Chuck Collins

Effective tax policy that thwarts plutocratic power-building hinges upon this key detail

When we talk about the wealthy, who are we really referring to? Is it the billionaires on private jets? The neighbors up the street who seem to always have the flashiest new cars and exotic vacation photos?

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A California Trend Worth Catching: College for All

California can be an annoyingly trendy state. Think avocado toast, In-N-Out Burger, Hollywood fashion, even legal pot.

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U.S. Billionaire Bonanza 2017: 3 Men Now Own More Wealth Than the Bottom Half of the Country Combined

Anyone tracking the growing concentration of wealth can tell you the rich are getting richer. It’s not so easy to tell you exactly how rich. Enter Billionaire Bonanza 2017: The Forbes 400 and the Rest of Us.

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Meet Your New Neighborhood Loan Sharks

Mike Gallagher double-checks the address on his smartphone and walks up the cement steps of the brick two-story house on Detroit’s west side. He rings the doorbell, and after waiting a minute knocks loudly on the door. A dog barks and a shirtless black man in his mid-thirties cracks open the door.

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How to Go the Resistance Distance: Pop-Up Schools for Novice Activists

More than 200 people crammed into a meeting room at Smith College to listen to Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum speak at the May 4 opening ceremony of the Sojourner Truth School for Social Change Leadership. The new school provides in-person training opportunities in activism in five cities throughout western Massachusetts.

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Congrats, Graduates! Here’s Your Diploma and Debt

It’s that time of year again. Flowers are flowering, spring is springing, and across the country college graduates are graduating with their newly awarded degrees held high.

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Gilded Giving: What Happens When Billionaires Dominate the Charitable Sector

The last couple of years have been boom years for philanthropy. Total donations from individuals, foundations and corporations rose in 2015 to over $373 billion, a 10-percent increase since 2013.

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I Was Born Into the 1 Percent - Here's Why I Gave Away My Trust Fund

The following is an excerpt from the new book Born on Third Base by Chuck Collins (Chelsea Green, 2016): 

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A Commencement Address for the Most Indebted Class Ever

Congratulations, college graduates! As you enter the next phase of life, you and your parents should be proud of your achievements.

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10 Steps to Break Up the Wealth of the Super Rich

The following is an excerpt from 99 to 1: How Wealth Inequality Is Wrecking the World and What We Can Do About It , by Chuck Collins (Berrett-Koehler, 2012).

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Stephen King Meets the Estate Tax

Imagine a story about tax policy created by horror writer Stephen King. A fictional Congress, divided between anti-tax ideology and fiscal responsibility, amends the inheritance tax on the very wealthy so that it disappears entirely one year and then returns at steeper rates the following year.

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So What Happened to That Talk About Reining in CEO Pay?

Last February, amid public anger over millions in bonuses at bailed-out insurance giant AIG, our top national political leaders rushed to express their outrage - and even took some steps to place a lid on over-the-top executive pay.

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Executive Pay and the Obscene Culture of Wall Street

What’s happening with the AIG bonus scandal?

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Looking for Support in Hard Economic Times?

This is part of a special AlterNet series on Obama's latest plans for a rescue of the bankers and Wall Street's toxic assets.
Read our editorial on the big picture.

The common security club model was born out of work done in the last few years by people struggling with overwhelming indebtedness. Participants spend some time discussing the root causes of the economic crisis, drawing on readings and materials provided by the network. But they mostly focus on what they can do together to increase their economic security and press for policy changes.

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Obama Is Right to Take on the Very Rich

We've seen, in recent weeks, an outpouring of public outrage over the mega millions that keep flowing – despite the escalating economic meltdown – into the pockets of America's top bankers and corporate executives.

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Want to Stimulate the Economy? Tax the Wealthy

Every couple of years, when big investors suffer losses, Congress and their partisan economists launch into a heated debate over how to stimulate the flagging economy. This is mostly a rehash of the "trickle down" versus "bottom up" debate that dates back to the Reagan years.

Conservatives argue that the answer to the recession is to cut taxes and interest rates targeted at their über-wealthy and global corporate patrons. This is their program for any season, rain or shine, so it is immediately suspect.

