By Pete Dolack
There’s no money! Cut, cut, cut! So go the mantras of austerity. The second exclamation follows on the first, but the first is not so. Where then is the money?
Much of the money is hiding in tax havens; both corporations and the top executives and financiers who rake in fabulous wealth on the backs of the employees of the enterprises they control make full use of such havens. U.S. elites are encouraged to do this is because U.S. tax law, through mind-numbing complexity, allows profits and income to be shifted offshore, where they remain untaxed.
Such accounting legerdemain is openly acknowledged (although the details and scale are always hidden), and most often justified by another oft-repeated mantra: That U.S. tax rates are simply too high. But a simple lesson in history demonstrates that is not so, either.
The highest personal tax rate was 91 percent during the 1950s and early 1960s. The latter decades were not periods of U.S. economic hardship, nor did the wealthy by and large fail to remain wealthy. But as neoliberal ideology became dominant, those tax rates fell sharply — from 70 percent at the start of Ronald Reagan’s two presidential terms to 28 percent by the time he was done.
Today, the top tax rate in the U.S. is 35 percent in the wake of several adjustments. The top corporate tax rate is the same. Millionaires, however, don’t pay anywhere near that rate, nor do corporations, because there are so many generous loopholes, making the Right-wing argument that the U.S. corporate tax rate is among the world’s highest specious. (And most of the wealthy’s income derives from capital gains, which are taxed at only 15 percent.) Just how little many economic elites actually pay in taxes was revealed again in an interesting study released earlier this month by the Institute for Policy Studies.
The report found that:
- In 2011, for the second year in a row, 25 of the 100 highest-paid corporate chief executive officers in the U.S. took home more in pay than their company paid in federal income taxes. On average, the 25 firms had nearly $1 billion in U.S. pre-tax income but still received net tax benefits that averaged $129 million.
- The chief executive officers of these 25 firms received $20.6 million in average total compensation last year. Combined, the 25 firms have 533 subsidiaries in tax-haven locations such as the Cayman Islands, Bermuda and Gibraltar.
- The four most direct tax subsidies for excessive executive pay cost taxpayers an overall estimated $14.4 billion per year. That amount could cover the annual cost of hiring about 212,000 elementary-school teachers or Head Start slots for about 1.9 million pre-school children for one year.
The Institute for Policy Studies report states that:
“Nationwide, budget cuts have axed 627,000 public service jobs since June 2009, all but 6 percent of that total at the state and local level. Schools, health clinics, fire stations, parks, and recreation facilities—virtually no public service has gone unsqueezed. … Yet tens of billions of these scarce tax dollars are getting diverted. These tax dollars are flowing from average Americans who depend on public services to the kingpins of America’s private sector. They’re subsidizing, directly and indirectly, the mega-million paychecks that go to the top executives at our nation’s biggest banks and corporations.”
One of the ways that working people subsidize stratospheric executive pay is a loophole that allows unlimited compensation to be deducted from a corporation’s tax bill — the more outlandish the executive pay, the less a corporation owes in taxes.
The massive tax cuts for the wealthiest put through by the Bush II/Cheney administration is often cited as a leading reason for the yawning deficits that opened up during the decade of the 2000s. The wealthiest certainly benefited, as the Institute for Policy Studies report demonstrates: Fifty-seven chief executive officers alone saved a composite $104 million, or $1.8 million per CEO, as a result of the Bush tax cuts.
U.S. economic elites are not unique, and there are many more than 57 people enjoying massive benefits from tax cuts, subsidies, tax havens and tax shelters. A July 2012 Tax Justice Network report found that:
“A significant fraction of global private financial wealth — by our estimates, at least $21 to $32 trillion as of 2010 — has been invested virtually tax-free through the world’s still-expanding black hole of more than 80 ‘offshore’ secrecy jurisdictions. We believe this range to be conservative.”
That is a whole lot of wealth not being taxed. And while most of that total is accumulated by the wealthiest in the advanced capitalist countries, much of it comes from elites in other countries. The Tax Justice Network studied 139 middle- and low-income countries for which it had sufficient World Bank data and found that:
“Since the 1970s, with eager (and often aggressive and illegal) assistance from the international private banking industry, it appears that private elites in this sub-group of 139 countries had accumulated $7.3 to $9.3 trillion of unrecorded offshore wealth in 2010, conservatively estimated, even while many of their public sectors were borrowing themselves into bankruptcy, enduring agonizing ‘structural adjustment’ and low growth, and holding fire sales of public assets.”
