A Nation Where Only The Rich Have Homes?

Sam Pizzigati Editor, Too Much online magazine

In our daily lives, as anyone who keeps a household budget can attest, the unexpected happens all the time. A refrigerator motor fails. Some part on your car you never realized existed breaks down. A loved one passes away and you have to — you want to — be at the funeral a thousand miles away.

“Unexpected” expenses like these will, sooner or later, hit all of us. But all of us, says new research out of the Federal Reserve, can’t afford them.

In fact, just under 40 percent of Americans, says the Fed’s sixth annual household economics survey, “would have difficulty handling an emergency expense as small as $400.”

A fifth of American adults, the new Fed study adds, had major unexpected medical bills last year. An even larger share of Americans — one quarter — “skipped necessary medical care in 2018 because they were unable to afford the cost.”

Meanwhile, 17 percent of American adults can’t afford to pay all their monthly bills, even if they don’t experience an unexpected expense.

The new Fed report offers no anecdotal color, just waves of carefully collected statistical data. For a sense of what these stats mean in human terms, we need only look around where we live, particularly if we live in one of the many metro areas where inequality is squeezing millions of Americans who once considered themselves solidly “middle class.” Places like the Bay Area in California.

San Francisco, recent research shows, now has more billionaires per capita than any other city in the world. By one reckoning, San Francisco also has the highest cost of living in the world, as all those billionaires — and the rest of the city’s ultra rich — bid up prices on the most desirable local real estate.

But the Bay Area squeeze goes beyond the confines of San Francisco. Nearby Oakland and Berkeley are facing enormous affordable housing shortages as well. The Bay Area as a whole now has more than 30,000 homeless.

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Co-Governing Puts Us ‘In The Room Where It Happens’

By David Hatch

What does it mean to move “from protest to power?” That’s the question People’s Action members like me asked at our national convention in Washington, D.C. two years ago. At that time, just a few months into the Trump administration, 72 grassroots leaders out of the more than twelve hundred gathered there took a pledge to take action by running for public office.

Many of these activists – and even more from our network across the country – have now made good on these commitments. They are part of the #PeoplesWave of officials we have helped elect. In all, 300 candidates endorsed by People’s Action got elected in midterm and municipal elections, and 150 of these are movement activists who rose up from the ranks of our own member organizations.

“On election night I didn’t win, WE won!” said Sarah Godlewski, Wisconsin’s newly elected State Treasurer, when she spoke to a gathering of these newly minted electeds last month, as People’s Action members gathered once again in D.C.

At this year’s convention, these leaders celebrated their victories and began to dig in on what it means to move from protest on the outside of government to power on its inside, and importantly, linking the two together.

Sarah had never considered running for office, but as a longtime member of Citizen Action of Wisconsin (CAWI), she was part of the fight in April of 2018 to save the State Treasurer’s office from former governor Scott Walker’s attempt to dissolve the office so he could put the state’s finances under his own control, to eliminate oversight.

Sarah and CAWI won that fight, and when no people’s candidate stepped forward to run for State Treasurer, Sarah put herself in the ring. Sarah has a financial and government background – she co-founded a socially conscious investment fund after working for the U.S. State Department and Department of Defense.

Now, as Wisconsin’s Treasurer, Godlewski has followed through on her commitment to co-govern. She regularly appears on CAWI’s weekly podcasts, and has jointly organized events to build community awareness about the ways she’s using the State Treasurer’s office to lower interest payments on student loans and to solve difficult public pension issues.

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ALEC Wants To Make Protest Illegal In Illinois

Maggie Ellinger-Locke Staff Attorney, Greenpeace USA

Dangerous anti-protest legislation is working its way through state assemblies all across the U.S., chipping away at the right to protest and undermining social justice movements. State legislators have introduced nearly 100 bills curbing your right to protest since the resistance at Standing Rock began. And if oil and gas companies get their way, Illinois will now be added to the list.

HB 1633, a bill targeting activists, has already overwhelmingly passed the Illinois House of Representatives and is now pending in the State Senate. It has been slated for a hearing next Tuesday, May 14, at 5 p.m., and people can submit witness slips for or against the bill here. 

If this bill is enacted, protesters in Illinois will no longer be able to resist the expansion of fossil fuel pipelines in their communities without risking felony charges.

Specifically, this bill seeks to increase criminal penalties for people who trespass on so-called critical infrastructure facilities. The bill almost exactly lifts its language from a model bill authored by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the secretive group of corporate lobbyists trying to rewrite state laws to benefit corporations over people.

The bill would broadly redefine “critical infrastructure” to include oil and gas pipelines and processing facilities, and turn peaceful activity by protesters into a class four felony punishable by up to three years of incarceration and a heavy fine.

In Illinois as other states, this bill is based almost word-for-word on ALEC’s model critical infrastructure bill, which was inspired by legislation first passed in Oklahoma in 2017, in response to the months-long protests at Standing Rock which stalled construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

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A ‘Buyback’ for Our Future?

