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Tag: elon musk

Why Smart Progressives Should Love Elon Musk

Nearly everything Sen. Elizabeth Warren tweeted about Elon Musk was wrong. Scratch the word "nearly." Everything was wrong.

Last month, the senator from Massachusetts tweeted, "Let's change the rigged tax code so the Person of the Year will actually pay taxes and stop freeloading off everyone else."

Some background: The founder of Tesla had just been anointed the richest human on earth, and Time Magazine named him Person of the Year. Three months before, SpaceX, which he also founded, sent the first all-civilian crew into space.

Musk tweeted back to Warren, "And if you opened your eyes for 2 seconds, you would realize I will pay more taxes than any American in history this year." He's put the number at something north of $11 billion, which, if true, would be more taxes than any other American paid ever.

Whether Musk's tax bill should have been higher can be subject for debate. We can agree that $11 billion is a healthy tax bill, but it's not an unseemly sum for one enjoying a net worth of around $243 billion.

Warren's implication that Musk doesn't pay taxes at all, however, is ignorant. The charge that he's "freeloading" — if you look at how he made that money — is awe-inspiring dumb. Musk has done more than any person on earth to replace cars run by the internal combustion engine, a significant factor in the climate crisis, with clean electric vehicles.

In 2020, when General Motors and Ford were closing factories because they couldn't find enough specialized computer chips, Tesla took the chips that were around and rewrote software to make them work in its cars. So while Ford, GM and Stellantis (Fiat Chrysler merged with Peugeot) sold fewer cars in 2021 than the year before, Tesla sold 87% more.

Six years ago, when the major U.S. carmakers were wondering whether or not to go big on electric, Tesla was building a huge battery factory in Nevada. The others are now in the game major league, and Tesla can be credited with pushing them

.But in the marathon race to win the electric vehicle market, Adam Jonas, an analyst with Morgan Stanley, said, "Tesla is in the lead at mile number 21. Everybody else is at mile 2 or still tying their shoes."

So Musk is full of himself. He has reasons.

What bothers some 20th-century progressives is that Musk is an unapologetic capitalist who mocks them for obsessing on his wealth.

Leading the pack is Sen. Bernie Sanders. The Vermont senator's brain has long been stalled on the subject of billionaires whom he once said shouldn't exist. When he tweeted, "We must demand that the extremely wealthy pay their fair share. Period," Musk trolled him: "I keep forgetting that you're still alive."

Musk may not be volunteering to pay more taxes than he has to, but we who think the superrich should pay more must understand that the solution is not them, but the tax laws. The tax code is the creation of Congress.

Back to Warren. "As we face the existential threat of our time — climate change," she wrote as a presidential candidate, "Wall Street is refusing to listen, let alone take real action."

Wrong again. Actually, Wall Street has been moving away from investments in fossil fuels — to the point that Texas passed a law banning companies that refuse to finance oil ventures from state contracts.

It is Wall Street that rewarded Musk for accelerating the changeover to electric vehicles. (Tesla also has a thriving solar panel business.) If helping save the planet let Musk edge out Amazon's Jeff Bezos as the world's richest person, well, where's the problem?

Article reprinted with permission from Creators.com

Danziger Draws

Jeff Danziger lives in New York City. He is represented by CWS Syndicate and the Washington Post Writers Group. He is the recipient of the Herblock Prize and the Thomas Nast (Landau) Prize. He served in the US Army in Vietnam and was awarded the Bronze Star and the Air Medal. He has published eleven books of cartoons, a novel and a memoir.

Warren And Whitehouse Demand Probe Of Tax Avoidance By Ultra-Wealthy

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica

Two prominent members of the Senate Finance Committee are calling for an investigation into tax avoidance by the ultrawealthy, citing ProPublica's "Secret IRS Files" series.

In a letter sent today, Elizabeth Warren (D-MA.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) wrote to the committee's chairman, Ron Wyden (D-OR), that the "bombshell" and "deeply troubling" report requires an investigation into "how the nation's wealthiest individuals are using a series of legal tax loopholes to avoid paying their fair share of income taxes." The senators also requested that the Senate hold hearings and develop legislation to address the loopholes' "impact on the nation's finances and ability to pay for investments in infrastructure, health care, the economy, and the environment."

Last month ProPublica began publishing a series of stories about tax avoidance among the ultra-wealthy, based on a vast trove of tax data concerning thousands of the wealthiest American taxpayers and covering more than 15 years. ProPublica conducted an unprecedented analysis that compared the ultra-wealthy's taxes to the growth in their fortunes, calculating that the 25 richest Americans pay a "true tax rate" of just 3.4 percent.

The wealthy pay so little in taxes primarily because they keep their incomes low, the article explained, often borrowing against their fortunes to fund their lifestyles. Amazon's Jeff Bezos, Tesla's Elon Musk, Bloomberg L.P.'s Michael Bloomberg and other billionaires have each paid no federal income taxes in one or more recent years. The tax avoidance techniques described in "The Secret IRS Files: Trove of Never-Before-Seen Records Reveal How the Wealthiest Avoid Taxes" are legal, and routine among the ultrawealthy.

In a subsequent article, ProPublica highlighted how some rich people, such as Peter Thiel, have been able to use Roth individual retirement accounts, intended as vehicles to bolster middle-class savings, to create vast untaxed fortunes. A third article showed how billionaires use a provision in the tax code to reduce their taxes after buying sports teams.

