Book Review: Perfectly Legal
David Cay Johnston
Portfolio, Penguin Books, 2003
I lived through Bush vs. Gore as it happened on a sunny California Sunday, when democracy died along with the rule of law by five felons supreme in their lying and arrogance. I remember and understand fully the gravity of Iran Contra, and my Father popping a champagne bottle when the House committee voted its first article of impeachment for Nixon. Oh yes, I also lived through that travesty of another impeachment, Clinton’s, only to see his successor skate away with vastly serious more crimes in this terrible war for nothing.
I know the US’s history of slavery and genocidal treatment of the Indians; of the terrible Philippine and Vietnam wars; the viciously cruel forms of capitalism of the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries; the stolen election of 1828; the terrible internment of Japanese citizens in WWII. Yes, it’s fair to say I know most of my country’s worst past and present flagrant abuses of human and political rights, but after reading Perfectly Legal I am shocked.
Plain shocked, even after all that I know, of the vast abuses of the American tax system chronicled so plainly in its pages. Even worse, I’m shocked (not surprised) that I’m shocked. I have a good education, have been a political journalism junkie all my life, and prowl the political blogs even now every day helplessly addicted to whatever news and political currents are swirling in the national consciousness (such as it is).
I had no idea of the utter degradation of mission of the IRS, the rampant felony cheating in the corporate and upper brackets, the horrifying mendacity of political leadership that leads to nothing short of looting and stealing. Worst of all is a creeping, incredibly powerful background hum of consciousness to the results of this flagrant abuse of the American Dream, a crushing economic poverty that inflicts vast amounts of pain and suffering over great swathes of our people, snuffing out incredible potential of the human soul so powerful we can’t even dream about it.
All so a very tiny minority of greedy, profoundly small and evil souls can stay filthy rich. I had seen this book before with many cruises through the bookstore but brushed it off as some arcane accountant-like look at a vague idea of what “tax shelters” are; boring, move along. I never would have picked it up had Kevin Drum not mentioned that he had recently read it. Perfectly Legal is not an arcane tax wander, but a comprehensive view of current macro taxation reality in the United States. Good Lord, what else is out there that so starkly horrifies the mind that I don’t know and have yet to find out about?
Rather than weave a standard review at this point I’m going to state some truths about the American business and political reality as I perceive them. Perfectly Legal seems to have acted as a neuron crystallizer in my soul and consciousness; before I can review I must state some truths as starkly as I can. As a 42 year old white male, educated, only-recently-“successful” citizen who pays attention, I know this much is true:
- The modern capitalist idea of the public corporation is utterly bankrupt and its failure is running amok among our citizens. It is not economically viable that ownership of a company be removed from private hands and successfully held by remote interests like a board of directors. The CEO suns the show a rank fiefdom of greed in a ruling corporate class that holds no regard for any value, even those vital to the success of the company, let alone societal and human ones.
- There is at this very instant no progressive element to the American tax structure. Cheating and abusive tax code effectively create a tax rate for all Americans of approximately 24%. Right in this moment we live under a flat tax, albeit a weird, extremely abusive one obsessed with earned income.
- Corporate journalism is forever beyond hope of reforming to the point of accurately reporting political truth that matters to 90% of its audience. They never have had the capability; any attempts at critique are utterly futile. Currently the United States is deeply captured by a ruling corporate class—of course corporate journalism will not accurately explain this to citizens. Never has, never will.
- The populace of the United States is profoundly ignorant, misinformed, and absurdly prone to manipulation. It has been for a long time and the current political leadership of both parties deeply, instinctively knows it and relies on it.
- The risks taking by the ruling corporate and political class are dazzling, breathtaking, and just so damn awesome in their vast scope in that huge sea of ignorance. Should fully 75% of the citizenry become truly aware of what our current political and corporate class has done with their money they would not be safe in any public space. Within minutes knowledge of their presence would initiate irate mobs of outraged, hurt citizens who would abuse them instantly to a shunned oblivion or do them great harm with their bare hands.