Progressives argue, correctly, that we should target tax breaks and rebates to low- and middle-income people; their consumer spending will keep the economy chugging. Give a tax break to big corporations and the rich, and it will go anywhere on the planet in search of maximum returns. Give a tax rebate to a lower-income person or a small business and it is spent in the local economy, thus stimulating bottom up demand.

The likely congressional compromise will direct tens of billions in tax breaks to corporations and send ordinary people a check for $300 or $400. The wealthy will be further enriched, and everyone else will have extra cash to spend or pay down their Visa bill.

Whatever Congress does, however, it will borrow funds -- adding further to a national debt that now tops $9 trillion. More borrowing will continue to weaken our economy, widen our trade deficit, increase current and future wealth inequality, and postpone the bill payment for another day.

Meanwhile, the rest of the world's economists look at the United States like we're profligate fools jumping up and down on a bubble of debt. They're nervously depending on us to remain the "shoppers of the world" by borrowing money and buying imports beyond our means. But they see what we ignore: The gig is up.

Underlying our economic crisis is a polarization of income and wealth. Real wages for working people have been stagnant for decades, a horrific fact that has been masked only by increased work hours and vast amounts of private consumer debt in the form of credit cards and second mortgages. On the other end of the wealth spectrum, the superrich have so much money that they are engaging in speculative investments in search of maximum returns. This casino class, with its hedge funds and mortgage gambling schemes, have fueled further economic instability.

Congress should pass a "bottom up" stimulus package and pay for it with taxes on the rich. Three progressive tax proposals could pay for additional investments that would broaden prosperity and reduce distortions caused by concentrated wealth.

Increase top income tax rates. There are 7,500 households in the United States with annual incomes over $20 million. This private jet crowd has been the big winner of the rigged tax system of the last two and a half decades. Congress should boost the top tax rate to 50 percent on annual incomes over $5 million and to 70 percent on incomes over $10 million. This would generate an additional $105 billion a year and pay for a federal stimulus package.

Increase estate taxes. While the Bush administration is using the recession as a pretext for abolishing the estate tax by making the 2001 tax cut permanent, Congress should do just the opposite. The estate tax, our nation's only levy on inherited wealth, should be revamped to tax inheritances over $20 million at higher rates. Revenue should be dedicated to reducing the payroll tax or providing debt-free college educations. As part of reforming the estate tax, Congress should restore the credit that allows states to "piggy back" on the federal estate tax and generate billions in revenue for states. State spending on education, infrastructure and community development are among the most effective intermediate-term economic stimulus.

Tax warehouses of wealth. Over the last two decades, the über-rich have funneled billions of dollars -- funds that could have been taxed -- into private foundations and nonprofit organizations like Harvard University. This is the "people's money," forgone tax dollars that should help stimulate the economy. We should increase the annual excise tax on private foundations and nonprofit corporations with assets over $20 million by two percent. Foundations that fail to pay out more than 5 percent a year, excluding their overhead, should be assessed an even higher excise tax.

These measures would generate hundreds of billions to pay for immediate economic stimulus as well as meaningful investments in economic opportunity. Borrowing funds to stimulate the economy will just postpone the pain. Paying now, through targeted taxes on the wealthy, makes economic sense. Further, it addresses the root of our current economic distress, the extreme inequality of wealth and power.

Minimum Wage Increase Is Good for Business

The Senate is scheduled to vote as early as Tuesday to raise the minimum wage for the first time since 1997.

The usual array of "Chicken Littles" have claimed a hike in the wage floor will be bad for business and hurt low wage-workers. Earlier this month, columnist George Will suggested that the "minimum wage should be the same everywhere: $0. Labor is a commodity."

So it's surprising and refreshing when you meet small business owners and CEOs who believe the opposite: that competing on the basis of who pays less is a dead end.

"People who tell you that raising the minimum wage will hurt small business are flat out full of it," said Lew Prince, co-owner of Vintage Vinyl, a music retail business in St. Louis. "Small business owners know that keeping workers is easier and cheaper than finding and training new ones."

