Analysis: Obama Tax Proposals could be More Progressive

United for a Fair Economy has released a new report analyzing President Barack Obama’s tax proposals. In the report, the progressive organization argues that Obama’s tax proposals fall short of what is needed to implement a progressive tax structure and to reduce incentives for the kind of financial risk-taking that led to the current economic crisis.

The report compares Obama’s tax proposals–unveiled in his 2010 budget–with recommendedations from the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS). The report finds that the IPS proposals would generate significantly more revenue and curtail many of the practices that led to the financial crisis. Their proposals would increase the tax rates on the richest Americans to bring them closer to what the average taxpayer pays.

United for a Fair Economy argues that while the wealthiest taxpayers profited greatly over the past several years, their profits did not lead to greater stability and that the theory of “trickle down” economics failed:

Highly concentrated wealth did not lead to shared prosperity, higher incomes for most people, or a healthier economy. Instead it created a dangerous imbalance between investment capital and investment opportunities. An investor class had too many dollars for the legitimate investments available. Meanwhile, the consumer majority had too few dollars to buy the goods and services they required. The unbalanced distribution of our national income led to runaway debt for the majority and runaway financial speculation by the few.

As an alternative, the organization argues for a progressive tax system:

Progressive taxation – people paying taxes based on their ability to pay – is fundamental to a fair society and true democracy. Society needs some of everyone’s wealth to reproduce the infrastructure, services, public safety, education, and other public investments that support the economy and create prosperity. However, because the free market system within which we operate is both imperfect and produces harsh economic inequality, the market’s distribution of income cannot be the final word on economic justice. Progressive taxation changes the market’s distribution of income and therefore advances equality of opportunity.

The organization says that Obama’s tax proposals are moving in that direction, but they could be far better.

Obama’s tax proposals:

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IPS tax proposals:

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According to the analysis, the IPS proposals would help secure the economy and pay for public services, thereby adding much needed stability to the economy.

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Trashing capitalism now in vogue, but its generation of misery is nothing new

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As the economic crisis has worsened, confidence in capitalism seems to be sinkin’ like a stone.

I wrote about a month ago that The Nation–widely considered the most influential progressive publication in the country–started a series of stories in print and online on socialism and its relevance in the midst of havoc the unfettered free market has wreaked on the country and the planet. Others have followed suit: the cover of this month’s issue of In These Times magazine features the headline “The Meltdown Goes Global: It is time to rethink capitalism.” Hell, even the New York Times–certainly no bastion of anti-capitalist thought–ran a piece at the end of February whose tone mocked conservatives’ obsession with using “socialist” and “socialism” as dirty words, entitled Socialism! Boo, Hiss, Repeat.” And shockingly, some of their coverage of the G-20 actually treated protestors who identified as anti-capitalist, with anti-capitalist demands, as legitimate!

And the shift isn’t just in the media. A recent Rasmussen Reports poll indicates that barely more than half–53%–of American adults think capitalism is a better economic system than socialism. And Republicans thought big government bailouts and stimulus packages were scary! It can’t be long before conservative pundits look at those numbers and start calling for that 53% to start arming themselves for a fight against the impending tide of Communists coming to take away their guns and plasma screen TVs in service of The Party.

Yes, all signs seem to be pointing towards a growing number of Americans realizing that maybe the free market isn’t the same as freedom, and that capitalism might actually be causing all kinds of global misery rather than economic prosperity. And that’s certainly a very good thing.

But the framing of this discussion has really been irking me lately. The recession is being called a meltdown, a catastrophe, a disaster. And it is all those things, to be sure: working- and middle-class folks’ retirements have evaporated into thin air, unemployment is at astronomical levels, foreclosures are happening left and right. And this is all quite tragic.

But the misery bred by capitalism is no new development. I was thinking about this as I read that In These Times cover: “It is time to rethink capitalism.” Now is the time, now that “average folks” are being hit by the free market’s latest temper tantrum? Everything was cool before, but now we’ve gotta rethink this capitalism business?

News flash: the majority of the world has been getting screwed by global capitalism since its inception. Pick your poison: Columbus’ landing in Americas and the subsequent slaughter of millions of indigenous peoples, slavery and present), the fact that the average CEO in this country makes 344 times that of the average worker, the fact that half of the world lives on $2 or less a day, the incredible amount of violence and environmental destruction required to keep the system a-churnin’. The list goes on and on. These things have been happening for hundreds of years but few in the mainstream media and general populace in this country have batted an eye–quite the contrary, they’ve been ardent defenders of what is supposedly the greatest and most free economic system in the world. Once folks start losing their jobs, houses, and retirement, though, they begin rethinking capitalism.

I suppose this is the way things work in this country. The Vietnam War was rotten from the get-go, but it was poor and working-class folks who were the ones fighting and dying at the outset. It wasn’t until years into the slaughter, when bright-eyed middle-class kids–you know, the ones who were supposed to become doctors and lawyers and upstanding, all-American citizens–started coming home in flag-draped coffins that popular opinion turned against the war.

The same is true of our current economic collapse: it has taken a society-wide bludgeoning for folks to rethink a fundamentally unjust economic system. It’s just a shame there had to be so much suffering before we got here.

Getting Ghost: Two Young Lives and the Struggle for the Soul of an American City

Click on the image to purchase this book through Amazon.com. Purchases help support MediaMouse.org.

