On June 8, ProPublica published an in-depth report revealing that American billionaires like Warren Buffett, Elon Musk, and Jeff Bezos pay little to no income tax. The story was substantiated by “never before seen” tax information obtained from the Internal Revenue Service that detailed how America’s wealthiest people manage to avoid paying their fair share via legal loopholes.
While the report does not disclose any illegal conduct by the listed billionaires – the report focused on American billionaires listed in Forbes’ 25 richest people in the world – it does blow several long-held American misconceptions about the ultra-rich out of the water; the first being that all Americans pay their fair share in taxes in each year.
In theory, the wealthiest Americans pay the highest tax rates. But the data revealed in the IRS documents shows that not only have there been several years when Bezos and company paid no income tax – yes, zero dollars in federal income tax – the wealthiest can get away with paying taxes that are only a tiny fraction of the hundreds of millions their fortunes grow by each year. The most alarming part of this revelation is that this extreme tax avoidance is all done through perfectly legal means.
The contrast in taxes paid by billionaires versus the average American is stark. Despite a massive collective growth in wealth among the richest people in the country in the past year, their collective rate of tax was only 3.4%. In contrast, according to The Tax Foundation, an independent tax policy nonprofit, the average individual income tax rate is 14.6%.
This report also challenged the concept of the “Good Billionaire.” Warren Buffett, one of the wealthiest people on Earth, has been a vocal proponent of higher taxation on the rich. However, the IRS data has revealed that Buffett is the worst offender of the listed tax-avoiding billionaires, paying a true tax rate of 0.1%.
Several mainstream news outlets fumbled in their coverage of the major revelations shared by the nonprofit outlet. Aside from overall scant coverage, outlets like FOX and NBC chose to focus on the legality of ProPublica obtaining the records rather than their shocking content.
CNN published a few op-eds expressing disgust at the actions of the mentioned billionaires and America’s loophole-riddle tax system, however, these were posted alongside articles detailing Jeff Bezos’ imminent trip into space.
Not surprisingly, the Washington Post – a paper owned by the richest man on earth, and one of the report’s main targets, Jeff Bezos – published an op-ed that was critical of ProPublica’s analysis of the revelations, referring to the ultra-wealthy as “winners” who would come out on top no matter what “neutral” tax laws were implemented. The piece, written by columnist Megan McArdle, argued, “‘people should pay taxes on untaxed capital gains’ is what you come up with if you just don’t think anyone should have enough money to be able to shoot themselves into space.’”
The opinion piece went on to argue that ultra-rich should not be penalized for amassing great wealth. However, it failed to mention the inequality of some people being rich enough to shoot themselves into space while others live paycheck to paycheck.
While these billionaires found technically legal loopholes to avoid taxes, there is something terribly wrong with a system that allows the wealthiest people in the country to avoid paying their share while the working people are taxed for everything.
Major corporate outlets like CNN and NBC have far larger audiences than nonprofits like ProPublica. Without an adequately informed public, calls for change will be feeble and easily overlooked. If mainstream media neglects to sufficiently cover this story, it might be complicit in furthering an iniquitous and unjust system.
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