US billionaires don’t pay tax, and our politicians don’t seem bothered | Maureen Tkacik


American billionaires don’t pay taxes, and American politicians are all but ready to send Seal Team Six to assassinate the nameless bureaucrat who let ProPublica in on this fact. Welcome to our political hellscape.

This month, ProPublica revealed that American billionaires essentially do not pay taxes, and within hours the White House had awkwardly promised no fewer than four federal investigations into the identity of the individual who had alerted the news organization to this fact.

By Thursday, a North Carolina congressman was demanding the FBI director explain why he hadn’t made any arrests or at the very least, “executed any search warrants or raided any offices” in the international manhunt for the leaker.

By the weekend, demands for justice on behalf of America’s parasite oligarchs had unified the Republican party like nothing since perhaps the phrase “public option” was a thing you heard on cable television. Politicians from Susan Collins to the author of the infamous North Carolina “bathroom bill” both grilled law enforcement officials testifying in their committees about the website’s “illegal” violations of mega-billionaire privacy.

Fox News screamed about Twitter’s double standard in enabling sharing of the ProPublica revelations despite blocking an earlier New York Post story about Hunter Biden’s laptop. At least 19 senators signed angry letters demanding the investigations they had been repeatedly assured were well under way. (Senator Mike Crapo alone released three separate statements to this effect.) The ranking member of the powerful ways and means committee told the Hill on Friday that the revelations had dealt Democratic proposals to add an additional $8bn to the annual IRS budget – which was meant to help with tax law enforcement and compliance – “close to a death blow”.

Meanwhile, the Democrats hardly had a better response. The billionaire tax avoidance story warranted nary a mention on the Twitter feeds of the four founders of “the Squad” aside from a retweet from AOC. And so the only elected officials who seem to have read the story ProPublica president Richard Tofel had framed as “the most important story we have ever published” were the ones who calling for the feds to ransack the ProPublica offices.

But the worst part of the whole saga was the realization that ProPublica’s bombshell revelations would probably have more attention during the presidency of Donald Trump. ProPublica carefully chose the six billionaires whose tax returns it chose to single out for specific scrutiny, and several of them – Jeff Bezos, George Soros and Mike Bloomberg – are so loathed by conservatives it would have been impossible for a Trump-era Republican party to respect their constitutional right to dodge taxes. The scarce press coverage of the fact that billionaires have not only paid virtually no taxes, but that they have also added to their net worths in recent years, makes the four-year media obsession with former president Donald Trump’s tax returns feel like a partisan crusade that was never about a genuine commitment to ending billionaire tax avoidance, but just scoring points against Trump alone.

So, while we were homeschooling our kids and waiting on hold with the unemployment department, Democrats of every declension barely say a word about the fact billionaires added $1.2tn to their fortunes over the past year alone. And it’s not that there’s nothing to say about the matter. ProPublica has the goods to actually put tax avoidance on the map, and if Democrats were committed to ending the class warfare that the rich wage against the poor every day, they would take these goods and run.

After all, Jeff Bezos got a $4,000 middle-class tax credit the year his net worth hit $18bn. There’s something so marvelous and transcending of petty tribal affiliations about this fact, like a perfectly executed 60-yard touchdown pass in the final 18 seconds of a five-point game. Unearth a diamond like that, and your side deserves to win. Now imagine if the Democrats would just catch the damn thing!

But ProPublica seems to have deliberately underthrown. After breathlessly informing readers they possessed a “trove” of 15 years’ worth of tax returns on literally “thousands” of the world’s richest people, the story’s three authors proceeded to weave a few juicy and non-contextualized facts into a narrative that felt like a protracted sidebar to the “real” story. We learned that the 25 richest billionaires in America added $401bn to their net worths between 2014 and 2018 and paid about 3% of that amount in taxes, but we didn’t learn much about any specific billionaire’s tax avoidance strategies outside a brief discussion of the borrowing habits of random 1980s corporate raider Carl Icahn, of which Icahn is clearly proud enough not to bother suing. (“I enjoy winning,” he told the website.)

Fifteen years of tax return information on thousands of American plutocrats is, to be sure, one of the biggest stories of the decade. It’s just not clear ProPublica has that much appetite for sticking with the story.

Bloomberg has already threatened to “use all legal means” to determine who leaked the tax returns and “ensure that they are held responsible”. No doubt Charles Koch and Dan Gilbert are already sharpening their knives. In a podcast interview last week, ProPublica’s series editor, Steve Engelberg, expressed profound discomfort about actually using the information provided by the anonymous tipster, explaining that editors had agreed to only publish information they determined to be “absolutely necessary for the public to appreciate what is, let’s face it, an arcane topic”.

There had been early thoughts of publishing basic tax return data on the top 25 richest billionaires in the country, he added, but they decided against it on grounds that some of the names on the list “are quite well known and some are much less well known”, and he preferred “using household names” who are “in the fabric of our daily lives” and not, I suppose, their lower-key heiresses and widows.

This was, I believe, a moral and strategic mistake that will be difficult to undo. Every billionaire is an inherently public figure, whose fortunes are inextricable from the fabric of our daily lives; the Forbes 400 could serve as an invaluable guide for unsentimentally demystifying our social dysfunctions, were billionaires not plenty rich enough to hire all the lobbyists and publicists who ensure nothing of that nature ever gets written about their clients.

Once, the malefactors of great wealth burnished their public images by investing in journalism outlets; now, plutocrats seems just as happy to siphon their ad revenue, flip their office buildings or even sue them into oblivion. Surely the editorial board of ProPublica, one of the last two or three American news organizations with the resources to handle this story, understands the stakes. One can only hope they stick to their guns – and that someone with a modicum of political power starts paying attention.





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