Thanks to a leak of Internal Revenue Service records to ProPublica, we know just how little some of the richest people in America have been paying in federal income tax. “In 2007, Jeff Bezos, then a multibillionaire and now the world’s richest man, did not pay a penny,” a report published by the investigative news organization, on Tuesday, begins. “He achieved the feat again in 2011. In 2018, Tesla founder Elon Musk, the second-richest person in the world, also paid no federal income taxes. Michael Bloomberg managed to do the same in recent years. Billionaire investor Carl Icahn did it twice. George Soros paid no federal income tax three years in a row.”
Representatives for those mentioned would doubtless argue that some cherry-picking went into that news lede. The article later points out that, between 2014 and 2018, Bezos, the founder and C.E.O. of Amazon, paid nine hundred and seventy-three million dollars to the feds in taxes, while Musk, the C.E.O. of Tesla, paid four hundred and fifty-five million during the same period. Bloomberg, the media magnate and former New York City mayor, contributed $968.3 million to charitable causes in 2018, which helped to bring his over-all income tax rate down to 3.7 per cent. Still, the main thrust of the article cannot be denied. In recent decades, as the stock market has soared, the vast fortunes amassed by some members of the plutocracy have largely escaped taxation. In the words of Jesse Eisinger, Jeff Ernsthausen, and Paul Kiel, the ProPublica journalists who wrote the report, “The IRS records show that the wealthiest can—perfectly legally—pay income taxes that are only a tiny fraction of the hundreds of millions, if not billions, their fortunes grow each year.”
This shouldn’t be news to anybody. Unlike real estate, which is subject to local property taxes, most other forms of wealth in the United States aren’t taxed on an annual basis. The federal government supposedly takes a share whenever an asset is sold or transferred, but there are loopholes in the tax system that allow the owners of vast fortunes to minimize the capital-gains and inheritance taxes which they pay. Since the age of the economist Henry George, in the late nineteenth century, the failure of the U.S. tax system to reach large agglomerations of wealth has attracted the attention of reformers. In 1995, Edward Wolff, an economist at New York University, warned that a rising concentration of wealth represented a threat to American democracy and proposed an annual tax on the net worth of wealthy families. More recently, during the 2020 Presidential campaign, Senator Elizabeth Warren called for a wealth tax that explicitly targeted the country’s richest households. Warren revived her proposal early this year, suggesting that the I.R.S. would levy an annual tax of two per cent on fortunes of more than fifty million dollars and three per cent on fortunes of more than a billion dollars.
Given the almost unimaginable wealth that some billionaires have, the Warren plan could theoretically raise a lot of revenue. Based on Bezos’s estimated worth—roughly two hundred billion dollars—he would be liable for an annual levy of more than five billion dollars under Warren’s proposal. Musk would stump up roughly four and a half billion; Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, three billion. Compared with potential liabilities like these, even during years when the überbillionaires do pay some taxes, the sums involved are small. “The 25 richest Americans collectively paid 0.17% of their wealth in taxes in 2018,” Gabriel Zucman, a Berkeley economist who worked on Warren’s wealth-tax proposal, commented on Twitter. “Which, no matter how you look at it, implies tiny effective tax rates relative to income—much lower than for the middle class.”
One of the merits of the ProPublica piece is that it reminds us of the enormous variety of tax-minimization options available to the extremely wealthy. Some are familiar: holding onto stocks and other assets for as long as possible; using investment losses to offset income; investing in real estate, which the tax code treats very favorably; setting up charitable foundations. But the article also emphasizes other, less obvious, tactics.
Some principals of public companies avoid paying corporate dividends, which are taxable, to themselves and other stockholders. Warren Buffett is an example of this. Many billionaires use their wealth as collateral for bank loans, the interest on which may be tax-deductible. “Last year Tesla reported that Musk had pledged some 92 million shares, which were worth about $57.7 billion as of May 29, 2021, as collateral for personal loans,” the ProPublica piece states. It goes on to report that, in 2016 and 2017, the Wall Street billionaire Carl Icahn reported five hundred and forty-four million dollars in adjusted gross income. But, because he had taken out so many loans, he was able to take hundreds of millions of dollars in interest deductions, which meant he avoided paying any federal income taxes. “I didn’t make money because, unfortunately for me, my interest was higher than my whole adjusted income,” he told ProPublica.
