The bracing reality that America has two sets of rules -- one for the corporate class and another for the middle class -- has never been more indisputable.
The middle class, by and large, plays by the rules, then watches as its jobs disappear -- and the Senate takes a break instead of extending unemployment benefits. The corporate class games the system -- making sure its license to break the rules is built into the rules themselves.
One of the most glaring examples of this continues to be the ability of corporations to cheat the public out of tens of billions of dollars a year by using offshore tax havens. Indeed, it's estimated that companies and wealthy individuals funneling money through offshore tax havens are evading around $100 billion a year in taxes -- leaving the rest of us to pick up the tab. And with cash-strapped states all across the country cutting vital services to the bone, it's not like we don't need the money.
You want Exhibit A of two sets of rules? According to the White House, in 2004, the last year data on this was compiled, U.S. multinational corporations paid roughly $16 billion in taxes on $700 billion in foreign active earnings -- putting their tax rate at around 2.3 percent. Know many middle class Americans getting off that easy at tax time?
In December 2008, the Government Accounting Office reported that 83 of the 100 largest publicly-traded companies in the country -- including AT&T, Chevron, IBM, American Express, GE, Boeing, Dow, and AIG -- had subsidiaries in tax havens -- or, as the corporate class comically calls them, "financial privacy jurisdictions."
Even more egregiously, of those 83 companies, 74 received government contracts in 2007. GM, for instance, got more than $517 million from the government -- i.e. the taxpayers -- that year, while shielding profits in tax-friendly places like Bermuda and the Cayman Islands. And Boeing, which received over $23 billion in federal contracts that year, had 38 subsidiaries in tax havens, including six in Bermuda.
And while it's as easy as opening up an island P.O. Box, not every big company uses the dodge. For instance, Boeing's competitor Lockheed Martin had no offshore subsidiaries. But far too many do -- another GAO study found that over 18,000 companies are registered at a single address in the Cayman Islands, a country with no corporate or capital gains taxes.
America's big banks -- including those that pocketed billions from the taxpayers in bailout dollars -- seem particularly fond of the Cayman Islands. At the time of the GAO report, Morgan Stanley had 273 subsidiaries in tax havens, 158 of them in the Cayman Islands. Citigroup had 427, with 90 in the Caymans. Bank of America had 115, with 59 in the Caymans. Goldman Sachs had 29 offshore havens, including 15 in the Caymans. JPMorgan had 50, with seven in the Caymans. And Wells Fargo had 18, with nine in the Caymans.
Perhaps no company exemplifies the corporate class/middle class double standard more than KBR/Halliburton. The company got billions from U.S. taxpayers, then turned around and used a Cayman Island tax dodge to pump up its bottom line. As the Boston Globe's Farah Stockman reported, KBR, until 2007 a unit of Halliburton, "has avoided paying hundreds of millions of dollars in federal Medicare and Social Security taxes by hiring workers through shell companies based in this tropical tax haven."
In 2008, the company listed 10,500 Americans as being officially employed by two companies that, as Stockman wrote, "exist in a computer file on the fourth floor of a building on a palm-studded boulevard here in the Caribbean." Aside from the tax advantages, Stockman points out another benefit of this dodge: Americans who officially work for a company whose headquarters is a computer file in the Caymans are not eligible for unemployment insurance or other benefits when they get laid off -- something many of them found out the hard way.
This kind of sun-kissed thievery is nothing new. Indeed, back in 2002, to call attention to the outrage of the sleazy accounting trick, I wrote a column announcing I was thinking of moving my syndicated newspaper column to Bermuda:
I'll still live in America, earn my living here, and enjoy the protection, technology, infrastructure, and all the other myriad benefits of the land of the free and the home of the brave. I'm just changing my business address. Because if I do that, I won't have to pay for those benefits -- I'll get them for free!
Washington has been trying to address the issue for close to 50 years -- JFK gave it a go in 1961. But time and again Corporate America's game fixers -- aka lobbyists -- and water carriers in Congress have managed to keep the loopholes open.
The battle is once again afoot. On Friday, the House passed the American Jobs and Closing Tax Loopholes Act. The bill, in addition to extending unemployment benefits, clamps down on some of they ways corporations hide their income offshore to avoid paying U.S. taxes. Even though practically every House Republican voted against it, the bill passed 215 to 204.
The bill's passage in the Senate, however, remains in doubt, with lobbyists gearing up for a furious fight to make sure America's corporate class can continue to profitably enjoy the largess of government services and contracts without the responsibility of paying its fair share.
The bill is far from perfect -- it leaves open a number of loopholes and would only recoup a very small fraction of the $100 billion corporations and wealthy individuals are siphoning off from the U.S. Treasury. And it wouldn't ban companies using offshore tax havens from receiving government contracts, which is stunning given the hard times we are in and the populist groundswell at the way average Americans are getting the short end of the stick.
But the bill would end one of the more egregious examples of the double standard between the corporate class and the middle class, finally forcing hedge fund managers to pay taxes at the same rate as everybody else. As the law stands now, their income is considered "carried interest," and is accordingly taxed at the capital gains rate of 15 percent.
The issue was famously brought up in 2007 by Warren Buffett when he noted that his receptionist paid 30 percent of her income in taxes, while he paid only 17.7 percent on his taxable income of $46 million dollars.
As Robert Reich points out, the 25 most successful hedge fund managers earned $1 billion each. The top earner clocked in at $4 billion. And all of them paid taxes at about half the rate of Buffett's receptionist.
Closing this outrageous loophole would bring in close to $20 billion dollars in revenue -- money desperately needed at a time when teachers and nurses and firemen are being laid off all around the country.
Hedge fund lobbyists are currently hacking away at the Senate's resolve with, not surprisingly, some success. And it's not just Republicans who are willing to do their bidding, but a number of Democrats as well. Indeed, it was a Democrat -- Chuck Schumer -- who led the fight against closing the loophole in 2007.
"I don't know how members of Congress can return home and look an office manager, a nurse, a court clerk in the eye and say 'I chose hedge fund managers instead of you and your family'," said Lori Lodes of the SEIU.
Nicole Tichon, of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, framed the debate in similar terms:
It's hard to imagine anyone campaigning on protecting hedge fund managers, Wall Street banks and companies that ship jobs and profits overseas. It's hard to imagine telling constituents that somehow they should continue to subsidize these industries. We're anxious to see whose side the Senate is on and what story they want to tell the American people.
Up until now, the story has been a familiar narrative of Two Americas, with one set of rules for those who can afford to hire a fleet of K Street lobbyists and a different set for everybody else. It's time to give this infuriating tale a different -- and far more just and satisfying -- ending.