In Friday's Wall Street Journal (p. A15 of the print edition), columnist Stephen Moore does his best to marginalize and discredit the growing chorus of high-wealth individuals, including members of UFE's Responsible Wealth project, who support raising taxes on wealthy people like themselves. But his best is little more than a collection of weak arguments and name-calling.
I wish I had a dollar for every time a wealthy liberal has declared he thinks he should pay more taxes. That list includes Warren Buffett, George Soros, Bill Gates Sr., Mark Zuckerberg and even Barack Obama, who now says that not only should rich people like him pay more taxes, they want to pay more. "I believe that most wealthy Americans would agree with me," he said of his tax-hike plan. "They want to give back to the country that's done so much for them."
The idea that the nation's primary wealth and job creators—i.e., the people who carry the bulk of the tax load—aren't doing enough for the country is a bit insulting. But the president is right that there is a seemingly endless number of terribly wealthy, guilt-ridden individuals who want Americans to pay more taxes.
Okay, let's get this much straight. It's not about "guilt." It's about "responsibility" and a deeper understanding of what makes wealth possible. Responsible Wealth members understand that their wealth is not in spite of, but because of our tax system and the investments its makes possible. Abigail Disney made this argument in a USA Today column last summer. Without a taxpayer funded interstate highway system, there would be no Disneyland. Without our courts, no copyright protection for Mickey Mouse. Without our publicly funded education system, no creative artists filling Disney Studios.
The simple fact is, the public investments made possible through our tax dollars are not the enemy of prosperity, but the foundation upon which economic prosperity is built. Bill Gates noted the taxpayer funded investments that led to the creation of the internet, without which, Microsoft would be a very different corporation today. Jerry Fiddler, whose Wind River Systems company made the embedded software for NASA's Mars Rovers, readily acknowledges the role taxpayer-funded investments played in his business success. Judy Pigott, whose family wealth comes from the manufacture of Peterbilt and Kenworth trucks, would be telling a very different story without the federally-funded interstate highway system. The list goes on.
Despite the assertions of Moore and others who hold his anti-government views, taxes raised to fund investments in the common good are not taken out of the economy, but rather moved from one part of the economy to anther to better meet our nation's priorities. Government expenditures, whether it is building a school, investing in high-speed rail, or aiding workers displaced by plant relocations, are just as much a part of the economy – stimulating economic growth and jobs – as a wealthy person deciding to buy a fourth home.
Government, as aptly described by President Abraham Lincoln, is simply a vehicle for doing things together that we cannot as easily do as individuals – whether that is pushing at the outer bounds of our shared knowledge through public research and exploration, leading our nation into a sustainable future through green energy and transportation investments, or sowing the seeds of prosperity for the next generation through a publicly-funded education system available to all, not just those who can afford it.
A clearer view of the symbiotic relationship between public investments and economic prosperity helps us understand how public investments yield so much more economic bang-for-the-buck than tax cuts. In a report from Moody's, Mark Zandi notes that each dollar the federal government gives away by making the Bush income tax cuts permanent yields about 29 cents in economic stimulus. By comparison, each dollar the federal government spends on infrastructure investments yields $1.59 in economic stimulus. Even more, each dollar of unemployment benefits yield $1.64 in economic stimulus, but that's another story (about the importance of a strong middle class to keep our economy going).
Moore spends most of his column though trying to make the weak argument that if these wealthy individuals want to pay more, they're nothing stopping them from writing a check to the IRS. Well, we've heard that one before... Just last month in fact from Sen. Orin Hatch. The short answer is that taxes are not charity. As former Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once stated so eloquently, "Taxes are what we pay for civilized society." For the long answer, check out the post we wrote in response to Sen. Hatch's comment.
Beer socials are a great way to build community with your neighbors. But who knew they could be such an effective forum for economic justice movement building?
This month, I was invited to present UFE's flagship workshop, "The Growing Divide," at a meeting of Drinking Liberally's chapter in Windsor, CT.
