This past Saturday, in cities across our nation, Americans rose up around the issue that brought our founding fathers to their feet and began a revolution: taxes. I’m proud that I, like tens of thousands of other Americans, followed in their footsteps and lent my voice to the countless others.
Our message is as simple now as it was back in 1776: Our current tax system is broken and undemocratic. It is absurd that the wealthiest in our society carry such a comparatively small share of the burden, while our working families — many of whom are just managing to make ends meet, or can’t even — struggle to pay their tax bills. Beyond the unbearably unequal and oppressive distribution of tax responsibility and subsequent hardship, it is appalling that our own president has been able to keep his tax returns in the shadows
Donald Trump has continually denied the American public the opportunity to know not only how much he pays in taxes, but also from where exactly his unknown and questionable fortune originates. Not to mention whether he is honestly working for the American people or on behalf of his foreign investments. All of this matters, not only from a practical standpoint, but from a moral one.
It matters that every American pays their fair share. It matters that we know the share of our president’s own responsibility. It matters that we have access to information about the president’s financial interests, as they undeniably serve to inform his priorities and loyalties.
Here’s why else people, including me, were marching this weekend.
Our nation does not take in enough revenue to meet the needs of the American people.
Imagine waking up every morning, worried that you could be drinking water poisoned with lead. Step into the shoes of a kindergarten teacher, responsible for a class of students who don't know how to read yet because they couldn’t go to preschool. Envision the horror of getting into a car accident because you couldn't swerve around a huge pothole in the middle of a decrepit highway. Put yourself in the position of a college student right now, dreading graduation because of the crushing load of student debt you have to carry. Or imagine that you are an employer purposely cheating your workers out of wages they’ve earned, because you know the Department of Labor is too understaffed to catch you.
These aren't hypothetical situations — these are realities for millions of Americans. Today. Right now. In the United States. All of these troubles have one immediate cause: Not enough public revenue is invested in the programs and services that improve people’s lives. It takes money to ensure the welfare of a nation’s people, and there’s simply not enough of it. And what money that does exist is being stripped, now more than ever, from the programs that support the people of this country.
Part of the problem is that the millionaires in Congress — and the wealthy super donors who elevate them to their positions of power — choose to allocate public money on defense and war, as opposed to investing in the public programs that strengthen our communities. In 2016, federal spending on everything that wasn’t defense, Social Security, or Medicare added up to just 3.3% of our GDP – the lowest share in 50 years. Since 2010, we’ve cut spending by $150 billion on these vital public programs that fund everything from vital scientific research and K-12 education to border security and highways.
But the main cause of this problem is that the United States takes in the least amount of revenue of any advanced nation other than Chile or Mexico. And because of that, we simply do not have the dollars to meet the needs of our people or the planet.
The wealthiest Americans are not helping to close that gap.
The other equally appalling reason why the United States fails to invest enough in our people and their needs: Wealthy individuals don’t pay their fair share of taxes.
Today, over $400 billion a year is missing being stolen from public coffers due to tax evasion by wealthy people.
Yes, that’s billion — with a b.
And those billions in tax evasion put a huge hole in our national budget. If wealthy Americans paid their fair share, the federal government would have about 12% more to spend. It’s also enough money to reverse cuts to our vital programs, as well as to clean our water systems, fix our bridges, send every kid to college debt-free, provide high-quality childcare for every parent who needs it — and much more.
Our President may very well be among them.
It’s quite possible Donald Trump is the poster boy for tax evasion by the rich. Of course, we won’t know until we see his returns, assuming that ever happens. But he did brag that paying no taxes “makes him smart.” And now he wants to give billionaires and millionaires — people like himself and most of his cabinet — more tax cuts so the richest among us can shirk their responsibility to care, educate, feed, and invest in Americans.
Unsurprisingly, Trump got nearly everything wrong when it comes to his position on taxes. When CEOs use loopholes and high priced accountants to avoid paying taxes, they are not just “playing the game” or “using the system to their benefit” — they are shortchanging the great people of our country. They are stripping our economy of one of the fundamental checks and balances that makes it work, that makes it possible for the entirety of America to self-sustain. Paying taxes does not make you a loser — it makes you an investor in the most precious resource of all, the diverse and vibrant people of America. When wealthy Americans bail on their tax responsibility, they aren’t just depriving other people of resources they need — they’re shooting themselves in the foot ultimately.
So, on Saturday, April 15, we stood together to say enough of the tax cheats. Enough with robbing from our future to line the pockets of those who are already wealthy. As Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, “Taxes are the price we pay civilization.” It’s time for us to invest in our future together, so that our civilization can meet America’s needs and fulfill all our aspirations.
Heather C. McGhee is President of Demos, a public policy organization working for an America where we all have an equal say in our democracy and an equal chance in our economy. You can find her on Twitter at @hmcghee, or follow along with Demos at @Demos_Org.