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06.02.11

Why America's Furious: Cornel West, Robert Reich, and More

From outrageously low taxes for the superrich to the junk we feed our kids, experts rage against injustice. Cornel West, Robert Reich, the Renegade Lunch Lady, and others on how to fix it.

Undertaxed America
By Robert Reich
Former secretary of labor and author

The superrich are getting a larger and larger portion of national income and wealth yet paying a smaller and smaller portion of government revenues. Federal, state, and local budgets would be in much better shape if the superrich would pay their fair share. We’re seeing 30, 40, 50 or more kids crowded into classrooms. At the same time, billionaire hedge-fund managers are paying only 17 percent taxes. This makes no sense. In the current budget debate, we’ve got to increase taxes on the superrich.

Not just income taxes but capital gains taxes, too. Hedge-fund managers and private-equity managers exploit a loophole in the law that allows them to treat their income as capital gains, now subject to a 15 percent tax. That’s ludicrous—it’s a lower tax than bus drivers and secretaries pay. We’re the richest nation in the world—richer than we’ve ever been—and to think that we can’t afford to fix our roads, teach our kids, and provide early-childhood education is a scandal. 

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Evan Agostini

Greed and Poverty
By Cornel West
Professor, author, and Democratic intellectual

I'm full of unbelievable anger. I'm an angry black man! What I'm angry about? There's too much greed at the top and too much poverty at the bottom—that’s a double outrage. The greed you can see in terms of the compensation for executives on Wall Street, interest-free loans from the Federal Reserve, tax subsidies for corporations, one in four corporations not paying one penny of taxes. It's morally obscene. As for poverty, you see it in people working longer hours for lower wages. And of course you see it among the middle class, who are moving toward a new poverty. It's a very sad situation, and we've got to do something about it.

First thing we've got to do is tell the truth. We live in an age where lies are just ubiquitous. The biggest lies are that free markets are self-corrective, that individuals are rich because they're smart, and that somehow America became great because of economic growth as opposed to the moral courage of the citizens of all colors to fight for freedom. We need a democratic awakening. We need organizing, mobilizing. We need to be willing to take a risk to change the world. The Obama moment of hope is over. 

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Ludicrous Budget Cuts
By David Sirota
Author, columnist, and radio host

No matter where you live, you’ve undoubtedly seen—and probably felt—the real-world effects of government budget cuts. Whether as extinguished street lights, higher college tuition rates, or pothole-ridden streets, the cuts present themselves in many different forms and now threaten the infrastructure and services that made America that “shining city on a hill.” 

Here’s the good news: with Americans devoting the lowest share of their income to taxes since the 1950s, and with our effective corporate tax rate among the lowest in the industrialized world, there’s plenty of room to raise taxes in a targeted way so as to avoid threatening the overall economy. That would raise the much-needed revenues to replenish public coffers, thereby preventing future budget cuts. 

Now the bad news: despite the twin phenomena of ultra-low taxes and super-painful budget cuts, we are still somehow not having a national discussion about tax increases. Instead, we are watching politicians double down on budget austerity while avoiding any serious conversation about raising public revenues—and some of those politicians are proposing even more tax reductions.

At the federal level, President Obama followed his effort to extend the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy with a White House debt commission that is pushing $3 in budget cuts for every $1 in tax increases.

At the state level, it’s the same thing. In Georgia, the Republican legislature has been simultaneously cutting public services while considering a bill that would finance lower corporate tax rates with a new levy on food. In Texas, GOP lawmakers are simultaneously proposing a massive increase in public-university tuition and a tax cut for those looking to purchase yachts priced above $250,000. And in Colorado, where I live, our Democratic governor championed the largest cut to K–12 public education in the state’s contemporary history, and he backed a new tax cut for pesticides and bull semen—all while he refused to even consider discussing income-tax increases on his fellow millionaires.

That, of course, gets to what this fiscal insanity is really about at every level: a political sleight of hand designed to prevent the wealthy from having to contribute even a little more to the common good. Indeed, it all goes back to the words of Warren Buffett. Noting that he pays a lower effective tax rate than his secretary, he famously says, “There’s class warfare, all right—but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”

America’s budget and tax policies prove he is exactly right. 

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The End of Optimism
By Brian Schweitzer
Governor of Montana 

Montana’s a commodity state, so when wheat and cattle are up, at least some in our communities are making a net gain. But by and large, the formula works like this: house down, wages down, gas up, food up equals ticked off consumer. That’s the math. But there’s more. There’s a sense that the business community and Washington, D.C., don’t get it. They think that somehow the power elite don’t get it, and that they don’t seem to mind that China’s getting richer and that we’re getting poorer. So that’s the sense of frustration. You know, America is a place of optimism. We’ve always believed that our best days are ahead of us. And now there’s a lot of people looking at each other and saying, “Maybe we had our best days, and China’s going to catch up.”   

