, was not. It was that, when it came to taxes, they lived a privileged existence, one that she, a mere W-2 recipient, did not share.
Over the past year, along with a team of my colleagues at ProPublica, I’ve spent countless hours scrutinizing the tax information of thousands of the wealthiest Americans. Like Spretnak, I’ve seen behind the veil and witnessed the same chasm. Doing my own taxes in the past was never a thrill, but only this spring did I fully realize what a colorless and confined tax world I inhabit.
For me, and for most people, filing taxes is little more than data entry. I hold in my hand my W-2 form from my employer and dutifully peck in my wages. Next come the 1099 forms that list my earnings from dividends or interest, and again my finger gets to work. The IRS has a copy of these forms, too, of course, making this drudgery somewhat pointless. By the end of it, there, in black and white, is my income.
The financial reality of the ultrawealthy is not so 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. ...
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 [Taxing Business Incomes: Evidence From the Survey of Consumer Finances]. 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.” ...
Under the current system, said John Sabelhaus, a former Federal Reserve economist and one of the study’s authors, “if you’re getting a W-2, you’re a sucker.”
This basic divide is also apparent in how tax laws are enforced. To the IRS, the average worker is an open book, since all their income is disclosed on those W-2s and 1099s. Should they enter an errant number on their tax return, a computer at the agency can easily catch it.
But that’s generally not true for private businesses. Such companies are often tangles of interrelated partnerships that, like densely grown forest, can be hard to penetrate. Auditing businesses like these “certainly is a test of endurance,” said Spretnak, the former IRS agent. ...
You can think of efforts to change this system as a battle between the rich and everybody else. And sure, it is. But it’s also an effort to pull those other tax worlds down to the terra firma of the wage earner, to make it so a W-2 isn’t the mark of a sucker.
Prior TaxProf Blog coverage:
- ProPublica: America's Richest People Pay Little To Nothing In Federal Income Taxes (June 8, 2021)
- ProPublica: How Peter Thiel Turned $2,000 In A Roth IRA Into $5,000,000,000 (June 28, 2021)
- ProPublica: Why You Can’t Turn Your Roth IRA Into a Billion-Dollar Tax Shelter (July 1, 2021)
- ProPublica: The Billionaire Playbook — How Sports Owners Use Their Teams To Avoid Millions In Taxes (July 12, 2021)
- ProPublica: The Number Of People With IRAs Worth $5 Million Or More Has Tripled, Congress Says (July 29, 2021)
- ProPublica: Secret IRS Files Reveal How Much the Ultrawealthy Gained by Shaping Trump’s “Big, Beautiful Tax Cut” (Aug. 11, 2021)
- ProPublica: How The Trump Tax Law Created A Loophole That Lets Top Executives Net Millions By Slashing Their Own Salaries (Aug. 20, 2021)
- ProPublica: House Bill Would Blow Up The Massive IRAs Of The Superwealthy (Sept. 22, 2021)
- ProPublica: More Than Half Of America’s 100 Richest People Exploit GRATs To Avoid Estate Taxes (Sept. 30, 2021)
- ProPublica: 18 Billionaires Received Taxpayer-Funded Stimulus Checks During The Pandemic (Nov. 4, 2021)
- ProPublica: How These Ultrawealthy Politicians Avoided Paying Taxes (Nov. 5, 2021)
- ProPublica: More Billionaire Tax Games (Dec. 9, 2021)
- ProPublica: How Three Families Shielded Their Fortunes From Taxes For Generations (Dec. 15, 2021)
- Wall Street Journal Editorial, The Internal Revenue Leak Service (Dec. 15, 2021)
- ProPublica: When Billionaires Don’t Pay Taxes, People 'Lose Faith In Democracy' (Mar. 4, 2022)
- ProPublica Names The 15 Americans Who Reported The Most Income And Reveals Data For The Top 400 (Apr. 14, 2022)