Last week, I read about a proposed urban farm project that purportedly would transform the vacant, abandoned lots that make up much of Detroit’s inner city. Businessman John Hantz wants the City of Detroit to donate the vacant property. Hantz envisions the farm as a “destination” for locally grown produce that creates jobs within the city. However, this venture makes no mention of neighborhood buy-in. Community gardeners there have their doubts. And, its proposed equestrian recreation area doesn’t seem targeted to the youth from nearby neighborhoods. So, I have to wonder, is this urban farm plan really saving grace for Detroit’s inner city or just one more way for capitalist white America to profit off the backs of Detroit’s poor, urban, African American residents?

A month ago, I might not have even raised this question. That was before I read Getting Ghost: Two Young Lives and the Struggle for the Soul of an American City by Luke Bergmann. While a graduate student in anthropology, Bergman spent three years living in Detroit, studying incarcerated youth. His studies yielded more than a degree and a dissertation. He became deeply emotionally involved with several of the boys and their families.

Before telling the tales of two of these boys, Duke and Rodney, Bergmann provides the reader an excellent historical review of Detroit, from its founding more than 300 years ago through today. Today, Detroit is one of the most segregated cities in the U.S. The freeways of the late 1940s and early 1950s bulldozed residential neighborhoods and black owned businesses. Fires spawned by the July 1967 Detroit Rebellion and subsequent urban renewal ventures destroyed the fabric of community even further.

Once a city of hope for African Americans (think Motown), Detroit now offers nothing but despair, as its urban residents as the system continues it pillage: law enforcement, the courts, the prison industrial complex and media-fueled consumerism continue to squeeze what profit they can from the people living here. On a personal level, the result is a heartbreaking, vicious cycle of poverty where the only means of survival is selling drugs and the only relief, using.

However, Bergmann finds that within this hopeless landscape, community does continue to connect. The center of connection is the neighborhood liquor stores, primarily owned by white, Chaldean Americans. Not only destinations for liquor, cigarettes, and lottery tickets, these stores are the closest thing to grocery stores in the inner city. They also function as social hubs. And, while legal retail activities take place within, illegal drug sales take place right outside.

As Bergman tells the stories of Duke and Rodney, he does more than spin a good story–or make excuses for their “poor choices.” He shows why the choices they make are rationale reactions to the environment in which they live.

Sudhir Venkatesh, author of Gang Leader for a Day, says, “Luke Bergman sometimes risks life and limb to bring us firsthand the lives of young people who mainstream media and academic research have ignored–except for the occasional crime story or impersonal policy brief. Getting Ghost is a journey worth taking, though you may want to grab hold along the way.”

Luke Bergmann, Getting Ghost: Two Young Lives and the Struggle for the Soul of an American City, (The New Press, 2008).

Jobless Rates Rise Across U.S.; Michigan Number One Again

Michigan Unemployment

Unemployment rates continued to grow in January, with three more states joining Michigan with the dubious distinction of having an unemployment rate in the double-digits.

California, South Carolina, and Rhode Island joined Michigan with unemployment rates over 10%. Michigan’s 11.6% unemployment rate leads the nation. Four states–Indiana, Nevada, North Carolina, and Oregon–have unemployment rates over 9%.

Aside from cutting jobs, many employers are reducing hours and pay as the recession cuts into profits.

The recession has claimed a total of 4.4 million jobs since December 2007. The nationwide unemployment rate is at 8.1% and some economists predict it will peak at 11% in mid-2010.

Headlines: Tibetans Mark 50 Years of Uprising; 1 in 50 U.S. Children Homeless

Democracy Now Headlines: Tibetans Mark 50 Years of Uprising; 1 in 50 U.S. Children Homeless

Headlines from DemocracyNow.org, a daily TV/radio news program, hosted by Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez, airing on over 650 stations, pioneering the largest community media collaboration in the US.

US: Iran Lacks Material for Nuke Weapon

US intelligence analysts have concluded Iran lacks sufficient material for a nuclear weapon and hasn’t yet decided if it wants to try to make one. Testifying on Capitol Hill Tuesday, Defense Intelligence Agency director Lt. Gen. Michael Maples was questioned by Republican Senator John McCain.

Sen. John McCain: “General Maples, Do you believe that it is Iran’s intention to develop nuclear weapons?”

Lt. Gen. Michael Maples: “I believe they are holding open that option, sir, but I don’t believe they have yet made that decision.”

Senate OKs Spending Bill After Treasury Assures Cuba Embargo Backers

The Senate has approved a $410 billion omnibus spending bill to fund the federal government for much of this year. The vote came after the Treasury Department assured supporters of the US embargo on Cuba that new provisions in the bill will mark almost no change from current policy. The spending bill was held up last week amidst opposition to several provisions loosening trade and travel restrictions with Cuba. But in a letter sent to lawmakers opposed to easing the embargo, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said the provisions will be narrowly enforced. As the Obama administration touted the continued restrictions, a group of South American defense ministers issued a call for ending the embargo. The twelve ministers were gathered at a meeting of the twelve-country Union of South American Nations, or UNASUR.

Uruguayan Defense Minister Jose Bayardi: “Right now Cuba does not represent any security problem for the US. And US policy with respect to Cuba is more determined by internal pressure, by lobby by North American Cubans. That’s the frank analysis of the situation.”

Obama Unveils Education Reforms

President Obama has proposed a new set of reforms to fix what he calls a crumbling education system. On Tuesday, Obama called for a longer school year and higher pay for top teachers.

President Obama: “The future belongs to the nation that best educates its citizens. And my fellow Americans, we have everything we need to be that nation. We have the best universities, the most renowned scholars. We have innovative principals and passionate teachers and gifted students, and we have parents whose only priority is their child’s education. We have a legacy of excellence and an unwavering belief that our children should climb higher than we did.”