Banks and financial institutions are lending more to the rich than ever, according to a story in The Wall Street Journal last week. The senators called for an investigation of banks and wealth management firms to understand the techniques, strategies and products offered to the wealthy that enable them to avoid paying taxes. Morgan Stanley's wealth management clients have $68 billion worth of loans backed by securities and other investments, more than double the amount they had five years ago, and Bank of America has loans worth over $62 billion, the Journal reported.

In March, Warren introduced a bill, co-sponsored by Whitehouse, that would create a tax on the wealth of the richest Americans. Most Republicans and some Democrats oppose such a measure.

Update, July 14, 2021: In a statement, Wyden said that he agreed with the points raised by Warren and Whitehouse. "The country's wealthiest — who profited immensely during the pandemic — have not been paying their fair share," he said. "I've been working on a proposal to fix this broken system since 2019 and continue to work to get the bill ready for release. I'm also going to work with my colleagues on other ways the committee can tackle this issue."

Bezos, Musk, And You: Which One Pays Income Tax?

While Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. proclaimed, "I have a dream," it was full of lofty ethical stuff like "justice for all" and ... well, it was so 1963.

We now live in a Facebook-Instagram-Google world of billionaire ethics and expectations, so dreams need to glitter with a 2021-ish grandiosity to go viral. So, who better to take us there than that visionary of instant gratification, Jeff Bezos? "Ever since I was five years old," says the megabillionaire boss man of Amazon, "I've dreamed of traveling to space." Now that's intriguing, in part because Jeff regularly acts like he is from outer space — so, is this a homeward-bound odyssey?

Bezos can certainly afford the ticket, for today's devastating global pandemic has delivered a financial windfall to him, increasing his personal wealth by $75 billion last year alone. Bear in mind that he didn't have to work harder or smarter to "earn" this bonanza. Indeed, he's retiring as Amazon CEO, but his haul keeps growing as the corporate stock price keeps bloating.

Meanwhile, he bought himself a rocket ship company, and in July, he intends to be Customer No. 1 on a tourist fling to the lower edge of space. He and five other high-flyers will take a short suborbital joy ride about 50 miles up in a fully pressurized cabin, then unbuckle and experience weightlessness for a few minutes before scooting back to terra firma.

Imagine how impressed MLK Jr. would've been by Jeff's commitment of his enormous wealth and potential to such a ... well, such a flighty dream. For his part, the gazillionaire predicts that the experience of his space-capade will make him a new man: "It changes your relationship ... with humanity," he says of `space travel.

Good, for his relationship heretofore has been one of inhumane worker exploitation, systemic tax cheating, and monopoly profiteering. So, go forth, Amazon-man — and please come back a better human.

The most thought-provoking bumper sticker I've seen recently says: "The system is fixed. We must break it."

This thought came into vivid focus recently when a news report by ProPublica revealed that a nest of preening multibillionaires — led by the likes of Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and Michael Bloomberg — have been playing America's rigged tax system to dodge paying their share of upkeep for the society that so lavishly enriches them. In a leak of actual IRS tax data, the 25 richest Americans were exposed for using tax tricks and loopholes created by their lobbyists, accountants, lawyers and lawmakers to pay barely three percent of their enormous riches to our public treasury — while ordinary working people shell out about 24 percent of their meager income.

Check out the manipulations by Amazon jefe Jeff Bezos, the world's richest man. Even as his corporate stock payouts skyrocketed by $120 billion from 2006 to 2018, he paid just one percent in taxes on that huge gain. One year, in which his wealth swelled by $18 billion, he even took a $4,000 tax credit from us for the care of his children.

The chief scam by these super-dodgers is that they've fixed tax laws so they can take out loans on the escalating value of their stock, mansions, yachts, etc., without paying taxes on the cash they get. In fact, they even get a tax deduction for the interest they pay on the loans. Thus, they get to spend the cash value of those assets without having to sell them. It's financial voodoo for the privileged few!

In response to the revelations in ProPublica's jaw-dropping report, congressional Republicans, Biden administration officials, and the IRS are all promising a thorough investigation and crackdown. Not on the sleazy billionaires, of course, but on ProPublica! Yes, some top public officials exclaim that they are outraged, not by the tax rigging, but by the fact that you and I have been told about it in specific, undeniable detail.

It's not cynical to call the system corrupt when the corruption is put right under our noses.

To find out more about Jim Hightower and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators webpage at www.creators.com.

How You — And Congress — Subsidize The Richest Americans

Reprinted with permission from DC Report

ProPublica scored a fantastic scoop when it obtained and meticulously analyzed 15 years of raw income tax data on the wealthiest Americans. This leak of Internal Revenue Service records is by far the biggest and most important tax news in the 55 years that I've reported on taxes.

Thanks to the leaker, we now know beyond any doubt that the endless claims that America has a progressive income tax system are bunk. A progressive system means that the more you make, the greater the share of your income you pay in taxes. Back in 2005, I got the George W. Bush administration to acknowledge that the system stops becoming progressive near the top.

But, unfortunately, ProPublica shows that it's even worse than what I reported back then.

Working people pay a larger share of their income in tax than the wealthiest of the wealthy. The top marginal tax rate on labor income is almost double that of capital gains.

