Weekly Audit: The Shocking Truth About Taxes

 

By Lindsay Beyerstein, Media Consortium blogger

The super rich are different from you and me. For one thing, their tax rates are lower.

According to IRS statistics, the nation’s top 400 taxpayers increased their average income by 392% and slashed their average tax rate by 37% between 1992 and 2007, Dave Gilson reports inMother Jones. Furthermore, when you factor in payroll taxes, the tax rate for Americans earning $370,000 is nearly equal to the rate for those making between $43,000 and $69,000 a year.

Meanwhile, at TAPPED, Jamelle Bouie notes that, in 2007, more than 10,000 Americans reported incomes of $200,000 or higher and paid no income tax at all. These lucky ducks are known to the IRS as HINTs, which stands for High Income, No Taxes.

Pseudo-farms of the rich and tax-dodging

The ultra-rich are using deluxe hobby farms to dodge millions of dollars in taxes, Yasha Levine reports for The Nation:

Take Michael Dell, founder of Dell Computers and the second-richest Texan, who qualified for an agricultural property tax break on his sprawling 1,757-acre residential ranch in suburban Austin and saved over $1 million simply because his family and friends sometimes use the land as a private hunting preserve to shoot deer. Or take billionaire publisher Steve Forbes, who got more than a 90 percent property tax reduction on hundreds of acres of his multimillion-dollar estate in upscale Bedminister, New Jersey, just by putting a couple of cows out to pasture.

Agricultural tax breaks were originally designed to help farmers stay on their land as suburban sprawl grew up around them. As neighborhoods shifted from rural to residential in the 1950s and ’60s, farmers struggled to keep up with rising local taxes.

So, who’s a farmer for tax purposes? Levine reports that the standards are ridiculously low in many states, like New Jersey, where a yard full of weeds can qualify as a farm.

Worst of all, tax breaks for faux farms are depriving public schools of billions of dollars of desperately needed revenue. In Texas–which loses over a billion dollars a year in property taxes from pseudo-ranches of the rich and famous–hundreds of public school students are taking to the streets to protest massive proposed layoffs of teachers and support staffers, Abby Rapoport reports in the Texas Observer.

Tax me, I’m rich

A group of self-proclaimed “trust fund babies” is demanding higher taxes, Pete Redington reports for Working In These Times:

Resource Generation recently teamed up with another nonprofit that organizes affluent activists, Wealth for the Common Good, to form a Progressive Tax Campaign. They will be organizing and advocating a change in the policy, laws and perceptions of our tax system. Specifically, the campaign aims to draw attention to the social services that taxing the wealthy could fund, and advocates higher tax bracket rates for top income earners, as well as higher taxes on investment income.

Major debt

Student loan debt is likely to reach $1 trillion this year, outpacing credit card debt for the second year in a row, Julie Margetta Morgan reports for Campus Progress. Student loans can be a smart investment if they lead to a lifetime of higher earnings. However, Margetta Morgan notes, the average bachelor’s degree holder will shell out $250 a month for a decade to pay back the loan.

Many Americans won’t pay off their debt until their own children are in college. President Obama was still making payments into his late 40s.

As college tuition continues to rise, we can expect students to borrow even more for their education in years to come. Much of this debt is guaranteed by the taxpayer. Margetta Morgan argues that colleges should be doing more to educate students about smart borrowing.

The economics of happiness

Kristy Leissle reviews the new documentary, The Economics of Happiness, for YES! Magazine. The film argues that community is the foundation of happiness and that globalization is the enemy of community. The movie also examines what ordinary citizens can do to nurture their own communities.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy bymembers of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Audit for a complete list of articles on economic issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The MulchThe Pulse and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

 

The Wavelength: Original Reporting—What’s it Worth? Plus: Tracking the AT&T/T-Mobile Merger

 

By Eric Arnold, Media Consortium blogger

Last week, the New York Times debuted a long-awaited paywall, and stats blogger Nate Silver used the launch as an opportunity to explore the value of a news organization based on the amount of original reporting it produces. While Silver’s rankings could be a valuable tool for news organizations, Mother Jones‘ Nick Baumannfinds Silver’s methodology wanting.

