VIDEO: Is the U.S. Broke?

While many of the movies coming out of California feature product placement and glitzy movie stars, some innovators are using the film medium to teach us the realities of our present and the possibilities of our future.

The Story of Stuff Project came out with its first video in 2007, describing the process by which the creation and disposal of “stuff” in our lives affects communities at home and abroad. (In the same year the first Transformers movie banked over $700 million in the box office.) Though founder Annie Leonard and team at Free Range Studios only expected 50,000 hits for a “20 minute cartoon about trash,” the video has now enjoyed 15 million views—extraordinary popularity for any product in the environmental awareness genre.

In the years since, while the Transformers franchise was busy grossing another eight hundred million and then billion dollars in the box office, the Story of Stuff has transformed from a popular web video to a national brand, producing a video series on how we can make things better. Their latest video, entitled The Story of Broke, reveals that the U.S. is not broke, but rather home to a broken economy. We should have plenty of money to build a better system, Leonard says—if only we would invest our resources right.

As the Super Committee prepares to release its suggestions for addressing our debt, The Story of Broke offers its own ideas. To start, Leonard wonders aloud what happens to her tax dollars. 

“I send in my hard earned cash every month, and so do you! If everyone did, we’d have plenty of money. Now, what we’ve got to work with shrinks a lot thanks to corporate tax loopholes and unprecedented tax breaks for the richest among us. But even after those we’ve got over a trillion dollars. If we’re broke, what’s happening to all that money?”

A lot of us scratch our heads at this question, but Leonard helps to cast light on the answers. First, she points out the elephant in the budget—the military. At $726 billion, military spending accounted for over half of the discretionary budget in 2011. Next, she discusses the “dinosaur economy,” or the linear system of overproduction and quick disposal described in The Story of Stuff, which we prop up through “life-support” subsidies and bailouts.

These facts echo calls that anyone near financial districts in major cities has heard in the past few months. The Occupy movement popularly decries the fact that “Banks got bailed out, we got sold out.” Calls to cut off support to Bank of America and other monolithic corporations have been loud and clear. Hearing them, one might wonder: How did we get here? How did our budget priorities get so skewed?

“These guys know how to ask for it,” Leonard answers as buff cartoon characters punch fists menacingly into their palms. “Their lobbyists and giant campaign contributions let our government know what they want, and what they’ll do if they don’t get it.”

While the Story of Broke demonstrates that the legislative branch has acted at the behest of these corporate interests, we the power to change those fiscal choices. Using our votes and our voices as leverage, we can redirect the billions of dollars channeled into “dinosaur subsidies” toward a better future. For instance, Leonard says, of the $10 billion spent on oil and gas subsidies (even in times of record profits), half could provide solar energy to 2 million households, and the rest “could retrofit half a million homes, creating jobs and saving energy year after year.”

In the fight for economic justice, UFE ensures that corporate lobbyists aren’t the only voices in the policymaking arena. Occupiers pitching tents across the country are exercising their freedom of speech rights as well, and in this moment of economic crisis it is more important than ever to do so. At a recent UFE board meeting, we discussed the concept of “precarity,” naming situations of uncertainty, such as economic crises, as instances where corporate interests capitalize on instability to sway the government in their favor. But these precarious moments also provide opportunities for the other 99% to take back power, she said. That’s where we come in.

Between now and November 23rd, you can help to urge the Super Committee and others in congress to structure the budget around the needs of the 99%. We need a federal budget that will make a better future possible—one that becomes so vividly clear within the green lines in the Story of Broke. This is the kind of action the Story of Stuff has been calling for since…well, since Transformers first came out.     

“See? We can rebuild the American dream,” Leonard says brightly in The Story of Broke. It will take a unified movement for tax fairness to fund a people’s budget and a government that is accountable to all of us, not just the rich. 

“We can afford to have a healthy environment, good jobs and a top notch public education, but not if we continue subsidizing the dinosaur economy. So the next time you have an idea for a better future and someone tells you, ‘That’s nice, but we don’t have money for that,’ you tell them—‘We are not broke. There is money, it’s ours, and it’s time to invest it right.”

