It’s funny how awful things become normal, like paying off student loans for decades, or Facebook-scrolling past GoFundMe requests for help with medical bills.
Then something comes along that’s really no different, it just hasn’t been normalized in your mind yet, and it gives you a jolt. This happened to me recently when a colleague at Casa Latina described how their worker-members are struggling with housing costs. She said that many live with several families stuffed into a small apartment. Others live in tents, renting space in someone’s backyard and using their “landlord’s” bathroom and kitchen.
They rent space in someone’s backyard. Think about that for a minute. Of course, it’s perfectly logical. And it’s also totally insane. It’s 2018 in Seattle, Washington, USA. Is this really the way we live now?
Somehow, in this wealthy city, in this wealthy country, in this age of vast and growing wealth, we as a society can’t seem to guarantee the basics of a dignified existence. And that really comes down to wealth—who controls it and who doesn’t, political power—who has it and who doesn’t, and taxes—who pays them and who doesn’t.
Right now, the very rich are doing a bang-up job concentrating wealth, hoarding political power, and not paying taxes. Wealth inequality is at an all-time high, and the federal tax bill signed into law last December is another windfall for the rich. It slashes the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 21 percent, rolls back estate taxes, and lowers taxes for the top-income households.
Of course, Trump is only taking an old game to new and shameless heights. As Warren Buffet said in 2011, when an interviewer suggested that even talking about raising taxes on the rich was fomenting class war: “Actually, there’s been class warfare going on for the last 20 years, and my class has won. We’re the ones that have gotten our tax rates reduced dramatically.”
Here in Seattle, we’re at the epicenter of the tax war. Washington is one of just a handful of states with no income-based tax. Instead, our state relies on sales and property taxes, leaving us with the most regressive, most upside-down tax system in the whole country. Working and poor people pay up to 17 percent of their income in state and local taxes, while the wealthiest pay less than 3 percent.
Our tax system is stuck in the dark ages, virtually unchanged since the Great Depression of the 1930s, when the State Supreme Court nixed a progressive income tax passed by an overwhelming 70 percent vote of the people. Since then, in the realm of public opinion, wealthy interests have not just held their ground but advanced. In 2010, convincing voters that any new tax must be an attempt to hoodwink and fleece the average Joe, wealthy opponents like Jeff Bezos and Steve Balmer managed to sink a statewide initiative to tax high-income households by a vote of 64 percent.
Speaking of the richest person in the history of the world, Seattle has become the seat of a corporate empire virtually built on tax avoidance. Now Amazon, which paid no federal income tax last year, is getting a windfall from Trump’s tax cut to the tune of $789 million.
Maybe it’s time to start turning this around? I think so. The movement has already begun, from Seattle’s new tax on the rich, which is making its way to the State Supreme Court, to ongoing statewide efforts to clean up the tax code, to the tax on large businesses (we’re looking at you, Amazon!) currently under consideration by the Seattle City Council. On April 14, the Transit Riders Union is joining with local allies, community members (that means you!), and elected officials to hold an equity-focused Tax Rally in Judkins Park at 2pm. We all need to keep fighting, keep building, and keep educating our neighbors in Seattle and throughout the state.
And just imagine what it will mean when we succeed. Imagine classrooms that aren’t overcrowded and teachers who aren’t overworked and underpaid. Imagine high-quality healthcare, physical and mental, that is affordable and accessible to all. Imagine major investments in communities of color that tackle structural racism and create real opportunity and security for the next generation. Imagine world-class public transit, with high-speed rail linking cities throughout Washington and beyond. And imagine no one having to sleep in a tent or car, because there is housing for all.
Tax day is coming up. Maybe you were taught that taxes aren’t a subject for polite conversation—but that’s how our corporate overlords keep the system rigged in their favor. This year, as you’re grumbling about paying your taxes, I invite you to grumble also, loudly so that your friends and family can hear you, about our whole rotten tax system. Tax policy might not be the most picturesque terrain of the class war, but we’d better learn how to navigate it if we hope to build a future that truly includes all of us.
Katie Wilson is general secretary of the Transit Riders Union.