Police the Plutocrats

Sam Pizzigati

Sam Pizzigati Editor, Too Much online magazine

Donald Trump’s White House wants to see local cops crack down on poor people who break federal laws on immigration. Why not a crackdown on the rich who scoff at tax laws?

Law enforcement officers should enforce the law. America’s hardliners on immigration really believe that. They want their local police out looking for “illegal immigrants” and actively helping the feds deport them.

Local police officials in many communities would much rather not. Kansas City chief of police Terry Zeigler, for one, doesn’t see deporting immigrants in his job description.

“Everybody wants to live the American Dream, that’s why they come here,” Zeigler observed. “And as long as they’re not committing crimes, we’re OK with that.”

Meanwhile, the super-rich, like the late tax-evading hotel heiress Leona Helmsley, tend to see themselves as above the law and beyond its reach.

Zeigler’s perspective, widespread in big-city police chief ranks, frustrates the officials that GOP President Trump now has running U.S. immigration policy. And new polling shows hefty swatches of the public share that right wing frustration.

The law’s the law, many Americans clearly feel. Local police can’t be allowed to pick and choose which laws they enforce. They need to start coming down hard on the dirt-poor people who violate federal immigration law.

But why? No one’s asking local police to enforce the federal laws that rich people break.

And rich people do break federal laws — most notably on taxes — all the time. America’s mega-rich regularly park their assets in offshore tax havens where their wealth can earn income that federal tax collectors can’t touch or even see.

This illegal tax evasion has been going on for decades. Alarm bells were ringing back in the late 1930s when Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau briefed President Franklin Roosevelt about the dummy offshore corporations wealthy Americans were starting to set up.

Those bells are ringing even louder today.

“The schemes to evade taxes have become more numerous and complex, the number of offshore jurisdictions with little or no taxes or responsible government supervision has increased, and the amount of taxes now evaded has grown in proportion,” as Morgenthau’s son, New York prosecutor Robert Morgenthau, put the matter a few years ago.

Economist Gabriel Zucman, now an assistant professor at the University of California at Berkeley, estimates the global rich have hidden away 8 percent of the world’s wealth, or about $7.6 trillion. They’re illegally saving themselves at least $200 billion a year in taxes.

Rich Americans figure to be doing a good bit of that saving: The United States hosts more $100-million fortunes than the world’s next nine richest nations combined. But we don’t know exactly how much.

The IRS does try to estimate how much in overall federal taxes owed goes unpaid. One academic analysis of the IRS data concludes that Americans reporting between $500,000 and $1 million of income yearly underpay their real incomes by a whopping 21 percent, triple the “misreport” rate of taxpayers making between $30,000 and $50,000.

What could local law enforcement in the United States be doing to get at this chronic law-breaking — by the rich — on federal taxes?

A few years back, officials in Italy, a country notorious for tax evasion, had law enforcement personnel swoop down on luxury ski reports and seaside spas to ferret out evidence of tax evasion. At one resort, police found 42 super luxury cars — average price, over $250,000 — registered to owners reporting less than $25,000 in income.

Local police in the United States could conceivably do likewise. On the highways, for instance, they could keep a special eye out for speeding high-priced luxury cars, then pass the driver data to the IRS for special audit attention.

America’s rich, and their benefactors in the Trump administration, would almost certainly erupt in immediate outrage at a crackdown along those lines. And we can well understand why. After all, to paraphrase the late tax-evading billionaire heiress Helmsley, everybody who’s anybody knows that “only the little people” should ever face crackdowns.


Sam Pizzigati edits Too Much, the online weekly on excess and inequality. He is an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. Last year, he played an active role on the team that generated The Nation magazine special issue on extreme inequality. That issue recently won the 2009 Hillman Prize for magazine journalism. Pizzigati’s latest book, Greed and Good: Understanding and Overcoming the Inequality that Limits Our Lives (Apex Press, 2004), won an “outstanding title” of the year ranking from the American Library Association’s Choice book review journal.

Posted In: Allied Approaches

Union Matters

Failing Bridges Hold Public Hostage

From the USW

From tumbledown bridges to decrepit roads and failing water systems, crumbling infrastructure undermines America’s safety and prosperity. In coming weeks, Union Matters will delve into this neglect and the urgent need for a rebuilding campaign that creates jobs, fuels economic growth and revitalizes communities.

The Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) gave the public just a few hours’ notice before closing a major bridge in March, citing significant safety concerns.

The West Seattle Bridge functioned as an essential component of  the city’s local and regional transportation network, carrying 125,000 travelers a day while serving Seattle’s critical maritime and freight industries. Closing it was a huge blow to the city and its citizens. 

Yet neither Seattle’s struggle with bridge maintenance nor the inconvenience now facing the city’s motorists is unusual. Decades of neglect left bridges across the country crumbling or near collapse, requiring a massive investment to keep traffic flowing safely.

When they opened it in 1984, officials predicted the West Seattle Bridge would last 75 years.

But in 2013, cracks started appearing in the center span’s box girders, the main horizontal support beams below the roadway. These cracks spread 2 feet in a little more than two weeks, prompting the bridge’s closure.

And it’s still at risk of falling.  

The city set up an emergency alert system so those in the “fall zone” could be quickly evacuated if the bridge deteriorates to the point of collapse.

More than one-third of U.S. bridges similarly need repair work or replacement, a reminder of America’s urgent need to invest in long-ignored infrastructure.

Fixing or replacing America’s bridges wouldn’t just keep Americans moving. It would also provide millions of family-supporting jobs for steel and cement workers, while also boosting the building trades and other industries.

With bridges across the country close to failure and millions unemployed, America needs a major infrastructure campaign now more than ever.


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There is Dignity in All Work

There is Dignity in All Work