I’m furious. Why? My income taxes went up while corporate taxes and those of millionaires and billionaires went down. How do I know? This realization has nothing to do with the size of my refund – I know refunds vary with how much money was withheld and that my withholding may have been adjusted with the passage of the new tax law. No, my tax preparer provides three columns for me to examine – my income, deductions and tax totals for the last three years. And while my income and deductions have remained static, my federal tax has gone up. I find this incredible – we are just barely clinging to middle class status and here I’m being dinged for more money to fund our reckless and wasteful military and provide more billions for Israel, while corporations, the wealthy and ultra wealthy are contributing less.
As I noted in my article on taxes, we were scammed by the Republican “tax reform” law – the “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act”. This law not only reduced taxes on corporations and the wealthy but even further reduced the estate tax (oh, how Republicans enjoy calling this the “death tax”) and actually abolished the alternative minimum tax, which previously had prevented many wealthy taxpayers from escaping the income tax altogether. So certainly the hideous grin of Texas Representative Kevin Brady, one of the major authors of the law, the joy of then “Squeaker” of the House “Lyin’” Paul Ryan, the delight of our “chinless wonder” Senate Majority Leader and the braggadocio of our grotesque lying president were well placed – lots more money for their wealthy friends and less for the middle class, despite their disingenuous claims to the contrary. And filing your tax return on a postcard? Another lie. Oh well, we all knew what this tax bill really was, didn’t we?
And to make me boil with rage and helplessness even more, can you imagine how I felt reading that Netflix, fresh from its best year ever – the most subscribers, the highest profits the company has ever had – $845 million, paid no federal or state taxes at all. In fact, Netflix received a $22 million rebate from the IRS. And to add insult to injury, one of the world’s most valuable corporations, owned by the world’s richest man, I’m talking about Amazon here, not only paid no taxes on income of almost a billion dollars, but actually collected a refund from the IRS. Specifically, the company virtually doubled its profits in 2018 from $5.6 billion the year before to $11.2 billion and for the second year in a row did not pay a single penny in federal income tax. In fact Amazon reported federal income tax rebates for 2017 and 2018 totaling almost $270 million. What’s going on here? What kind of a country is this?
And perhaps you can share my anger when you see that Amazon and Netflix were but two of many huge and profitable corporations that paid no Federal tax last year. The revelations in this article from ITEP (Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy) really upset me. Not only are its facts surprising and shameful but they underscore another Republican lie concerning this terrible tax bill – that, while corporate taxes were to be reduced, loopholes would be plugged. Nope, the loopholes are still there, as this article clearly indicates. And the number of profitable corporations paying zero taxes has dramatically increased.
Also, while we are talking about taxes, I should mention that bipartisan legislation is now being considered in our Congress to make it illegal for the IRS to provide programs to enable taxpayers to file their taxes for free. It would be so easy for this agency to virtually complete the returns for most taxpayers, as is done in most developed countries. After all, the IRS already has our salary and withholding information and practically all deductible figures are sent from the banks and mortgage companies directly to the IRS. Well now, despite the IRS having virtually all of the information required to file a tax return for most taxpayers, the Congress, instead of letting the IRS make this process easy and inexpensive for us, is guaranteeing profits for H & R Block and for Intuit, the maker of TurboTax. So it’s clear that the lobbying efforts and campaign contributions of these two tax preparation companies have really paid off. Tell me that this isn’t a “quid pro quo”. Oh, and incidentally, H&R Block’s new CEO Jeff Jones will collect a $995,000 annual salary and a $950,000 signing bonus to join the Kansas City-based tax preparation company. Plus bargain stock purchase options.