Sam Pizzigati Editor, Too Much online magazine

People who are trying to do good — with a Green New Deal, for instance, or Medicare for All — regularly find themselves confronting a simple and sometimes sneering gotcha question: So where’s the money coming from?

How about we start putting this same simple question to the top executives of Corporate America?

These execs are currently spending incredibly vast sums buying back their own companies’ shares of stock off the open market. In 2018, researchers at Dow Jones report, 444 of America’s top 500 firms spent dollars on stock buybacks. Lots of dollars: $806.4 billion in all, up 55 percent over the year before and up 37 percent over the previous all-time buyback annual record high.

These stock buybacks have no redeeming social value. Buybacks don’t make corporations more efficient or effective. They just make the rich richer. Buybacks reduce the volume of shares that trade, in the process upping earnings per share and share value. Who benefits from these upticks? Top corporate execs see an immediate boost. Over 80 percent of their pay comes from stock-based compensation.

The wealthy overall benefit, too. America’s top 1 percent, researchers at Goldman Sachs observed earlier this year, now own half of all the nation’s shares of stocks, with nearly 85 percent in the pockets of America’s wealthiest 10 percent.

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Bring Back Eisenhower Socialism

Chuck Collins

Chuck Collins Director the Program on Inequality and the Common Good , Institute for Policu Studies

Anytime a politician proposes a wildly popular idea that helps ordinary people, a few grumpy conservatives will call them “socialists.” Propose to reduce college debt, help sick families, or ensure the super-rich pay their fair share of taxes — suddenly you’re a walking red nightmare.

Utah Republican Rep. Chris Stewart is so alarmed he’s convened an “Anti-Socialism Caucus” to ward off “the primitive appeal of socialism” that will “infect our institutions.” Democrats’ talk of restoring higher income tax rates on the wealthiest or helping families with childcare was enough to trigger Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin to quip, “We’re not going back to socialism.”

These same politicians consistently vote for tax cuts for the rich and to gut taxes and regulations on corporations so they can exercise their full freedom and liberty — to mistreat workers, pollute the environment, and rip off their customers.

The “shrink government” fear-mongers want you to believe there are only two flavors of economic ice cream. Choose strawberry and you get liberty-choking gulag communism. From this vantage, any proposal to rein in the unchecked power of global corporations and the rule-rigging rich is creeping socialism.

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Putting Billionaires in Their Place

Sam Pizzigati Editor, Too Much online magazine

America’s billionaires have suddenly realized they just may be facing an existential crisis. A good chunk of the American people, they now understand, would rather billionaires not exist. Every billionaire, as a key aide of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has famously quipped on his popular Twitter feed, represents “a policy failure.” The nation needs, posits a recent New York Times op-ed, to “abolish billionaires.”

Our more pugnacious billionaires — and their devoted admirers — have greeted this new abolitionist thrust with predictable scorn. National Review columnist Kevin Williamson has tagged the case against billionaires as “irredeemably stupid.” Any attempt to tax billionaires out of existence, suggests three-comma investment banker Ken Moelis, would surely “crush the economy.”

More sober defenders of the billionaires in our midst take care to acknowledge the widening — and troubling — gap between the fabulously wealthy and everyone else, but then urge us, all the same, to “think twice before seeking to flatten every tycoon.”

“It may seem counterintuitive,” adds Washington Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt, “but billionaires can be good for democracy, and a bulwark against tyranny.”

Bill Gates, the holder of the world’s second-largest fortune, agrees: “The idea that there shouldn’t be billionaires — I’m afraid if you really implemented something like that, that the amount you would gain would be much less than the amount you would lose.”

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Have the Rich Always Laughed at Stiff Taxes?

Sam Pizzigati Editor, Too Much online magazine

The guardians of our conventional wisdom on taxing the rich have messed up — and they know it. They slacked off. They started believing their own tripe. Average Americans, they assumed, would never ever smile on proposals to raise tax rates on the richest among us. After all, the conventional wisdom maintains, those average folks figure that someday they’ll be rich, too.

But now, with tax-the-rich proposals proliferating and polling spectacularly well, the keepers of our bless-the-rich faith are panicking. Their old rhetorical zingers no longer zing.

Higher taxes on the rich as a “penalty on success”? Average Americans today don’t see “success” when they gaze up at America’s top 0.1 percent and see a 343 percent increase in earnings, after inflation, over the past four decades. They see monopoly and outsourcing and insider trading.

Some fans of grand fortune see an opportunity amid this cynicism. They’re realizing that riffing off this cynicism may be the only way to keep taxes on rich people low. Raising tax rates on the wealthy may seem reasonable, their argument goes, but high tax rates on the rich can never actually work out as intended. The rich and their paid help — their accountants and lobbyists — can always end run them.

