As a columnist for The Washington Post, Megan McArdle works for the Post’s owner, a man named Jeff Bezos. Over the past two decades, McArdle has had numerous other prestigious bosses. She boasts a solid career in high-level journalism, having worked for The Atlantic, Newsweek, The Economist and Bloomberg, among others. Bloomberg View’s executive editor, David Shipley, once called her “an extraordinary writer and thinker.”

Early on, in 2001, McArdle broke onto the scene as the author of a blog, “Live from the WTC,” at a time when most people were not yet addicted to the internet and few even knew what the word blog meant. Making her mark as a blogger required one of two talents: the ability to come up regularly with remarkable scoops and cutting insights, or developing a shrill, brutally opiniated voice capable of irritating the right class of adversaries and resonating with a crowd of equally opinionated followers. McArdle long ago branded herself a libertarian. That quite naturally helped to define her as the second type of celebrated blogger. She has consistently lived up to that billing, even as an opinion writer for the revered Washington Post.


ProPublica Reveals the US Is a Tax Haven

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McArdle has now weighed in on ProPublica’s blockbuster scoop last week concerning the tax returns of the 25 richest Americans. New York Times editor Spencer Bokat-Lindell prudently commented: “Depending on your point of view, it was either one of the most important stories of the year or an invented scandal.” The Times author exposes the significant complications when wishing to address the issue of taxing the super-rich. He coyly conceals his own point of view. 

In her column in The Washington Post bearing the title, “Think Twice Before Changing the Tax Rules to Soak Billionaires,” McArdle doesn’t hesitate to trumpet her point of view urbi et orbi. “Think twice” of course means: Read my article and stop complaining. She suggests that taxing the rich more would be undemocratic because it would mean treating them differently from other citizens. That would be an injustice. Her jibe, “soak billionaires,” suggests that taxing them would be torture similar to waterboarding.

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Then McArdle offers this: “We talk a lot about rich people ‘paying their fair share,’ but we’re rarely clear on what exactly we mean by that.”

Today’s Daily Devil’s Dictionary definition:

Fair share:

An amount corresponding to the implicit rules of equitability that apply in any society that values solidarity, meaning that no such amount can be determined in a society with an ideological bias against solidarity

Contextual Note

McArdle may have been inspired by former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher who, to the rhetorical question, “Who is society?” gave this response: “There is no such thing! There are individual men and women.” That means fairness is in the eye of the beholder. It also means all’s fair in love and war… and tax avoidance. In any case, the two ladies appear to share a similar train of thought. In the idea of “fair share,” it isn’t the concept of “fair” that upsets either of the ladies. It’s the idea of “share.” In McArdle’s mind, the noun “share” simply designates a unit of ownership in a corporation’s stock. Society, in this sense, is hardly different from a community of shareholders, some owning many more shares than others.

The columnist speculates about what it would mean if the wealthy were taxed on the added value of the stocks they own. She imagines a melodramatic scenario in which “they might be forced to sell off stock of a business they spent decades building.” Shares cannot be shared, so they must be sold. That would be downright tragic because the builders might just stop building and then where would society be? But having made her melodramatic point, she doesn’t even try to imagine how such things would play out in the real world. Like Kurtz in Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” she simply invokes “The horror! The horror!”

McArdle’s shock at the idea of entrepreneurs losing their life’s work makes no sense for two fairly obvious reasons. The first is theoretical, the second pragmatic. In theory, a wealthy person could be forced to sell stock to pay a percentage of capital gains. That person’s share of the company would be correspondingly diminished, but in almost all cases only slightly, since the tax would only represent a percentage of the gain in value. Owning 10% of a company valued at $1.5 billion is better than owning 12% of a company valued at $1 billion. In the long term, having to sell those more shares could end up reducing the person’s future wealth. It would not reduce their current wealth.

But because real billionaires tend to be well advised and own portfolios that allow them a wide range of options, they never make such sacrifices. Whether it is to buy a yacht or pay taxes, they rarely if ever liquefy any assets. They borrow against those assets, which has the added value of reducing their declared income on which they would normally pay taxes.

For most people, income represents the money they must earn to survive or maintain a lifestyle. Because wealthy owners of businesses decide on their own remuneration, they avoid having a substantial taxable income by living lavishly off money they borrow from a bank and pay back with interest. The interest is the only “penalty” they pay for their prodigality. It is nowhere near what they would pay in taxes. It’s an ideal solution. Banks love lending money to the rich because there is zero risk. The wealthy avoid taxes. Their tax lawyers and accounts earn a decent fee. The society of ordinary taxpayers reaps no benefit other than whatever trickles down from the high profit margins of those who sell yachts and luxury goods.

McArdle doesn’t want to know about such systemic truth. Instead, she returns to her imaginary vision of a system obsessed by its envy of the rich and intent on invoking the idea of fairness to constrain their freedom. She confesses that, “given a choice between letting billionaires spend fortunes reaching for the stars, or destroying those fortunes so that the rest of us don’t have to look at them, then personally, I’ll take the rockets.”

Historical Note

The rockets that Megan McArdle refers to are those that her boss, Jeff Bezos, is building thanks to his astronomic fortune, some of which he has invested in his space venture, Blue Origin. Is it a coincidence that she works for Bezos’ newspaper and that she uncritically assesses his personal indulgences?

Her previous column, with the title “Why Aren’t We Talking More About UFOs?” clearly advances the interests of Blue Origin. The more concerned Americans are about alien invasions — whether from outer space, China or Russia — the more public money (provided by ordinary taxpayers) will be available to support Blue Origin, a company that is about to receive a gift offered by Congress of $10 billion to colonize the moon, even after losing out in a public bid to fellow billionaire Elon Musk’s venture, SpaceX. 

McArdle probably thinks of Blue Origin as yet another example “of a business [Jeff Bezos] spent decades building.” His lobbyists have convinced the government to spend billions on it, while Bezos himself skirts his tax obligation. She complains that the argument demanding “‘taxes on untaxed capital gains’ is what you come up with if you just don’t think anyone should have enough money to be able to shoot themselves into space.” The “you” she refers to is ProPublica, which dared to make that case, and anyone else equally feeble-minded enough to begrudge billionaires their private pleasures. 

Bezos’ ownership of the Post is paying off. When making the decision to buy the paper in 2013, he reasoned: “The Washington Post has an incredibly important role to play in this democracy. There’s no doubt in my mind about that.” Had he waited a year to consider the findings of a Princeton study published in 2014 with the title, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens,” he might have more accurately explained: The Washington Post has an incredibly important role to play in this plutocracy.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.