WASHINGTON — Everyone hates paying taxes, especially those of the income variety.
The late Sen. Russell Long of Louisiana, who for 15 years served as chairman of the tax-writing Senate Finance Committee, famously assessed the public’s antipathy toward the institution as, “Don’t tax you. Don’t tax me. Tax that man behind the tree.”
Well, as of late, the “man behind the tree” may be Donald Trump, the Republican nominee for president, whose refusal to release his income tax returns has brought about speculation that he hasn’t paid any despite being one of the wealthiest men in the country. His silence on the accusation made by his opponent, Hillary Clinton, in last week’s debate seemed affirmation of the allegation.
If that’s the case, the question voters may want to ask themselves is whether they want a president in charge of tax policy who has been dodging the tax collector, even if it’s happened under legal circumstances.
It’s a paramount question that — combined his cavalier assertion that it was “good business” to capitalize on the 2008 recession — should give voters real pause in what has been an unusually turbulent campaign.
While most of us work hard, albeit mainly unsuccessfully, to narrow as much of our tax burden as the law allows, the superrich have tools to reduce their burden far more.
And when you’re talking about individuals who make the tax policies that keep our democracy afloat, it’s a whole different story. Of all the people involved in that effort, it’s the one who occupies the Oval Office who is most important. If that person also happens to be among the upper one-tenth of the 1 percent and has a record of thwarting the system, no matter how legally, we should be uneasy.
I once asked the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Abraham Fortas whether he felt uncomfortable about the fact his limited partnership with a handful of other jurists had provided him with deductions that wiped out any income tax. I wondered if that wouldn’t damage his credibility if he were asked to judge a major tax matter. I vividly remember his answer.
“Well,” he said, “I just sign what the accountants put in front of me. This job doesn’t pay any real money, so I don’t worry about it. When I did (in private practice), I cared.”
To say I was flabbergasted for a variety of obvious reasons would be a major understatement.
By the way, that was around 1968, and Fortas and his fellow high court jurists, some of whom also were beneficiaries of similar legal limited real estate partnerships offered to them by a wealthy Washingtonian, were making $60,000 yearly (except the chief justice who made $60,500) — far ahead of what the average middle class citizen was earning. I personally was in the $20,000 bracket and thought I was doing quite well.
There is nothing that could force Trump to release his returns, but precedence and Clinton’s willingness to release hers would have nudged most other presidential hopefuls into taking the action.
What has come to light, however, are some details about Trump’s foundation operations that have raised questions about his charitable giving claims.
When a presidential candidate or any candidate for public office, for that matter, is reluctant about making public his financial dealings, it is naturally suspicious. Trump, as a successful businessman, falls into a category of the superrich who conduct transactions voters might find troubling.
Certainly that is true in New York real estate, where some unsavory characters have had a strong presence in the building trades, and dealing with them has become a routine matter of doing business.
But again, the thought of a president who is talking taxes to the rest of us while not having kicked into the giant pot of money it takes to make our country run is more than a little off-putting. Perhaps he should pledge not to accept a salary if elected. It wouldn’t amount to much, a mere $400,000 or so. That way, he could at least contribute and make up, at least a little, for stiffing his fellow citizens otherwise.
All this reminds me of the fact that accountants for Elvis Presley begged him at times to take advantage of the legal loopholes available to him. It would have saved him millions. He demurred on the basis that the patriotic thing to do was to pay for the privilege of his success.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Dan Thomasson is an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service and a former vice president of Scripps Howard Newspapers. Readers may send him email at: [email protected] .
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