“The results, as you might expect, made theTimes [paywall] look like a pretty good value,” Baumann writes. But the real problems are in how Silver ranks “original reporting”– namely that online citations don’t always identify the outlet, and that larger, established news organizations sometimes get credit for breaking stories when smaller orgs actually had the scoop first. That’s not to say that rankings like this don’t have incredible value for media, but that they need to be explored in a deeper manner. Baumann writes:

It’d be nice to see a foundation interested in journalism—the Knight Foundation, say, or Google.org—invest some time and money to expand and rework the rankings. It would be great to see media outlets competing to produce more and better original reporting.

Ultimately, Baumann believes rankings like this, if done right, could be a valuable barometer for measuring quality in journalism. Let’s hope someone takes up his call to arms.

AT&T/T-Mobile Merger still a very bad idea

Free Press’s Tim Karr weighs in on the mega-merger with five reasons why it’s not so great for consumers. According to Karr, “consolidation of the scale being proposed by AT&T resembles the old railroad and oil trusts of the 19th century.”

Karr also notes that the merger would erode competition, result in higher prices and fewer choices for consumers, eliminate perhaps tens of thousands of jobs, stifle innovation in the tech sector, and threaten free speech.

How will the merger affect POC users?

The disappearance of T-Mobile, whose low-cost plans offering unlimited data appealed to low-income wireless users, could have a huge impact on communities of color who rely on unrestricted text and web plans, especially those who don’t own computers.

At Colorlines.com, Jamilah King notes that “Mobile broadband is fast becoming the future of the Internet, and it’s already an important way in which communities of color are helping to close the digital divide. ” Blacks and Latinos, she says, are among the biggest users of mobile technology, “and in many cases, it’s the primary way that they surf the Web.”

If unlimited data plans end, and prices for wireless service rise for current T-Mobile users if and when a merger is completed, the digital divide separating under served communities from customers who can afford higher fees will almost certainly widen. This could have a devastating ripple effect on everything from people who use phones for business to people who use phones for social networking — and may affect African Americans, Latinos, and immigrant populations disproportionately.

Impact of merger on Net Neutrality

How will the potential mega merger affect Net Neutrality? Truthout’s Nadia Prupis recently interviewed Free Press political adviser Joel Kelsey, who says the FCC’s December decision not to regulate wireless carriers now seems shortsighted. “[The FCC’s] justification was that you’re less likely to see some of the same types of anti-competitive actions for fear that a carrier would lose a large number of customers … looking at it through the lens of this merger, I think that justification has kind of gone out the window.”

Did ISPs buy anti-Net Neutrality votes?

Speaking of Net Neutrality, Crunchgear had an eye-opening article outlining the amount of money donated by ISPs over the last four election cycles to the 15 members of the House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology who opposed Net Neutrality. The article’s findings perhaps aren’t that surprising, but are revelatory: “Looking at the 15 congressmen who voted against Net Neutrality, the top three ISPs gave their campaigns some $868,024 over the past four election cycles. You can interpret that as, well, they were able to knock down Net Neutrality for less than $1 million, which is pretty much a drop in the bucket for these companies.”

Oh, Canada – Why Can’t America Be More Like You?

The AT&T merger is dominating the media policy news cycle, but we shouldn’t let it distract us from an interesting ruling for media made by our neighbors to the north. As Yes! Magazine’s Dave Saldanareports, a Canadian law which prohibits broadcast news from knowingly spreading disinformation—an anti-lying law—was recently upheld by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC).

Saldana writes: “With little fanfare, the CRTC last month scrapped a proposal to revoke or relax a rule on ‘prohibited programming content’ that includes ‘broadcasting false or misleading news.’ The CRTC withdrew the plan when a legislative committee determined that the rule does not run afoul of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which like the U.S. Constitution, guarantees press freedoms.”

He goes on to raise the obvious question: If Canada can do this, why can’t the United States? After all, there have been cases where journalists have been pressured into knowingly inserting false statements into stories under orders from executives, in order to protect big business interests engaged in harmful practices.

Unfortunately, the media’s legal right to lie is protected by the First Amendment. But if Canada can ban false reporting without violating freedom of the press, why can’t we choose truth over truthiness?

New Study Details Women in Media Globally

Inter Press Service’s Andrea Lunt reports on a recently completed a study of women in news media covering more than 170,000 people in 500 companies across 60 countries. The study was produced by the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF).

Lunt says the study shows that gender inequality in the media sphere has been institutionalized. The good news is that the gap appears to be closing, especially at the executive level, where women have more than doubled their presence in the past fifteen years. A 1995 study showed women 12% of the top management positions in 239 nations, yet the IWMF report shows women now hold 26% of the governing and 27% of the top management jobs.

