UFE popular educator, Steve Schnapp, names extreme economic inequality as a key reason why others should join the Occupy Movement. He explains in this interview with filmmaker Richard Bergin from the site of Occupy Boston.
The following is a repost of a Facebook note by Responsible Endowments Coalition organizer, Martin Bourqui.
After visiting the Occupy Wall Street protests on their seventh day yesterday I feel like I need to put in writing — and in longer than 140 character status updates! — what I see and hear about what's going on here and the way in which these protests are being perceived, both by me and by those on the right and the left.
So what are these protests all about? Wikipedia may not be the most reliable source, but it's probably the most neutral right now. It defines them this way, as would I:
Occupy Wall Street, or #occupywallstreet, is an ongoing nonviolent demonstration opposing what participants view as negative corporate influence over U.S. politics and a lack of legal repercussions over the global financial crisis.
Hmmmm. This isn't something that should be so hard to get behind, right? 75% of us think that corporations have too much influence on politics today . 67% think that corporations are paying too little in taxes . I can't find solid numbers on how Americans feel about how accountable the banks have been held post-bailout, but I imagine they aren't held in too high of regard. And that's just the American public in general - within my personal network I imagine these anti-bank, anti-corporate, pro-accountability sentiments would be much, much higher.
So why do I see a lack of support for these protests from my peers? How come when I talk about Occupy Wall Street on Facebook, or with my friends, the only overt signs of support I see and hear are from those whom I'll respectfully define as radicals?
Where is the broader left in this discourse - those who I know believe in corporate accountability for the financial crisis, those who support of higher taxes for rich corporations and individuals, who believe that money is destroying our political system? Those who don't necessarily define want to define themselves as 'radical', but who agree with the underlying motivations of these actions? That's right, peers. I'm talking to you! I'd like you to read the thoughts that I've put down here, and to think about what you agree with, and what you're going to do about it.
These protests have the potential to unite a broad cross-section of society towards urgently needed political and cultural change in our society, but they're not meeting it. I'd like to acknowledge and explore why that is.
These events have what politicos (and some organizers, like me) refer to as an "optics problem." In understanding how the majority of society views what's going on, we constantly must be re-evaluating how we all interpret the visuals - images, pictures, videos - that we receive from the front lines of our discourse, that represent the debate.
Take, for example, this photo, one of the precious few images on the Occupy Wall Street wikipedia page right now, one of the only visuals that a huge audience will take in to represent what is going on right now. What do you see? Protestors wearing the masks associated with the organization known as Anonymous, one of whom is wearing a keffiyeh (3) (4).
What is your gut reaction upon seeing this picture? Are you willing to stand next to this person, in solidarity with their self-presentation? Or do you feel ambivalence, hesitation, perhaps even fear? Do you want to be associated with them? Would your parents want to be associated with them? Would your friends? Why or why not?
The Anonymous mask and the keffiyeh are loaded symbols, and they mean very different things to different people. They tap into a much broader set of issues beyond fair taxation, post-financial crisis accountability, and the role of money in our political system. More worryingly, I worry that these symbols are misinterpreted, both by the viewer and potentially even by the wearer.
A lot of the protestors that I have seen both in-person and through the internet reflect a broadly radical self-presentation. In my heart of hearts, I don't want to condemn this. But these protestors speak of "revolution," and they seek to create not just an anti-corporate, pro-fair taxation, pro-bank accountability space. They are trying to envision something much bigger, but I think that many of us are squinting to see it.
Let's contrast the depiction of these protests from a sympathetic, radical documentarian with the depictions of the mainstream media. Let's establish the narratives, and unpack them.
I encourage you all to watch this eight-minute documentary, titled "Nobody Can Predict the Moment of Revolution," capturing interviews with protestors on days five and six. It's a thing of beauty, and a strongly sympathetic depiction of the protests, but the narrative it weaves is much broader than just about corporations, banks, and taxes. Protestors interviewed describe their beliefs this way:
"I don't know how to achieve collective liberation, which we're all striving for, but I think it all needs to happen at the same time. And, you know, we're here, making a stand, we're holding space."
