The Trickle-Down Shakedown

When it comes to paying taxes, David Cay Johnston has an ugly truth for you: You’re getting screwed.

Let’s be frank. You probably don’t like paying attention to your taxes.
Whether by computer, pencil, or proxy, the details are frequently boring, the process painful,
and the results depressing. It’s easy to extrapolate that queasiness and cringe each time you see
a story about tax loopholes, tax shelters, or tax evasion. Which is understandable—maybe
inevitable—but unfortunate. Because as David Cay Johnston, a Pulitzer Prize-winning
reporter for the New York Times, details in his new book, Perfectly Legal, you’re getting screwed.

Over the past 20 years or so—starting with the Reagan tax cuts—there
has been a historic and little-remarked shift in the tax burden. Federal taxes still redistribute
income, only now it’s increasingly from the middle class to the extremely wealthy. For instance,
Social Security taxes were increased in the early 1980s to pay for what was billed as a coming solvency
crisis. Instead, they’ve financed a tax cut largely for the rich. Meanwhile, businesses have devised
endless schemes to avoid paying their fair share—from 1983 to 1999 corporate profits stocked
away in tax havens increased by 735 percent.

Such tax avoidance doesn’t happen in a vacuum. As Johnston details,
both Republicans and Democrats have encouraged it by, among other things, chronically underfunding
the IRS. Between 1988 and 2002, the number of auditors dropped by 30 percent. Nowadays, just 4 percent
of midsize companies face audits in a given year. The result is the second-lowest percentage
of corporate taxes paid since the Great Depression. Those lost revenues eventually have to be made
up somewhere—and increasingly it’s coming from working-class Americans. A whole new reason
to find taxes depressing.


Mother Jones was founded as a nonprofit in 1976 because we knew corporations and the wealthy wouldn't fund the type of hard-hitting journalism we set out to do.

Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2019 demands.

We Recommend


Give a Year of the Truth

at our special holiday rate

just $12

Order Now

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.


We have a new comment system! We are now using Coral, from Vox Media, for comments on all new articles. We'd love your feedback.