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How the ultrawealthy devise ways to not pay their share of taxes

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. Increasing wealth inequality has become a widely acknowledged problem in the United States in recent years. When the Biden administration pushed for passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, there were hopes it would take a step toward fairness by adjusting tax rates or policies for the wealthy and by strengthening the Internal Revenue Service's capacity to ensure people and corporations pay what they owe.

For some insight into what's happened and the state of tax policies for the wealthy, we turn to Jesse Eisinger, senior editor and reporter at ProPublica, an independent nonprofit news organization focused on investigative reporting. He's written on the IRS' efforts to tax the rich in recent years. And over the last several months, he's been an editor and worked with a team of reporters on a series of stories drawn from a vast trove of IRS data ProPublica obtained. The data included information on the tax returns of thousands of the nation's wealthiest people covering more than 15 years. The stories covered a variety of ways the ultrarich shield income from federal taxation, such as claiming deductions from expensive hobbies, like thoroughbred horse racing. Jesse Eisinger is a veteran investigative reporter. In 2011, he and ProPublica's Jake Bernstein won a Pulitzer Prize for their reporting on questionable practices on Wall Street.

Jesse Eisinger, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Let's talk about the Inflation Reduction Act. There were a lot of goals for this legislation, and one of them was putting a dent in inequality of wealth. There was reporting that, you know, that there were changes in corporate taxes that were meaningful, could generate as much as $300 billion in revenue. What's the story here? What actually happened?

JESSE EISINGER: Yes, this is a bad news and good news story for taxing the wealthy and holding the wealthy accountable. In the bad news, the ambitions of the Democrats were ratcheted back significantly as they were for their other policy goals, as in climate and social welfare spending. We have a consensus now that wealth inequality is an enormous problem in the country, at least among economists, many policymakers and Democrats and even some centrist-thinking Republicans. But we don't have a system that taxes the wealthy equitably. And there were efforts proposed to address this by the Biden administration and by Democrats. But in the end, they did not do anything to address taxes on the wealthy and particularly the ultrawealthy in any significant measure. But they did do some things that will be positive and bring about a fairer tax system.

DAVIES: One thing that the Inflation Reduction Act does is provide significant new funding for the IRS, which is generally regarded as underfunded and understaffed. This is something that you have written about. Just take a moment here and give us a sense of how much the IRS has lost in recent years in staff and budget and why.

EISINGER: So Paul Kiel and I explored this in a series of stories a couple of years ago, and the IRS has been gutted, primarily starting in 2010 when Republicans took over Congress and started slashing the budget. The result of this is an agency on life support today. The budget is down in real dollars, about $2 billion. It's roughly going to be about a $13 billion budget. So this is huge, significant budget cut. And the result of this is that tens of thousands of employees have left the agency in recent years. The systems have not been upgraded. In fact, some systems actually run an ancient computer language called COBOL, and they have to take people out of retirement to update it when they need a fix. So the systems are really decrepit. The - those tens of thousands of people, many of them were the best, most able employees who could get jobs in the private sector. So it even understates how significant those personnel losses are.

And the result is that audits have collapsed. Audits for the wealthy have collapsed by 80%. And audits for the largest corporations - it used to be that the largest corporations were audited more than once a year because the IRS was in there every single year and sometimes auditing multiple years simultaneously. Now, barely half of the largest companies get audited every year, and the audits are much thinner. They're much less thorough. They're looking at many fewer things. And it means that we collect less taxes, particularly from the wealthy.

DAVIES: What exactly does the Inflation Reduction Act provide for the IRS?

EISINGER: So the Inflation Reduction Act provides $80 billion to the IRS in addition to its regular budget over 10 years. And it was clear when we were writing our series that the IRS was now a reclamation project that was going to take years and billions and billions of dollars. And now we have that. It's one of the biggest influxes of money into an ailing federal agency in modern memory. And what it's going to do is help the IRS upgrade its systems, its computer systems. I was telling you about the antiquated computer languages that it uses. A lot of what it still does is on paper with fax machines. They don't have enough people to answer the phones. So you can wait hours and hours if you try to call the - have a question answered. So a lot of that is just going to be what they call customer service.