Jeff Bezos, the richest man in America, paid no income tax in 2007 and 2011. He doesn't dispute that.

Bezos was not alone. Multi-billionaires Elon Musk, Michael Bloomberg, Carl Icahn, and George Soros all pulled off the same trick at least once in recent years, ProPublica reported after analyzing the IRS data. Warren Buffet pays less in tax than millions of Americans, something he and Soros have said is wrong.

Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor and owner of the financial data and news business bearing his name, paid over five years an income tax rate lower than that of the poorest half of American taxpayers.

Bloomberg Pays Just Three Percent

On his income tax returns, Bloomberg reported making $10 billion. Yet, he paid just three percent .

The bottom half of income taxpayers averaged $17,200 of income in 2017 and paid four percent.

A system in which people who gross about $330 a week pay a much higher tax rate than someone who makes billions each year is not just regressive; it's an outrage. It violates principles of taxation that date to the Old Testament and ancient Athens.

I couldn't help but notice that my wife, a charity CEO, and I pay a higher income tax rate than Bezos, Bloomberg, and Buffett.

By the grace of Congress, those billionaires get to take unlimited losses when they make losing stock investments while Jennifer and I—and you—can deduct only $3,000 a year. So even if my wife and I live into our 90s, we will die with losses we never got to deduct.

That's just the kind of unfairness Professor Dorothy A. Brown compellingly demonstrates in her insightful and readable new book The Whiteness of Wealth.

Until now, the Wealth Defense Industry—armies of accountants, lawyers and wealth managers who specialize in using trusts, tax loopholes, off-shore corporations and foundations to benefit their 0.05 percent clients—tricked people. They pointed to posted tax rates, not actual rates paid by the super-super-super rich, and asserted with cherry-picked data that the rich pay a lot.

Salaried Workers Pay More

The granular data ProPublica obtained proves that the tax rates Congress puts in the law and the tax rates people pay only match up for working Americans in the bottom 99.5 percent.

Congress taxes workers much more heavily than billionaire capitalists who, ProPublica showed, can live income tax-free.

All of the people ProPublica wrote about are white men. Professor Brown of Emory University shows how our existing tax system favors wealth above income and discriminates against Black Americans. The design of our tax system plays a significant role in the vast wealth disparities between white Americans and people of color.

ProPublica's reporting backs her up. It showed that for most Americans, annual income taxes far exceed yearly increases in wealth.

Good Debt

At the apex of American wealth, you can live tax-free, as I showed many years ago. That is thanks to rules favoring the rich, loopholes Congress refuses to close, and minimal enforcement of our tax laws against the plutocrat class.

One simple technique is borrowing against your assets. Congress doesn't count that borrowed money as income.

For example: Let's say you're a 60-year-old founder-CEO holding $10 billion of stock in your company, which grows in value at a modest rate of five percent, or $500 million, a year. You determine that you can live comfortably on $50 million a year.

You then borrow that money, putting that much of your holdings up as collateral.

Do you see where this is going? You can borrow and live on $50 million a year every year for the rest of your life without paying a cent of federal income tax.

It gets better. The IRS determines interest rates on intra-family loans. The current rates are next to zero, less than even our modest inflation rate. Given that, why would anyone sell stock and pay a 20 percent tax rate to buy a yacht or a new jet when they can borrow against themselves almost interest-free and watch their stocks keep rising in value?

Hunting For The Leaker

The Biden White House announced late Tuesday that law enforcement is hunting for the leaker, who faces up to a decade in prison.

Whoever dared to do this should be hailed as a national hero on a par with Darnella Frazier, the fearless teenage girl with a steady hand who last summer recorded the slow, agonizing murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.

We should be building statues to honor this leaker, if he or she is ever identified, just as we should erect one to honor Remy Welling, the IRS corporate auditor whose leak to me 17 years ago proved corruption in the Silicon Valley stock options system.

Thanks to ProPublica and its source, maybe Americans will at long last wake up and realize that our federal income tax, as currently designed, is a massive subsidy system for the super-rich.

And the source of those subsidies for Bezos, Bloomberg, Buffett, Musk, and other multibillionaires? That would be you.

Secret IRS Files Reveal How Wealthiest Avoid Taxes

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica

In 2007, Jeff Bezos, then a multibillionaire and now the world's richest man, did not pay a penny in federal income taxes. He achieved the feat again in 2011. In 2018, Tesla founder Elon Musk, the second-richest person in the world, also paid no federal income taxes.

Michael Bloomberg managed to do the same in recent years. Billionaire investor Carl Icahn did it twice. George Soros paid no federal income tax three years in a row.

ProPublica has obtained a vast trove of Internal Revenue Service data on the tax returns of thousands of the nation's wealthiest people, covering more than 15 years. The data provides an unprecedented look inside the financial lives of America's titans, including Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, Rupert Murdoch and Mark Zuckerberg. It shows not just their income and taxes, but also their investments, stock trades, gambling winnings and even the results of audits.

Taken together, it demolishes the cornerstone myth of the American tax system: that everyone pays their fair share and the richest Americans pay the most. The IRS records show that the wealthiest can — perfectly legally — pay income taxes that are only a tiny fraction of the hundreds of millions, if not billions, their fortunes grow each year.

