Tax Credits

State of the Union 2015

Hopefully you were not waiting until President Obama’s State of the Union address on January 20 to hear about his plans to shake up the tax laws. After all, the details of his tax plan had been leaked days earlier and the entire text of his speech was posted online before the event.

Apparently we have a new State of the Union address tradition. In each of his six previous State of the Union addresses he also proposed tax hikes.

Here are the more significant tax provisions that were proposed.

A Sweeter Tax Than Most

When you hear the word "tax," you probably think of something the IRS takes out of your paycheck. Or you might think of something they take out of an inheritance. But taxes affect virtually every financial transaction you make. Take, for example, that simple jar of honey lurking on the shelf in your refrigerator.

Americans eat more honey than anyone else in the world — about 400 million pounds of it a year. Most of it goes towards sweetening foods like cereals, cookies, and breads. Even whiskey producers are adding honey to their blends to attract younger drinkers. (The Scotch Whiskey Association just stung Dewars for labeling their new "Highlander Honey" as "scotch" rather than "spirit drink.")

Very Serious Stuff

When most of us think "taxes," we think of federal taxes — the IRS, Form 1040, and everyone's favorite holiday, April 15. It's true that the IRS is full of Very Serious People collecting Very Serious Taxes. But we can't forget state and local governments either. They collect their fair share of serious taxes — but they impose some pretty silly tax laws, too. Here are some of our favorites:

  • California offers a tax exemption for income you receive to settle claims arising out of the Armenian genocide. If you or your ancestors were persecuted by the Ottoman Turkish Empire between 1915 and 1923, your income from that settlement is tax-exempt. But sadly, if the persecution occurred in 1924 or later, your friends in Sacramento want a share.
  • California also imposes a 33% tax on fresh fruit bought from vending machines. Apparently, the folks in charge of promoting healthy lifestyles would rather see you buy cookies or potato chips!
  • Maryland imposes a $5.00/month "Chesapeake Bay Restoration Fee" on homeowners and businesses to raise funds to improve sewer treatment plants that

Tax Code Runs Deep

American capitalism has produced generations of great brand names, and Chevrolet is one of the most iconic. Swiss race car driver Louis Chevrolet founded his car company in 1911, then sold it to his partner just four years later. General Motors acquired the company in 1918, and positioned Chevrolet as an everyman's car to compete with Ford's Model T. The company prospered through the 1950s and 60s, producing the legendary Corvette among other models. More recently, Chevy was caught in the economic downturn of 2007-2010, leading to General Motors bankruptcy reorganization. But GM and Chevy rebounded quickly, and now actually are in one of the strongest periods in their history.

Right now, Chevrolet is running a truly bold marketing campaign for our era of skeptical consumers. Their "Love It or Return It" campaign lets you buy any new Chevy through September 4 — and, as the name implies, if you don't love it, you can actually return it. There's fine print, of course. You have just 60 days to decide, and you can't drive it more than 4,000 miles. Oh, and — you knew the tax angle was coming, right — "you may be subject to federal, state, or local tax on any benefit paid."

Less Rich. Less Famous. Less Tax.

Last week, we brought you a story from those party animals at the IRS Statistics of Income Division about an annual report on the 400 highest incomes in America. It turns out they're a very successful bunch — for 2009, they earned an average of $202.4 million and paid an average of $40.9 million in tax. This week, we're going to talk about a different group of taxpayers. Less rich, less famous, but maybe more successful in their own way.

Back in 1969, Treasury Secretary Joseph Barr was shocked to discover that 155 Americans had earned over $200,000 that year, yet paid nothing in tax. Zip. Zilch. Nada. ($200,000 isn't bad money now — back then, it had about the same buying power as $1.2 million today.) Washington huffed and puffed, then passed the "Alternative Minimum Tax," or AMT. In 1970, the new tax surprised 18,464 unhappy taxpayers. No one could have foreseen it growing into a complete "parallel" tax system, a many-headed Hydra that millions every year.

Fast-forward to today. With the AMT firmly in place, the IRS has just released a 61-page report revealing that in 2009, 20,752 taxpayers earned over $200,000 and paid — you guessed it — zero tax.

Green Apple

For 20 years now, Apple has blazed a reputation for stylish design and innovative products, creating a near-cult following among fans. Apple's computers appeal to the artists and designers who set so many of today's trends. Their iPod has helped change how the world listens to music. Their iPad has made online content available nearly anywhere. And their iPhone is helping change the way we communicate with friends, family, and colleagues. (Just a few years ago, your mother-in-law didn't have a cell phone. Now she sends text messages and "checks in" on Facebook.)

Apple may be the most successful company on earth. At one point last year, they had more cash on hand ($76.2 billion) than the United States government ($73.8 billion). And Apple is currently the most valuable company on the planet, with a "market cap" (total value of tradable shares) that topped $590 billion dollars on April 10. (That's right . . . those iTunes you casually download for a buck each have created a company worth over half a trillion dollars.) In fact, Apple's current market cap is more than the gross domestic products of Iraq, North Korea, Vietnam, Puerto Rico, and New Zealand — combined.