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1 Percent Owes Billions in Unpaid Taxes. IRS Must Reclaim It for Infrastructure.

Want to cause a real ruckus, President Biden? Draft a bill to overhaul the IRS and tax trillions stashed by the rich.

A protester holds a sign reading "TAX THE RICH" during a march in New York City on June 27, 2020.

During the Trump administration, the running not-so-funny joke was that every week was “Infrastructure Week.” Periodically, like a clockwork designed by M.C. Escher, Trump or one of his flapdoodle minions would pop up and announce that a massive overhaul of the nation’s crumbling roads, bridges, airports, subways and water systems was a mere “two weeks” away.

Those mythical 14 days spent four years on repeat, “Two weeks!” — like the lady whose head explodes in Total Recall. Mine exploded listening to that long-form nonsense more than once, and of course, it never came to pass. Trump & Co. slithered into the bottom pages of history after trying to light the city on fire like some orange-dyed British garrison from days of yore… and our national infrastructure continues to molder beneath an indifferent sun.

Enter the Biden administration, and a renewed push for massive and unprecedented infrastructure repair. Biden’s people do not appear to be stuck in screw-around mode. The legislation they are discussing runs into the trillions, and covers a vast swath of areas that have never before been categorized as infrastructure — for one example, this would be a climate bill as much as anything else.

Predictably, Mitch McConnell and the disloyal GOP opposition in Congress are gearing up to fight this legislation to the knife, so the reconciliation process run by Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders may once again prove to be the only viable route to passage. This fight will be hotter than the last, however, because of the red-flag word that always elicits a dynamic response from the Republican lizard brain: Taxes.

“Mr. Biden campaigned on a sprawling infrastructure agenda,” The New York Times reported on March 3, “with trillions of dollars invested in transportation, water and sewer lines, and the scaffoldings of an energy sector that significantly reduces the United States’ carbon emissions, funded by tax increases on multinational companies and high earners.”

Cue Mitch: “I don’t think there’s going to be any enthusiasm on our side for a tax increase,” he told reporters last week, before going on to describe the still-nonexistent bill as a “Trojan horse” for new taxes.

If this sounds drearily familiar, that’s because you’ve heard it all before. Republicans are always frantic about spending unless they are the ones doing the spending (see: the massive 2017 tax cut for rich folks). The lines are being drawn for yet another bottomless gibberish festival from the right, designed only to impede if not destroy the progress promised by a full-fledged infrastructure bill with its eye on sustainability and the threat of climate disruption.

Before we get lost in that bog, I have an idea. The papers were awash yesterday with reports that the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has all but gotten out of the business of taxing the wealthy, resulting in uncollected taxes estimated to add up to $1.4 trillion over 10 years.

“A new analysis by IRS researchers and academics published Monday morning estimates that the richest 1 percent of U.S. households don’t report around 21 percent of their income,” reports Common Dreams, “often using complex tax avoidance strategies that allow them to outmaneuver the federal government’s increasingly rare audits of the wealthy.”

“From a policy perspective, our results highlight that there is substantial evasion at the top which requires administrative resources to detect and deter,” the authors of the study explain. “We estimate that 36% of federal income taxes unpaid are owed by the top 1% and that collecting all unpaid federal income tax from this group would increase federal revenues by about $175 billion annually.”

I’m just going to throw this out on the stoop and see if the cat licks it up: Before we foray into a massively expensive infrastructure bill — or any other kind of costly legislation, for that matter — we must get our financial house in order and tell the IRS to stop pretending rich people don’t exist.

The New York Times op-ed board has already put forth one clever way to address the situation — basically, make banks do W-2 forms for their rich clients, because the W-2s are how the tax man knows about the rest of us — and more are surely out there.

Once we get that squared away, we can buy the IRS some stout boats and send them off to the Cayman Islands, Bermuda, and all the other places the world’s wealthy have hidden their money. Remember the Panama Papers? As much as $32 trillion in untaxed money is estimated to have been squirreled away offshore.

“The wealthiest of the wealthy using tax dodges and offshore safehouses to hide their money from the tax man is an international phenomenon, to be sure, but the issue takes on a decidedly unique slant here in the United States,” I wrote in June of 2017. “It was confirmed in the original reporting on the Panama Papers last year that hundreds of the wealthiest US citizens enjoy the privileges of offshore cash havens, even as the new government in Washington pleads abject poverty while seeking to bleed the poorest among us for the benefit of the richest.”

It’s a new day in Washington, D.C. — passage of the American Rescue Plan drove at least a temporary dagger through the heart of the austerity lies that have been bleeding this nation dry for decades. So much more is required, and if we are going to talk about “repairing our infrastructure,” we need to start by fixing the basic infrastructure of the government’s broken taxation system.

Want to cause a real ruckus, President Biden? Draft a bill demanding massive IRS overhaul and a detailed, no-bullshit investigation into the phenomenon of the Panama Papers. Between removing the loopholes for the rich and levying taxes on the trillions they’ve stashed, a bricks-and-mortar infrastructure bill would be paid for with interest.

That, right there, would change the nation, and end a half-century of trickle-down plunder with the stroke of a pen.

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