Many Americans live paycheck to paycheck, amassing little wealth and paying the federal government a percentage of their income that rises if they earn more. In recent years, the median American household earned about $70,000 annually and paid 14 percent in federal taxes. The highest income tax rate, 37 percent, kicked in this year, for couples, on earnings above $628,300.

The confidential tax records obtained by ProPublica show that the ultrarich effectively sidestep this system.

America's billionaires avail themselves of tax-avoidance strategies beyond the reach of ordinary people. Their wealth derives from the skyrocketing value of their assets, like stock and property. Those gains are not defined by U.S. laws as taxable income unless and until the billionaires sell.

To capture the financial reality of the richest Americans, ProPublica undertook an analysis that has never been done before. We compared how much in taxes the 25 richest Americans paid each year to how much Forbes estimated their wealth grew in that same time period.

We're going to call this their true tax rate.

The results are stark. According to Forbes, those 25 people saw their worth rise a collective $401 billion from 2014 to 2018. They paid a total of $13.6 billion in federal income taxes in those five years, the IRS data shows. That's a staggering sum, but it amounts to a true tax rate of only 3.4 percent.

It's a completely different picture for middle-class Americans, for example, wage earners in their early 40s who have amassed a typical amount of wealth for people their age. From 2014 to 2018, such households saw their net worth expand by about $65,000 after taxes on average, mostly due to the rise in value of their homes. But because the vast bulk of their earnings were salaries, their tax bills were almost as much, nearly $62,000, over that five-year period.

The Ultrawealthy by the Numbers

Read our full methodology. Credit: Agnes Chang/ProPublica

No one among the 25 wealthiest avoided as much tax as Buffett, the grandfatherly centibillionaire. That's perhaps surprising, given his public stance as an advocate of higher taxes for the rich. According to Forbes, his riches rose $24.3 billion between 2014 and 2018. Over those years, the data shows, Buffett reported paying $23.7 million in taxes.

That works out to a true tax rate of 0.1 percent, or less than 10 cents for every $100 he added to his wealth.

In the coming months, ProPublica will use the IRS data we have obtained to explore in detail how the ultrawealthy avoid taxes, exploit loopholes and escape scrutiny from federal auditors.

Experts have long understood the broad outlines of how little the wealthy are taxed in the United States, and many lay people have long suspected the same thing.

But few specifics about individuals ever emerge in public. Tax information is among the most zealously guarded secrets in the federal government. ProPublica has decided to reveal individual tax information of some of the wealthiest Americans because it is only by seeing specifics that the public can understand the realities of the country's tax system.

Consider Bezos' 2007, one of the years he paid zero in federal income taxes. Amazon's stock more than doubled. Bezos' fortune leapt $3.8 billion, according to Forbes, whose wealth estimates are widely cited. How did a person enjoying that sort of wealth explosion end up paying no income tax?

In that year, Bezos, who filed his taxes jointly with his then-wife, MacKenzie Scott, reported a paltry (for him) $46 million in income, largely from interest and dividend payments on outside investments. He was able to offset every penny he earned with losses from side investments and various deductions, like interest expenses on debts and the vague catchall category of "other expenses."

In 2011, a year in which his wealth held roughly steady at $18 billion, Bezos filed a tax return reporting he lost money — his income that year was more than offset by investment losses. What's more, because, according to the tax law, he made so little, he even claimed and received a $4,000 tax credit for his children.

His tax avoidance is even more striking if you examine 2006 to 2018, a period for which ProPublica has complete data. Bezos' wealth increased by $127 billion, according to Forbes, but he reported a total of $6.5 billion in income. The $1.4 billion he paid in personal federal taxes is a massive number — yet it amounts to a 1.1 percent true tax rate on the rise in his fortune.

Compare Bezos' Financial Picture to a Typical American Household



Read our full methodology. Credit: Agnes Chang/ProPublica

The revelations provided by the IRS data come at a crucial moment. Wealth inequality has become one of the defining issues of our age. The president and Congress are considering the most ambitious tax increases in decades on those with high incomes. But the American tax conversation has been dominated by debate over incremental changes, such as whether the top tax rate should be 39.6 percent rather than 37 percent.

ProPublica's data shows that while some wealthy Americans, such as hedge fund managers, would pay more taxes under the current Biden administration proposals, the vast majority of the top 25 would see little change.

The tax data was provided to ProPublica after we published a series of articles scrutinizing the IRS. The articles exposed how years of budget cuts have hobbled the agency's ability to enforce the law and how the largest corporations and the rich have benefited from the IRS' weakness. They also showed how people in poor regions are now more likely to be audited than those in affluent areas.

ProPublica is not disclosing how it obtained the data, which was given to us in raw form, with no conditions or conclusions. ProPublica reporters spent months processing and analyzing the material to transform it into a usable database.

We then verified the information by comparing elements of it with dozens of already public tax details (in court documents, politicians' financial disclosures and news stories) as well as by vetting it with individuals whose tax information is contained in the trove. Every person whose tax information is described in this story was asked to comment. Those who responded, including Buffett, Bloomberg and Icahn, all said they had paid the taxes they owed.