Biden Urges NATO Support on Afghanistan

Vice President Joe Biden was in Brussels Tuesday to make a new appeal for international backing of the US-led occupation of Afghanistan. Speaking at a NATO gathering, Biden defended the Obama administration’s escalation of the Afghan war.

Vice President Joe Biden: “I know the people of Europe, like the people of my country, are tired of war, and they are tired of this war. But many of our citizens, both here in Europe and at home, question why we need to send troops and treasure so far from our homes. But we know–we know that it was from the space that joins Afghanistan and Pakistan that the attacks of 9/11 occurred. We know that it was from the very same area that extremists planned virtually every major terrorist attack on Europe since 9/11 and the attack on Mumbai.”

The Obama administration has ordered an additional 17,000 US troops to Afghanistan and is hoping for more non-US forces, as well.

Intel Pick Withdraws Nomination, Blasts Israel Lobby

The Obama administration’s pick to become the nation’s top intelligence analyst has withdrawn his nomination after an intense lobbying campaign by backers of Israeli government policies. Former US Ambassador Charles “Chas” Freeman had come under Republican-led opposition over his comments criticizing Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land. Freeman has years of diplomatic experience, including stints as US ambassador to Saudi Arabia and assistant secretary of defense. Some Democrats joined in on the opposition to Freeman’s appointment.

In a statement, Democratic Senator Charles Schumer took credit for Freeman’s withdrawal, saying, “I repeatedly urged the White House to reject him, and I am glad they did the right thing.”

In a statement, Freeman blasted lobby groups, lawmakers and pundits who support Israeli government policies for forcing his withdrawal. Freeman wrote,

“The tactics of the Israel Lobby plumb the depths of dishonor and indecency…The aim of this Lobby is control of the policy process through the exercise of a veto over the appointment of people who dispute the wisdom of its views, the substitution of political correctness for analysis, and the exclusion of any and all options for decision by Americans and our government other than those that it favors.”

Freeman continued,

“I regret that my willingness to serve the new administration has ended by casting doubt on its ability to consider, let alone decide what policies might best serve the interests of the United States rather than those of a Lobby intent on enforcing the will and interests of a foreign government.”

Gaza Family Sues Israeli Government

In Israel and the Occupied Territories, a Palestinian family that lost twenty-nine relatives in the Israeli attack on Gaza has filed a $200 million lawsuit against the Israeli government. The ordeal of the Samouni family drew international attention after it was revealed Israeli forces shelled their homes and then blocked medical aid. In addition to the twenty-nine dead, another forty-five relatives were injured, most of them children. Family member Naela Samouni described her family’s ordeal.

Naela Samouni: “My mother-in-law died, my sister-in-law and her daughter and two more people. The majority of my family died in the home that I am standing in now. Of course, we’re going to file a lawsuit against them.”

The surviving members of the Samouni family now live in the rubble of their destroyed homes.

Suit: Israel Stealing West Bank Resources

Meanwhile, an Israeli human rights group has filed a High Court challenge seeking to block Israeli digging in the occupied West Bank. The group, Yesh Din, claims Israeli mining in the West Bank amounts to a robbery of Palestinian resources. Yesh Din attorney Michael Sfard said Israel is violating international law.

Michael Sfard: “The natural resources that are digged out of the earth in the West Bank is transferred into Israel for the benefit of the Israeli construction market. This is, of course, an illegal enterprise. It violates the very basic principles of international law and laws of belligerent occupation. It is also immoral, because we’re literally swallowing chunks of the earth of the West Bank that belongs to the people of the West Bank and for their future development.”

According to Yesh Din, 75 percent of the resources mined by Israeli companies in the West Bank are being transferred to Israel. Some of the remaining gravel is being used to construct new Israeli settlements that further carve up Palestinian land.

Clinton Sees Hope in Haiti for “First Time”

In Haiti, former President Bill Clinton joined UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon Tuesday to promote an anti-poverty initiative being launched there. Clinton said he sees signs of hope in the poorest country in the western hemisphere.

Bill Clinton: “I have followed Haiti for more than three decades. This is the first time I have ever really believed that the country had a chance to slip the bonds of poverty and escape the heritage of oppressive government and misgovernment and abuse of people that have held people down too long.”

Clinton is sometimes described as a champion of Haitian democracy for restoring the overthrown elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide after the first US-backed coup. But Clinton was widely criticized for forcing Aristide to accept US-imposed neoliberal economic policies as a condition for his return to office.

Tibetans Mark 50 Years of Uprising

Here in New York, hundreds of pro-Tibet demonstrators marched through the streets Tuesday to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Tibetan uprising against China. The marchers passed by the UN and the Chinese consulate.

Protester: “Today is the fiftieth anniversary after we losing our country. So we are here to raise our voice to all the international people, especially to the Chinese, to say that Tibet was an independent and is an independent country still. So we are here together to tell the world the story about our Tibetan cause.”

A parallel demonstration was held near the Chinese embassy in Washington, D.C. The Dalai Lama marked his fifty years in exile on Tuesday by calling for “meaningful autonomy” for Tibet and accusing China of imposing a “hell on earth.”