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New Estate Tax Bill Taxes the 1% to Benefit the 99%

Today, Rep. Jim McDermott released the Sensible Estate Tax Act of 2011, and United for a Fair Economy, Responsible Wealth and our allies have his back. The bill is an effort to raise taxes on the top one percent to benefit the 99 percent... literally. 

The main thrust of bill H.R. 3467 is to restore pre-Bush era estate tax rates and levels, with a maximum marginal rate of 55 percent and a $1 million exemption. Of course, tax rates and exemption levels are only part of what was compromised by President Bush's hatchet job. Rep. McDermott's estate tax bill would also address various loopholes that have enabled the extremely rich to avoid taxation and amass even more wealth.

The estate tax, while not a be all, end all solution to our fiscal crisis, is of vital importance to the U.S. economy. It represents the principle of meritocracy — that hard work, not the reproductive lotto, should be the basis for upward mobility. 

Our country has become one of the most economically unequal and socially unjust industrialized nations. So, the estate tax also represents a fundamental change that needs to take place—the reduced concentration of wealth, and thus, political power in the U.S.

As flawed as our political system may be — as much as I sometimes wish we could replace it all together — it's still important to elevate truly progressive policies that arise in that system. Too often, such policies don't ever see the light of day. For those of you who think our economy is in disrepair and want to support a concrete solution, this is one of 'em.

Become a pro-estate tax advocate, and speak out as constantly and publicly as you're able. Talk about it to your friends, families and colleagues. Share this link on your social networks, and write your local media. Hammer your senators and representative with a message that you want the wealthiest among us to pay more to protect the common good of our country. Tell them you support a strong estate tax.

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Take Action Now for a Fair Super Committee Deal

Democrats on the Super Committee have already offered $400 billion in cuts to Medicare and Medicaid, even though Republicans still refuse to raise taxes on the wealthy. In fact, they want even more tax cuts for the wealthiest households.

A bad deal is worse than no deal at all. Your senators need to hear that you want a deal that will serve our country as a whole, not just the rich.

Please call your two Senators right now at 888-907-1485. Tell them:

  1. At least half of the total deficit reduction package should come from increased revenues that would improve tax fairness by increasing taxes on wealthy people and corporations.
  2. At least half of any spending cuts should be made by reducing unnecessary military expenditures.
  3. There should be no cuts that impact beneficiaries of key social programs (such as Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, education, and other programs that help middle- and low-income families).
  4. Any proposal that does not meet these principles should be rejected.

LEARN MORE:

If you'd like to learn more before you call, register for today's update on the Super-Committee with Senator Al Franken. This 20-minute educational phone/web event begins at 4:00 p.m. this afternoon (Wednesday, November 16) and is hosted by our friends at the Coalition for Human Needs. 

This call will provide you with an overview of ongoing Super Committee negotiations, which includes disastrous plans to further reduce tax rates for millionaires, while slashing Medicaid and other essential programs and raising the Medicare eligibility age to 67. None of this does has to happen. Register now to learn more.

If you can’t join the call with Sen. Franken, check out this helpful summary of the Super-Committee proposals.

UPDATE:

Hundreds of individuals from 47 states signed our open letter to the Super-Committee. Yesterday, we issued a press release noting that over 100 high-wealth and upper-income people were among our signers. We're actively working to publicize this effort with several members and supporters of Responsible Wealth. The letter is being hand-delivered to Congress today.

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Sign On to Pressure the Super Committee

The twelve members of the congressional Super-Committee charged with finding at least $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction are nearing their November 23rd deadline. The decisions that they make will determine the direction that our country and economy take for years to come. They will be making choices about the future of vital social programs, tax policy and military spending.

There are two ways that you can get involved right now.

  • Add your name to our sign-on letter to the Super-Committee (details below), and please forward the letter to anybody that you think might be interested, especially upper-income taxpayers, investors and wealthy individuals.
  • Register for an important update on the Super-Committee with Senator Al Franken put on by our friends at the Coalition for Human Needs. You can join this emergency update next Wednesday, November 16 at 4:00 PM by phone or online. Register for it now. The update will cover Super-Committee negotiations that include disastrous plans to reduce tax rates for millionaires, while cutting Medicaid and other essential programs, and making people wait till they are 67 to get Medicare. This doesn't have to happen. Find out more on Wednesday in the 20 minute update.

