The few pages of Donald Trump's tax return from 1995 published this weekend by the New York Times appear to show that the Republican nominee for president reported nearly $916 million in losses that year. The Times reported that Trump could have counted those losses against income earned in subsequent years, reducing or even eliminating any taxes he would have owed on that income. We can't know for certain without examining all of Trump's returns, which the candidate has declined to release.
But though we don't know the details of Trump's finances, the Times' disclosure of part of the 1995 return does illustrate one important benefit available to wealthy people under the tax laws that less affluent people often can't enjoy.
The tax laws were written on the principle that a business ought to be able to count past losses against future gains. A business can often lose money for a while (especially in its first few years) and then make more money later on. Over time, the taxes paid should represent the overall profit earned by the business.
Trump's situation, however, is more complicated. Trump claimed the loss against his personal income, not against his businesses' income, according to the New York Times report. This suggests that like many other wealthy people, Trump owns businesses that belong to special legal categories -- such as partnerships, limited liability companies and S corporations -- allowing him to count losses in business against personal income. This could enable Trump and other taxpayers to use business losses to minimize the taxes they owe over time.
That option is rarely available to poor families. Instead, they pay taxes on their income when they receive it, whether or not they are just coming off a difficult year.
In 2003, Lily Batchelder, a former economic official in the Obama administration and now a New York University law professor, calculated that allowing poor households to shift income from one year to the next could reduce their tax rates by 2 percentage points, on average. For some families, the benefits would be much greater. A single parent with two children who earns $35,000 in one year and nothing the next would be able to increase her income after taxes by almost $9,000.
Other programs such as food stamps, Social Security and unemployment insurance are meant to help poor families work through difficult times such as old age or an economic crisis.
Wealthier households such as Trump's do not benefit from these programs to the same extent, but they can claim losses against their income when things go sour. While the sources of the loss Trump evidently claimed in 1995 -- totaling $916 million -- are not clear from the documents the New York Times published, he was just wrapping up a catastrophic corporate bankruptcy.
It is not the only way in which government largess extends to the affluent. According to the Congressional Budget Office, 15 percent of the deduction for mortgage interest accrues to the wealthiest 1 percent of households. That group also enjoys 14 percent of the benefits from contributions to retirement accounts and pensions, which are also often exempt from taxation.
Trump himself has criticized a loophole that allows managers at hedge funds and private equity firms to count their compensation as capital gains, rather than ordinary income such as a wage or a salary. Capital gains are taxed at a rate of just 15 percent, while marginal rate on ordinary income can reach nearly 40 percent for wealthy households.
There are more outlandish examples, too -- such as the fact that yachts are now exempt from the sales tax in many states. These exemptions are great for the yacht industry, but they are costly for state governments that desperately need the money for roads, schools and other public services.
A common criticism of food stamps and similar programs is that they make getting by without contributing to society too easy, discouraging people from working as hard as they could. The tax code is full of giveaways, though, and the distortions that benefit wealthy taxpayers create all the same economic problems without doing anything for those who really need the help.