Within the United States, Citizens for Tax Justice reports that:
“Tax evasion by individual taxpayers is estimated to deprive the U.S. Treasury of as much as $70 billion per year (corporate offshore tax avoidance is estimated to cost the Treasury an additional $90 billion per year).”
The U.S. government budget deficit is much larger than $160 billion per year, but the total in the above paragraph is only an estimate of shell games performed with off-shore tax havens. Add in tax loopholes, accounting gimmicks and assorted other ways to avoid paying tax on income and profits, and the numbers begin to add up.
The wealthy would much rather loan money than pay taxes. They would like more money to flow to them. But extreme inequality leads to hard times and a vicious circle — more austerity is imposed, reducing the amount of money in the hands of working people, causing them to spend less due to fear of the future, which leads to more weakness in the economy. (No small factor when consumer spending constitutes 60 to 70 percent of the gross domestic product of advanced capitalist countries.)
As more money and capital is concentrated into fewer hands, and the ability to move jobs and production is more unfettered, more power is concentrated in the hands of economic elites, giving them a greater ability to have their preferred policies adopted by governments.
The cycle of austerity can be summarized in two paragraphs: Governments borrow money from the rich and from corporations instead of taxing them, then have to pay higher interest rates on those borrowings because the rich and the corporations complain that too much is being borrowed. To ameliorate the demand for higher interest rates, the governments’ central banks are lending money nearly interest-free to financial institutions so that they will continue to buy the governments’ loans at the higher interest rates. In exchange for continuing to buy government debt (which will earn them a nice profit because they are using the cheap money to buy the debt), the financial institutions demand that the governments cut social services, lay off workers, sell assets and impose other austerity measures.
As a result of the austerity, governments take in less revenue, so they have to borrow more from the rich and corporations, who have hoarded the country’s wealth, at the same time the governments’ central banks are giving financial institutions more cheap money and giving them the green light to hand out more money to insiders, leaving them more vulnerable to the next economic downturn, when, because they are “too big to fail,” they are confident they will receive another bailout.
The standard ideological obfuscation used to justify ever lower tax rates on the wealthy is a variation of “you can decide what to do with your money better than government”; a subset of this is that higher taxes on the wealthy are meant to “punish” them. But social services — schools, transportation infrastructure, court systems, police, fire departments, unemployment insurance and much else — cost money, and a civilized society has to pay for them.
Moreover, the successful businessperson, whether he or she inherited the business or led the building of it, benefits enormously from the society that enables them to amass their wealth. The line of “you can decide what to do with your money better than government” is seductive: Of course you should make your own choices. But that’s not what taxes are — they are not a “taking away” of an individual’s autonomy, they are the price we all pay to live in a civilized country.
The plutocrat making that argument is not concerned about his or her employees’ autonomy; only about his or her ability to slake his or her greed. But the problem with greed is that it can never satisfied; more is never enough.
Nor do plutocrats “create” jobs — they are created by a need to fulfill demand. More jobs mean more employees to profit from because profits are derived from the work of employees.
“Freedom” is equated with individualism — but as a specific form of individualism that is shorn of responsibility. More wealth for the rich is advertised as good for everybody despite the shredding of social safety nets that accompanies the concentration of wealth. Those who have the most — obtained at the expense of those with far less — have no responsibility to the society that enabled them to amass such wealth. Imposing harsher working conditions is another aspect of this individualistic “freedom,” but freedom for who?
“Freedom” for industrialists and financiers is freedom to rule over, control and exploit others; “justice” is the unfettered ability to enjoy this freedom, a justice reflected in legal structures. Working people are “free” to compete in a race to the bottom set up by capitalists — this is the freedom loftily extolled by the corporate media and the institutions of the wealthy.
As I have previously noted, the economist Richard Wolff, in his Economic Update radio show, points out that if only U.S. residents with at least $1 million at their disposal for investment were taxed 10 percent on this portion of their wealth — their fixed assets such as mansions, yachts and collectibles such as works of art would remain untouched — the entire yearly U.S. government budget deficit would be eliminated.
There is enough to go around — if there is enough collective will and organization to make it happen.