Details about the letter:

Super-Committee members need to hear that wealthy individuals, investors, and business owners support our priorities. We are seeking signers of a letter to the Super-Committee. More than 40 upper income taxpayers have already signed our letter in the last two days. The letter says:

  • At least half of the total deficit reduction package should come from increased revenues that would improve tax fairness by increasing taxes on wealthy people and corporations.
  • At least half of any spending cuts should made by reducing unnecessary military expenditures.
  • There should be no cuts that impact beneficiaries of key social programs (such as Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, education, and other programs that help middle- and low-income families).
  • Any proposal that does not meet these principles should be rejected.

Click here to add your name to the letter today.

Some Democrats on the Super-Committee worry that the economy would be hurt if there is no deal. They need to understand that a bad deal is worse than no deal. Hearing from people like you will persuade them to hold firm for a deal that truly benefits our country. That’s why it’s important that you sign the letter to the Super-Committee by Sunday, November 13.

People who are not wealthy individuals, investors, and business owners can also sign the letter to show their support.

To increase our impact, we will release the letter to the media next week and put media in contact with signers who want to speak out.  We’ll also send the letter to all members of Congress before they vote on any package from the Super-Committee.

Please make sure to invite people you know to join you in signing the letter. You can also print a copy of the letter and ask friends and relatives to sign it.

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Yahoo! Income Inequality is Reaching Mainstream Media!

Today, my colleague (TFOC Coordinator, Karen Kraut) burst into UFE's communications spread with excitement beaming from her every pore:

Maz! I just opened Yahoo to check my personal email, and this was on the front page. It's a video about income inequality! This is really mainstream. Can you believe it?

UFE has been working to raise public awareness of economic inequality for 15 years, so this is certainly call for excitement. Yahoo News' video on income inequality, the first in their "Remake America" series, is accessible and deserving of the most views you can help to generate.

They includes testimonials from struggling people, many of which may sound familiar to you:

I was making a good living. That's basically disappeared.

Back in the day, you had good paying jobs. Now...it's minimum wage. Who can live off $10 an hour?

It doesn't matter how hard I work. I work hard..but I don't get anywhere.

We're still making less, but the prices of everything are skyrocketing.

How do I pay for groceries?

I tried to refinance my home, so I could keep my house, and I was told that I didn't make enough money.

They use social math to place income inequality into context—a messaging strategy that we at UFE regularly employ. The average U.S. worker's salary ($49,445) could pay for 10 months of health insurance, 5 months of college tuition, and buy 10 percent of an average home. On the other hand, the average Fortune 500 CEO's salary ($11.4 million) could pay for 300 years of health insurance, 200 years of college tuition and buy 34.5 new homes.

They connect the dots between economic inequality and the deterioration of other indicators of social wellness. (For more, read The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett.)

One interviewee expressed a sentiment that most of us likely share:

I think the most unfair thing is that the people who need help the most are the ones that aren't being listened to.

Perhaps most important of all, they use this video to address just that by asking these regular folks what they think the solutions are.

Some ideas are to reform the existing system: "The rich are gonna be rich. You want to fix that? Get rid of loopholes, fix the tax code!"

Others desire more unity: "I went down to Occupy Wall Street...just to see, does our country have the guts to go through the change that is going to be required?" UFE fully supports the Occupy Movement. We encourage all people to support Occupy Wall Street and their local occupations. Here's how you can get started.

One gent noted with an air of giddiness, "This is an issue that, for the first time in the 30 years that this has been happening, could really have an effect on the election." It could. But as flawed and corrupted by corporate money as our political system is, we'll have to raise the awareness of millions more and mobilize an unprecedented vote for candidates that will challenge this devastatingly unequal status quo.

There is no single thing we can do to bring about the change we need; there are a lot of things we must do on as constant a basis as we can manage. Sharing this video is one of them.