A spokesman for Soros said in a statement: "Between 2016 and 2018 George Soros lost money on his investments, therefore he did not owe federal income taxes in those years. Mr. Soros has long supported higher taxes for wealthy Americans." Personal and corporate representatives of Bezos declined to receive detailed questions about the matter. ProPublica attempted to reach Scott through her divorce attorney, a personal representative and family members; she did not respond. Musk responded to an initial query with a lone punctuation mark: "?" After we sent detailed questions to him, he did not reply.

One of the billionaires mentioned in this article objected, arguing that publishing personal tax information is a violation of privacy. We have concluded that the public interest in knowing this information at this pivotal moment outweighs that legitimate concern.

The consequences of allowing the most prosperous to game the tax system have been profound. Federal budgets, apart from military spending, have been constrained for decades. Roads and bridges have crumbled, social services have withered and the solvency of Social Security and Medicare is perpetually in question.

There is an even more fundamental issue than which programs get funded or not: Taxes are a kind of collective sacrifice. No one loves giving their hard-earned money to the government. But the system works only as long as it's perceived to be fair.

Our analysis of tax data for the 25 richest Americans quantifies just how unfair the system has become.

By the end of 2018, the 25 were worth $1.1 trillion.

For comparison, it would take 14.3 million ordinary American wage earners put together to equal that same amount of wealth.

The personal federal tax bill for the top 25 in 2018: $1.9 billion.

The bill for the wage earners: $143 billion.

The idea of a regular tax on income, much less on wealth, does not appear in the country's founding documents. In fact, Article 1 of the U.S. Constitution explicitly prohibits "direct" taxes on citizens under most circumstances. This meant that for decades, the U.S. government mainly funded itself through "indirect" taxes: tariffs and levies on consumer goods like tobacco and alcohol.

With the costs of the Civil War looming, Congress imposed a national income tax in 1861. The wealthy helped force its repeal soon after the war ended. (Their pique could only have been exacerbated by the fact that the law required public disclosure. The annual income of the moguls of the day — $1.3 million for William Astor; $576,000 for Cornelius Vanderbilt — was listed in the pages of The New York Times in 1865.)

By the late 19th and early 20th century, wealth inequality was acute and the political climate was changing. The federal government began expanding, creating agencies to protect food, workers and more. It needed funding, but tariffs were pinching regular Americans more than the rich. The Supreme Court had rejected an 1894 law that would have created an income tax. So Congress moved to amend the Constitution. The 16th Amendment was ratified in 1913 and gave the government power "to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived."

In the early years, the personal income tax worked as Congress intended, falling squarely on the richest. In 1918, only 15 percent of American families owed any tax. The top one percent paid 80 percent of the revenue raised, according to historian W. Elliot Brownlee.

But a question remained: What would count as income and what wouldn't? In 1916, a woman named Myrtle Macomber received a dividend for her Standard Oil of California shares. She owed taxes, thanks to the new law. The dividend had not come in cash, however. It came in the form of an additional share for every two shares she already held. She paid the taxes and then brought a court challenge: Yes, she'd gotten a bit richer, but she hadn't received any money. Therefore, she argued, she'd received no "income."

Four years later, the Supreme Court agreed. In Eisner v. Macomber, the high court ruled that income derived only from proceeds. A person needed to sell an asset — stock, bond or building — and reap some money before it could be taxed.

Since then, the concept that income comes only from proceeds — when gains are "realized" — has been the bedrock of the U.S. tax system. Wages are taxed. Cash dividends are taxed. Gains from selling assets are taxed. But if a taxpayer hasn't sold anything, there is no income and therefore no tax.

Contemporary critics of Macomber were plentiful and prescient. Cordell Hull, the congressman known as the "father" of the income tax, assailed the decision, according to scholar Marjorie Kornhauser. Hull predicted that tax avoidance would become common. The ruling opened a gaping loophole, Hull warned, allowing industrialists to build a company and borrow against the stock to pay living expenses. Anyone could "live upon the value" of their company stock "without selling it, and of course, without ever paying" tax, he said.

Hull's prediction would reach full flower only decades later, spurred by a series of epochal economic, legal and cultural changes that began to gather momentum in the 1970s. Antitrust enforcers increasingly accepted mergers and stopped trying to break up huge corporations. For their part, companies came to obsess over the value of their stock to the exclusion of nearly everything else. That helped give rise in the last 40 years to a series of corporate monoliths — beginning with Microsoft and Oracle in the 1980s and 1990s and continuing to Amazon, Google, Facebook and Apple today — that often have concentrated ownership, high profit margins and rich share prices. The winner-take-all economy has created modern fortunes that by some measures eclipse those of John D. Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan and Andrew Carnegie.

In the here and now, the ultrawealthy use an array of techniques that aren't available to those of lesser means to get around the tax system.

Certainly, there are illegal tax evaders among them, but it turns out billionaires don't have to evade taxes exotically and illicitly — they can avoid them routinely and legally.

Most Americans have to work to live. When they do, they get paid — and they get taxed. The federal government considers almost every dollar workers earn to be "income," and employers take taxes directly out of their paychecks.

The Bezoses of the world have no need to be paid a salary. Bezos' Amazon wages have long been set at the middle-class level of around $80,000 a year.

For years, there's been something of a competition among elite founder-CEOs to go even lower. Steve Jobs took $1 in salary when he returned to Apple in the 1990s. Facebook's Zuckerberg, Oracle's Larry Ellison and Google's Larry Page have all done the same.

