Durham businessman: Let’s make billionaires pay taxes the way the rest of us do

Author and small business owner Michael De Los Santos wonders why billionaires like Jeff Bezos — pictured here heading off on a self-financed spaceflight — don’t pay a fairer share of their income in taxes — Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Rising inflation and the escalating cost of everything from gas to houses made Tax Day 2022 even more significant for many Americans this year. Rising economic anxiety collided with middle class tax bills as families worried about the future and made plans to tighten their belts.

The nation’s 700 billionaires face no such worries, however. Unlike the rest of us who struggled through the pandemic and are now trying to catch up in its aftermath, billionaires enjoyed an enormous increase in their wealth over the last two years.

Yet, thanks to our skewed and unfair tax code, they won’t have to pay more in taxes like the rest of us do. As a Black small business owner who works hard every day to make it a success, and who—like everyone else who isn’t rich—has to pay taxes on the income it produces for my family, I can’t see why the rich deserve this preferential treatment.

According to Forbes data analyzed by Americans for Tax Fairness, U.S. billionaires have gotten $1.7 trillion richer over the first two years of the pandemic while our state’s four billionaires have gotten more than 45% richer, with $6 billion more to their names since 2020. That’s a stark contrast to the number of people who lost jobs and businesses, and suffered through illness over that same period—or even to the number of people who did alright during the pandemic but did not significantly increase their personal wealth.

The concentration of wealth among the top .01% has become truly astounding. The nation’s 700 billionaires now collectively control more wealth than the bottom half of the American population — about 165 million people. That massive wealth doesn’t just enable them to buy rocket ships and professional sports teams, it also gives them nearly unfettered political power to keep the rules rigged in their favor.

When it comes to taxes, for example, the ultra wealthy don’t follow the rules that the rest of us live by because they have their own. And those built-in loopholes and tax breaks enable many wealthy people to consistently pay lower tax rates than nurses, fire-fighters and accountants.

While the rest of us pay taxes on the income we make from work, the wealthy pay nothing on gains they make from stocks and other financial assets–their chief source of income. When we get a raise on our jobs, we make more income and pay more taxes. But when rich people hit a stock market bonanza that increases their wealth exponentially, those gains are not taxed unless they sell the assets. Read more

Remembering MLK on April 4: Fifty years later, workers are still exploited

Everyone knows that fifty years ago today, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, just one night after giving his famous “I’ve been to the mountain-top” speech. What many people don’t know is that King was in Memphis that week not for a civil rights rally or event, but to support a strike among Black sanitation workers who were trying to form a union with AFSCME after two men were crushed to death on the job. For Blacks in the Jim Crow era, civil rights and worker rights were inexorably linked.

Revisionist history has obscured the persistence of that link today. Research shows that attacks on public sector unions, like the one that still represents sanitation workers in Memphis today, disproportionately impacts people of color, particularly Black women who make up a large part of this workforce.

North Carolina, like so many other southern states, has weak protections for public sector workers like the sanitation employees that King was in Memphis to champion on the day when he was shot. But weak labor laws in the South are not accidental. Instead, stunting unions has been part of a historical effort, deeply rooted in the Jim Crow South, to deny economic opportunity to Blacks by using racism to diminish workers’ rights.

Opponents of public sector unions pioneered their “right to work” strategy in the South, many using outright white supremacy and racism to make their case. Vance Muse, a Texan who frequently declared himself a proud southerner, coined the term “right to work” and campaigned for it by warning that “white women and white men will be forced into organizations [labor unions] with black African apes whom they will have to call ‘brother’ or lose their jobs.”

Arkansas and Florida were the first southern states to pass these laws that limit unions’ bargaining power by creating separate status for members and non-members in union work-places. Today, every southern state has right-to-work laws that prevent unions from bargaining with the same leverage for wages, working conditions and fairness on the job. North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia also share the dubious distinction as being the three states which have no collective bargaining rights for any public employees.

Now unions in every other state are in jeopardy because of a U.S. Supreme Court case fueled by notorious right-wing donors like the Koch brothers. Recent documents show that the Janus vs. AFSCME case to be decided in June by the Supreme Court has been decades in the making as part of a larger conservative strategy to destroy labor unions. A decision in this case could result in a new legal precedent that would make “right to work” the national norm, significantly weakening public sector unions and resulting in the same kind of impacts we’ve seen in North Carolina—lower wages, less robust benefits, and weaker protections for workers.

That kind of outcome is about as far away from Dr. King’s legacy as we can get, and would take workers—especially Black workers—back in time to re-fight the same battles that King himself led.

Today more than ever, we all need to remember that King wasn’t just fighting for voting rights, but also for poor people, workers, and equity and for justice for all. Reaching the “promised land over the mountaintop” requires the collective recommitment to racial and economic justice that he modeled, time and time again.

Michael De Los Santos is the Deputy Director of Action NC.