Income tax time is an appropriate moment to go to the heart of President Obama’s complaint about the taxes Warren Buffett and other rich people pay, or don’t pay. What the president is really complaining about is that the tax rate on capital gains is too low.
But there is a more basic question to be asked: why tax capital gains at all?
Did you know that the term "capital gains" does not even appear in the official income accounts for the U.S. economy? That’s right. No matter how high stock prices climb, they do not affect the official reckoning of national income one iota.
"Capital losses" aren’t included either.
When stock prices soar, stock owners are wealthier — at least they feel wealthier. When stock prices plunge, owners of stocks feel less wealthy. But none of these ups and downs have any bearing whatsoever on the official calculation of the income for the economy as a whole.
So here is the policy question: If we are going to have an income tax, should we tax only income? Or should we tax activities, events and transactions that are not counted as part of our national income?
At the New York Times Economix Blog, Princeton University economist Uwe Reinhardt argues that capital gains should be taxed at the same rate as ordinary income (which is included as part of national income, by the way). I had a debate about all of this with Michael Kinsley at Slate some time back. Interested readers may want to refer to the text of that debate for more details than I plan to go into here. Also, don’t miss Steven Landsburg’s devastating critique of Uwe’s piece.
Imagine a poker game. At the end of the evening, some players walk away winners. Some are losers. No real income has been produced at this event. It’s strictly entertainment. The winnings of the winners are exactly equal to the losses of the losers. Should the IRS get involved? If your answer is "no" I like the way you think.
As it turns out, however, the IRS does get involved and it does so in a very unfair way. It taxes the winner’s gains but limits the ability of the losers to deduct their losses. (Gambling losses can only be deducted from gambling winnings, not from other income.) If the IRS treated everyone fairly (symmetrically) there would be no point to taxing gambling income. The deductions by the losers would offset the gains of the winners and there would be no net revenue for Uncle Sam.