As reports by the New York Times about Donald Trump’s federal tax returns also demonstrated, it is not an exaggeration to say that there are two separate tax systems. One is for ordinary people, who make most of their money in wages and salaries. The other is for members of the gilded class, who make most of their money through the ownership of publicly traded assets, private businesses, and other forms of capital. With one of the major political parties dead set against any changes that would make the system more progressive, and an army of lobbyists for the rich waiting to pounce on any proposal, reforming the tax code to make it fairer will be a big challenge. But, with enough political will, it can be done.
The Biden Administration rejected Warren’s annual-wealth-tax idea, but it did propose three important changes to the existing system. First, it suggested raising the corporate-income-tax rate from twenty-one per cent to twenty-eight per cent. The burden of corporate taxes falls partly on shareholders, so this move would effectively raise the tax rate of people like Bezos and Zuckerberg. Second, the Administration wants to raise the top income-tax rate to 39.6 per cent and tax the capital gains of millionaires at that rate. Because the current tax rate for long-term capital gains is only twenty per cent, and because it’s the same for all income groups, this would make a big difference. And, finally, the White House wants to eliminate the notorious “step-up in basis” loophole, which allows rich people to pass down property, including financial assets, to their heirs without either party paying any taxes on the appreciation in value. Under the Biden proposal, unrealized capital gains would be taxed at death.
None of these proposals has the headline value of imposing an annual wealth tax on the mega-rich, but they could have a significant impact. According to the Tax Foundation, a Washington nonprofit that generally supports lower taxes, the changes to the capital-gains tax and the estate tax, if combined with the existing estate tax, could lead to a tax rate of sixty-one per cent on the largest estates. Even if that estimate is too high, the reforms that the White House is proposing would surely make the tax system more progressive at the very top. A skeptic might object that the ultra-rich, with their armies of accountants, will find a way to get around any tax system. That is a counsel of despair. With clear tax rules in place and a well-financed I.R.S. there to enforce them, it is perfectly possible to shift the tax burden toward the ultra-wealthy even if there is still some avoidance. The revelations from ProPublica have provided another demonstration of why this change is so badly needed.
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The Musical Mysteries of Josquin
The singer and composer Josquin Desprez traversed his time like a diffident ghost, glimpsed here and there amid the splendor of the Renaissance. He is thought to have been born around 1450 in what is now western Belgium, the son of a policeman who was once jailed for using excessive force. In 1466, a boy named Gossequin completed a stint as a choirboy in the city of Cambrai. A decade later, the singer Jusquinus de Pratis turned up at the court of René of Anjou, in Aix. In the fourteen-eighties, in Milan, Judocus Despres was in the service of the House of Sforza, which also employed Leonardo da Vinci. At the end of the decade, Judo. de Prez joined the musical staff at the Vatican, remaining there into the reign of Alexander VI, of the House of Borgia. The name Josquin can be seen carved on a wall of the Sistine Chapel. In 1503, the maestro Juschino took a post in Ferrara, singing in the presence of Lucrezia Borgia. Not long afterward, Josse des Prez retired to Condé-sur-l’Escaut, near his presumed birthplace, serving as the provost of the local church. There he died, on August 27, 1521. His tomb was destroyed during the French Revolution.
The murkiness of his existence notwithstanding, Josquin attained an enduring renown of a kind that no previous composer had enjoyed. In 1502, the Venetian printer Ottaviano Petrucci, the chief pioneer of movable-type music publishing, issued a volume of sacred motets, with Josquin’s four-voice setting of “Ave Maria . . . virgo serena” (“Hail Mary . . . serene virgin”) at its head. The piece must have cast a spell, and the beginning shows why. The highest voice, the superius, sings a graceful rising-and-falling phrase: G C C D E C. Each of the lower voices presents the motif in turn. After it arrives in the bass, the superius enters again on a high C, forming an octave pillar. A second phrase unfurls in similar fashion, then a third, with the voices staggered so that only two move together at a time. Eventually, the scheme changes, the texture thickens, and the descending order of vocal entries is reversed. About a minute in, all four voices coalesce to form a gleaming C-major sonority. The entire opening gives the illusion of breadth and depth, as though lamps have been lit in a vaulted room. Music becomes a space in which you walk around in wonder.
