MinnPost – Statistics mask reality: Unemployment isn’t going down, and Minnesota doesn’t have a budget surplus

December 7, 2011 - One Response

MinnPost – Statistics mask reality: Unemployment isn’t going down, and Minnesota doesn’t have a budget surplus.

Check out this really great article in MinnPost today by David Schultz of Hamline University. Thanks for the straight talk and the truth behind the numbers, Professor!

Progressive Voices Give Hindsight a Forward-Thinking View

November 19, 2011 - Leave a Response

An interview with Joe Sheeran of Minnesota 2020 on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2011

The office just off University Avenue in St. Paul is quiet on this early afternoon in November. You could assume that those working here are in the midst of a post-lunch sugar low, but you’d be very wrong. On the contrary: There is no mistaking the sense of urgency in the eyes and body language of Joe Sheeran, the Director of Communications for Minnesota 2020 (MN2020).

Joe Sheeran

MN2020 was established in 2007 as a “progressive, new media, non-partisan think tank focused on what really matters.” They concentrate on five key policy areas – economic development, fiscal policy, education, health care and transportation – that are common-good issues impacting Minnesota’s future success.

Their communication tools include their website, the Hindsight 2020 blog, Twitter (@MN2020), Facebook, and traditional media outreach. MN2020 publishes daily commentary and analysis along with policy research reports, videos and a weekly open question for readers, titled: Tuesday Talk.

Today, Taxpup takes a look behind the scenes at MN2020.

Three full-time communications staff members keep MN2020’s online, new and traditional media efforts current. There are also more than two dozen fellows, researchers, and contributors with backgrounds in journalism, business, and academia. Story ideas come from their networks and inside sources – what Joe calls “good old-fashioned gum-shoe beat work.” They  also “troll other think tanks,” academic studies and governmental reports. They follow Google +, Google Reader, Facebook, and key Twitter hash tags to find potential research ideas.

How does Joe keep the voice of the organization consistent with so many writers taking part in the work? “The personal perspective remains unique to each contributor, and that is what makes MN2020 content so rich,” Joe says. But, as editor he pays close attention to the writer’s message. His job is to make sure each blog achieves three objectives: it must have progressive framing, move a key Minnesota policy forward, and contain a call to action.

The organization’s executive director, John Van Hecke says the Hindsight blog was started in 2009 when a volunteer said, “Hey, you guys need a blog.” It was something MN2020 had wanted to start but just hadn’t gotten around to yet. Now Hindsight publishes three to five posts every day, each between 200 – 300 words in length. The content is editorial in nature and uses data to drive home a conclusion. The posts are pushed out first thing in the morning, around noon, and again around 4:00 pm, depending on how many they have to publish.

The Hindsight blog is promoted through multiple channels that take into account how MN2020’s followers want to be reached: emails to their 30,000 strong list serv subscribers, Twitter (as the blog is posted), Facebook (at 8:00 am, just after noon, and at 5:00 pm), through the online news venue Twin Cities Daily Planet, and on the radio every other Tuesday at 5:30 pm on AM950 KTNF. On Thursdays MN2020 highlights the top 5 or 6 Hindsight blog posts of the week to drive additional traffic. The communication is customized for each outlet.

“What advice do you have for a new policy blogger?” I asked. “Lists are good,” he said, so here are Joe’s top ten dos and don’ts:

  1. Frequency is key – it must be sustainable. Be committed to one piece per day.
  2. Keep it fresh, local and visually appealing with photos, graphs, and video.
  3. Have a catchy title.
  4. Make it fact-based – vet your information.
  5. If it’s not ready, don’t push it; hold onto it until it is.
  6. Keep a few backup blogs in the hopper ‘just in case.’
  7. Don’t assume your promotional partners and other media will be on the same page – make sure your message is clear and don’t assume people know the details of the policy.
  8. Quote and promote other bloggers by providing a short introduction to their work and refer the reader to the original site.
  9. Moderate comments – dissent is fine, but responses should be on topic with no personal attacks and no foul language – attack on the merits of the argument.
  10. Metrics are important (some of the tools Joe uses include statcounter.com and Google Analytics).”

Looking ahead, MN2020 hopes to add more video and animation to its multimedia toolbox. Until then, they’ll keep one eye on the future while providing hindsight – and insight – on key policy issues in Minnesota.

Read My Lips: No New Pledges

October 29, 2011 - One Response

I love traditions that celebrate America: watching fireworks on the 4th of July, singing along with the National Anthem, and saying the Pledge of Allegiance. Since grade school I have been proud to place my hand over my heart and recite the straight forward and elegant words of our national pledge:

By now you’re thinking, “That’s great, Taxpup, but what does the Pledge of Allegiance have to do with tax policy?” Great question.