Afghan Journalist Once Jailed by US Slain in Kandahar

An Afghan journalist once jailed by the US military has died in Afghanistan. Twenty-three-year-old Jawed “JoJo” Ahmad was shot and killed while reporting in Kandahar. Ahmad’s death comes less than six months after his release from US military imprisonment after nearly a year of being held without charge. He was working as a videographer for the Canadian television network CTV when US forces jailed him in October 2007. He later revealed US soldiers broke two of his ribs, deprived him of sleep and held him in a grave-like cell during his captivity. After his release, Ahmad said he wanted to tell his story and help other prisoners abused at the US-run Bagram prison where he was held. In a statement, law professor Barbara Olshansky of International Justice Networks said, “‘s death should compel all who have stood in the way of examining US policies in Afghanistan to make way for the investigation that has been needed for eight years. We are all responsible for the death of a brave young man who worked for the US and Canada in Afghanistan and paid the ultimate price for his heroism.”

Van Jones to Advise Obama on Green Jobs

The Obama administration has tapped author and activist Van Jones to become a special adviser for green jobs, enterprise and innovation. Jones is expected to start work next week. He is author of the bestselling The Green Collar Economy, which lays out a plan for a green economy he says could help solve the nation’s economic inequality while also addressing the long-term environmental threats to our survival as a planet. Jones is the founding president of Green for All and the founder of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. That group challenges human rights abuses within the US criminal justice system.

Attorney: Madoff to Plead Guilty on All Charges

The indicted financier Bernie Madoff appeared in a federal court Tuesday on allegations of operating one of the biggest frauds in Wall Street history. Madoff was arrested last year and accused of running an estimated $50 billion Ponzi scheme. Madoff’s lawyer says he will plead guilty to all criminal charges in court tomorrow. He faces a prison sentence of 150 years.

Staffers Force Disabled Youths to Fight at Texas Facility

In Texas, caretakers at a state-run residential facility have been caught forcing disabled youths to fight each other. Cell phone video shows staffers provoking and then shoving the youths to ensure they start fighting. Corpus Christi Police Captain Tim Wilson called the fights some of the worst child abuse he’s seen in over thirty years.

10 Die in Alabama Shooting

In Alabama, a lone gunman killed at least nine people in a shooting spree Tuesday before taking his own life. Four of the victims were relatives of the gunman.

Study: 1 in 50 US Children Homeless

A new study says that one in fifty American children are homeless. The National Center on Family Homelessness says the number marks an increase over ten years ago and continues to grow.

Foreclosed Homeowners Call for Bankruptcy Reform

In Washington, D.C., a bus tour of foreclosed homeowners made its final stop Tuesday after a cross-country trip. The “Recovery Express” picked up passengers who lost their homes in eight cities across the nation. Edith Adachi made the trip from Chicago.

Edith Adachi: “My home is gone. I’m never going to get that home back again. But there’s many of you who have homes and now in foreclosure, and there’s something we can do about them. And I’m here to represent all those people.”

The “Recovery Express” was organized by the group People Improving Communities through Organizing, or PICO. Organizers are calling for bankruptcy law reform that would grant troubled homeowners the right to appear before a bankruptcy court if banks won’t negotiate with them.

Green Architect Greg Franta Found Dead at 58

And the green architect Greg Franta has been found dead. His body was discovered inside his car in a ravine between Golden and Boulder, Colorado. It appears that he crashed on his way home over a month ago, when he was reported missing. Greg was the chief architect at Rocky Mountain Institute and named Colorado architect of the year in 1998. He worked with the Clinton administration to make the White House more energy efficient. He had been spearheading the building of Democracy Now!’s new studio, which we are looking forward to being the first LEED-certified TV/radio/internet studio in New York City. In this video for the Rocky Mountain Institute, Franta spoke about the importance of green building.

Greg Franta: “When we think about high-performance buildings, it’s having a lower environmental impact, and it’s good for our economy. Creating a place for the building users, so it becomes sustainable in a variety of ways.”

Greg Franta was fifty-eight. His death is a tremendous loss for us all. Our condolences to his family and to the Rocky Mountain Institute, which we know will continue to pursue his dreams of building a more sustainable world.

Headlines: Unemployment Rate Jumps to 8.1%; 31.8 Million Americans on Food Stamps

Democracy Now Headlines: Unemployment Rate Jumps to 8.1%; 31.8 Million Americans on Food Stamps

Headlines from DemocracyNow.org, a daily TV/radio news program, hosted by Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez, airing on over 650 stations, pioneering the largest community media collaboration in the US.

Report: World Faces First Global Recession Since WWII

The World Bank warned Sunday the world is falling into the first global recession since World War II as the economic crisis engulfs once-booming developing nations, confronting them with massive financial shortfalls that could turn back the clock on poverty reduction by years. The Washington Post reports the bank also cautioned that the cost of helping poorer nations in crisis would exceed the current financial resources of multilateral lenders. The World Bank is predicting that the global economy will shrink this year for the first time since the 1940s. The economic crisis is projected to push around 46 million people into poverty this year.

US Unemployment Rate Jumps to 8.1 Percent

In other economic news, the nation’s unemployment rate has jumped to 8.1 percent, the highest since 1983. Employers cut 651,000 jobs in February. 4.4 million jobs have been lost over the past fourteen months. In a speech in Columbus, Ohio, on Friday, President Obama called the number of lost jobs “astounding.”

President Obama: “I don’t need to tell the people of this state what statistics like this mean, because so many of you have been watching jobs disappear long before this recession hit. And I don’t need to tell this graduating class what it’s like to know that your job might be next, because up until a few weeks ago, that is precisely the future that this class faced–a future that millions of Americans still face right now. Well, that is not a future I accept for the United States of America.”

Record 31.8 Million Americans Now on Food Stamps

The number of Americans receiving food stamps reached a record 31.8 million in February, an increase of 700,000 people since January. Food stamp enrollment increased last month in forty-seven states. Demand has also hit record levels at community food banks.