"It's a model for a new society. It's not a protest, in a sense of being against something. It's a way to formulate something new."
Contrast that with the coverage from the New York Times, published on the same day.
Most of those entrenched in Zuccotti Park had indeed traveled from somewhere else; they had come from Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Missouri, Texas and so on with drums, horns, tambourines and, in the instance of one young man, a knee-length burlap vest, fur hat, ski goggles and tiny plastic baby dolls applied to the tips of his fingers.
One of the few New Yorkers I met, a senior at Bronx High School of Science, was stopping by in fits and spurts, against the wishes of his psychiatrist mother, who feared the possibility of tear gas and had chastised her son for giving his allowance to the cause.
That cause, though, in specific terms, was virtually impossible to decipher. The group was clamoring for nothing in particular to happen right away — not the implementation of the Buffett rule or the increased regulation of the financial industry. Some didn’t think government action was the answer because the rich, they believed, would just find new ways to subvert the system.
Some said they were fighting the legal doctrine of corporate personhood; others, not fully understanding what that meant, believed it meant corporations paid no taxes whatsoever. Others came to voice concerns about the death penalty, the drug war, the environment.
“I want to get rid of the combustion engine,” John McKibben, an activist from Vermont, declared as his primary ambition.
Where the documentary "Nobody Can Predict The Revolution" sees visionaries of a new society, the Times sees spoiled children, ignorant, foolhardy loudmouths, and People Who Are Not Like Us.
To be honest, I find both of these depictions highly problematic. "Nobody Can Predict the Moment of Revolution" takes the energy of Occupy Wall Street out of what I interpret to be its current iteration, and into the realm of radical, revolutionary societal visioning. The Times piece, on the other hand, takes a hammer to any emerging narrative, and raises up only the conflicting, fragmented, ignorant sentiments of isolated individuals. And going back to the idea of visual narrative, the Times piece pulls out a topless woman, "blonde with a marked likeness to Joni Mitchell and a seemingly even stronger wish to burrow through the space-time continuum and hunker down in 1968," who they declared to be the "default ambassador" of this movement in their intro paragraph. Thanks, Gray Lady. Big favor you did everyone there, by literally picking the craziest person there to be the face of the movement.
What I saw with my own eyes yesterday, this protest, at its core, contains a narrative that is emerging but that is being hijacked on both the right and the left. So now that we can hopefully see this, I want to put these clashing narratives to one side and attempt to draw out what I see taking place. Check it out.
The discourse coming from the left about the role of the banks in our political and economic system, and the way in which corporate interests have defended their own while gravely damaging the economic prospects of all who are not in the top 5%, has been exhausted through our existing political system's channels. When such channels are exhausted, we have a right to take direct action.
The American people must have the right to nonviolently protest, to occupy public space, and to encourage a dialog on what so many of us see as the root causes of the political and economic crises facing the U.S. today. We have a right to assemble in peace, to document what transpires through video, audio, photography, and both the mainstream and underground media.
We have a right to do so without police brutality, which has reared its ugly head. I was deeply disturbed by the footage of peaceful protestors being penned in the street and maced in Union Square. The police presence that I witnessed in lower Manhattan last night, with orange tarp pen fences, vans full of police officers in riot gear, and jail wagons ready to take away scores of protestors, reflects a fear-based approach to get any and all protestors, peaceful or otherwise, to disperse. Hell, it worked on us! The response to this protest is morally bankrupt. I saw it with my own eyes. I attest to it.
However, I am not only disturbed by the response from the powers that be, whether it by the New York Times' coverage of these events, which debilitates and fragments its message, or by the NYPD's fear-based tactics to silence entirely legal and legitimate public discourse.
