Propublica is out with another blockbuster story on the IRS and who isn’t paying their taxes—25 billionaires, among the world’s richest people, one of whom even manipulated the system so much he got a $4,000 tax credit for his children.
That would be Jeff Bezos in 2011, when according to Forbes records, he held about $18 billion in wealth. His tax return, however reported that his income was offset by investment losses. That allowed him to claim an income low enough to get that tax credit. When he was on the Forbes billionaire list. It’s not just Bezos, of course. Supposed champion of a fair tax code Warren Buffett—worth $110 billion in May 2021, according to Forbes—reported income of less than $25 million for the years 2015-2018. Propublica analysis pegged his true tax rate in those years at 0.1%, “less than 10 cents for every $100 he added to his wealth.” He’s the tax game winner. Bezos’ true rate in those years was 0.98%; Michael Bloomberg’s 1.3%; and Elon Musk comes in the chump, having paid 3.27%.
Propublica obtained raw tax data on these billionaires and is not disclosing the source, but does say that the information came after it published a series of articles on the IRS, how it has been systematically defunded by Congress and how that has benefited the wealthy while the IRS has resorted to auditing low-income people, the low-hanging fruit who can’t fight back. Daily Kos has exclusively received analysis by Accountable.us demonstrating how at least 21 millionaires in Congress set out to accomplish precisely that: sabotage the IRS and avoid their own tax bills.
The consequences are stark. As of 2018, the 25 billionaires were collectively worth $1.1 trillion. It would require the combined wealth of 14.3 million regular wage earners to equal that. Those wage earners paid $143 billion in taxes in 2018. Those holding $1.1 trillion that year paid $1.9 billion. Here’s the really frustrating part: “billionaires don’t have to evade taxes exotically and illicitly — they can avoid them routinely and legally.” They hold their wealth in dividends, stocks, bonds, and other investments that are taxed at lower rates than wages.
So Bezos can claim he only “made” $80,000 in wages—that’s his Amazon salary. “The top 25 wealthiest Americans reported $158 million in wages in 2018, according to the IRS data. That’s a mere 1.1% of what they listed on their tax forms as their total reported income.” At the same time, the millions of actual wage earners in the country paid more in taxes than they earned in wealth in the last decade. Here’s a clarifying example on that from Propublica: “for every $100 of wealth growth over that period, typical Americans paid $160 in taxes. Bezos paid only $1.09.”
There’s an awful lot to dig into with that story, but the other side of it—the policy side and the Republican fight to destroy the IRS, literally—has to be considered as well. The Biden administration wants to make some modest changes to all this, including a boost in IRS funding to allow it to function properly, potentially bringing in $700 billion in revenue over the next decade and giving the agency audit power it hasn’t had in years due to budget cuts.
Remember that increasing the IRS’ budget and its enforcement power is how the administration has approached increasing revenue because it will help avoid the larger political fights that would block real tax reform—the kind of reform that would keep Bezos from getting child tax credits. Even enforcing existing tax law, though, is being panned by Republicans.
Like Sen. Mitch McConnell, whose estimated net worth in 2018 was approximately $34,137,534. McConnell‘s project to “virtually abolish the IRS as you know it” began in 1997, when he was chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Accountable.us reports a fundraising letter signed by McConnell sent out in 1997 that promises: “With your immediate help today, we can virtually abolish the IRS as you know it.” McConnell is still railing against the IRS and introducing a bill aimed at preventing the IRS from “being used as a political weapon.” That’s McConnell once again dredging up one of the biggest scandals manufactured by Republicans against the Obama administration, the supposed targeting of Tea Party organizations by the IRS. Which wasn’t a thing. Not one Tea Party group was denied tax exempt status.
That bogus scandal has fueled years of anti-IRS agitation from McConnell‘s fellow Republican millionaires. Like Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas, with a net worth about $1.8 million in 2018. He wrote an opinion piece in 2016 saying, “Instead of spending millions in an attempt to fix the IRS, we should abolish the agency through comprehensive tax reform.” Tax “reform” that wouldn’t touch millionaires.
Or how about Sen. Ted Cruz (nearly $3.2 million in 2018). He called abolishing the IRS the “single most important tax reform” back in 2013: “We need to padlock and shut down the building, abolish the IRS, and move to a flat tax or the FAIR tax,” he said.
There’s Rep. Michael McCaul from Texas, with an estimated net worth of $113 million. He’s also got the distinction of being the biggest residential water user in Austin with his $7.3 million home. He’s got lots of company: Rep. Earl “Buddy” Carter from Georgia, worth over $33 million in 2018; Alaska’s Rep. Don Young, $1.2 million; Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama, about $1.2 million—and another dozen at least. They’ve all called for abolishing the IRS, and repealing the income tax.
That’s been standing in the way of any kind of tax reform for decades. Of course it’s personal interest, and of course it’s protecting their own donors and pals. There’s also the part where destroying the IRS feeds into the making government small enough to drown in the tub. It’s a key agency to destroy, like Social Security, because it has direct and regular public contact. Making people dissatisfied with these agencies makes them easier to kill off, and that’s what years and years of budget cuts has been partly in pursuit of. That and keeping personal fortunes out of public hands.
Meanwhile, the IRS—still in the hands o the Trump-appointed IRS Commissioner Chuck Rettig—is immediately going to start an investigation. Not into how the 25 billionaires got away with paying so little in taxes. No, into the leak of data to ProPublica.
A lifelong Blue girl in a Red state, I’m now Senior Political Writer for Daily Kos. On any given day, I’d rather be horseback, but there’s more demand for political writers than cowgirls.