Interest in Josquin was strong enough that Petrucci released three volumes of the composer’s masses—settings of five sections of the Roman Mass (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus Dei). Posthumously, the flood of publications only increased, to the point where an observer wryly said, “Now that Josquin is dead, he is putting out more works than when he was still alive.” Extravagant claims were made. The humanist Cosimo Bartoli described Josquin as the Michelangelo of music; Martin Luther called him “the master of the notes.” In subsequent centuries, performances of his works all but ceased, yet his name remained one to conjure with. In 1782, the historian Charles Burney declared that Josquin had achieved “universal monarchy and dominion over the affections and passions of the musical part of mankind.” For August Wilhelm Ambros, in 1868, he was the first composer in history “who makes a prevailing impression of genius.” In the twentieth century, the early-music movement brought Josquin’s scores back to life, and the revival continues five hundred years after his death. The Tallis Scholars, the best known of Renaissance vocal ensembles, recently completed a recorded survey of eighteen masses attributed to Josquin. Such groups as Stile Antico, Cappella Pratensis, Blue Heron, and the Huelgas Ensemble are participating in a Josquin festival in Antwerp in August. The “Ave Maria” is a staple of choirs around the world.
With Josquin began the cult of the great composer—a mind-set that has left a distinctly ambiguous imprint on classical-music culture. And his rise to superhero status brought with it a curious paradox. Although commentators across five centuries have agreed on Josquin’s preëminence, his works can easily be confused with those of other gifted contemporaries. Two anecdotes from the early sixteenth century illustrate what might be called the Josquin mirage, in which the lustre of his name warps musical perceptions. Baldassare Castiglione, in his treatise “The Book of the Courtier” (1528), made note of the composer’s snob appeal in aristocratic settings: “When a motet was sung in the presence of the Duchess, it pleased no one, and was considered worthless, until it became known that it had been composed by Josquin Desprez.” The opposite fate befell a piece by Adrian Willaert, one of Josquin’s most accomplished successors. When Willaert first came to Rome, he found that the papal choir was singing one of his motets, under the impression that it was by Josquin. When Willaert corrected the mistake, the singers lost interest in the work. Such stories help to explain why attributions to Josquin proliferated after his death: affixing his name to a score was guaranteed to stir interest. The same syndrome has long haunted Renaissance art, where an emphasis on the singular profile of canonical artists has led to violent debates over authenticity and a thriving marketplace in forgeries.
Well over three hundred pieces were ascribed to Josquin at one time or another. In recent decades, musicologists have been culling dubious items from the catalogue. This spring, I followed the work of two leading Josquin authorities, Joshua Rifkin and Jesse Rodin, who are preparing a drastically pruned list of likely Josquin pieces—a hundred and three in all. Some scholars worry that the deattribution process has got out of hand; the half-joking fear is that Josquin will end up disappearing almost completely, like the Cheshire Cat. Thanks to the pandemic-era phenomenon of the Zoom seminar, I was able to watch some of the deliberations, which kept raising bigger philosophical questions: How does an aura of infallibility come to surround a figure like Josquin? What becomes of the music that lapses into anonymity, just as “The Man with the Golden Helmet” seems to have fallen out of the Rembrandt canon?
There is nothing fake about that aura: Josquin was an astonishing composer, one whose contrapuntal dazzlements can make Bach look clumsy. But he dwelled within a comprehensively astonishing community of creative artists. To explore Renaissance choral music is to enter a forbidding forest of names: Dunstable, Power, Binchois, Dufay, Busnois, Ockeghem, Regis, Faugues, Compère, Weerbeke, Agricola, de Orto, Obrecht, Isaac, de la Rue, Mouton, Brumel, Févin, Richafort, Ghiselin, Gombert, Pipelare, Martini, Clemens non Papa, Morales, Willaert, Lassus, Palestrina. Every one of them wrote music worth hearing. The period bears witness to the emergence of composition as an art: Josquin becomes the patron saint of an essentially new profession that is struggling to gain the level of recognition long accorded to painters and poets. Distinct personalities materialize from the historical mist. We hear the sound of the self, singing toward a kind of freedom.
