WE CAN’T AFFORD OUR RIGGED TAX SYSTEM

Our unfair tax system is one piece of our rigged economic system. To put our tax system in some perspective, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) collects nearly 95% of all the federal government’s revenue; it collected $3.5 trillion in taxes in 2018.

My previous post on how our overall economic system is rigged, noted that the CARES Act, the $2.2 trillion coronavirus pandemic response, tilted our tax system further in favor of the wealthy by providing $135 billion in tax cuts for the richest 1% of Americans. This is money that could have been used to provide aid to workers who lost their jobs or to buy personal protective equipment for front-line workers or other needs related to the effects of the pandemic. Ironically, Republicans are now complaining about the cost of the pandemic relief efforts!

Another example of the rigging of our tax system in favor of wealthy individuals and corporations is the substantial tax cuts for corporations and wealthy individuals that were at the center of the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA). The Act failed to deliver any significant benefits to workers and the middle class, despite politicians’ promises. (See this post for more detail.)

However, the tax cuts of the TCJA weren’t enough for the big multi-national corporations, so they lobbied, quite successfully, to rig the tax system even further to their benefit by getting additional tax reductions in the rules and regulations that were written to implement the TCJA. (See this post for more detail.)

A year after the TCJA passed, a study of the largest corporations in the U.S. found that of 379 large, profitable corporations:

  • 91 (almost a quarter of them) paid no federal income tax including Amazon, Chevron, Halliburton, and IBM.
  • Another 56 of them (15%) paid less than 5% of profits in taxes.
  • The average effective federal income tax rate for these 379 large, profitable corporations was 11.3%, barely half of the reduced tax rate of 21% in the TCJA (down from 35%), and the lowest rate in the history of this analysis, which was first done in 1984. [1]

So, not only are wealthy individuals and corporations successful in getting politicians to cut the taxes they owe, but many of them then do everything they can to avoid paying even the reduced (I’m tempted to say, minimal) taxes they owe under our rigged tax system.

Some of them simply don’t pay the taxes they owe. According to a recent report from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) [2] unpaid taxes averaged $381 billion per year (roughly 14% of federal taxes owed) from 2011 to 2013. The richest 1% of taxpayers are responsible for 70% ($267 billion) of this total. [3]

The amount of unpaid taxes is growing because the IRS’s budget has been cut by 20% since 2010 (after adjusting for inflation), reducing its capacity to crack down on tax avoidance. Audits of the tax returns of the highest income taxpayers have declined by 63% from 2010 to 2018 and now occur at the same rate as for the poorest taxpayers. This has happened because the IRS no longer has the capacity to engage in audits of the complex tax returns of the rich. The number of IRS personnel who handle these complex cases fell by about 40% between 2010 and 2018. [4] Enforcement action against high-income individuals who do not file a tax return has been reduced to simply mailing a notice to them.

The CBO report estimated that for every dollar added to the IRS budget for tax law enforcement, about three dollars in unpaid taxes would be collected. In addition to reduced auditing of wealthy individuals, the frequency of audits of the largest corporations (those with over $20 billion in assets) also dropped from 2010 to 2018; it dropped by roughly 50%.

In his reaction to the CBO report, Senator Sanders stated that “the primary beneficiaries of IRS funding cuts are wealthy tax cheats and large corporations.” [5] In response to an earlier study of audit rates, Senator Wyden stated that “We have two tax systems in this country, and nothing illustrates that better than the IRS ignoring wealthy tax cheats while penalizing low-income workers over small mistakes.” [6]

Our tax system is rigged from top to bottom – from reduced tax rates for wealthy individuals and corporations, to tax loopholes and subsidies for them, to tax dodging by them, to weak enforcement of tax laws to stop their tax avoidance. Hundreds of billions of dollars (actually probably well over a trillion dollars) of tax revenue from wealthy individuals and businesses are lost every year because of unfairly low tax rates, special interest tax breaks, and tax dodging.

When politicians say we can’t afford to support education or unemployment benefits or food assistance or whatever, don’t believe them. What we can’t afford is rich individuals and corporations who don’t pay their fair share in taxes due to our rigged tax system.

[1]      Gardner, M., Roque, L., & Wamhoff, S., Dec. 2019, “Corporate tax avoidance in the first year under the Trump tax law,” Institute on Taxation & Economic Policy (https://itep.org/corporate-tax-avoidance-in-the-first-year-of-the-trump-tax-law/)

[2]      Congressional Budget Office, July 2020, “Trends in the Internal Revenue Service’s funding and enforcement,” (https://www.cbo.gov/system/files/2020-07/56422-CBO-IRS-enforcement.pdf)

[3]      Johnson, J., 7/9/20, “‘An absolute outrage’: Sanders rips ‘wealthy tax cheats’ as CBO estimates $381 billion in annual unpaid taxes,” Common Dreams (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2020/07/09/absolute-outrage-sanders-rips-wealthy-tax-cheats-cbo-estimates-381-billion-annual)

[4]      Congressional Budget Office, July 2020, see above

[5]      Johnson, J., 7/9/20, see above

[6]      Kiel, P., 5/30/19, “It’s getting worse: The IRS now audits poor Americans at about the same rate as the top 1%,” ProPublica (https://www.propublica.org/article/irs-now-audits-poor-americans-at-about-the-same-rate-as-the-top-1-percent)

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