We're Detroit-Bound: The 2010 US Social Forum

USSF LogoIn the last week of June, a crew of UFE staff and interns will travel to Detroit to join as many as 15,000 activists and organizers at the second United States Social Forum (USSF). The Social Forum, in the words of its organizers, "will provide a space to build relationships, learn from each other's experiences, and share analysis of the problems our communities face, [and] will help develop leadership, vision, and strategy needed to realize another world."

More than 1,000 workshops, plenaries, cultural events, and street demonstrations have been organized. UFE will present its highly demanded workshop on the financial crisis: "Bankers, Brokers, Bubbles and Bailouts," and two new workshops in Spanish: "Refugiados Economicos Imigracion: la Desigualdad Economica y sus Raices" and "Entendiendo la Crisis Economica en la Comunidad Latina."

Our partners in the US Solidarity Economy Network (USSEN), which was formed at the 2007 Social Forum and is directed by UFE board member, Emily Kawano, will lead one of fourteen program tracks. USSEN's track will focus on addressing poverty and developing an alternative US economy that prioritizes people and planet over profits.

With income and wealth inequality peaking once again, economic recovery for Main Street low on the power brokers' list of priorities, and unending wars and environmental disasters roiling the globe, the stage is set for a powerful people's movement.

For many of those planning to attend the Social Forum, how to build a broad-based, multi-racial, multi-class, multi-generational, and democratic social movement is the central question. The answer starts with an acknowledgement of the truth in the Forum's theme, "Another World is Possible. Another US is Necessary!"

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The Southern Border is Not a War Zone

Border PatrolPhoto credit: girltwin

Increased militarization of the border will inevitably lead to increased violence at the border. It is already happening, and it is not pretty.

Fourteen year-old Sergio Adrian Hernandez Huereca was shot in the head by US border guards this week. On May 31, Anastasio Hernandez, an undocumented Mexican immigrant was beaten, shot with a stun gun and killed after "becoming combative" while in the custody of US border guards. His death has been ruled a homicide. These horrifying incidents are part of a larger trend that, unfortunately, isn’t surprising.

Arthur Brice of CNN wrote:

"According to the [Mexican Foreign Ministry], the number of Mexicans who have been killed or wounded by U.S. border authorities has increased from five in 2008 to 12 in 2009 and 17 so far this year.

Mark Qualia, a spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said he could not comment because he does not know where the Mexican government obtained its statistics.

But Qualia noted there were 799 assaults on border agents from October 1, 2009, through May 31. There were 745 assaults for the same time period in 2007-08 and 658 for the same span in 2008-09, he said. [...]"

The escalating violence on our southern border is the unavoidable result of how we currently manage immigration.

Militarizing the border does nothing to address the factors that lead to migration across the border. It only increases the peril of those driven to cross it and the troops and agents tasked with securing it.

Longer and taller fences and walls won’t block the demand for low-wage workers in the US. Meanwhile, trade agreements like NAFTA allow capital to flow freely across the border, contributing to the deterioration of economic conditions in poorer countries like Mexico.

And, sending more boots and guns to the border will only divert money and resources away from our other national priorities, such as high unemployment, which, despite the claims of anti-immigrant groups, is not caused or perpetuated by immigrants, documented or not.

Until we deal with the economic factors driving migrants to leave their homes and families and place their lives at risk to cross the border, the flow of migrants will not slow. But, under our existing immigration policy–sealing borders and increasing enforcement–death and violence will only continue to climb.

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Financial Reform Passed the Senate, A Long Way from Done

On May 21, the Senate voted to pass an overhaul financial regulations in response to the financial crisis that brought on the Great Recession. The House of representatives passed their version of financial reform months ago. Progress is being made, but the job is far from done.

As you may recall, merely passing the two houses of Congress is not all it takes for a bill to become law (or if you're not from the School House Rock generation, this chart shows the lawmaking process about as clearly as it can be presented). Conference committee to combine the House and Senate version, a vote in the House and votes in the Senate on the unified bill remain before financial reform makes it to the President's desk.

