Getting Serious about the Policy of Taxing the Rich

Washington      This whole thing about taxing the rich is getting serious.  There were more than 150 people in a wonk policy festival organized brilliantly by the Institute for Policy Studies and the Economic Policy Institute, two of the most respected research centers in Washington.  Talking about taxes in general is mind-numbing, head spinning, headache producing pain, and that’s just the talking, not actually paying taxes where many Americas conjure these feelings easily.  But, as one expert argued, we would need to raise $10 trillion in additional income to pay for the favorite programs around childcare, education loans, and more, without even adding up the price for Medicare For All, so that means that everything is on the tax laundry.

When Paul Krugman, the Nobel prize winning economist and New York Times columnist, starts off a meeting to set the sober and erudite tone, with Chicago’s Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky punching up the morning, Senator Chris Van Hollen from Maryland laying out a half dozen bills to make the crowd road, and Barbara Ehrenreich, author, activist, and humorist zinging the rich hard, you can imagine that the organizers, including the sponsor of the conference, Alan Davis of the WhyNot Initiative, were trying to send a message far and wide that even if this was going to a talk show, it’s intention was a call to action.

Senator Chris Van Hollen

Celinda Lake, the esteemed pollster and an old friend, was clear:  the public across the board supports taxing the rich because they want fairness, and they do so at much higher numbers than they polling on jobs and income.  Hear this you candidates and focus your remarks accordingly in the debates.

There were proposals on surtaxes, wealth, assets, and increases on marginal income tax rates for the those making more than $2 million.  There were calls to stop the rich from hiding their money offshore and from deferring taxes.  Cheating was called out and named whether about carried interest or step ups that left increase values untaxed for generations.  There were calls to get in the same hymn book and sing the same song, and there were advocates for “all of the above” when it comes to taxing the rich.  There were food and war metaphors.  We were going throw the kitchen sink at these money hoarding, tax cheats.

Celinda Lake

There were even some fireworks in the midst of all of this.  Erica Payne, director of something called Patriotic Millionaires, dropped some matches in the dry tax debates.  She called out Eli Broad, the Los Angeles billionaire and charter school champion, for claiming to advocate taxing the rich and then sneaking money to opponents of such policies in California and then writing an op ed in the Times still claiming “tax me.”  She called on the eighteen billionaires who had signed a letter to all the Democratic candidates asking them to tax the rich to put their money where their mouths were and pay for real work and a real campaign.

She was on fire, and that gave hope that maybe all of this talk and deep dive into tax policy might actually produce some real action.  The clues might have been during the last panel on what a campaign looks like, but I was running for a plane back to the real world, where all of us want the rich to pay their fair share, but don’t see the votes in a Congress made up of the rich and bought and paid for by the rich and their corporate buddies and lobbyists.

Barbara Ehrenreich

This is worth a fight and worth support, so let’s keep our eyes out for what happens next.  In the meantime, death and taxes are our only sure things, while only death seems certain for the very rich.

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Please enjoy You Don’t Know Me by Natalie Jean

Thanks to KABF.

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Rich Gone Wild!

Asuncion, Paraguay   Be still my heart!  It is probably a distant dream, but is it just possible that that the philanthropic tax dodges of massive tax evasion and, even more abhorrent, the impunity of the rich and their patronizing rationale that they know better and are “solving our problems” is finally being called to account?  Probably not, but at least there are chinks in the vaults of their treasure chests.

Recently there was some erosion near the moat around the rich’s castles when the New York Times took at least a glancing look at how “donor advised funds” or DAFs have become the go-to giant tax dodges for the new superrich of Silicon Valley when they cash in on their startups.  They honed in on the scandals involving the Silicon Valley Community Foundation where top executives have been forced to resign based on charges of bullying staff and overly aggressive development practices, but those are just pebbles falling down the mountain of real problems with the lack of transparency, accountability, and of course loss of tax revenue from these cash dumps.  The donors get a deduction for years, but since it’s a donor-advised-fund, they also get to call the shots on their money and contributions, as if it is still in fact theirs, rather than controlled by tax-exempt entity.

Once aggregated, no one can track the actual expenditures from these hoards or whether there are any expenditures at all, since the individual funds do not have the same requirements for annual outlays that the foundation itself has.  Drummond Pike, the founder and former CEO of the Tides family of philanthropic enterprises, wrote a scathing opinion piece in the Chronicle of Philanthropy on the corporate hijacking of DAFs that will soon be reprinted in the coming issue of Social Policy as well.

There’s more though.  Elizabeth Kolbert, the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist of The New Yorker, published a recent essay that was tellingly not simply a criticism of one method of the donor community’s tax avoidance, but of the warped nature of philanthropy and the “new” Gospel of Wealth and pomposity that has been bred in our “new” Gilded Age.   She correctly nails the self-serving and destructive nature of the philanthropic circle where billions of taxes are avoided because they claim to “know better,” starving the government’s ability to provide services more equitably, and forcing government itself to depend more on nongovernmental actors among the rich tax avoiders to supplement the shortfalls.

Simply put, even if the rich actually do donate their money, it’s a bad trade to rely on the unaccountable whims and priorities of the rich, rather than those we elect to govern for all of the people.  There’s also reasonable cause to doubt that there is anything other than their self-interest involved.  Kolbert’s piece includes an estimate of $10 billion in tax deductible contributions to impact public policy as an example.  The charade that these contributions are not political is also exposed clearly, including by many people that have supped at their table and ridden in their limos.

Perhaps it is too much to hope that the current Congress will fix this problem since their legacy is more tax breaks for the rich, but we can still hope that change is coming and the deluge is still possible.

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