And if these revelations were not enough to provoke paroxysms of anger and rage I sat down a couple of months ago to pay my auto insurance bill on two cars. As AARP members and elderly retirees, we insure both of our cars, a 2016 Honda HRV and a 2009 Toyota Corolla (now replaced by a car of similar value, a 2008 Ford Taurus), with The Hartford, assuming we are getting the best rates. Well, despite accident-free records, both drivers a year older and the cars a year older, I found that our insurance rates had increased. Again enraged and upset, I called Hartford to inquire and was given some nonsense about accident rates, repair and replacement cost algorithms and so on that had “forced” them to increase their rates. Right, and still angry I looked up the salary of the “president” of The Hartford, whose printed signature was all over my policy papers. Douglas Elliot’s salary is $8 million per year. But he’s not the highest paid executive at this ripoff insurance company. Hartford CEO Christopher Swift makes $13 million per year. And The Hartford paid annual dividends of $1.20, 2.5 percent of the stock price, pretty good for its wealthy shareholders. And of course these dividends are taxed at long-term capital gains rates depending on your bracket (federal rates are 0%, 15%, or 20%). A chunk of my meager income was taxed at 22 percent.
Why is it necessary to pay executives like this? What exactly do they do that makes them so valuable? Either salaries like these need to be reduced to make them line up with executive salaries in the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s or they need to be taxed away with rates that also existed then. And when discussing this, let’s stop using pejorative terminology like “soak the rich”, “tax the wealthy” and “raise taxes on the rich”. We should use more neutral terms like “paying their fair share”, “progressive taxation” or “restoring taxation to 1950-1970 levels”.
And while I have touched on the auto insurance problem in this great country of ours, I’d like to say a few more things about it. Have you ever wondered how much auto insurance companies pay for their plethora of TV ads? Well right now they invest over $5 billion a year on advertising, instead of using that money to reduce rates. Yes, your rates pay for “Mayhem” and “Good Hands” from Allstate, “Flo” from Progressive, the “We know a thing or two because we’ve seen a thing or two” from Farmers and of course, our winner, the clever ads from Geico, to which this one company devotes over $1 billion per year. And yes, we pay for all those ads with our swollen insurance premiums.
While living in Kuwait from 1996 to 2000, I was pleasantly surprised by how inexpensive insurance for our car was. As I recall, we paid about $50 a year for our insurance. Why? The entire program was administered by the government. There were no private companies advertising and “competing” for our business; no one making profit or seeking to “increase profit”; no CEO’s pulling in multi million dollar salaries; no stockholders; no advertising; there was no one “at fault” in a collision (the police took care of that and assessed appropriate penalties) and there were no “ambulance chaser” personal injury lawyers. There was just a single, simple state-run company providing an essential service to the people of Kuwait. If you were in an accident, the state insurance company paid to have your car and you fixed and the other guy and his car repaired. Simple. You know, auto insurance…. and home insurance….and medical insurance….in fact all insurance, should be non profit and state run. And yes, if this is socialism then God bless socialism. Private enterprise, profit, stockholders, TV ads and multi-millionaire CEO’s should have no role in enterprises necessary for the public good.
And a couple of other issues in the news lately deserve comment and a dose of outrage – first, the situation in Venezuela. The problems in Venezuela are not the result of “socialism”, as our president and his supporters would have us believe. The major problem is corruption, which ought to be up to the people of that country to address. And the other problems are the result of cruel economic sanctions instituted by the United States which have destabilized the country and have hurt the people of Venezuela far more than has its political corruption. Nicholas Maduro, who appears to be successfully hanging on to power, was elected president by the people of Venezuela. The imposter, “head of the opposition” Juan Guaido, was not. Yet this pretend head of state has been feted and awarded legitimacy by the likes of Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Pompeo and is presently seeking “direct communications” with Pentagon officials with the goal of establishing greater military ‘coordination’ with the United States”.
The US conveniently forgets that the policies of the revolutionary governments of Hugo Chavez and his successor Maduro were embraced by the common everyday people of Venezuela who elected them. American efforts to “restore democracy” to the people of Venezuela are thinly veiled schemes to restore the country’s vast oil reserves to the multi-national oil companies who were thrown out of the country with the accession of Chavez. Head “regime change” hawk, national security adviser and “Mustache of Doom” John Bolton stated unequivocally for Fox News – “It will make a big difference to the United States economically if we could have American oil companies invest in and produce the oil capabilities in Venezuela.” Oh, and creepy convicted war criminal Elliott Abrams has been resuscitated and appointed Special Representative for Venezuela to coordinate the efforts to destabilize the country with sanctions, starve the Venezuelan people and make sure that quisling Juan Guaido becomes president and the multi-nationals pump and profit from the oil instead of the state. Nice. By the way, until he named himself president, 81 percent of Venezuelans didn’t even know who Guaido was. And he won his own assembly seat with only 26% of the vote.
