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Uncut Comes to America, But Will It Catch On or Fizzle Out?
Public anger against corporate tax avoiders as austerity programs bite is simmering, but can campaigners capitalize?
This past Saturday morning, across the street from a busy Bank of America branch in midtown Manhattan, an excitable "tax avoidance specialist" was on hand, giving the assembled crowd of roughly 100 people some quick and easy tips on how to avoid paying their taxes as the 15 April federal tax deadline looms.
"Incorporate, incorporate, incorporate!" the man yelled out with the fervour of a sidewalk preacher. His next tip: hire a personal lobbyist, preferably one with access to the Senate banking committee. He recommended the Podesta Group, an influential Washington lobbying outfit with a number of former senators on its roster. For the average taxpayer, his last tip seemed even more farfetched:
"Make it look like all of your profits are coming from overseas, and all of your losses are here, that way you won't have to pay any taxes on them! No more paying for roads, tunnels, or bridges, not to mention all of those teachers or firefighters or policemen. And you definitely won't have to pay for the troops."
After he finished his harangue, I caught up with this "tax avoidance specialist", better known as JA Myerson, a theatre teacher in New York City public schools, and most definitely not an official spokesperson for Bank of America. What drew Myerson out on to the streets on Saturday, along with hundreds of others in simultaneous actions staged outside of Bank of America branches nationwide, is a new network of people pissed at the fact that big banks and companies deemed "too big to fail", are also, apparently, too big to pay taxes. The movement calls itself US Uncut, taking its name from the movement it was inspired by in the UK.
Apparently, Bank of America made for an irresistible first target. It received $45bn taxpayer bailout funds in 2008 and 2009 – and paid zero federal income tax in 2009. And according to activists, as well as a new group called Business and Investors Against Tax Havens, Bank of America, like many other large American companies, hides many of its profits in over 100 overseas tax havens.
"It's important that people know they're being lied to when they are told that the corporate tax rate is too high," Myerson tells me, as about 100 people fan out in front of the Bank of America branch, hoisting signs that read, "I Pay My Taxes, Why Doesn't Bank of America?" "The enemy isn't the Islamisation of America, or teachers unions – it's these corporations who brought us to the brink of collapse. And it turns out that most of them don't even pay their taxes."
In this season of budget pain, with states laying off teachers, police officers and firefighters, and generally haemorrhaging red, and our Democratic president proposing dramatic cuts to a programme that helps low-income Americans in the north-east pay their heating bill during the freezing winter, an interesting question to ask is, what took so long? The banks took some heat directly after the crash, with huge demonstrations on Wall Street, and later caravans of irate and angry protests at the homes of AIG executives after the bonus scandals. This feels like ages ago, back when the president himself told bank CEOs, "My administration is the only thing between you and the pitchforks."
Since then, of course, and leading up to the midterm elections last fall, "the pitchforks" outside the banks largely faded from sight, and American populist ire was most successfully whipped up by the right and directed at autoworkers, healthcare reformers, immigrants, the "Ground Zero Mosque" and, more recently, "greedy" public sector unions. Political economist Robert Reich recently laid out how the GOP and the millionaire class in general benefits handsomely from this arrangement whereby the middle class and the working poor are pitted against each other, and urged to fight over the crumbs of what's left, in an increasingly two-tiered, third-world economy.
"It takes the middle class a while to realise they're being shoved off of the precipice," Thomas Adcock, a writer and novelist tells me. On the street in front of the bank branch, he's passing out "1040" tax forms for Bank of America, which show that on the company's $2bn-plus in shareholder income earned last year, the company paid $0.00 in taxes.
"My grandkids schools are being cut, because these guys don't pay taxes. Everybody, including the White House, has this phony frame that everybody must hurt. But my grandkids didn't cause this crisis. The firefighters didn't cause this; the teachers didn't cause this crisis. It's immoral."
The Uncut movement in the UK, now months old, seems to be growing, drawing support from among a wide cross-section of society, and continuing to produce dozens of rolling actions on a weekly basis, like this weekend's "occupations" of RBS bank branches across the country. Will the same momentum catch on here?
Last year, I wrote about another spontaneous set of national gatherings organised under the banner of the "Coffee Party", which stirred progressives nationwide … to talk. In the year since, it's hard to measure what, if any, impact it has had on the national political landscape, and some are worried though that this Uncut movement, newly planted in the soil of American political culture, could face a similar fate.
"I read the article in the Nation about UK Uncut, found about this and said to myself, 'I'm there'," Kathryn Munnell, a high school English teacher chanting in front of the Bank of America branch, told me. She added: "Most Americans have such a short attention span, I'd hate for this to fizzle out."