If during last night's State of the Union address, you were more moved by Obama's words than by Michele Bachmann's PowerPoint charts, you're not alone. Sure—data has it's place. But when it comes to inspiring people and garnering the support necessary to create change, it's all about the stories we tell.
In last night’s State of the Union address, President Obama used a story that evoked our shared memory, history, and pride.
“Half a century ago, when the Soviets beat us into space with the launch of a satellite called Sputnik, we had no idea how we would beat them to the moon. The science wasn't even there yet. NASA didn't exist. But after investing in better research and education, we didn't just surpass the Soviets; we unleashed a wave of innovation that created new industries and millions of new jobs. This is our generation's Sputnik moment.”
Using that Sputnik narrative as his starting point, he then made the case for meeting the challenges of our generation with large-scale investments in clean energy, information technology, and biomedical research. Regardless of what one may think of the overall message Obama delivered, the method is right on.
He could have stood up there and cited statistics from Mark Zandi of Moody’s about how each federal dollar we spend in infrastructure investments generates $1.59 in economic stimulus, but that would have fallen flat. Worse, it would have been met with skeptics who have adverse knee-jerk reactions to “government spending” of any kind. Instead, he used a powerful story that evoked a sense of pride, and in doing so re-framed the debate based on our shared history and understanding of the world. That’s how we are going to win hearts and minds.
It is through stories like these that we are able to process new information and facts. Jeff Chang and Brian Komar expanded upon this concept in an article entitled, “Vision: Bringing our Culture into Progressive Politics is a Winner,” posted on Alternet today.
“Culture is the space in our national consciousness filled by music, books, sports, movies, theater, visual arts, and media. It is the realm of ideas, images, and stories -- the narrative in which we are immersed every day. It is where people make sense of the world, where ideas are introduced, values are inculcated, and emotions are attached to concrete change…”
That is, culture – in the form of stories, shared experiences, metaphors, and the like – is the way in which people make sense of the world. It’s the way in which facts are processed. This understanding has greatly informed the work of United for a Fair Economy (UFE). It’s part of the reason we have put the stories and culture of change at the forefront of our work.
- Stories: When discussing her support for a progressive tax system and strong estate tax at a UFE press conference, Abigail Disney made a compelling case about how her family’s wealth (she is the granddaughter of Roy Disney, Walt’s brother and business partner) would not be possible if it were not for the highways that brought Americans to Disneyland and the courts that protected the copyright of Mickey Mouse.
- History: In our most recent State of the Dream report, we retell the story of how the broadly-shared prosperity of the 1950s and 1960s was created through massive public investments in infrastructure and people – the interstate highways system, aerospace industry (Obama’s Sputnik story), and the GI Bill – interwoven with the story of race in America.
- Art and Theater: To explore inequality in our workshops, we use a popular UFE exercise involving 10 chairs and 10 volunteers. Each chair represents 10% of the wealth and each person represents 10 percent of the population. By the end of the workshop, one person representing the top 10 percent is laying across seven chairs while the remaining nine are crammed onto the last three chairs. These exercises create a powerful set of shared experiences for participants that are far more memorable than watching a Powerpoint presentation.
Clearly, much work remains to be done, but the road ahead is clear and it’s lined with the stories, history, art, and shared experiences that define our culture.
If you support a progressive tax system, does that make you a "socialist?"
A progressive tax is one where the tax rate increases as the taxable base amount increases. In plainer terms, it's one that levies a fairer share from those who have reaped the greatest financial benefits from our many taxpayer-funded economic structures.
Chances are, if you vocally support a progressive tax system, you’ve dealt with such accusations at one point or another.
Perhaps, like me, your knee-jerk reaction is to get angry. Or to accept the name-calling, figuring it just comes with the territory of being "on the left," so to speak. But Steve Schnapp, a popular educator with United for a Fair Economy, offers a more constructive approach.
Steve was recently interviewed for a forthcoming documentary by Will 2 Power Productions. In the interview, he explained how he responds to progressive activist concerns of being labeled with the 's' word.
“You can call it socialism, you can call it whatever you want,” he said. “Here’s what I stand for: equity, fairness, helping each other out. Some folks like to call that socialism, and they think if they just paint us with that brush, it will end the conversation…But I believe that these are values we all share.”
