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Fact Check: Is Elon Musk’s Tax Rate Only 3 Percent?
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Fact Check: Is Elon Musk’s Tax Rate Only 3 Percent?

A congresswoman cites a misleading figure.

Democratic Rep. Pramila Jayapal claimed in a recent tweet that billionaire Elon Musk paid an effective tax rate of only 3.27 percent from 2014 to 2018.

The data point comes from a 2021 ProPublica article that divulged tax information of some of America’s wealthiest citizens. 

As the ProPublica article notes, much of billionaires’ wealth is derived from the value of their assets, such as stocks or property, not cash on hand. When those assets increase in value, so does the wealth of the owner. This does not correlate into actual money, however, until the assets are sold. Once an asset is sold, the money received qualifies as taxable income. 

Under current tax law, taxpayers pay taxes only on the income derived in a year, not increases in the value of assets. ProPublica, however, “compared how much in taxes the 25 richest Americans paid each year to how much Forbes estimated their wealth grew in that same time period.” (Emphasis added.) 

In other words, ProPublica used a definition of taxable income that is not the same as  that used by the U.S. government. According to the data obtained by ProPublica, Musk reported $1.52 billion in income from 2014 to 2018, during which time he paid $455 million in taxes, a tax rate of 30 percent. The value of his assets during that time increased by $13.9 billion, and using this instead of Musk’s $1.52 billion in income led ProPublica to calculate a “true tax rate” of 3.27 percent.

ProPublica’s “true tax rate” may have some value in the ongoing debate over whether unrealized gains should be taxed, but Jayapal distorted the truth  by comparing that figure  to the tax rate of the average American household. Jaypal noted that the “average working family pays an average tax rate of 13%.” This number aligns with analysis performed by the Tax Foundation. 

But those tax rates are calculated using the typical model of taxes as a percent of gross income, not ProPublica’s “true tax rate,” giving an apples and oranges comparison between Musk’s “true tax rate” and the average American’s federal income tax rate. The value of property, stocks, retirement accounts, and other assets for the average American household would have to be included to get an accurate comparison by the standard ProPublica creates.

Jayapal did not respond to a request for comment.

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Alec Dent is a former culture editor and staff writer for The Dispatch.