I am more worried, however, about the inability of the protestors and organizers of the Occupy Wall Street action to coalesce around a cohesive narrative, a moral legitimacy, and a unifying, invitational visual narrative. I am not an anarchist. I do not seek to get rid of the combustion engine. I choose not to wear a keffiyeh. And yet I live a stone's throw across the East River from Wall Street, and literally organize full-time, for my job, around the role of the banks in our economic system.
If anyone should be standing in solidarity with these protests, it would be me - and I am. But If even I feel alienated by the fragmented visual, cultural, political narratives coming out of this action, how on earth are we supposed to unite the entire Left around it?
Change requires unity. I don't have the answers on how to get there, or on how to address these questions. But I'm choosing to shine a light on these problems, in the hopes that we can begin to intentionally tackle them.
So what can you do — whether you agree or disagree with the arguments I'm putting forward?
- If you share in my opposition to the reaction of the powers that be to this protest - whether it be the mainstream media's slanted coverage, or the actions of the NYPD to intimidate, fragment, and dismantle this discourse - please help me in raising awareness. That video of the cops macing the women tied my stomach in knots. Different perspectives are painting completely different pictures of what's going on. Help shine a light.
- If you agree that these protests lack a cohesive narrative, help to promote and define one by joining the discourse, as I am trying to do. Despite the counter-narrative being spun by its opponents, as well as the competing narratives being introduced by some on the Left, I believe that Occupy Wall Street is at its core about the American people standing up to the corporate greed that has permeated our political and economic systems. Please use your privilege as writers, artists, documentarians, activists, college degree holders, and/or owning-class people in our society, to speak up and ask the hard questions that need asking.
- Maybe you literally disagree with everything I'm saying. that's fine. That's great! But don't stay silent. Join the discourse. Write a blog post about it. Email me. Email your network. Write a letter to the editor. Make your voice heard.
- If you want to see the protests continue but choose not to participate, they could still use food, money, and awareness. Speak up. Pay up. Use your resources, even if it's just a Facebook note or a $10 donation.
- However you feel about the protests, if you're in the NYC area, go down there and see it for yourself. Engage with people. If you disagree with people's tactics, language, or presentation, engage with them about it. If you support others, let them know you support them and want to elevate their visual or political narrative. Use all of the tools you have to do so.
- If you would like to share what I wrote here, please feel free to do so. I don't really get how sharing notes on Facebook works (sigh), but feel free to reproduce this. I hope it helps get people's wheels turning.
- Stay informed. The three places I look for information are Occupy Wall Street's unofficial site which contains links, information, and even a live stream; the Occupy Wall Street Wikipedia page, which for better or worse will document the narrative that the majority of people see, and the #occupywallstreet Twitter hash tag, which many people are using to share information and stay updated, whether they're in Lower Manhattan or halfway across the world.
The mainstream media won't show it, but I see, online, thousands upon thousands worldwide watching this unfold and crossing their fingers that these protests will, sooner or later, create a shift in the American political discourse, in the give-and-take of our economic system, and in the power dynamics of our society. People who are college-educated, highly informed, highly resourced individuals, especially those in the NYC area - people whom I'm writing for- hold a huge amount of privilege to make this succeed, fail, or at least make this look more like what we want it to look like.
Whether you agree, disagree, or feel ambivalent about what's taking place this week, it's our right, and our obligation, to speak up, to join this discourse. I don't see it taking place in a meaningful way in our political system or in the media, so let's use the tools we have to help it take place in the spaces we create, whether it be on the internet or in our living rooms. Speak up. Get involved. Get those who aren't involved to be involved. We can't keep our heads buried in the sand forever.
Responsible Wealth director, Mike Lapham was invited onto CNBC's "The Kudlow Report" to discuss Obama's recent tax proposal, including "The Buffett Plan" to raise taxes on millionaires. In the show's typical bullying fashion, Lapham was posed with opposition not just from two guests, but also from the host and "moderator" himself, Larry Kudlow.