So disregard those high tax rates on the rich in effect back in the middle of the 20th century, the argument continues. Those top rates — 91 percent in the 1950s and into the 1960s, then 70 percent through the 1970s — never made much of a difference on how much the wealthy had in their wallets.

“The overall trend is unmistakable,” pronounced John Carlson, the cofounder of the right-wing Washington Policy Center, earlier this month. “When rates were much higher, the wealthy sheltered their money and paid a smaller share of the nation’s tax bill.”

In other words, seriously taxing the rich will always be impossible. So why bother even trying?

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Activists Ask Candidates Where They Stand on Good Jobs, Sustainable Growth and Economic Justice

Roger Hickey

Roger Hickey Co-Director, Campaign for America's Future

Suddenly Americans are debating big ideas that used to be off the table.

New ways to raise taxes on the rich and big corporations have been proposed by candidates Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris and Bernie Sanders.

A Medicare-style public health system to expand coverage and cut costs has the support of millions and many Presidential candidates – even as we defend Obamacare.  

The Green New Deal has been swept onto the national debate by the dynamic grass-roots Sunrise Movement and by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and colleagues in Congress. With new urgency, sponsors call for massive public investment to retool our economy to stop global warming and create the next generation of good jobs.  

Perhaps because of the huge public support for these big ideas, Donald Trump has tried to tar them with the old Cold War scare word: Socialism. This is likely to backfire – just as the Southern racists’ attacks on civil rights workers as “Communist agitators” just helped spread the movement. SNCC organizers were greeted at Mississippi doorsteps with “We are so glad you Communists have come to help us vote.”

Some cautious Democrats have greeted these big ideas with a warning about the dangers of going too far. “Stick to attacking Trump and his policies,” they lecture, “that’s what helped us win in the Congressional campaigns 2018.”

But over 90 well-known veterans of the successful 2018 campaign have signed a bold new Pledge to Fight for Good Jobs, Sustainable Prosperity and Economic Justice. And these initiators (including myself) have now been joined by 20,000 (and growing) grass-roots activists. Our message is “Yes, fight Trump – but Americans also want to hear big solutions to the large economic problem our country faces.”

The Pledge document declares, “We will (continue to) resist Trump. 

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Egalitarians Gain Ground in Washington

Sam Pizzigati Editor, Too Much online magazine

If you worry about inequality, and if you want an end to grand — and dangerous — concentrations of income and wealth, pinch yourself. We have entered a new political moment. Egalitarians have suddenly seized the policy momentum. They have forced onto the nation’s political center stage initiatives for shearing the ultra rich down to democratic size that no major elected leader in America would have dared propose only a year ago. Maybe even a few months ago.

This stunning shift began early in January when Rep. Alexandria Olivia-Cortez from New York proposed a new 70 percent tax rate on income over $10 million.

Senator Elizabeth Warren from Massachusetts, in quick order, then put on the table a “wealth tax” on the grand fortunes of America’s richest 75,000 households. Warren, an announced prime-time candidate for the 2020 Democratic Party presidential nomination, called for a 2 percent federal levy on personal assets over $50 million and a 3 percent wealth tax rate on fortune over $1 billion.

This week, just before month’s end, still another stunning proposal: Senator Bernie Sanders from Vermont, another likely — and leading — 2020 presidential candidate, urged a 77 percent tax on the value of estates left behind at death over $1 billion.

These three new proposals, each one far bolder than the conventional political wisdom has deemed acceptable over recent decades, did attract some assorted jeers and ridicule. But, more significantly, the three proposals drew widespread public — and even pundit — support.

How much support?

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America Is Already Socialist, And That’s a Good Thing

Miles Mogulescu Attorney/Activist

During Donald Trump’s State of the Union speech, many of the old, white, Republican Senators and Representatives must have gotten more exercise than in weeks, jumping to their feet to applaud almost every sentence of the endless rhetoric.

One of the moments that got the loudest applause was Trump’s attempt to blame progressive Democrats for the problems of the current Venezuelan government, proclaiming the U.S. “will never be a socialist country” to a loud standing ovation from Republicans (and too many Democrats) and chants of “USA, USA, USA.”

Like so much of Trump’s speech, the statement was false. I have news for the Donald: The United States—like every other country with an advanced economy, such as the U.K., Germany, France, and Japan—is already a partly socialist country, with a mixed economy and many government programs that serve the public good.

By this defintion, Social Security is a “socialist” program: it’s a government-run pension system that cuts out private money managers. Medicare – a single-payer, government-run health insurance program for those over 65 – is too. Medicare-For-All would simply extend this to the rest of the population.

The minimum wage, maximum hour, and child labor laws that go back over a century are likewise “socialist” programs, in that the government intervenes in the capitalist market to require employers to meet minimum standards that might not be met in a pure, unregulated “free” market. Agricultural and energy subsidies are likewise socialist programs. I could go on and on.

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