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Last Updated: Wednesday, 13 April, 2005, 23:00 GMT 00:00 UK
America's rich rise against tax

By Stephen Evans
BBC North America business correspondent

Only taxes and death are certain - except for taxes, that is.

Champagne drinker
"Only the little people pay taxes"

It won't seem that way to the millions of Americans who file their tax returns by the deadline on Friday, but there is a mountain of evidence that tax avoidance (the legal variety) and even tax evasion (the illegal variety) are growth industries.

Accountants in the field have even come up with the term "tax avoision" to describe the grey areas in between. It was Leona Helmsley who said famously that "only the little people pay taxes".

You might forgive her cynicism. The assertion was over-stated but not completely wide of the mark.

Tax burden shifting

According to David Cay Johnston, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his study of American taxes, there's an industry that squirrels away billions of dollars that might otherwise head for the public purse.

"[The IRS is] like a police department that was giving out lots of parking tickets while organized crime was running rampant".
Charles Rossotti
Former Internal Revenue Service commissioner

Trust funds enable wealth to be passed tax-free between generations or enable income to be disguised.

Tax-breaks for pursuits like flying in private jets help minimise the burden at the top. Entities are created so that profits are apparently earned where taxes are low. Losses are borne where taxes are high.

On top of that, Mr Johnston, who covers taxation for the New York Times, says the tax burden has shifted downwards through decisions by government.

Ten years ago the richest Americans paid thirty cents of each dollar of their income in federal income tax (about the same as middle earners did).

Five years ago, that had fallen to 22 cents on the dollar.

In recent years, the trend has continued.

Tax havens

The non-partisan Tax Policy Center calculated that half of Mr Bush's tax cuts this year will in effect go to the wealthiest 10% of tax-payers.

US tax return
Filling in tax returns is not an equitable exercise

Companies too are off-loading their burden.

According to the journal Tax Notes, big corporations based in the United States increased the proportion of profit earned in low or no tax countries.

More of their profits were earned in "tax havens" than in the areas where they actually did business and where taxes were higher.

Equitable taxation

The change has come with a big intellectual shift in recent years.

What once seemed like a fringe argument that all taxes were a form of theft from hard-working individuals now has political credibility, at least in America.

There are groups who oppose all income tax who would have been shouting in the wilderness 20 years ago.

Today, they lobby in the corridors of power.

From the Greeks through a string of eighteenth and nineteenth century philosophers, there was a sense that there should be "equity" in the taxation of different groups.

Today, this philosophical basis for proportionately heavy taxation on the rich compared with the poor is debatable.

The counter idea, that taxes represent an unfair confiscation by the state, has grown along with the view that taxing the top penalises success.

Disguised income

On a baser level, politicians have realised that attacking the tax collector is very good business indeed.

That has made it easier to pare the resources of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and to brand investigations as a form of heavy-handed pursuit of the powerless.

The former Commissioner of the IRS, Charles Rossotti, says that the agency's enforcers end up scrutinizing ordinary tax-payers who depend on easily-tracked wages rather than the rich who can disguise income more easily.

Mr Rossotti says in his book, Many Unhappy Returns, that the IRS is "like a police department that was giving out lots of parking tickets while organized crime was running rampant".

He adds that it "picks on the little guy" while ''largely overlooking an ocean of money hidden in business entities for which the owners, rather than the businesses themselves, were supposed to pay taxes.''

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