And then there's going to be a significant boost to the enforcement budget. Forty-five billion dollars of that $80 billion is supposed to go to new enforcement. And what that enforcement is - will be audits, particularly of the wealthy, and corporations and then enforcing our tax laws. One of the consequences of the collapse is that we almost never prosecute tax evasion now. Audits look at tax avoidance and try to figure out whether you're avoiding taxes improperly. It's not necessarily a crime. And then there's tax evasion, having some secret effort to avoid taxes illegally. And we almost never investigate and prosecute tax evaders.

DAVIES: A lot of Republicans have attacked this additional IRS funding, saying that they're really going after ordinary Americans and that it's going to be an intrusive attack. And I have to share quotes that were in The Washington Post from House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy. This is the Republican leader in the U.S. House of Representatives. He said, quote, "do you know what the IRS has? Four thousand six hundred guns, 5 million rounds of ammunition. Why? Democrats want to double its already massive size." He further adds, "with this new power, the IRS will snoop around in your bank account, your Venmo, your small business. They, the government, will shake you down for every last cent." And then he adds that in light of the FBI's search on, you know, President Trump's home in Mar-a-Lago, "do you really trust this administration's IRS to be fair, not to abuse their power?" This has really gotten some traction, particularly in conservative media. What do you make of all that?

EISINGER: Well, I mean, let's be frank. It's ridiculous. These claims are based on lies. They're lying that these IRS agents are going to be armed. A bare, small percentage of them will be for only the most egregious situations of tax evasion for drug dealers, you know, cartel owners, organized crime. And they're going to have more agents, but they're losing agents at a huge clip and you - losing employees at a huge clip, so they can't answer phones for people. So most of these new employees are going to be answering phones for average people and helping them get their questions answered so that they can pay taxes.

This is a campaign against the IRS to protect corporations and the wealthy because corporations and the wealthy have had it so good for the last few years and decades and been able to avoid taxes and their tax burden - the largest corporations and the wealthy, especially the ultrawealthy - has collapsed. They're not paying their fair share. And the Republicans are protecting those people by attacking the IRS. And it would be comical - these lies are so easily debunked - except that when they talk about the IRS wielding weapons and Chuck Grassley talked about agents having AK-15s - I think he meant AR-15s, which is ludicrous - what that's doing is putting civil servants, hardworking IRS people, at risk. And in fact, the commissioner of the IRS, just in the recent days, had to put a safety alert out and a safety assessment out for employees because of all the threats that IRS employees are experiencing.

DAVIES: Right. And the recent events surrounding the FBI after the search at Mar-a-Lago underlines the, you know, the real - the credibility of some of those threats. You know, you say that - the treasury officials say that a lot of this increased enforcement and auditing activity will be directed at the wealthy, and we'll see how that plays out. But when you and Paul Kiel were doing your work on the IRS, you also looked at what kinds of audits have been conducted in recent years, particularly, you know, as the agency has lost personnel. And you have a story - I just have to mention this - about the earned-income tax credit and people who were audited for allegedly abusing this break. You want to just explain what the earned-income tax credit is and what happened here?

EISINGER: Sure. The result of this is that if you are a member of the working poor in this country, if you make roughly 20 or $30,000 a year, you're more likely to be audited than if you make $500,000 a year in this country. That is the result of the massive budget cuts from the Republicans. So what is the earned-income tax credit? Well, it's one of our biggest social welfare programs, and it provides extra money - and it's a really significant amount of money when you are a member of the working poor - several thousand dollars a year to add to your $20,000 of income. You have to have a job to get the earned-income tax credit. But because money is going out, Republicans in particular have attacked this program.

DAVIES: Well, and it's particularly troubling because people who are taking advantage of this tax credit are living paycheck to paycheck. They count on the refunds that they're going to get. You tell the story of a 28-year-old woman who's expecting a $2,000 refund. And she gets a computer-generated letter saying we must - we have questions about your return and your use of this tax credit. Please send us all of your W-2s, et cetera, et cetera, all kinds of information. What happens then, when a, you know, a staff-depleted IRS has to follow-up on this kind of audit?

EISINGER: Yes. Well, people don't answer the phones. You can't get a straight answer. It's incredibly time-consuming. A lot of these people are holding down two jobs. They may be single mothers. And let's be clear about what's happening, is that the most audited county in the United States, when Paul and I did this story, was a majority-Black county in Mississippi. These audits fall disproportionately on not just the poor, but people of color. And so the most audited county in America being a Black county speaks to the essential unfairness of our tax system.