Ever since 1986, when President Reagan gave a nod of support to Grover Norquist and his organization’s “Taxpayer Protection Pledge,” too many Americans have been lulled into believing ‘no new taxes’ is the answer to our ongoing budget problems. George H. W. Bush carried the torch for this new conservative proclamation with his famous statement “Read my lips: no new taxes” during the 1988 presidential campaign. Of course both Reagan and Bush Senior realized that this was easier pledged than done.

Although many of us realize that having all options on the table is the most balanced approach to tackling our fiscal problems, conservatives continue to use no-new-taxes as a rallying cry. Republican candidates and elected officials are pressured by Americans for Tax Reform to make the no new taxes pledge:

I, _____, pledge to the taxpayers of the (____ district of the) state of ______ and to the American people that I will: ONE, oppose any and all efforts to increase the marginal income tax rate for individuals and business; and TWO, oppose any net reduction or elimination of deductions and credits, unless matched dollar for dollar by further reducing tax rates.

Hundreds in Congress have signed the pledge (238 in the House of Representatives and 41 in the Senate), and 1,276  state-level elected officials have done so as well.

Unfortunately, the no new taxes pledge is no longer America’s only threat to reasonable budgeting and tax policy. We now need to be wary of ALEC, The American Legislative Exchange Council, a supposedly “nonpartisan” group of state legislators who support federalism and conservative public policy solutions. There is a long list of state representatives with ties to ALEC, which is funded by the Koch brothers and wealthy corporations. ALEC members have been very busy assembling template legislation which is then introduced as a live bill by ALEC members in state houses around the country.

Several of ALEC’s ‘model bills’ on tax policy encourage states to adopt constitutional budgeting amendments that make it nearly impossible to raise revenue when needed. Some of the most harmful legislation includes the Taxpayers Bill of Rights (TABOR), balanced budget amendments, and requiring a super majority in a legislature to pass a tax increase.

Finally, Americans are beginning to take notice of the damaging effects that the lack of balance in budget solutions is having on government at all levels. Among many other issues, refusing to raise taxes on the wealthiest 1% has been a factor in igniting Occupy Wall Street protests around the country. One protester told a Time reporter:

“I don’t hate capitalism; I don’t hate rich people. I think you should come down to Wall Street and make as much money as you want. And when you do, you should pay a fair tax rate back to the city and the country that gave you the opportunity.”


Those who are taking a stand against the one-sided approach of the no new taxes pledge include Frank Wolf, a GOP Congressman from Virginia, who stated that the no new taxes pledge is paralyzing Congress.  He is one of only six House Republicans who has not signed the pledge.

Former Minnesota Governor Arne Carlson is also calling for balance, and touted his support of the Bowles-Simpson Debt Reduction plan in his new blog. This bipartisan plan has both tax increases and spending cuts as part of the solution to our federal issues.

It’s about time that reasonable heads prevail in tax policy. In October 2011, the Congressional Budget Office released a new report on income disparity. According to Mother Jones, the main take away of the report is that it confirms what we have been hearing for some time: the rich are getting richer. The following graphs illustrate this point:

Income Growth from 19779 to 2007

Source: Mother Jones

Income by Group after Taxes

Source: Mother Jones

This analysis is supported by the Economic Policy Institute, which says:

“It is widely acknowledged that wealth declined substantially between 2007 and 2009 as the housing bubble burst and stock prices fell. This wealth shrinkage was especially hard on the middle class and those groups (such as African Americans) whose house is their primary source of wealth. It is far less appreciated that this is a long-term trend, and that wealth is now lower for the typical household than it was a generation ago in 1983, while the wealth at the upper end expanded a great deal.”

There is absolutely no reasonable argument for not taking a balanced approach to solving our budget deficits at the state and federal level. We need to have a full fiscal tool box to address our problems in a way that is progressive and fair.

My policy proposal to elected officials is simple: No new pledges. Stop taking away half your options for fiscal management. The only pledge you should be making besides your oath of office is your allegiance to the flag and the republic for which it stands.

Take action:

See if your Congressional and  state  elected officials have taken pledges or joined ALEC. If they have, ask them to stop (the League of Women Voters has their contact information). If they refuse, strongly consider taking your vote elsewhere. That’s the only way change will happen.

Don’t Be Fooled By Weird Tricks

October 24, 2011 - Leave a Response

Did you ever notice the ads that for awhile seemed to be everywhere online, claiming you could get a flat stomach using one weird old tip? It was tempting to click on the ad, but I already knew the answer: exercise and eat right. The same caution applies to one weird tip on income taxes: don’t be fooled by talk of a flat tax as the answer to our fiscal woes.