Prince and a growing number of small business owners argue that paying a decent wage lowers employee turnover, improves morale and is the right thing to do. "Our long-term employees are way more likely to establish ongoing relationships with customers," said Prince.

Prince has joined several hundred business owners in signing a public petition of business owners and leaders who support a hike in the federal minimum wage. The effort is coordinated by the interfaith coalition Let Justice Roll and a network currently in formation called Business for Shared Prosperity.

Some of the well-known signers include Jim Sinegal, CEO of Costco; Eileen Fisher, CEO of apparel giant named after her; Margot Dorfman, CEO of the U.S. Women's Chamber of Commerce, and Bill Foster, the cofounder of Electronic Theater Controls.

For many business owners, paying their workers well is common sense. "Trying to save money by shortchanging my employees would be like skimping on ingredients," said Kirsten Poole, a petition signer and co-owner of Kirsten's Cafe and Dish Caterers in Silver Spring, Md. "I'd lose more than I saved because of declining quality, service, reputation and customer base. You can't build a healthy business or a healthy economy on a miserly minimum wage."

A growing body of evidence shows that successful businesses that are "built to last" don't skimp on wages. "It is a sound business decision to increase the minimum wage," said venture capitalist Adnan Durrani, president of Condor Ventures in Stamford, Conn. "I have found that without exception in the successful ventures we've backed, providing sustainable living wages yielded direct increases in productivity, job satisfaction and brand loyalty from customers, all contributing to higher returns for investors and employers."

Research by the Economic Policy Institute validates the theory that raising the minimum wage will have a positive effect for low-wage workers without a negative effect on the economy.

The measure will eventually pass the Senate. The only question is how much corporate lard will be added to slide it through the Senate and across the President's desk. Small-business owners know that most of these tax breaks aren't for them. "They're trying to add a bunch of pork and so-called tax breaks for the big businesses that are trying to gobble up our customers," observed Lew Prince.

On Friday, Republicans in the Senate continued to offer amendments to the minimum wage bill, leading Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., to finally blow his stack. "When does the greed stop?" he asked on the floor of the Senate, pointing to over 70 amendments costing over $200 billion. "How much more do we have to give to the private sector and to business? How many billion dollars more, are you asking, are you requiring?"

Senate Democrats should keep pushing for a minimum wage bill unencumbered by billions in tax breaks. Let's cleanly raise the minimum wage and get on with the people's business.

Time to Rein In the Pump Profiteers

Feeling a little squeeze at the gas pump? You are not alone -- U.S. consumers are expected to pay an additional $200 billion this year for oil and gas products.

These billions, notes Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., amount to a "massive transfer of wealth from average Americans who can't afford it to big oil companies who already were experiencing all-time record profits."

While ordinary Americans are forking over upwards of $3 for a gallon of gas, 15 distinctly unordinary Americans -- the CEOs of the largest U.S. oil industry companies -- are celebrating their biggest paychecks on record.

According to a new report, "Executive Excess," by the Institute for Policy Studies and United for a Fair Economy (PDF)], Big Oil CEOs last year took home an average $32.7 million in compensation -- 518 times more than average oil industry workers in 2005. The ratio for all industries in 2005 between average and highest paid worker was 411 to one, while the average globally in advanced countries is 25 to one.

The Oil Barons' grab even exceeded their excessively paid counterparts at other leading U.S. firms. Their $32.7 million average pay was almost three times higher than the average bloated paycheck of $11.6 million for CEOs at 350 large corporations surveyed by the Wall Street Journal.

The three highest-paid U.S. oil chieftains in 2005: William Greehey of Valero Energy ($95.2 million), Ray R. Irani of Occidental Petroleum ($84 million), and Lee Raymond, outgoing CEO of ExxonMobil ($69.7 million).

At the end of July, ExxonMobil reported a quarterly profit of $10.36 billion, the second biggest gain ever. This follows its record-breaking annual profit of $36 billion in 2005.

