This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things
Economists like to talk about “opportunity costs”–if you do X, you’ve lost the opportunity to do Y. I’ve been thinking about what we could do with the taxes we don’t get on the funds rich people hide from the IRS in those tempting tax havens, as disclosed by the Paradise Papers.
A treasure trove of documents given the name of the Paradise Papers was unveiled last week, giving us a clearer idea of how rich people and powerful companies keep their money from the prying eyes of the Internal Revenue Service.
It seems that–if you are rich enough to afford the right law firm and tax haven–you can navigate the Internal Revenue Code in such a way as to legally evade lots and lots of taxes. It turns out that sixty-three percent of foreign profits made by American multi-national corporations are squirreled away in those hideouts, out of the sight of those pesky IRS agents.
That disclosure was annoying enough, but what really pissed me off were a couple of estimates of what those evaded taxes might have paid for.
We worry a lot about the cost of social programs in this country, saying we simply can’t afford many things that we know could bring big rewards. But that missing $70 billion from corporate offshore tax avoidance would go a long way. A mere $140 million could replace the lead water pipes poisoning children in Flint, Mich. It would cost just an estimated $22.5 billion to end homelessness by providing all needy families with rental assistance. President Barack Obama asked Congress for $75 billion for his initial universal preschool plan; universal preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds would cost $98.4 billion over 10 years.
Senator Bernie Sanders’s College for All Act doesn’t even require the federal government to cover the entire $70 billion cost of public college tuition, but it could if this money were available to the government. Divvying up $70 billion a year to each parent in the country would be a huge step toward ending childhood poverty. And the available pot of money, were offshore tax avoidance not an option, would be even larger if rich individuals were taxed at the rates we all face here at home.
According to The Hill, if those writing our tax laws didn’t prefer letting their donors off the hook for their fair share, we could afford pretty much anything. Here are just a few of the things The Hill says we could pay for if we weren’t rushing a $1.5-trillion debt-financed gift to billionaires through the legislative process:
- We could repave every mile of highway in the entire country — twice;
- we could triple the salary of every single firefighter, EMT, and paramedic in the nation;
- we could increase the budget for the National Cancer Institute by over 900 percent;
- we could provide free lunch and free breakfast to every single public school student in the country, every school day of the year, for the next decade;
- we could build enough solar power plants to increase the solar energy capacity of the United States by about 600 percent;
- we could hire 700,000 new public school teachers;
- we could increase the budget for the Veterans Health Administrationby 80 percent.
What makes this effort to take from the poor to give to the rich especially galling is the hypocrisy of the GOP “deficit hawks.”
After spending eight years railing against the evils of deficits, after blocking numerous important investments because we “couldn’t afford it” and after swearing time and again that debt was our No. 1 enemy, most Republican representatives have tossed their anti-deficit positions aside in the blink of an eye. That is galling, yes.
But perhaps even more galling is that, having thrown their fiscal caution to the wind and having decided that now, with a Republican in the White House, debt is no longer a concern, their best idea for spending hundreds of billions of dollars is to give it all to the rich. For that, they should be truly ashamed of themselves.
When you wonder why Americans can’t have universal health care, or great trains that run every 20 minutes on tracks that are smooth and well-maintained, or other public services and amenities that citizens of other developed countries enjoy, just remember: we give money to our billionaires instead.