Jeff Bezos and the Mega Rich Are Laughing at Us From Their Escape Pods
If America were a group dinner, the uber wealthy would be the ones ordering several of the most expensive items on the menu and then skipping out without paying the tab.
When ProPublica released a report on the raw tax data it obtained for the 25 richest Americans, its analysis of the never-before-seen data confirmed what many people had already inferred: Rich people’s tax burden isn’t nearly what low- and middle-income people’s tax burden is.
Elon Musk didn’t even pay income tax in 2018. Mike Bloomberg, Jeff Bezos, the Waltons, Carl Icahn, and Warren Buffett all tossed the government a few bucks but didn’t pay nearly what middle-income Americans paid. Meanwhile, as multibillionaires’ businesses were bailed out and propped up by the government and their own personal wealth grew, ordinary Americans paid about as much in annual taxes as they experienced in wealth appreciation, a pattern that kept them financially treading water, at best.
All this would be shocking if it wasn’t so predictable: If America were a group dinner, the mega-rich would order several of the most expensive items on the menu and then skip out without paying the tab.
The ProPublica report pointed out that the accounting trickery of the mega-wealthy is legal under U.S. tax law. Thanks to concepts like “unrealized gains,” loans taken out against assets, and provisions that allow heirs to step up the cost basis of inherited securities for tax purposes, any mega-wealthy person who pays much income or estate tax should probably fire their shitty accountant.
It seems the tax law was written to be gamed by the mega-wealthy. This leaves ordinary Americans to fend for themselves on their own little net worth hamster wheels—not really pulling ahead enough to be able to slow down, but not struggling enough to complain as all the wealth they could be amassing is siphoned off in taxes that in turn go to support a military that largely protects the interests of the mega-wealthy and social programs to supplement the sub-poverty wages of people who are not being paid enough by the mega-wealthy. The American system takes from the many for the obscene benefit of the few.
This week, Bloomberg (the publication, not the billionaire who owns it and hardly pays income tax) lamented that my generation—millennials—have but one last chance to amass wealth in time to comfortably retire. Where will this wealth come from? Nobody seems to know. Those of us without the benefit of generational wealth are shut out of many housing markets, burdened with student loan debt, and are downsizing planned family size or choosing not to have children altogether. And yet still—the fools!—we haven’t managed to max out our IRAs. All that girlbossing, rising and grinding, the no-days-off but kombucha on tap in the breakrooms, the girl, wash your face got us to here: One more chance to amass enough wealth to pay for a two-star nursing home until we’re poor enough for the Medicaid to kick in.
Millennials’ entire adult lives have been steady wealth transfers directly back to landowners, exploitative employers, and debtors, and we will work until we die so that Jeff Bezos can go to space.
It’s all very unfair and unwinnable, and the only people in positions to change anything systemic are themselves reliant on the system that must be dismantled in order for the status quo to improve. Economics, by Kafka.
This trio of news stories—how very cheap it is for the rich to grow richer, how millennials will never retire, and how billionaires will go to space—brought me back to the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since March 2020, soothing voices coming from American screens have been telling us that even amid all of the death and unpleasantness, at least we are together, kind of. We may be apart, but, in a way, we’re all looking at the same ads, over the same treacly music, for insurance or curbside Applebee’s pickup or Amazon. Together, apart. We are all on the couch. We are all not attending the World Series. We are all at the same canceled party. We are all wearing sweatpants. We are all not hugging our mothers. We are all receiving packages. This is happening to every one of us.
Ever since a People magazine’s worth of celebrities banded together to sing “Imagine” in their mansions like, five days into a 400-day-plus long lockdown, it’s been clear that there was never an agreed upon “we,” nor was there an agreed upon “this,” nor an agreed upon “together.” All of the aspirational togetherness, every hopeful “we” felt like a sinister obfuscation of the truth: “We” are a nation of disparate factions united only by the fact that we’re all being conned by the same people.
As the 25 richest Americans added $1.2 trillion to their wealth during the pandemic, over a million women left the workforce. At some point, before the people who struggled could amass enough anger to grab the pitchforks, the mega-wealthy disappeared into the night with the spoils, an Irish goodbye.
In light of all this, some Washington politicians’ sanctimonious push for “bipartisanship” is even more out of touch. The gap between wealthy and non-wealthy is so huge that there’s no possible “we” to be found here. There should be no compromise because there can be no compromise. It’s hundreds of millions of us, or 25 of them.