Tax The Wealthy, They’re Asking For It

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Tax Wealth Like Work

It’s apparent that the income and wealth gap in the US (and the world) is large and only getting worse. Out of the last ten years of economic growth all of the increase in wealth has gone to the top 1%. These extremely wealth people have seen an 18 percent increase in their yearly income and currently the top 1% control 40% of the total wealth in America!! During those same ten years the rest of us have seen a decrease in our yearly incomes. (The concept of “a rising tide lifts all boats” is utterly false by the facts)

All those facts are explained in Joesph Stiglitz’s article pretty clearly. While I suspected that our tax system was skewed towards the wealthy (and we know all about the infamous “Bush tax cuts”), I was unaware of the actual numbers on earned income taxes versus capital gains and dividend income. Those of us that work for a living, most contributing to the betterment of society in some fashion or another, are taxed 35% of our income. Those that live off dividends and investments, many of which are inherited, are only taxes 15%.

A recent group of wealthy individuals have come out to recognize this disparity and campaign for a change. Responsible Wealth and United for a Fair Economy have launched the “Tax Wealth Like Work” campaign. The goal of the campaign is to:

“Focus attention on the discrepancies in the U.S. tax system that reward income from wealth over income from work. Income from capital gains and dividend income – a type of investment income from stocks, real estate, and other holdings – is taxed at a top marginal rate of only 15 percent. Income earned from work, on the other hand, has a top rate of 35 percent.”

Check out the campaign here. (Thanks to Gift Hub for showing me this)

Here’s some graphics for your consideration, too:

Effective Federal Tax Rates = Wealth Inequality

Taxing The Bads

Taxation is an interesting facet of our society. Economists view taxes as a disincentive in a free market, and rightly so. Taxes increase the price of a product or service, making it less desirable. Yet, when you think about what we tax in this country, it’s mostly things we desire more of – income, profits, sales, et cetera. This odd behavior should be questioned, even more so today when every budget (state, city, federal) seems to be facing seriously tenuous times.

I took the train down to Oregon this last weekend to see my sister graduate from college. While there I stayed with Rob Dietz, Executive Director of CASSE and a good friend of mine. He handed me a very modest looking magazine called Sockeye. I am sure I will be drawing material from this one issue for some time (check it out, amazing articles). For now I want to talk about tax shifting, as mentioned in the article by Alan Durning and Amy Chan, “Making Prices Tell The Truth: Shifting Taxes from Bads to Goods.” (pdf)

The Imbalance of the Free Market

Taxes have the power of acting as a means of balancing what are called “market inefficiencies,” things in the free market system that generate negative externalities. These are unwanted side effects that are not taken into account in a product, service or activity. A great example of this is any fossil fuel, let’s take Coal for instance.

Let’s imagine a coal power plant starts leeching mercury into a watershed and a city water planet down river takes it in (coal accounts for most of the mercury in our waterways). The coal power plant is not paying to filter this mercury out, nor is it paying for all the damage that could occur from the toxin leeching into the ecosystems. Because the producer does not pay for the negative externalities it is left out of the decision to pursue coal power.

If these externalities were eliminated by charging or compensating for them, then they could be factored into the decision making process. This is especially important as all too often these become costs placed upon the society instead of the producer (e.g. the city water plant in the above example has to filter out the mercury from its water source). If these prices were added into coal’s price they would eventually make coal production to costly to be worthwhile.

One of the best ways to internalize these negatives into our free market is to increase their expense with taxes to help offset costs like oil spill clean ups, health care or water treatment.

Continue reading “Taxing The Bads”

Life After Growth – Economics For Everyone

The economy’s gotten bigger, but the inequality has as well. Most of the growth in income is placed in the top 10-20% of the world. If you’re lucky enough to be that 1 in 10, or 1 in 5 people (by the way, cancer if more common now that being in that group), you might buy into the idea that economics growth is good, sustainable, and right. But think about the other four people in the room?

Growth has taken the place of our religions, our morals, and most of our society’s decisions – they are now framed by, simply, “is the price the right price.” Well, is it? We should be ensuring our economy is about “maintaining and renewing life on Earth, human life and all other life.” (Vandana Shiva)

This short film is a great synopsis of the arguments against growth. Life Without Growth – Economics For Everyone asks “what’s wrong with this picture?” and then goes further, asking “This degrowth idea might be an answer, but I don’t understand what it will look like in reality, what does it mean for me?”And it answers:

“It looks like a lot of things, that are happening right now: Voluntary Simplicity,” for one. Giving up your pursuit of more things, a bigger house, greater pay for a pursuit of less work, more fun, simple, non-complicated life.