DAVIES: All right. We're going to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Jesse Eisinger. He's a senior reporter and editor at ProPublica. We'll be back to continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIJAY IYER'S "BLACK AND TAN FANTASY")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're talking with Jesse Eisinger. He's a senior editor and reporter at ProPublica. He worked with a team of reporters recently on a series of stories about ways the wealthiest Americans drastically reduce their tax obligations.

So let's talk about this tax avoidance project that you and many other reporters at ProPublica did. And this was based on a trove of IRS data. And you say in the reporting that you cannot disclose how you got this data. What can you tell us about its contents - how many taxpayers, all that?

EISINGER: Yeah, we got a vast trove of private tax-return information about only the wealthiest individuals in America. So we have thousands of individuals. We have it going back for more than 15 years. But it's really the 1% of the 1% - the billionaire class. We don't have waitresses. We don't even have doctors or lawyers. We have, as I say, billionaires. And we obtained it. It's probably the biggest single trove of private tax information that's ever been obtained by any journalistic or academic entity in the history of the country. And we've been culling it for stories that we believe are in the public interest.

DAVIES: Right. And you acknowledge, in the stories, that privacy is a legitimate concern. It is no small thing for journalists or others to get this kind of information. What did you decide is fair to print? And what did you not print?

EISINGER: Yeah, this was a delicate effort. And we took this very seriously and were extremely careful with the information. And we thought that the stories we had, the public interest of the stories we had, outweighed the privacy concerns of the billionaires that we were writing about. What we found was that the billionaire class operate in a completely different universe than average people when it comes to taxes. And these data provided, like the Webb telescope, the most vivid, clearest images that we have ever seen of billionaire tax avoidance. And that was so overwhelmingly important that we thought we had to get it out even though these data were so sensitive.

DAVIES: All right. We'll talk about some of the ways that the wealthiest Americans reduce their tax bills. But one of the things that you did was you simply - you did a calculation of what they're really paying over how much their financial well-being increased in a given year. That is to say, if you look at what they reported as income compared to their tax, it - maybe not so far out of line, but that really doesn't capture their reality. You came up with what you said was the real tax rates. You want to explain how you did this and what it showed?

EISINGER: Yeah, sure. So for the billionaire class, what's really important is how much their wealth grows in a given year. The rest of us, we have income, and we need income to live. But for the billionaire class, they don't actually need income. They avoid income. If you avoid income, you avoid taxes. And so it turns out that the billionaire class pays much less in tax than average people. And what we found is that Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk and Michael Bloomberg and Carl Icahn, they literally, in recent years, paid zero in federal income tax. And what you do is you let your mountain of wealth grow over time. You let Amazon stock grow. Or if you're Warren Buffett, you let Berkshire Hathaway go up and up and up. And you never sell. And if you never sell, you don't take any income.

And how are these people living if they don't sell? Well, often, what they do is they borrow against their wealth. And if you're borrowing against your wealth, that's not taxed. So ultimately, what we found was that the ultrawealthy in this country, they had wealth growth of $400 billion from 2014 to 2018, and they paid about $14 billion in taxes. And so average people pay roughly 15% in federal income taxes effectively, and the ultrawealthy paid 3.4% when compared to their wealth growth.

DAVIES: You said the IRS is afraid of the ultrawealthy I mean, I guess that's a euphemism for saying their experience is when the ultrawealthy get all of their tax lawyers and accountants in the game, the IRS loses?

EISINGER: The IRS is utterly overmatched and under-resourced when it comes to going after the superrich for their tax avoidance strategies. The superrich have huge battalions of lawyers and accountants to envelop their affairs in ways that look legitimate and complicated and hard to parse and get to the bottom of.

One of the things that the ultrawealthy do is they have corporations that own partnerships that own partnerships that own partnerships that finally trickle down to provide income for the individual. And to get through those Russian-doll structures and open it up and open it up to figure out who actually owns it and who's making the money and who's losing the money and whether that's legitimate would take years and many, many people. And the IRS just doesn't have the resources. And when they try to do it, they confront these battalions of lawyers and accountants and get overwhelmed. And so it becomes very difficult. And what the result is, is that they don't do that as often. They're scared.

DAVIES: OK. We're going to take another break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Jesse Eisinger. He's a senior editor and reporter at ProPublica. He'll be back to talk more after this short break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE MOLES' "IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST - FRONT TITLES")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. Our guest is Jesse Eisinger, a senior editor and reporter at ProPublica. He worked with a team of reporters on a series of stories about the many ways the wealthiest Americans drastically reduce their tax obligations. Much of that reporting was drawn from a large trove of IRS tax data that ProPublica acquired, which included information on the returns of thousands of the nation's wealthiest people, covering more than 15 years.