Yet this is not the self-effacing gesture it appears to be: Wages are taxed at a high rate. The top 25 wealthiest Americans reported $158 million in wages in 2018, according to the IRS data. That's a mere 1.1 percent of what they listed on their tax forms as their total reported income. The rest mostly came from dividends and the sale of stock, bonds or other investments, which are taxed at lower rates than wages.

As Congressman Hull envisioned long ago, the ultrawealthy typically hold fast to shares in the companies they've founded. Many titans of the 21st century sit on mountains of what are known as unrealized gains, the total size of which fluctuates each day as stock prices rise and fall. Of the $4.25 trillion in wealth held by U.S. billionaires, some $2.7 trillion is unrealized, according to Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, economists at the University of California, Berkeley.

Buffett has famously held onto his stock in the company he founded, Berkshire Hathaway, the conglomerate that owns Geico, Duracell and significant stakes in American Express and Coca-Cola. That has allowed Buffett to largely avoid transforming his wealth into income. From 2015 through 2018, he reported annual income ranging from $11.6 million to $25 million. That may seem like a lot, but Buffett ranks as roughly the world's sixth-richest person — he's worth $110 billion as of Forbes' estimate in May 2021. At least 14,000 U.S. taxpayers in 2015 reported higher income than him, according to IRS data.

There's also a second strategy Buffett relies on that minimizes income, and therefore, taxes. Berkshire does not pay a dividend, the sum (a piece of the profits, in theory) that many companies pay each quarter to those who own their stock. Buffett has always argued that it is better to use that money to find investments for Berkshire that will further boost the value of shares held by him and other investors. If Berkshire had offered anywhere close to the average dividend in recent years, Buffett would have received over $1 billion in dividend income and owed hundreds of millions in taxes each year.

Many Silicon Valley and infotech companies have emulated Buffett's model, eschewing stock dividends, at least for a time. In the 1980s and 1990s, companies like Microsoft and Oracle offered shareholders rocketing growth and profits but did not pay dividends. Google, Facebook, Amazon and Tesla do not pay dividends.

In a detailed written response, Buffett defended his practices but did not directly address ProPublica's true tax rate calculation. "I continue to believe that the tax code should be changed substantially," he wrote, adding that he thought "huge dynastic wealth is not desirable for our society."

The decision not to have Berkshire pay dividends has been supported by the vast majority of his shareholders. "I can't think of any large public company with shareholders so united in their reinvestment beliefs," he wrote. And he pointed out that Berkshire Hathaway pays significant corporate taxes, accounting for 1.5 percentof total U.S. corporate taxes in 2019 and 2020.

Buffett reiterated that he has begun giving his enormous fortune away and ultimately plans to donate 99.5 percent of it to charity. "I believe the money will be of more use to society if disbursed philanthropically than if it is used to slightly reduce an ever-increasing U.S. debt," he wrote.

Buy, Borrow, Die: How America's Ultrawealthy Stay That Way

Buy, Borrow, Die: How America's Ultrawealthy Stay That Way www.youtube.com

So how do megabillionaires pay their megabills while opting for $1 salaries and hanging onto their stock? According to public documents and experts, the answer for some is borrowing money — lots of it.

For regular people, borrowing money is often something done out of necessity, say for a car or a home. But for the ultrawealthy, it can be a way to access billions without producing income, and thus, income tax.

The tax math provides a clear incentive for this. If you own a company and take a huge salary, you'll pay 37 percent in income tax on the bulk of it. Sell stock and you'll pay 20 percent in capital gains tax — and lose some control over your company. But take out a loan, and these days you'll pay a single-digit interest rate and no tax; since loans must be paid back, the IRS doesn't consider them income. Banks typically require collateral, but the wealthy have plenty of that.

The vast majority of the ultra-wealthy's loans do not appear in the tax records obtained by ProPublica since they are generally not disclosed to the IRS. But occasionally, the loans are disclosed in securities filings. In 2014, for example, Oracle revealed that its CEO, Ellison, had a credit line secured by about $10 billion of his shares.

Last year Tesla reported that Musk had pledged some 92 million shares, which were worth about $57.7 billion as of May 29, 2021, as collateral for personal loans.

With the exception of one year when he exercised more than a billion dollars in stock options, Musk's tax bills in no way reflect the fortune he has at his disposal. In 2015, he paid $68,000 in federal income tax. In 2017, it was $65,000, and in 2018 he paid no federal income tax. Between 2014 and 2018, he had a true tax rate of 3.27 percent.

The IRS records provide glimpses of other massive loans. In both 2016 and 2017, investor Carl Icahn, who ranks as the 40th-wealthiest American on the Forbes list, paid no federal income taxes despite reporting a total of $544 million in adjusted gross income (which the IRS defines as earnings minus items like student loan interest payments or alimony). Icahn had an outstanding loan of $1.2 billion with Bank of America among other loans, according to the IRS data. It was technically a mortgage because it was secured, at least in part, by Manhattan penthouse apartments and other properties.

Borrowing offers multiple benefits to Icahn: He gets huge tranches of cash to turbocharge his investment returns. Then he gets to deduct the interest from his taxes. In an interview, Icahn explained that he reports the profits and losses of his business empire on his personal taxes.