Drinking Liberally is a national project that brings together folks with progressive ideals through social events. Their slogan: "Promoting democracy one pint at a time." Local watering holes, they say, are ideal for these meetings because, "Bars are democratic spaces - you talk to strangers, you share booths, you feel the bond of common ground."
Twenty-three locals filed into Windsor's Union Street Tavern to learn and share thoughts about the inequalities of income, wealth and, in turn, political power we're dealing with as a nation.
Then, to focus the discussion closer to home, Amy Thompson from TFOC member group, Better Choices for Connecticut, pulled up a barstool to share details of their state-level tax justice initiatives, and how those present could get involved.
Through this event, bar-goers were offered the opportunity to build solidarity with other members of their community, and were provided with concrete ways to support the economic justice movement.
Visit the Drinking Liberally website to learn how to join or start a chapter in your community. And, as always, please drink responsibly.
Yesterday, we learned of a vicious attack on the labor studies program at the University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC) and two of the program's educators, Judy Ancel (UMKC) and Don Giljum (UM-St. Louis). Andrew Breibart, the same rabble-rousing fraud who engineered the attacks on Shirley Sherrod and ACORN, using chopped up video footage to deceive the public, is once again behind the lies.
This time, Breitbart is using doctored footage from labor history classes at UMKC to give the impression that the instructors were advocating violence on the part of union members.
Details of the attack are available in a response by Judy Ancel, director of UMKC's labor program.
Fox News and their local affiliates are already amplifying this attack and leveraging it to continue the assault on teachers, unions, and the public sector, in general. Giljum, who is also a manager with the Operating Engineers union, Local 148 in St. Louis, has been asked by his union and by the UMKC to resign his positions.
AFL-CIO strategist Nick Unger commented on this ugly display:
Public education (including post-secondary) and the post-Depression/World War II public sector and trade unions are structural elements of modern democracy. Twenty-first century democracy is built on more than the right to vote. Eliminating these structures—unions, public education and the public sector (and mass transit and more)—removes the underpinnings of democracy, the obstacles to total corporate domination.
Nick’s observation provides a very important frame for a narrative that bears repeating by all progressives, including unions, environmentalists, LGBT advocacy groups, the peace movement, racial justice workers, immigrant rights activists, etc. It's that this is an issue of democracy.
Since our inception, UFE has put forward an analysis to help explain the growing divide between the top one percent and the rest of us. Over the last 30 years, a destructive pattern of rules changes (e.g., tax cuts for the wealthy) and a shift in power (e.g., the declining membership of organized labor) have driven economic inequality to heights not seen in the U.S. since just before the stock market crash of 1929. And as UFE’s mission statement makes clear, this growing gap not only undermines the economy but “corrupts democracy.”
The people bankrolling Breibart, Wisconsin Governor Walker and other corporatist-GOP drones and Fox News, are enjoying ever-growing bank accounts and investment portfolios as a result of those rules changes. These are the likes of the Koch Brothers, the Waltons, Pete Peterson, and other billionaire puppet masters, pulling strings and coordinating attacks on the remaining power of workers (collective bargaining, academic freedom, the right to organize, etc.).
Fortunately, a growing number of people who believe in democracy, economic and social equity, sustainability, and fairness are mad as hell and will take it no more!
Please join us in support of legislation that would prevent over one billion dollars in budget cuts in Massachusetts.
WHAT: Joint Revenue Committee Hearing
WHEN: Thursday, May 5, 2011, 10:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m.
WHERE: Massachusetts State House, Gardner Auditorium
An Act to Invest in Our Communities is a legislative proposal that would increase taxes on only the most financially well-off households, raising $1.2 billion in additional revenue to plug a significant portion of our state's $2 billion budget shortfall.
We can’t cut our way out of this deficit. We need continued investments in our schools, our children and our communities to rebuild our economy. This will require new revenue – raised in the fairest way possible – that will help maintain essential public services relied on by all Massachusetts residents.
A broad and diverse statewide coalition is working together to pass An Act to Invest in Our Communities. Hundreds of supporters are expected to fill the Gardner Auditorium hearing room on May 5, and we hope you'll be there with us.
Two very different federal budgets were considered this month by the U.S. House of Representatives: Rep. Paul Ryan's "Path to Prosperity," which was approved by the House, and the Congressional Progressive Caucus' (CPC) "People's Budget."
While both have their ideological streaks, only the latter assumes a firm and rational position on deficit reduction – without economic gimmicks claiming that lower taxes will miraculously produce additional revenue. And most importantly, the CPC's budget takes aim at extreme economic inequality in the U.S and demands more truly shared sacrifice.
Of course, with a corporatist-conservative majority in the House, we couldn't have expected reason to prevail there. However, since the House and Senate still have to find middle ground on the budget, which will then have to be made official by the President, sensible budget ideas continue to stand a chance.
To help make sense of all the partisan rhetoric, our friends at the National Priorities Project (NPP) defined the 2012 budget debate in clear terms, comparing the savings and expenditures of these proposals at polar ends of the budget spectrum. They point to the three most impactful deficit reduction strategies and explain how each budget deals with them:
- Reducing social safety net costs (e.g., Medicare/Medicaid and Social Security)
- Reducing defense/security spending
- Raising revenue with increased taxes
The CPC's budget would reduce the deficit nearly three times more than the House GOP budget between 2012 and 2021, and it would do so without saddling most of the burden on low- and middle-income families (which the House GOP budget does).
|Cumulative differences from the CBO baseline*, 2012-2021||The CPC's "People's Budget"||House GOP budget|
|Revenue||$3.3 trillion more||$4.2 trillion less|
|Non-security discretionary spending||$1.7 trillion in new spending/investments||$1.8 trillion in cuts|
|Security spending||$2.3 trillion in cuts||$0.8 trillion in cuts|
|Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and other mandatory spending||No cuts||$2.9 trillion in cuts|
|Net interest on debt payments||$0.8 trillion less||$0.2 trillion less|
|Deficit reduction||$4.7 trillion less||$1.6 trillion less|
* The CBO baseline assumes that Congress will make no changes to current law over the next decade and that Congress will allow for Bush era tax cuts to expire in 2013.
NPP also provides a generous overview of the components of each budget, as well as each plan's operating mode vis-á-vis the role of government, highlighting three key distinctions:
The fundamental differences between these two budgets revolve around the role of the government in the economy and the workings of the free market. The Ryan plan relies on free market forces to bring prosperity that will eventually “trickle down” to the lower and middle-classes by putting more money in the hands of businesses and wealthy individuals through tax cuts. The CPC proposal assumes there is a need for the government to make up for the failings of the free market system and to provide programs for the less fortunate.
A second distinction lies in the solution to the growing deficit problem. Chairman Ryan believes that the source of the problem is out of control spending and that slashing government programs alone will reduce the deficit. The CPC believes that raising revenues is as important as managing spending when dealing with the deficit because current taxation policies have reduced government income.
A third difference is the role of tax policy. The Ryan plan reduces corporate taxes and personal income taxes for the wealthy in an effort to spur economic growth, while the CPC approach uses taxes as a mechanism to reduce the growing income and wealth gap.
One additional item worth mentioning is that the CPC plan acknowledges the past successes of government investments—thanks to adequate revenue—in creating the circumstances for innovation, job creation and economic growth. Government intervention made possible one of the largest economic expansions in U.S. history after World War II.
On the other hand, the Ryan-GOP budget relies entirely on the impotent and discredited notion of trickle-down economics by calling for more of what we've experienced for the past decade, which has also contributed to historic levels of inequality: tax breaks for the rich and corporations. To this, Paul Krugman scratched his head:
When I listen to current discussions of the federal budget, the message I hear sounds like this: We’re in crisis! We must take drastic action immediately! And we must keep taxes low, if not actually cut them further!
You have to wonder: If things are that serious, shouldn’t we be raising taxes, not cutting them?
It doesn't take a Nobel laureate economist to see the value in such an approach. With the "People's Budget," the CPC has proposed just that – higher taxes, but on the wealthiest among us, who can certainly afford to contribute more to help keep our supposed civil society in working order.
While Congress may seem to work in strange, counterintuitive and angering ways, it's still our job as citizens to barrage them with a mega-dose of reality. The reality here is that we need a budget that serves the people, not just the rich and corporations.
Emily Kawano, UFE board member and director of the Center for Popular Economics, and UFE's Steve Schnapp joined Cynthia Lin of WORT-FM in Madison, WI, the epicenter of recent GOP attacks on public workers, to explain the power of popular economics education in building a movement for economic justice.
They also discuss the role of movement support organizations – like UFE – in supplementing, enhancing and amplifying the work of grassroots social and economic justice groups across the country.
Click here to download the interview (forward to 27:45 to hear from UFE's Steve Schnapp).
“I want to live in America.”
I was twelve years old, shelling peas with my mother in our kitchen in Limuru, Kenya, when I first uttered those words. My mother paused and said to me, “Well, then you better study hard and do well in school. The door will only open for those who knock.”
My mother’s advice was a guiding force for the nine years to follow. I completed high school with excellent scores, and went on to receive my B.A. at the University of Nairobi. Then in 1994, while working as an organizer in my community, I received a scholarship from USAID, which allowed me to build on my local development efforts through a course in Washington, D.C.
Finally, I’d made it to the land of opportunity! America was in many ways true to my imagination: full of kind and generous people who were curious about life in other places, highly resourced institutions that worked efficiently, excellent public transportation, beautiful buildings and fast cars all around me.
But, walking through some of the poorer neighborhoods of D.C., I encountered something I hadn’t imagined. I found that much of this country’s wonderful offerings did not reach all of its citizens. Some of the extremes of poverty I witnessed weren’t much different from those of the Nairobi slums.
It made me wonder: How could so much need exist in this land of plenty?
The poorest D.C. residents clearly had very limited access to productive and meaningful economic opportunities. For some, even the most basic needs went unmet.
I was often asked how it was possible that I, a young woman from Kenya, was able to attend graduate school while so many here are unable to attain even a high school diploma. Many of those baffled by my circumstances were African Americans, who didn’t view a college education as something they could ever reach.
Six months later, I went back home to Kenya, my vision of America significantly altered by the time I had spent here.
More than a decade has passed since my first trip to the U.S. Today, I live here with my family, and have made a career out of understanding the factors that make extreme inequality possible.
If we view economic inequality in the U.S. through a racial lens, it becomes clear that Black Americans have experienced diminished progress in recent decades. For example, from 1947 to 1977 Blacks gained five cents to each dollar of median family income for White workers, but in the three decades since, they have gained only one cent.
The American reality may have been far from a dream for people of color in the 1940's, but upward mobility has since become even more difficult. The stagnation of wages for the lowest earners, depression-like unemployment rates among people of color and increased economic segregation have helped to create racialized pockets of destitution. As a result, people of color depend far more on unemployment insurance and other social safety net programs than do Whites.
This is directly attributable to pre-existing wealth disparities and ongoing economic policies that disproportionately benefit wealthier Americans.
To make matters worse, conservative politicians at all levels of government are calling for drastic and poorly informed budget cuts. Such proposals would be damaging to vital programs such as education, food safety, environmental protection, housing assistance, and community services, to name a few, and would be particularly debilitating to communities of color.
An austerity plan will exacerbate low and middle income Americans’ struggle to make ends meet, causing demand to fall, the economy to contract and the jobs crisis to continue unabated. And, it will only worsen the vast inequalities in our economy.
