Over the past several years, few annual occasions have been more symbolic of the direction of political discussion in our country than Tax Day. This year, the IRS due date bears witness to the impact of the Occupy movement in American politics.
Back in 2009 and 2010, Tax Day protests were a high-water mark for the Tea Party; they were the mass actions that really put the right-wing movement on the map. But by 2011, as I wrote at the time, that was already changing. The Tea Party still had plenty to be happy about: it was coming off of midterm elections that gave Republicans control of the House with a rabidly reactionary class of congressional freshmen. And through the summer the supposed imperative to cut back government spending -- never mind the country's ongoing crisis of joblessness -- would dominate Washington debate.
Yet by Tax Day 2011, a shift had started. Tea Party leading light Glenn Beck was on his way out at Fox News, having been the subject of a boycott from the left. A group called U.S. Uncut, modeled on a British counterpart, was getting great press by going after corporate tax cheats and businesses that had managed to avoid taxes altogether. (GE, in particular, was having a very bad PR month.) Protests taking place that April were as likely to be against draconian social service cuts as against "big government" tyranny.
All of this presaged the emergence of the Occupy movement in the fall, which went much, much further in shifting the debate. As New York Times columnist Paul Krugman commented on the transformation:
[S]ix weeks ago, before [Occupy Wall Street] started, we were basically having an insane national discussion. Here we were with 14 million people unemployed, and with the government able to borrow at the lowest interest rates in history and with enormous increase in inequality -- with a few people at the very top prospering immensely, and most people having made no headway, even before the crisis hit. And yet -- what were we talking about? Deficits, austerity, 'Let's cut Medicare and Social Security.'
And the whole issue of, 'What about jobs? What about doing something for the vast majority of Americans?' was completely ruled out of the discussion. And now some of us -- you know, I tried to write about it, other people have tried to write about -- but somehow, that was not making a dent in the conversation. And then a group of people started camping out in Zuccotti Park, and all of a sudden the conversation has changed significantly towards being about the right things. It's kind of a miracle.
This year, if you say "Tax Day" and "social movement," the Tea Party isn't necessarily the first thing that comes to mind. And if you go looking for a protest, you'll likely find folks protesting against the tax evaders of the top 1 percent. As one example, members of Stand Up! Chicago have been delivering faux tax bills to corporations including Boeing, Exelon, and Bank of America. A release from the group reported:
Despite making $3.3 BILLION in profits in 2010, Boeing paid no taxes for the year and even received a tax refund of $1.56 BILLION. Since 2008, Boeing has received $6 billion in total tax subsidies.
Under CEO Brian Moynihan's leadership, Bank of America paid NOTHING in taxes the past three years, despite hauling in $5.5 BILLION in profits. Bank of America didn't just dodge taxes, they received a $5 BILLION tax refund for the year 2009. Moynihan has been amply rewarded, receiving a $10 MILLION salary in compensation.
Despite making $2.5 BILLION in profits in 2010, Exelon received a tax refund of $914 MILLION for the year. Exelon received $2.24 BILLION in tax breaks between 2008 and 2010, placing it among the 25 companies with the largest total tax subsidies (otherwise known as corporate welfare) during that period.
In the Senate, Democrats will be voting this week in favor of the "Buffett Rule" to raise taxes on the wealthy. The measure won't go anywhere (having no chance of passing in the House), and it hardly makes up for the abhorrent so-called "JOBS Act" that President Obama signed into law last week. ("Boss Tweed himself couldn't have done any worse," wrote Matt Taibbi in the first of two powerful denunciations.) But it's at least good to know that when the Dems decide to posture, they're now doing it by advocating a more progressive tax system. For just last summer they were rallying behind the inspiring motto of "let's cut a little less than the Republicans want to."
As for politics beyond posturing, the Tax Day protests have more potential. Let's hope that they will be the start of a fine Occupy Spring.
Cross-posted from the "Arguing the World" blog at Dissent magazine.