Tax Avoidance is un-American, un-Athenian, Just Plain Uncivilized

Classic statue of Socrates

Taxing the rich can be traced back to ancient history. Professor Thomas Martin of the College of the Holy Cross writes that going back to Athens 500–400 B.C., the richest 1 percent were taxed directly on their wealth and this was a tax used “to fund the city-state’s most important national expenses — the navy and honors for the gods.” In sharp contrast to today, however, ancient Athenians would actually brag about paying the taxes they owed. It provided esteem and social capital that was valued more than money.

Fast-forward to 1790, and George Washington wrote in a letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, “For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.” Translated to modern English, it is a requirement of citizens who benefit from the protection of the United States to in return support the government in equal measure.

Ancient Greece and early America hardly seem like moral paragons today–large parts of both their populations were enslaved. Yet somehow even they had some glimmer of understanding that the comfortable owed their comforts to their broader society. It is jarring when comparing the 1-percenters in ancient Athens and the United States’ very first president to the nation’s 45th who boasted that his ability to avoid paying taxes made him “smart.” His sole responsibility was to make himself and his partners rich, so the argument went, and he claimed to be really good at it.

In 2019 the Business Roundtable comprised of “CEOs of America’s leading companies” released a statement redefining the purpose of a corporation. In it, they recognized that the principal focus on creating value for their shareholders was incomplete, and they had a responsibility to all their stakeholders including customers, employees, suppliers, and the communities in which they operate. If they wrote this in old English, it would parallel with Washington’s 231-year-old sentiments about the requirements of those who “live under” the United States’ protection.

Perhaps it would have been better for them to write it in old English. The words ring hollow once you realize that 10 of the corporations that signed on to this statement paid $0 in federal income taxes on nearly $9 billion in profits in 2020. The corporations include FedEx, HP and Salesforce to name a few.

This revelation is part of a larger study by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, which uncovered that at least 55 of the largest profitable corporations in the United States paid nothing in federal income taxes in 2020. In many cases, they even received a rebate. In fact, 26 of these companies were profitable in the first three years of the Trump-GOP tax law and paid a total of $0. Instead, they enjoyed $77 billion of pretax U.S. income that resulted in a combined tax rebate of $4.6 billion.

While these corporations benefit from the educated workforce that makes them profitable, the roads, bridges, ports and other infrastructure that transports their goods, the monetary policy that stabilizes the marketplace and the military that protects it all, they pay nothing. This is not smart. This is unpatriotic, deadbeat capitalism of which both the ancient Athenians and President Washington would be ashamed.

Tax Takes from Citizens for Tax Justice here. CTJ is a partner in the movement for transformative change. Find out more at http://ctj.org