Progress? Certainly. But there’s still a long way to go.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about media policy and media-related matters by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. To read more of the Wavelength, click here. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The AuditThe Mulch, and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

 

Weekly Audit: Standoff Continues in Wisconsin

 

By Lindsay Beyerstein, Media Consortium blogger

The 14 Democratic state senators who fled Wisconsin to thwart the passage of a draconian anti-union have no plans to return.

On Sunday night, a Wall Street Journal blog reported that the senators planned to return soon. Steve Benen of the Washington Monthly found it odd that the piece didn’t contain any direct quotes from the exiled Democrats. The claim that the Democrats were planning to return rested on a paraphrase of State Sen. Mike Miller said about the Democrats coming back. Miller says the Journal misconstrued his remarks and that the Dems are only coming back “when collective bargaining is off the table.”

It would be an odd time for Democrats to return. Republican governor Scott Walker has offered them zero concessions. Furthermore, as Benen observes, Walker’s popularity is plummeting. The latest poll by the Wisconsin Research Institute puts the governor’s approval rating at 43%, with 53% disapproving. A majority of respondents had favorable opinions of state Senate Democrats, public employee unions, and teachers’ unions.

Benen writes:

The significance of these polls can’t be overstated — they stiffen Democratic spines, while making Republicans increasingly nervous about standing behind an unpopular governor with an unpopular plan.

In YES! Magazine, Amy B. Dean explains why every American should care about the situation in Wisconsin. The collective bargaining rights of public employees are the central issue in this standoff. Walker is testing a radical new approach to unions and several other Republican governors are poised to follow his model if he succeeds. It is naive to assume that the war on unions will end with the public sector.

Jobs gap

Writing at The Nation, Chris Hayes explains why Washington doesn’t care about jobs. Hayes argues that Washington elites are insulated from the toll of unemployment by class and geography. The jobless rate for workers with college degrees is only 4.2%, which is less than half of the official unemployment rate of 9% and a quarter of the 16.1% underemployment rate. (The underemployment rate counts both the jobless who are still looking for work and those who have given up and left the labor force.) Furthermore, Hayes notes, the unemployment rate in greater Washington, D.C. is only 5.7%, which is lower than that of any other major city in America. He writes:

What these two numbers add up to is a governing elite that is profoundly alienated from the lived experiences of the millions of Americans who are barely surviving the ravages of the Great Recession. As much as the pernicious influence of big money and the plutocrats’ pseudo-obsession with budget deficits, it is this social distance between decision-makers and citizens that explains the almost surreal detachment of the current Washington political conversation from the economic realities working-class, middle-class and poor people face.

Even as the overall unemployment rate falls, economic recovery proves elusive for many workers of color, Shani O. Hilton reports at Colorlines.com. The February jobs report shows that the economy added 192,000 jobs, with overall unemployment falling by a tenth of a percentage point, bringing joblessness to its lowest rate since 2009. However, the unemployment rates for black and Hispanic workers remained fixed in February, at 15.3% and 11.6%, respectively.

Hilton notes that even if the economy were to add 200,000 jobs a month, it would take three years to bring general employment up to pre-recession levels.

Public innovation

The stereotype is that the private sector drives innovation. However, as Monica Potts reports in The American Prospect, industry’s well-deserved reputation for innovation is built on a foundation of publicly funded basic research. Conservatives often argue that the private sector would pick up the slack if public funding for basic research were reduced. Potts argues that public funding for basic research is essential because companies will naturally gravitate towards research that has an immediate payoff, instead of investing in cultivating deeper scientific understanding through basic research.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Audit for a complete list of articles on economic issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The Mulch, The Pulse and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

 

Weekly Mulch: Activist Tim DeChristopher Convicted of Two Felonies

by Sarah Laskow, Media Consortium blogger

Environmental activist Tim DeChristopher was convicted yesterday of two felony counts. DeChristopher was on trial for bidding on more than 22,000 acres of public land that he could not pay for: his two crimes are making false representations to the government and interfering with the land auction.

DeChristopher made the $1.79 million bid in order to “do something to try to resist the climate crisis,” he told Tina Gerhardt, in an interview published by AlterNet. But, as Kate Sheppard explains at Mother Jones, the judge threw out “the defense that his actions were necessary to prevent environmental damage on this land and, more broadly, the exacerbataion of climate change.”

“They’re hoping to make an example out of me.”

