Privacy and ProPublica

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?

33 thoughts on “Privacy and ProPublica

  1. Kirk A Taylor

    You know how Pissy you get when people blithely spew legal ignorance?
    That’s how I feel about tax ignorance and Pro Publica truly knocked that out of the park with this bullshit.

    1. B. McLeod

      The tv talking news faces sucked it up like it was gospel. I could only wonder how much of the “wealth” not reported as “income” by some of the named individuals was held and taxed in various contexts in trust or corporate entities.

      Everyone can only wonder. Pro Publica has exclusive control of the criminally-leaked data at this point. To the extent their characterizations of the returns are incomplete or outright false, no other media outlet has the ability to call them on it.

    2. Bryan Burroughs

      Just wait until they start fussing about how big their tax refunds were. The horror!

    1. Jeff Davidson

      I won’t post a link, but I was expecting Randy Newman’s “It’s Money That I Love”.

  2. Charles

    ProPublica: “If you can avoid income, you can avoid taxes.”

    Not only do they leave out the word “income” before the word taxes, this is a completely wrong use of the word avoid. If you avoid income, there is no income to tax and thus nothing to “avoid.”

    P.S. Wait till they find out how about much property tax I have avoided by avoiding buying that second beach house.

    P.P.S. Also the first beach house.

  3. Jay

    Man i bet if you write more of these worthless defenses of the super rich they’ll send you money Greenfield!

    1. Dan J

      Please submit your tax returns for the last 10 years, including all names, addresses, social security numbers, and bank routing numbers. I would like to conduct my own investigation into whether or not I feel like you are paying your fair share. When I conclude you are not, you may remit payment directly to me. Thank you.

  4. John Barleycorn

    If all tax returns were public… what would the kids think and more importantly WTF would happen to the weekly neighborhood happy hour BBQ gossip channel when everyone finally figures out who is writting off their private stash, and not sharing the top shelf booze, while watching the rotisaary meat of the week spin round and round over the fire….????

    Could be THE gateway to everyone, at long last, getting their head around compound intrest though, no?

    P.S. Did you ever hear the joke about the CDL who after years in the well wished he would have become a tax lawyer after having an affair with his Rabbi’s niece?

    P.S.S. How come you have never used abacus in a post headline???

  5. LongTimeLurker

    “centibillionaire”? I am sure Warren Buffet’s wealth is more than one-hundredth of a billion dollars.

    I guess this is what happens when the metric system is not taught in schools.

    1. Kathryn M Kase

      It was taught in the public schools when I was a fourth grader, back in the Dark Ages, but the populace objected because if the imperial system of measurement was good enough for King George, it was good enough for us. And that is one of the reasons why southern Italian drivers yell “Cornuto!” at US tourists who can’t figure out speed limits in kilometers.

    2. John Barleycorn

      Everyone knows that a good dictionary will set you back about $1,500.00

      But few people know that.

      1,000,000,000 ÷1,500 = 666,666.666666 which is a lot of dictionaries…

      Anyway, LTL, centi- (the word) goes both ways, with hundred, so never pick it as a safe word to use at the BBQ orgy afterparty.

      P.S. is it true that the reason lawyers fucked up the entire world has something to do with words being easier to bend than math-s or is it true that the mathmaticians fucked up the world because maths are easier to bend than words?

  6. Rengit

    ProPublica cynically makes the point about Sweden, Finland, and Norway, but income tax in those countries doesn’t have anywhere near the significance that it does in the US, because most taxes in those Scandinavian countries are paid through VAT, sales taxes, property taxes, etc. As such the filings in a personal income tax return in those countries would be less invasive, sensitive, and sensational than they are in the US, so it’s certainly not an apples-to-apples comparison; the only thing you’d likely learn is that rich people are rich.

  7. PseudonymousKid

    What are you even talking about? All I see is red. Immense wealth must be destroyed. I might as well end every post that way like my boy, Cato with Carthago delenda est.

    So I can’t get up in arms when PP publishes what otherwise is kept private. Someone who controls an outsized portion of the economy and other peoples’ lives should live in homes without roofs when it comes to their obligation to pay taxes at least. I’d bring up class consciousness, but that isn’t exactly useful when talking to a labor aristocrat who wants to protect the better life he’s been allowed to carve out. A spoonful of caviar helps the exploitation go down.

    PP jumped the gun a bit, fine. Sometimes a detective has to get his hands dirty when uncovering a conspiracy especially one this massive. Oh well. Fuck the bourgeois pigs soaking up the labor of us proles while contributing nothing of value. Let’s get this wealth tax party started. Don’t worry, Pops, you can keep the cars for now. We’ve got way way way way bigger fish to fry. Immense wealth must be destroyed or redistributed or whatever, you get the idea.

    1. Just Desserts

      Remember that the income tax started as a supposed small tax on the very richest Americans, and now we all pay it. The wealth tax is a bad idea on its own merits, but to think Congress would just sit around and not grow it like they have with every other tax is absurd. And then have fun figuring out how much every asset you own is worth, including your great grandmother’s wedding ring, every single year. Oh, and have fun paying a tax on your brokerage account, and then have it go down 10% a few months later.

      1. PseudonymousKid

        The proles have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Or so a more orthodox response would go. You’re worrying about a ring when certain citizens have more than enough money and power to field private armies. I don’t want your wedding ring, comrade, I want the means of production democratized. Whether a wealth tax would actually serve that purpose, I’m less sure, but my comment was mostly an excuse to poke fun at our host’s fondness for luxury goods, make jokes, and talk about Great x X grandpappy Marx’s ideas, so thanks for teeing it up again.

        Learning from history is important. We agree on that much.

  8. Steven Chung

    They supposedly have thousands of documents but didn’t disclose any of them. And they are also seeking additional tips. So that makes me wonder what documents they actually have.

    The article generally cites the same tax avoidance techniques that rich people have. So nothing new to that.

    And there are other reasons why some executives are taking low salaries. For example, Tesla had massive losses which could explain why Musk paid relatively low taxes in those years. But what would draw the bigger internet outrage, a billionaire taking a small salary supposedly as a tax dodge or one taking a large salary from a corporation that is losing money?

  9. Richard Parker

    They can’t even get the math right. The tax rate for the Warren Buffet is either 10% or 0.10. It is not 0.10% which would be a total tax of $125,000 ($125,000,000 * 0.001). But even that is wrong.

    I make $23.7m taxes paid / $125.0m total income reported as a tax rate of 19% or 0.19.

    They seem to be dividing the taxes paid by the wealth growth.

    1. Anon

      The whole point is to confuse its readers. What would our tax rate be according to the way they calculate it if we divided the taxes we payed each year by the sum of our home equity, 401k, college savings funds, etc.

    2. Dan

      “They seem to be dividing the taxes paid by the wealth growth.”

      That’s exactly what they’re doing, deliberately. Their math is right, they’re just lying.

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