Features » February 27, 2012
Oligarchy in the U.S.A. (cont’d)
The U.S. Wealth Defense Industry
The threats to wealth that oligarchs face, and want to overcome, create the enormous profit-making opportunities that motivate the wealth defense industry, or WDI. In American oligarchy, it consists of two components.
The first is the mercenary army of professionals – lawyers, accountants, wealth management agencies – who use highly specialized knowledge to navigate 72,000 pages of tax code and generate a range of tax “products” and advice, enabling oligarchs to collectively save scores of billions of dollars, every year, that would otherwise have to be surrendered to the state. While most of us are what I call “TurboTaxpayers,” buying cheap tax software to navigate our returns and make routine deductions, oligarchs purchase complex “tax opinion letters” from professional firms. These letters are drafted to justify enormous nonpayments of taxes if the IRS ever questions how certain transactions produce losses, or how other accounting gymnastics make it appear that no gains or compensation occurred. The letters can cost up to $3 million each, but can save an oligarch tens or hundreds of millions of dollars in a given year.
Written by some of the most high-powered attorneys and firms in the industry, tax letters serve to intimidate the legal department of the IRS even before a prosecution is contemplated.
The Senate is aware of these letters – noting in a 2003 report on the “tax shelter industry” that “respected professional firms are spending substantial resources … to design, market, and implement hundreds of complex tax shelters, some of which are illegal and improperly deny the U.S. Treasury of billions of dollars in tax revenues” – but getting specific information about them is extremely difficult, since the IRS rarely prosecutes oligarchs. When it does, most cases are sealed, and oligarchs who work with tax attorneys can invoke attorney-client privilege. But in 2003, there was a breach of this fortress of secrecy when the Senate published detailed reports about illegal tax shelters created by the accounting firm KPMG.
According to the Senate, the KPMG tax shelters created “phony paper losses for taxpayers, using a series of complex, orchestrated transactions involving shell corporations, structured finance, purported multi-million dollar loans, and deliberately obscure investments” for 350 clients between 1997 and 2001. The fake losses totaled about $8.4 billion, or $24 million per client; applied against their incomes, these losses reduced the taxes of each oligarch by an average of $8.3 million, or $2.9 billion for the group.
One of the reasons this case was exposed is that it was all rather down-market, using cheap cookie-cutter tax opinion letters priced at a mere $350,000 each.
Not only did all the firms and banks conspiring on behalf of these 350 oligarchs – and the oligarchs themselves – know that the investments “had no reasonable potential for profit,” but KPMG calculated that even if it was fined for failing to disclose the shelters, it would still earn far more in fees than it would pay in fines. The firm was fined $456 million. Even more incredibly, more than a dozen KPMG clients sued the firm for the taxes and penalties incurred after being discovered – the suits claim that KPMG bungled its job of creating shelters for tax evasion with zero legal risks for oligarchs. It’s tantamount to suing your hit man for a sloppy murder.
The second component of the WDI is the nitty-gritty legwork that keeps the tax system sufficiently porous, complex and uncertain enough to be manipulated. Some oligarchs do this work themselves, speed dialing public officials to directly complain about laws and regulations, but most do not. Instead, WDI professionals, motivated to earn a share of annual oligarchic gains, constitute a highly coherent and aggressive network for political pressure. These lobbyists fight to insert favorable material into the tax code, cut sections that cause problems, and block threats on the horizon.
Apologists for havens
Discussions about money in politics often begin with campaign finance reform. Advocates argue that a small fraction of wealthy Americans constitute a powerful donor class that provides the vast majority of candidates’ funds. Long before ordinary citizens get to vote, they say, their choices are reduced to politicians deemed acceptable by the richest Americans via a “wealth primary,” in which candidates straying from a narrow economic agenda are shut out of campaign funding.
“For all their influence at the polls, guys like Joe the Plumber aren’t typically campaign contributors,” explains Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics. “You’re more likely to see John the Bond Trader bankrolling these campaigns.” And she’s right: Of the roughly 1.4 million individual contributions of $200 or more during the 2008 elections, three-fourths of the money came from a mere one-fifth of the donors, who in turn comprised one-tenth of 1 percent of American adults.
But while this fraction does coincide with our approximation of the size of the American oligarchy, campaign donations are not oligarchs’ primary or even most effective strategy for political influence. Academics Michael Graetz and Ian Shapiro explain this in their 2005 book, Death by a Thousand Cuts: The Fight over Taxing Inherited Wealth.