Fortunately, this wasn't Mike's first rodeo in the neocons' arena. This interview was like a martial arts movie, with Mike's talking point karate chops and roundhouse kicks fending off enemies from every direction. I'd say he handled himself like a champ.
We hope you'll pardon the terrible audio.
Foreclosures continue to decimate communities around the nation, with black neighborhoods being the hardest hit. Some pundits and politicians point to federal policies that encouraged homeownership in low- and moderate-income communities, coupled with reckless behavior on the part of greedy homeowners, as the crux of the problem. One example is the statement by Fox News reporter Neil Cavuto that "loaning to minorities and risky borrowers is a disaster." To the contrary, our recent research demonstrates that it is outside investors living in other, predominantly white neighborhoods, not local homeowners, who account for the adverse impact on our nation's black communities.
Observers ranging from Credit Suisse to the Center for Responsible Lending estimate that about 6 million families have lost their homes to foreclosure and project that 12-15 million families altogether will lose their homes before the crisis is over. According to the U.S. Department of the Treasury $17 trillion in household wealth was eliminated between 2007 and 2009 and more losses are sure to come. Such losses reduce property taxes, cut consumer buying power for local businesses, and weaken the ability of municipalities to provide vital services. In the end, all households, businesses, and non-profits suffer if they or their neighbors are foreclosed and lose their homes.
Recent foreclosure activity and the subsequent costs are not race neutral. According to the Center for Responsible Lending approximately 8 percent of African-American and Latino families have lost their homes to foreclosure compared to 4.5 percent of white families. United for a Fair Economy has estimated that a third of black households and 40 percent of Latinos are at risk of falling out of the middle class and into poverty as a result of the foreclosure and related economic crises.
So what accounts for the concentration of subprime lending and foreclosures in minority neighborhoods? The culprit, at least in Louisville, is investors, primarily white investors who do not reside in the affected communities. In our research we found that in 2007 and 2008 there were approximately 2,000 foreclosure sales each year in Louisville. There were 39 per census tract (a rough approximation of a neighborhood) in black communities compared to 20 in white tracts. More telling is the fact that there were 15 foreclosures on properties owned by investors rather than owner-occupants in black communities compared to two foreclosures in white areas. A close examination of foreclosed properties in black neighborhoods found most owners were white and often living miles away in suburbs.
It is investors seeking a quick profit, not homeowners, who are the real problem in black neighborhoods. We suspect Louisville's story is not unique. Louisville is right in the middle of this pack, ranking 103 out of 203 metropolitan regions in the rate of foreclosures in recent years.
Several factors account for why a property goes into foreclosure and why foreclosure rates are higher in some neighborhoods than others. Race is certainly not the only factor, and may not even be a consideration when other variables are taken into consideration.
We controlled on a range of variables that contribute to foreclosures -- crime rates, housing values, household income, employment levels, vacancies, number of high-cost loans -- and found that the rate of foreclosures for owner-occupants was no different in black and white Louisville neighborhoods. That is, race was not a factor in accounting for differences in the rate of owner-occupied foreclosures among Louisville neighborhoods.
But when we examined investor foreclosures, neighborhood racial composition was the primary predictor. Not only was race a significant factor in accounting for different levels of investor foreclosures among Louisville neighborhoods, race was the single most important factor, even more important than the rate of high-priced or subprime lending
So black communities have been hardest hit, but not because of the federal policies pointed to by Cavuto and other conservative observers like Lou Dobbs, Charles Krauthammer and editorial writers from the Wall Street Journal and a range of other newspapers. Their prime target is the federal Community Reinvestment Act that prohibits redlining. Yet as researchers with the Federal Reserve, National Community Reinvestment Coalition, and several other government, non-profit and academic institutions have demonstrated, this is simply nonsense. [...]
How would you feel if...
