April 5, 2011

There’s a janitor who lives in a studio apartment just outside of Stevens Point, Wis. He cleans the math and science buildings at a state university, a job he’s been doing for about 18 months, after a year of unemployment. He’s 43 and last year made $24,622. He doesn’t have kids, so he doesn’t qualify for a child-care tax credit. He doesn’t own a home or a hybrid car — those credits don’t apply to him, either. He hasn’t been enrolled in school since the 10th grade, so he definitely doesn’t qualify for any education credits or deductions. He just learned that Gov. Scott Walker’s new budget has slashed his benefits and that next year he’ll be bringing in about 16 percent less per month. And when he sits down to do his taxes next week, he’ll find that he paid the federal government around $1,400 in 2010.

About a thousand miles to the east, in Fairfield, Conn., General Electric, one of the world’s largest multinational corporations, posted a $14.2 billion profit for 2010. When its accountants were finished working their magic, the company didn’t owe a single dollar in federal taxes.

“People can think what they think,” said Jeff Immelt, GE’s chief executive, in response to a growing anger to this story, first reported last week by the New York Times. What else is there to think, one wonders, but that with the muscle and money of lobbyists and lawyers, with the access and influence built over generations, GE has done not just the audacious but the outrageous. And it is not alone.

Exxon Mobil, for example, made $19 billion in profits in 2009 but paid no federal income taxes. In fact, it received a $156 million rebate from the IRS. Bank of America received a $1.9 billion tax refund from the IRS last year, even though it made $4.4 billion in profits and was handed a nearly $1 trillion bailout by taxpayers. The list, inconceivably, goes on.

And yet the conversation in Washington hasn’t turned to aggressively closing the loopholes that GE’s lobbyists created for its accountants to exploit. It hasn’t turned toward ending the ridiculous tax breaks on corporate dividends and capital gains that allow hedge fund managers and the very wealthy to pay the government a lower percentage than their middle-class employees. Instead, Congress is debating whether $33 billion in cuts to the social safety net is enough to make the Tea Party happy.

While Republicans in the House have stopped talking nearly altogether about jobs (and have embraced a budget that could cost the economy 700,000 of them, according to Moody’s chief economist Mark Zandi), the head of the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, someone charged with finding a way to sustained job growth, is none other than Jeff Immelt himself, tax evader in chief. This is a systemic problem that neither belongs to nor can be solved by a single man. But for Immelt to keep his post with the administration now would be bad politics, bad policy and bad messaging. Yet as I write this, it doesn’t look as if he will be asked to step down.

Still, I am hopeful.

I am hopeful because an incredible spirit and energy has been unleashed. It was first shown during the Wisconsin labor battle, and it is being sustained and nurtured, and broadened to communities across the country. People are showing that they will not abide a system that finances corporate greed on the backs of the poor and middle class.

On Monday, the nation commemorated the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., who was killed in Memphis, where he had gone to fight for the rights of sanitation workers. Thousands gathered across America for a national day of action supporting public employees, other working people and trade unions in a common quest for jobs, justice and decency for all citizens. They participated in teach-ins, protests, demonstrations and vigils, all with a simple and deeply American message: It is time for the richest, most privileged among us to pay their fair share.

They spoke of the widening gulf in American politics, between the powerful and the powerless, between those who most need the government’s assistance and those most likely, instead, to receive it. They are not alone. For all the disappointment that progressives feel about this Congress, there are members who have been leaders and allies on Capitol Hill.

Consider Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). Always the people’s champion, Sanders has called for closing corporate tax loopholes, which, if done, would raise more than $400 billion over a 10-year period. He’s also introduced legislation imposing a 5.4 percent surtax on millionaires that would yield up to $50 billion more a year — more than enough to protect Pell Grants and Head Start and other programs facing the chopping block.

He is joined by Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), who has introduced legislation to create a separate tax bracket for millionaires and billionaires — an option that garners the support of 81 percent of the American people, according to an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll.

The common sense, humane response at this moment is to fight to reset the terms of a suffocatingly narrow and wrongheaded debate. This is the heritage of the progressive movement and, indeed, our obligation. The best principles of our country have been trampled by corporate immorality and right-wing extremism. But they can be restored. Martin Luther King Jr. knew as much when he fought for the sanitation workers of Tennessee 43 years ago. Now, we must know it too.