We need a fair tax system to serve the common good

The basis of taxation in the United States is that everyone pays their fair share. Collectively, we allow our government to levy taxes in order to move us forward as a society.

On June 8, ProPublica published a report showing the 25 richest Americans paid a true tax rate of only 3.4 percent on the $401 billion collective rise in their worth between 2014 and 2018.

During those same five years, middle-class Americans — for instance, wage earners in their early forties who amassed a typical amount of wealth for their age, largely through the increasing worth of their homes — saw their net worth expand by about $65,000 on average. Their tax bills, because the vast bulk of their earnings were salaries, were almost as much as their expanded worth: $62,000 over that five-year period.

There were years in which America’s billionaires — like Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and Michael Bloomberg — paid no federal income tax at all, not a penny.

“America’s billionaires avail themselves of tax-avoidance strategies beyond the reach of ordinary people. Their wealth derives from the skyrocketing value of their assets, like stock and property,” write ProPublica. “Those gains are not defined by U.S. laws as taxable income unless and until the billionaires sell.”

Clearly, the system needs to be changed. The slashing of taxes by the last administration for the very wealthy and for corporations has not had the promised effect of helping everyone. Rather, the chasm between rich and poor has grown wider and deeper.

One of the rallying cries in the revolution that founded our nation was: No taxation without representation. We need modern-day representatives to create a tax system that is fair and that serves the common good.

All of our society benefits when tax dollars are well spent.

Four days before ProPublica published its report, Congressman Paul Tonko was in the rural Helderberg town of Westerlo, talking to community leaders about the need of local households and businesses for broadband.

The House Committee on Appropriations is reviewing 10 funding requests from every member in the House of Representatives. Scanning Tonko’s list, we found three proposals right in our backyard. We imagine that all across our nation, every congressperson has come up with just such an essential list — all to be paid by federal taxes.

The three proposals in our midst no doubt give an idea of the breadth and worth of the projects proposed nationwide. The University at Albany has requested $1 million for equipment to further ribonucleic acid (RNA) research.

“RNA is the genetic material that bridges DNA and proteins in all living cells and also carries the genetic information for many viruses, including SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19,” the proposal states. “RNA can be manipulated to control the function of a cell, build nanostructures, develop treatments for disease, and serve as biomarkers to report on human health. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has shined a bright light on the importance of RNA as both the genetic material behind the SARS-CoV-2 virus and the COVID-19 vaccine.”

With the requested equipment, the RNA Institute at UAlbany could “aid in the battle against SARS-CoV-2 variants,” the proposal says, and “provide invaluable scientific insight now and far into the future.”

The proposal also notes that research and development projects “lead to economic growth for the region, with more jobs and opportunities as businesses and individuals relocate to the Capital Region.”

On June 8, coincidentally the same day that ProPublica published its analysis, the U.S. Senate voted overwhelmingly to spend almost a-quarter-of-a trillion dollars on scientific research and development. Senators on both sides of the aisle — a rarity these days for Democrats and Republicans to reach consensus — were concerned that China is besting the United States in scientific discovery.

Our government, from the 1950s to the 1970s, used to devote a much larger share of its resources to research and development since private companies did not. “The investments involved basic science and early commercial development, which tend to be unprofitable for any single company,” wrote David Leonhardt for The New York Times. “But the returns for society can be enormous. The R. & D. boom in the second half of the 20th century led directly to the development of jet airplanes, satellites, semiconductors, the internet, M.R.I.s and lifesaving drugs to treat cancer, heart disease and other illnesses. It helped create world-leading industries, with good-paying jobs, in digital technology, pharmaceuticals, higher education and more.”

So we can see that taxes, which the very wealthy are sidestepping, can benefit us all.

A second project on Tonko’s list of 10 is the Sheriff’s Homeless Improvement Program, SHIP, that comes with a request for $500,000 from the Albany County Sheriff’s Office. We’ve written on this page before in support of Sheriff Craig Apple’s initiative to transform unused jail cells into rooms for people without homes or for former inmates trying to successfully transition back into society.

New York is the state with the highest rate of homelessness and its prison population has rapidly declined in recent years. Last March, in the midst of the spiraling pandemic, with cases of COVID-19 appearing among people who are homeless or in shelters, Sheriff Apple said that the wing at the county jail that he had, before the outbreak, planned to make into a homeless shelter was “ready to go.” Staff at the Homeless and Travelers Aid Society, based on Central Avenue in Albany, was willing to “help out” and staff the new wing, Apple said.

