The rich are richer than you think

The right wing has done a lot of whining about the over-taxed rich and the under-taxed middle class. Mitt Romney famously complained that “47 percent of Americans pay no income tax.” But that meme conveniently forgets the fact that nearly everyone except the elderly on Social Security pays payroll taxes.

Speaker John Boehner moaned that “The top one percent pay 38 percent of the income taxes in America. You know, how much more do you want them to pay?” But Boehner, like Romney, is only talking about one particular type of tax—the federal personal income tax.

Focusing on that one tax—and ignoring all the rest—is a well-planned right wing tactic. Not only do working families pay taxes for Social Security and Medicare, we pay sales taxes, property taxes, gas taxes, phone and cable taxes, sin taxes (if we indulge), highway tolls, license fees, and much more. When all the federal, state and local taxes and fees are added together, almost everybody pays about 20 to 30 percent of their income. So our overall tax system is something close to a “flat tax” on income. Taxes are hardly progressive at all.

And why are we talking about income at all? The costs of running our governments have nothing to do with income. Some of government is supposed to serve and protect every individual equally (in reality, it doesn’t). But if we step back and look at the total costs of government, everything that’s really expensive is designed, overwhelmingly, to serve wealth not people.

The U.S. military is deployed in a way to defend our nation’s economic interests—they protect ships, oil fields and other assets that are owned by and operated for the rich. Our police forces and courts mostly do the same. America’s transportation and energy transmission infrastructure is far more valuable to the wealthy than to the rest of us. Government-owned lands create profits for drilling and mining companies. Government-funded research and development projects create profits for technology and drug companies. And when the government bails out Wall Street banks after they crash the world economy, it’s the rich who get the money while the rest of us get to watch.

The point is, a fair tax system would be based far more on everyone’s share of assets rather than on income or retail purchases.

The richest one percent of people own over one-third (35.4 percent) of all the combined wealth in America—stocks, bonds, businesses, real estate, cars, jewelry. The richest five percent own nearly two-thirds (63.1 percent) of all the wealth. Just the Forbes 400 wealthiest Americans alone are worth more than all 41 million African Americans in the U.S combined.

So, no, they do not pay anywhere near their fair share in taxes. Wouldn’t it be fairer if the top one percent paid something like 35.4 percent of all the federal, state and local taxes in America and the top five percent paid something like 63.1 percent? That would mean about a 50 percent tax increase in taxes on the rich. Perhaps we should start by restoring the estate tax.

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What’s a campaign “theme” and why do you need one?

Candidates and activists tend to think of local election campaigns as if they were small versions of presidential or statewide efforts. But that’s not the case.

A local campaign is fundamentally about two things: name recognition and a perception of which candidate is “on my side.”

Name recognition is very often the deciding factor in local elections. Voters know little about candidates and they assume the name they know is better than the one they don’t. Incumbents win reelection mostly because of name recognition. It is awfully common for a candidate to win an open seat simply because his/her name is similar to another person with name recognition. And without name recognition, you can’t get across any message. If you impress a voter but they don’t remember your name, the effort was wasted. Name recognition is a matter of campaign mechanics and hard work rather than message framing, so we'll leave detailed discussion of that topic for another time.

Let’s turn to how you persuade voters that your candidate is the one on the voters' side.

First, understand that it’s not a matter of “issues.” We, the activists, judge candidates by their laundry list of issues; average voters don’t. Issues are mostly useful as illustrations of a campaign theme. So what’s a theme?

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Is there a progressive economics?

By highlighting income inequality, President Obama has opened the door to a serious conversation with voters. The problem is that persuadable voters support an idealized concept of conservative economics based on low taxes and free markets. And they strongly believe that “free enterprise has done more to lift people out of poverty, help build a strong middle class, and make our lives better than all of the government’s programs put together.”

And yet, as economists occasionally explain, no truly “free” markets exist. Every market relies on a dense web of laws and regulations, and rather than seeking free markets, conservatives use government to rig market outcomes in ways that redistribute income upward.

The argument for capitalism is that by harnessing individuals’ economic drive, all of society is enriched by their hard work and innovation. We are entirely for that. But society does not win—in fact, it loses—when people get rich by gaming the system, by exploiting tax or regulatory loopholes, by dismantling viable companies, or by creating scams that aren’t technically illegal but should be.