When ExxonMobil's CEO Lee Raymond was called before Congress to explain, he stated that rising prices reflect global supply and demand, nothing more. "We are all," Raymond assured Congress, "in this together, everywhere in the world." Except Raymond. Raymond recently retired from ExxonMobil with a Golden Parachute retirement package worth nearly $400 million, including country club fees and use of the company jet. "He is a porker of the first order," observed executive pay expert Graef Crystal.

ConocoPhilips CEO James Mulva explained to ABC News that oil companies only make ten cents on the gallon. High oil prices, not greed, are the cause of skyrocketing prices at the pump, he explained. Big Oil can't control the global marketplace.

But if Big Oil CEOs have no power to influence the cost of gas, then they don't deserve any special reward for industry profits. And even if their performance contributed to the company's profitability, shouldn't broader criteria be used to judge their performance, including their record on the environment?

With these enormous salaries, Big Oil CEOs should be held to account for their failure to dedicate their mountains of excess cash toward seeking new energy sources that move us beyond fossil fuels. They can run green-looking TV ads claiming they are indeed preparing for the future. But when they throw massive windfall profits at chief executives, they seem to be signaling that the coming lean years will be somebody else's problem.

What is good for ExxonMobil and Lee Raymond -- and all the other titans of the contemporary American oil and gas industry -- has not been good for average Americans. According to new wage data reported in the New York Times, "wages and salaries now make up the lowest share of the nation's gross domestic product since the government began recording the data in 1947, while corporate profits have climbed to their highest share since the 1960's." So what can be done about petrol profiteering?

One proposal is to tax oil industry windfall profits and earmark them for public energy conservation projects and efforts to reduce energy costs for the poor. Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., has proposed that a 50 percent tax be applied to profits earned by major U.S. oil companies on the sale of crude oil above $40 per barrel.

Another proposal is to eliminate government tax breaks and massive subsidies for big oil. The independent Taxpayers for Common Sense identified 16 wasteful subsidies for the fossil fuel industry totaling $5 billion a year.

Finally, Congress should take up the question of anti-trust laws in the face of oil industry consolidation. Not since the 1911 break-up of Standard Oil Co. has the country witnessed such a concentration of petroleum power, with 23 major mergers in the last decade.

Big Oil's grip on U.S. politics is strong. Since 1990, they've given $192 million to federal candidates and parties. They have blocked sane energy policy and investments that move our country beyond dependency on oil.

That's why a campaign organized by Oil Change International to "separate oil and state," and encourage members of Congress to give up their addiction to Big Oil political contributions is a key leverage point. It's a practical first step in stopping further looting by the pump profiteers.

Mexican Election in Limbo

Election Day started across Mexico on Sunday with thousands of poll workers assembling cardboard ballot boxes at over 130,489 polling stations. But the day ended in uncertainty, as the head of Mexico's Federal Election Institute, Luis Ugalde, went on national television to declare that the presidency was too close to call.

President Fox joined Ugalde in calling on all candidates to patiently await the official vote count, which they expect to have by Wednesday.

The scenario of a razor-close election is everybody's nightmare. Each campaign had hoped for a decisive victory by Sunday night so that voting irregularities and scattered examples of voter coercion wouldn't become the focus of voting results. One thing is for certain: Roberto Madrazo, the candidate of the Institutional Revolutionary Part (PRI), which ruled Mexico for 71 years until the 2000 election of Vicente Fox, is in third place.

The next president of Mexico will either be Felipe Calderon, candidate of the conservative National Action Party (PAN) or Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, of the leftist Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD). Both candidates addressed rallies shortly after the electoral commission, each declaring confidence in their victory.

Tens of thousands of supporters of Lopez Obrador gathered in a chilly rain on the central plaza in Mexico City. "According to our information, we have won the presidency," Lopez Obrador declared to his supporters. "Smile," he concluded, paraphrasing his campaign bumpersticker. "We have already won."

The New York Times reported today that there is an "electoral crisis" in Mexico and rising anxiety, especially if Lopez Obrador and his followers believe they lose the election because of fraud. The Times called Lopez Obrador a "firebrand leftist" and repeated candidate Calderon's characterization of his opponent as having an "authoritarian streak."

