Last week the New York Times released tax records indicating that Donald Trump could have been avoiding tax for twenty years. The records show that in 1995 Trump declared a $196 million loss, a figure so large that it could have allowed him to legally avoid paying any federal income taxes for up to 18 years. This loss was as a result of a series of disastrous financial decisions he made in the early 1990s, such as attempting to start up an airline business, and seriously mismanaging three Atlantic City casinos, but could have resulted in huge tax benefits.
Although there is, as yet, no proof that Trump avoided paying income tax in subsequent years, as he has refused to release his later tax returns, his speech to a rally in Colorado after the story broke indicates that he is unashamed in his manipulation of the system: “I know our complex tax laws better than almost anyone […] I mean, honestly, I have brilliantly used those laws”. The whole affair simply smacks of yet another case of a powerful person or enterprise doing their utmost to legally, but immorally, avoid paying tax.
Not that long ago everyone was talking about the Panama Papers, which released details of over 200,000 offshore accounts, many of which benefitted wealthy and well-known public figures, including the ham-fisted erstwhile Prime Minister David Cameron. Although creating a big scandal at the time, the Papers have been simply swept under the carpet, with little to no fallout for the names involved.
Moreover, this is nothing more than a repetition of several years ago when Google, Amazon and Starbucks were all caught out for avoiding taxes in the UK. But each one of these giants appears to have been forgiven, and are spreading their corporate wings ever further into our lives.
However, this is not simply a phenomenon of corporate tax avoidance, with the key word being avoidance rather than evasion (meaning that their actions are technically legal, although doubtless morally dubious). We live in a society where, if you have power, you can make information disappear. Although we all remember ‘pig-gate’, David Cameron’s unpleasant encounter with a pig was allowed to fade into the background just days after the story became known. And whilst politicians’ private lives should, in general, be allowed to remain private, in certain instances it becomes important for the public to be aware of them, such as when their actions are indicative of government being dominated by an elitist boys’ club.
Indeed, a wealthy privileged few in our society seem to be able to get away with almost anything. Whether they buddy up with powerful media moguls, as our favourite pig-botherer Cameron famously did, or whether they have such perceived influence that the media dare not attack them, or whether they are simply seen as powerful and therefore untouchable, it is undeniable that these privileged people appear to have much more leeway when it comes to scandal and morally dubious activities.
But, wealthy corporations and people should not be allowed to do as they please purely by virtue of their wealth. If anything, they have more of a duty to pay tax and fulfil their societal obligation, rather than simply relying on exploitation and greed. Moreover, I would certainly much rather that my country was being led by someone with a good conscience and sound morals, something which may be beyond Cameron, and is certainly far, far beyond Trump’s capabilities.
Image: Gage Skidmore