The term “composer” began to enter general circulation only in the late fifteenth century. The practice of naming the authors of musical works was still catching on. Documents of the period usually call Josquin a cantore, or singer. Yet his rise to fame helped bring about a change in status. In 1502, a courtier to Ercole I, the Duke of Ferrara, wrote a letter evaluating candidates for a musical appointment. One of them, Heinrich Isaac, was “easy to get along with,” the courtier said; another, Josquin, “composes when he wants to, and not when one wants him to.” Also, Josquin asked for two hundred ducats, Isaac for much less. Ercole I hired Josquin.
Composers were a new phenomenon because written music was itself a relatively recent innovation in the long history of the arts. The earliest examples of fully decipherable staff notation, from the early eleventh century, record Gregorian chant; multivoiced sacred music was written down at Notre-Dame, in Paris, in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Troubadours, trouvères, and other poet-composers produced a beloved corpus of song, though the words tended to receive more attention than the notes. The most formidable figure of the age was Guillaume de Machaut, who lived from around 1300 to 1377. Celebrated chiefly for his sung poems of courtly love, Machaut also wrote two dozen motets and the earliest mass cycle for which a composer is known. Such large-scale elaborations on canonical texts sustained careers in the following century, as Popes, princes, and other potentates sought to flesh out courtly ceremonies with splendid sounds. The history of written music is inextricable from structures of worldly power, even if the composers occupied a low place in the hierarchy.
Josquin exemplifies the art of polyphony: the interweaving of multiple voices according to strict contrapuntal rules. The primary mandate was to control dissonance—a term that was understood differently in medieval and Renaissance times than it is today. It indicated not just discordant combinations of tones but also problematic relationships between notes. The octave, the fifth, and sometimes the fourth were considered to be “perfect” consonances; thirds and sixths were “imperfect”; other intervals fell into the “dissonant” category. A wariness of thirds partly explains why medieval music can sound stark and strange to modern ears. Thirds are at the core of tonal harmony, defining major and minor keys. In the early fifteenth century, English composers, led by John Dunstable, began using thirds in abundance. Their lush, chord-rich sound became known as the “English countenance,” surprising and delighting listeners on the Continent. English sources are also the first to name composers in large numbers.
Geopolitics had a hand in what happened next. King Henry V of England, who may have dabbled in composing, won at Agincourt, in 1415, and soon took over northern France. English officials brought with them their favorite choristers; Dunstable evidently served John of Lancaster, Henry V’s brother and military commander. Thanks to Joan of Arc, England’s holdings soon shrank, but not before its music had seeped into northern France and Belgian lands. Coincidentally or not, this region brought forth the next major wave of musical activity. A vast number of fifteenth- and early-sixteenth-century composers, Josquin included, belonged to what is today called the Franco-Flemish School.
Leading the procession was Guillaume Dufay (circa 1397-1474), who brought dancing elegance to exalted masses and streetwise chansons alike. His motet “Nuper rosarum flores” was written for the consecration of Florence’s cathedral, in 1436, its stately sonorities echoing against Filippo Brunelleschi’s octagonal dome. Other mid- and late-fifteenth-century composers expanded the field of possibility. Antoine Busnois specialized in a lucid interplay of motifs; Johannes Ockeghem in opulent, unpredictably flowing designs; Johannes Regis in intricate structures that gather narrative energy from the calculated addition and subtraction of voices. (Josquin may have based his setting of “Ave Maria” on Regis’s motet of the same name.) By 1500, dozens of Franco-Flemish singer-composers had radiated across Europe, establishing a virtual monopoly at certain Italian musical centers, the Vatican included.
College, but for Influencers
A Harvard for influencing does not yet exist—it’s only a matter of time—but the school of Tina Meeks comes close. Want to know what to do with your hands in a photo? She’ll send you a link. Want your interiors to look more Nancy Meyers and less “C.S.I.”? She’ll tell you what light bulbs to buy. Want to quit your nine-to-five and become the sort of trusted personality who makes six figures a year documenting and distributing your life? She’ll coach you, for five hundred dollars an hour.