The conference committee schedule has been set in the hope of getting President Obama's signature on a financial reform bill before the July 4th Congressional recess. The first meeting will be this Thursday June 10th. And thanks to the pressure from many reform-minded activists and the public, much of the negotiations will be open to the public and televised. You can watch live at SunlightFoudnation.com with context about committee members top donors.

Whatever the result of the conference committee, the law that emerges will not end the need for systemic reform of the financial industry. The House and Senate bills have many good things in them but leave many of the problems with the financial sector entirely unaddressed.

James Kwak explains the need for financial reform beyond the current measures. He cites Paul Krugman and others in explaining that Congress is doing some good to address the short term problems but is leaving most of the long term structural problems in place. Chief among them is the overall size of the financial sector.

Krugman makes the point clearly in a post featuring a chart of the financial industry share of domestic profit. As the Nobel winning economist puts it:

We got into this mess because we had an over-financialized economy, with finance making a share of profits out of all proportion to its actual economic contribution. And now it’s baaaack.

The current financial reform effort has merits (consumer financial protections and Say on Pay rules to name two). Policy makers needs to pass the bill and get right back to work on cutting the financial sector down to size.

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Estate Tax Organizer Lee Farris on the Rick Smith Show

The Rick Smith Show

To listen to Lee's full interview on the Rick Smith Show, click here (MP3).

Highlights from the interview:

Farris: "[The estate tax could be called] the dynasty tax. It's the tax so that we don't have dynasties. It's the meritocracy tax, it's the tax that enforces having a meritocracy where you get ahead on your own merits rather than on your parents'.

Under [Presidents] Eisenhower and Kennedy, the very wealthy were paying more than half of their income in taxes. That's not true now. We did it before, there's nothing about now that's different than then.  It's just the whole political outlook about what taxes should be like. That's the difference."


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America Throws the Gauntlet Down on AZ

America's got a bone to pick with Arizona. The state's anti-immigrant legislation (SB 1070), signed into law by Gov. Jan Brewer in April, has caused a nationwide uproar of people who view it as a misguided political ploy. (It's no secret that this is an election year for Brewer, and it appears she may have some campaign funding problems, which may or may not have played a role in this bold move.)

Not only has the Arizona decision elicited the expected cacophony of advocacy groups challenging the law, but cities across the country, stretching from coast to coast with some in between (including our very own, Boston) have made Arizona's immigration policy their business, making moves to boycott the state and municipalities of Arizona until the decision is reversed.

President Obama has publicly denounced the law (watch it below), advocating for comprehensive immigration reform over punitive and divisive patchwork measures (e.g., fences, walls, community raids, round-ups, detentions and mass deportations).

Obama pow-wowed with Gov. Brewer earlier this month to find common ground on this issue. It was pretty much a waste of jet fuel and air time, because not much came of the meeting. Brewer is holding her ground, saying the completion of the Great Wall between the US and Mexico and increased militarization of the border are prerequisites to comprehensive reform.

Meanwhile, the Department of Justice is reviewing Arizona's immigration law in consideration of a potential suit against the state for violations of civil rights. To that end, Brewer had this to say--she won't go down easy, and is willing to go to some extreme legal lengths to prove her point.

Despite Brewer's incorrigibility on reversing SB 1070, and despite the generally favorable results of full-context-lacking polls about the law, we're able to find clarity in paradox. Most of those who support the Arizona law only do so because it was a form of action on a long-standing concern. At the same time, an overwhelming majority of voters, including those who support the Arizona law, would support comprehensive immigration reform by the federal government. That begs this question: What are our elected officials [still] waiting for?

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Unemployment Situation: A Longer Wait Time for People of Color?

Unemployment line

Photo credit: Pan-African News Wire

The Bureau of Labor Statistics released updated unemployment numbers for May 2010, and the story hasn’t yet changed…sort of. Nearly one in ten US workers continue to go without work, but the reality is still more unsettling for people of color.

Unemployment for white workers has fluctuated a few tenths of a point in recent months, and now sits at 8.8 percent. Workers of color, on the other hand, are still weathering unemployment storms of double-digit magnitudes. Latino unemployment fell 0.1% from the previous month to 12.4 percent. And, Black unemployment, despite a one-point drop, is still highest of all at 15.5 percent.