Vicki Escarra, CEO of Feeding America: “Our donors have stepped up very generously, but the reality is we’ve not seen a crisis like this since the Great Depression. And so, we are in the middle of truly a crisis for average Americans.”

Obama Admits US Isn’t Winning War in Afghanistan; Considers Talks with Taliban

In an interview with the New York Times, President Obama admitted the US is not winning the war in Afghanistan. His comment came weeks after he ordered 17,000 more troops to fight as part of an escalation of the seven-year-old war. Obama also revealed that the US is considering reaching out to moderate elements of the Taliban, much as it did with Sunni militias in Iraq.

Obama to Overturn Stem Cell Research Ban

In other news from Washington, President Obama is expected to sign an executive order today overturning the ban on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research.

US Military Chief Backs Counterinsurgency for Mexico

A top Pentagon official said Friday the US military is ready to help Mexico in its deadly war against drug cartels with some of the same counterinsurgency tactics used against militant networks in Iraq and Afghanistan. Navy Admiral Mike Mullen, chair of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, made the comment after meeting with high-ranking Mexican officials in Mexico City. Mullen said he emphasized the Pentagon’s readiness to provide new intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance help, such as unmanned drones to spy on armed drug gangs, especially along the US border. Last week, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the US military will increase its support of Mexico.

Robert Gates: “I think we are beginning to be in a position to help the Mexicans more than we have in the past. Some of the old biases against cooperation with our–between our militaries and so on, I think, are being set aside.”

David Gregory: “You mean providing military support?”

Robert Gates: “Providing them with–with training, with resources, with reconnaissance and surveillance kinds of capabilities, but just cooperation, including in intelligence.”

Mexican Drug Cartels Rely on US Weapons Purchases

More than 1,000 people have been killed in Mexico in drug-related violence this year. 6,000 people died last year. Much of the violence has been fueled by the ability of drug cartels to purchase AK-47s assault rifles and other arms in the United States. According to law enforcement officials, 90 percent of the guns picked up in Mexico from criminal activity are purchased in the United States. In Phoenix, Arizona, a gun store owner goes on trial today on charges that he sold more than 700 weapons to straw buyers, knowing that the firearms were bought on behalf of Mexican drug syndicates.

US to Pull 12,000 Troops from Iraq

In Iraq, the military has announced 12,000 troops will be leaving over the next six months. There are currently about 135,000 US troops in Iraq. On Sunday, twenty-eight people died in Baghdad when a suicide bomber on a motorcycle blew himself up near the city’s main police academy. Fifty-seven people were injured.

US and Britain Reach Out to Middle East Adversaries

In other news from the Middle East, two senior US diplomats met with the Syrian Foreign Minister in Damascus this weekend. The talks marked the first high-level visit by ranking US diplomats to Syria in four years. Meanwhile, the British government announced it has agreed to begin talks with Hezbollah in Lebanon. Britain’s Foreign Office said the government would authorize “carefully selected” contacts with the political wing of Hezbollah.

Wife of Zimbabwean PM Tsvangirai Killed in Car Crash

In news from Africa, a funeral for the wife of Zimbabwean Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai is set to take place on Wednesday. Susan Tsvangirai died on Saturday in a car crash that also injured the prime minister. The accident occurred less than a month after Tsvangirai was sworn in as prime minister as part of a power-sharing agreement with his longtime rival, Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe. Officials from Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change say they have seen nothing to suggest foul play; however, they want to carry out their own investigation of the car crash.

Kenyan Human Rights Activist Assassinated

In other news from Africa, a prominent Kenyan human rights activist and one of his colleagues have been shot dead in Nairobi. Oscar Kamau Kingara was the founder of the respected Oscar Foundation Free Legal Aid Clinic. Last year, the organization published a report accusing the police of torturing or killing more than 8,000 Kenyans. Cyprian Nyamwamu, of the Kenya Human Rights Consortium, said, “The human rights community in Kenya holds the government fully and wholly responsible for the assassinations.”

Sudan Threatens to Kick Out More Foreign Aid Groups

The Sudanese government is threatening to kick out more foreign aid groups and expel diplomats and peacekeepers days after the International Criminal Court ordered the arrest of Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir for committing war crimes. Sudan has already expelled thirteen of the largest aid groups operating in Darfur. Ann Veneman of UNICEF condemned the Sudanese government.

Ann Veneman: “There are millions of people in Darfur who are dependent upon humanitarian assistance for food, for healthcare, for vaccinations, for education. And the real concern is, is how to fill a gap when so many of the organizations, probably amounting to a couple of thousand or more people, have had their licenses revoked.”

Sudan’s ambassador to the United Nations Abdelmahmood Abdelhaleem accused the aid groups of trying to destabilize Sudan.

Abdelmahmood Abdelhaleem: “You should not question the wisdom of our government in doing so. It did not do that haphazardly. We have been working with these organizations for a long time, and we have warned them. We have alerted them not to continue in this path of destabilization, but they chose to continue that. Not only that, they are doing activities and policies incompatible with their humanitarian mandate. They are messing up everything, as far as stability and security of the respective states in Darfur are concerned.”

EU: Israel Is “Actively Pursuing the Illegal Annexation” of East Jerusalem

The Guardian newspaper reports a confidential European Union report accuses the Israeli government of using settlement expansion, house demolitions, discriminatory housing policies and the West Bank separation wall as a way of “actively pursuing the illegal annexation” of East Jerusalem. The document says Israel has accelerated its plans for East Jerusalem and is undermining the Palestinian Authority’s credibility and weakening support for peace talks.

