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book review article

 

The Great American Tax Dodge by Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele

 

Much of this work consists of anecdotes, which can be ignored except for entertainment purposes. The authors deliver a long, hilarious narrative report on the mega-rich Wildensteins of New York, whose failure to file or pay any income taxes attracted no government attention for two decades. The Wildenstein's evasions became public only because of an acrimonious divorce.

 

The government claims ten million non-filers exist. Barlett and Steele claim that number is a severe understatement because the IRS only calls a person a non-filer if a third party sends in a W-2 or Form 1099 or both or several of both. Thousands of non-filers earn over $200,000 a year; no one knows exactly how many exist. The authors report a tax gap due to fraud and error in 1999 of $300 billion. And when $300 billion is missing, the rest of us (and future individuals) make up the difference.

 

Because state, local and payroll taxes are regressive, the authors state that many middle-income individuals pay a higher percentage of their incomes in all taxes than many rich individuals who do pay their taxes. Some individuals earning less than $35,000 a year pay a third or more of their income in taxes. Thanks to the ultraconservatives running Washington, the IRS is more likely to audit lower-income workers than the rich, though the amount of money the rich cheat the government out of is far, far more.

 

In fact, when a non-rich individual fails to pay enough taxes, the IRS presumes she is guilty and sends her a bill for fines, interest and back taxes. IRS seizure of property is common. The government thinks it is the non-rich individual's job to prove she is innocent.

 

The rich, however, are different. If the IRS even bothers to notice a rich non-filer, it responds with a series of polite phone calls and letters. And if the rich person still does not respond, the IRS gets tough and decides to do nothing. The IRS does not send bills to the rich or seize property because the IRS fears it might not get all the government is owed from the rich, under the IRS principle that "no loaf is better than half-a-loaf." I am not kidding, and neither are Barlett and Steele. The rich are not the only cheats. The Earned Income Tax Credit suffers from rampant fraud, often due to phantom children.

 

Ultraconservative congresspersons deliberately sabotage the IRS, then blame the IRS for the resulting mess, scoring points with citizens and creating room for more sabotage. Congress ensures IRS policies are ham-fisted and designed not to pursue the rich. Supply-siders and their ilk in Congress believe in almost any means of putting more money in the hands of the rich. Maybe they believe tax evasion spurs economic growth because every dollar in the hands of rich is a dollar put toward the engines of creation and every dollar in the hands of the government or ordinary Americans is a dollar wasted--or so it is alleged. (Actually, more tax evasion by the rich wastes human capital, encourages more cheating, increases future taxes, reduces the wages of the non-rich, and adds to the array of injustices going on. Much of the creativity seems to be in bribing politicians and creating fraudulent financial instruments.) The IRS takes the blame while, paradoxically, the Congresspersons who turned the IRS into a mess get praised by their constituents for intervening on their behalf against the nasty IRS. So much for the buck stopping at or near the top. Not surprisingly, members of congress and their staffs owe at least $10.5 million in back taxes.

 

(If any ultraconservative managed to get this far in this review, go ahead, trot out the ad nauseum ad hominem "envy." And don't forget "class warfare"--never mind that most class warfare comes from the right. I do not envy you. At worst, I pity you. I could not live with myself if I had so little regard for truth and justice.)

 

Common methods of fraud include inflated and manufactured deductions, understated incomes, use of foreign tax havens, personal expenses charged as business expenses, returns not filed and rich individuals with multiple passports claiming global residences.

 

The authors support international efforts to reduce money-laundering, tax evasion and rogue banking. Rich criminals say such efforts would violate their right to privacy. Too bad. Their right to criminal privacy is outweighed by the rights of others to protection from crime, their right to be treated justly and by the benefit created by preventing parasites from profiting. Almost no one complains because the government has access to the financial records of ordinary wage earners, individuals who cannot afford armies of lawyers. Yet, rich criminals expect they should get special privileges to do harm.

 

Many of Barlett and Steele’s prescriptions are too vague. Much of what the authors recommend falls into the tax "simplicity" and "equality" category (flat taxes), but a flat tax system would be unjust because the rich get the benefits of many government policies designed for them, including monetary policies (the Federal Reserve), nontax fiscal policies (let's hear it for cost-plus contracts), and train loads of other policies. Anyway, isn't "equality" alleged to be the greatest source of evil in the past century? The rich have no issue with promoting policies that tax the non-rich at higher rates than the rich. Warren Buffet is the only rich individual I ever heard complain that his secretary pays a higher percentage in taxes than he does. Yet the rich scream for "equality" if the non-rich pay a lower percentage than the rich. Taxing the rich at a higher rate is morally and economically right. The authors fail to account for differences in family size and fail to account for the fact that dollars are much more valuable to the non-rich. Money in the hands of the rich has a declining marginal utility. If the authors were as good at policy as at narrative accounts, this would be one hell of a book. Worth skimming.        

 

book review article by J.T. Fournier, last updated July 26, 2009

 

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