Steve’s point is a good one (and well-articulated, as you’ll see below). Whether it’s in the halls of Congress or at our kitchen tables, it’s important for each of us to remember the values that unite us rather than the partisanship that seems to divide us. After all, writing each other off with labels squashes any potential for dialogue.
With an open mind, we're more likely to find that we have much more in common with our political “adversaries” than we think.
Proposed 10% Cut to Federal Workforce Will Deepen the Racial Divide in the U.S.
Late last week, the Washington Post ran a story about a bill introduced by Representative Kevin Brady (R-TX) to cut the federal work force by 10 percent in the next decade. Three days later, UFE released our new State of the Dream report which documents, among other things, the disproportionate impact that federal employee cutbacks will have of Black families.
It’s important to remember that public sector workers perform very important functions in our society that benefit Americans of all races. Public sector workers are the ones who inspect our food supply, police our streets, and educate our children. As a result, attacks on the public sector and its workers hurts all Americans regardless of race by eroding the ability of our nation to meet the needs of its citizens.
At the same time, the proposed cuts to the federal work force will disproportionately hit Black workers who are more likely to be employed in public sector jobs. In fact, Blacks are 30 percent more likely to work a public sector job than the general work force, and 70 percent more likely to work for the federal government in particular.
For Blacks, the attack on the public sector workforce is a one-two punch. In addition to the eroding ability of our nation to meet the needs of its citizens, Black workers will shoulder the brunt of the layoffs at a time that the Black unemployment rate is 15.8 percent.
Ninety-seven percent of Americans got the muddy end of the stick in the lopsided tax bill President Obama signed into law in December. Of that 97 percent, people of color will suffer the most.
When it comes to tax policy, the national conversation typically fails to account for race as a factor. So, although the progressive tax movement suffered a setback in the Obama-GOP tax deal, the debate offered reason for hope in the coming two-year battle over the estate tax and top-tier Bush tax cuts.
The Congressional Black Caucus stepped up to express its overwhelming distaste for the tax deal. In doing so, those legislators have signaled their awareness of the connection between tax breaks for the super-rich and the economic backsliding of African American communities. CBC member Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr. likened President Obama's tax plan to Reaganomics:
"I'm worried that the deal President Obama cut with Republicans sets us up for a Reagan-style set of bad choices…That was President Reagan's strategy: a 'starve the beast' plan of lowered taxes and increased military spending that would force Congress to make deep cuts in programs for the most vulnerable."
The CBC wasn't alone in their outrage. A group of Black church leaders, representing 50,000 congregations, loudly denounced the tax deal. Reverend W. Franklyn Richardson, chairman of the Conference of National Black Churches, wrote:
"Based on our prophetic responsibility to speak to those in power on behalf of the poor, underserved, and vulnerable, we find it utterly shameful that those who insisted that the deficit be reduced, now celebrate billions of dollars being added to the deficit as tax cuts for the wealthy."
Latinos are also among those to feel the scald of poor tax policy. Oscar Chacón, Executive Director of the National Alliance of Latin American and Carribean Communities (NALACC), explains the insecurities Latinos, like African Americans, face in the Obama-GOP tax deal:
"The continuation of the Bush tax cuts for the richest 2% in this time of crisis is an utterly irresponsible act. With the incoming Congress, it is foreseeable that the significant increase in federal debt generated by this "compromise" will be used as a leading argument to enact cutbacks in key social programs that will inevitably have a disproportional negative impact on Latino and Latin American immigrant communities in the U.S."
In the short-term, a worrisome finding in the Obama-GOP tax plan is that the poorest Americans would experience a slight tax increase due to the replacement of the President's "Make Work Pay" tax credit with a temporary 2 percent cut to the payroll tax. Workers of color are strongly represented in the lowest tax brackets, and would therefore carry a disproportionate amount of the weight of that tax hike.
The payroll tax cut itself is like whiskey in a Red Bull can. Measures that cut holes in safety net programs–as this cut threatens to do with Social Security–are dangerous for the working class and people of color, who are more likely to rely on those programs than white Americans. If the payroll tax cut now is used as a reason to cut benefits later, the overall economic impact will be more contractionary than stimulative.
In determining which way is forward, we must constantly consider the type of society in which we want to live. At the most basic level, many of us want the same things, regardless of race or ethnicity: meaningful work that adequately provides basic needs for ourselves and our families, time and the means for recreation and others with which to enjoy it.
