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John Nichols: I don’t care what Jeff Bezos does in space, as long as he pays his taxes here on Earth

John Nichols: I don’t care what Jeff Bezos does in space, as long as he pays his taxes here on Earth

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As the richest man in the world prepared to rocket into space, more than 150,000 Americans signed a petition that declared, “Do not allow Jeff Bezos to return to Earth.”

I have a hard time get excited one way or the other about the extraterrestrial travels of the billionaire class.

I’d just like Bezos to pay his taxes.

A ProPublica report published last month revealed that, “In 2007, Jeff Bezos, then a multibillionaire and now the world’s richest man, did not pay a penny in federal income taxes.”

It wasn’t like Bezos fell on hard times in the mid-2000s. According to Forbes magazine, his personal fortune increased by $3.8 billion in 2007. Yet Bezos somehow avoided taking a hit from the IRS.

“How did a person enjoying that sort of wealth explosion end up paying no income tax?” asked ProPublica. Well, the investigators explained, “In that year, Bezos, who filed his taxes jointly with his then-wife, MacKenzie Scott, reported a paltry (for him) $46 million in income, largely from interest and dividend payments on outside investments. He was able to offset every penny he earned with losses from side investments and various deductions, like interest expenses on debts and the vague catchall category of ‘other expenses.’”

But Bezos didn’t just get lucky in 2007.

“In 2011, a year in which his wealth held roughly steady at $18 billion, Bezos filed a tax return reporting he lost money — his income that year was more than offset by investment losses. What’s more, because, according to the tax law, he made so little, he even claimed and received a $4,000 tax credit for his children,” reported ProPublica, which added, “His tax avoidance is even more striking if you examine 2006 to 2018, a period for which ProPublica has complete data. Bezos’ wealth increased by $127 billion, according to Forbes, but he reported a total of $6.5 billion in income. The $1.4 billion he paid in personal federal taxes is a massive number — yet it amounts to a 1.1 percent true tax rate on the rise in his fortune.”

U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wisconsin, reviewed the Bezos numbers, along with those for other billionaires such as Elon Musk and Warren Buffett, and calculated that the time has arrived to “tax the rich.”

That’s the answer to the question of whether this country can afford to pay for the modest improvements in social welfare that are outlined in the $3.5 trillion budget proposal that President Biden and Senate Budget Committee chair Bernie Sanders advanced last week.

Of course there is enough money to add vision, dental and hearing care to Medicare, guarantee family and medical leave, expand home care and community-based services for the elderly and people with disabilities, and cut prescription drug costs. The same goes for proposals to extend the child tax credit and to provide universal pre-K programs for 3- and 4-year-old children. And to make higher education either free or more affordable for millions of students. And to increase nutrition assistance and funding for affordable housing. And to meet climate goals of 80% clean electricity and 50% economywide carbon emissions by 2030.

Doable. Doable. Doable.

The money is readily available, as Sanders said when he presented the budget plan that not only outlines ambitious spending proposals but also details the progressive tax policies that will pay for them.

Sanders did the math for us.

“For a very long time, the American people have seen the very rich getting richer and government developing policies, which allow them to pay, in some cases, not a nickel in federal income taxes,” he explained. “They’ve seen corporations make huge profits — in some cases, they’re not paying a nickel in taxes. And what this legislation says, among many, many other things, is that those days are gone.”

If Sanders is right, this will be a very popular budget with the American people. A Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted in January of 2020 found that 64% of voters agreed that “the very rich should contribute an extra share of their total wealth each year to support public programs.” That was before a year and a half of pandemic profiteering that saw the very rich get very much richer.

“Over the last 16 months, since the formal beginning of the pandemic lockdown, the combined wealth of 713 U.S. billionaires has surged by $1.8 trillion, a gain of almost 60%. The total combined wealth of U.S. billionaires increased from $2.9 trillion on March 18, 2020, to $4.7 trillion on July 9, 2021,” explains Chuck Collins, who directs the Program on Inequality and the Common Good for the Institute for Policy Studies.

Now, says Sanders, “The wealthy and large corporations are going to start paying their fair share of taxes, so that we can protect the working families of this country.”

That may force Jeff Bezos to curtail some of his space travel.

But it will allow the rest of us to make this corner of the Planet Earth a little more habitable.

John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. jnichols@madison.com and @NicholsUprising. 

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