Wednesday, June 17, 2009

A little tax jeopardy

The TEA (Taxed Enough Already) parties on April 15, and the continued outrage of the right wing about how much we are taxed disguises some very important facts. I put a number of them together from websites, articles and the like, for a talk recently, and now just want to list a few of them in a Jeopardy format. See how many questions you can answer!


ANSWER: 39.5%, the level it was when Bill Clinton left office.

QUESTION: What does President Obama propose to raise the top marginal tax rate to?


ANSWER: 35%

QUESTION: What is the top marginal tax rate now?


ANSWER: 9.1%

QUESTION: How big a bite do federal income taxes take out of the average person’s income?


OK, this is my fantasy and my goal: that everybody could answer these questions quickly and easily. In fact, they could go on to say that even when you add all the other federal levies people pay in addition to income tax, such as payroll taxes for Social Security and Medicare, excise taxes for gasoline, alcohol, tobacco and other items, the combined federal tax rate for most people was 20.7%, which is less than one percent higher than the three decade year low of 19.8% reached in 2003.

(Sources: NYT, Congressional Budget Office, and USA Today)

The problem is not what we pay, which is far less than most other industrialized countries. There is a big problem in how we spend, with half of this money going to support bloody and pointless wars and a bloated military, and, because of said wars, another 20% of the federal budget going to debt service on the national debt. But paying too much tax? I don’t think so. How about inviting our anti-tax friends to this TEA party: Try Emulating Accuracy?

Monday, June 8, 2009

Mobilizing the Nonprofit Sector

Staff and board of nonprofit organizations carry with them an image of the nonprofit sector as small, and are often amazed to learn just how big and powerful we are (or could be, if we would mobilize our power.)

The nonprofit sector in the United States has mushroomed over the past 20 years. It is now immense. There are 1.5 million organizations incorporated under the Internal Revenue Service 501c law. The total income of the sector is about $1 trillion per year; if it were a single industry, it would be our nation’s largest. The nonprofit sector employs 10% of the workforce and is, in general, an enormous economic driver.

Other counties around the world have equally, or sometimes larger, nonprofit (or NGO) sectors. In fact, worldwide, the nonprofit sector employs 4-5% of the workforce. And, there is an almost immeasurable number of volunteers whose time augments the often low pay of the staff.

Yet, little organizing is aimed at nonprofit staff. Often staff are asked to help organize their constituents, there is some organizing efforts aimed at boards and volunteers, and all of this is valuable.

But let’s look at the numbers of people are talking about if we focus organizing efforts just on a small segment of paid staff who work for nonprofits. There are almost 140 million people in the workforce in the United States. Fourteen million of these work in nonprofits. Are all of them progressive? Certainly not, and in fact, some of them work for anti-tax, anti-commons organizations, and a much larger number work for organizations that don’t take any position on commons issues. But given how few people vote, and how many local elections that determine critical tax issues are decided by a few thousand, or sometimes even a few hundred votes, those of us dedicated to making our tax system more progressive only need to reach a few hundred thousand of these staff in order to really make a difference. This addresses the idea that there is nothing we can do to change tax policy. We only need to talk to each other and we could have a profound impact.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Death and Taxes

For the past several weeks, I have been giving talk after talk to nonprofit staff and board members about taxes: the importance of taxes, why we should care about taxes, what we should do about taxes. I could use this as an excuse for not posting to this blog more often, but in fact, the real reason I haven’t is because I get too depressed by the reaction I get to what I say. Let me step back and say that I know, from years and years of feedback, that I am a good trainer and a good speaker. So at the risk of flattering myself, I have ruled out the idea that I am boring to listen to. But the reaction I get is what I would expect if I were utterly and completely a snoozer in the speaking department: blank stares, few questions, lots of surreptitious texting and checking Blackberries. Anything but to actually think about what we can do about taxes.

In examining my talks, the evaluations after (which are always positive, in contrast to the behavior of the participants), and from feedback from trusted and honest friends, this is my explanation:

People are trained from early childhood that death and taxes are the two inevitabilities, and there is nothing that can be done about either. OR, as one friend said, “In fact, the only thing that can be profitably done is to NOT talk about them.” Further, way more people than I had any idea of, imagine that they are incapable of understanding taxes and so just tune out rather than feel stupid. Finally, most nonprofits have way more immediate pressing problems and can’t see their way clear to taking on yet another (hopeless) cause.

Paradoxically, this explanation has cheered me up. Each element of this explanation can be addressed. And must be, unless we want to live in a country where most social services are privatized and most giant corporations are owned wholly or in part by the government.