Income tax policy has gotten a great deal of attention since über rich Warren Buffet penned an op-ed in the New York Times telling Congress to “Stop Coddling the Super-Rich.”  Mr. Buffet’s comments heated up the air

and cyber waves for weeks, with hash tags like #BuffettRule still sprinkling tweets like glitter. The Buffet Rule is “aimed at ensuring that millionaires can’t use special treatment in the tax code to drive their tax rates down below that of their employees” according to ThinkProgress.org.

Higher taxes for the wealthy sounded reasonable to President Obama, who included a higher tax rate on couples making more than $250,000 after deductions to help pay for his new jobs bill, but Senate Democrats couldn’t stomach that threshold and instead presented a plan for a 5% surtax on millionaires.

But many Republicans, including 2012 presidential candidate Herman Cain, believe that a flat tax is the answer to our fiscal prayers. In his 9-9-9 plan, Mr. Cain proposes a 9% corporate tax rate, a 9% income tax rate, and a 9% federal sales tax.

For all he claims to know about economics, it appears that Mr. Cain has not had a basic course in tax policy.  If he had, he would know that there are four basic criteria for evaluating a tax: equity, efficiency, adequacy, and feasibility. His 9% income flat tax fails a basic evaluation on at least three points, most noticeably on the equity criteria. Does he realize that under his 9-9-9 proposal millionaires like Warren Buffet would pay no income tax at all? Does that sound fair? I think not.

Progressive income taxation is fair way to assess the amount we should pay in federal income tax, and is an approach supported by a majority of Americans. Why, then does a proposal like the 9-9-9 plan get so much play? Even Herman Cain has realized the error of his plan and has now revised it to address the impact on the poorest Americans to a 9-0-9 plan. As my friend Bill likes to say, it’s still a “nein, nein, nein” plan (nein is the German word for ‘no’).

Blogger Robert Reich agrees, calling the flat tax a fraud:

“…Under Cain’s plan, fully 95 percent of households with more than $1 million in income would get an average tax cut of $487,300. And capital gains (a major source of income for the very rich) would be tax free.”

I wish Americans could have honest conversations about fair and effective income tax policy. We need a policy that is fair, simple, and effective; one that doesn’t hurt job growth or small business, and doesn’t punch the middle class in gut. We’ve had unfair tax policies for too long. That’s one weird tip on which we can all agree.

What is a taxpup, anyway?

October 19, 2011 - Leave a Response

Taxpup is a place to get insight on (mostly federal) tax policy from the perspective of a University of Minnesota Public Affairs graduate student who is relatively new to following discussions online. Thus the ‘pup’ portion of the name. I am following a number of sources  – both progressive and conservative – using a variety of e-tools. My goal is to compile a brief summary of these perspectives periodically to give you a sense of the breadth of conversations on tax policy happening across the U.S.

I welcome your thoughts and suggestions as I venture into this brave new world. You can also follow me on Twitter @taxpup and on Facebook.

Are taxes the biggest roadblock to financial success?

September 27, 2011 - Leave a Response

Wealth Enhancement Group’s co-founder Bruce Helmer was on Fox 9 News last night talking about 5 Financial Success Roadblocks. I was amazed to see ‘taxes’ listed as the number one roadblock. Are you kidding me? I would suggest that there are far more serious and realistic threats to the financial success of Minnesotans.

Here’s my top 5 list:
1. Unemployment – not having any income is by far the greatest threat to financial success, bar none. I would include the threat of job loss through outsourcing and off shoring as a threat to financial success under this banner as well.
2. Underemployment – having to take a job that you are overqualified for in order to make ends meet is a serious threat to financial success, and yet because of the current economy, this is where many people find themselves. There are also millions of people who stay in their current jobs because they can’t afford to lose their health care benefits by doing something different or starting their own company.
3. Stagnant wages – middle class wages have been essentially flat since 1990. Not so for CEOs and corporations.
4. The minimum wage – What an interesting term. Since it was established, there has never been a time when a family of four could be supported by one member working full-time in a minimum wage job. To add insult to injury, the minimum wage is not adjusted for inflation, which puts the working poor further behind every year.
5. Programs that are proven to help people get out of or stay out of poverty – from health care assistance to Social Security – are under the constant threat of cuts because too many politicians are unwilling to take a balanced approach to solving our budget problems.

It has been said that “Taxes are the price we pay to live in a civilized society.”  I couldn’t agree more. Do we need tax reform? Clearly, yes. Is our current system fair? Absolutely not. But to say that taxes are the number one roadblock to financial success is, at best, a misinformed statement.
I invite you to share your thoughts on tax reform with me. Check out my list of sources on tax policy on Google – feel free to suggest other nuggets for sources of information. There is certainly a better way to take care of the public commons than what we are doing today.