Are We Trapped by Our Capital Gains?
61 Pages Posted: 13 Aug 2015 Last revised: 25 Sep 2015
Date Written: August 17, 2015
For political reasons, we seem to be stuck with the current realization-based system of taxing capital gains. This means that lock-in is a serious problem. Inflation can be dealt with by adjusting basis and bunching by averaging devices, but it is hard to address lock-in, especially if step-up on death is retained. The current rate structure is 39.6% for ordinary income (higher if limits of deductions are taken into account) and 23.8% for capital gains. This has already led to a proliferation of conversion transactions and to pressure on the labor/capital distinction. We are doubtful that an effective centrifuge can be devised to segregate income from labor from income from capital. This may work in Sweden, but it may not work in a country like the US with a hyper-sophisticated capital market and very aggressive tax advisors.
Thus, we have reluctantly come to the conclusion that we are indeed trapped by our capital gains, that the current rate structure is indefensible in practice, and that we should revert to an overall rate of 28% for all income.
The following paper summarizes the US tax rules for capital gains in more detail. As can be seen, it is a topic of considerable complexity, most of which could be eliminated if we reverted to the 1986-1990 rate structure of taxing ordinary income and capital gains the same.
Keywords: capital gains, taxation, rate structure
JEL Classification: H26
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation