Who Is Really “Looting” America?

Photo: Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images.

As thousands take to the streets to protest the death of George Floyd and other unarmed Black men and women killed by police and others, demonstrators are being vilified for acts of property destruction and vandalization. Current news broadcasts are an endless cycle of images and videos of damaged storefronts. The word "looting" is becoming part of a vocabulary used to describe protestors, alleging a level of violence that practically demands police intervention. But the so-called looters who are currently acting out during these protests are doing so in response to exactly that: the police-led violence and brutality that's meant the loss of countless Black lives all in the service of a white supremacist agenda.

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On Twitter, the conversation around looting took a different turn. While most Americans associate "looting" with property damage to well-known, heavily insured stores, the real looting of this country is not represented by an image of a shattered window of Chanel or a boarded-up Starbucks. It lives beyond the presumed "dangerous," curfew-inducing media story that's being peddled above George Floyd's name.

The looting of America is not the byproduct of protests, but rather it can be seen in our country's broken economic system, one that allows tax breaks for the ultra-rich, unchecked legislation that enables shareholders to get payouts even when the money comes from a federal bailout, and corporate double-dipping while employees lose their livelihood. 

This type of looting has a long history, but the coronavirus pandemic has only emphasized its impact, and shown clearly who the real looters are. Amidst this, the greatest public health crisis in the last century, 40 million people filed for unemployment and the federal government scrambled to find ways to bail out companies and bolster the economy. Within the CARES Act, a myriad of programs were introduced, one of which enables adjustments to tax law which alters what certain business owners are allowed to deduct from their taxes, with a goal of allowing companies to hold onto more money during a time of uncertainty.

And, because trickle-down economics is not much more than a nice idea rather than a reality, approximately 82% of the benefits from that tax law change go to people making $1 million or more annually. This means that 95% of the individuals who benefit make at least $200,000 a year, according to an analysis conducted by Congress’ joint committee on taxation.

While many Americans struggle to pay rent, our country's billionaires saw their fortunes rise by $434 billion during the lockdown between mid-March and mid-May, according to a report from Americans for Tax Fairness and the Institute for Policy Studies’ Program for Inequality. Even during what would be considered a wealth boom for millionaires and billionaires, President Donald Trump proposed a hold on capital gains taxes which almost exclusively benefits only the wealthiest of investors.

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Another policy within the CARES Act is the Paycheck Protection Program. In spirit, it is meant to aid small businesses with fewer than 500 employees by providing loans so they can maintain their payroll and hire back employees who were laid off. For some companies, that is exactly what it has done, but during the rollout of the program, about 80 percent of small businesses that applied did not receive loans. The money set aside for the program ran out in two weeks.

However, data from securities filings compiled by The Washington Post show that publicly traded companies with more than 500 employees have received more than $1 billion in funds from this program that, based on clearly stated requirements, they should not be qualified for. Several loan recipients were prosperous enough from the loan to pay executives $2 million or more. 

Other government subsidies offered to corporations allowed some companies to be bailed out without taking money directly. Instead, their money came from issuing bonds that are then purchased by the Federal Reserve. Because the companies were not accepting money in the form of a loan, they were not required to protect employees' jobs.

This professional-grade looting is not new. It is a time-honored tradition. Senator Bernie Sanders summarized the rampant problem on Twitter by sharing some staggering statistics. “The richest 400 Americans sit on $3 trillion — the size of the entire UK economy. The billionaire class now pays a lower tax rate than people living paycheck to paycheck,” Sanders writes. “The looting of America has been going on for over 40 years — and the culprits are the ultra-rich.”

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The real lesson Americans should be learning right now is that, just because it doesn’t involve broken glass, doesn’t mean it’s not looting. The most insidious and damaging kind of looting occurs in boardrooms and executive offices at the highest levels. When property is damaged and things are stolen, people suffer, And yet, only one version of looting is consistently rebuked publicly. Even though we should know by now that not all looters wear balaclavas — most do it in designer suits.

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