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To strengthen public libraries, wake up and smell the coffee

I’ll bet you know somebody who goes to a bookstore to read, relax and drink coffee. Millions of Americans do that regularly. So why not create that same kind of coffee shop experience at your local library?

According to the American Library Association, a number of libraries already have their own coffee shops. They tend to attract younger patrons; 40 percent of 18-to-24 year olds and 54 percent of 25-to-39 year olds drink coffee every day. These are just the kind of users we need to keep our library systems vital. 

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The tipped minimum wage is sort of a scam

Most restaurant guests think that when they tip a waiter their money is going to that employee, or at least is pooled among the workers. But in 43 states, that’s not really the case. Much of that tip is—indirectly—being pocketed by the restaurant.

Here’s how. Most states have a lower minimum wage for tipped employees than for everyone else. On the federal level, the current minimum wage is $7.25/hour but for tipped employees it’s only $2.13/hour. Part of our tips subsidize the restaurants for the missing $5.12/hour and only part increases the overall wages of the servers.

Why are corporations allowed to skim off employee tips? Why has the federal tipped minimum wage remained stuck at $2.13/hour since 1991? The National Restaurant Association (called the “other NRA” in Washington) has convinced Congress that waiters make enough money. But, as you surely know, that’s not true.

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Victory Comes from the States and Localities

When President Obama presented his State of the Union Address on Tuesday, progressives applauded on the outside but grumbled on the inside. Lipstick on a pig notwithstanding, our federal government is hopeless. Last year we saw a do-less-than-nothing Congress, and it’s not going to change anytime soon. The President will continue to cajole, congressional right-wingers will continue to obstruct, and almost nothing positive will happen in Washington.

But there is little-noticed good news. Real progress is being made in states and localities across America. Progressive legislators, council members and commissioners are leading the newest policy debates and enacting a wide range of innovations, protections and reforms. These lawmakers are at the vanguard of the progressive movement and we need to recognize their accomplishments.

The Public Leadership Institute, in collaboration with ALICE, recently published a report, Progress in the States and Localities, which features 177 significant victories and 44 defeats in 2013. Here are the highlights of that report, the top ten most important progressive victories of the past year:

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NEA Announces Transformative Initiatives

Last week National Education Association (NEA) President Dennis VanRoekel announced a series of initiatives which mark a significant milestone in NEA’s history which will directly and indirectly impact education in your state or locality.

He described the transformation the country's largest union is going through to prepare the next generation of teacher and educator leaders and create concrete solutions for our nation's public school students. While these efforts are far-reaching, they share a common thread – leadership, partnerships, and investment:

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It's all the media's fault!

The mainstream news media, which is supposed to deliver truthful information to the public and call out lies by officeholders and political actors, actually causes bad political behavior. News reporters aren’t the only players at fault, but they’re probably the only ones who can change America’s toxic political environment.

Over the past 20 years, the mainstream media has altered the “rules” of journalism to substitute balance for truth. In just about any political news story, the reporter will quote one side and then the other, making it seem like there is an honest difference of opinion. But this technique sacrifices the truth when just a modest amount of independent research would find that one side is fabricating “facts.”

Because of this reporting method, right wingers know there is no penalty for lying. Average Americans have no idea who’s telling the truth in a typical he-said-she-said political story. Reporters could remove the incentive to lie by ignoring those “stories” or by covering them with some version of “Smith said [whatever] today but it’s simply not true.” And yet, the mainstream news will almost never state an obvious truth or point out an obvious lie. 

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The Case for an Arsenal License

You may have noticed that every time a new gun law is enacted, or even seriously considered, the media reports a gun-buying bonanza. They make it seem like more and more Americans are arming themselves. But that’s not true. Instead, a small percentage of people are building larger and larger arsenals of guns. Because the gun lobby blocks all reasonable oversight, we can only estimate the numbers—but they are astonishing.

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Welcome to IdeaLog

The purpose of IdeaLog is to explore new, different, or forgotten ideas about public policy and political communications. The blog posts are opinions intended to get you to think and to stimulate dialog. They are not intended as "official positions" of the Public Leadership Institute. Our primary bloggers will be the Public Leadership Institute's President Gloria Totten and its Senior Advisor Bernie Horn. We also welcome submissions or topic ideas—you are welcome to email to bhorn@ourfuture.org.

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