Thursday, July 12, 2007

PAUL KRUGMAN: An Unjustified Privilege

During the 2000 presidential campaign, Ralph Nader mocked politicians of both parties as “Republicrats,” equally subservient to corporations and the wealthy. It was nonsense, of course: the modern G.O.P. is so devoted to the cause of making the rich richer that it makes even the most business-friendly Democrats look like F.D.R.

But right now, as I watch Senate Democrats waffle over what should be a clear issue of justice and sound tax policy — namely, whether managers of private equity funds and hedge funds should be subject to the same taxes as ordinary working Americans — I’m starting to feel that Mr. Nader wasn’t all wrong.

What’s at stake here is a proposal by House Democrats to tax “carried interest” as regular income. This would close a tax loophole that is complicated in detail, but basically lets fund managers take a large part of the fees they earn for handling other peoples’ money and redefine those fees, for tax purposes, as capital gains.

The effect of this redefinition is that income that should be considered by normal standards to be ordinary income taxed at a 35 percent rate is treated as capital gains, taxed at only 15 percent instead. So fund managers get to pay a low tax rate that is supposed to provide incentives to risk-taking investors, even though they aren’t investors and they aren’t taking risks.

For example, the typical hedge-fund manager has a 2-and-20 contract — that is, he gets a fee equal to 2 percent of the funds under management, plus 20 percent of whatever his fund earns. It’s not exactly straight salary, but none of this income comes from putting his own wealth at risk. Except for the fact that he might make a billion dollars a year, he resembles a waitress whose income depends on a mix of wages and tips, or a salesman who lives on a mix of salary and commissions, more than he resembles an entrepreneur who sinks his life savings into a new business.

So why does he get the same tax breaks as that entrepreneur? Not to put too fine a point on it, why does Henry Kravis pay a lower tax rate on his management fees than I pay on my book royalties?

There’s a larger question one could ask: should we even be giving preferential tax treatment to true capital gains? I’d say no, because there’s very little evidence that taxing capital gains as ordinary income would actually hurt the economy. Meanwhile, the low tax rate on capital gains is one main reason the truly rich often pay lower tax rates than the middle class.

A couple of weeks ago, Warren Buffett pointed out that he pays an average federal income tax rate of 17.7 percent, while his receptionist pays about 30 percent.

But even those who disagree with me on the larger point, who think the special treatment of capital gains is justified, should be able to agree that treating the income of fund managers differently from the way we treat the income of everyone else who works for a living makes no sense. And that’s why it’s very disheartening to read that prominent Democratic senators are taking seriously the claims of fund managers that making them pay taxes like regular people would discourage risk-taking.

The immediate response should be: what risk-taking? To repeat: the fund managers aren’t entrepreneurs; they aren’t putting their own assets on the line.

Look, this isn’t about envy, about punishing success. No doubt many fund managers earn their pay. Some of them also give generously to worthy causes.

But closing the carried interest loophole should be a simple question of fairness: other Americans also earn their pay, but they don’t get special tax breaks. Plus, we’re talking about a lot of lost revenue due to that loophole — revenue that could, for example, be paying for the health care of tens if not hundreds of thousands of children.

And since we’re living in the real world of politics, there’s also the Republicrat issue: the hesitation of the Senate Democrats is terrible for the party’s image. It conveys the impression that they’re as beholden to hedge funds, one of the few types of businesses whose campaign contributions strongly favor Democrats, as Republicans are to the oil and drug industries.

So here’s a plea to Democratic senators on the fence: do the right thing and close this unjustified tax loophole.

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