“Not everyone can make three hundred thousand dollars a year,” Meeks said the other day, referring to the sum that she earned in 2020, “but if you can make an extra three thousand, or an extra thirty thousand, that’s still life-changing for many people.” She was videoconferencing from her house, in Virginia, and had on a white tank top, her hair in two high pigtails. “So many moms and wives get lost in their family life, but you can still do really big things for yourself in the midst of that.”
A former Army reservist, Meeks, who is thirty-four, intended to be “the cool auntie who travelled the world with her military career,” she said. “Then I got pregnant.” She became an insurance adjuster, first for cars—“very fast-paced, because people literally get into accidents all the time”—then for property. “Aside from the police, you’re the first call that most people make,” she said. “It’s not like I was a brain surgeon, but to be able to talk them off the ledge—it was fulfilling.”
She joined Instagram in 2012, to share family photos. Then house photos. Then food photos. Five years and another child later, her husband told her,“If you’re going to spend as much time on social media as you do, you should find a way to make money from it.” She dove deep into YouTube. “That’s how I learned photo composition, how I honed my aesthetic,” she said. She tagged brands. “The day that Children’s Place shared my post was, like, the best day ever. They didn’t even pay me.” She came up with formulas for equitable compensation: her baseline rate for a single photo is the number of dollars equal to four per cent of her following on Instagram, which is currently sixty-seven thousand five hundred. Sponsorships allowed her to quit her fifty-five-thousand-dollar-a-year day job, at the end of 2019, by which time she had three kids. The drama of 2020 was good for business. “After the social unrest and the amplify-Black-voices movement, brands that had offered me five hundred before suddenly had a two-thousand-dollar budget,” she said. “No one wanted to be called out for not paying influencers of color their worth.” Why share her trade secrets? “It’s a fourteen-billion-dollar industry,” she said. “They can’t give it all to one person.”
Meeks occasionally offers free advice over Zoom. Her last session, in May, was derailed by traffic. “I’ve been stuck on the interstate, in park, for forty-five minutes,” she told her Zoom guests. A child wailed in the back seat. She fielded questions anyway.
“How do you become comfortable with pics and videoing?” Tana Almerico (942 followers) asked.
“Look in the mirror and practice,” Meeks said. “Learn your best angles.”
“I don’t have a place in my house that’s really pretty,” Toni Jones (3,620 followers) said. “Is it worthwhile to rent an Airbnb?”
“Once you start, you’re going to have to keep up with that,” Meeks said. “Work with the space you have. The main thing is good lighting.” She continued, “Most homes have very muted yellow lighting. Go to the store and get daylight light bulbs. It is going to change your life. It’s also going to blind you, just a little bit.”
“I only have one child, who’s one year old,” Kourtney Marsh (22,400 followers) said. “Does family size matter?”
“It’s a factor,” Meeks replied. “But you have a baby. Babies just make us spend money on everything.”
After a brief spell of dead air (a tunnel, a few plaintive cries of “Mommy”), Meeks announced, panting slightly, that she was home. Next question.
“I’m almost fifty. My kids are ten and twelve,” TaJuana Robinson (927 followers) said. “My day-to-day life is not that exciting. What do I even talk about that would be of interest to anybody?”
“Your experiences with tween and teen-age girls,” Meeks said. “People get caught up in needing to have this exciting life. The most exciting thing to happen to me today was being stuck in traffic and having to tell y’all about it.” She added, “On a very surface level, I’m just home with my kids.” ♦
Cynthia Ozick on Never-Never Lands
Your story “The Coast of New Zealand” revolves around a group of friends from library school who make a pact to meet for a meal once a year, and not to communicate between meetings. Did you know from the start what the outcome of the pact would be?
“The Fanatic” was my original title, and it was this notion that ultimately compelled what was to come, both what I knew beforehand and what turned up, all on its own, to surprise. I have always been drawn to the idea of the fanatic, the zealot, the proselytizer, the Johnny One-Note, the deceiver, the false explainer—the enemy of the ordinary. Sometimes his name is Bartleby. Sometimes his name is Gilbert Osmond. Sometimes his name is Aylmer, practitioner of the relentless science of perfection. But here his name is simply George.