“Campaign contributions, soft money, spending limits for political candidates and the like have become controversial issues,” they admit, “but they mattered little in the estate tax fight.” The battle was between smaller oligarchs and the biggest players at the top. Believing it unlikely that the elimination of the estate tax could be extended indefinitely, a significant number of wealthy Americans with a net worth between $5 and $15 million wanted the threshold moved up to exempt their estate tax. In exchange, they supported a higher estate tax rate on everyone above the threshold. Big oligarchs took the opposite position. They wanted no estate tax at all. But if Congress was going to bring it back, the ultra-rich supported a lower exemption in exchange for a lower overall rate.
The big oligarchs won again – but not because of campaign finance. “Money mattered more fundamentally in shifting the tectonic plates underlying American tax debates,” Graetz and Shapiro suggest. And this is precisely where oligarchs deploy their resources in the WDI.
Oligarchs’ “three decades of investments in activist, conservative think tanks” has blazed an ideological path that drones in the WDI follow. Activists at institutions like the Heritage Foundation supply “ideological ammunition to the lobbyists and interest groups … who work relentlessly … to keep up the tax-cutting pressure on the Hill.”
This pressure was hard at work in President Obama’s feeble attempt to curtail offshore tax havens in 2009. In the middle of massive public bailouts to the financial system and large bonuses on Wall Street, the president proposed stronger measures to fight against who he called “tax cheats,” the individuals using offshore tax havens to deny the government nearly $70 billion a year – a level equal to about seven cents on every dollar of taxes paid honestly.
But Obama’s proposals were less aggressive than his rhetoric. The president urged Congress to support efforts to sanction nations that maintained secrecy on bank accounts and corporate entities, and sought to hire 800 additional IRS agents “to detect and pursue American tax evaders abroad”; these measures were projected to save a mere $8.7 billion over 10 years – about one percent of the losses from offshore accounts. Despite the timidity, the proposals received only a lukewarm response from Democrats and outright hostility from Republicans, who argued that they would cripple American corporations’ ability to compete globally.
Dan Mitchell, a senior fellow (i.e. mercenary) at the Cato Institute (a think tank financed by American oligarchs), defended tax havens as “outposts of freedom.” If Americans are concerned that “individuals are moving their money to countries with better tax law, that should be a lesson to us that we should fix our tax law.”
In other words: Let’s decrease taxes on the super-rich.
The WDI, arising naturally from the opportunities and risks created by enormous wealth, has spawned its own pile of these opinion-makers, free to spread their ideas through a compliant corporate media while oligarchs themselves are free to look on.
Oligarchy, or Democracy?
To argue that the United States is a thriving oligarchy does not imply that our democracy is a sham: There are many policies about which oligarchs have no shared interests. Their influence in these areas is either small or mutually canceling.
Though it may strike at the heart of elitism, greater democratic participation is not an antidote to oligarchic power. It is merely a potential threat. Only when participation challenges material inequality – when extreme wealth is redistributed – do oligarchy and democracy finally clash.
The answer to the question of inequality, then, is troubling. Wars and revolutions have destroyed oligarchies by forcibly dispersing their wealth, but a democracy never has.
Democracy and the rule of law can, however, tame oligarchs.
A campaign to tame oligarchs is a struggle unlikely to fire the spirits of those outraged by the profound injustices between rich and poor. However, to those enduring the economic and political burdens of living among wild oligarchs, it is an achievement that can improve the absolute welfare of average citizens, even if the relative gap between them and oligarchs widens rather than narrows.
A graduate student in one of my seminars – resisting my terminology – once declared that the “U.S. has rich people, not oligarchs.” More than anything else, that statement claims that somehow American democracy has managed to do something no other political system in history ever has: strip the holders of extreme wealth of their inherent power resources and the political interests linked to protecting those fortunes.
Of course, this hasn’t happened.
But it is endlessly fascinating that we’re now in a moment when Americans are once again asking fundamental questions about how the oligarchic power of wealth distorts and outflanks the democratic power of participation.
Jeffrey A. Winters
Jeffrey A. Winters is an associate professor of political science at Northwestern University. For a more extensive explanation of his theory of oligarchy, read Oligarchy (Cambridge University Press, 2011).
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