- Job cuts by your employer forced you to assume twice the work load, which lead to upwards of 9 out of 10 workers experiencing work-related pain;
- Your employer refused to provide tools that would allow you to do your job with fewer risks for injury;
- Your employer consistently failed to address workplace safety violations, and even fought legislation to protect you and your co-workers;
- You and many of your colleagues were fired without just cause;
- You were all replaced with temp workers — that you were actually expected to train — who your employer paid only minimum wage with zero benefits; and
- When you decided, enough is enough, your employer resorted to harmful retaliatory tactics?
You'd probably feel cheated, burned, disregarded as a human being, right? Well, many are facing this unfortunate reality, and they need your support.
UNITE HERE, has reached out to UFE and other allies in the economic justice movement because Hyatt Hotels Corporation is bullying workers across the country for the sake of profit, and they can't take them on alone.
Here's one Hyatt worker's story:
My name is Cathy Youngblood, and I am a housekeeper at the Hyatt Andaz in West Hollywood. Today I am joining thousands of other Hyatt workers on strike across the United States.
I believe in hard work, but living in pain is a different story. I have to take medication regularly because my wrists and shoulders hurt from having to lift 100-pound mattresses over and over again every day as I change the bedding. Other Hyatt housekeepers have been permanently injured by the grueling work we do.
Not far from my hotel in West Hollywood, at the Hyatt in Long Beach, California, workers have no union. Conditions there are even worse. My sisters are required to clean twice as many rooms in one eight-hour shift, leaving them just 15 minutes for each room. That's 15 minutes to change bedding, scrub the bathroom, dust, vacuum, empty the trash, and change linens, among other things. It's no surprise that women are getting hurt.
Today, I strike—not just for myself or for a fair contract at my hotel—but for our right to stand up to Hyatt wherever they are abusing housekeepers.
We know we can't take on a global giant like Hyatt alone.
We hope you'll join Hyatt workers and UNITE HERE on the frontline of what is truly a fight for all workers' rights.
Even if you can't join a picket line, there are three things you can do:
- Join the online picket line and let a Hyatt housekeeper know that you stand with her in this struggle.
- Tell a friend about the struggle to end the abuse at Hyatt.
UFE is hiring! We need a passionate, creative and dynamic organizer to help expand the membership and scope of our Responsible Wealth project (RW).
RW is a network of wealthy and/or upper-income individuals who choose to use their positions of privilege to act as stewards of an economy without vast and societally destructive inequalities.
RW members are our partners in the fight for a fair economy, as media spokespeople, as points of access to corporate power, and as active participants in our other program areas, including progressive tax advocacy and education for action. RW members even helped to make this staff position possible. (Thank you!)
One thing we've learned in UFE's fifteen years is that when the wealthy speak, people listen. RW enables us to leverage that phenomenon for something good — to raise public awareness of and to help build a movement against economic inequality.
The Great Recession continues unabated, vicitimizing millions of families and widening the gap between the immensely wealthy and everyone else. And, the prospect of a true — not jobless — recovery seems to grow worse with each headline. There's a lot of work to be done, and no time to waste.
We need one seriously talented and motivated individual to join our team with eyes toward enhancing the existing work of Responsible Wealth and injecting it with bold, new ideas. Check out the Responsible Wealth Organizer job description, and share it with folks you feel can make a significant contribution to the economic justice movement in this role.
Our application deadline is September 30. Please help us spread the word as quickly and widely as possible!
Last year, twenty-five CEOs of some of the top corporations in the U.S. stuffed more cash in their pockets than their companies paid in taxes. That sounds ridiculous, right? Well, that's the takeaway of the Institute for Policy Studies' (IPS) Labor Day report, Executive Excess 2011: Massive CEO Rewards for Tax Dodging, and it's no joke.
Workers' incomes are plummeting, and families are being forced by thoughtless right-wing policymakers to endure economic hardships resulting from a lack of revenue to fund public programs. Meanwhile, corporate profits have reached a historic high relative to total national income.