The four characters are, to some degree, anachronistic, drawn together initially by their old-fashioned names—Evangeline, Olive, Ruby, and George—and their old-fashioned choice of profession. Is that aura of fustiness essential to the story?
Fusty, yes, but not in the way of moldy or decaying; rather, in the wafting purity of a forgotten innocence. Even Olive’s attempt to replace her name with the more up-to-date Susan only reinforces her almost maidenly self-consciousness. And the pre-digital library, with its fans and date stamps and ancient wooden cabinets, declares long-ago simplicities. George alone, despite his commonplace name, is looking for fiery dragons to slay.
Yet if their agreement—“the Pact”—is the opposite of fusty, what is it really? “To live in the whirlpool of the extraordinary. To aspire to the ultimate stage of fanaticism.” What did you (or George) mean by that?
Walter Pater’s famous credo is also George’s: “To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.” But the story questions whether George has, in truth, lived up to this passion. And whether the rest of us ought to—and, if not, then what is “success in life”?
George’s rules for the Pact make a real impression on Evangeline—to the point that she almost rejects a loving relationship that she doesn’t think is in keeping with those rules. Why do you think she is so affected by George’s prescriptions while the other women aren’t?
Evangeline’s partners in the Pact are entertained by George’s outrageous pronouncements, but they do, as we soon learn, have their feet on the ground, and look to the future—suitable jobs, marriage, children—as a pragmatic progression appropriate to any normal life. But Evangeline is mesmerized by the exceptional, a vision of transcendence; she has an avarice for the peaks of experience that George inspires. The others are too quickly satisfied by the everyday.
Why did you dispatch George to New Zealand? Simply to get him as far away as possible?
Evangeline’s trust in George’s extraordinary spirit is at first absolute. Like him, she sees New Zealand as the acme of what he calls his “solitary will.” (As for me, I never for even a minute believed that George went to New Zealand.) So immersed is she in George’s tenets that she takes the preposterous for the truly original, while we can see (or maybe not?) that New Zealand is no more than a never-never land.
But only look at his history as he tells it: his parents a double suicide, à la Stefan Zweig and his wife; his great-uncle and his great-aunt vaudevillians, their closets stuffed with costumes (is his showy jacket one of these?); his having his supper in the wings while the show goes on; his sojourn at the Waldorf; his claim that New Zealand is the founder of the digital age; and so on and so on. All this excites Evangeline’s imagination. The proof of her devotion is her revelation of what might account for his not showing up: “He meant to shock her, he meant to undo her expectation. . . . The shock of his disappearance was not a negation of the Pact; it was its electrifying fulfillment.”
Why do you think he does break the Pact in the end? Does he lose interest? Is he ashamed of not having lived up to it? Or is it impossible to know?
My guess is that he is as mercurial as his inventions and gets tired of his one remaining acolyte, and moves on to find fresh ones. There may be other reasons: whatever they are, they are sure to be implausible. (Ultimate implausibility characterizes fanaticism.)
The story has an ornithological theme: Nate Vogel, a devoted bird-watcher, has a name that means “bird”; George has orange elbow patches the color of a parrot; he and Evangeline meet on a park bench covered in owl droppings. How did birds become a motif for this story?
Birds, yes, but also other creatures of pedantic interest, including seals and sea lions, and evolutionary wonders such as dinosaurs becoming birds, and hippos deriving from dolphins. All this, as it happens, comes under the rubric of George’s dicta “that eventuality is always inevitability, that the implausible is the true authenticity.” These apply also to Evangeline’s marriage to Nate Vogel: Why else would a fantasist end up with a dry fact-collector?
Are these characters going to be part of something longer, or do they exist only within the confines of “The Coast of New Zealand”?
Well, Nate Vogel would be acutely uncomfortable anywhere else; he’s content in his prosaic Stamford, Connecticut—his own never-never land of quotidian desire. But Evangeline? She might turn up wherever folly lies.
Earlier this year you published your seventh novel, “Antiquities.” Are you working on another one? Or will you be sticking to shorter forms for the moment?
A story of six thousand words seems exactly the right thing just now. A story of fewer words—one or two thousand, say—yields a momentary epiphany, while a novel rides on wave after wave of a sea. But a long story, neither the one nor the other, can capture the span, and thereby the meaning, of a life.
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