I am thinking about applying for a position as Washington Post correspondent to Saudi Arabia. This is not something I would do lightly, since it would involve moving to Saudi Arabia, which is not exactly the Riviera. Nonetheless, we are going to be paying a lot of taxes this year, and the only way I have come up with to keep head above water is for me to move to Saudi Arabia.
I have, you see, discovered a little-known tax break that was written into the 1981 Economic Recovery Tax Act which will not only help me recover from this year's taxes but will go a long way toward putting me on easy street for years to come. It turns out that beginning in 1982, an American citizen living abroad for 11 out of 12 months can exclude the first $75,000 of his or her income from federal taxes. This deduction (which does not apply to people working for the U.S. government abroad) will increase by increments of $5,000 a year to reach the grand total of $95,000 that will be excluded from federal taxes by the year 1986.
It doesn't take a tax expert to figure out that this beats an individual retirement account.
Americans who live in countries that do tax foreign nationals won't make out as well as I intend to. Americans who have the poor judgment to work in France or Canada or Japan, for example, will pay taxes to those governments and won't be able to take advantage of the tax bonanza. But the Americans who have the good fortune to be sent to countries that don't tax foreign nationals, either as a matter of law or a matter of practice, are getting a marvelous break. While the rest of us greet today with dread, they have every reason to rejoice. Saudia Arabia, here I come.
There is a long history to how Americans who travel abroad are looked after for their efforts by the companies they work for. American companies have given employes housing allowances, food allowances, educational allowances and whatever is appropriate to allow the family to maintain a standard of living in, say, France or Saudi Arabia that is equal to what the family left behind. These allowances are taxed as income, which is part of what led to the new ERTA rules. This was costing companies a great deal, since they had to pay enough so that the allowance after taxes was sufficient to make the employe whole.
From 1962 through 1976, the first $20,000 or in some cases $25,000 of income earned abroad was excluded from federal taxes. That was reduced the following year. In 1978, the exclusion was replaced by a series of deductions the employe could take on his taxes for the excess costs of education, housing and so forth he incurred as a result of working overseas. But then, people complained that this was complicated to do on income tax forms. Congress was heavily lobbied to change the system by American multinationals and by construction, engineering and architectural firms that do business overseas and that stand to benefit by having the tax code, and therein the taxpayers, subsidize the cost of sending Americans abroad. What evolved in the ERTA was a compromise.
And what a compromise it was. Congressional estimates at the time were that the huge income tax exclusion would cost the federal government $299 million in revenue in 1982 and $696 million in revenue in 1986.
And while this was sold as an alternative to a complicated system of compiling deductions, Americans working abroad are still able to deduct the additional expenses they incur in housing costs, on top of the $75,000 of income that isn't taxed by the United States.
I don't want to seem as though I'm picking on Americans living abroad or corporations doing business overseas. They have appealing arguments--an important one being that Americans involved in overseas construction are likely to order American parts and supplies. But it does seem a little undemocratic to be allowing one group of Americans to get off with paying no income taxes on large incomes while everyone else is doing his part. While this may have been an affordable luxury in the past, hundreds of millions in revenue are being lost in a subsidy to corporations doing business abroad while Congress and the administration, wringing their hands over the federal deficit, are taking food out of the mouths of pregnant women and children.
If American companies want to do business abroad, they can pay their employes enough money to make the jobs attractive. I'd much rather have my tax dollars subsidize a hungry child than a well-fed American executive.