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Just Us in Davis: War on the poor

By From page A13 | September 23, 2011

Class warfare arrived in today’s mail. There, along with the clothing catalogues, credit card and cable TV offers, were two envelopes that contained everything that is wrong and that is right in America. Well, that might be a slight exaggeration (otherwise, these would have been nation-size packages) — but work with me here.

One envelope held our county property tax bill; the other the “Spare Changer.”

In the first envelope I found that, based on the value of our home, my family contributes the equivalent of $9.50 a day — including a whooping $2.60 a day for voter-approved assessments for public schools, community colleges, parks and libraries — for the public good.

Is that the price of a great public education, a green neighborhood, a well-read community? Is this our fair share?

In the second envelope, in the stories of the unsheltered of our community of the “Spare Changer,” came the answer to this question: No. Because, summed up in the bottom line of our tax bill is the disinvestment in the public good that imperils all that we hold dear in our dear Davis.

In these paltry figures — coupled with the recent census figures of unemployment and poverty — is the formula that makes the struggles depicted in the “Spange” the inevitable unnatural disasters of our economic mode that rewards wealth and punishes the poor.

Contrary to the accusations of those who see “class warfare” in the radical proposition that “from those to whom much is given, much shall be required” (hint: this is from a good book far older than the Communist Manifesto), we are living in a time of massive transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich.

If this is war, then it is an asymmetric war on the poor, and our tax bills are a declaration of hostilities. If this is war, then it is fought in the violence inherent in poverty, armed by a tax code and free enterprise system that is only free for those who control the means of production and comes at a high cost for those who labor (or not) within it.

While I don’t see myself as direct combatant, I am implicated in this battle. Even though my family is not close to being in the top 1 percent of earners who together control more than one-third of the country’s total wealth, we are in the top 10 percent that controls nearly 40 percent of this wealth. Given the rules of the zero-sum game being played, this means that the bottom 90 percent is left only one-quarter of the nation’s wealth.

Worse still are the ways in which inequality in our economic system is not only an effect of the economic crises — it is also a primary cause. Think about the institutionalized recklessness of our lords of finance whose binge on credit default swaps, mortgage-backed securities and predatory sub-prime mortgages turned our nation’s economy into a cesspool of toxic assets.

This is the perfect storm of private sector greed and government laissez-faire that has swamped our economy and added to the woes and ranks of our unhoused, unemployed, our uncared for, such as those represented in the “Spare Changer.” Adding insult to injury, it is this economic and social crises that now are being used as a pretext for further draconian cuts in our frayed safety net.

In this context, the proposal by Warren Buffett, America’s second most wealthy person, that he should pay a greater — not lesser — share than does his secretary in income taxes is simply common sense. In this context, President Obama’s proposal for a so-called Buffett tax rate bump on millionaires and billionaires as a way to ensure that everyone pays their fair share to reduce the deficit is simply “good math.”

But it is also far too timid a move. In a time of war, it is not enough to offer pleas that the aggressor take slightly less of the spoils.

Accepting that “we must learn to live within our means” as begins one of Obama’s recent policy visions, is only reasonable if everyone has the means to live. Because this is clearly not the case, Obama’s strategy of appeasement of those who would dismantle the few remaining safeguards that prevents the gap between the elite and the masses from widening into an abyss is not “adult”; it is bad math, bad policy and bad politics.

This is not only merely to knock Obama, but to encourage him, despite the odds, to live up to the hope that so many of us placed in him. It is also a charge to those who believe in these ideals to hold ourselves accountable and, in turn, to hold our leaders accountable to the basic American values of fairness, of opportunity, of the inalienable right of all to the pursuit of happiness.

To bring this perhaps over-blown rhetoric back home, back to my property tax bill and to the “Spare Changer” in today’s mail — I wonder what a Buffett tax might look like for Davis. Could it be a progressive basis for the proposed water rate hike, and for future school, park and library assessments, where the rate is not “flat,” but keyed to property value?

Why should I pay a much smaller proportion of my wealth to support my community’s physical and civic infrastructure than does the person who cleans the places where my family works, plays and learns? Why should I pay less in property taxes per day than it takes the homeless members of our community to subsist?

How can we use our privilege to support changes in our local and national tax codes that will leave more than spare change in the cup of our society’s poor?

— Jonathan London, Ph.D., is a Davis resident and parent. He shares this monthly column with Jann Murray-García. Reach him at [email protected]

Jonathan London

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