Should We Care if Billionaires Don’t Pay Taxes? Stop Asking the Billionaires.

After enjoying last week’s Must See Monday, and again motivated by the chance to earn some extra course credit, I decided to attend the November 8th event. Like last week, this was an awards ceremony of sorts, this time for The Best in Investigative Business Journalism. Dr. Battinto Batts Jr.,  who is the Dean and a professor at The Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University, welcomed the audience and guests before turning it over to Jeffrey Timmermans , who moderated the event. Timmermans is the Reynolds Chair  and director of the Donald W. Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism.  Celebrated journalist Jim Steele, of the Barlett and Steele Award, attended via Zoom. 

There is a gold, silver, and bronze award. The bronze was awarded to Tony SchickRob Davis, and  Lylla Younes for their piece in the Oregonian, entitled Big money bought the forests. Small timber communities are paying the price, Silver went to Margie Mason and Robin McDowell  for their work for the Associated press called Palm oil labor abuses linked to world’s top brands, banks. Gold was awarded to Jesse Eisinger, Jeff Ernsthausen, and Paul Kiel for their piece, The Secret IRS Files: Trove of Never-Before-Seen Records Reveal How the Wealthiest Avoid Income Tax, for ProPublica. Eisinger and Ernsthausen were present to receive their award. They discussed their work with Steele and Timmermans before answering student questions.

The discussion reminded me of our examination of fault lines. Eisinger jokingly commented that since he didn’t see Elon Musk in the room, he could safely assume that everyone in the room needed to draw an income and therefore were within the confines of the United States tax system. Later in the discussion Ernsthausen said he was surprised by the response to the story when he went on the radio in the Bay Area. He had assumed that since they were ‘liberal’ that the story would be well received, but the entrepreneurial optimism of Silicon Valley made the audience critical of the implication that unrealized gains should be taxed. 

To me, this is a design flaw in a capitalist system. The potential, however unrealistic, that we may one day be among the uber rich makes many people identify with them in ways that cause them to support policies and processes that are against their best interest. It defies logic to think that if the richest Americans paid taxes it would somehow disincentivize wealth. It blurs the income disparity fault line, and it’s not an accident. It’s the result of the rhetoric of corporations and wealthy individuals.

For instance, Exxon co-opting the concept of a carbon footprint to make the individual citizen feel complicit for global warming, as if the individual consumer has an equal amount of influence on the problem. The greater the disparities, the greater incentive to find ways to eschew responsibility, and our inability to account for this is a factor in the increasing wealth disparities we’re seeing now. The business of avoiding accountability through manipulation is as American as the stars and stripes. It’s capitalist propaganda meant to insulate the wealthiest from stories like this, and apparently it works.

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