The wealthiest people in America. How little, at least as a percentage of wealth, they pay in taxes. What could possibly be more titillating? What could possibly prove how corrupt our tax structure is? What could possibly be wrong with ProPublica publishing it?
For one thing, it appears that their information was leaked from the IRS.*
ProPublica has obtained a vast trove of Internal Revenue Service data on the tax returns of thousands of the nation’s wealthiest people, covering more than 15 years. The data provides an unprecedented look inside the financial lives of America’s titans, including Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, Rupert Murdoch and Mark Zuckerberg. It shows not just their income and taxes, but also their investments, stock trades, gambling winnings and even the results of audits.
Thousands of people.
ProPublica is not disclosing how it obtained the data, which was given to us in raw form, with no conditions or conclusions.
One of the foundational expectations in filing tax returns is that they will remain confidential. Of course, many foundational expectations no longer apply, as leakers believe they are a law unto themselves and, if they feel a certain way, it relieves them from the duty to do their job and honor the law.
Maybe it will make them a hero. Maybe they believe the cause they serve is so just that no law should constrain them. With sufficient certainty of self-righteousness, there is no line that can’t be rationalized away. This isn’t an invitation to argue the point. Excuses for why the oppressed shouldn’t be entitled to do whatever their feelings dictate are the unduly passionate’s stock in trade. If they could monetize excuses, they could be rich too.
But this isn’t just about the “unfairness” of how tax laws work, but the thrill of exposing private information of the superwealthy
ProPublica reporters spent months processing and analyzing the material to transform it into a usable database.
Putting aside the qualifications of ProPublica’s reporters to analyze tax laws, they could have reported this without reporting the identities and specific numbers of any individual. Yet they not only did, but did with pointed detail.
No one among the 25 wealthiest avoided as much tax as Buffett, the grandfatherly centibillionaire. That’s perhaps surprising, given his public stance as an advocate of higher taxes for the rich. According to Forbes, his riches rose $24.3 billion between 2014 and 2018. Over those years, the data shows, Buffett reported paying $23.7 million in taxes.
Does this make Buffett a bad guy? There is no suggestion he’s evading taxes, so it would be false to suggest any wrongdoing, but does “riches rose” have anything to do with tax liability, even for a “grandfatherly centibillionaire”? So why name Buffett? Or Bezos, Soros, Musk and the others?
One of the billionaires mentioned in this article objected, arguing that publishing personal tax information is a violation of privacy. We have concluded that the public interest in knowing this information at this pivotal moment outweighs that legitimate concern.
Oh wait, ProPublica has “concluded”? This seems to be a recurring pathology. That the information may have been criminally leaked from the IRS is one thing (tacitly raising the question of whether, among those thousands of people’s private information, there might be tax returns with the name “Trump” at the top) doesn’t preclude its publication. It also doesn’t make its publication any more right than if ProPublica got its hands on your tax returns and posted them.
So why did ProPublica “conclude” the publication of this confidential information was acceptable?
It is now clear that there isn’t just one such taxpayer — there are many, in multiple industries. We believe that disclosing the identities of billionaires who paid little to no taxes in years their fortunes grew by billions of dollars will help readers understand the magnitude of the tax advantages the ultrarich enjoy.
We also believe that disclosure of specific figures about the tax returns of people like Jeff Bezos, Michael Bloomberg, Warren Buffett and Elon Musk will deepen readers’ interest and understanding of this complex and arcane subject.
Does “deepen readers’ interest” mean get more clicks, more donations, more public interest than the same information stripped of the delicious names of the wealthy? Hey, it works for the National Enquirer, right?
But there are some considerations that somehow fail to make it onto their whistleblower radar. First, these are private individuals. They aren’t governmental officials whose enjoyment of the tax code might suggest some conflicts to the detriment of the public they serve, itself a dubious proposition. Being rich isn’t a permission slip to give them a tax colonoscopy** or subject them to public outrage by people who fail to grasp that wealth isn’t the same thing as taxable income.
Our publication of this tax data comes at a possibly pivotal moment in America’s long, often contentious debate about the fairness of our tax system. The Biden administration has proposed raising a number of taxes to pay for additional trillions of dollars in government spending. So far, the conversation in Washington has been dominated by an issue long seen as central on Capitol Hill: whether to increase the top tax rate from its current level of 37% by a few percentage points. Such a change, as our story shows, would touch the richest hardly at all.
What this ultimately serves is to promote the concept of a wealth tax rather than a tax on income and gains because the wealthy are too wealthy and it offends some people’s sensibilities that while they struggle, others not only get richer but don’t give as much of their wealth to the government so it can be transferred to those who are suffering.
It’s a fair enough argument, whether you agree or not and even if it’s largely unsound. But it has been, and can be, made without revealing confidential tax information of private citizens, except then it wouldn’t be nearly as click-baity for the benefit of ProPublica, which has the cool red “donate” button on the top of its web page.
*In an attempt to make itself look “fair,” ProPublica notes that it gave its targets the chance to dispute the data it received.
Having said that, because it remains possible that not everything in our database is accurate, every person whose tax information was described in today’s story was given an opportunity to point out inaccuracies or omissions before the story appeared.
There was no option of “my information is private and fuck you.”
**ProPulica addresses this obvious problem:
Today, in Wisconsin, anyone can file a public records request to find out how much state residents pay in state taxes. Outside of the U.S., Sweden, Norway and Finland make public every citizen’s tax returns.
As goes Finland, so goes the world?