I recently got a chance to co-facilitate a workshop designed by Wealth for the Common Good (they’re organizing rich people to fight for fairer tax policy) about wealth, taxes, and inequality. It was an awesome workshop and gave me the chance to a) get very in touch with how totally ignorant I am about basically anything having to do with taxes (and learn tons preparing for the workshop) and b) agonize over some frustrating political questions that I still don’t know how to think about.
So here’s the thing: the entire U.S. tax system is set up to maintain and increase incredible, horrifying wealth inequality. Income tax is hardly progressive; work (income from a paycheck) is taxed at a much higher rate than wealth (income from investments); inheritance taxes are minimal and under attack from rich conservatives who believe that freedom means the freedom for really rich people to get really REALLY rich. Learning the details of all of this stuff is enraging and really illustrates how tax policy is a major contributing factor to all the forms of structural violence and inequality that we fight against.
So what’s the solution? Wealth for the Common Good has a campaign to make rich people pay more taxes, which seems like a good idea. I obviously don’t believe that anyone should be allowed to accumulate massive wealth even in the best of times; right now, in a recession that’s causing widespread poverty and cuts to already insufficient public resources everywhere (here in Philly, we just barely avoided passing a “Doomsday” budget that would have resulted in the layoff of 3,000 city employees and forced the closing of every single public library in the city), taxing the rich more seems like an important and obvious thing to fight for.
Except, the government already has lots of money, and is using it for war. And occupation. And policing and incarceration, and a long list of other things that are incredibly objectionable. Money for public services has been scarce since Reagan – not for lack of funds, but because cutting social spending (and privatizing everything) is a basic tenet of neoliberal capitalism. People aren’t fighting universal healthcare because the government can’t afford it; they’re fighting it because anything resembling a social safety net has been practically criminalized.
I get that taxation is essentially the only real mechanism for wealth redistribution that exists in our current structure. But I guess when I talk about wealth redistribution (the involuntary kind, not philanthropy), I’m more thinking about socialist revolution – not directing more money towards the federal government of an imperialist superpower.
The tax system does seem like an important (and often overlooked) target for economic justice struggles – I’m just having a hard time wrapping my head around the contradictions. Will the fight to get rich people to pay slightly more in taxes have a major effect on wealth disparity that will impact other things in positive ways? Are there other ways to accomplish the same goal of reducing wealth disparity that don’t also fund the military and police? How does a campaign around tax policy intersect with critiques of capitalism and imperialism?
Is there a simpler (or more complex) way of thinking about taxes and economic justice that is less fraught with political ambiguity?