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Behind Every Dark Cloud of Terrorism, There’s a Silver Lining for the Wealthy

On this 20th anniversary of 9/11, the rich keep getting richer, always calculating how to squeeze more cash from calamity.

Michael Winship

Among the many television specials marking the 20th anniversary of 9/11, one that stood out was this week’s two-hour edition of public television’s Frontline, "America After 9/11."

It was a well-told chronicle, a sweeping survey of all that has happened in the years since that fatal day, from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to the madness of would-be King Trump.

One image that stood out: the night of the tragedy, about 150 members of Congress, Democrats and Republicans, stood on the steps of the Capitol, some arm in arm, singing “God Bless America.”  Mind, these are the same steps up which rioters climbed to assault and possibly kill the men and women working inside on January 6, 2021.

The sight of those legislators singing on 9/11 was quite something—and one that would be nearly impossible to recreate in today’s era of mean-spirited rhetoric and fevered accusations. The Capitol had been a 9/11 target for the terrorists as surely as the mob that tried to seize control of Congress on January 6. Doubtless, the plane that was brought down near Shanksville, Pennsylvania was aimed at the dome of our national legislature. What a gruesome and terrifying disaster that would have been, further multiplying our panic and revulsion.

Each of us who were there have our own stories of that day—I stood on the corner near my apartment watching the towers burn. And yet among everyone’s reminiscences, something else struck me over the last couple of days; not only the remarkable unity of the nation in the wake of the disaster—the selflessness and heroism—but also the speed with which DC lobbyists and their clients jumped in to take advantage of the calamity.

It’s happening again today. Amid the COVID pandemic and disasters of fire and flood, avaricious power-hungry denizens of K Street and associates are doing their damnedest to impede or completely stop laws that could take away the tiniest slice of their massive wealth to assist the rest of us. This, while the virus continues to reign, and homes and businesses are destroyed by fire and flood. Combined, hundreds of thousands of American lives have been lost, far more than the 3000 so grievously murdered on 9/11.

My colleague and friend Bill Moyers recalled that twenty years ago, just one day after the attacks, one day into the maelstrom of horrors, loss, and grief, many senators called for prompt consideration of President George W. Bush’s proposal to subsidize the country’s largest and richest energy companies.

“While America was mourning, they were marauding,” Moyers observed in a speech he made to an environmental group just weeks after 9/11. “One congressman even suggested that eco-terrorists might be behind the attacks. And with that smear he and his kind went on the offensive in Congress, attempting to attach to a defense bill massive subsidies for the oil, coal, gas, and nuclear companies.

To a defense bill! What an insult to the sacrifice of our men and women in uniform. To pile corporate welfare totaling billions of dollars onto a defense bill in an emergency like 9/11 was repugnant to the nostrils and a scandal against democracy. They were counting on patriotism to distract us from their plunder, counting on us to stand at attention with hand over heart, pledging allegiance to the flag, while they picked our pockets.

But as they say in the late-night TV commercials, wait, there’s more! In the wake of our calamity twenty years ago, lobbyists pushed a return to the deductible three-martini lunch, a cut in capital gains for the wealthy, the elimination of the corporate alternative minimum tax (and a refund to those who had paid it in the past), a special tax break for General Electric, a relaxation of environmental regulations. All of these were pushed, some in secret, some in the open—as part of legislation to restore our post-9/11 nation—just as President Bush told Americans that the best way to fight back was not through personal sacrifice but with a shopping spree.

What’s more, as Moyers noted in that 2001 address, “thirty industrial nations were ready to tighten the screws on offshore financial centers whose banks had the potential to hide and often help launder billions of dollars for drug cartels, global crime syndicates and groups like bin Laden’s al Qaeda. Not all offshore money is linked to crime or terrorists; much of it comes from wealthy people who are hiding money to avoid taxation.

