Of Death and Taxes
" They get away with this treatment of people because they call these men who work under them "sub-contractors," which essentially means that they need to have a CPA to understand all the wonderful tax deductions available to them. If only those construction workers had business degrees! "My father was a construction worker. He measured out, cut, and lifted heavy sheetrock onto bare frames of houses, fitting things together like puzzle pieces with precision and speed. He did this manual labor in the most extreme climates from Las Vegas to Alaska to Utah to Florida. He wore flannels and had a beard, and drank whiskey to ease the pain of the dental work he needed, but couldn't afford. He passed away too young, as a single parent: zero health insurance, no life savings, no life insurance. He spent his life building houses for other people, but passed away in a small trailer that didn't even belong to him. Everything he'd worked for in his life: a tiny amount of money in a savings account -- not enough for the dental work that he desperately needed, but wouldn't live to get.
It baffled me growing up, how my dad could work so hard and so long and so far away all over the place, and yet we could never make ends meet? Not just anybody could do the work that he did; drywall is not easy.
During the last 14 years of his life as a single parent of four children, he never accepted or even sought any kind of welfare handouts.
Are the real estate developers who fail to provide my father and other construction laborers with a decent living wage, with medical insurance for their physically exhausting work, with any means to provide even a small amount of savings for their children ... are those people ethical? Although I'd love to make the judgment call, I won't say. In the grand scheme of things, I do know that in this world, there are good people and bad; that there is no law and nothing that society can do to "make" people behave ethically -- action (or lack of action) speaks for itself about the character of the person, and character is what defines people. My father was perhaps the most honest and humble human being I've ever known, and he deserved so much better.
To each and every one with a functioning brain out there, considering voting for Mitt Romney "because he's Mormon" or because you think he can run America like an efficient business -- please don't. Please, don't.
Never has there been a nominee so delusional as Mitt Romney. The tragic thing is that there are people who could actually believe that "47 percent of Americans" would be "dependent upon government". Romney uttered his words at a $50,000 per-plate fundraising event in his efforts to become President of the United States.
What the GOP does not understand is that wealth obtained from the fruits of others' labors is not and never has been theirs. They did not earn it; thy did not build it. It is just not possible to become as wealthy as they are without using people and denying them their share simply because it's LEGAL to deny people their fair share. Somehow, somewhere along the way, the GOP has become indoctrinated with the false notion that ethics and legality are somehow linked; that "as long as it's not illegal, it's not unethical."
With platitudes for supposed "Christian" values, the GOP insists upon enforcements of laws to criminalize social problems while deregulating and un-criminalizing the very economic causes of those problems.
Truly ethical behavior does not come about from the constructs of government. Mr. Romney has been able to evade paying taxes on much of his income by keeping troves of it offshore . . . he's unashamed to declare that he pays not "a dollar" more in tax than what the IRS code mandates. So, assuming that manipulation of tax code is legal -- maybe he's not broken any "laws" per-say -- but is this ethical behavior?
It brings up some interesting points about just how desperate the GOP is to destroy the very checks and balances that income tax provides. Crying about taxes when there are so many less fortunate people in the world, the GOP is like a stubborn toddler whose face is covered in melted ice cream, throwing a rage of a tantrum because he can't have more.
A certain CEO of a real estate development company we once knew in Florida pays immigrants "under the table." Some of these immigrants do landscaping, others do painting and repairs and cleaning at the buildings and sites he's developing. Once they are done with all the hard work, the Realtors flock in, snapping photos and finding charming little catch phrases to be displayed in colorful real estate brochures. After having the properties spruced up by underpaid workers, his company is able to "flip" properties and the CEO is entirely convinced that he alone is entitled to the profits. Those workers he so "graciously" employed might not be legal yet, so no need to let the government know about them. CEO pats himself on the back for saving money in labor costs, avoiding paying income tax or health insurance for those workers, and considers that he's "done them a favor."
It's a common theme in many circles that employing people in a "temp" fashion is somehow "doing them a favor". Republicans love temporary things, which they rationalize absolves them of any moral duty: temp jobs for temp workers in temp housing. "It's not my problem" they say. Use people up and throw them away, kick 'em out if when they can't pay the rent. There are millions more where those came from, all eager to do dirty work for pennies on the dollar.
There are two main mechanisms stealing the wealth from the very people who are earning it:
- Underpayment of wages / denial of equity: "Underpaying" can qualify either "at" or "near" the minimum wage, but any worker at any pay rate can be considered underpaid when there is a significant discrepancy between the lowest-paid (even part-time employee, or contract worker) and the one at the top. Most of the time, companies are built by groups of people working together as a team; it is not right for the person who calls himself "CEO" to keep the bulk of the economic value created by his team.
- Overcharging housing: My father and many of the construction workers he knew weren't able to make it to retirement from their lifelong endeavors of building of houses (and how ironic is it that men who build houses for a living cannot afford their own!) . . . So, who gets all that money from houses that cost so much? Real estate agents, landlords, and real estate developers -- these people have deluded themselves into thinking that they are the ones "entitled" to collect rents or commissions from the labors of other people's work. They collude and conspire, keeping rents high, robbing people of their very ability to build equity (and it really is a form of slavery). But don't take my word for it; there's lots of proof out there that this form of modern slavery is working.
Although these problems are complex, can the solutions be simple? Is it time to criminalize unethical behavior? Or is it time to economically incentivize ethical behavior? Perhaps the best solution lies in the right mix of both.
My father most certainly did pay income tax, and into Social Security. But because he barely made $19,000 per year as a single parent, he got most of that money back at the end of the year. I know this because I did his taxes the second-to-last full "tax" year of his life. By the time I grew up and earned my degrees to help him figure out what was wrong, it was too late.
Not only do real estate developers fail to provide construction workers with medical insurance or any kind of health, dental, or vision benefits -- nor do they provide the men doing the backbreaking physical labor any kind of reimbursement for their tools, automobiles to drive out to the construction sites, gasoline. They can get away with this treatment of people because they call these men who work under them "sub-contractors," (contractors who work for contractors) which essentially means that they need to have a CPA to understand all the wonderful tax deductions available to them. If only those construction workers had business degrees!
Indeed, by the time I earned some accounting degrees and was able to do his taxes, it was too late. My father didn't see the end of the tax year 2004; the years of physically debilitating work caught up with him, and he passed away on what should have been the celebratory day I was set to accept my Master's degree.
Not a day goes by where I don't think about my father. Like many construction workers, he was used up and thrown away heedlessly by the mechanisms in the real estate industry, fueled by the insatiable greed of men with too much money and too few ethics.