A recent report from the House Ways and Means committee disclosed that former president Donald Trump paid no federal income taxes in 2020, prompting plenty of public declarations that his tax returns are just more evidence that the former president is a crook.
Trump may or may not be a crook, but there are plenty of reasons for not paying taxes, only one of which is that you are a crook.
It makes for a great headline or social media post to criticize a wealthy person or large company for not paying taxes. How could Donald Trump (or FedEx, Amazon and GE) not be crooks if they didn’t pay taxes in 2020?
There are plenty of ways, most of which have to do with how Congress has decided to define income.
Any time a rich person is criticized for not paying tax he immediately explains that the tax code is complicated, and most people don’t understand the complexities of cash vs. accrual accounting, loss carryforwards, depreciation, depletion allowances and other items to which the rich person’s return must attend. The comments are always condescending and arrogant.
And while it doesn’t mean that the specific rich non-taxpayer isn’t necessarily a crook, those comments are as true as they are condescending.
For most of us, our tax returns are fairly simple. We start with our W-2 income, subtract the standard deduction, then apply a formula on the difference to determine what we owe.
It’s not calculating the tax that is so complicated for businesses and business owners; it is determining “income.” In our system, we generally don’t levy a tax on a business activity unless it generates more revenue than it incurs in expenses. And most of the 7,000 pages in the tax code are exceptions, exclusions and special treatments that define revenue, expense and income.
Remember that the next time Elizabeth Warren grandstands about Elon Musk’s, or anyone else’s tax return: it’s Congress who writes the tax code and is responsible for any of its flaws. If Elon Musk filed a fraudulent tax return, let’s prove it and send him to jail. Otherwise, Senator Warren should direct her disgust about Musk’s taxes at the mirror, not the taxpayer.
Although tax evasion is a criminal offense, offenders rarely go to go to jail for it. The IRS identified 443,000 fraudulent tax returns in 2019; fewer than 600 people were sentenced for tax evasion in 2020.
When caught, most people simply quietly pay their bill. Of course, Donald Trump does few things quietly. And I have high confidence that if he lied on his tax return, the resolution won’t be as simple as him paying the bill.
David Moon is president of Moon Capital Management. A version of this piece originally appeared in the USA TODAY NETWORK.