Lopez Obrador has said he will honor the results of a fair election, even if he loses by one vote. But if history is any lesson, Lopez Obrador is no Al Gore. He won't walk away from a stolen election without a protest. His political rise has been characterized by having to respond to dirty tricks. And if anyone is justified in being a "firebrand" about stolen elections, it is Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

A mysterious crash

In 1988, Lopez Obrador was a leading organizer in the presidential campaign of leftist candidate Cuauhtemoc Cardenas. Early on election night, Mexico's own electoral system showed Cardenas with a substantial lead over PRI candidate Carlos Salinas. Then there was a mysterious computer crash, and the country woke up the next morning to an announcement that Salinas was the victor. Lopez Obrador led a voter rights movement in protest, with marches, sit-ins, civil disobedience and road blockades in his home state of Tabasco. He persisted in his protests, and in 1991 led a voter rights protest march from Tabasco to Mexico City.

In 1994, Lopez Obrador was inspired by the Cardenas campaign to run for governor of oil-rich coastal Tabasco, where he had grown up as the son of a shopkeeper. His opponent was none other than Roberto Madrazo, whom he is now facing in this presidential bid. Madrazo claimed victory in an election characterized by widespread fraud, including crude examples of PRI vote-buying.

Lopez Obrador's followers occupied the governor's mansion, and once again Lopez Obrador took to the streets, again leading a march to Mexico City to have the election annulled. President Ernesto Zedillo, who had just been elected president on a pledge of electoral reform, was embarrassed by his fellow party member Madrazo's fraud. He tried to intervene by offering Madrazo a cushy federal job, clearing the way for Lopez Obrador to assume the governorship. Madrazo rebuffed him, and protests continued for years.

In April 2005, the other major parties, PAN and PRI, conspired to knock Lopez Obrador off the presidential ballot, charging that as mayor of Mexico City he had ignored a court order. Only after millions of Mexicans took to the streets did President Fox's prosecutors back down and drop the charges.

A clean vote?

In the coming days, hundreds of civil society organizations and independent vote-monitoring organizations will issue their reports about the cleanliness of the voting process and election. These will influence the emotional climate into which the election results will be announced. But the Mexican electoral system has come a long way since 1988 and even 2000. The independent Federal Election Institute is well-resourced and politically independent, and by all accounts ran a fairly clean election.

While the situation could appropriately be characterized as an electoral crisis, there are several positive signs. For two presidential elections, the people of Mexico have rejected the PRI, a party that still holds 17 of the country's 31 governorships and has a powerful infrastructure of supporters in every region of the country. And the fact that there is a close election, the closest in this country's history, reflects progress in Mexico's transition to democracy. If there are protests in the coming days, it's because Mexicans demand nothing less than a fair election.

Battling the PRI machine

In the rural hamlet of San Pedro Mixtepec, located in the southern state of Oaxaca, several men swept the central plaza to tidy up for Election Day. Four women in traditional Zapotec shawls, one with a sleeping baby on her back, unpacked voting supplies sent by federal authorities.

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A Rising Tide in Mexico

In the southern state of Oaxaca, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, or "AMLO," as he is affectionately known across Mexico, is approaching the podium to speak to 13,000 supporters. But first, he must be cleansed. A short medicine woman, wearing the traditional dress of the Mixtec Indians, swats him with green branches and perfumes him with copal incense. Lopez Obrador stands respectfully still with his eyes closed while assembled crowds howl with delight.

The Mexican presidential election is in full swing, and Lopez Obrador is one of three major candidates running for the office. Barring the possibility of massive electoral fraud, external meddling or assassination, AMLO will likely become the next president of Mexico.

But these are not unthinkable "what ifs." In 1988, by all accounts, massive fraud denied candidate Cuauhtemoc Cardenas the presidency. And in 1994, the popular leading candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio was gunned down in the streets of Tijuana in a murder that has never been solved.

Mexicans are all too aware of the seamy history of direct or covert U.S. involvement in shaping or overturning the outcome of elections throughout Latin America. President Bush, in advance of last week's Cancun summit meeting, met with Mexican journalists and pledged that the United States would not be involved in the Mexican election and would work with the choice of the Mexican people. But U.S. progressives should remain vigilant. It's been many decades since a leftist president was tolerated on our southern border.