We first have to realize that when our communities as a whole do well, we as individuals are more likely to do well. Then it's up to us to create the circumstances that make that possible by fighting for policies that provide opportunity to the most vulnerable populations.
It starts with you and I. We get informed, we take action and we pay it forward to as many others as possible.
The super-rich got an early Christmas gift in the $858 billion tax package that President Obama signed into law on Friday. On top of a two-year extension of Bush-era income tax rates, the wealthiest Americans dodged an estate tax that was set to jump up from zero to 55% for individuals worth more than $1 million. Instead, under a deal Senate Republicans negotiated with the White House, individuals can exempt estates up to $5 million and pay 35% beyond that. The exemption for couples is $10 million.
Official estimates pin the two-year cost of the adjustment at $68 billion, and it will shield all but about 3,600 estates from the levy, according to a projection by the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center.
The windfall for the well-heeled wasn't delivered out of thin air. Indeed, a small band of the richest Americans have acted as their own secret Santas on this issue for years. A 2006 report by Public Citizen and United for a Fair Economy -- both nonprofits opposed to concentrated wealth -- identified 18 families financing a coordinated campaign to repeal the estate tax altogether. Among the leading names behind that push: the Gallos (E&J Gallo Winery), the Kochs (Koch Industries), the Mars' (Mars Inc.), the Waltons (Wal-Mart), and the Wegmans (Wegmans Food Markets). At the time, the report estimated the families' collected net worth to be at least $185 billion, roughly equal to the market cap of Google today.
Several of the families organized their efforts through an association called the Policy and Taxation Group. Lobbying disclosure laws don't require the group to list its members, and as such, it hasn't disclosed any of them since 1999. But disclosures show the group itself remains active, with two hired-gun lobbying firms on its payroll this year. One of those shops, Patton Boggs, separately shills for the Mars and Wegman families on the issue.
Small estates vs. large estates
Proponents of an estate tax repeal make their argument by citing the burden of the tax on people with significantly less money -- namely small business owners and family farmers. And a wide range of trade associations organized under the banner of the Family Business Estate Tax Coalition -- a group that includes the American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Federation of Independent Business -- has stayed active lobbying to scale the tax back. They argue the levy is so onerous that small to middle-sized concerns are frequently forced to sell just to pay the piper.
Independent analysts question the veracity of those claims. The Tax Policy Center, for example, concludes there is "little hard evidence [to suggest] that the impact of estate taxes on family farms and businesses is a major concern." [...]
By Tory Newmyer for Fortune magazine, December 21, 2010
The sellout of a tax deal has been signed into law. Despite all our best efforts, all the efforts of thousands of groups, hundreds of thousands of individuals, and a few stand-up politicians, we appear helpless to resist the onslaught of the “starve the beast” strategy (except for war, policing & corporate giveaways).
The utter failure of the Obama Administration to stand up to the rightwing assault on lower and middle-income workers, families, and communities has left many angry and feeling powerless.
It is truly dispiriting.
I believe, however, that there is a silver lining. For the first time in a long time, there appears to be a groundswell of recognition that what has happened is in large part due to the lack of a progressive social movement to counterbalance the power of the oligarchy and its Tea Party ground troops. Union leaders, community-based organizing coalitions, progressive beltway think tanks, and many others who have traditionally put most of their strategic eggs in the basket of support for the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, are calling for strategies that will build an independent movement.
And many voices have been raising the need for a unifying, values-based narrative to counter the ultra-conservative blame the victim, blame big government, blame unions, blame Muslims, blame immigrants story amplified by Fox News and mainstream media echo chamber.
More and more progressives are recognizing the importance of organizing, not just mobilizing, and perhaps most important of all, the need for unity across issues and constituencies. As George Lakoff explained:
“Those of us outside of government have to organize that unified movement, and not be limited by specific issue areas. The movement is about progressivism, not just about environmentalism, or social justice, or labor, or education, or health, or peace. The general principles govern them all.”
There is an opportunity here to put aside our notions of turf and any “we’ve got the key facts or the correct analysis or the pipeline to people in power” mentalities. We may need to let go of our egos and keep our eyes on the prize and get some agreement about those general principles.
To my colleagues:
I am proud to be part of the extraordinary work you do day in and day out, and am amazed at how, even with our resource constraints, you still manage to ramp up the intensity when needed. We are suffering defeats but our efforts are not for naught.