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Housing Collapse
By Ken Rosen
Chairman, Fisher Center for Real Estate, Haas School of Business, UC Berkeley  

I’m angry about the lack of good policy response from Washington to the housing problem. What we’re seeing in Washington is policy that’s making the crisis in housing worse. In the last six months, we’ve had a sharp tightening in credit standards for people trying to buy homes. So it’s very hard for the average person—much harder than any time in 20 years—to borrow money to buy a house. All of a sudden, the average FICO score has to be over 700, people have to put down 20 percent, and lenders are being very difficult on qualifying people who normally would have no problem qualifying to buy a house. As a result, there’s weak demand for housing, which is making prices look weaker than they need to be and exacerbating the foreclosure problem for everyone else. We are shooting ourselves in the foot with bad policy decisions, and it emanates from Washington.  

To fix it, we need a housing czar or someone who is focused exclusively on the housing issue. This person should try to look comprehensively at how to get housing back on the road to recovery. We have very low interest rates, which should be a very positive thing for housing markets. But since people can’t borrow money easily, we have many unable to buy houses. *

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Stephen Collector

Junk Food for Kids
By Ann Cooper
The Renegade Lunch Lady and founder of Lunchbox.org

I'm most pissed off about the highly processed, unhealthy food in America's schools. There's a real lack of fresh fruits, fresh vegetables, and whole grains, and I think that's having a long-term, deleterious effect on our children's health and will continue to do so. Because of budget cuts, states are cutting back on K–12 education. If food services were getting general fund money, it is now being slashed. Food is becoming more costly and transportation is becoming more costly. So that forces the system into this terrible negative circle back to more highly processed cheap foods. To add insult to injury, because the economy is bad, we have more kids on free and reduced lunches, so we have more kids who need the services at school and less money to provide them with those services. What ends up happening is that they are eating large quantities of unhealthy food, which leads right into the health-care crisis.

If kids are eating breakfast, lunch, snack, and maybe dinner at school, then we really are doing harm to the most average kids in our country. A very typical school meal is chicken nuggets, tater tots, canned fruit cocktail, and chocolate milk. You'll see corn dogs, riblets, pizza pockets—that's what we're feeding America’s kids.

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Climate-Change Denialism
By Paul Rogat Loeb
Author of Soul of a Citizen

Following the weather is beginning to feel like revisiting the biblical plagues. Tornadoes rip through Missouri, Alabama, Mississippi—and Massachusetts. A million acres burn in Texas wildfires. The Army Corps of Engineers floods 135,000 acres of farmland and 3 million acres of bayou country to save Memphis and New Orleans. But the coverage rarely connects the unfolding cataclysms with the global climate change that fuels them. We can’t guarantee that any specific disaster is caused by our warming atmosphere. The links are delayed and diffuse. But considered together, the escalating floods, droughts, tornadoes, and hurricanes fit all the predicted models.   

Scientists are more certain than ever, from the national academies of every country to such “radical groups” as the American Chemical Society. But the media has buried their voices, giving near-equal “point/counterpoint” credence to a handful of deniers promoted by Exxon, the coal companies, and the Koch brothers. FoxNews’s managing editor even prohibited any reporting on global climate change that didn’t immediately question the overwhelming scientific consensus. Meanwhile, leading Republicans who once acknowledged the need to act, like Tim Pawlenty and Mitt Romney, disavow their previous stands like sinners begging forgiveness. A Tea Party Congress insists that they know better than do all the world’s scientists. Even Obama has fallen largely silent, as if he can’t afford an honest discussion.   

The antidote is courage. And as Egypt and Tunisia remind us, courage is contagious. We need to act and speak out in every conceivable way and demand that our leaders do the same. We need to engage new allies, like religious evangelicals who’ve recently spoken out to defend “God’s creation” and unions that link tackling this ultimate issue to renewing American jobs. We need to voice our outrage at those risking our future for greed. Here’s hoping the mounting disasters will finally teach us to turn off the Weather Channel and begin taking action.  

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MCMULLAN CO/SIPA

Assault on Access to Birth Control for Women
By Cecile Richards
President of Planned Parenthood Federation of America

The country is out of work. Families are struggling to make ends meet. Health-care costs are skyrocketing. And all that politicians can focus on is trying to take away women's access to birth control.

It seems hard to believe that just a few weeks ago, the Republican leadership in the House of Representatives was ready to shut down the entire federal government, disrupting the economy and the lives of millions of Americans, over whether or not women could keep getting birth control and cancer screenings at more than 800 Planned Parenthood health centers.

And it's not just Congress. We have seen an unprecedented legislative assault on women's health at the state level. Half a dozen state legislatures are actively pursuing similar legislation that Congress tried but failed to pass.

"You can't go to the health-care provider that you trust and that has provided you with quality health care for years." That's what the millions of women served by Planned Parenthood are being told by politicians, who either can't or won't focus on the fact that there are real women and real lives at stake.