Monday, February 21, 2011

Hunger in Texas, corporate tax loopholes, Villarreal, and Saul Alinsky's ghost

Posted By on Mon, Feb 21, 2011 at 4:00 AM

“Power is the very essence, the dynamo of life. It is the power of the heart pumping blood and sustaining life in the body. It is the power of active citizen participation pulsing upward, providing a unified strength for a common purpose. Power is an essential life force always in operation, either changing the world or opposing change. Power, or organized energy, may be a man-killing explosive or a life-saving drug. The power of a gun may be used to enforce slavery, or to achieve freedom.” — Saul Alinsky, Rules for Radicals

By Robert J. Pohl pohl.robert@gmail.com

Did you hear that noise? That gurgling, growling sound emanating from stomachs in Texas. At any given moment in Texas, over a million feel the pain — the headache, fatigue, restlessness, and sleepiness that results from impoverishment of Third-World severity. For 1.6 million children, the hunger is no fault of their own. If we could broadcast this sound — the collective sound of bodies signaling for help — would the conservative supermajority of Texas politicians eliminate unjust tax loopholes (like the one Representative Mike Villarreal has publicized and proposed to eliminate with HB 658) and change fiscal policy in such a way that the excessively rich would be required to adequately assist the state's poor children, senior citizens, and aspiring college graduates? According to Representative Mike Villarreal (D-San Antonio), not without a popular movement. Villarreal told the Current recently that he is communicating and organizing the public around shared priorities such as adequately investing in education: “If a budget is proposed that balances [the $27 billion budget deficit and shortfall] purely with cuts to services without taking a more comprehensive approach that includes tapping the Rainy Day Fund, cleaning our tax code, also cutting expenses, then we want to make sure we get our constituents out to the Capitol to bring statewide attention to the travesty of the cuts.” I suspect that the answer for why the popular movement is necessary is related to the life experiences of the vast majority of Texas' elected officials, mostly white lawyers and businessmen whose parents probably paid for both their living expenses and tuition for at least four years of college and who probably have never worried about being able to pay for food, rent, or a vehicle repair. Without firsthand — or often even secondhand exposure — to the concerns and needs of the vast majority of Texas residents, we can only expect our politicians to cater to their class interests and the interests of their corporate funders who in 2009 collectively spent $344 million on lobbyists. I may be wrong of course. Since being elected, many of these cut-cut-cut Repubs may be losing sleep out of concern for re-election. When asked why mobilization is necessary to convince conservative legislators that making cuts to funds for poor children, poor senior citizens, K-12 education, and higher education are ass-backwards to the prosperity of the state, Villarreal told me, “Many of my Republican colleagues ran on a pledge of no tax increases. What they failed to communicate to their constituents is that this would mean severe cuts in education and basic public services like health care for our seniors in nursing homes. So they left the impression with their voters that we could have both — both low taxes and still maintain services like education and health care for seniors. So they sort of backed themselves into a corner.” Conservative legislators aren't corporately funded lobbyist-controlled robots. They just need to be convinced that they are risking their re-elections if they shrink social services to a size that fits into a woman's uterus. “Those in control of the Texas legislature need to hear from concerned citizens across the state that things like kindergarten are more important than a tax loophole that there shouldn't be a grandparent in the state of Texas who is turned away from a nursing home because of a tax break that we can no longer afford,” Villarreal said. As I've struggled to determine who is to blame for the evils of poverty and the perpetuation of second-class citizens (Texas leads the nation with the highest number of hungry children and has 4.3 million people living in poverty according to a defective federal measure prone to underestimate), a process the radical organizer Saul Alinsky noted can be distressingly difficult to determine in a “complex, interrelated, urban society,” several potential culprits appear again and again: tax laws written by the upper-class and their corporate funders; usurious and fraudulent banking practices (read about the Texas Finance Commission whose derelict Bill White, chairperson of TFC and VP of Cash America, makes millions by economically enslaving people, or watch Charles Ferguson's Inside Job); and representatives who do not reflect the concerns and needs of the vast majority of Texans Consider Alinsky's thoughts on elected officials from 1971, thoughts that still address a fundamental problem of our time: “The issues of 1972 would be those of 1776 [and 2011!], 'No Taxation Without Representation.' To have real representation would involve public funds being available for campaign costs so that the members of the lower middle class can campaign for political office. This can be an issue for mobilization among the lower middle class and substantial sectors of the middle middle class.” Alinsky's thoughts were dangerous then and probably still are; Alinsky's thoughts combined with his genius for mobilizing people on behalf of civil and economic rights earned him both federal surveillance and assassination attempts. Several political scientists have told me that the two most significant forms of power are purchasing power and people power. People power is dispersed and impotent until organized, as Alinsky knew from firsthand experience. Purchasing power is almost immediate power. Why all the talk about power? Power is the essence of life. While talking recently with a veteran Texas political junkie and political scientist about the millions of impoverished people in Texas and our low college graduation rates and extremely high high-school dropout rates, I was told that economic power translates into political power, and political power determines the rules for obtaining economic power. It's a vicious cycle that keeps those at the bottom at the bottom. Texas has the second largest economy in the nation. And Governor Rick Perry is continually touting our economic prosperity relative to other states. Given such enormous wealth within our borders, one would think that any Third-World comparisons are hopeless exaggerations. But even the Senior Economist and Vice President of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas Mine Yucel told legislative aides and elected officials on at the state capitol on February 11 that businesses like Texas precisely because we spend so little on social services. It keeps the business taxes low. So although Yucel reported that Texas has an abundance of undeveloped land, produces the most oil and gas in the nation, exports more than any other state, has an unemployment rate below the national average, and expects the addition of about 300,000 jobs in 2011, Perry and conservative legislators continue to ignore 8.5 million poor Texans — more than one-third of all Texans! — and the drastic effects of cutting billions from social services like education. The National Center for Children in Poverty reports that, on average, families need 1.5 to 3 times the annual income that the federal government uses to calculate poverty in the nation; hence, 8.5 million is a figure that you've probably never seen in print. So maybe Texas' conservative legislators just need to be told that you will only re-elect them if they raise taxes on the wealthiest corporations (we shouldn't make it harder for small- to medium-sized businesses to stay in business) and pass a constitutional amendment to tax only the incomes of the wealthiest in Texas. And don't forget those tax loopholes that Representative (D-Brownsville) Rene Oliveira spent months finding but has not yet disclosed. Don 't these dire times necessitate people power, organized opposition to the cutting of funds to our state's most disadvantaged residents and education, while the excessively rich could afford to help out more yet actively oppose the notion? We've got a $27 billion deficit and shortfall that the rich created. Given the historic disparities in purchasing power (the wealthiest one percent of Americans possess nearly $2 trillion more than the bottom 90 percent combined) and the fact that Texas has the highest number of hungry children in the nation and ranks so low on nearly all indicators — healthcare, education, unemployment insurance — wouldn't most of us agree that the state's millionaires and billionaires, and the people who make, say, $200,000 or more each year, ought to help out more? Keep in mind, Texans, that as the state becomes more and more like a Third-World country, our fiscal policy remains ass-backwards and in the minority. Texas is one of seven states without a progressive income tax and one of five states without a corporate profits tax. Hey, you, you excessively rich person, just be glad that I'm not governor.

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