Well, Jesse Eisinger, we were talking about how the wealthiest Americans tend not to pay much because they don't report what's technically income. What they do is they accrue wealth through their assets, which you don't get taxed on until you actually sell the assets. And then what they do is they borrow when they need living expenses, they borrow. And they count those assets as collateral for the loans. And money that you borrow, you don't pay taxes on. So that's a nice little move. But it occurred to me as I read that that, well, you do have to repay the loans, right? And to repay the loans, you got to get that cash from somewhere. Wouldn't that generate income as the IRS sees it, and generate tax liability?

EISINGER: You would think so. But actually, the wealthy don't have to repay those loans often. They can just keep borrowing until they die. And this is a technique that has been coined by a USC tax law professor as buy, borrow, die. What you do is you buy or you build your asset like Amazon or Berkshire Hathaway or Tesla, and then you borrow against the asset. And there's no evidence that Bezos or Buffett has done this. But Musk discloses this in his SEC filings that he does this. And Larry Ellison, another mega billionaire, also has borrowed billions and billions of dollars. So this is a common technique. You buy, borrow, and then you can keep those debts as long as nothing catastrophic happens to your stock or your asset. You keep those debts rolling and rolling and rolling until you die.

And then when you die, there are a couple of tax loopholes that come into play that allow you to wipe out those capital gains for the purposes of taxes. And then you never have to pay taxes on the gains at all. And then the lovely thing is that the debts come off the size of estate. And so if you were subject to estate taxes - many of these people are not because you can get around estate taxes - but if you were, the debts actually reduce the size of your estate. It's a win-win-win to never pay taxes when you're alive and not pay taxes after you've died.

DAVIES: I want to make sure I understand this. When I think of a loan, I think of a few thousand dollars. You're saying that some of these people will actually borrow - from what? - a bank, I guess, or out of some financial institution, hundreds of millions of dollars, the collateral being their enormous assets?

EISINGER: Billions of dollars with a B...

DAVIES: Like, goes into a bank account that you can write checks on? You can spend billions based on these loans?

EISINGER: Well, these poor guys, they have trouble spending billions. Even they, in their wonderful, bountiful appetites and imagination, it's hard to spend billions. But they can buy lots of yachts. Larry Ellison is well known for buying sailing teams. And actually, Ellison owns an entire Hawaiian island. So with enough imagination, you can figure out how to spend billions, and they really put their minds to it.

DAVIES: What's interesting about this is that this is not tax evasion, right? It's tax avoidance. The difference, the distinction being it's legal. They're not doing anything illegal. They're not - it's not secret accounts. It's not, you know, they're not phony, you know, charities hiding money. This is all legal, right?

EISINGER: That's an absolutely crucial point to all of this, is that this does not require illegality. It doesn't even require complex lawyers or accountants finding you loopholes. The basic inequity of our tax system is based on what we tax and what we don't tax. And there are two structural issues. One is that we do not tax unrealized gains. The other that we alluded to earlier with the carried interest loophole is that we tax capital at much, much lower rates than labor income. And it's easy, it's - they understand it. It's not complex. And it's completely attainable and available to them from any major bank.

DAVIES: You know, being the credible journalists that you are, you asked everyone that you wrote about in this for comment. Not surprisingly, many ignored your inquiries. Of those who responded, what were some of the more interesting responses?

EISINGER: We got some very telling responses from the few people who engaged with our reporting. As you say, most people just ignored this issue because they see no percentage in commenting on how good the billionaire class has it. But Warren Buffett did respond to us. And Warren Buffett may be the king of American tax avoidance. He has sold so little Berkshire Hathaway and takes so little income that his true tax rate is actually .1%. And it's an astonishingly low number. And what Buffett said is, look, I'm going to give my money away to charity, and I'm a better allocator of money to causes that are important than the federal government. The federal government is going to pay down its debts with my money and I can give it to societally beneficial issues. And so I think that's better.

And one response to that is, well, I happen to think that I could spend federal money much better than the federal government and even probably better than Warren Buffett. And probably every listener out there thinks he or she could also spend federal government money better than I could or Warren Buffett could. And we don't do that in a democratic society. We have a democracy, a democratically elected government, allocate funds for societal needs rather than giving them up to individuals, except the billionaire class, who really is able to do that because of our tax system.

