(Reuters) - If the president and Congress are serious about income equality and cutting huge breaks for the wealthy, they should raise the capital gains rate.
While the president didn't mention it by name in his State of the Union speech on January 24, it's one of the many gorillas in the tax reform room.
There's no question that the 15 percent rate on capital gains and dividends largely favors super-wealthy taxpayers over wage earners. Just look at Mitt Romney's tax return. As former Labor Secretary and economist Robert Reich once noted: "It's a loophole large enough for the super-rich to drive their Ferraris through. About 80 percent of the income of America's richest 400 comes in the form of capital gains." (link.reuters.com/gen36s)
According to economist Jared Bernstein, who analyzed Congressional Research Service figures, capital gains and dividends were "the largest single contributor to the growth of inequality from 1996-2006." (link.reuters.com/hen36s)
Why should those who primarily make money from private equity, financial, business and real estate appreciation and dividends pay more than 50 percent less than wage workers who are subject to the top rate in federal, state, Medicare and Social Security taxes?
If you're from the supply-side camp, it's because the lower rate may encourage wealthy taxpayers to invest in capital, business and job formation while raising more tax revenues. More fundamentally, at least according to the conservative group Americans for Tax Reform, "when you tax something more, you get less of it."
When taxpayers know that the capital gains rate is going up, the "fire sale" effect comes into play: They sell assets to get taxed at the lower rate before the higher levy kicks in, hence the higher cash flow to the Treasury before the lower tax expires.
But there's no consistent evidence that shows that a lower capital gains rate does much for the economy long term. The rate of new business formations actually climbed from 1983-1987, when the maximum capital gains rate was 20 percent, according to the Kauffman Foundation, a think tank that specializes in entrepreneurism. (link.reuters.com/jen36s)
When the gains rate hit a maximum 29 percent from the middle of 1993 into 1997, there was another spurt of new business growth. Since 2006, though, small-business creation has generally fallen - even with the lower capital gains rate. The recession and housing meltdown are the likely malefactors.
Of course, recessions or periods of double-digit interest rates - which hurt small businesses the hardest - are the worst times for small-firm growth anyway, so the capital gains rate would not necessarily have been a primary hindrance during times like 1979 through 1983.
When do capital gains proceeds fill up the national Treasury the most? The data is inconclusive. In 1988, realized gains as a percentage of gross domestic product were more than 7 percent - the highest amount in almost a quarter century, and that was when gains rate was 20 percent.
Tax rates are often like porridge. Sometimes they may be too high; at other times just right. It could be that 20 percent is a sweet spot for gains. In contrast, the lowest capital gains/GDP percentage was 1.57 percent in 1977, when the maximum rate was nearly 40 percent.
What can barely be debated is that the capital gains rate is one of the multi-millionaire's best fiscal friends. Those who made $10 million or more, according to IRS statistics from 2009, reaped a total of nearly $70 billion in long-term capital gains. That's 10 times the amount of gains taken by those making from $75,000 to $100,000.
While cutting the capital gains rate generates more revenue overall due to the fire-sale effect, it's not in the best interest of the country to keep it at 15 percent. Raising it would also reduce the burgeoning federal deficit. If it's not an efficient way of creating jobs or businesses, why keep it so low?
"Arguments that the capital gains rate affects economic growth are even more tenuous," says the non-partisan Tax Policy Center. The group saw no correlation between rates and GDP growth "during the last 50 years."
Of course, the gains rate is but one item among thousands of special breaks in the tax code. You have to put everything on the table, from mortgage deductions to offshore corporate income if you want to ferret out wasteful tax handouts, which is highly unlikely in this election year.
Yet if one believed that Congress was earnestly tackling deficit reform in the interest of fairness and fiscal sanity - or did nothing this year - I would tell my tax preparer to take every possible break in 2012. That's because the special rate on capital gains will expire after December 31 - a deadline that will seem pretty urgent right around election time in November.
(The writer is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)