With protests, you never know

AS DEMONSTRATIONS GO the one in front of the Bank of America branch in Chatham last week was kind of puny. About 25, mostly middle-aged people showed up. They behaved politely and the police paid no attention that I could tell. One person was posting reports about the event on her Facebook page, but she was a member of the press. Nobody tweeted, and it didn’t feel like the protesters’ demands were likely to topple either the bank or the government.

Holding a demonstration at noon on a Monday makes it hard for people who work day jobs to attend. But the date, April 18, had significance for the demonstrators because it was the deadline this year for filing federal income taxes. The folks picketing the bank want to change the budget conversation in Washington from the singular focus on cuts in federal spending on services like education and health to a discussion about why corporations like the bank can pay no income taxes, even though they make huge profits and benefit from government bailouts.

In full disclosure, I do some banking with this branch of Bank of America, and I’ve worked at a Wall Street bank, but I don’t pretend I can explain how the protesters and the website that called for the demonstration, usuncut.org, can calculate that the bank owes $3.9 billion in taxes on its earnings yet paid no taxes, while a company spokesman said that Bank of America paid more taxes over the last decade than any other U.S. corporation.

Both sides do agree that Bank of America didn’t pay any income taxes last year. The reason, said the spokesman, was that the bank showed a loss, not a profit. And as for the federal bailout, the Bank of America, the biggest bank in the country right now and the nation’s fifth largest corporation, did receive $45 billion in TARP money, but it has paid back all that money with interest.

As harsh as it sounds, some of the cuts imposed may yield improvements that might otherwise have been postponed or ignored. Think of the Ichabod Crane School District’s plan to shutter two aging, inefficient school buildings. Putting more money into the maintenance and repair of those old schools made no sense. And who knows, maybe one or both of those properties will end up on the tax rolls again someday.

But then we got news this week that the recent mid-year federal budget cuts mean the Cornell Cooperative Extension in Columbia County has to stop its Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education (SNAP-ED). In this state the program goes under the name Eat Smart New York, and it offers free nutrition education to people who qualify for food stamps and Medicaid or have kids in Head Start. It emphasizes the importance of eating fruits and vegetables and staying physical active. Cutting a program that can help people stay healthy and can lower the chances that they’ll become ill and obese makes no sense. It costs more to treat sick people than to reduce risk factors that make people sick.

Even if the Bank of America and other non-tax-paying corporation paid, say, a guaranteed minimum tax the way some individuals must, there’s no way to know whether that money would stretch far enough to restore Eat Smart. But the current fervor for cuts comes with no reasonable standard of fairness applied to corporations when it comes to taxes. So how can we know how deep the cuts really need to be? That becomes a much bigger question when you remember that House leaders want to dismantle not just Eat Smart but Medicare.

President Obama has called for reducing the top corporate tax rate in exchange for eliminating loopholes, presumably the loopholes that allow a big bank to show a loss even as its fortunes improve. That might make the whole tax system a little bit fairer. Even if it didn’t, it’s worth discussing before we make decisions that we’ll regret.

Our elected representatives, Congressman Chris Gibson and Senators Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, as well as their colleagues in Washington might want to keep in mind the lesson of current events — how these days a small or insignificant event can suddenly snowball into a major change. Maybe it’s just coincidence that the president announced his proposal for a more equitable corporate tax system just a few days after that little demonstration here in Chatham. Maybe not. 

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