Hamas and Fatah to Hold Talks in Egypt

In other news from the region, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad has submitted his resignation, paving the way for the possible formation of a Palestinian unity government with Hamas. Representatives of Fatah and Hamas are heading to Cairo today to begin talks aiming at reconciliation and the formation of a unity government.

Ex-Israeli Minister Faces Rape Charges

The Israeli Justice Ministry has announced Israeli President Moshe Katsav will be charged with raping a woman and other sex crimes committed while he was tourism minister in the 1990s. A group of women have accused him of crimes including rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment.

N. Korea Condemns US-South Korean Military Exercise

Tension on the Korean peninsula is intensifying as more than 50,000 US and South Korean troops begin a twelve-day military exercise. North Korea has responded by putting its armed forces on full combat readiness. The exercise comes as the North Korean military prepares to test-fire a new long-range missile. Earlier today, the North Korean army said the drills were a “military provocation” that would only occur “on the eve of a war.”

UK Probe Urged over British Role in US Rendition Case

In Britain, opposition lawmakers are calling for a judicial inquiry into allegations that British intelligence agents participated in the “extraordinary rendition” and torture of Binyam Mohamed, who was released from Guantanamo Bay last month. In an interview with a British newspaper, Mohamed said the British government actively cooperated with US officials in his rendition and torture despite its repeated denials.

Supreme Court Dismisses al-Marri Case

The Supreme Court has dismissed Ali al-Marri’s challenge to his indefinite military imprisonment, a week after President Barack Obama ordered him moved into the US justice system to face newly filed criminal charges. Al-Marri is a US resident who was held in isolation at a naval brig in South Carolina for more than five years. He has never stood trial or been convicted of any crime.

Obama Administration Defends John Yoo in Suit Filed by Jose Padilla

Meanwhile, the Obama administration argued in court on Friday that another man held as an enemy combatant, Jose Padilla, has no right to sue former Justice Department attorney John Yoo for writing legal memos that allegedly led to his detention and torture. The San Francisco Chronicle reports Justice Department attorney Mary Mason argued that courts should not interfere in executive decision-making, especially in wartime. Yoo wrote a series of memos on interrogation, detention and presidential powers as an attorney in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel. In one memo, Yoo wrote that rough treatment of captives amounted to torture only if it caused the same level of pain as “organ failure, impairment of bodily function or even death.” It also said the president may have the power to authorize torture of enemy combatants. Attorneys for Padilla said Yoo knowingly breached constitutional standards in his memos to provide legal cover for those policies.

Two British Troops Killed in North Ireland Attack

And in Ireland, a dissident Irish republican group called the Real IRA has claimed responsibility for an attack that killed two British soldiers at an army base in Northern Ireland. Four others were wounded, including two men who were delivering pizzas. It was the first deadly attack on British troops in Northern Ireland since 1997. The killings were condemned by both republican and loyalist leaders in Ireland. Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein said, “I was a member of the IRA, but that war is over now. The people responsible for last night’s incident are clearly signaling that they want to resume or restart that war. Well, I deny their right to do that.”

Taxes on Wealthy Could Generate Revenue, Help Prevent Future Economic Crisis

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In the United States, the wealthiest citizens pay relatively little in taxes compared to the rest of us.

According to a recent article by the Institute for Policy Studies:

“As recent IRS data show, these elites are paying less in taxes – much less – than their deep-pocket counterparts used to pay. In 2006, the 400 highest-income Americans together reported $105 billion in income, an average of $263 million each.

Having trouble visualizing that? To pocket $263 million a year, you would have to take home over $60,000 an hour – and work 12 hours a day, seven days a week, for an entire 12 months. Sounds tiring, doesn’t it? But most of the top 400 make their fortunes buying and selling assets, everything from stocks and bonds to the exotic paper that helped inflate the housing bubble.

Uncle Sam taxes income from those assets – whether that income be capital gains or dividends – at a much lower rate than income from work.

The current top tax rate on “ordinary” work income sits at 35 percent. But dividends and capital gains from the buying and selling of most assets face only a 15 percent top rate. That’s why in 2006, America’s top 400 paid just 17.2 percent of their $263 million average incomes in federal tax.

Millions of middle-class American families, once you tally income and payroll taxes, pay far more of their incomes in tax. One particularly striking example from billionaire investor Warren Buffett: In 2006, he paid 17.7 percent of his income in total taxes. His secretary, who made $60,000, paid 30 percent of hers.

How did we end up with this sorry state of affairs? Lawmakers in Congress have spent the past several decades systematically slicing the tax rates on America’s top income brackets. Their rationale? Lower taxes on the top, free up capital for investment, and boost productivity.

In actual economic practice, those lower taxes have served instead to fuel speculation and increase budget deficits. For the ultrarich themselves, the tax savings have been nothing short of breathtaking. Back in 1955, America’s top 400 paid more than 50 percent of their incomes in federal tax, almost triple the rate of today’s top 400.”

A Solution to Revenue Problems: Increase Taxes on the Wealthiest

Late last month, the Institute for Policy Studies released a report that argues that taxes should be raised for the wealthiest Americans in order to fuel the economic recovery and address major national crisis like health care and global warming. Unlike what is frequently reported in the media and in Washington, the think-tank argues that this would make the U.S. economy stronger:

“Higher taxes on the wealthy, in our current economic situation, would actually have a positive impact. Appropriately targeted, these taxes would dampen the speculative frenzy of the last several decades. Over these years, grand concentrations of private wealth have been the engines behind the high-risk, high-return speculation that fueled economic bubbles in technology, housing, and commodities. Reducing these grand concentrations of wealth will help discourage future economic bubbles.