Right-wingers believe in nothing if not in avoiding taxes. So they and bankers’ lobbyists went to work to stop the American government from participating in the crackdown on dirty money, arguing that closing tax havens in effect leads to higher taxes on the people trying to hide their money. According to The New York Times, the president of the Heritage Foundation spent an hour with then-Secretary of the Treasury Paul O’Neill. Texas bankers pulled their strings at the White House and presto!—the Bush administration pulled out of the international campaign against tax havens.

Flash forward to today. Since 9/11, no greedy tiger has changed its stripes, no leopard has changed its spots—no, the fat cats continue to rule. As per Thursday’s edition of the Times, a Biden Treasury Department report notes, “The wealthiest 1 percent of Americans are the nation’s most egregious tax evaders, failing to pay as much as $163 billion in owed taxes per year…

Tax compliance rates are high for low- and middle-income workers who have their taxes deducted automatically from their paychecks. The rich, however, are able to use accounting loopholes to shield their tax liabilities.

So no wonder that even in the midst of widespread contagion and natural disasters, the richest are once again up in arms at the prospect of having any of their money whittled away for the greater good of the country. The Times reports on “a well-financed effort to defeat a proposed tax increase that is crucial to funding the $3.5 trillion social spending bill at the heart of President Biden’s agenda.” The legislation is a ten-year measure “to combat climate change and reweave the nation’s social safety net, with paid family and medical leave, expanded public education, new Medicare benefits and more. The committee’s purview includes much of that social policy, but also the tax increases needed to pay for it.

Democrats had hoped that the tax side would be more than notations on an accounting ledger. They regard it as an opportunity to fundamentally change policies to address growing income inequality, reduce incentives for corporations to move jobs and profits overseas, and slow the amassing of huge fortunes that pass through generations untaxed.

Not so fast. Here come the usual conservative suspects, armed to the teeth with dirty money: Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform, the Business Roundtable, the US Chamber of Commerce. And at the head of the pack former Democratic Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, now head lobbyist for the anti-tax effort, subtly threatening her former colleagues with tough reelections and even tougher attempts to raise money for campaigns.

Already, inside-the-Beltway pundits are making book on which of the Biden proposed tax increases will succeed, fail, or be watered down into almost nothingness. The plutocrats behind the fight against the plans almost always have the last word because they have the most money. 

As another friend and colleague Robert Reich points out, “Corporate taxes as a percent of federal revenue have plummeted from 25% in the 1950s to 7 percent today, while income taxes and payroll taxes have made up the difference. If we want to pay for all the things America needs, corporate taxes must increase significantly.”

We also must supply the funds for the IRS to enforce the rules and crack down on the loopholes so beloved by the wealthy. In that aforementioned Treasury Department report, Natasha Sarin, deputy assistant secretary for microeconomics writes, “For the I.R.S. to appropriately enforce the tax laws against high earners and large corporations, it needs funding to hire and train revenue agents who can decipher their thousands of pages of sophisticated tax filings. It also needs access to information about opaque income streams—like proprietorship and partnership income—that accrue disproportionately to high earners.”

Economic inequality has only worsened during the pandemic. The rich have gotten oh-so-much-richer even as this very week benefits for many of the unemployed expired. Last week, people died here in New York City when their illegal basement apartments flooded. They couldn’t afford anything else.

Those tax breaks bestowed on his fellow plutocrats by Donald Trump have only “turbocharged inequality,” according to one economist. The pandemic, hurricanes, and wildfires just make it exponentially worse. And all on behalf of people who wrap themselves in the flag and sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” with gusto. Moyers recalled that, “H.L. Mencken got it right when he said that when you hear some talk about their love of country, it’s a sign they expect to be paid for it.”

The class war they wage against the rest of us is our real “forever war.”  


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Michael Winship

Michael Winship

Michael Winship is the Schumann Senior Writing Fellow for Common Dreams. Previously, he was the Emmy Award-winning senior writer for Moyers & Company and BillMoyers.com, a past senior writing fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos, and former president of the Writers Guild of America East. 

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