The recent indictment of the CFO of Trump’s business empire has offered us a window into the differences in dishonest behavior between members of different social classes–and the extent to which anti-social behavior by “others” is viewed more negatively.
As a law professor who was a former U.S. Attorney opined, in the wake of the indictment of Allen Weisselberg,
As I learned during my career as a federal prosecutor, this is the way rich people steal money. The means are more sophisticated than sticking up someone with a gun on a street corner, but purpose is the same, which is why one of the charges is grand larceny— stealing property that doesn’t belong to you.
The charges leveled thus far–the investigation is ongoing, and more are likely–are serious. No one brandished a weapon, but according to the indictment, the company under Weisselberg’s and Trump’s direction engaged in 15 types of fraud over a period of years. Those included a number of schemes to evade income taxes, mostly by finding ways to compensate employees “off the books.” The organization provided employees with cars, apartments, private school tuition, home improvements and bonuses– without , however, reporting these perks as the taxable income they legally were. That allowed the organization to avoid payroll taxes and allowed the employees thus compensated to significantly reduce both their taxable income and the amount of taxes they paid.
This wasn’t penny-ante stuff; the indictment accuses Weisselberg alone of concealing approximately $1.7 million of his own compensation from tax authorities.
If this indictment was merely more evidence of Donald Trump’s disdain for the law, it would be worth at most a shake of the head and a comment to the effect that it didn’t come as a surprise. Unfortunately, however, fraud of this sort is apparently widespread among wealthy and near-wealthy individuals who share Trump’s stated belief that “smart” people don’t pay a lot in taxes.
The reactions to the indictments by Trump’s defenders have been telling. Defense lawyers characterized the criminal charges as “inappropriate,” and a number of rank-and-file, “law and order” Republicans shrugged them off as business as usual. Evidently, they consider the theft of millions of dollars accomplished without weaponry less serious than a holdup at gunpoint on the street (netting, perhaps, a couple of hundred dollars and a watch).
Of course, we “little people” have to make up the amounts lost by reason of this tax cheating through our own taxes–but what I find even more troubling is the lack of indignation and condemnation of this clearly fraudulent and criminal behavior. That indulgence undermines both the legitimacy of government and the rule of law.
We sometimes forget the extent to which our legal and economic systems require the voluntary compliance of the vast majority of Americans. To use an obvious example, most of us who drive stop at red lights and obey (most) other rules of the road. We couldn’t hire enough police officers to ensure safe roads if we couldn’t rely on the willingness of large majorities to obey traffic rules.
For that matter, America’s entire system of commerce relies upon the willingness of most sellers to deliver goods as promised, and the willingness of most buyers to pay for those goods in a timely manner without the need to send for the sheriff.
Our tax system similarly depends upon the voluntary compliance of millions of Americans who dutifully file the required paperwork and remit the appropriate payments. When that culture of obedience is allowed to erode–when the well-to-do can publicly wink at each others’ fraudulent evasions–that erosion inevitably breeds resentment among the law-abiding, and excuses additional noncompliance, not just with the tax laws, but within daily commerce.
The so-called “Captains of Industry” who consider themselves too smart to pay their taxes are also the scofflaws most likely to stiff the people with whom they do business. The Trump Organization is a prime example, but certainly not the only one.
Just because a certain type of theft is more sophisticated doesn’t make it less reprehensible. Stealing from the government is no less dishonest than stealing from individuals–and in fact, it is stealing from the individuals who must make up the difference.
It’s evidence of moral bankruptcy, not “smarts.”