And regarding Michigan Representative Ilhan Omar – I cannot believe how courageous this young lady has been in the face of the massive onslaught by corporate media, especially Fox News, and pro-israel members of Congress. All Representative Omar has done is tell the truth, unfortunately a truth that we are not accustomed to hearing in Congress or in the media. She has criticized the power of AIPAC, which does have the power and has used it to bring down members of Congress who have dared criticize Israel. Representative Omar has dared imply that it’s “the Benjamins” that our politicians covet while sucking up to Israel. Again – the truth. It is likely that the the money of billionaire Israel acolyte Sheldon Adelson was responsible for the election of Donald Trump – a massive last minute ejection of millions of dollars into crucial states.
Mark my words – as we speak, money is being accumulated and targeted to “primary” Representative Omar, and to consign her to the ranks of others who have dared criticize Israel – Senators Max Cleland, Adlai Stevenson III and Charles H. Percy; Representatives Pete McCloskey, Cynthia McKinney, Earl F. Hilliard and Paul Findley. Want the full story?- read Findley’s book, “They Dare to Speak Out: People and Institutions Confront Israel’s Lobby”. And the latest AIPAC casualty, distinguished award winning journalist and filmmaker Leslie Cockburn who with her husband, journalist Andrew Cockburn, had written a book critical of the US/Israel relationship, lost in her 2018 campaign to represent Virginia’s Fifth Congressional District after being accused of “virulent anti-Semitism”. She was beaten with significant help from Jewish organizations by nonentity distillery owner Denver Riggleman whose only claim to fame was “Bigfoot Erotica”. In her and Mr. Cockburn’s 1991 book, “Dangerous Liason: The Inside Story of th3 US – Israeli Covert Relationship” Ms. Cockburn had committed the cardinal sin of being critical of Israel.
How dare someone like New York Representative Eliot Engel, himself, as an Israeli citizen, a walking attestation of Omar’s suggestion of a “dual loyalty” problem among some members of Congress and many in our government, accuse her of “anti-Semitism”. This is the problem – the reaction of so many Jewish politicians, full of bristling paranoia, crying antisemitism at every little criticism of Israel or its mighty US lobby, AIPAC. The whole Ilhan Omar controversy is simply a perfect example of the old maxim “the truth hurts”…..for some people. And thank you, Representative Omar, for being brave enough to share that truth.
Well, AIPAC is right, their massive operation – a staff of 200 lobbyists, researchers and organizers; a $47 million annual budget; 100,000 grass-roots members, almost double the number of five years ago; and a recruitment drive on 300 college campuses – is for lobbying only – the organization itself does not give directly to candidates. But…AIPAC does marshal the donors, obtain the commitments and makes sure the collected totals get to the right people. AIPAC is probably the most successful and efficient “bundler” of campaign dollars of any lobby in Washington. As noted in a recent Haaretz article “AIPAC mobilizes an army of supporters who are inclined to support pro-Israel candidates with their votes, time and money” and “trained its activists to cultivate friendly lawmakers by donating to their campaigns and campaigning for them.” So, Representative Omar is absolutely correct – it is about the Benjamins, baby. And the “Benjamins” keep coming. At one recent AIPAC dinner in Boston a minimum of $5 million was raised in a single evening.
And how successful is AIPAC’s lobbying effort? According to Josh Block, spokesman for the premier Israeli lobbying group, getting in to see Congressmen “is like pushing at an open door.” And guess what, there’s even an AIPAC chapter here in my own home city of Phoenix, headquarters of the Southern Pacific Region. They even held a formal dinner in Phoenix which I would have liked to attend but didn’t get my invitation. It was likely lost in the mail.