By the same token, carefully targeting higher taxes on U.S. corporations that have hidden dollars overseas to game the tax system would also raise federal revenues and, at the same time, help strengthen our basic economic foundation.”

Moreover, the report argues that increasing taxes would not impact consumption, which it says drives employment, thus refuting common arguments that raising taxes would result in lost jobs.

Specific Tax Changes Proposed

The report recommends seven specific tax proposals that it says would raise $500 billion a year in revenue and $3 trillion over five years.

These proposals include:

  1. Repeal tax breaks for households with annual incomes over $250,000: $43 billion per year.
  2. Tax speculative financial transactions: $100 2. billion per year. A modest tax on every transaction that involves the buying and selling of stock and other financial products — a penny, for instance, on every $4 traded — would both generate substantial revenue and, if calibrated to impose a stiffer burden on rapidly flipped investments, discourage economically reckless speculation. Several European countries already tax stock trans- actions.
  3. Eliminate the high-income tax preference for capital gains and dividends: $95 billion per year. Current law subjects most dividend and capital gains income — the income that flows overwhelmingly to wealthier Americans — to a 15 percent tax rate. The tax on wage and salary income, by contrast, can run up to 35 percent.
  4. Levy a significant estate tax on grand fortunes: $60 billion per year.
  5. Establish a recovery emergency tax rate on extremely high incomes: $60-105 billion per year. High-income Americans currently face a top tax rate that runs less than half the top rate in effect over the half-century before 1981. Restoring a higher tax rate on high incomes could help finance our economic recovery.
  6. End overseas tax havens: $100 billion per year. Individual American taxpayers are now annually evading between $40 and $70 billion in U.S. taxes through offshore tax dodges. U.S. corporations use similar offshore schemes to evade another $30 billion.
  7. Eliminate subsidies for excessive executive compensation: $18 billion per year. As taxpayers, we subsidize over-the-top management pay through a host of tax loopholes. Congress should close these loopholes, starting with immediate action to deny all corporations, not just companies getting bailout dollars, tax deductions on any executive compensation that runs over $500,000, or 25 times, the pay of a company’s lowest-paid workers.

Cash Assistance Program Failing to Help Many Poverty-Stricken Michigan Families

Michigan's Cash Assistance Program is failing to Help Many Families in Poverty

The Michigan League of Human Services has released a new report showing that while Michigan’s economy is among the worst in the nation, the state is offering little by way of a safety net for those most effected by the economic crisis. According to the report, Michigan’s cash assistance program–the Family Independence Program (welfare) that exists to help families dealing with unemployment or unexpected life circumstances–is aiding only the poorest of the state’s poor.

Michigan Families Facing Tough Times

One doesn’t need to look too hard to realize that the economy in Michigan is awful. Hardly a day goes by without a news story about a factory closing, a change in the unemployment rate, homes being foreclosed, or a story about a job fair inundated with far more applicants than there are positions.

The Michigan League of Human Services puts this in perspective, writing:

“These are difficult times for Michigan. Our state’s unemployment rate has led the nation for much of the past several years, with massive job losses in a number of sectors. Ten percent of all families in Michigan and nearly one out of every five children are in poverty, and many other families are in an economically precarious position. Many families cannot afford rent or health insurance, and there has been a sharp increase in home foreclosures during the past several years.”

The report also says that many middle class families–not just the poorest families in the state–could benefit from an expanded safety net. The League writes that many families are just one layoff or one health crisis away from “financial disaster.”

Only a Portion of those in Need Receiving Assistance

The report shows that Michigan’s cash assistance program–the Family Independence Program–is only helping the poorest residents in the state. While family poverty is growing in the state, Michigan’s program allows only those living at more than 44% below the poverty level to receive assistance. Work requirements have also meant that many families earn “too much” to qualify for assistance, even though they live significantly below the poverty line.

In 2007, approximately 257,488 families were in poverty, but only 82,329 families–or 32% of poor families–received cash assistance. Benefits have also only increased a paltry $33 per month since 1993.

Cuts and “Welfare Reform” have Reduced Assistance

Over the years, the program was weakened both by state-level efforts aimed at reducing welfare roles, as well as the federal “welfare reform” efforts undertaken in the 1990s by Bill Clinton. Following the federal changes, Michigan has received only a fixed block grant that has remained the same each year. At the same time, the legislature has tightened qualifications and made it harder for families that need assistance to receive help.

Beyond cuts to cash assistance programs, there have been cuts and eliminations of other important programs:

  • The General Assistance grant, which covered rent for the otherwise homeless population, was eliminated in 1991;
  • The Michigan child care subsidy, to help provide child care for working poor parents, has been increased by only 8 cents an hour in 14 years;
  • State funding for emergency needs was slashed in 1992, and today covers less than a quarter of families than it did in 1990.

All of these cuts have made it so that many of Michigan’s families are facing incredibly difficult times. As cash assistance has fallen, there are fewer places for families to turn.

The report argues that the current situation is worse than the last time Michigan faced double-digit unemployment. In the early 1980s, Michigan’s cash assistance program covered three times as many workers and was worth more. At that time, the program could cover rent and other essentials, now it’s not even enough to cover rent.

Recent drops in caseloads–from 85,839 cases per month to 72,568 in 2008–are likely due to changes in policy including stricter job requirements and proof of citizenship requirements.

Opportunities for Improvements

The League is urging the state to use money from the economic stimulus package to forestall further cuts and extend help to those who need it.

