I got into a tussle with some rando on Twitter yesterday over the question of ethics in the accounting profession—which, there aren’t any, apparently, as demonstrated by ProPublica, where the tax records of a number of billionaires were just published. It’s the merest cliché that “the rich don’t pay taxes,” but seeing the true extent of it was still a shockeroo. For example, ProPublica reports that the richest man in the U.S., Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, paid zero ($0) dollars in income tax in 2007 and 2011.
Anyhow, the thing that really struck me about the story was the total lack of conscience of the accountants, who are paid, year after year, to see to it that these billionaires do not exercise even a shred of civic responsibility. It’s a whole profession dedicated to alllllmost cheating.
It’s wrong to help Jeff Bezos pay zero dollars of federal income tax just because the letter of the law permits it, because Jeff Bezos has got more money than any individual could possibly need. He can relax, he doesn’t need the $4,000 child credit that he took on his taxes in 2011. Other people need that!! Not him!! This is the scandal—not “what’s legal.” The scandal is that anyone can imagine that it isn’t horribly wrong, and bad, to make sure that Jeff Bezos of all people gets every penny that isn’t nailed to the floorboards.
(Warren Buffett, by the way, was also shown by ProPublica to have been full of hooey for about forever. He is famous for having said that he shouldn’t pay less taxes than his secretary. Guess what, Warren, you never had to! You were always free to have paid whatever you wanted, whatever you thought was a fair and right amount. But in the event, it’s now clear that Buffett paid a pathetically small fraction of his inhuman, ridiculous wealth in taxes. The question being: Why? Why. If you shouldn’t pay less taxes than your secretary, Warren Buffett… why did you?)
So on social media, in tones of weary superiority, the Brain Geniuses for Billionaires commenced to mansplain to the rest of us poor schlubs that unrealized capital gains are untaxable. In other words, Jeff Bezos can’t pay for an ice cream with stock, so it’s not “income,” and can’t be taxed (you idiots!). These really unbelievable lunatics failed, however, to assimilate the bigger picture or overarching fact, viz., that the upshot of the current system is that the money Bezos uses to pay for ice cream is never taxed, either. Recently we learned that Jeff Bezos is spending upwards of $500 million on a yacht. Using money! Money that should be taxed, like everybody else’s.
Hence the aforementioned tussles I got in yesterday on Twitter, until one antagonist finally asked me (with regard, specifically, to the ethics of accountants): “What exactly do you suggest they do? Give up their livelihood until the tax code is changed?”
“I suggest that these accountants advise their clients either pay their fair share, or find themselves another accountant,” I replied.
So imagine my surprise when, just a few hours later, an Amazon drone flew up to my office window beeping the theme song to Mannix before dropping a gift-wrapped packet at the door, addressed to me. Inside I found coupons for Audible and a little pamphlet called “Ain’t No YOU in Union, Other Than Phonetically,” and a note handwritten on old-fashioned pale blue letter paper, embossed “From the Desk of Jeff Bezos.”
8 June 2021
Hey Maria: Writing with a proposal for you, as I have decided to stop being a complete tool.
Will you be my new accountant?
He must have seen my tweets!!
Given that I am not an MBA or even a CPA, the request was unexpected, but of course I accepted at once. We accountants should not be in the business of “saving billionaires money.” Thrift is no virtue in a billionaire. Instead, New Accountants like me believe that principle and civic responsibility should come first.
So here’s what I, Jeff Bezos’s new accountant, have proposed to my new employer so far:
We’ll figure out how much JB spends on himself and his own needs—his personal expenses to do his life, each year—and calculate income taxes for that sum as if it were what working people call “income.” Because that would be fair. The liquid part of his money that he spends on himself might technically come from a loan, or be income offset by paper losses. But it is still regular-degular real live liquid money and he’s spending it, just like a regular person would, even though he is buying a $500 million yacht with his, and p.s. he could buy a $500 million yacht for himself every single year, pay taxes on it as if it were income, and it would still not make a significant dent in his fortune, which billowed even more grossly during the pandemic.
(p.p.s. this is not only my idea, there was a really excellent book about it some years back, by Robert Frank.)
Moving forward, we’ll plan how Jeff can most effectively and fairly share the rest of his disproportionate wealth with the world. Thank goodness Mr. Wonderful (that’s what I call him now) has realized that the best legacy he can leave is what he calls, “The Civic Revolution,” and he hopes all the other billionaires outed by ProPublica will follow suit.
“Ker-POW! I’m finally leading by example, Maria!” he told me effusively, with his trademark braying laugh. Who knew that sound would become music to my ears, one day?