DeChristoper now faces the possibility of  a $75,000 fine and 10 years in prison. In an interview with YES! Magazine’s Brooke Jarvis, before the trial started, DeChristopher said he had faced the possibility that he would be found guilty.

“There is still the possibility of acquittal, but I think the most likely scenario is probably that I will be convicted,” he told Jarvis. “The prosecution has been very clear that they’re hoping to make an example out of me, to convince other people not to fight the status quo.”

Wild lands

What is the status quo? Bureau of Land Management land, like the parcel DeChristopher bid on, is owned by the government, which often leases out the rights to develop the natural resources, like gas and oil, to private companies.

Up until 2003, the Department of the Interior had the option of setting aside some of its lands for preservation, pending final Congressional approval. But during the Bush administration, the DOI gave up that option and only considered uses like recreation or development for its holdings.

Back in December, the current Interior Secretary, Ken Salazar, reversed that policy, again putting on the table the option of using public lands for conservation purposes. But as I write at TAPPED, Republicans are throwing a hissy fit about the change.

Truth or consequence?

The Republicans’ argument goes something like: Using public lands for conservation will deprive Americans of jobs and hurt the bottom lines of states with large tracts of public lands. What they don’t discuss is the potential damage that drilling for, say, natural gas could cause. The Mulch has been writing about the dangers of hydrofracking for awhile now, but over the past week The New York Times began weighing in on the issue with a long series on the dangers of hydrofracking.

The Times‘ series brings even more evidence of hydrofracking’s dangers to light—in particular, about the radioactive waste materials being dumped into rivers where water quality is rarely monitored. As Christopher Mims reports at Grist, the series has already prompted calls for new testing from people like John Hanger, the former head of Pennsylvania’s environmental protection department, which has not been among the staunchest opponents of new drilling protects. According to Mims, Hanger has written that:

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection should order today all public water systems in Pennsylvania to test immediately for radium or radioactive pollutants and report as soon as good testing allows the results to the public. Only testing of the drinking water for these pollutants can resolve the issue raised by the NYT.

Or, as Mims puts it, “No one has any idea if the radioactive material in the wastewater from fracking is appearing downstream, in drinking water supplies, in quantities in excess of EPA recommendations.”

Tar and feather ‘em

Fracking is not the only environmentally destructive practice that the energy industry is increasingly relying on. Earth Island Journal has two pieces looking into the tar sands industry in Canada. Jason Mark’s piece is a great introduction to the history of the tar sands and takes a sharp look into the impact development has had on the community and the environment.

And Ron Johnson details the U.S.’s connection to the destruction: The federal government is considering approving a pipeline that would allow the oil from the tar sands to travel to Texas refineries. Johnson writes:

Green groups warn that the pipelines will keep North America and emerging economies hooked on oil from the Alberta tar sands for years to come. By greasing the crude’s path to market, the projects will encourage further reckless expansion of the tar sands. That would delay the transition to a renewable energy economy, while further degrading Canada’s boreal forests and spewing even more CO2 into the atmosphere.

A new regime

The decision to approve the pipeline lies with the executive branch. But all of Washington isn’t a particularly friendly place to green groups and their causes these days.

For example, as Care2’s Beth Buczynski reports, the newly empowered House Republicans have done away with one of the smallest green programs the Democrats put into place, an initiative to compost waste from House cafeterias. They’ve justified the cut by saying it was “too expensive,” but as Buczynski writes, “Spending must be dramatically reduced, yes, but also strategically. It’s interesting (and disheartening) to see which programs the new GOP House has targeted first.”

It’s a small thing, but it shows how committed Republicans are to the status quo: They’re not even willing to mulch their leftover salad.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the environment by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Mulch for a complete list of articles on environmental issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, health care and immigration issues, check out The Audit, The Pulse, and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

 

 

Weekly Mulch: With D.C. in GOP Hands, Environmentalists Must ‘Fight Harder’

by Sarah Laskow, Media Consortium Blogger

For the environmental community, this coming year offers a chance to regroup, rethink and regrow. Two years ago, it seemed possible that politicians would make progress on climate change issues—that a Democratic Congress would pass a cap-and-trade bill, that a Democratic president would lead the international community toward agreement on emissions standards. And so for two years environmentalists cultivated plans that ultimately came to naught.

What comes next? What comes now? It’s clear that looking to Washington for environmental leadership is futile. But looking elsewhere might lead to more fertile ground.