Mexicans go to the polls on July 2 to elect their next president to a constitutionally mandated single six-year term, along with 628 members of Congress. Six years ago voters elected Vicente Fox, the first president in 71 years who was not from the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), Mexico's traditional ruling party. The 2000 election was largely free of irregularities, thanks in large part to Mexico's independent and well-resourced Federal Election Institute.

Fox, who ran as the candidate of the conservative National Action Party, or PAN, as it is called in Spanish, remains personally popular. While his legislative agenda has been thwarted in the PRI dominated legislature, Mexicans give him credit for serving honorably and not personally looting the treasury, as many of his predecessors have.

Fox has vocally supported Bush administration free trade policies such as the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas -- earning the accusation of being a "lapdog of empire" from Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. At the same time, Fox has distanced himself from U.S. policies in Iraq and been openly critical of U.S. immigration policy and proposals to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border.

Running for president as the nominee on the PAN ticket is 44-year-old Felipe Calderon, who served in Fox's cabinet as energy secretary. Calderon's candidacy has sputtered, and he recently removed his top campaign staff and changed his campaign slogan for the third time.

The PRI candidate is Roberto Madrazo, a long-time fixture of national politics. Madrazo grew up in the governor's mansion in the oil-rich gulf state of Tabasco, where his father also served as governor and later as PRI party president, positions his son would later hold. Madrazo inherits the remarkable PRI political machinery, with its legendary get-out-the-vote and steal-the-vote capacity. While claiming that he represents a reformed and chastened PRI, his campaign has been hampered by lackluster campaigning and tainted by his reputation for bullying and arm-twisting.

Mexicans wonder out loud about how Madrazo could be so rich after two generations of public service. Internet savvy Mexicans have been circulating the Google Earth coordinates (19 14' 22.79" N, 99 10' 16.50" W) to view Madrazo's 14,000-square-foot home on a 3.6-acre estate overlooking Mexico City, one of five houses and multiple sports cars that Madrazo reported on his financial disclosure statements.

Madrazo's wealth is a startling contrast to austere Lopez Obrador, a widower who lives in a modest apartment and who drove his own compact car to work when he served as mayor of Mexico City, the continent's largest metropolis. While Madrazo grew up in a life of privilege, AMLO is the son of a shopkeeper who worked in his youth as an advocate for indigenous groups in Tabasco. In the 1980s, he led efforts to successfully force the oil industry to pay reparations for damaging indigenous lands.

Polls show Lopez Obrador opening up a lead over his rival candidates. A mid-March poll conducted by El Universal showed Obrador as the preference of 36 percent of voters, with Calderon at 27 percent and Madrazo at 14 percent.

Meanwhile Subcommander Marcos, the visible leader of the Zapatista rebellion in the state of Chiapas, has launched the "other campaign." He is traveling to all the states of Mexico to raise issues left out of the main campaigns. He accuses all three major party candidates of being all the same -- and predicts Lopez Obrador will be unable to fulfill his promises.

U.S. analysts want to cast Lopez Obrador as part of the leftist tide sweeping Latin America, with the recent election of Evo Morales in Bolivia and Michelle Bachelet in Chile. But Lopez Obrador quickly dismisses any comparisons to trends or leaders in other countries. His role model, as he cautiously points out, is Mexico's beloved Benito Juarez, the Zapotec Indian from humble origins who as president unified the country during a time of external aggression and repelled French invaders in 1867.

Lopez Obrador's outsider and independent status was confirmed in April 2005 when national legislators from the PRI and PAN tried to prevent him from running on a minor legal matter. But their tactic backfired as millions of Mexicans took to the streets to support AMLO, forcing opposition party leaders to back off. AMLO has polled as the presidential front-runner ever since.

Unlike the other two candidates, AMLO's campaign doesn't bus in banner-waving supporters, and provide free food and T-shirts to bolster his campaign appearances. His popularity is rooted in his plain-spoken commitment to address the growing inequalities of Mexican society. His campaign slogan, "For the Good of All, First the Poor," powerfully connects with the half of Mexico's population who live in poverty and feel forgotten.