Oh and by the way, most Americans don’t know that AIPAC is probably operating illegally – it really should be registered as an agent of a foreign government. In a remarkable Huffington Post article published a couple of years ago, journalist M. J. Rosenberg makes the strong case that AIPAC is violating US law by not registering as a foreign agent.
The author reminds us that the “abnormal” spectacle of prominent politicians from both parties echoing the unseemly sentiments expressed by Vice President Mike Pence -“every freedom-loving American stands with Israel because her cause is our cause, her values are our values and her fight is our fight”- directly violates the principles promoted by none other than George Washington in an incredibly prescient passage from his Farewell Address – “…a passionate attachment of one nation for another produces a variety of evils...” and so on. Every word, written long ago in 1797, seems to predict and indict and rebuke our tolerance and veneration for Israel and its AIPAC lobby.
Presently every foreign nation that lobbies in Washington must register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act…..except Israel. And why is Israel the privileged exception? Well, Mr. Rosenberg reminds us that AIPAC’s founder came up with a legal trick – he defined AIPAC “not as a lobby for a foreign state but for Americans who support that state”. This is a spurious distinction, to be sure, but is evidently sufficient to allow AIPAC to meddle in our elections, fund or defund candidates and take a stand on crucial US foreign policy issues with absolute impunity.
And you can be absolutely sure that if Congress or the President would try to withdraw this privilege and treat Israel like any other nation with a promotional presence in Washington, the cries of anti-Semitism would be deafening.
More about word choices
And before I conclude this article I would like to add a bit more to my prior observations about how we choose our words. The media seems to choose carefully when describing wealthy people of different countries. Here in the US, we commonly use “billionaire” or “successful businessman” to describe certain individuals like Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos. But it’s always “Russian oligarchs”, not “Russian billionaires” or “successful Russian businessmen”.
And when we describe armies and government departments that oversee the military, we choose our words selectively as well, depending on what’s being described. The third most powerful military in the world that has fomented violence on defenseless civilian populations, illegally and violently occupied “captured” territory and violated the borders and airspace of other countries hundreds of times is called the “Israeli Defense Forces”. Controlling the US’s 700 military bases around the world and dividing the entire world into “commands”, starting unprovoked wars and “military actions” in dozens of places in the world is the US “Defense Department”. What “defense” – who’s attacking us, pray tell? At least Germany and Japan were honest in World War II. Japan called its armed forces “The Imperial Japanese Army, Navy and Air Forces” – no “defense” at all. And Germany’s “Luftwaffe” translates to “air force” pretty straightforwardly, but its “Wehrmacht” does translate into “defense force”. Hmmm – some defense force. However, the highest level did not mince words – Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW), “High Command of the Armed Forces”. Nothing there at all about “defense”.
And take a look at how we discuss what I would call a man fighting to defend his family and reclaim his house and homeland against tyranny and occupation – a freedom fighter. But it’s never a Palestinian freedom fighter – instead it’s always “Palestinian terrorist” or “Palestinian militant”. Or in other countries subjected to American hegemony, like Afghanistan or what’s left of Iraq, such a person, fighting for his family and home and his own agency is not a freedom fighter or a patriot but an “insurgent”. And I think I mentioned in my article about “shared values” between the US and Israel how inappropriate it is to describe the land thieves, the serial violators of international law who have stolen and continue to steal Palestinian land “settlers”. Please – this word connotes courageous clearers and tillers of wild untamed land – “pioneers” as it were. These interlopers, generously subsidized and protected by the state of Israel and their international supporters, are thieves, pure and simple, not “settlers”.
Jeffrey St. Claire writes in a recent issue of CounterPunch: On Saturday, Sacramento DA Anne Marie Schubert announced that her office would not bring charges against the two police officers, Terrence Mercadal and Jaren Robinet, who shot and killed an unarmed Stephon Clark in his grandmother’s backyard last March. Clark was shot 20 times. He was holding a cellphone. The decision is appalling, bur scarcely surprising. Between 2005 and 2017, there were more than 13,000 fatal shootings by police, but only 80 cops were ever charged with manslaughter or murder. Of those 80 charged, only 28 were convicted of a crime. And for more on this issue you should read the following article from the same journal