Our new leaders

On Wednesday, the 112th Congress began, and Republicans took over the House. They are not going to tackle environmental legislation. This past election launched a host of climate deniers into office, and even members of Congress inclined to more reasonable environmental views, like Rep. Fred Upton, now chair of the House Energy and Commerce committee, have tacked towards the right. Whereas once Upton recognized the need for action on climate change and reducing carbon emissions, recently he has been pushing back against the Environmental Protection Agency’s impending carbon regulations and questioning whether carbon emissions are a problem at all.

“It’s worth remembering that Upton was once considered among the most moderate members of the GOP on the issue,” writes Kate Sheppard at Mother Jones. “No longer.”

Good riddance

The climate bill is really, truly, dead, and it’s not coming back. But as Dave Roberts and Thomas Pitilli illustrate in Grist’s graphic account of the bill’s demise recalls, by the time it reached the Senate, the bill was already riddled with compromises.

And so perhaps it’s not such bad news that there’s space now to rethink how progressives should approach environmental and energy issues.

“It’s refreshing to shake the Etch-a-Sketch. You get to draw a new picture. The energy debate needs a new picture,” policy analyst Jason Grumet said last month, as Grist reports.

Already, in The Washington Monthly, Jeffrey Leonard, the CEO of the Global Environmental Fund, is pitching an idea that played no part in the discussions of the past two years. He writes:

If President Obama wants to set us on a path to a sustainable energy future—and a green one, too—he should propose a very simple solution to the current mess: eliminate all energy subsidies. Yes, eliminate them all—for oil, coal, gas, nuclear, ethanol, even for wind and solar. … Because wind, solar, and other green energy sources get only the tiniest sliver of the overall subsidy pie, they’ll have a competitive advantage in the long term if all subsidies, including the huge ones for fossil fuels, are eliminated.

No impact? No sweat

Federal policies aren’t the only part of the picture that can be re-drawn. Even as Congress failed to act on climate change, an ever-increasing number of Americans decided to make changes to decrease their impact on the environment.

Colin Beavan committed more dramatically than most: his No Impact Man project required that he switch to a zero-waste life style. This year, he partnered with Yes! Magazine for No Impact Week, which asks participants to engage in an 8-day “carbon cleanse,” in which they try out low-impact living. Yes! is publishing the chronicles of participants’ ups and downs with the experiment: Deb Seymour found it empowering to give up her right to shop; Grace Porter missed her bus stop and had to walk two miles to school; Aran Seaman found a local site where he could compost food scraps.

The long view

Perhaps, for some of the participants, No Impact Week will continue on after eight days. After Seaman participated last year, he gave up his car in favor of biking and public transportation.

On the surface, giving up a convenience like that can seem like a sacrifice. But it needn’t be. Janisse Ray writes in Orion Magazine about her decision to give up plane travel for environmental reasons. Instead, she now travels long distances by train, and that comes with its own pleasures:

Through the long night the train rocks down the rails, stopping in Charleston, Rocky Mount, Richmond, and other marvelous southern places. People get on and off. Across the aisle a woman is traveling with two children I learn are her son, aged twelve, and her granddaughter, ten months. In South Carolina we pick up a woman come from burying her father. He had wanted to go home, she says. She drinks periodically from a small bottle of wine buried in the pocket of her black overcoat. The train is not crowded, and I have two seats to myself.

Our true leaders

Ultimately, though, sweeping environmental changes will require leadership and societal changes. American politicians may have abdicated that responsibility for now, but others are still fighting. In In These Times, Robert Hirschfield writes of Subhas Dutta, who’s building a green movement in India.

“The environmental issue is the issue of today. The political parties, all of them, have let us down,” Dutta says. “We want to be part of the decision-making process on the state and national levels. The struggle for the environment has to be fought politically.”

One person who understood that was Judy Bonds, the anti-mountaintop removal mining activist, who died this week of cancer. Grist, Change.org, and Mother Jones all have remembrances; at Change.org, Phil Aroneanu shared “a beautiful elegy to Judy from her friend and colleague Vernon Haltom:”

I can’t count the number of times someone told me they got involved because they heard Judy speak, either at their university, at a rally, or in a documentary.  Years ago she envisioned a “thousand hillbilly march” in Washington, DC.  In 2010, that dream became a reality as thousands marched on the White House for Appalachia Rising….While we grieve, let’s remember what she said, “Fight harder.”

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the environment by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Mulch for a complete list of articles on environmental issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, health care and immigration issues, check out The Audit, The Pulse, and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

 

 

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