DAVIES: Well, while we're on the subject, does Buffett actually give - you know, do - philanthropic contributions and social spending on the kind of scale that would amount to a fair taxation rate?

EISINGER: Fair enough. He does give lots and lots of money away and is pledging to give the entirety of his wealth away - almost the entirety of his wealth. I mean, he's given billions and billions of dollars to his children, but he's planning to give most of it away. But, again, what this is is it amounts to an enormous tax subsidy from us to Warren Buffett to allocate to his favorite charities.

And when you talk about charities, some may be beneficial. Some people may be getting rid of African River Blindness, but others are giving to Harvard and Yale to burnish their reputations. And do Harvard and Yale need that money? Maybe. Maybe not. Or they give to private museums that are on land that you can't get into so the public can't see them. Those are the kinds of donations that may not be as socially beneficial as the government providing for retirement for the elderly.

DAVIES: All right. Let's take another break here. I need to reintroduce you. We are speaking with Jesse Eisinger. He's a senior editor and reporter at ProPublica. We will continue this conversation right after this break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROBBEN FORD AND BILL EVANS' "CATCH A RIDE")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we are speaking with Jesse Eisinger. He's a senior editor and reporter at ProPublica. He worked with a team of reporters on a series of stories about the many ways the wealthiest Americans reduce their tax obligations, much of that drawn from a large trove of IRS tax data that ProPublica acquired, which include information about the returns of thousands of the nation's wealthiest people.

When you got all this information, you looked at individual people and their returns and their deductions and all this, and you could put together a picture that just wasn't possible before. When you did this, you discovered that one of the people who was doing this had been a contributor to ProPublica. That was kind of interesting.

EISINGER: Yes. We tried to report this without fear or favor. And in the end, we ended up reporting on several ProPublica contributors. We are dependent often on the ultrawealthy for donations. They get the charitable donation, which we have written about and questioned and - when they donate to ProPublica.

So this was a big risk for this news organization. And Steve Engelberg, the editor-in-chief, and Dick Tofel, who was our CEO at the time, had to take into account both that risk that we would anger this donor class and the risk - the legal risk because it could be construed and it has been argued that what we're doing is illegal in publishing these data.

We think that our First Amendment rights supersede the questionable - the questions about the legality of what we're doing. But it was a risk. So it was an enormous risk that ProPublica did in backing me and my team. And I'm really grateful for that.

DAVIES: So apart from hobbies that the wealthy structure as businesses so they can take deductions, you write that there are a lot that take big deductions from real businesses, like hotels and resorts. Some that you cite pay no taxes for years on end. And this is a little confusing to me. I'm going to play a clip from the "Seinfeld" series when Jerry and Kramer are talking about writing things off. Let's listen to this.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SEINFELD")

MICHAEL RICHARDS: (As Kramer) It's a write-off for them.

JERRY SEINFELD: (As Jerry Seinfeld) How is it a write-off?

RICHARDS: (As Kramer) They just write it off.

(LAUGHTER)

SEINFELD: (As Jerry Seinfeld) Write it off what?

RICHARDS: (As Kramer) Jerry, all these big companies, they write off everything.

SEINFELD: (As Jerry Seinfeld) You don't even know what a write-off is.

(LAUGHTER)

RICHARDS: (As Kramer) Do you?

SEINFELD: (As Jerry Seinfeld) No, I don't.

(LAUGHTER)

RICHARDS: (As Kramer) But they do, and they're the ones writing it off.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIES: That's from the series "Seinfeld."

I mean, it is true. This is mysterious to most of us. And I have to say, if somebody is wealthy and they set up a real business - right? - and then they get losses that they can then count as tax deductions, it just seems strange because for every dollar of tax avoidance you get from those losses, you're actually paying a dollar, losing a dollar in an unprofitable business. So it seems what you're really doing is instead of paying the IRS, you're paying the suppliers and employees of your business. What - how do you gain from that? It seems like a wash.

EISINGER: You're so naive (laughter).

DAVIES: That's why I'm here and you're there.

