It's said that Americans vote with their wallets. With all the issues affecting savings, investing and taxes this presidential election season, a voter's guide on where Vice President
and Texas Governor
George W. Bush
come down on money matters might come in handy.
The explosion in individual investing during the past 15 years means matters such as estate taxes, college savings plans and capital-gains taxes affect a broader swath of the population. Last year, 48.2% of households had investments in equities through vehicles such as mutual funds, stocks or retirement plans, up from 19% in 1983, according to a study by the
Securities Industry Association
Investment Company Institute
Demographic experts predict there will be an even greater surge in investing by Americans during the next decade. How this new era of personal investing will take shape -- and who will reap the greatest benefits from it -- depends in large part on which man will occupy the Oval Office during the next four years.
"Determining which candidate will give you the best financial outcome depends on your income level," says Dan Moisand, a certified financial planner and president of
in Melbourne, Fla. "If you're in the higher income bracket and you have a higher net worth, Bush is better; but if you have a family, perhaps with kids in education, you're better off with Gore."
This perception is in large part true, but both candidates are eager to offer greater incentives for Americans to manage their finances and put more of their money to work for them. This guide sidesteps domestic and international issues such as the environment and America's role as the lone superpower, instead aiming straight for your wallet. This election, your vote counts -- and there's a dollar sign attached to the figure.
It's a simple calculation: The less money you give to the taxman, the more you have to spend on the stock market. So if you like investing and hate giving your money away, it pays to understand the difference between the tax proposals on the table.
Bush's tax cut is broad; Gore's is selective. Gore is offering very little for big taxpayers but does offer new entitlements and entitlement-like tax cuts, mostly for those who pay the least amount of income tax. Bush, on the other hand, has made a set of far-reaching tax proposals one of the showpieces in his economic policy. He is promising to use the surplus for a bundle of tax cuts totaling $1.32 trillion.
Critics say that Bush's tax cuts are only for the wealthiest Americans. Gore, citing a study by the left-leaning
Citizens for Tax Justice
, says 42.6% of Bush's tax cuts will go to the richest 1% of taxpayers (those earning more than $319,000 a year), but Bush says only 21% will benefit the wealthiest. (The discrepancy involves whether the numbers factor in Bush's planned changes for the estate tax.) Bush also argues that his marginal tax rate benefits the middle class, as it increases incentive to save and invest.
Once again, the candidates differ greatly.
Gore wants to maintain the existing system, while shoring up any holes. He'll use some of the budget surplus to pay down the national debt and then use the interest savings to keep the system going for many years to come. He would also create Retirement Savings Plus Accounts -- a government-run retirement savings program that would add to existing Social Security.
Bush's plan is more controversial. Although he hasn't been specific on the numbers, he aims to allow workers to divert a percentage of their Social Security payroll tax into individual accounts that they could then invest in stocks and bonds.
Critics say the Bush plan, while it puts individuals in the driver's seat when it comes to their investments, also puts them at a greater risk because of the uncertainties of the stock market. If you're 10 years shy of retirement, a downturn in the markets might place you short of your financial goal. On the other hand, critics of the Gore plan say individuals should have the right to invest a portion of their Social Security account in the stock market if they so choose.
In truth, both plans are built on shaky ground. They both rely on spending the
record budget surplus, estimated by the
Congressional Budget Office
to be a whopping $4.6 trillion over the next 10 years. Experts say there's no guarantee that the record surplus will actually come about, and so investors should take the candidates' promises with a healthy dose of salt.
While it may have received less ink than, say, defense or education, one of the greatest disagreements between the two candidates centers around the estate tax. In many ways, it crystallizes the candidates' different sensibilities.
The estate tax, which goes under the pejorative euphemism "the death tax" by its critics, deals with the wealth you pass on to your heirs. The tax is levied on estates greater than $675,000, affecting just under 2% of all estates.
Bush wants to eliminate the estate tax, phasing it out entirely by 2009. The elimination of the estate tax represents almost a fifth of Bush's tax cut -- leading his detractors to say his tax cuts are aimed primarily at the wealthiest Americans.
Gore's plan for the estate tax, like many of his intentions on tax relief, is targeted to help middle-class families. It would double the amount of a family-owned small-business stake that can be passed to heirs tax free to $5 million for a couple and $2.5 million for an individual. While supporters say that Gore's plan is far less costly that Bush's plan, critics say it is very restrictive and would only benefit a small portion of Americans.
College Savings Plans
In response to the growing concern over high college costs, Bush and Gore have come up with new ways to help families save to pay for college.
Since funding for the
grant system -- the principal aid program for students in need -- was reduced in the early 1980s, the cost of college has increased. Gore proposes a college tuition tax credit that lets a family with college students cut its taxes by up to $2,800 a year. He also promises new tax-deferred investment plans.
For his part, Bush recently signed on to a plan by congressional
to eliminate federal taxes on prepaid college savings plans. He also aims to give $1,000 more to students who take advanced math and science classes in high school, and he plans to increase the maximum levels on the Pell grant.
signed into law the
Taxpayer Relief Act
, which reduces the tax rate on long-term capital gains. Since then, there has been very little action on behalf of the government to change the law.
The capital-gains tax is levied on gains realized from the sale or exchange of capital assets, such as stocks or real estate. Mutual fund shareholders can also owe stiff capital-gains taxes generated by their funds, triggered when a fund manager sells a stock that has gone up in value and the gain is passed on to shareholders.
The two candidates have not said they will make specific changes to the tax. In the broadest terms, the Republican Party is all for capital-gains tax cuts, arguing that they increase investments and savings. The
is a bit less enthusiastic about lowering capital-gains taxes, saying that eliminating them provides a tax cut for the rich and reduces federal-tax revenues.
Gore's proposed savings subsidy is very generous to lower-income households, says Dean Baker, an economist at the not-for-profit
Center for Economic and Policy Research
in Washington. A lower-income family earning $15,000 can save $500 and earn a $3,000 subsidy. The family can expect to benefit from a child-care credit and a home-care credit for an elderly or sick relative. Bush is offering a child-benefit increase, and a reduction in income tax and the marriage penalty.
Lest we forget, politicians are sometimes prone to exaggeration. Bush and Gore have announced 10-year plans to deploy well over $1.5 trillion in tax cuts and spending increases, but they have failed to fully disclose exact numbers for their plans. And many economists balk at their promises, seeing them as too costly and based on future economic growth and spending restraint, of which there is no guarantee, they say.
Moreover, there are many extenuating factors. Some of the candidates' plans will never see daylight, and others will rest in Congress and not with whomever warms the leather in the Oval Office, says Baker. "Things change. New politicians get elected. These numbers are not necessarily going to be right in 10 years."