Mother Jones: You write in your book that we have what amounts to a flat tax in this country - that the rich pay the same percentage of their income in taxes as the poor do. People would be very surprised to hear that. How do you figure?Johnston goes on to describe the myriad ways in which the rich avoid paying taxes through loopholes, shelters and deferrals, and then explains why Congress seems to lack the courage to fight for fairer tax laws.
David Cay Johnston: Politicians like to talk about the income tax when they talk about overtaxing the rich, but the income tax is just one part of the total tax system. There are sales taxes, Medicare taxes, social security taxes, unemployment taxes, gasoline taxes, excise taxes, and when you add up all of those taxes [many of which are quite regressive], and then you look at how they affect the rich and the poor, you essentially end up with a system in which the best off 20 percent of Americans pay one percentage point more of their income than the worst off 20 percent of Americans.
There are a lot of politicians who want to do this. But they run into this falsehood that has been inculcated into a lot of Americans that a progressive income tax is some kind of lefty scandal. Progressive tax of any kind is the most conservative principle in western civilization. Indeed, it is the very principle upon which democracy began in Athens 2500 years ago: Those that get the greatest economic benefit from living in a civilization should bear the greatest burden of maintaining that civilization. Now that's not to defend the current system we have. It is a complete and indefensible mess, and so there are people who want to fix it. But you can't fix it if everyone sees these things through a lens that's based on a lie.Taxes are simply the price of civilization according to Johnston.
There is no America without taxes. The question isn't, "Do we want to have taxes?" The question is, "How heavy is the burden, and who bears that burden?"And corporate America isn't bearing as much of the burden as one might think. "Sixty-one percent of large corporations paid no federal income taxes for the five-year period from 1996 to 2000," according to Johnston. He also maintains that our high taxes are just a result of our success as a nation, and that "wealthy countries have high taxes because wealth requires lots of common goods, from clean water to public education to a justice system."
Johnston believes we need to do more than simply change tax laws, we also need an attitude adjustment:
The important issues are the principles they figured out in [ancient] Athens - that the greater the economic gain that you derive from living in a society, the greater the burden of the taxes you should bear. Because if not for that society you could not become wealthy. We live in a society that is all I, I, I, I. That's the culture of the CEO. I did this, I did that. I should get one-third of all the stock options in this company I lead with 37,000 workers because I got them to work so hard.Well said!
But the fact is you didn't do it, 37,000 people did it and you steered the ship. We need to realize in our tax system is that we are a society. This libertarian idea that says, "I'm responsible for everything that happens to me" - no, you aren't. Taxpayers educated you, taxpayers paid for the clean water that kept you from dying when you were a child, society created the peace that allowed your business to thrive. The tax system is how we distribute the burdens of maintaining that society. [Emphasis mine.]
What has happened is very, very wealthy people have looked at the system and decided that they can co-opt it. They figured out that ordinary Americans are so busy working to support themselves or paying attention to Paris Hilton and Jennifer Lopez and baseball that nobody will dig in to see how they made the system work for them. And I don't fault them for that, there is nothing wrong with people advocating for what they want from their government. The problem is when nobody pushes back.