September 17, 2019

Your High Tax Rate Doesn’t Make You More Patriotic, Presidential Candidate Dummy

Jeb Bush recently released 33 years of his personal tax returns. Why 33 years of 1040s? For the youth vote. Millennials are sure to vote Jeb once they see his return from 1989 — you know, because the Taylor Swift album.

But Bush 3.0 pissed me off when, in his tax return release, he made this comparison:

36% – Jeb’s average tax rate vs. 30% – Clintons’ 2014 tax rate

First off, it’s a shitty comparison. It’s like Val Kilmer bragging that his current weight is less than Jared from Subway’s average weight over the past 33 years.

But what really pisses me off is the implication that if you pay a lower tax rate, you’re an unpatriotic, crappy American.

You’re not a crappy American if you pay low taxes. You are a crappy American if you cheat on your taxes. And conversely, you’re not a patriot if you pay a lot in taxes.

Back in 2011, Mitt Romney took tons of shit for only paying 14.1% in taxes. Nobody claimed he had done anything shady. Everyone agreed he paid the correct amount.

But what if he had intentionally misrepresented his income in order to pay a higher tax rate so that people would think he was cool? If that happened, he would not have been cool. He would have been an idiot at best and a Bizarro tax fraudster at worst.

Judge Learned Hand1 had some great insight into the relationship between tax avoidance and patriotism:

Over and over again courts have said that there is nothing sinister in so arranging one's affairs as to keep taxes as low as possible. Everybody does so, rich or poor; and all do right, for nobody owes any public duty to pay more than the law demands: taxes are enforced exactions, not voluntary contributions. To demand more in the name of morals is mere cant.

Judge Hand’s comments point to another thing that pisses me off: loopholes. What the fuck is a loophole?  It’s just a legal element of the tax code that one can leverage in order to reduce one's taxes. Taking advantage of a loophole in the tax code is 100 percent ethical.

Listen, every month I donate €5 (about $7) to HeroRATs. They train rats to sniff out live landmines in Asia and Africa. I’m totally sold on this charity because (A) they’re helping to rid the world of unexploded landmines and (B) every now and then they blow up a fucking rat.

Unfortunately I can’t deduct my generous donation because HeroRATs is a Belgian charity without 501(c)(3) status. But would anyone disparage me, saying I was “exploiting a loophole” if instead of giving to HeroRATs, I donated my $7 to the HALO Trust which also clears landmines and is deductible for U.S. Federal income tax purposes? No, no one would disparage me. I would be using a loophole, but it’s not wrong.

Learned Hand also said,

Any one may so arrange his affairs that his taxes shall be as low as possible; he is not bound to choose that pattern which will best pay the Treasury; there is not even a patriotic duty to increase one's taxes.

I can only think of two ways paying more in taxes could be construed as patriotic:

1. By deliberately and consistently taking conservative tax positions because yer an American, goddamnit.

2. By making a cash donation to the Bureau of the Public Debt which technically isn’t paying taxes; and even though these donations are like paying extra taxes, they’re tax deductible, so they'd reduce your tax bill. The joke's on you, you almost-patriot.

So this 1943 Disney war propaganda cartoon is kind of right: there is a patriotic component to paying your income tax. However, your tax rate is not a barometer of your patriotism.

1 Actual name of a United States judge; unfortunately not the stage name of a solo porn star.

Image: "JebBush" by Michael Vadon via Wikimedia Commons

Have something to add to this story? Give us a shout by email, Twitter, or text/call the tipline at 202-505-8885. As always, all tips are anonymous.

Related articles