Can I Just Tell You?Can I Just Tell You? NPR's Michel Martin gives a distinct take on news and issues

Veteran's Day: Who's Really at Risk?

In her occasional commentary, the program's host shares her views on tax shenanigans, "risks" for the rich and Veterans Day.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Every now and again, when I have something on my mind, I like to talk about it in a commentary.

And today, I want to talk about some tax shenanigans in Washington, D.C. It seems that two D.C. government employees, who work in a tax office, aided or enabled by relatives and co-workers, stole somewhere between $16 and $20 million from the government over the last three years. They allegedly - they haven't been convicted of anything so we have to say allegedly - wrote up the paperwork for a phony tax refunds and deposited them into the accounts for phony companies that they controlled.

The employees, both of whom earned five-figured salaries, dropped the big cash on the usual nouveau rich swag - cars, jewelry, furs, and designer clothes. One of the defendants allegedly dropped more than $1.4 million at Neiman Marcus one year, including a $26,000 handbag.

Can I just tell you? I love a nice handbag as much as the next woman, but the idea that these people would reap off their neighbors like this for some designer duds just turns my stomach. Now, remember, these people worked for the tax office, the same people who make you think they'll garnish your wages if you're 10 minutes late filing your tax returns or underreport the earning from your side hustle delivering pizzas. But they were out here, allegedly, reaping off a city in which lots of kids have no full-time librarians or art teachers because of budget limitations or go to schools with cracked windows, broken toilets, and science labs that don't work.

The city's chief financial officer said the amount, although staggering, is immaterial to the overall financial health in the city with a multibillion-dollar budget. But please tell that to a kid sitting in a classroom with chunks of ceiling falling on his head.

But while we're on a subject of taxes, let's spend a moment, shall we, contemplating a current debate around tax policy. As one smart person once said, the biggest scandals in Washington aren't about what's illegal, but what's legal.

Now, the Congress is trying to figure out how to keep a tax meant to get some money out of the super rich from taking a bite out of the middle class. Everybody wants to claim to fix the alternative minimum tax, but they can't agree on how to do it.

One proposal is to plug two tax loopholes that give favorable tax treatment to the gazillionairs, who run private equity and hedge funds. Nobody's talking about taxing their money more heavily than ordinary income, just taxing it the same as ordinary income. That would be the money you make by patrolling the streets, or breaking your back doing construction work, or teaching high school because right now, you see, the investment management income earned by gazillionairs gets tax at about half the rate of mare mortals like the aforementioned police officers, construction workers or teachers.

Now, I realized that much of our political debate is tied to philosophical and ideological differences over how much government we need and how best to pay for it. But I do find it hard to swallow that we need to tax these richest, so much less than the money earned by ordinary folk because, supposedly, they are being compensated for the risks they are taking. Risks.

On this Veteran's Day, maybe when we talk about these issues, maybe we could think about the people who are really taking a risk - the men and women who volunteered to serve their country and are now doing so in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and other duty posts around the world. Risks.

For the men and women serving their country overseas and at home, the veterans, and to the families who support them, once again, thank you for your service.

And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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Can I Just Tell You?Can I Just Tell You? NPR's Michel Martin gives a distinct take on news and issues