A Study from Tax Ethics Researcher Robert McGee

I’ve mentioned before the many on-line research papers by Robert McGee, who has spent the last dozen years or so examining the international and historical opinions of philosophers and religious scholars about the ethics of tax evasion, and comparing this to the attitudes of people today.

He’s got a new paper out now, The Ethics of Tax Evasion: A Survey of Romanian Business Students and Faculty.

McGee typically finds in his surveys, to his surprise and mine, only weak support for tax evasion under any circumstances. For instance, in this survey, on a scale from 1 (strongly agree) to 7 (strongly disagree), even a statement like “Tax evasion would be ethical if I were a Jew living in Nazi Germany in ” ranks only a 4.5 — among the five faculty members who also took the survey, that question gets an even more incredible 6.8! (An earlier survey of “international business academics” had a similar result for this question: 4.23)

This paper includes many of the comments written by the Romanian students and may be a good source of information on the sort of attitudes that must be overcome to build sympathy for tax resistance.

Dennis Wagner at the Arizona Republic reports on the huge underground prison industry of filing for fraudulent tax refunds:

This year, IRS officials detected $68 million in false tax refund applications filed by 18,000 U.S. prisoners for . That accounted for more than one-seventh of all phony refunds nationwide.

In Arizona, convicts were responsible for roughly half of the $600,000 in fraudulent claims detected by Department of Revenue investigators .…

Nancy Jardini, chief of IRS criminal investigations, told a House subcommittee that inmate fraud has increased 700 percent in three years.

“There is no question that prisoner refund fraud is on the rise,” she said. “Even though prisoner returns comprised less than 1 percent of all individual federal income tax returns filed in , more than 15 percent of false refund returns used prisoner names and taxpayer identification numbers.”

By all accounts, the crime is exacerbated by a simple fact: Inmates have little incentive to stop because they seldom face punishment, from the justice system or prison administrators, when they are caught. Law enforcement authorities say they just don’t have the resources to investigate criminals who are behind bars.…

During the House subcommittee hearings, an anonymous inmate drove home that point by saying he had filed 700 false returns for $3.5 million worth of refunds.…

…[I]nmates have devised dozens of schemes. When one succeeds, it is likely to proliferate within a cellblock, then spread to other correctional centers. Sometimes, ringleaders work out profit-sharing deals with cellmates, using their names and Social Security numbers to file more tax returns. Or they may just steal the information.

Either way, completed forms are sent to an outside accomplice who forwards them to the IRS, often using a post office box as a return address. When refunds arrive, the middleman cashes each check, takes a cut and distributes the rest to inmate prison accounts or associates on the outside. Some of the most sophisticated operations launder money through offshore accounts.

Brad Palmer, an IRS agent, described tax-scamming in Arizona as a “huge” prison enterprise that has infected every type of correctional facility in the state.

“There are a lot of inmates involved. The difficult part is knowing how many of the schemes are all connected,” Palmer said. “Once we catch a scheme, they adapt it and find a new system.”

Ethan Miller’s essay Solidarity Economics has thought-provoking and encouraging things to say about the potential of the underground economy that exists almost invisibly all around us:

“economy” is not just about supply-and-demand markets. In its largest sense, economics is about how we as human beings collectively generate livelihoods in relation to each other and to the Earth. The human economy includes all of the varied social relationships that we create in the course of meeting our needs and pursuing our dreams.

Capitalism, with its “free market economy,” its “jobs” and its “wages,” is only one part of how we actually create and maintain livelihoods in our families and communities. When we peel away the misleading idea of one giant “Economic System,” we can begin to see the workings of many different kinds of economies that are alive and well, supporting us below the surface. These are not the economies of the stock-brokers and the “expert” economists. These are our economies, people’s economies, the economies that we build with our everyday lives and relationships.

These include: “Householding economies,” “barter economies,” “collective economies,” “scavenging economies,” “gift economies,” “worker-controlled economies,” “ ‘pirate’ economies,” and “subsistence-market economies.”

These categories name only some of the many diverse, non-capitalist economic relationships that are interwoven throughout our lives. The project of identifying these relationships is a project of hope, one that allows us to begin de-colonizing ourselves from the devaluing and degrading ways-of-seeing that have been imposed on us by the Economics of Empire. We can begin to see, instead, the powerful spaces of freedom that already exist in our midst.…

Solidarity Economics begins here, with the realization that alternative economies already exist; that we as creative and skilled people have already created different kinds of economic relationships in the very belly of the capitalist system. We have our own forms of wealth and value that are not defined by money. Instead of prioritizing competition and profit-making, these economies place human needs and relationships at the center. They are the already-planted seeds of a new economy, an economy of cooperation, equality, diversity, and self-determination: a “solidarity economy”.

Though the capitalist economy has devalued or hidden these seeds from us, we can use them as starting points for our alternative economic organizing. The project of solidarity economics is to water these seeds — to identify and expand the spaces of solidarity that already exist and, in the process, create new and larger ones.