Becoming a millionaire is easy, comedian Steve Martin used to say – first, get a million dollars. Then, when it comes time to pay taxes, don’t.

These days, that’s not really a joke. In fact, for those without ethics, it’s becoming pretty good financial advice.

Just 5.8 percent of people with income over $1 million were audited by the Internal Revenue Service last year, less than half the percentage of 2011, and new investigations of people who don’t file tax returns was down to 362,000 last year from more than 2.4 million in 2011.

Both decreases are the result of a nearly decade-long effort to gut IRS enforcement, as detailed in a recent investigation by ProPublica. And it’s just the start.

According to the report, the number of IRS auditors is down a third from 2010, and at its lowest level since 1953, when the U.S. population was half what it is now. Not surprisingly, the number of audits conducted by the agency fell 42 percent between 2010 and 2017. The IRS criminal division brought 795 tax fraud cases in 2017, a 25 percent decline since 2010.

And the decreases are not evenly spread among Americans, which may be the point. Someone who utilizes the earned-income tax credit, which provides cash to people earning under $20,000 a year, is just as likely to be audited now as someone earning between $500,000 and $1 million a year.

These are not victimless crimes. The drop in investigations of nonfilers, for instance, has cost at least $3 billion each year in lost revenue, according to the IRS inspector general. In addition, the IRS lost $8.3 billion in expired tax obligations because investigators didn’t have the resources to pursue them.

Every dollar in tax obligation that is avoided is a dollar that can’t pay for roads, bridges, veterans or elderly health care. Every dollar not paid by an American wealthy enough to engage in complex tax avoidance must be made up elsewhere, a brunt that is typically borne by lower- and middle-class Americans – one way or another.

Take for example the tax avoidance perpetrated by Donald Trump and his siblings, as documented by The New York Times.

According to The Times, in the 1990s, the president’s father, Fred Trump, in just one of many schemes, set up a company controlled by his children, then used that company as a purchasing agent for supplies for his apartment empire. Fred Trump then paid inflated prices for everything, passing on the extra money to his children.

By passing the money through his kids’ company, he saved hundreds of millions on inheritance taxes, eventually paying about $52 million on the kids’ $1 billion inheritance, rather than 10 times that as is prescribed by law.

Not only did the scheme avoid taxes that the law says should be paid to the U.S. Treasury, it also resulted in Fred Trump’s tenants getting the short end of the stick: Their rents were increased based on the inflated prices paid to the purchasing agent, which appeared to city rent controllers to be the result of major improvements.

As a result, thousands of working-class tenants, many of them new immigrants and municipal workers, were forced to pay rents higher than they should have been. Some of them are still in those apartments, and have collectively been cheated out of tens of millions dollars in rent over the years.

That’s just one instance by one man, which we only know about because his son invited scrutiny by becoming president.

Likewise, we know about the fraud conducted by Michael Cohen, the president’s fixer, and Paul Manafort, his one-time campaign manager, only because they were in the orbit of the most powerful person in the world.

How many others are out there quietly ripping off the government and other taxpayers? We don’t know, and neither does the IRS.

Comments are not available on this story.

filed under: