Left Coast Voices

"I would hurl words into the darkness and wait for an echo. If an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight." Richard Wright, American Hunger

List of Shame: The 1%’ers Who Dodge Taxes

Let me be clear from the start: this post is not about all those who occupy (excuse the pun) the top 1% of our nation in terms of wealth. This is about those who pay taxes annually to the tune of $1. There are many who worked hard to amass their wealth and are incredibly philanthropic. As the director of a non-profit, I have been honored with many opportunities to meet and work with such people.

These generous people are propelled by a moral code and take a meaningful portion of their money and time to promote social justice issues, to support those in our society who need help – the elderly, the poor, the homeless etc., and provide cultural and educational opportunities that might not be business-viable without such support. This article is NOT about them. I am sure they pay their taxes, understanding that the services they receive – an army to defend them, a police force, fire and emergency response force, the roads they drive on, the street lights…do I need to go on?

But unfortunately there are those billionaires who seem to take pride out of not paying their taxes. These people manage to show a salary of $1. They include such individuals as Eric Schmidt and Larry Page (both Google), Steve Jobs (Apple) from 1997 until his death last year, Larry Ellison (Oracle) and Meg Whitman (Hewlett-Packard). And apparently, recently wed and start-up-turned-public Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook) is about to join this shameful club.

Ironically, these ‘poor’ folk might actually be eligible to receive the kind of government aid that is available for low-income populations. If they keep their personal income under $13,000 they would be able to apply for an Earned Income Tax Credit. While I am sure they won’t collect on this, I hope they appreciate that the taxpayers provide this safety net, but they probably won’t.

There are many ways to ensure that you can live the lifestyle of the super-rich, amass wealth, and not pay taxes. One of these, for example is to hold multiple home equity loans, which is (I think) borrowing money against the values of many of your homes and property. This is debt and therefore not taxable, but it is money for them to jet around and live the life they want. In a country where good folk are losing their homes (their only homes) to foreclosure, isn’t this ironic? There are many other ways and I am not the person to expound on them.

Let us assume that one day the Zukerbergs decide to purchase an island in the Caribbean. Most people who show an income of $1 might be more inclined to buy food, clothes, medical insurance etc., but someone with significant net worth need only cash in a few shares (Facebook anyone?) to make the purchase. For sure, he might have to pay 15% capital gains taxes, but ain’t life a bitch.

To be perfectly clear (once again), I do not resent these people their wealth. I have a deep respect for the philanthropists that I have a relationship with. But I believe in paying taxes and I want everyone who can afford it to pay their share and pay it with grace.

Those billionaires who take pride out of cheating (yes, cheating) our society out of their taxes are screwing not only those of us who pay taxes today, but also failing to help prevent the nation accumulate debt that our children will be saddled with.

For some reason, what hurts even more, is that these people are paying more money for financial advice that helps them avoid tax exposure than I earn in a year…before I pay my taxes.

I work hard for my salary and pay my taxes as I should. I have a right to be angry.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/ and on Twitter (@alonshalevsf).

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