Seeds may stay dormant for years before springing to life. I am grateful for the work you do in the garden.
The $900 billion tax bill that was passed by Congress this week provides massive tax breaks for the wealthy. These tax breaks will not create jobs or improve the economy. They add to the deficit and will worsen economic inequality in the United States.
The worst part of the bill is the gutting of the estate tax, which only affects multi-million dollar estates, to its weakest form in 80 years.
Progressive organizations and progressive representatives in the House fought long and hard to establish a stronger estate tax. The sole positive aspect of the estate tax provision is that the cut lasts for only two years.
It’s clear the estate tax will continue to be at the center of future battles for tax justice.
Senate Republicans held relief for unemployed Americans hostage in the middle of the worst employment crisis in decades. Tax breaks for the wealthy were the ransom they demanded.
This bill makes clear the hypocrisy of deficit hawks in both parties. Now that it has been passed, the same deficit hypocrites are already saying their next goal is to shrink public spending on programs that benefit the working and middle classes.
President Obama says that he wants these tax cuts for the wealthy to be temporary. UFE will fight to make sure they are.
The President also says that he plans to focus on overall tax reform. UFE will fight for a stronger estate tax, for taxes that ensure the wealthy pay their fair share, and for taxes that reduce economic inequality.
We face several important choices between now and 2012. Our country will have to seriously consider this question: Do we want an economy that works for everyone, or one that excessively rewards the wealthy?
In the coming years, we at UFE will redouble our efforts to build a movement for tax fairness and a more just and inclusive economy.
The House leadership heard our message loud and clear! But, we still have work to do. TODAY, the House will hold a vote on an amendment to the tax package for a stronger estate tax at the 2009 level.
Our best hope for a stronger estate tax is passing this amendment in the House. Let your representative know what you want right now!
MAKE THREE CALLS using our toll-free number to the Congressional switchboard at 800-830-5738:
If the House fixes the bill to include a stronger estate tax, there’s still time for the Senate to pass the bill.
While we at UFE do not consider the 2009 estate tax to be ideal – with a $3.5 million exemption per spouse and a 45% rate on amounts above that – it is far better than the estate tax in the Senate bill ($5 million exemption per spouse and 35% rate).
Please forward a link to this alert to friends, family and colleagues. Call and urge them to take action. And, help spread the word further by blogging about this important issue, and sharing this alert on your social networks.
Here are a few news updates on this debate that may be helpful in getting you up-to-speed:
- This is a great estate tax editorial by USA Today. We hope this helps to inspire you and others in your network to take action.
- On December 15, the Senate passed, with an 81-19 vote, the Obama-GOP tax deal with a severely weakened estate tax and extension of the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy. See how your Senators voted here.
- Unfortunately, the Sanders amendment to fix the whole bill by ending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, setting the estate tax at the 2009 level, and replacing the payroll tax holiday with a one-year extension of the Make Work Pay Credit, failed 43-57.
The House Democrats and the Congressional Black Caucus are wise in their righteous opposition of the shameful tax compromise put forth by the Republican Caucus and the Obama Administration. Their message is clear: there will be no deal until significant improvements are made to the package. We must encourage them to hold the line on that demand.
The most inexcusable part of the Obama-GOP package is the dramatic slashing of the federal estate tax even further beyond the already weakened 2009 law. Although the estate tax impacts less than 0.25% of all estates – the wealthiest of the wealthy – it has profound implications for all Americans and communities of color in particular. By curbing the transfer of unlimited wealth from generation to generation, the estate tax is an important tool for ensuring that the inequalities of generations past, including those drawn along the lines of race, do not forever haunt our nation.
For much of U.S. history, white Americans have had greater opportunities to build wealth, often with the help of the federal government programs such as the Homestead Act and the GI Bill. African-Americans were largely denied these opportunities as the weight of overt racism, Jim Crow, bank redlining, and more prevented African-Americans from closing the gap with their white counterparts. Though many of these unjust structures and policies are now gone, the inequalities they created continue to this day thanks to the power of inheritance.
Currently, African-Americans earn 62 cents and Latinos earn 68 cents for every dollar of white income. Troubling as these numbers are, the wealth disparities are even more unsettling. African-Americans have only 10 cents and Latinos have only 12 cents of net wealth for every dollar of white net wealth. To see these appalling disparities, is to see generations of injustice carried forward as wealth, mostly in white hands, is transferred from one generation to the next.