“That sounds a bit extreme to me, are people doing this on a community level?” Yea, Transition Towns, for instance.

“Yea, but even if this is happening at a local level, the banks, the corporations and the governments – they’ll never buy it” Sure, in most cases, right now, but we can change that. And a lot of groovy things are going forward in some governments already: recognition of ecosystem services, adoption of well being metrics, et cetera.

“So, where do we go from here?” Work less, consume less, live more. Life after growth.
“Everywhere people are engaging in degrowth type activity – the beginning of a wave that is laying the groundwork for a post-capitalist future…

Because it’s not the size of the economy that counts, its how you use it!”

Life After Growth – Economics for Everyone from enmedia productions on Vimeo.

Social Business and Limits to Growth

Last night I attended a presentation by Dr Muhammad Yunus, Nobel Laureate for his pioneering work in micro-credit. Titled ‘Abolishing Poverty – The Human Rights Priority’, the central messages in Dr Yunus’ presentation, to an enthusiastic and highly receptive Sydney crowd of more than 500, were simple. He believes access to credit is a human right; that we can end poverty by channelling the market forces of capitalism; and that we can ‘solve’ all the world’s problems if only private enterprise would be more widely accompanied by ‘social business’ – a term he uses to describe commercial activity whereby businesses whose primary goal is to help ‘the poor’, reinvest their entire profits back into their work, rather than into shareholder pockets. Holistically speaking, I am not convinced.

Dr Yunus’ track record is as incredible as his ideals are worthy. His present-day work began in 1974 when he loaned US$27 to a Bangladeshi woman who made bamboo furniture. Viewed as a ‘repayment risk’, traditional banks were not interested in considering such individuals for the provision of small loans. This experience was to prove life-changing for Dr Yunus.

Nine years later he established the Grameen Bank that has since disbursed US$6.6 billion in micro-loans averaging US$130 to ‘the poor’. Bypassing the traditional method of a customer needing to demonstrate collateral before a loan can be administered, the Grameen bank uses a customised approach to solidarity lending whereby each drawer must be in a five-person group that merely serves to encourage repayment. The results have been stunning. The bank boasts a repayment rate of 98.35 per cent and 97 per cent of its members are women. As Dr Yunus noted with a smile in his Sydney presentation, the global financial crisis showed who you can really bank on when it comes to repayments.

The Grameen model has now been replicated in over 100 countries, with proposals on the table for its extension to poverty-stricken cities in the ‘developed world’ such as Glasgow, in the U.K.

There is no doubting that Dr Yunus’ approach continues to challenge attitudes of business in both the ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ world. But does it challenge these views enough to ensure our longer-term sustainability as a species? Thinking ahead, perhaps Dr Yunus’ approach sets us up to hit a fundamental ceiling in which inequity-creating businesses continue to thrive, removing hope for ‘poverty alleviation’ and sustainable futures, because their image in the community is largely defined by publicly-embraced subsidiary social businesses.

Unfortunately, Dr Yunus’ presentation reinforced my frustration with what I see as ultimately atomistic arguments made by our ‘poverty champions’ (think Jeffrey Sachs, Bono, Hugh Evans). Thus, when the floor opened up to questions I asked:

“In a world with serious biophysical limits, how can any growth-based financial system – including micro-credit – ever be truly sustainable?”

Dr Yunus quickly replied that human creativity is an amazing thing and that I should not be so grim.

I sat down. Given the chance, I would have responded by saying that his answer is the kind men have been giving ever since anthropogenic global warming became accepted by mainstream audiences and the news on this front is not getting any better. At its heart, I believe Dr Yunus’ answer falls somewhat into the common habit of using the term ‘creativity’ as a pseudonym for ‘technological innovation’. In this sense, there is mounting evidence that such faith is misplaced; that the idea of de-coupling economic growth from environmental degradation at the speed required to avoid catastrophic effects from climate change is totally unrealistic. In addition to the problem that increased technological efficiency often equates to greater levels of associated consumption, as Professor Tim Jackson from the University of Surrey in the U.K. has recently shown:

“In a world of 9 billion people, all aspiring to a level of income commensurate with 2% growth on the average European Union income today, carbon intensities (e.g.) would have to fall, on average, by more than 11% per year to stabilize the climate, 16 times faster than they have fallen since 1990. By 2050, the global carbon intensity would need to be only 6 grams per dollar of output, almost 130 times lower than it is today…”

All said and done, I remain critically hopeful. I think Dr Yunus is inspiring and well-intentioned, and I like his concept of social business – similar to what we, in Australia, call not-for-profit social entrepreneurship. In fact, I like his concept so much that I propose we be brave enough to entertain the thought of a world in which every business is a social business.

