April 15th: You're Getting Screwed
Happy tax day, fellow citizens!
My favorite authority on taxes is David Cay Johnston of The New York Times, who won a Pulitzer for reporting on the terminally unsexy topic of taxes. His book Perfectly Legal -- The Covert Campaign to Rig Our Tax System to Benefit the Super-Rich -- and Cheat Everyone Else is the single best work on public policy of recent years, I think.
Johnston reports: "Through explicit policies, as well as tax laws never reported in the news, Congress now literally takes money from those making $30,000 to $500,000 per year and funnels it in subtle ways to the super-rich -- the top one-one hundredth of one percent of Americans.
"People making $60,000 paid a larger share of their 2001 income in federal income, Social Security and Medicare taxes than a family making $25 million, the latest Internal Revenue Service data show. And in income taxes alone, people making $400,000 paid a larger share of their incomes than the 7,000 households who made $10 million or more."
The rest of us are subsidizing not only the super-rich, but also corporations. Fifty years ago, corporations paid 60 percent of all federal taxes. But by 2003, that was down to 16 percent. So individual taxpayers have to make up the difference, as corporate profits soar and wages fall.
As more and more rich people cheat on their taxes, the IRS is increasingly unable to go after them because it is so poorly funded.
For all this, we can thank the Republican Party.
Every year at this time, conservatives moan and groan and tell us how terribly, terribly overburdened we are by taxes. We wouldn't be overburdened if the tax code hadn't been rewritten by Republicans, and if Republicans hadn't weakened the IRS so much it can barely function. Damn right, this is a partisan effort. And damn right, I'm bitter about it. We don't need to raise taxes in this country, we need to collect them. We need tax cuts that don't favor the obscenely rich. You are getting screwed.
OK, now that I've gotten that rant off my chest, back to how it's done. Johnston: "One 1985 law, promoted in the Senate as relieving middle class Americans, gave a huge tax break to corporate executives who make personal use of company jets. CEOs may now fly to vacations or Saturday golf outings in luxury for a penny a mile. Congress shifted the real cost of about $6 per mile to shareholders, who pay two-thirds, and to taxpayers, who suffer the cost lost as a result of reduced corporate income taxes.
"Since 1988, Congress has also cut in half the Internal Revenue Service's capacity to enforce tax laws, replacing it with extra effort to reduce audits of corporations and the rich.
"On March 30, Congress was told that 78 percent of known tax cheats in investment partnerships are not even asked to pay because there are not enough tax collectors to go after them."
The IRS oversight board asked for money to go after these cheaters, but both Congress and President Bush refused. The IRS's computer system was installed when John Kennedy was president.
The Senate budget currently under consideration includes $129 billion in new tax breaks for millionaires and a $2.8 billion cut in farm and nutrition programs (i.e., food stamps). Which do you think is more important? The House has already passed a budget that cuts at least $15 billion for Medicaid and $5.3 billion from food stamps.
I have long held that W. Bush does not believe changing government policies can actually wreck people's lives -- he thinks it's a game, and the Democrats are just the other team. But if you believe the shift in the tax burden in this country -- and the consequent separation of a tiny, ever-richer minority from the rest of us -- doesn't have real effects, you're blind.
When you cut housing subsidies, you get more homeless people. When you cut food stamps, you get more hungry people. In 2002, at least 25.5 million people went to soup kitchens and food pantries. In 2003, 1.1 million more joined the lines. As unemployment and other government programs run out, even more will be standing on line. Last year, America got a pay cut. Wages for the average worker fell, after adjusting for inflation -- the first such drop in 10 years. That means the standard of living for most Americans is in decline.
The country becomes less and less fair, and equality of opportunity grows farther away ever day. Again, I don't think Republicans are doing this because they are mean, but because they have convinced themselves that people shouldn't be "dependent" on government, that it's bad for their moral fiber. Only corporations and the super-rich should get welfare and subsidies.
As economist John Kenneth Galbraith put it, "The modern conservative is engaged in one of man's oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness." Ã‚Â