“The strategy is to get them off the street, provide a safe haven, and hopefully they’ll start to work with our staff on some counseling,” said Apple in April 2020. “The ultimate goal is to get them back employed. Whatever demon they’re fighting, we can work with them and help them. Get them healthy, productive, get them in their own apartment and paying taxes.”

The program, he said, would provide education, addiction counseling, and help in finding jobs, among other services. “We’re prepared to do it all,” said Apple.

The current $500,000 proposal calls for doubling the number of rooms from 50 to 100 and “remodeling of the old jail wing and dayroom space to be less of a correctional space and more of a welcoming residential space.” Grant funds would also be used to buy a van to take residents to jobs and stores, to hire four new staff for the new wing of the facility, and to expand the computer room “as tele-medicine, tele-psychiatry, and other Zoom-style visits have increased during the coronavirus pandemic.”

This would be a wise use of taxpayers’ funds because the cost of incarceration outweighs the cost of rehabilitation. Beyond that, the saving of a human’s sense of self-worth is immeasurable. Productive members of society do more than pay taxes; they contribute to society at large.

The third project on Tonko’s list in our backyard is the one we started with, which Hilltown reporter Noah Zweifel detailed at length in a front-page story on June 10.

The proposal from the town of Westerlo, requesting $1,687,500, describes 3,400 residents spread over 50 square miles of forested and hilly land, along with “Westerlo’s relatively low average household income, result[ing] in widespread unavailability of broadband Internet service.” Currently, about 30 percent of the town is served by two fiber-to-home providers.

This longstanding concern took on a new urgency during the coronavirus pandemic, which forced people to self-isolate and do work, schooling, and almost everything else online, Supervisor Bill Bichteman told Tonko. Bichteman credited the volunteers on the town’s broadband committee for working “tirelessly to promote our best interests as a town, renewing some of our existing franchise agreements, and moving forward with trying to encourage the existing cable companies to move further and deeper into our town.”

It became apparent, though, Bichteman said, that, as hard as the committee tried, “unless someone was to shower us with money to make this happen, these companies are profit-motivated and there’s no profit in running the cable up a long way to service one or two houses.”

Dotty Verch, who chairs the committee, described a home-ridden cancer patient in town who had no access to doctors. She and others described the crowded parking lot at the Westerlo library as parents drive their children there to do homework by using the library’s Wi-Fi, a problem exacerbated by remote learning during the pandemic.

“I think one lady said she has three boys at Berne-Knox-Westerlo, and she has a choice of paying her AT&T bill or her food bill,” said Verch.

“The retention of our workforce is going to depend on joining the 21st Century economy with broadband,” said Eric Hannay, president and chief executive officer of Westerlo’s largest business, Hannay Reels. 

“Broadband determines whether you’re going to sell your house or not. It determines whether someone will take a piece of property to develop,” said Bichteman. “Even family members are moving away because they can’t stay here.”

A recent federal funding package provided Elon Musk’s space exploration and satellite company SpaceX — which is beginning to offer satellite internet through its Starlink branch — with $885 million to expand internet access across the country, including in the Hilltowns.

We note that Musk, the second richest person in the world, who paid no federal income taxes at all in 2018, according to the ProPublica report, benefited directly from federal funding.

It’s unknown at this point whether SpaceX connections will be reliable, and the price to sign up is calculated, now, at $600, with a $99-per-month subscription, which may exclude a large number of Hilltown residents who have no other options.

“In attempts to get Westerlo qualified for various programs, we’ve run into the notion that because there’s satellite service available here that we’re served. But we’re not served,” said Leonard Laub, a committee member who said Westerlo is prepared to act quickly if it gets the federal funds.

We were stirred by the words of these small-town Americans who saw a need — an imperative for the health and safety of their residents and for the prosperity or even survival of their town — and acted on it. They provide a model for other towns to follow: Draw on the talents of citizens to define a problem and then map out a means to solve it.

That is what a democracy depends on. We are, as Abraham Lincoln said at Gettysburg, a government of the people, by the people, for the people. Each of us must do our part. And that includes the very, very rich paying their fair share of taxes so that more initiatives like these can be undertaken for the common good.

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