Icahn acknowledged that he is a "big borrower. I do borrow a lot of money." Asked if he takes out loans also to lower his tax bill, Icahn said: "No, not at all. My borrowing is to win. I enjoy the competition. I enjoy winning."

He said adjusted gross income was a misleading figure for him. After taking hundreds of millions in deductions for the interest on his loans, he registered tax losses for both years, he said. "I didn't make money because, unfortunately for me, my interest was higher than my whole adjusted income."

Asked whether it was appropriate that he had paid no income tax in certain years, Icahn said he was perplexed by the question. "There's a reason it's called income tax," he said. "The reason is if, if you're a poor person, a rich person, if you are Apple — if you have no income, you don't pay taxes." He added: "Do you think a rich person should pay taxes no matter what? I don't think it's germane. How can you ask me that question?"

Skeptics might question our analysis of how little the superrich pay in taxes. For one, they might argue that owners of companies get hit by corporate taxes. They also might counter that some billionaires cannot avoid income — and therefore taxes. And after death, the common understanding goes, there's a final no-escape clause: the estate tax, which imposes a steep tax rate on sums over $11.7 million.

ProPublica found that none of these factors alter the fundamental picture.

Take corporate taxes. When companies pay them, economists say, these costs are passed on to the companies' owners, workers or even consumers. Models differ, but they generally assume big stockholders shoulder the lion's share.

Corporate taxes, however, have plummeted in recent decades in what has become a golden age of corporate tax avoidance. By sending profits abroad, companies like Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Apple have often paid little or no U.S. corporate tax.

For some of the nation's wealthiest people, particularly Bezos and Musk, adding corporate taxes to the equation would hardly change anything at all. Other companies like Berkshire Hathaway and Walmart do pay more, which means that for people like Buffett and the Waltons, corporate tax could add significantly to their burden.

It is also true that some billionaires don't avoid taxes by avoiding incomes. In 2018, nine of the 25 wealthiest Americans reported more than $500 million in income and three more than $1 billion.

In such cases, though, the data obtained by ProPublica shows billionaires have a palette of tax-avoidance options to offset their gains using credits, deductions (which can include charitable donations) or losses to lower or even zero out their tax bills. Some own sports teams that offer such lucrative write-offs that owners often end up paying far lower tax rates than their millionaire players. Others own commercial buildings that steadily rise in value but nevertheless can be used to throw off paper losses that offset income.

Michael Bloomberg, the 13th-richest American on the Forbes list, often reports high income because the profits of the private company he controls flow mainly to him.

In 2018, he reported income of $1.9 billion. When it came to his taxes, Bloomberg managed to slash his bill by using deductions made possible by tax cuts passed during the Trump administration, charitable donations of $968.3 million and credits for having paid foreign taxes. The end result was that he paid $70.7 million in income tax on that almost $2 billion in income. That amounts to just a 3.7 percent conventional income tax rate. Between 2014 and 2018, Bloomberg had a true tax rate of 1.30 percent.

In a statement, a spokesman for Bloomberg noted that as a candidate, Bloomberg had advocated for a variety of tax hikes on the wealthy. "Mike Bloomberg pays the maximum tax rate on all federal, state, local and international taxable income as prescribed by law," the spokesman wrote. And he cited Bloomberg's philanthropic giving, offering the calculation that "taken together, what Mike gives to charity and pays in taxes amounts to approximately 75 percent of his annual income."

The statement also noted: "The release of a private citizen's tax returns should raise real privacy concerns regardless of political affiliation or views on tax policy. In the United States no private citizen should fear the illegal release of their taxes. We intend to use all legal means at our disposal to determine which individual or government entity leaked these and ensure that they are held responsible."

Ultimately, after decades of wealth accumulation, the estate tax is supposed to serve as a backstop, allowing authorities an opportunity to finally take a piece of giant fortunes before they pass to a new generation. But in reality, preparing for death is more like the last stage of tax avoidance for the ultra-wealthy.

University of Southern California tax law professor Edward McCaffery has summarized the entire arc with the catchphrase "buy, borrow, die."

The notion of dying as a tax benefit seems paradoxical. Normally when someone sells an asset, even a minute before they die, they owe 20 percent capital gains tax. But at death, that changes. Any capital gains till that moment are not taxed. This allows the ultrarich and their heirs to avoid paying billions in taxes. The "step-up in basis" is widely recognized by experts across the political spectrum as a flaw in the code.

Then comes the estate tax, which, at 40 percent, is among the highest in the federal code. This tax is supposed to give the government one last chance to get a piece of all those unrealized gains and other assets the wealthiest Americans accumulate over their lifetimes.

It's clear, though, from aggregate IRS data, tax research and what little trickles into the public arena about estate planning of the wealthy that they can readily escape turning over almost half of the value of their estates. Many of the richest create foundations for philanthropic giving, which provide large charitable tax deductions during their lifetimes and bypass the estate tax when they die.

Wealth managers offer clients a range of opaque and complicated trusts that allow the wealthiest Americans to give large sums to their heirs without paying estate taxes. The IRS data obtained by ProPublica gives some insight into the ultra-wealthy's estate planning, showing hundreds of these trusts.

The result is that large fortunes can pass largely intact from one generation to the next. Of the 25 richest people in America today, about a quarter are heirs: three are Waltons, two are scions of the Mars candy fortune and one is the son of Estée Lauder.