EISINGER: So real estate - commercial real estate moguls barely pay any taxes. We saw this with Donald Trump's taxes. And the owner of the Miami Dolphins is a billionaire named Stephen Ross. He developed Hudson Yards in New York, one of the biggest developments in recent years in New York City. And he's gone almost 20 years never paying any federal income tax. In fact, he tells the IRS in a given year, I've lost $400 million.

Well, is he actually losing that money? No. What's happening with commercial real estate people is that their buildings often are appreciating. They're going up in value, and they're throwing off income when the renters give them income. But they get to tell the IRS that the buildings are falling in value, they're depreciating, because over time, assets are considered to depreciate.

Like your car - when your car goes off the lot on the first day, it starts to lose value. Well, they get to say that their buildings are losing value in that same way, except they're not. As I say, for the buildings in the biggest cities in America, typically, they're going up in value. So you get to tell the IRS something that's not true. You get to tell the IRS that something is losing money when it's actually making money. And by doing that, you get to avoid taxes. And so then what you can do is you can go into a hobby of having a boutique hotel and keep putting money into that and tinkering away.

We found - Paul Kiel and I found a guy named Ty Warner they - who made Beanie Babies - a fortune in Beanie Babies. And he's a guy who hates paying taxes. And we know this because when he made his first billions, the first thing he did was get on a plane and open a secret Swiss bank account so he wouldn't have to pay taxes. And that's illegal, and he got caught. And he didn't actually go to prison because we don't really send rich, white billionaires to prison very often in this country. But he did get caught, and he had to plead guilty. And then he figured out a way to avoid taxes perfectly legally. And he creates boutique hotels, and he endlessly tinkers with those hotels, making them bigger and more beautiful and more elaborate. This is clearly something of a hobby for him, but he gets to produce losses through depreciation - often non-cash losses, even though these hotels may be going up in value. But he avoids taxes and hasn't paid taxes for years and years.

DAVIES: So what do we do about this? Campaign finance reform?

EISINGER: Well, we have a system now with enormous wealth inequality. We have hyper-wealth in this country. And as we were discussing, when we introduced the income tax a hundred years ago, that was to address hyper-wealth of a different era. We have the kind of fortunes that we had back then with Rockefellers and Morgans and Carnegie. And back then, we had this incredible, epochal shift where we started to tax incomes. And at that point, the wealthy really did have income. And now we've had huge shifts in our economy so that the wealthy generate money that isn't technically income. And that provides them huge wherewithal to both enjoy their lives and spend without paying taxes and then also dominate our politics and warp our politics in such a way that their power perpetuates itself.

So there needs to be a reevaluation of our politics so that the ultrawealthy do not have such a disproportionate say in how we make our decisions. But as you can see, with the Biden administration's and the Democrats in Congress' efforts to tax the wealthy, those failed. The Biden administration and Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and many others in Congress wanted to tax the wealthy. They wanted to tax wealth gains, or they wanted to introduce higher rates for taxes, which wouldn't be very effective but would be something. And all of those got defeated.

DAVIES: You know, these glaring contrasts of wealth kind of offends our sense of fairness. I'm wondering how it also concretely impacts the rest of Americans - working Americans and poor Americans - the fact that all of this tax obligation just gets avoided.

EISINGER: Yeah, I think it's deeply corrosive. I think Americans are already pretty cynical about how the wealthy can get away with things. And I've thought of my beat almost as elite impunity because we don't hold the ultrawealthy accountable, and we allow them to get away with tax avoidance and even crime disproportionately to average people. But one of the things that we perennially hear about is how constrained our government is, how there isn't enough money to fix our crumbling infrastructure or to provide adequately for retirement.

We're constantly hearing about how Social Security is about to go broke or that we cannot afford to give people reasonable, affordable health care and on and on and on - that we can't keep the air clean and the water clean. And the reason we can't do that is we're not taxing the wealthy and corporations at their fair share. And I think that that offends the basic sense of fairness and is deeply corrosive to the legitimacy of our government and our democracy.

DAVIES: Well, Jesse Eisinger, thanks so much for speaking with us again.

EISINGER: Thank you for having me.

DAVIES: Jesse Eisinger is a senior editor and reporter at ProPublica. You can find the stories he and fellow reporters wrote about how the wealthiest Americans avoid federal taxes on ProPublica's website.

Coming up, John Powers reviews "Kleo," the new Netflix series about a young woman who's an East German assassin as communism is collapsing in the late '80s. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRIAN ENO AND JOHN CALE'S "SPINNING AWAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dave Davies is a guest host for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.