Columns » Ernest Dumas

The tax man cometh

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This is Tax Day, when conservative groups and President Bush ritually invite people to think about how the tax code affects the nation's and their own well being. It is not a bad exercise really.

This is Bush's eighth Tax Day and he observes each one in about the same way, calling for lower taxes for those who need it least. In 2001 he was demanding that Congress pass the first of the big tax cuts that he would achieve in his first term, when his party controlled both houses.

“Our country is at peace,” he said that day, “but our government is charging [taxpayers] wartime prices.” He would soon reverse both ends of that equation. He would take the country to war but, at least for a handful of Americans, at peacetime prices.

This week, on his final tax-deadline day, the president called on Congress to make permanent all his tax cuts, a few of which won't be implemented for another year. They are the last steps in reducing the tax load of the very richest Americans, less than half of 1 percent of the taxpayers.

“These are tough economic times,” Bush said in his best imitation of concern.

Sure enough they are. But tell that to the people who got most of the benefit of the tax cuts, on behalf of whom he now pleads: the top 1 percent of taxpayers. About 4,000 of them live in Arkansas. Their average income is $1.6 million a year and the cumulative Bush tax cuts will save them an average of $92,000 in the 2009 tax year, according to the calculations of Citizens for Tax Justice. Some will save millions.

And how exactly are those people faring in these “tough economic times”?

We know pretty well how most everyone else is faring. Consumer confidence last week was the lowest in 26 years. A CBS-New York Times poll showed that 81 percent of Americans thought the country was headed in the wrong direction and only 20 percent thought the economy was reasonably good.

But Bush's special wards, the top 1 per cent — how are they doing?

As it happens, The New York Times reported Monday that they are riding out the president's “tough economic times” as best they can, by stepping up their spending.

“Some businesses that cater to the superrich,” the Times said, “report that clients — many of them traders and private-equity investors whose work is tied to Wall Street — are still splurging on multimillion-dollar Manhattan apartments, custom-built yachts, contemporary art and lavish parties.” Buyers already have closed on 71 Manhattan apartments costing more than $10 million each this year, five times as many as in 2007.

Only days before the collapse of Bear Stearns and a bailout by the U.S. taxpayers, the bank's chairman, James E. Cayne, paid $25 million for a 14th-floor condo at New York's posh Plaza Hotel. (Neat quarters. I stayed there once on my employer's money.)

The Plaza will throw a party May 10 for the Bear Stearns chairman and other buyers of luxury condos. A dozen female string musicians clothed in dresses made of fresh roses and gardenias will perform and there will be caviar and cognac bars and a buffet replicating a 17th-century Dutch painting.

Paul Parmar, a 37-year-old New Jersey investor who made a fortune in defense, health care, media and luxury property and whose taxes on investment earnings were cut in half by Bush in 2003, said he had just bought 140 acres in Mineola, Tex., and will spend $20 million there to build a refuge for abused tigers. Someone at last cared.

He recently bought a $110,000 BMW 750 for his girlfriend and a $300,000 Bentley Arnage for himself, and for another $125,000 a year he is leasing a Maybach, a German luxury car made by Daimler AG that is supposed to be a step up from a Rolls Royce. It retails for about $430,000.

“On a spending level,” Parmar said, “it [the tough times] doesn't affect me at all.”

To hear Bush tell it, extending his tax cuts is not for the Paul Parmars but for the 90 percent of the taxpayers who are not getting ahead. If Congress does not extend all the tax cuts (Democrats want to continue all but those for the wealthiest taxpayers), Bush said, taxpayers will see their tax bills go up an average of $1,800 apiece.

But few Americans — about 15 percent actually — got a tax cut of that magnitude even when you combine the packages of 2001, 2002, 2003 and 2004. For most of them, after the final phase of the income tax cuts are implemented the savings will amount to less than $600.

The final step in the Bush legacy, in 2010, will be the total elimination of the tax on super estates, which Bush pleads to make permanent. In Arkansas, only 142 estates — about one in every 200 — were big enough in 2006 to owe any tax at all and most of them paid minimal sums. Most of it is on income that was never taxed at all.

As they say at the club, let the tough times roll.

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