Of course, corporate custom calls for spoils to those who fatten the profit margin, regardless of how many millions of people get squashed in the process. The Other 98% action network produced an infographic highlighting some of the chief culprits of tax dodging and excessive pay.
Co-author of the report (and co-founder of UFE), Chuck Collins, appeared on Democracy Now! to share what was fantastic news for Corporate America, but just another low blow for the rest of us.
Want to fight back? Call your federal officials and demand that they support the Stop Tax Havens Abuse Act (S.1346 / H.R.2669). This bill would slow the shipping of jobs and profits overseas, and would generate an additional $100 billion in federal revenue. Check out the report for other policy proposals that will help to prevent corporations from siphoning more jobs and more revenue from our country.
The relentless focus on federal budget-cutting has burned up so much of the country's political oxygen that it nearly choked off dialogue on a more immediate, urgent concern: poverty.
Two well-known Americans tried to move this point to the front of the bus last month with their "Poverty Tour: A Call to Conscience." [...]
The instigators of the bus tour, PBS talk show host Tavis Smiley and Princeton professor Cornel West, did the nation a favor by turning the spotlight onto the very real needs of poor Americans. They feel "invisible" and "disposable," Smiley said during the tour, which ran from Minnesota to Memphis, Tenn.
The sentiment is not surprising. The poor have been left behind by what little economic recovery there has been since the 2008 crash. And in Washington's deficit-obsessed political climate, the talk is all about slashing government — not poverty rates.
Millions of people are without jobs, homes or hopeful futures. Minorities are disproportionately afflicted: Blacks and Hispanics experience unemployment and poverty at far higher rates than the rest of the population does. [...]
[T]he "Call to Conscience" tour was constructive because it pushed the problem of poverty back into the center of a national conversation that had been hijacked by fiscal hawks who see only the cost, not the value, of government.
Unlike the abstractions of long-term deficit projections, poverty is a tangible, here-and-now reality. The country waged a "war on poverty" in the 1960s, but the problem — fed by structural changes in the U.S. economy, policy choices, social shifts and other factors — grew in ensuing decades. Unfair mortgage practices and the epic recession triggered in 2008 exacerbated the trend, wiping out years of progress.
Today, disparities in income, educational attainment, home ownership and family wealth are growing. The rich are getting richer, while the ranks of the poor are poised to expand as government shrinks and job creation remains stagnant.
The employment cuts are likely to have an outsized effect on minority communities, according to the group United for a Fair Economy's "State of the Dream 2011" report. The federal government is an important source of employment for blacks, data indicate.
Rich vs. poor inequities, and the hopelessness that can accompany them, are poisonous to democracy. In the final analysis they are likely to be every bit as destructive, if not more so, than large budget deficits.
Nearly 15 percent of the population — including an estimated 15 million children — live below the federal poverty line, which is about $22,500 a year for a household of four. "Research shows that, on average, families need an income of about twice that level to cover basic expenses," according to the National Center for Children in Poverty, of the Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University.
"Using this standard, 42 percent of children live in low-income families," the organization reported. Rates are highest among black, Latino, and American Indian children, data show. [...]
A nation that looks to tax cuts and budget slashing as the answer to 44 million living in deep poverty — many with little hope of overcoming it — is either deluded or uncaring.
Neither of those terms represents the America we know and love.
We are a nation based on the principles of equality and opportunity. Let's live up to them by confronting the factors that lead to entrenched poverty.
Promoting "personal responsibility" is an important key to this challenge. But so is government, which can help communities get through the worst of times and build better foundations for the future.
Economic growth that provides jobs for unemployed and underemployed Americans is vital. But we must not pretend that poverty can be reduced by putting government on a starvation diet.
The issue of poverty belongs at the center of the nation's political priorities, not at the fringe. Smiley and West raised its profile. Their bus tour has ended, but we hope that a new era of understanding has begun.