- The application of rule of law to corporations by the accounting and legal profession is irrelevant. Both of those professions have sold out to the common good and actively abet an abusive and subversive corporate ruling class.
As much as a corporate, married, parental soul can intellectually allow oneself to be, Jesus am I pissed at what’s happened to American tax structure and enforcement the last 27 years.
I do not, and have never, cheated on my taxes. I have never thought about cheating on my taxes, and have never been late with my taxes. Some years I have to file quarterly and I have a private accountant I pay far too much for (considering the commercial or software rate) just to make sure everything is precisely correct and legal.
For the moneyed corporate class, however, no tax law is too grave to flip off in utter defiance. Cheating, rank criminal cheating, is the order of the day, and since 1997 the IRS has been deliberately crippled for tax collection. The radical freaks, for the millionth time, who currently call themselves Republicans are nothing more than enablers to gross crimes for payoff. Law & Order Republicans my ass, for God’s sake. Cheech and Chong was more law and order than the current Republican leadership, and I’m profoundly angry they have abused the taxation law while I played totally by the rules all these years.
The Republicans, of course, have made taxation a ranting implacable issue for all of my adult life, which cripples and represses my beloved home state of California this very day. That they’ve duped the middle and upper middle class while giving almost everything to the rich is now irrefutable, but the fact must be faced they never could have done it without the Democratic party letting them.
Polling last year identified a party weakness in that “Democrats needed to stand for something.” It wasn’t just the recent waffling on the Iraq war, but a profound stance of uncomfortable capitulation to Republican taxation goals of the last 27 years that Democrats earned this problem. “The era of big government is over,” Bill Clinton declared as he abused the poor with IRS harassment, let the alternative minimum tax morph into a middle class cancer, and gutted corporate IRS enforcement.
Democrats have stood by silently as the Social Security tax was regressed into a future savings account that’s been looted and allowed to hide giveaways to the rich and now, suddenly, proclaimed to be non-existent. No wonder somebody came along to kill Social Security when they allowed such a history in the first place. No precise, bedrock principles of taxation for good public service government can currently be recited by any Democratic voter—the leadership has never articulated any. Of course Democrats are perceived to be wishy-washy and flip-floppy: they can’t even defend the core reasons for their existence.
That is to protect and promote the wealth and liberty of all Americans, starting with the approximately 85 million Americans who are poor and need protections for the American Dream the most. Then we look after the rest of the working folk up the income scale as far as we can. We do it through vigilant Bill of rights enforcement, progressive taxation, public spending investments in education, training, conservation, housing, environment, day care, and health care, along with law enforcement for the IRS and corporate governance.
The lower, middle and even upper middle classes have all taken it on the chops the last thirty years as incomes became stagnant, mothers went to work, future social security savings were looted, hours per week went up, and employment security vanished. The extremely rich have done extremely well, however. That story is never going to be told by the corporate press and was brilliantly done so by Perfectly Legal.
Not really knowing what I was doing, I got an education and any job I could find and got lucky with a career actually taking place. It was what everybody said success was and money flowed in from in the arrangement, a rather useful item in this society, so I kept doing it. I got married and started a family and irrevocably set expectations with other souls extremely close to me that I’m not sure it’s ever right to break from.
I simply can’t become an activist for 40% of pay, assuming I could find a slot human slot in this society that actually had a chance of making a long term difference.
If we didn’t have to move and I could get 60% I would, though. Fast as corporate tax break gets through Congress my life would be committed to social justice, hell yes. But I’d never do that lightly, and my trust in the Democratic party and the Christian church, two natural possible routes, is at an all-time low.
So I will stay aware and optimistic as I can and follow the instructions of Perfectly Legal: talk about taxation and its implications. Please read the book. Think about what we as a party and a society should be doing to raise awareness on the necessity and fairness of all taxation. Decry the fucking crooks who are stealing our money and costing all of us honest folks $500 a year in underpaid corporate taxes. Hold our representatives accountable for progressive taxation.
Even though you’ve been warned, you’ll still be shocked when you read it.