Published: February 3, 2012
Meet Mr. 102%.
James Ross, 58, is a founder and managing member of Rossrock, a Manhattan-based private investment firm that focuses on commercial real estate and distressed commercial mortgages. “I realize I am very fortunate, and in fact I am a member of the 1 percent,” Mr. Ross wrote in an e-mail. His résumé is studded with elite institutions: Yale, Columbia Law School and stints at the law firms Cravath, Swaine & Moore in New York and Holland & Hart in Denver. Since his company fits the category of private equity, he even has carried interest, the kind of incentive compensation that enabled Mitt Romney to pay such a low tax rate.
Yet Mr. Ross told me that he paid 102 percent of his taxable income in federal, state and local taxes for 2010. “My entire taxable income, plus some, went to the payment of taxes,” Mr. Ross said. “This does not include real estate taxes, sales taxes and other taxes I paid for 2010.” When he told friends and family, they were “astounded,” he said.
In the midst of a national debate over tax rates and policy, I lifted the veil last week on my income tax rates for 2010, a year in which I paid 37 percent of my adjusted gross income (total income minus things like retirement contributions) in federal, state and city income taxes and 74 percent of my taxable income (after deductions like state and local taxes).
I was dismayed by the comparison to Mr. Romney — who paid 13.9 percent of his adjusted gross income of $21.7 million and 17.5 percent of his taxable income of $17.1 million — as well as by the possibility that I paid a higher tax rate than just about anyone. So I invited readers to send me e-mails disclosing their tax rates and circumstances.
I was deluged with submissions, including many people who pay a higher rate than I do. But at 102 percent, Mr. Ross was in a category of his own.
That doesn’t mean Mr. Ross pays more in taxes than he earns. His total tax as a percentage of his adjusted gross income was 20 percent, which is much lower than mine.
That’s because Mr. Ross has so many itemized deductions. Since taxable income is what’s left after itemized deductions like mortgage interest, charitable contributions, and state and local taxes are subtracted, it will nearly always be smaller than adjusted gross income and demonstrates how someone can pay more than 100 percent of taxable income in tax. Mr. Ross must hope that his interest expense will pay off down the road and generate some capital gains.
Still, all of Mr. Ross’s itemized deductions are money out of his pocket, which is why he’s had to draw on his savings to pay his taxes. Robert Willens, a tax expert and New York attorney, made the argument that taxable income, therefore, may be a better basis for measuring the tax burden.
In any event, by either measure Mr. Ross pays a higher rate than Mr. Romney.
“I had no idea I was paying such a high rate,” he told me when we spoke this week. “I had trouble believing this was possible. I called my accountant, and I said, ‘Do you realize I’m paying every penny I have in taxable income? I’m dipping into savings to pay my income tax.’ He said, ‘It’s unfortunate, but at your income level’ ” — with high earned income and large itemized deductions that Mr. Ross can’t take advantage of — “ ‘that’s just the way it is.’ ”
Mr. Ross’s plight illustrates something that came through in nearly every response and cuts across nearly all income levels: the disparities of the tax code don’t just pit rich against poor or middle class. It taxes people within the same income brackets at grossly unequal rates. “I cannot help but reflect on the unfairness of the current tax regime,” Mr. Ross wrote. “Why should I pay 102 percent of my taxable income in taxes when others, with far greater wealth than mine, pay a fraction of that?”
I asked Mr. Willens if such a thing were possible, and he said it was. “It’s entirely within the realm of possibility,” he said. “I can’t recall any clients quite that high, but I’ve had people come close.”
How could Mr. Ross pay so much? I thought I was the victim of a perfect storm of punitive tax policies, but Mr. Ross’s situation is worse.
Like me, he lives and works in New York City, which all but guarantees a high tax rate. Nearly all of his income is earned income and thus fully taxable at top rates. (He said that’s not always the case, but given the recent dire condition of real estate, in 2010 he had few capital gains and his carried interest didn’t yield any income.) Unlike me, he can’t make any itemized deductions, which means his adjusted gross income exceeds $1 million, the level at which New York State eliminates all itemized deductions, except for 50 percent of the value of charitable contributions. Mr. Ross said he gave 11 percent of his adjusted gross income to charity.
That means Mr. Ross can’t deduct any interest expense on the money he borrows to finance his real estate investments, which is substantial, nor can he deduct any other expenses or other itemized deductions except for part of his charitable contributions. This means he pays an enormous amount in state and local taxes. Since those are among the deductions that are disallowed when computing the federal alternative minimum tax, Mr. Ross is in turn especially hard hit by the A.M.T.