Corporations are regular targets for attack by the progressive movement, and rightfully so. The biggest among them have, through morally unconscionable business practices and political actions, wrought havoc on the world — all in the name of profit.
Despite the neoliberal crusade to codify the notion of corporate personhood, it's the human beings that make business decisions who should be held accountable for negative social and environmental impacts of their businesses. Dave Johnson of the Campaign for America's Future explains:
"It is the business leaders, not the companies, who make decisions and want things and do things. Companies are just things that don't "want" any more than they "do." They don't "think." They don't "decide." They don't "respond." Sentient entities want and do. It is the people who make decisions want and do things. Companies are not sentient entities any more than chairs are."
But, does the responsibility of corporate leaders — to act in the interests of the corporation and the shareholders — have to be to ensure profit alone?
A movement is brewing to redefine corporate purpose. B Corporations, or Benefit Corporations, seek to "use the power of business to solve social and environmental problems." What sets B corporations apart from traditional corporations is that companies are required to create a material positive impact on society and the environment and are held to higher standards of accountability and transparency.
Under the B corporation model, businesses don't only account for the needs of shareholders; certified companies are mindful of all stakeholders, which also includes workers, consumers and even the communities in which they operate.
This effort has been a long time coming. A poll taken over a decade ago showed 95 percent of people believe corporations should sacrifice profits to improve conditions for workers and communities. Either those results slipped through the cracks or some of the largest U.S. corporations simply don't give a rat's ass.
Source: 2000 Businessweek/Harris poll
Five states have already passed legislation recognizing B corporations, and six more, including economic giants, California and New York, have it on the table. Even as legislative efforts are launched in every state, the B corp model will still face legal tests to expand its reach. But, Good magazine's Tim Fernholz is optimistic:
"[T]he momentum behind the legal changes—and the bipartisan majorities that have so far enacted them—signal the beginnings of a sea change in our expectations for the private sector."
Visit www.bcorporation.net to learn more. To get involved in the sustainable business movement, check out our friends at the American Sustainable Business Council (ASBC) and Business Alliance for Living Local Economies (BALLE).
In response to the push for spending cuts to limit growth in the federal deficit, MoveOn.org, United for a Fair Economy, and Rebuild the Dream are trying to build support for a different approach, with new revenue and more stimulus spending to create jobs. Interview on BNN News with the Senior Organizer on Federal Tax Policy from United for a Fair Economy, Lee Farris.
After Warren Buffett called for the federal government to raise taxes on the super wealthy this week, Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann had a suggestion for the billionaire: Send any unwanted money to the U.S. Treasury.
“Mr. Buffett, write a big check today,” Bachmann said. “There’s nothing you have to wait for.”
The Minnesota congresswoman is correct. The federal government has had a law on the books for 50 years that allows anyone to open up his checkbook, write out a donation payable to the Bureau of the Public Debt, and send it to a post office box in Parkersburg, W.Va. — or make an online payment at www.pay.gov.
Through the first three quarters of the current fiscal year, Americans had donated about $2 million to the fund — compared with $2.8 million in donations for all of fiscal 2010.
That amounts to roughly one ten-thousandth of a percent— that is, 0.0001% — of the federal debt.
The money is set aside and ultimately used to pay the principal on maturing Treasury bills that are issued as debt to finance government operations, according to McKayla Braden, spokeswoman for the debt bureau.
“We send everybody a thank you,” Braden said, noting that the agency gets more donations whenever there’s a public crisis like a natural disaster or the summer deadlock than over raising the debt ceiling.
But millionaires and billionaires who, like Buffett, support higher taxes on the super-rich, say voluntary donations won’t solve the country’s debt problems. Even Buffett’s fortune of approximately $50 billion amounts to less than half a percent of the total.