It's worth noting that last month's unemployment numbers are slightly distorted due to a rise in temporary government employment for Census 2010. That aside, we should continue bracing ourselves for a long and rough ride back to full employment.

Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and others in the Obama administration have said we shouldn’t expect a return to a more stable employment situation for a few years, at best. According to Mr. Geithner:

“The worst is behind us...However, the country faces significant and ongoing challenges: high unemployment, the need to build a new and stable foundation for prosperity in the years and decades ahead, and a medium- and long-term fiscal situation that could ultimately undermine future job creation and economic growth.”

Challenges to come, absolutely. But the worst being behind us? That has yet to be seen.

Despite the historic legislative strides made or in process as of late, the voices of well-funded special interests continue to overwhelm those of average Americans, let alone people of color. Latino and Black workers are, respectively, 1.40 and 1.76 times more likely to be out of work than their white counterparts, highlighting that not enough is being done to address the roots of racial economic inequality.

So, when they say stability is still a few years away, what does that bode for communities of color? How long will they have to wait?

Until the administration and Congress get serious about enacting economic policies that will truly serve those in need, and not pandering to the desires of moneyed interests, that “foundation for prosperity” won’t be possible – especially for people of color. 

We need targeted job creation aimed at employing workers in economic deserts – those communities most devastated by this crisis. We need measures in place that will safeguard consumers from the traps set by financial predators who place families’ economic well being in jeopardy. We need progressive tax policies that will generate revenue for social programs that make recovery and broadly shared prosperity possible. And, we need these types of policies to start now.

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How Unfair Tax Breaks Benefit the Richest Americans

Work vs. Wealth

How Unfair Tax Breaks Benefit the Richest Americans

By Brian Miller
Originally published in the Fayetteville Daily News, June 1, 2010

Brian Miller

Now that the dust has settled from this year's tax-filing scramble, here are a few facts to keep in mind as Congress moves closer to debating the expiring Bush tax cuts. By the end of 2010, those cuts, which began to take effect in 2001, will have cost our nation $2.5 trillion dollars.

To put that enormous loss of revenue into perspective, consider this: It's twice as much as the combined cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And it's two-and-a-half times the cost of the recently passed health-care plan.

Nearly half of those costly Bush tax cuts went to the top 5 percent of households. But instead of the promised trickle-down growth, we got stagnant wages for middle-class Americans while many wealthy households grew even wealthier. Over the last decade, a record federal budget surplus--before the Bush tax cuts--has turned into a massive federal deficit.

I recently spoke on a radio show about the work of Responsible Wealth, a network of American millionaires speaking out in favor of higher taxes on the wealthy. These millionaires want to dial back the portion of Bush tax cuts that benefited the top 5 percent, which includes people like themselves, while preserving the tax cuts for low and middle-income families. What's more ironic is that they're pledging to give away their savings under the Bush tax cuts to groups that are working to end those and other tax breaks for the wealthy.

I shared a story about one of those millionaires--he has an income of over half a million dollars per year, but pays less than 15 percent of those earnings to the IRS. The host and callers were all outraged, and rightfully so. But, their initial instinct--to direct their outrage at this millionaire for "gaming the system"--was misguided. He's not the one gaming the system. The Bush administration did it for him.

A lot of Americans look at the federal income tax, of which the top rate is 35 percent, and think that if someone like this millionaire is taxed at such a low rate, he must be cheating. Here's how it's possible: that 35 percent top rate only applies to earned income. While he's well paid as a professor, three-fourths of his total income is in the form of capital gains and dividends from a sizeable investment portfolio. (Some was inherited and some was built up during his days as an investment banker.) And the top rate for capital gains and dividends is only 15 percent.

In short, money earned through work is taxed at a higher rate than money made from, well, money.

The intense focus by the media and anti-tax groups on the federal income tax is preventing too many people from seeing the true size of the tax giveaways bestowed upon our nation's wealthiest households. It's like the ship's crew pointing at the tip of the iceberg, but ignoring the hulking mass beneath.

For most Americans, wages and salaries account for roughly 80 percent of their total income, but that ratio starts dropping sharply for those earning over $200,000 per year. For many with incomes of $1 million or more per year, about 25 percent is from wages and salaries; the rest is primarily passive income, like capital gains and dividends. By taxing investment income at a lower rate than earned income, we've tilted the system heavily in favor of the rich.