From the outside, Mexico appears to have had a decade of stability. But the reality is that poverty and insecurity are rising. Real wages have plummeted, and many communities in rural Mexico are now ghost towns after being devastated by the loss of 2 million agricultural jobs. Mexican farmers, after NAFTA, are unable to compete with the imports flowing in from subsidized U.S. farmers, particularly in corn.

A Lopez Obrador presidency would likely lead to some significant changes in U.S-Mexican relations. For instance, AMLO would not, like President Fox, carry the banner of U.S. free trade policies at meetings throughout Latin America. In fact, one of AMLO's "50 promises" calls for a renegotiation of the provisions of the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement that deal with the importation of corn and beans.

AMLO would also reverse the drift, initiated under President Fox, of privatizing the public sector and opening up Mexican oil production to foreign investment. AMLO has made some business leaders nervous by his proposal to make public the beneficiaries of the 1994 bank bailout.

As Lopez Obrador stays in the lead, the attacks from other campaigns are turning more vicious. Both Madrazo and Calderon attack AMLO as an authoritarian and messianic populist. Calderon told a recent rally that Lopez Obrador was an enemy of foreign investment. "I'm the one who can make an economy grow," Calderon claimed. "All he knows how to do is chase jobs away."

Calderon's campaign has recently been running television spots to link Lopez Obrador to the left revolutionary politics of Venezuela's President Chavez. The ads show clips of both Chavez and AMLO criticizing President Fox and imply that they are working together. AMLO denounces these ads, pointing out that he has never met or spoken with Chavez.

We should expect the attacks to increase and should be vigilant for signs of U.S. involvement. After all, the stakes for U.S. corporate elites are high.

If there is a tide sweeping Latin America, it involves citizens electing leaders who will no longer subordinate the health and economic security of their people to a Washington-driven corporate free trade agenda. Mexico is about to join their ranks.

Billionaires R Us

Fall is inequality season. Every autumn, as the leaves change color, we get a vivid new picture of the trends that pull us apart as a country.

This year is no different. But after almost three decades of incrementally widening disparities of wealth and income, it's worth noting that we've entered a new version of economic apartheid, American-style. Let's call it Inequality 2.0.

The United States is now the third most unequal industrialized society after Russia and Mexico. This is not a club we want to be part of. Russia is a recovering kleptocracy, with a post-Soviet oligarchy enriched by looting. And Mexico, despite joining the rich-nations club of the Organization for Economic and Community Development, has some of the most glaring poverty in the hemisphere.

In 2004, after three years of economic recovery, the U.S. Census reports that poverty continues to grow, while the real median income for full-time workers has declined. Since 2001, when the economy hit bottom, the ranks of our nation's poor have grown by 4 million, and the number of people without health insurance has swelled by 4.6 million to over 45 million.

Income inequality is now near all-time highs, with over 50 percent of 2004 income going to the top fifth of households, and the biggest gains going to the top 5 percent and 1 percent of households. The average CEO now takes home a paycheck 431 times that of their average worker.

At the pinnacle of U.S. wealth, 2004 saw a dramatic increase in the number of billionaires. According to Forbes Magazine, there are now 374 U.S. billionaires. The growth in billionaires took a dramatic leap since the early 1980s, when the average net worth of the individuals on the Forbes 400 list was $400 million. Today, the average net worth is $2.8 billion. Wal-Mart's Walton family now has 771,287 times more than the median U.S. household.

Does inequality matter? One problem is that concentrations of wealth and power pose a danger to our democratic system. The corruption of politics by big money might explain why for the last five years the President and Congress have been more interested in repealing the federal estate tax, paid only by multi-millionaires, than on reinforcing levees along the Gulf Coast.

Now, to pay for hurricane reconstruction and the war in Iraq, Congress is considering cuts in programs that help poor people, such as Medicaid and Food Stamps. They have not yet considered fairer ways of reducing the deficit by reversing special tax breaks for the rich, such as the recent cuts in capital gains and dividend taxes.

