This year, each of us has lost something. I am fortunate that my biggest loss has been my faith in our tax system.
In 2014, Eric Garner died at the hands of police officers after being suspected of evading taxes by selling cigarettes without tax stamps. That same year, Donald Trump was also suspected of evading income taxes. But unlike Garner, who was killed by police, Trump reached a favorable legal settlement with the IRS.
The New York Times recently revealed that Trump had not engaged in "smart" tax planning as he had boasted during his 2016 presidential campaign but seems to have simply lied to secure a $72.9 million refund. And, thanks to a highly successful effort by Republicans to weaken the IRS, Trump has gotten away with it for years.
Tax law has long been more a secular religion than a job for me. It embodies the commitment we make to one another as Americans to support our shared values by funding our schools and our troops and caring for our most vulnerable. It can seem hard to believe today, but a century ago, we came together to amend the United States Constitution to make the income tax a reality.
In 1896, Democratic statesman Williams Jennings Bryan explained the appeal of the income tax in his famous Cross of Gold speech at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. He observed, that "They tell us that the income tax ought not to be brought in here; that it is a new idea." But he insisted, "The income tax is just." And once, it may well have been. Not anymore. It does not — as Bryan believed it would — "put the burdens of government justly upon the backs of the people."
Over the past six months, there have been countless inequities and injustices. The coronavirus pandemic has caused hundreds of thousands of deaths, falling heaviest on the Black and Latinx communities. There was brazen murder by those we trust to keep us safe on city streets. In places like Louisville, Ky., for example, there was justice for a neighbor's walls but not for Breonna Taylor, the victim of a criminal justice system that can seem equal parts heartless and brainless.
Among all the horrors we have seen in recent months, I am embarrassed to say that a trivial detail has haunted me. George Floyd's death came after he fell under suspicion of spending a counterfeit $20 bill. This may be the least important fact that emerged from that tragic day in Minneapolis. But I spend my days thinking about taxes — and counterfeit transactions like Trump's — so it stuck with me.
That $20 bill makes it easy to see why the income tax has proven to be such a disappointment. When the details of President Trump's tax returns finally spilled into view a few weeks ago, I kept coming back to that $20 bill that a convenience store owner thought might have been a fake.
Donald Trump did not spend a fake $20 bill. Instead, The New York Times reported that Trump lied about a transaction, claiming to have abandoned his interest in his Atlantic City casinos. That abandonment was, the Times noted, phony. To receive the enormous windfall of a more than $70 million tax refund, Trump apparently claimed he received nothing in return. But he actually walked away with 5 percent of the casino business after its bankruptcy.
The tens of millions of dollars Trump may never be forced to repay might have saved lives lost to the pandemic. Or provided support to hungry Americans. Or helped us exercise our right to vote.
We all witnessed the swift, ruthless response to George Floyd's $20 bill and to Eric Garner's cigarettes. But after years of controversy, almost nothing seems to have been done about Trump's suspected multimillion-dollar heist. Why? While every other law enforcement agency in the country has prospered, Republicans cut the Internal Revenue Service's manpower and slashed its funding. According to ProPublica, the IRS's enforcement budget was reduced by almost a quarter between 2010 and 2018. In what may be the ultimate irony, Republicans defunded the IRS. And when the IRS lacks the resources to ensure that "the burdens of government justly fall upon the backs of the people," the income tax's great promise is lost.
Trump's story fits a troubling pattern. A 2020 report by the U.S. Treasury Department's Inspector General titled "High-Income Nonfilers Owing Billions of Dollars Are Not Being Worked by the Internal Revenue Service" speaks for itself. The monstrous injustice deaths of Eric Garner and George Floyd for alleged petty offenses while billionaires flout the law with impunity can be traced to a systematic effort by Republicans to dismantle the IRS. Starved of resources, a defunded IRS has not attempted to collect billions of dollars owed by wealthy Americans who failed even to file tax returns. Measured in billions, Trump's more than $70 million refund hardly seems worth the effort. But counted in $20 bills, it looks quite different.
Steven Dean is a tax law professor, faculty director of the NYU Law School's Graduate Tax Program, and host of The Tax Maven podcast. This article was supported by the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.