“It’s better to have a policy than to just bank on individual, idiosyncratic discretion,” said Judy Pigott, a Seattle heiress to a trucking fortune. She is also a member of Patriotic Millionaires for Fiscal Strength, which advocates for raising taxes on those who earn more than $1 million a year.
“We all benefit from being part of our country ... and those of us who have abundant financial resources also have abundant privileges,” Pigott said.
Relying on voluntary donations wouldn’t bring in a reliable amount of money that could match revenue from raising taxes across the board, said Lee Farris, a tax policy coordinator for United for a Fair Economy.
A subgroup of that organization, Responsible Wealth, focuses on raising taxes on the wealthy.
“I’m sure Rep. Bachmann would probably not agree that all people who owe money to the U.S. Treasury should make voluntary contributions,” said Responsible Wealth member John Russell, a real estate developer in Portland, Ore. “There’s a fundamental issue of fairness, and nobody wants to be treated in a manner that’s different than other people.”
Did you breathe a sigh of relief when President Barack Obama signed the debt deal into law earlier this month? If not, you weren't the only one.
Raising the national debt ceiling may have forestalled an immediate U.S. default and credit collapse, but the deal will do absolutely nothing to address the real problems of our time: stubbornly high unemployment and a suffocating economy. Recovering from this Great Recession and achieving longer-term stability will
require a broad, informed, and unified movement to battle the corporate-backed powers that are waging economic war on working Americans.
While blame for this sad state of affairs falls mainly on Republican free-marketeers and the tea partiers who have incessantly pushed a cuts-only economic agenda, those players only occupy one end of a money-poisoned political spectrum that also includes most members of the Democratic Party. Obama, for his susceptibility to corporate influence and unwillingness to lead, is also responsible for American's economic doldrums.
When progressive leaders approached President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933 about what would become the New Deal, his response was, "Make me do it." And so it goes for today's progressive movement, whether you bought into Obama's bold campaign promises or not.
Our job as concerned citizens is hard. These days, commonsense policies, rooted in sound economic analysis, are subject to ideological criticisms that often preempt their passage. We also know that popular opinion by itself won't necessarily affect our governing course.
Take tax policy, for example. A Washington Post-ABC News poll, taken before the debt deal passed, showed that 72 percent of voters support raising taxes on high-income households to reduce the deficit. The final package, the product of a political game dominated by radical conservatives, called for nearly $2.5 trillion in spending cuts and no tax measures that would raise new revenue. One Las Vegas Sun headline for a letter to the editor aptly summed up the outcome: "GOP controls half of government, but ignores the public."
Federal revenue is at its lowest level since the 1950s. The income share of the top-earning 1 percent of Americans has reached heights unseen since 1928, just before the Great Depression. Despite these phenomenal gains, this elite group continues to enjoy historically low federal taxes. Between rates, deductions, and loopholes, they often pay lower effective rates than many middle-class families. As such, it should come as no surprise that the richest 1 percent of Americans now controls nearly as much wealth as the bottom 95 percent of the country combined.
Our circumstances are the result of decades of reforms that shifted taxes off the wealthy onto the middle-class under the pretense of "trickle-down" economics. That strategy has proven ineffective and needs to be reversed. Yet, conservative officials gnash their teeth and threaten the global economy at the mere mention of correcting those policy mistakes.
We can no longer allow a hopelessly unreasonable minority in a severely corrupted system to dictate the terms of our economy. MSNBC's Dylan Ratigan has asserted that Obama should abandon our "bought Congress" and begin a dialogue with voters to restore democracy and repair the economy.
Clearly, we can't sit and wait for Obama to knock on our doors to chat. Our elected leadership will do what it will for as long as we allow it. Indeed, we can't "make them" fix the economy by asking them to do it. We can only get it to happen by organizing, educating, and mobilizing people from all walks of life to fight for justice in all places where it does not exist, from our nation's capital to our own neighborhoods.
This op-ed by UFE's Mazher Ali was originally published and distributed by OtherWords.org on August 22, 2011.