In the past year and a half, hundreds of thousands of Americans have died from COVID-19, while millions were thrown out of work. But one of the bleakest periods in American history turned out to be one of the most lucrative for billionaires. They added $1.2 trillion to their fortunes from January 2020 to the end of April of this year, according to Forbes.

That windfall is among the many factors that have led the country to an inflection point, one that traces back to a half-century of growing wealth inequality and the financial crisis of 2008, which left many with lasting economic damage. American history is rich with such turns. There have been famous acts of tax resistance, like the Boston Tea Party, countered by less well-known efforts to have the rich pay more.

One such incident, over half a century ago, appeared as if it might spark great change. President Lyndon Johnson's outgoing treasury secretary, Joseph Barr, shocked the nation when he revealed that 155 Americans making over $200,000 (about $1.6 million today) had paid no taxes. That group, he told the Senate, included 21 millionaires.

"We face now the possibility of a taxpayer revolt if we do not soon make major reforms in our income taxes," Barr said. Members of Congress received more furious letters about the tax scofflaws that year than they did about the Vietnam War.

Congress did pass some reforms, but the long-term trend was a revolt in the opposite direction, which then accelerated with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. Since then, through a combination of political donations, lobbying, charitable giving and even direct bids for political office, the ultrawealthy have helped shape the debate about taxation in their favor.

One apparent exception: Buffett, who broke ranks with his billionaire cohort to call for higher taxes on the rich. In a famous New York Times op-ed in 2011, Buffett wrote, "My friends and I have been coddled long enough by a billionaire-friendly Congress. It's time for our government to get serious about shared sacrifice."

Buffett did something in that article that few Americans do: He publicly revealed how much he had paid in personal federal taxes the previous year ($6.9 million). Separately, Forbes estimated his fortune had risen $3 billion that year. Using that information, an observer could have calculated his true tax rate; it was 0.2 percent. But then, as now, the discussion that ensued on taxes was centered on the traditional income tax rate.

In 2011, President Barack Obama proposed legislation, known as the Buffett Rule. It would have raised income tax rates on people reporting over a million dollars a year. It didn't pass. Even if it had, however, the Buffett Rule wouldn't have raised Buffett's taxes significantly. If you can avoid income, you can avoid taxes.

Today, just a few years after Republicans passed a massive tax cut that disproportionately benefited the wealthy, the country may be facing another swing of the pendulum, back toward a popular demand to raise taxes on the wealthy. In the face of growing inequality and with spending ambitions that rival those of Franklin D. Roosevelt or Johnson, the Biden administration has proposed a slate of changes. These include raising the tax rates on people making over $400,000 and bumping the top income tax rate from 37 percent to 39.6 percent, with a top rate for long-term capital gains to match that. The administration also wants to up the corporate tax rate and to increase the IRS' budget.

Some Democrats have gone further, floating ideas that challenge the tax structure as it's existed for the last century. Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, has proposed taxing unrealized capital gains, a shot through the heart of Macomber. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have proposed wealth taxes.

Aggressive new laws would likely inspire new, sophisticated avoidance techniques. A few countries, including Switzerland and Spain, have wealth taxes on a small scale. Several, most recently France, have abandoned them as unworkable. Opponents contend that they are complicated to administer, as it is hard to value assets, particularly of private companies and property.

What it would take for a fundamental overhaul of the U.S. tax system is not clear. But the IRS data obtained by ProPublica illuminates that all of these conversations have been taking place in a vacuum. Neither political leaders nor the public have ever had an accurate picture of how comprehensively the wealthiest Americans avoid paying taxes.

Buffett and his fellow billionaires have known this secret for a long time. As Buffett put it in 2011: "There's been class warfare going on for the last 20 years, and my class has won."

Doris Burke, Carson Kessler and Ellis Simani contributed reporting.

Danziger: Shut Up And Drive

Jeff Danziger lives in New York City. He is represented by CWS Syndicate and the Washington Post Writers Group. He is the recipient of the Herblock Prize and the Thomas Nast (Landau) Prize. He served in the US Army in Vietnam and was awarded the Bronze Star and the Air Medal. He has published eleven books of cartoons and one novel. Visit him at DanzigerCartoons.com.

#EndorseThis: Elon Musk Smokes Joe Rogan Blunt And Breaks Internet

Pod-caster and conspiracy-junkie Joe Rogan is actually kind of a miracle. Rogan manages to be anti-Republican, anti-Democrat, anti-centrist, anti-religion and anti-atheism all at once. It’s strange to see a comedian attract such a wide audience while espousing views that enrage both sides of the liberal/conservative divide.

Maybe Joe looks sane in contrast to some of his guests on the Joe Rogan Experience, which have included controversial figures like Jimmy Dore, Abby Martin, and Milo Yiannopoulos.

And then there’s this week’s JRE guest Elon Musk, who seems determined to tank his own business. In today’s #EndorseThis clip, the polarizing inventor and part-time GOP donor puffs on a marijuana spliff (mistakenly called a “blunt” by Joe) during a 3-hour discussion of artificial intelligence, fossil fuels, and of course world politics – a staple of Rogan’s stoned ramblings.

Tesla stock has already dropped 9% as the podcast clip goes viral. Click to watch Elon’s reputation go up in smoke.