Trump, taxes, and me

Back in 2012 I wrote a post kvetching about the political discourse concerning taxes. The issue was about the income tax and, specifically, Romney’s infamous 47% comment. At the time, the debate focused on whether the people who don’t pay income tax remain invested in the system. Most people were implying “no”, but I argued that they still pay taxes, in the form of property, sales, and payroll taxes. The only difference is that when tax-day rolls around, they do not owe anything else and often get a refund. These other taxes, which pay for roads and schools, and the refund itself—which means that they prepaid the taxes and are getting it back—mean that they are still invested in the system.

Now it is 2016 and one of the presidential candidates is a) refusing to release his tax returns and b) defending himself against accusations. After the New York Times published a tax form that showed nine hundred and fifteen million dollars in losses and alleged it was Donald Trump’s 1995 filing, the Trump campaign put out a press release. In it they defended the allegation that Trump didn’t need to pay taxes for 18 years because of this one huge loss, pointing out that it was only the federal income tax that was exempted and that Trump has paid millions of dollars in sales/property/excise/etc taxes. (We’ll ignore the statement about charitable giving that is, by most accounts, at best an exaggeration.) In other words, it is okay that Trump doesn’t pay federal income tax because he pays other taxes, just like everyone else. Note that the release does not directly claim that Trump is smarter than other people for not paying taxes, as he did in the debate, nor does it suggest that the tax dollars would be wasted.

The claim in the press release should be familiar after reading the two paragraphs. Other than the scale, it is the same argument I put forward in 2012 to say that not paying income tax is not the same thing as not being invested in the system. Unlike in 2012, the question is never whether or not Trump is invested in the system. Trump’s not paying income tax does not mean that he is not invested in the system, pardon the negatives. Trump wants to be invested in the system so that he can work the system, as his campaign claims about his intimate familiarity of the tax code or the blunt statements that he made political donations to get a seat at the table.

Nor, I should add, am I saying that he should pass up loopholes in the system, though I would prefer to close some of these exemptions. Right now I am talking about optics and discourse. Trump’s statement makes only a vague argument from the tax code, with an ambiguous claim to fix(sic) it.

Trump’s defense for not paying income tax is the same one that can be used in defense of people without money. The concrete position is I pay other taxes, so why is it a problem that I get out of paying income tax?. It is this doublethink that is stuck in my craw: the fact that when people who can barely afford food and shelter don’t pay income taxes they lack buy-in to the system, while a very wealthy person who doesn’t pay income taxes and defends it the same way the poorer people should, it makes him smart. I don’t want to get into the value judgement about what is equitable, but this sort of benefit of the doubt is certainly a privilege of the wealthy.

I pay taxes.

This is a point that I would like both political parties in this country to grasp. It would be nice if a few of the talking heads on cable news and talk radio grasped the same concept. The reason that this is such a revelation is that in the hidden camera videos of Mitt Romney making casual and inflammatory remarks about poor people to rich donors he makes the comment that 47% of people in the United States pay no income tax and proceeds to use interchangeably “lower taxes” and “lower income tax.” This roughly parallels comments made in the past year by conservative pundits about nearly fifty percent of Americans pay no (income) tax and, therefore, are not invested in the American system. The only part of the system they are invested in is the welfare state and are merely dependent upon the state.

Leaving alone the comments in Romney’s speech about those people voting for President Obama merely because they are dependent upon the state and feel entitled to food and housing, the message Romney and pundits have been giving is that people who do not pay income tax (usually because they do not earn enough money to pay taxes–if they even have a job–or, alternately, because their income is well protected by offshore tax havens or they otherwise show a loss–people who likely will not vote for President Obama anyway) are not invested in the system, have little interest in the message of lower taxes (a fallacy), and will definitely vote for President Obama (also a fallacy).

The counter to these statements from the Democratic establishment is to immediately point out how wealthy the Republicans are and how the (income) tax policies only benefit those who already have money. This is done obliquely and manages to keep the debate about whether or not people do or should pay (income) tax.

There are kernels of truth to the debate, but I would like to take a moment to debunk one of the premises without actually getting at which political party I am likely to vote for this coming November. That is: I pay taxes.

This is only remarkable in this debate because, as a poor graduate student whose income hovers around subsistence level (and, yes, I feel entitled to food and housing), I do not pay the type of income tax usually discussed in this debate.1 Yet I do pay a payroll tax–that is to say, an interest free loan to the government that I am likely to get back at the end of every year (certainly investing me, and everyone else, in the system). I also pay both medicare and social security taxes, which I would like to get back at some point in my life. And those are just on my income.

I also pay taxes when I purchase gas or go out to eat. When I purchase books and school supplies. When purchase air-fare, pay tolls, or register my car. I When I purchase clothing and food.2 Anyone who has property pays property tax. Even if I get back the money I loaned the government at the end of the year, I still pay all of these other taxes, usually the more regressive taxes that hit people without money at a significantly disproportionate rate. I am also willing to pay these taxes and if, at some point in my life, I have enough money to owe taxes to the government, then I would be happy to do so (largely because it means my income would be higher than it currently is). In the meantime, I would like both parties to realize that my decision about which party I will vote for has little to do with how much money I currently possess or how much money I do or do not pay in income tax and, most importantly, that I do, in fact, pay taxes. We all do.

1That said, I have had to pay Missouri income tax most of the years I have lived here.
2I am in my fourth year in Missouri and this one still offends me.