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Taxes and the Future of OWS

David Callahan

Chalk one up for Occupy Wall Street.

Last Thursday, the New York State legislature voted to raise taxes on high-earners after Governor Andrew Cuomo reversed his longstanding opposition to such a move. Cuomo cited a large budget gap in explaining his about-face, but that gap is hardly new. What is: taxing the top 1 percent is far easier now than it was a few months ago.

The victory in Albany comes just as the Occupy movement finds itself in need of a second act. With the tents gone from Zuccotti Park – and encampments vanishing from other major cities, too – it’s time for the movement to get serious about influencing public policy. Pushing for higher taxes on the rich is a perfect focal point for new activism.

Next year will see the biggest tax fights in a decade. The Bush tax cuts are set to expire at the end of 2012 and President Obama is determined that the wealthy should pay higher rates. In addition, both parties want to reform the tax code – an overhaul that would trigger a struggle over the generous loopholes that now favor corporations and rich individuals.

Taxes will also be on the agenda in California next year, where various efforts are afoot to raise taxes by ballot initiative. One plan, favored by Governor Jerry Brown, would raise $6 billion through a surcharge on the state’s top 1 percent.

There’s reason for tax reform, elsewhere, as well. In many states, the top 1 percent enjoy a light tax burden. Meanwhile working- and middle-class households are being slammed. In Texas, for example, the bottom 20 percent of households paid 12.2 percent of their income in state and local taxes in 2007 while the top 1 percent paid just 3.3 percent. Other states, like Florida and Tennessee, have even more regressive tax systems. A cashier in Miami making $23,000 a year literally pays five times more in taxes as a percentage of her income than someone who earns $2 million a year.

Targeting these glaring inequities would allow the Occupy movement to take on economic inequality – its most consistent concern – in a tangible way and channel activist energy that may otherwise dissipate.

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