From large multinationals to small cafes, what could we create if the ‘developed world’ unhooked itself from its addiction to quantitative growth and the ‘developing world’ was free from ideological and physical coercion to adopt unsustainable ‘development models’? As Dr Yunus is quick to note, when you take the individual profit motive out of it, anything becomes truly possible.

Guest contributor Donnie Maclurcan runs an Australian social business, is investigating nanotechnology and its consequences for global inequity and is working on a film about the limits to growth.

Battle of the Sachses

This post is by guest blogger Angela Tam, a fellow steady stater, the author of Sustainable Building in Hong Kong and Progress. Progress? Angela also maintains the blog Sustainable Living Hong Kong.

Remember the Make Poverty History campaign of 2005? Idealistic youngsters wearing the T-shirt and rubber wristbands poured through the streets of London, Edinburgh and elsewhere, urging world leaders to forgive Third World debt, led by the likes of Bono, the rock star who’s multiplied his music earnings goodness knows how many folds through canny investments.

The idea of “making poverty history” seems great doesn’t it? How can we hope to see social justice when there are millions of people in the world making less than a dollar a day? Now, the whole issue of poverty and social justice is in the spotlight again due to climate change.

There is no doubt the poor will suffer much much more than the rich because of climate change. While the rich can afford higher prices, horde goods and obtain the best medical treatment, the poor will suffer hunger, drought, disease and the effects of increasingly frequent and devastating weather events.

This seems so obvious that when someone with all the right credentials comes up with an idea for “alleviating poverty”, he instantly wins widespread support. But what exactly is “poverty”? Is it possible that we have been fooled into fighting shadows?

This is where we have what I call “The Battle of the Sachses”.

Continue reading “Battle of the Sachses”

Wealth & Poverty

A system that takes from the poor and gives to the rich is the system we have created in the growth economy. Our focus forever on profit over life, and increasing those profits, encourages less and less life. Those with the money can afford to take the natural capital that was once commons from the poor and sell it back to them. While this encourages the ever worshiped growth, it does not encourage prosperity – most especially with those in poverty.

From The Ecologist this article “New Emporers, Old Clothes” by Vandana Shiva is something I want to share with you. A contact in the CASSE Volunteer group passed this along to me, and I feel it is worthy of a dedicated post. [emphasis added]

“However much we choose to forget or deny it, all people in all societies still depend on nature. Without clean water, fertile soils and vegetable genetic diversity, human survival is not possible. Today, economic development is destroying these onetime commons, resulting in the creation of a new contradiction: development deprives the very people it professes to help of their traditional land and means of sustenance, forcing them to survive in an increasingly eroded natural world.

A system like this, one that creates denial and disease while  accumulating trillions of dollars of super profits for agribusiness, is a system for creating poverty for people. Poverty is not, as Sachs suggests, an initial state from which to escape. It is a final state reached when one-sided development has destroyed the ecological and social systems for maintaining the life, health and sustenance of people and the planet.

The reality is that people do not die for lack of income. They die for lack of access to resources. Here, too, Sachs is wrong when he says: ‘In a world of plenty, 1 billion people are so poor their lives are in danger.’ The indigenous people in the Amazon, the mountain communities in the Himalayas, peasants anywhere whose land has not been appropriated and whose water and biodiversity have not been destroyed by debt-creating industrial agriculture are ecologically rich, even though they do not earn a dollar a day.

On the other hand, people are poor if they have to buy their basic needs at high prices. Because of dumping and trade liberalisation, farm prices in India are tumbling, meaning that the country’s peasants are losing $26 billion each year; this at a time when ‘development’ is all the while creating markets for costly seeds and agrichemicals. Unable to exist in the world that has been created for them, these now poverty-stricken peasants are committing suicide in their thousands.

Patents on medicines increase the cost of Aids drugs from $200 to $20,000, and cancer drugs from $2,400 to $36,000, for a year’s treatment. Water is privatised and global corporations profit to the tune of $1 trillion by selling once free water to the poor. So, too, the $50 billion of ‘aid’ trickling North to South is but a tenth of the $500 billion being sucked South to North thanks to interest payments and other unjust mechanisms in the global economy imposed by the World Bank and the IMF.

If we are serious about ending poverty, we have to be serious about ending the systems for wealth creation which create poverty by robbing the poor of their resources, livelihoods and incomes. Before we can make poverty history, we need to get the history of poverty right. It’s not about how much more we can give, so much as how much less we can take.

Standing ovation for Vandana Shiva, well done! Read the full article here.