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One of the best newspaper editorials of the week in North Carolina can be found in The Technician — the student paper at N.C. State. It’s a take down of the Walton family of Wal-Mart infamy (and its many predations) entitled “Save money, exploit the poor.” After highlighting the fact that the company is closing hundreds of stores around the country, including 17 in North Carolina, the authors say this:

“So why is Wal-Mart closing so many stores all at once?

Looking at Wal-Mart’s stock prices for the past year, they do seem as though they have significantly decreased. However, when you look at trends for the past five years, they seem fairly typical, especially considering that shares peaked at $91.35 per share in January 2015. Another indicator that Wal-Mart isn’t closing stores due to financial difficulties? They still plan to open 300 new stores in the coming year. 

Wal-Mart as a whole is not suffering, though the Walton family would have you believe otherwise. The Waltons, with more wealth than the lowest 42 percent of American families combined, is the richest family in the U.S. It’s hard to imagine that the company ranked No. 1 in Fortune 500’s 2015 list of largest companies by revenue is hurting so badly. An annual revenue of $482 billion, Wal-Mart’s economic weight is comparable to the GDP of Norway.

In an effort that seems like damage control, Wal-Mart released the news that it will be substantially raising its minimum wage, with more than 1.2 million employees receiving pay raises. Assuming this does more than account for the inflation of the past few years, such an upgrade is long overdue, considering the employer’s past discrepancies, such as eliminating healthcare coverage for many part-time workers and raising the premiums for health plans in 2014.

Wal-Mart’s actions likely come from a place of fear that its top spot is in danger. It’s anxious to revitalize the business that has shown possible signs of slipping. 

If the company had executed these actions with any sort of grace, then it would have seemed marginally human. What Wal-Mart has instead indicated is how completely it regards its employees as disposable — almost as disposable as those local business owners who suffered from those now-closing stores being established in the first place.”

Commentary

Tax shiftIn their never ending quest to tilt it more and more in favor of themselves and their wealthy backers, state lawmakers are again touting a plan to shift North Carolina’s tax system away from income taxes and further onto the sales tax.

As Raleigh’s News & Observer reported in this article, the move was endorsed this week at a legislative hearing by a right-wing group that calls itself the Tax Foundation. Critics of the idea were not invited to speak.

Such a shift is a dreadful idea.

Not only will it make our tax system more regressive than it already is (thereby taxing the wealthy at much lower rates than the poor and middle class), it will make the system much less flexible and resilient to meet the needs of a growing state. While it does make sense to broaden the base of the sales tax to capture more economic transactions, this should be married with a plan to lower sales tax rates so that the tax does not become a monster.

For a healthy revenue system that remains stable and is better able to withstand the ups and downs of the economy, North Carolina needs a healthy balance of a progressive personal income tax, a broad-based sales tax and reasonable property taxes at the local level.

An editorial in this morning’s Fayetteville Observer puts it gently but accurately in assessing this week’s hearing:

“Legislators didn’t invite any opposing viewpoints. It’s clear that the architects of state tax policy want to more aggressively cut corporate and personal income taxes.

If the lawmakers had invited tax experts with differing views, they might have considered the impact that a shift to broader sales taxes has on the poor, who spend a larger percentage of their incomes on basic goods and services. It’s the same problem that plagues proposals for a “flat tax.” Wealthier people who don’t need all of their income for living expenses pay a far smaller share of their earnings in taxes. The shift away from income taxes and toward consumption taxes is one of the driving forces behind the growing gap between rich and poor in the U.S.

While we agree that some shift of sales taxes to services was unavoidable in an increasingly service-based economy, we hope state tax code writers move with caution there, lest they create even broader gulfs between the haves and the have-nots.”

Commentary

In case you missed it in the end-of-the-year hubbub, there was a powerful, worth-your-time December story by reporters Jon Marcus and Holly Hacker at the Hechinger Report entitled “The rich-poor divide on America’s college campuses is getting wider, fast: Rich, poor take paths even more dramatically divergent than in the past, new data show.” According to the authors, higher education is increasingly, like the rest of our society, divided into classes of haves and have-nots. In many instances, wealthy kids go to exclusive schools that look a lot like country clubs and resorts while poorer students scramble to survive on dingy, overcrowded campuses run by overworked and underpaid teachers and administrators:

“Once acclaimed as the equal-opportunity stepping stone to the middle class, and a way of closing that divide, higher education has instead become more segregated than ever by wealth and race as state funding has fallen and colleges and universities — and even states and the federal government — are shifting financial aid from lower-income to higher-income students. This has created a system that spends the least on those who need the most help and the most on those who arguably need the least. While almost all the students who go to selective institutions such as Trinity graduate and get good jobs, many students from the poorest families end up even worse off than they started out, struggling to repay loans they took out to pay for degrees they never get.”

The story goes on to explain in great detail how the systems we have constructed are designed to favor wealthier students and families in myriad ways:

“It’s not about academic ability. The lowest-income students with the highest scores on eighth-grade standardized tests are less likely to go to selective colleges than the highest-income students with the lowest test scores, according to the Education Trust, which advocates for students who are being left behind in this way. If they do manage to make it to a top school, many do well — at Trinity, for instance, finishing with even higher graduation rates than their wealthier classmates. Read More

Commentary

The good folks at Inequality.org are out with the latest edition of Too Much Online and it includes a wellspring of damning new stats and findings about runaway CEO pay and the gaps between the super-rich and everyone else. The latest issue also feature a new and disturbing infographic on CEO compensation. Scroll down to see the most amazing stat on the comparative growth rates of the pay received by CEO’s and average workers.

CEO swagger