Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
Keep CounterPunch ad free. Support our annual fund drive today!

Roth IRAs Painting the Treasury Red


Imagine the government pushing a retirement plan that’s guaranteed to raise the federal deficit. Imagine that the same plan inherently favors the already-favored. Far from imagining, you’re describing Congress’s growing embrace of Roth individual retirement accounts (IRAs).  

The lure of Roths is the upfront revenue they bring in. Contributions to Roths are after-tax, unlike the pre-tax contributions to regular IRAs, 401(k)s, and other traditional plans. In fact Roth accounts are costing the Treasury billions upon billions. Let’s see what drives the losses, and why they’ll be climbing far into the future.     

All the money in retirement accounts gets preferential tax treatment going forward. Capital gains grow untaxed, lifting balances year after year. Traditional accounts pay the country back through taxable withdrawals—voluntary starting at age 59 1/2, mandatory at age 70 1/2. The inflows to the Treasury square the books on a win-win bargain: decades of tax-free growth for retirement savings, coupled with decades of growth in downstream tax revenues.

There are no downstream revenues from Roths. Capital gains are permanently tax-free, creating Treasury shortfalls that erase and ultimately far outstrip the initial boost. There are no required distributions (which might at least spin off some revenue). Losses from Roths grow endlessly; the only question is how large the final numbers will be. Such are the accounts that Congress has chosen to promote—most directly to the affluent, whose incomes once barred them from owning Roths.

The red ink has effectively been flowing ever since the accounts were created in 1997. It turned a deeper red when Congress did away with the $100,000 adjusted gross income limit for Roth conversions. These are paperwork transactions that turn regular IRAs into Roth IRAs. To do this, account holders first have to pay the taxes on the converted amount. The tax bill discourages conversions—but for the well-off, not so much. Investment giants Fidelity and Vanguard reported conversion bonanzas when the income limit came off in 2010.

Roth conversions were back again as part of the 2012 “fiscal cliff” budget deal. The agreement opened the door to immediate conversions by 401(k)s and the like; until then, holders couldn’t convert to Roths before age 59 1/2.

Earlier this year, the Republican majority on the House Ways and Means Committee unveiled the most sweeping tax reform plan in a generation. It makes the first direct attack on traditional accounts, and would sharply increase Roth ownership. It would prohibit any further contributions to regular IRAs. It would limit annual contributions to other traditional accounts to $8,750, half the current maximum; contributions over $8,750 would be channeled into Roth accounts. The income limit for start-up Roths would disappear, just as it has for conversions. According to the GOP plan, these changes would raise about $160 billion over the period 2014-2023. The number is just the latest Roth hocus-pocus: the losses would eventually swamp the apparent gain.

It’s good to help workers save for retirement, as traditional accounts have been doing since the mid-1970s. In contrast, Roths are no help for those who need it but a windfall for those who don’t. They cost the Treasury untold billions. They’re also plainly unfair: why should Roths pay taxes only on contributions, while all the other accounts pay on gains as well? Why should the others require distributions, but not Roths?

Howard Gleckman edits TaxVox, the blog of the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center. In 2010, with Roth conversions booming and talk of more Roths already in the Capitol air, he flashed a warning signal: “This infatuation with all things Roth bears close watching.”

The infatuation keeps growing, and the red ink just keeps rising.

Gerald E. Scorse helped pass the bill requiring basis reporting for capital gains. He writes articles on tax policy.   


“For stocks, mutual funds and bonds…Congress now requires brokerages to report the basis of these investments, a reform wrought partly after my reporting on this issue and the work of others, including Gerald Scorse, who pressed this issue with lawmakers.” – pp. 271-2 of the David Cay Johnston book, The Fine Print.

More articles by:

2016 Fund Drive
Smart. Fierce. Uncompromised. Support CounterPunch Now!

  • cp-store
  • donate paypal

CounterPunch Magazine


October 27, 2016
Paul Street
An Identity-Politicized Election and World Series Lakefront Liberals Can Love
Matthew Stevenson
Sex and the Presidential City
Jim Kavanagh
Tom Hayden’s Haunting
CJ Hopkins
The Pathologization of Dissent
Mike Merryman-Lotze
The Inherent Violence of Israel’s Gaza Blockade
Robert Fisk
Is Yemen Too Much for the World to Take?
Shamus Cooke
Stopping Hillary’s Coming War on Syria
Jan Oberg
Security Politics and the Closing of the Open Society
Ramzy Baroud
The War on UNESCO: Al-Aqsa Mosque is Palestinian and East Jerusalem is Illegally Occupied
Colin Todhunter
Lower Yields and Agropoisons: What is the Point of GM Mustard in India?
Norman Pollack
The Election: Does It Matter Who Wins?
Nyla Ali Khan
The Political and Cultural Richness of Kashmiriyat
Barbara Nimri Aziz
“It’s Only a Car!”
October 26, 2016
John W. Whitehead
A Deep State of Mind: America’s Shadow Government and Its Silent Coup
Eric Draitser
Dear Liberals: Trump is Right
Anthony Tarrant
On the Unbearable Lightness of Whiteness
Mark Weisbrot
The Most Dangerous Place in the World: US Pours in Money, as Blood Flows in Honduras
Chris Welzenbach
The Establishment and the Chattering Hack: a Response to Nicholas Lemann
Luke O'Brien
The Churchill Thing: Some Big Words About Trump and Some Other Chap
Sabia Rigby
In the “Jungle:” Report from the Refugee Camp in Calais, France
Linn Washington Jr.
Pot Decriminalization Yields $9-million in Savings for Philadelphia
Pepe Escobar
“America has lost” in the Philippines
Pauline Murphy
Political Feminism: the Legacy of Victoria Woodhull
Lizzie Maldonado
The Burdens of World War III
David Swanson
Slavery Was Abolished
Thomas Mountain
Preventing Cultural Genocide with the Mother Tongue Policy in Eritrea
Colin Todhunter
Agrochemicals And The Cesspool Of Corruption: Dr. Mason Writes To The US EPA
October 25, 2016
David Swanson
Halloween Is Coming, Vladimir Putin Isn’t
Hiroyuki Hamada
Fear Laundering: an Elaborate Psychological Diversion and Bid for Power
Priti Gulati Cox
President Obama: Before the Empire Falls, Free Leonard Peltier and Mumia Abu-Jamal
Kathy Deacon
Plus ça Change: Regime Change 1917-1920
Robin Goodman
Appetite for Destruction: America’s War Against Itself
Richard Moser
On Power, Privilege, and Passage: a Letter to My Nephew
Rev. William Alberts
The Epicenter of the Moral Universe is Our Common Humanity, Not Religion
Dan Bacher
Inspector General says Reclamation Wasted $32.2 Million on Klamath irrigators
David Mattson
A Recipe for Killing: the “Trust Us” Argument of State Grizzly Bear Managers
Derek Royden
The Tragedy in Yemen
Ralph Nader
Breaking Through Power: It’s Easier Than We Think
Norman Pollack
Centrist Fascism: Lurching Forward
Guillermo R. Gil
Cell to Cell Communication: On How to Become Governor of Puerto Rico
Mateo Pimentel
You, Me, and the Trolley Make Three
Cathy Breen
“Today Is One of the Heaviest Days of My Life”
October 24, 2016
John Steppling
The Unwoke: Sleepwalking into the Nightmare
Oscar Ortega
Clinton’s Troubling Silence on the Dakota Access Pipeline
Patrick Cockburn
Aleppo vs. Mosul: Media Biases