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A new working paper on tax reform options from Citizens for Tax Justice has a section describing a category of revenue-raising proposals that has not received much attention: ending tax shelters for investment income. As former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers noted in a recent op-ed: “What’s needed is an element that has largely been absent to date: [reducing] the numerous exclusions from the definition of adjusted gross income that enable the accumulation of great wealth with the payment of little or no taxes.”

The problem addressed by these proposals is partly related to the problem posed by the special, low rates that apply to capital gains and stock dividends. (Congress certainly needs to eliminate those special rates, so that investment income is taxed just like any other income.)

The breaks and loopholes criticized by Larry Summers and explained in CTJ’s new working paper allow wealthy individuals to delay or completely avoid paying taxes on their capital gains — at any rate. It does not matter what tax rate applies to capital gains so long as the wealthy can use these shelters to avoid paying any tax at all.

Path to Reform that Taxes All Income at the Same Rates

If these tax shelters are eliminated, that may make it easier for Congress to tackle the other problem with investment income — the special low rates that apply to investment income that takes the form of capital gains and stock dividends. Currently, the Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT), the official revenue estimator for Congress, assumes that people will respond to hikes in tax rates on capital gains by holding onto their assets or finding ways to avoid the tax, reducing the amount of revenue that can be raised from such a rate hike. (CTJ has explained why JCT’s assumptions are overblown in the appendix of our 2012 report on revenue-raising options.)

But if the various shelters that people use to avoid taxes on capital gains are closed off, JCT could logically assume that raising tax rates on capital gains will raise substantially more revenue.

Tax Capital Gains at Death

The tax shelter that is probably the largest, in terms of revenue, is the “stepped-up basis” for capital gains at death. Income that takes the form of capital gains on assets that are not sold during the owner’s lifetime escape taxation entirely. The heirs of the assets enjoy a “stepped-up basis” in the assets, meaning that any accrued gains at the time the decedent died are never taxed. (The estate tax once ensured that such gains would be subject to some taxation, but repeal of three-fourths of the estate tax has been made permanent in the fiscal cliff deal.)

The justification for the stepped-up basis seems to be the difficulty in ascertaining the basis (the purchase price, generally) of an asset that a taxpayer held for many years before leaving it to his or her heirs at death.

But this difficulty (which is decreasing rapidly because of digital records) does not justify the sweeping rule allowing stepped up basis for all assets left to heirs — even assets that have a clearly recorded value and assets that were only acquired right before death.

It is also not obvious that this difficultly with determining the basis is that different after the death of the owner of the asset. Consider an asset that was held for, say, 40 years and bequeathed at death and an asset that was held for 40 years and then sold to fund the taxpayer’s retirement. In the former situation, the gains that accrued over those 40 years are never taxed, but in the latter situation they are taxed. But any difficulties in determining basis would seem to be the same in these situations.

The proposal to tax capital gains at death, and the others described in the working paper, challenge some breaks that wealthy individuals and their accountants and lawyers are deeply attached to. But the vast majority of Americans whose income takes the form of wages are not able to use these maneuvers to delay or avoid taxes on their income. They would have trouble understanding why these tax shelters for the wealthy should be preserved while Congress considers dramatic cuts to public investments that support all Americans.