Incomes, Not Taxes, are the Real Issue

Every year Tax Day, the income tax-filing deadline in the U.S., brings out the usual assortment of right wing cranks and pleading liberals who agree in principal that capitalism, such as it is, is the greatest economic system among the one that they know of but differ on the issue of the redistribution of income. The right-wingers argue that taxes are misappropriation of private property and liberals agree that the property is indeed private but argue that the role of society’s successful is to throw a few coins in the direction of those less fortunate.

Were it one day to be discovered that society’s successful are successful because the less fortunate are less fortunate the terms of this discussion would stand a chance of being relevant. And no infinite regress is required to get there, just one small step back to the distribution of income. For if the initial distribution of income is debatable, then why not debate the issue there?

America is indeed a capitalist nation if capitalism is a system of connected insiders arranging circumstances for their benefit and to everyone else’s detriment. A quick perusal of Fortune’s (the magazine, not the fate) richest has tech pirates who have misappropriated the labor of others; inheritors of big box retail fortunes built also on stolen labor, if second order by choosing low cost suppliers who have themselves stolen the labor; financial tycoons who have profited from stolen labor (corporate profits) and looted banks; and various other lay-abouts and ne’er do wells who did do well when they chose their parents.

Practically speaking, any discussion of redistribution faces the burden of incomes already having been distributed. The natural question from there is: why was income distributed the way that it was if there was something wrong with it? And if there was nothing wrong with it, why should it be redistributed? This logical sequence leaves liberals begging and right-wingers self-righteously apoplectic. So why not cut to the chase?—the  social struggle is over income distribution before it is about  redistribution.

Without being naïve, Americans will probably need to endure a bit more economic hardship at the hands of their political and economic masters before their plight finally sinks in. Polls suggest that somewhere between 11% and 20 % of the population believes that their incomes and hedge fund tycoon Steve Schwarzman’s are approximately equal (top 1%). Another 20% believe that they will one day earn an income equivalent to Mr. Schwarzman’s. To put this as gently as it can be put, these folks’ incomes are a drop of piss to Mr. Schwarzman’s Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

One way to understand the specifics is to spend time with income distribution data. Economist Emmanuel Saez of UC Berkeley has a downloadable data set that shows that today’s large incomes come from the combination of corporate executives who have been given the right to pay themselves in money and company stock as they see fit and a runaway financial system that has corrupt insiders also paying themselves as they see fit on threat of setting off the financial doomsday machines that they have spent the last forty years building.

So again, why does it make sense to ask the gentle souls who have come by their fortunes in these ways to part with a bit of it through taxes when all evidence points to the fact that if they gave a crap they wouldn’t have come by their fortunes in these ways in the first place? When Steve Schwarzman (hedge fund tycoon referenced above) complained that being forced to pay a tax rate on his income like it was “ordinary” income was comparable to the Nazi invasion of Poland, a gauntlet was thrown down.

As income distribution data is relatively common and easy to find, information alone will obviously not be the singular force of change. Another, possibly more constructive, way of moving this conversation forward (a euphemism, possibly for a guillotine) is to reframe the issues so that clarity abounds. Were we, the people, to simply not go along by having a national general strike on May 1st, 2012 to shut down key infrastructure then possibly the idea might begin to occur that rich folk aren’t islands. Were the strike to continue until the idea has been firmly planted, that would be even better.

The annual parade of screamers and beggars on Tax Day should end. Discussions of taxes mis-locate the points of contention. Misinformation about income distribution—who it goes to, where it comes from, and in what amounts, is the currency of this misguided debate. Action for social justice should focus attention where it belongs. Occupy Wall Street and a coalition of unions and immigrant rights groups have called for a national General Strike on May 1st, 2012 to bring attention to social justice issues including income inequality. It probably won’t be an end, but it will definitely be a beginning.

Rob Urie is an artist and political economist in New York.

More articles by:

Rob Urie is an artist and political economist. His book Zen Economics is published by CounterPunch Books.

Weekend Edition
March 23, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Roberto J. González
The Mind-Benders: How to Harvest Facebook Data, Brainwash Voters, and Swing Elections
Paul Street
Deplorables II: The Dismal Dems in Stormy Times
Nick Pemberton
The Ghost of Hillary
Andrew Levine
Light at the End of the Tunnel?
Paul de Rooij
Amnesty International: Trumpeting for War… Again
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Coming in Hot
Chuck Gerhart
Sessions Exploits a Flaw to Pursue Execution of Meth Addicts
Robert Fantina
Distractions, Thought Control and Palestine
Hiroyuki Hamada
The Eyes of “Others” for Us All
Robert Hunziker
Is the EPA Hazardous to Your Health?
Stephanie Savell
15 Years After the Iraq Invasion, What Are the Costs?
Aidan O'Brien
Europe is Pregnant 
John Eskow
How Can We Live With All of This Rage?
Matthew Stevenson
Why Vietnam Still Matters: Was Khe Sanh a Win or a Loss?
Dan Corjescu
The Man Who Should Be Dead
Howard Lisnoff
The Bone Spur in Chief
Brian Cloughley
Hitler and the Poisoning of the British Public
Brett Wilkins
Trump Touts $12.5B Saudi Arms Sale as US Support for Yemen War Literally Fuels Atrocities
Barbara Nimri Aziz
Iraqi Landscapes: the Path of Martyrs
Brian Saady
The War On Drugs Is Far Deadlier Than Most People Realize
Stephen Cooper
Battling the Death Penalty With James Baldwin
CJ Hopkins
Then They Came for the Globalists
Philip Doe
In Colorado, See How They Run After the Fracking Dollars
Wilfred Burchett
Vietnam Will Win: Armed Propaganda
Binoy Kampmark
John Brennan’s Trump Problem
Nate Terani
Donald Trump’s America: Already Hell Enough for This Muslim-American
Steve Early
From Jackson to Richmond: Radical Mayors Leave Their Mark
Jill Richardson
To Believe in Science, You Have to Know How It’s Done
Ralph Nader
Ten Million Americans Could Bring H.R. 676 into Reality Land—Relief for Anxiety, Dread and Fear
Sam Pizzigati
Billionaires Won’t Save the World, Just Look at Elon Musk
Sergio Avila
Don’t Make the Border a Wasteland
Daryan Rezazad
Denial of Climate Change is Not the Problem
Ron Jacobs
Flashing for the Refugees on the Unarmed Road of Flight
Missy Comley Beattie
The Age of Absurdities and Atrocities
George Wuerthner
Isle Royale: Manage for Wilderness Not Wolves
George Payne
Pompeo Should Call the Dogs Off of WikiLeaks
Russell Mokhiber
Study Finds Single Payer Viable in 2018 Elections
Franklin Lamb
Despite Claims, Israel-Hezbollah War is Unlikely
Montana Wilderness Association Dishonors Its Past
Elizabeth “Liz” Hawkins, RN
Nurses Are Calling #TimesUp on Domestic Abuse
Paul Buhle
A Caribbean Giant Passes: Wilson Harris, RIP
Mel Gurtov
A Blank Check for Repression? A Saudi Leader Visits Washington
Seth Sandronsky
Hoop schemes: Sacramento’s corporate bid for an NBA All-Star Game
Louis Proyect
The French Malaise, Now and Then
David Yearsley
Bach and the Erotics of Spring