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UFE Needs a Development Director

Please help us spread the word about this new job posting!

United for a Fair Economy seeks a full-time development director to join our staff team. This position encompasses responsibilities in four areas: Development Team coordination, planning and oversight, major donor relations and grant work.

UFE is a unique organization within the non-profit, social change sector in that nearly 70% of our funding comes from individual donors as opposed to grants. As such, we need a development director with a well-rounded understanding of all aspects of fundraising.

For more details, please see the Development Director job description.

Please help us spread the word by forwarding this message widely, posting the job listing wherever you can, and suggesting any leads you may have to Ruth Orme-Johnson at rormejohnson@faireconomy.org.

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OP-ED: We Must Act to Halt Downward Spiral in Black Communities

Photo h/t jonesor on Flickr

For as long as unemployment data by race have been collected (about 39 years), black unemployment has been roughly double that of whites. Today, the black unemployment rate is an alarming 16 percent. If discouraged workers are included, that number would be much higher.

The causes of disproportionate unemployment in the black community are many and varied, but economists believe that the main three are the lingering effects of discrimination, the educational attainment gap and economic segregation.

The erosion of manufacturing jobs in recent decades, coupled with the anti-government attack on public-sector jobs, have worked together to exacerbate these historical inequalities.

The Center for Economic and Policy Research estimates that between 1979 and 2007, manufacturing jobs held by blacks fell from 23.9 percent to 9.8 percent. The auto industry, for example, has had above-average employment for blacks for a long time, but it has crumbled, meaning that the loss of jobs has been devastating for that community.

Similarly, the assault on public-sector workers — teachers, social workers, food inspectors and more — has a clear racial impact. United for a Fair Economy’s 2011 State of the Dream report notes that blacks are 30 percent more likely than the overall workforce to hold public-sector jobs, and 70 percent more likely to work for the federal government.

Unemployment levels experienced in the black community continue to concentrate high levels of poverty in already-struggling communities, which has profound social effects in perpetuating a downward spiral of crisis. Children growing up here are exposed to high rates of crime and violence, to low-quality foods, and to some of the worst-performing schools, with a lasting impact throughout their lives.

Policymakers in Washington must take bold action to break this cycle. Leaders need to target job creation and retraining strategies in communities hardest hit by the Great Recession. Targeting job creation strategies will help lift struggling black communities in ways that the “shovel-ready” focus of previous job creation efforts cannot.

That’s one reason the Congressional Black Caucus in 2009 called for more job creation funding for economically distressed communities. As unpalatable as it is to the austerity mindset in Congress, increased federal government spending is necessary to keep people working, including black Americans.

This op-ed was originally published in the Atlanta Journal Constitution on October 25, 2011.

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A Tax System for the 99%



Ownership of household wealth in the U.S. in 2007
Source: Federal Reserve

The taxes we pay lay the foundation for a sound economy and for wealth creation. Tax revenue funds roads and railways, well-educated workers, courts, clean food and water, scientific research, and much more. We all benefit from these vital public systems and structures, which one person can not create alone.

A progressive tax system means that people and corporations who have a lot more income pay a lot higher tax rate than the 99% of people who have less income. Right now our federal tax system is only slightly progressive. The tax system became much less progressive after President Reagan changed it. The opposite—a regressive tax system—means that people who have less income pay a higher tax rate; this is how the tax system works in most states. Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 tax proposal is seriously regressive.

  • A truly progressive tax system would mean that we, the 99%, have enough money to fund the priorities we support: educating our youth, paying for health care, allowing seniors to retire with dignity.
  • A truly progressive tax system would mean that the typical person’s tax rate is a lot lower than a very wealthy person’s tax rate.
  • A truly progressive tax system would mean that investing in the stock market is not taxed less than working at a job.
  • A truly progressive tax system would slow the increase in the share of US income after taxes that goes to the 1 percent.
  • A truly progressive tax system would lessen the racial wealth divide.
  • A truly progressive tax system would mean that people with multi-millionaire parents could not inherit more tax-free than a typical worker earns and pays taxes on in a lifetime.
  • A truly progressive tax system would mean that corporations pay a bigger share of taxes. Giant corporations like Bank of America, Verizon, GE, and Exxon would no longer pay zero or shamefully low federal income taxes.
  • A truly progressive tax system would mean our country no longer goes into debt that is held by the same 1% of wealthy people who crashed the economy. It would mean the 99% are not paying increasing interest on the national debt.

