ProPublica has obtained a vast cache of IRS information showing how billionaires like Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Warren Buffett pay little in income tax compared to their massive wealth — sometimes, even nothing.
Yesterday I wrote about the increasingly complex interplay between money, work, and digital life. I concluded that a lot of the digital economic artifice we’ve built serves to obscure, and protect us from what Cory Doctorow calls “the trauma of living through real conspiracies all around us” — rampant wealth inequality, corporate malfeasance, political corruption, and so on
The complexity of this trauma avoidance mechanism is a feature, not a bug. It’s hard to make the link between Twitter behavior and tax evasion from the point of view of someone living in, and often benefitting from, the global digital economy.
Once in a while, though, simplicity breaks through, as it did with today’s predictable, but still stunning ProPublica analysis of thousands of leaked tax returns. Go read the whole thing, but here’s the summary:
ProPublica has obtained a vast trove of Internal Revenue Service data on the tax returns of thousands of the nation’s wealthiest people, covering more than 15 years. The data provides an unprecedented look inside the financial lives of America’s titans, including Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, Rupert Murdoch and Mark Zuckerberg. It shows not just their income and taxes, but also their investments, stock trades, gambling winnings and even the results of audits.
Taken together, it demolishes the cornerstone myth of the American tax system: that everyone pays their fair share and the richest Americans pay the most. The IRS records show that the wealthiest can — perfectly legally — pay income taxes that are only a tiny fraction of the hundreds of millions, if not billions, their fortunes grow each year.
When you look at it from both the bottom up, as I did yesterday, and the top down, as ProPublica did today, it sure seems that Davos folk hero Rutger Bregman was right:
“I hear people talking the language of participation, justice, equality and transparency but almost no one raises the real issue of tax avoidance, right? And of the rich just not paying their fair share,” Bregman tells the Time magazine panel on inequality.
Industry had to “stop talking about philanthropy and start talking about taxes”, he said, and cited the high tax regime of 1950s America as an example to disprove arguments by businesspeople at Davos such as Michael Dell that economies with high personal taxation could not succeed. “That’s it,” he says. “Taxes, taxes, taxes. All the rest is bullshit in my opinion.”
Given the ProPublica revelations, it seems like the story could be told much more simply than I managed to yesterday: the world’s mega-billionaires are refusing to pay taxes, leading to historic inequality and societal instability. Instead of taking responsibility, they’re using the same addictive technology that made their fortunes to create a worldwide digital casino economy that keeps us from noticing their abusive behavior and taking steps to reign it, and them, in.
It’s become so bad that even the G7 is taking action, which is good. As a next step, maybe we need to stop pontificating about late-stage capitalism (sorry!) and just demand these fuckers pay their fair share?