Josh Harkinson

Josh Harkinson

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Born in Texas and based in San Francisco, Josh covers tech, labor, drug policy, and the environment. PGP public key.

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Happy 175th Birthday, Mother Jones!

Mother Jones died at the age of 93, but often exaggerated her age

It's safe to say that most people have never heard of this magazine's namesake, whom Teddy Roosevelt once called "the most dangerous woman in America." If you've worked at Mother Jones long enough, however, you've likely had a Mother Jones moment. Mine came two years ago inside a trailer home in the Appalachians of West Virginia, where I was interviewing an injured coal miner. "I remember that name from that video," the miner's son told me, referring to a class he'd taken to become a mining apprentice. "Mother Jones speaking before all the men." He went on to regale me with the tale of her involvement, at the age of 84, in the Battle of Blair Mountain, a pitched fight between unionists and strike breakers in 1921 that remains the nation's largest armed conflict since the Civil War.

A labor organizer about whom relatively little was known even at the height of her considerable fame, Mary Harris Jones is thought to have been born on roughly this day 175 years ago in Cork, Ireland. The town of Cork is honoring her this week with the first-ever Cork Mother Jones Festival, a three-day event featuring concerts, a mass at the cathedral where she was baptized, a commemorative plaque, and a day-long bus tour of her childhood stomping grounds. At the age of 10, Jones and her family of tenant farmers fled Ireland to escape the potato famine, relocating to Toronto, Canada and, in Jones' case, later the United States.

As Jones' biographer Elliott J. Gorn wrote in this magazine, her image as a badass grandma has roots in personal tragedy. An 1867 yellow fever epidemic in Memphis, Tennessee killed Jones' husband and her four children. A widow at 30, she moved to Chicago and built a successful dressmaking business—only to lose everything in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. She went on to toil in obscurity for two decades until suddenly inventing the persona of Mother Jones. "Or, to put it more precisely," Gorn writes, "she began to play a role that she and her followers made up as they went along. By 1900, no one called her Mary, but always Mother; she wore antique black dresses in public, and she began exaggerating her age.

The new role freed Mary Jones. Most American women of that era led quiet, homebound lives devoted to their families. Women, especially elderly ones, were not supposed to have opinions; if they had them, they were not to voice them publicly—and certainly not in the fiery tones of a street orator.

Yet by casting herself as the mother of downtrodden people everywhere, Mary Jones went where she pleased, spoke out on the great issues of her day, and did so with sharp irreverence (she referred to John D. Rockefeller as "Oily John" and Governor William Glasscock of West Virginia as "Crystal Peter"). Paradoxically, by embracing the very role of family matriarch that restricted most women, Mother Jones shattered the limits that confined her.

For a quarter of a century, she roamed America, the Johnny Appleseed of activists. She literally had no permanent residence. "My address is like my shoes," she told a congressional committee. "It travels with me wherever I go."

By today's standards, some of Jones' rhetoric would be considered over-the-top, such as her threat to West Virginia's governor that there could soon be "one hell of a lot of bloodletting." And neither was she uniformly progressive—even by the benchmarks of her time. She considered women's suffrage a distraction from labor organizing and thought most women should stay out of the workplace.

Yet Mother Jones' greatest weakness was also her strength: She saw the world's problems primarily through the lens of class. And in a weird way, maybe her myopia can bring some clarity to our own times. After quietly widening for decades, the economic chasm between the rich and everyone else has finally become an electoral issue, the grounds for a generation-defining political fight. Mother Jones would be busy right now—if she wasn't in jail. "I asked a man in prison once how he he happened to be there and he said he had stolen a pair of shoes," she once said. "I said if he had stolen a railroad, he would be a United States Senator."

Center for Economic and Policy ResearchCenter for Economic and Policy ResearchFor the purposes of this graph, the Center for Economic and Policy Research defines a "good job" as one that includes health insurance and retirement benefits and pays at least as much as the median wage, adjusted for inflation, earned by a male worker in 1979. ($12,300 per year back then and $37,000 per year today.) Kind of sad, isn't it?

Note that there is a conspicuous partisan trend in the graph: The number of good jobs fell during the Reagan and George H.W. Bush years, rebounded during the Clinton years, and fell again during the administration of George W. Bush. Good jobs haven't made much of a comeback during the Obama administration, but he inherited an economy from his predecessor that's still fighting it's way out of a catastrophic meltdown.