This intergenerational transfer of wealth takes place over many years, including help in buying a first car, paying for college, or subsidizing the down payment on a first home. The apex of this transfer though is at the time of death, when the remainder of the parent’s wealth is usually transferred to the children or grandchildren.
Because the estate tax acts as a check to the concentration of wealth at the very top, it helps to even the economic playing field for each generation to follow. That is precisely why it is of critical importance not only to communities of color, but also to working class white communities
Obama’s decision to concede so much ground to Republicans on this issue is simply baffling. Further weakening of the estate tax is unacceptable. We should instead be finding ways to significantly strengthen it. It’s also clear that buckling on the estate tax, and the tax cuts for the wealthy more broadly, would be dangerous move for Democrats. Congressional Republicans will leverage the deficits created by this tax giveaway to millionaires and billionaires for massive cuts in social services and other public structures, on which all Americans depend.
In the days ahead, we must rally behind the House Democrats and the Congressional Black Caucus. Encourage them to stand strong and not back off their demands in those crucial negotiations. In the words of Frederick Douglas, "Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will."
An estate tax primer
The estate tax is going to dominate the final arguments over the tax deal, so it's worth quickly running through what it is and how much the various plans will cost us.
The basic insight behind the estate tax is that wealth concentration is a problem. That was true in 1916, when the tax was enacted, and it's true today, when it's being neutered. As Ray Madoff explains, the going theory came from Louis Brandeis, who said, “We can have concentrated wealth in the hands of a few or we can have democracy, but we can’t have both.” Andrew Carnegie himself testified in favor the estate tax's creation.
The way it works is simple enough. There's an exemption level beneath which estates are not taxed, and a tax rate that applies to every dollar the estate is worth above the exemption. In 2001, we had a $675,000 exemption and a 55 percent tax rate. So an estate worth $700,000 would take a 55 percent tax on that final $25,000. The estate tax's levels, however, have been changing because the Bush tax cuts -- as you can see in the table on the right -- have been phasing it out. In 2002, it was $1 million, and 50 percent. By 2009, the exemption was up to $3.5 million, and the rate down to 45 percent. And in 2010, the estate tax was repealed.
But not for long. If no action is taken, it returns in 2011 with an exemption of $1 million and a rate of 55 percent. If that seems like weird tax policy -- a single year in which death carried a huge tax break -- it is. But it was never about tax policy. It was a political strategy: Republicans wagered that Democrats wouldn't be able to bring the estate tax back after it had expired. Public opinion would be against them, and it would be backed by a massive amount of money from the nation's richest residents.
So far, it looks like they were right.
The dominant alternative to the estate tax's return -- which had support from both Republicans and, sadly, Democrats -- was the Lincoln-Kyl bill: A $5 million exemption with a 35 percent rate. This is the language that has been included in the tax deal.
So how much does this cost? With a $1 million exemption and a 55 percent rate -- in other words, what will happen if we do nothing -- the estate tax would raise about $700 billion over the next 10 years. The Lincoln-Kyl version would raise less than $300 billion. And the compromise most Democrats have coalesced around -- which was the 2009 level, with a $3.5 million exemption and a 45 percent rate -- would've brought in a bit less than $400 billion.
It's important to keep in mind the cramped space of this debate: If the tax goes back to its scheduled levels, it'll tax 2 percent of estates, If the Lincoln-Kyl levels are put in place, it'll tax 0.25 percent of estates. But the difference between the hundreds of billions the tax could raise and the miniscule number of estates it would affect explains the immense energy Republicans and some Democrats (notably Blanche Lincoln, who has traditionally raked in campaign money from the Walton family) give to the issue. In a report called "Spending Millions to Save Billions," Public Citizen and United for a Fair Economy estimated that a handful of the country's richest families had spent more than $400 million lobbying for the tax's repeal -- and of they were successful, they stood to save more than $70 billion. [emphasis added]
For the rich, fighting the estate tax is simple [sic] a good investment. And it looks like it's paying off.
Update: It's worth clarifying that the tax gets levied on the estate, not the heir. Technically, the heir pays nothing, and the tax needs to be dealt with before the estate is transferred.
Numbers and table credit: The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.