Inequality is non-partisan. The pace of inequality has grown steadily over three decades, under both Republican and Democratic administrations and Congresses. The Gini index, the global measure of inequality, grew as quickly under President Clinton as it has under President George W. Bush. Widening disparities in the U.S. are the result of three decades of bi-partisan public policies that have tilted the rules of the economy to the benefit of major corporations and large asset owners at the expense of people whose security comes from a paycheck.

Public policies in trade, taxes, wages and social spending can make a difference in mitigating national and global trends toward prolonged inequality. But our priorities are moving in the wrong direction.

For example, the failure to raise the minimum wage from its 1997 level of $5.15 an hour guarantees continued income stagnation for the working poor for years to come. The President and Congress's focus on tax cuts for the wealthy and their disinterest in government spending to expand equal opportunity sets the stage for Inequality Version 3.0.

We shouldn't tolerate this drift toward an economic apartheid society.

Case Against Inheritance Tax Is Bogus

A devastating hurricane hits the Gulf Coast. The war in Iraq claims almost 1,900 American lives with no end in sight in both casualties and cost. And red ink flows through both short- and long-term federal deficit projections. Yet in the coming weeks, congressional leaders will move to abolish permanently the estate tax, America's only levy on concentrations of inherited wealth.

Only after considerable pressure to respond to Hurricane Katrina and observe Chief Justice William Rehnquist's funeral did Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist back off from his determination to begin the estate tax debate immediately after Labor Day.

It will be fascinating to watch how the senators from Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama explain to their constituents why a $1 trillion tax break for multimillionaires and billionaires, few of whom live in their states, ranks as a timely national priority.

The case for abolishing the federal estate tax is a sham, deflated by Congress' own research and investigative reporting. Yet congressional tax cutters continue to incant the "death tax" mythology: that the estate tax punishes success, sinks family farmers and small businesses, and is unfair double taxation. In the post-Katrina environment, they have even gone so far as to make the far-fetched claim that estate tax repeal will be an economic stimulus to the Gulf states.

There is no evidence that the estate tax imperils small-scale farms or America's entrepreneurial spirit. The estate tax is paid solely by multimillionaires and billionaires, and only after they pass on substantial wealth to their heirs. And the bulk of the assets subject to the tax take the form of appreciated property and stocks, wealth that has never been subject to any tax, let alone a double tax.

The heirs to some of America's largest family fortunes, including members of the Mars candy and Walton families, have paid handsomely to promote these myths. But the responsibility at this moment lies with congressional leaders who must justify a windfall tax cut for the wealthy during a time of war and natural disaster.

Never before has our country passed tax cuts for the wealthy during a time of war. Historically, wealth has been "conscripted," in the Civil War parlance, to share in the sacrifice and preserve domestic unity.

Isn't anyone embarrassed about this inequality of sacrifice?

It is unlikely repeal advocates in the Senate will muster the votes to abolish the tax, though the vote will be close. The real risk is that the Senate will reach agreement on an irresponsible reform that will effectively gut the law.

Repeal advocates, such as Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, have offered their own "reform" proposals that would raise the amount of wealth exempted by the tax to more than $10 million and drop the rate to 15 percent from its current level of 47 percent. Such an irresponsible reform would lose more than 85 percent of the revenue raised by the tax and cripple the nation's charitable sector, which according to a Congressional Budget Office study would experience a decline in estate giving of more than $10 billion a year.

We support a more modest reform that raises the wealth exemption to $5 million for a couple, keeps the rate at 45 percent, and carves out provisions for the transfer of closely held family business. Such a reform would retain substantial revenue in the face of war, disaster and deficits, and maintain a powerful incentive for charitable giving.

The proponents of all-or-nothing repeal have blocked proposals for such reasonable reforms since the summer of 2000. But it's time to bring predictability back into the estate planning process.

The estate tax is the most fair and equitable tax in the land. A levy on estates in excess of $5 million is an appropriate mechanism for those who have disproportionately benefited from our marvelous system of wealth creation to pay back the society that fostered the fertile ground for their success.

The estate tax should be rightfully understood as a "gratitude tax."

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