The American promise certainly beckons, and I am a living testament to the power of its allure. But, without a bold and progressive policy approach to address economic inequality, such a promise will never be fulfilled. Changing this reality will require each of us to join together in a movement for greater equality and justice for all.
Read UFE's report, State of the Dream 2011: Austerity for Whom?, for more on this issue.
This op-ed by Wanjiku Mwangi, UFE's Racial Wealth Divide Initiative Leader, was originally published on April 23, 2011 in The Black Commentator, a magazine that provides insight and analysis on issues affecting African Americans.
UFE's Mazher Ali shares news of Responsible Wealth's "Tax Wealth Like Work" campaign on Workers Independent News' Labor Radio, emphasizing progressive tax policy as a common sense measure to help avoid slash and burn budget measures that exacerbate the economic crisis and hurt the most vulnerable citizens. Taxing investment income the same as wages and salaries would raise more than $80 billion annually.
UFE's Federal Tax Policy Coordinator, Lee Farris, joined Linda Pinkow, host of "What's Left," to spread word about ways people can get involved in the fight for federal tax and budget justice.
Click here to download the interview (forward to 19:15 to hear from UFE's Lee Farris).
Senator Orin Hatch (R-UT) just doesn’t get it – taxes are not charity. His idea that rich people who recognize that their taxes must go up should "write a check to the IRS” is just plain nonsense… nonsense that we’ve heard before.
Eric Shoenberg, a member of our Responsible Wealth project, was quoted in an AP article this weekend. As a high-income American benefitting from the preferential treatment of income from wealth, Schoenberg recognizes that his taxes are absurdly low. Schoenberg, as part of the Tax Wealth Like Work campaign, called for Congress to raise his taxes and that of other high-wealth Americans to restore fairness to our tax system and avert damaging budget cuts. Senator Hatch was quoted in the same article with a much dumber idea:
Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, the top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, said he has a solution for rich people who want to pay more in taxes: Write a check to the IRS. There's nothing stopping you.
"There's still time before the filing deadline for them to give Uncle Sam some more money," Hatch said.
Schoenberg said Hatch's suggestion misses the point.
"This voluntary idea clearly represents a mindset that basically pretends there's no such things as collective goods that we produce," Schoenberg said. "Are you going to let people volunteer to build the road system? Are you going to let them volunteer to pay for education?"
Schoenberg’s response hit the nail right on the head. But this isn’t the first time we’ve heard this argument. It came up last year when our 2010 Tax Fairness Pledge garnered national attention. Back then, after columnist Dana Milbank of the Washington Post made a comment to the same effect, The Economist fired back with a great rebuttal.
…Here's the thing: taxes are not charity. It would be a bad idea for wealthy people who feel they should be paying more taxes to instead contribute large amounts of money voluntarily to reduce the national debt. The first, less important reason for this is that any individual's contributions would be meaninglessly small; they can make far more difference by using the same amount of money to advocate for higher taxes, as these millionaires are doing. But the second, more important reason is that even if a million millionaires got together and voluntarily donated money in such quantities that it made a measurable dent in the deficit, it would be even worse, because they would be giving license to other people to continue pay less than their fair share of taxes. It's an invitation to free-riding, with the public-minded rich subsidizing the irresponsible and selfish.
…even if America had a balanced budget, this kind of argument would be illegitimate. At a pragmatic level, you can't run government functions on voluntary donations because voluntary donations aren't sustainable. You can't count on them. …strong modern states need to be able to tax their populations to pay for public goods.
At a more principled level, this kind of argument is asocial and irresponsible. It's the argument of a free-rider. …Government spending is collective spending, and the taxes we pay for it are collective taxes. Like it or not, this is collective action, and the arguments we have about it have to be collective as well…
Click here to read the full response to this argument from The Economist. Now, if only we could get Sen. Hatch to read it.