It also warns against further “ill-advised tax decisions” like the ones that were put into place while the economy was thriving and argues that reducing the deficit by lessening the social safety net is the wrong way to go.

People of Color Experiencing “Silent Depression”

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United for a Fair Economy has released their annual “State of the Dream” report examining the state of racial inequality in the United States.

This year’s report looks at how people of color have been hurt more than the general population by the recent economic problems. It also argues that people of color have been experiencing a “silent depression” for five years that has been largely ignored by those in power.

The report’s executive summary provides plenty to think about and is reproduced here in its entirety:

As we celebrate the 80th birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we know that 2009 will be an historic year, with the inauguration of the first African American president and the deepening of what is likely to be the most serious fiscal crisis since the Great Depression.

Many American Blacks today are already experiencing a silent economic depression that, in terms of unemployment, equals or exceeds the Great Depression of 1929. Almost 12% of Blacks are unemployed; this is expected to increase to nearly 20% by 2010. Among young Black males aged 16-19, the unemployment rate is 32.8%, while their white counterparts are at 18.3%.

Overall, 24% of Blacks and 21% of Latinos are in poverty, versus 8% of whites.

In the corporate world, we are seeing the highest executive pay and the biggest bailouts in history. CEO pay is 344 times that of the average worker, not including perks like bonuses, stock options, corporate jets, and housing subsidies. The riches of the few mask the deepening recession in the working class and the depression in communities of color.

Extreme economic inequality (which the U.S. experienced in the 1920s and is again experiencing now) is often a key indicator of recession and/or depression. The Black depression of today may well foreshadow the depth and length of the recession the whole country entered in December 2007.

A deep recession would see median family income decline by 4%. Thirty-three per cent of Blacks and 41% of Latinos would drop out of the middle class. The overall national rate would be 25%.

Economically, Blacks and Latinos have suffered disproportionately because of structural racism and the web of policies that evolved from it. Eliminating the racial wealth divide is an essential step toward eliminating institutional racism. A comprehensive economic policy could deal a knockout blow to structural racism and raise awareness of individual racism. The path forward abounds with possibilities for shrinking the racial wealth divide and further healing the racism that still afflicts our nation.

If we institute systemic wealth-building programs that help everyone; if we repair and reinvigorate the decimated watchdog policies governing all aspects of home ownership; if we target 2009 economic stimulus programs to investment, not investment in tax breaks for the rich, but in the building blocks of the American dream – affordable housing, education, job creation, and savings among low- and middle-income people – we will make strides toward a more balanced economy.

Our nation’s economic policies have enabled the top 10% to accumulate 68% of the wealth, while sheltering the wealthy from sharing the nation’s risks. The children of the wealthy are not marching off to war because their economic alternatives are bleak. The rising cost of medical care does not require American millionaires and billionaires to cut back on food in order to pay medical bills. Thousands of additional layoffs will not harm the financial security of those in the owning class.

Fairer policies would share the risks of our entrepreneurial economy by helping balance the economic burdens among all of us, rather than piling them onto people of color, the poor, and the middle class. Revoking the tax deduction for expensive second and third houses, ending offshore tax havens and policies that make it profitable to ship American jobs overseas, and calling – with a united voice – for those in the upper quintile of income and wealth to participate more fully in bearing the burden of fixing the economy would spread the risks more fairly.

Fairer policies would support low-cost mortgages, better and cheaper medical care for those making less than $200,000 a year, strengthening Social Security, and freezing or raising wealth taxes like capital gains and the estate tax.

Finally, we need to recommit ourselves, via policy and our unified voices, to affirmative action. We need recognition of and apology for the U.S.’s centuries of slavery and segregation. We need a commitment by the nation and its communities to acknowledge and repudiate the institutional and individual racism – epitomized by today’s Black depression – that still pervades our society.

With such actions we can move forward. The economic path behind us is collapsing in rubble. Looking backward, we can freeze in fear, or we can turn toward a future whose economic health and fairness we jointly create.

Study: Segregation on the Rise in US Schools

A New Study Finds Segregation is Growing in the US School System

A new study by the University of California’s Civil Rights Project has found that despite rhetoric–particularly around Obama’s campaign–about racial equality in the United States, the United States is actually moving backwards in many respects on key measures of racial equality.

The study–Reviving the Goal of an Integrated Society: A 21st Century Challenge–finds that:

“the U.S. continues to move backward toward increasing minority segregation in highly unequal schools; the job situation remains especially bleak for American blacks, and Latinos have a college completion rate that is shockingly low. At the same time, very little is being done to address large scale challenges such as continuing discrimination in the housing and home finance markets, among other differences across racial lines.”

The Civil Rights Project has previously issued several reports on the integration of the public schools. It has found that in the decades since Brown vs. the Board of Education and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, gains have slowly been undone to the point where segregation is now growing each year. The study reports that 40% of African-Americans and 39% of Latinos now attend “intensely segregated schools.” The average African-American and Latino student also attends schools where nearly 60% of students are at or below the poverty line.

The report finds that suburban schools are also highly segregated, with the majority of suburban students attending schools that are 80% white.

At the same time, the study also reports that there is “almost no enforcement” of the Fair Housing Act and few penalties leveled for housing discrimination, which plays an important role in maintaining segregated schools.

The report concludes that the “separate but equal” approach that the government has returned to since abandoning serious efforts to integrate public schools has failed. Moreover, the report argues that new measures–such as No Child Left Behind–have failed and unduly targeted schools serving communities of color with sanctions while failing to give them the resources they need.

The report calls on the incoming Obama administration to make “the first serious commitment” to integrating the public schools since the Lyndon Johnson presidency.