How can you work for a truly progressive tax system? Find out here.

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Occupy Your State Tax System

The media's obsession with federal politics can sometimes cloud over state level solutions to our country's fiscal crisis. Occupy Wall Street has created hundreds of forums in nearly every state for concerned people to come together and consider various ways to rebuild the economy. One step to consider is overhauling our state tax systems, and here are five reasons why we should:

  1. They are regressive. That is, they take a greater share of income from low- and middle-income people than from wealthy people.
  2. They don't bring in enough money. Most states face deficits year after year because their tax systems don't generate enough revenue to pay for the public services and infrastructure state residents need and want.
  3. They are filled with special interest loopholes and freebies to the powerful and influential and force the rest of us to pick up the slack.
  4. They diminish, rather than enhance, economic activity by depending more for revenue on those who are most apt to spend their money in the economy, rather than shelter it to accumulate more.
  5. They are not transparent. Corporations that benefit from tax breaks often maintain secrecy so the public rarely knows if their tax dollars are being spent wisely.

State tax systems should be progressive, transparent, economically sound and should raise enough money to provide a decent quality of life to all residents. This system overhaul could generate hundreds of billions of dollars to not only wipe out state budget deficits, but also make long-overdue investments in our economy. 

Occupy for a fair and progressive state tax system.

For suggestions on how to get from here to there, see UFE's report "Flip It to Fix It." 

 

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UFE Provides Tools to Occupy Our Economy

A couple of weeks ago, I was sitting at home with the Occupy Wall Street livestream playing in the background when I heard a young woman on the “people’s microphone” give a shout out to UFE.

...If you want a great source of accessible information about economic inequality...check out United for a Fair Economy...w-w-w-dot-faireconomy-dot-org.

She finished with that, and the people's mic erupted into cheers and applause. I was overcome with a feeling of great pride, and wanted to do my part to see that UFE was a part of this powerful movement.

The Occupy Movement has brilliantly sharpened the focus of the national debate on the top 1% and on Wall Street leaders as the chief culprits of the global economic collapse. This, in and of itself, is a major victory. The national dialogue for the better part of the last year has centered on distraction issues like the deficit. The policies that ensued have worsened conditions for already struggling people. Now, people are able to imagine an alternative reality where all people, not just the wealthy, have opportunity.

The process of creating a more inclusive economy requires that we as individuals carefully consider the ways in which we interact with our society and make the necessary changes. One member of Occupy Boston's anti-oppression working group explained the necessity of an anti-oppression analysis:

An analysis of race, gender and class politics is foundational to our ability to achieve our goals of change. Without such an analysis, and subsequent articulation and action based upon it, we severely limit the potential of our movements. I would go so far to argue that our goals are not attainable at all without it.

Recently, this working group held its first session on racism and white privilege, and UFE was invited to contribute to the discussion with over 250 occupiers and supporters. We opened with an activity from our “Closing the Racial Wealth Divide” workshop to demonstrate historical and contemporary rules and policies that have offered boosts for some and presented barriers for others.  

We explained that while "the 99%" may have much in common, the folks on the bottom—disproportionally people of color and women—have borne the brunt of trickle-down economics. As our report, State of the Dream 2008: Foreclosed, states, “the subprime mortgage crisis resulted in the single greatest transfer of wealth out of communities of color in modern times!”

Since September 17, the first day of OWS, requests for workshop materials and speaking engagements have nearly tripled. From Seattle, WA to Fort Collins, CO, Prescott, AZ to Northampton MA, UFE volunteer trainers, college teachers, labor educators, community organizers, students and others, are using UFE’s human graph activities to engage people in dialogue about the greatest concentration of wealth, income, and political power since 1928.

This is an extraordinary moment in history, and I'm glad we're able to provide tools to help folks Occupy our economy. 

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