Democrats and Republicans tend to agree that creating more good jobs requires building a more educated workforce. Unfortunately, the fortunes of college-educated workers haven't really improved over the past 30 years either; they've just eroded more slowly:

Center for Economic and Policy ResearchCenter for Economic and Policy ResearchSo what's going on here? As we've often pointed out on Mother Jones, the travails of the American middle class hinge on a variety of interrelated factors, including automation, the decline of labor unions, globalization, and the Federal Reserve's monetary policy, to name a few. The Center for Economic and Policy Research also points out out that the minimum wage today, adjusted for inflation, is 15 percent below what it was in 1979. Who ever thought that the era of bell bottoms and the Bee Gees would be considered the good old days?

4 Ways That Democrats Want to Cut Taxes on The Rich

The big debate in Washington right now centers around whether or not to "tax the rich." This week, Senate Democrats passed a plan to cut income taxes on the middle class while increasing them on families that make more than $250,000 a year. Next week, House Republicans will push through a bill to extend (the erstwhile "temporary") Bush-era tax cuts for the middle class and the rich. But scratch beneath the surface of these dueling tax plans, and it quickly becomes clear that the GOP isn't the only party in Congress that wants to help the rich get richer. As Ezra Klein notes at Wonkblog, the cumulative effect of Democratic tax proposals will most likely be a $17,000 tax cut for the top 1 percent of earners (compared to a $75,000 tax cut under the GOP plan). Here are four ways that the Democratic tax plan would benefit the wealthy:

Extending most of the Bush income tax cut

By extending the Bush tax cuts for people who make less than $250,000 a year, Democrats are still giving a tax break to a lot of people who are wealthy by any reasonable definition. As New Republic's Timothy Noah points out, anybody who makes more than $110,000 resides in the top decile (i.e. top 10 percent) of US incomes and probably shouldn't be called middle class. Moreover, Democrats are only proposing to increase the marginal tax rate on $250,000-dollar incomes, which means that if you make a million dollars, you still get a tax cut on the first quarter million. In the chart to the right, the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities calculates that the biggest winners from the Democratic tax plan are people who make between $200,000 and $500,000 a year.

Extending a major cut in the estate tax

Faced with opposition from conservative members of their own party, Senate Democrats dropped a proposal to restore the estate tax to 2009 levels, when it applied to estates worth more than $3.5 million and maxed out at a rate of 45 percent. (Under current law, the estate tax exempts property worth less than $5.12 million and tops out at 35 percent). The price tag for this gift to the wealthy? A cool $21 billion—almost enough to cancel out the additional $28 billion to be raised by boosting income taxes on high earners.

Patching the alternative minimum tax

The alternative minimum tax, or AMT, is designed to make sure that people who benefit from certain tax loopholes pay at least a minimum amount of tax. The AMT is not popular with rich people, which might be one reason why in recent years Congress has always passed legislation temporarily increasing AMT exemptions. Matthew Campione of Forbes estimates that this year's exemptions will be worth a whopping $100 billion. Citizens for Tax Justice has illustrated who benefited from last year's AMT exemptions (see chart).

Extending a tax cut on stock dividends and capital gains

The main reason that Mitt Romney paid an effective tax rate of just 13.9 percent in 2010 was that most of his income was taxed at the capital gains rate, which Republicans under George W. Bush had slashed from 20 percent 15 percent. He also benefited from a Bush-era reduction in the tax rate on corporate stock dividends to 15 percent from a much higher top rate of 39.6 percent. President Obama wants to partially reverse those changes, applying the higher pre-Bush rates to all capital gains and corporate dividends income that falls into the top two tax brackets. But Senate Democrats wussed out, passing a bill with much smaller increases in those tax rates. Citizens For Tax Justice illustrates how the Senate's changes benefit the wealthy:

The Republican Plan to Tax the Poor

How will Republicans pay for their proposal to extend Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthiest two percent of Americans? In part, by raising taxes on low- and moderate-income working families.

According to the watchdog group Citizens for Tax Justice, the GOP's tax plan would allow the expiration of tax breaks worth a total of $11.1 billion for 13 million working families. (Democrats want to keep those tax breaks in place.) That's enough money to make up for 40 percent of the value of the GOP's proposed tax cuts for the rich.

Here's a rundown of the GOP's proposed tax increases, and what they'll cost working families:

Child Tax Credit: A tax deduction for families with children
GOP proposal: End a portion of the credit for families making between $3,000 and $13,300
Savings to federal government: $7.6 billion annually
Tax increase for average family: $854 annually

Earned Income Tax Credit: A tax credit for people who work but have low wages
GOP proposal: Reduce EITC for some married couples (i.e., bring back the "marriage penalty") and for families with three or more children
Savings to federal government: $3.4 billion annually
Tax increase for average family: $530 annually

According to CTJ, virtually all of these tax increases would apply to families making less than $50,000—people for whom a few hundred dollars can make a huge difference. Unfortunately for them, the media is focused instead on how Obama's tax increases on incomes above $250,000 will make life intolerable for rich people.

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