Why We Don’t Just Send a Check to the IRS

Last week’s 2023 Annual Spring Meeting was a smashing success! Over the course of two days, we hosted policymakers, experts, and activists in conversations about the need to restructure the economy to reduce inequality, and held dozens of meetings with key lawmakers on Capitol Hill to advocate for higher taxes on ourselves and other wealthy Americans.

While we were hard at work fighting to transform our economy for the better, conservative activists were, predictably, doing the exact opposite. This led to an unexpected clash at a press conference we hosted on Capitol Hill, where, after several of our members and Congressional allies gave remarks, a conservative economist ambushed the group to demand that members of the Patriotic Millionaires sign a pledge to voluntarily pay a 90% tax (we have endorsed a top 90% marginal tax rate on incomes over $100 million as part of our new tax agenda). 

We did not, of course, sign that pledge. While some conservatives may call us hypocrites for not sending voluntary checks to the government, we’re not particularly concerned with their bad-faith attacks. What we are concerned about is fighting inequality by transforming our country’s tax code and its economy, neither of which will be accomplished through voluntary contributions to the IRS. We’d like to use today’s Closer Look to take on this disingenuous attack a bit more directly.

It’s not really all that complicated – the simple truth of why we don’t voluntarily pay more taxes is because it wouldn’t fix anything that we want fixed.

We believe that rising economic inequality is the greatest crisis facing our country at this moment. Billionaires are doing better than ever – they increased their collective wealth by no less than $1.5 trillion over the pandemic – while over half the country lives paycheck to paycheck, 11 million children live in poverty, and 30 million Americans have no health insurance.

Our 250 members writing voluntary checks to the government for the purpose of redistributing to the poor and solving inequality would not be anywhere near enough to make an impact. Three individuals hold more wealth than the bottom half of the country (and unfortunately none of them are Patriotic Millionaires). We need mammoth redistributions of wealth and income to even begin to scratch the surface of fixing our current levels of inequality. Voluntary checks would be a drop of a drop of a drop in a very large bucket here.

This is especially true when you consider the fact that taxes already are optional/voluntary for the ultra-rich in America. As long as you are wealthy enough to afford a small army of tax lawyers to help you take advantage of every last loophole, deduction, exemption, and low rate, you can get away with paying next to nothing – or, if you’re lucky enough to be Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos, literally nothing – in taxes.

Our group is committed to changing this reality. We want all rich people in America to start paying what they rightfully owe in taxes – just like teachers, nurses, firefighters, and construction workers all do across the country every year. We are not looking to pay more taxes out of a misplaced sense of guilt for being rich – we don’t like paying taxes any more than anyone else does, and paying more taxes voluntarily isn’t like we’re bringing an extra salad or casserole to a family potluck out of the goodness of our hearts. On the contrary, we are looking to pay more taxes to finally start bringing something (!) to our country’s potluck, which we haven’t been doing for some time now.

If we thought paying more in taxes voluntarily would fix our country’s problems, we would do it in a heartbeat. (Many of the Patriotic Millionaires do give significant amounts of money to charities and nonprofits to try to solve some problems directly, but we recognize the limits of charity in solving the bigger problems facing our nation). But unfortunately, given the scope of the problems facing us, that’s simply not the case.

Even at the state and local level, individual contributions from a few millionaires are simply not enough to make a difference. Our roads, bridges, ports, and airports are in serious need of repair. (In 2021, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the nation’s infrastructure a grade of C-.) Public schools are in desperate need of funds. Our energy systems are not prepared to handle the ravages of climate change and need major updating. Each of these are critically important, and each will require billions upon billions of dollars to fix – money that HAS to come from taxes on the rich. But even if all of our 250 members gave away their entire fortunes to our respective state and local governments, it would not be enough. It would amount to nothing more than a pointless and performative PR exercise. 

We recognize the limited power we have as individuals, and that’s why we’re working to change the system. The scope of the problem requires systemic solutions, not small voluntary changes on an individual level. And while we may not be able to fix our country’s problems through direct giving, we do believe that by using our voices, our unique message, and our political influence, we can make an impact on the broader structures that govern our economy and our democracy.

On “Patriotism”

The same conservatives who bash us for not giving voluntarily to the IRS also seem to take issue with our group calling ourselves “Patriotic” Millionaires. But what’s more patriotic than spending time, energy, and money trying to better our economy and our country? Despite its flaws, we love this country and the principles – democracy, liberty, opportunity, equality – that it stands for. We want our country to live up to those ideals, in every sense, and have committed ourselves to making it happen.

Saying “if you want to pay more tax, then write a check to the IRS” is lazy. It is on par with saying “If you don’t like things in America, then leave.” It involves no critical thought or meaningful engagement with the real and serious issues currently facing our country. That is unpatriotic. Patriotism is seeing a problem in America and, not opting out, but diving deep to help leave things better for future generations.

For us, voluntary checks are not the answer to our country’s problems (and neither is carelessly saying the current system, which overwhelmingly benefits people like us, is fine). Making fundamental changes to the tax system to ensure the wealthy pay what they owe, state and local governments get the revenue they desperately need, and gross inequality is reduced is the answer. Patriotism is the answer.

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