For a country that prides itself on the hard work of its citizenry, we seem to have lost our way. It's unacceptable that those who have gained the most from our society, and who have the most to give back, are actually paying taxes at a lower overall rate than most others. We need to start taxing money-from-money income at the same level as the earned income that most Americans depend on. Ending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest households, which includes restoring the top capital gains and dividends rates to their pre-Bush levels, is an essential first step.

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Quick Reactions: Senate Passes Financial Reform

After a whirlwind of amendments and parliamentary parrying, the Senate has passed it's version of reform of the regulations of the financial sector. Some early reactions:
  • Next step: conference committee to combine the Senate bill with the House version.
There's a lot to like in the Senate bill (including reasonable consumer financial protection and Say on Pay rules) and what emerges from the conference committee is likely to go a long way to reigning in some of the excesses of finance. However, there is a lot that both the House and Senate did not address.
The real next next step cut finance down to size.


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Raise My Taxes, Please!

Forbes.com Logo

Eric Schoenberg"I am a wealthy American who supports higher taxes on wealthy people. I realize that agitating to pay more taxes is unusual. When I appeared on Fox News recently, the host, Neil Cavuto, opposed my position but also called me an altruist with a good heart, because I favored a policy against my own self-interest. I thank Neil for his kind words, but I disagree with him. I believe higher taxes on myself are in my own self-interest.

Although repealing the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy will cost me a lot, I think doing so is necessary to address a looming national debt crisis that could severely harm me and my family. In the face of this threat, I consider it perfectly self-interested to worry more about the state of the overall national economic pie than about my own particular slice. [...]"

Read the full op-ed by Responsible Wealth member Eric Schoenberg

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WA State: Can We Get an "Amen!" for Fair Taxes?

Yes On 1098 bannerThis summer, a Washington state coalition of businesses, labor and social justice organizations, and a few prominent civic leaders, including our friend, Bill Gates, Sr., is trying to make history. They’re putting boots on the streets to advance to the November ballot Washington’s first tax reform initiative in 40 years. The message of the initiative, I-1098, is simple: Washingtonians are suffering from the state’s budget crisis, and they are in desperate need of a fair tax code to fund core public services like education and healthcare.

One coalition member, Washington Community Action Network (also a member of UFE’s Tax Fairness Organizing Collaborative), will host a launching event for volunteers this Memorial Day weekend on Saturday, May 29th to start getting the word out and gathering signatures of Washington voters.

Forty thousand residents have lost basic health coverage as a result of the state’s fiscal woes. That includes thousands of seniors and disabled residents who have lost daily care, and children who may be susceptible to illness due to elimination of state-funded vaccinations. On education, a seventy percent reduction in funds to reduce class sizes is causing classrooms to bulge with more, and presumably less engaged, students. 

The passage of I-1098 would restore funding to those services while, at the same time, lowering taxes for the majority of Washington households. Sounds oxymoronic, right? That’s the beauty of a progressive tax structure – a fair share of the costs of public services are paid for by those who’ve benefitted the most from them, and who, in turn, have the most to give back to the common good. Here’s an overview of I-1098:

  • It reduces the state property tax by 20%.
  • It increases the small business tax credit from $420 to $4,800 annually, eliminating the state business and occupation tax for more than 80% of businesses, and reducing taxes for another 10%.
  • And, here’s where the added revenue comes from: The top 3% wealthiest households in Washington will pay a new income tax. Married couples will pay just 5% on incomes over $400,000 ($200,000 for singles), and 9% on incomes over $1 million ($500,000 for singles). The new tax would raise about $1 billion – with a “b” – annually, even with the small business and middle-class tax cuts.

For those who are still on the fence about whether this sounds fair, consider this: The wealthiest Washingtonians currently pay less in state and local taxes than their counterparts in 43 other states. Washington has the most regressive tax system in the country, with households in the top 1% paying a mere 3% of their income toward state and local taxes, while those in the bottom 20% pay 17 percent.

Asking for a little more from the top 3% (about 83,700 out of 2.27 million households) isn’t too much when we’re talking about the well being of over 6.6 million people.

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