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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This Chart Shows How State Taxes Screw You

Forget the IRS. You really ought to hate your state's regressive tax code.

| Mon Apr. 13, 2015 9:25 AM EDT

A lot of people think the federal tax code should be more progressive, but it looks downright socialist compared to the typical state tax code. A chart released last week by Citizens for Tax Justice puts it in context, showing how the wealthy typically pay lower state tax rates:

Citizens for Tax Justice

This problem isn't limited to conservative states: According to a recent report by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP), every state places a higher effective tax rate on the poor than it does on the rich. In fact, several of the nation's most politically progressive states count among the worst when it comes to shoveling the tax burden onto low-income people and the middle class.

The nation's most regressive tax code belongs to Washington, a state that was ranked by The Hill last year as the bluest in the country based on its voting patterns and Democratic dominance. The poorest 20 percent of Washingtonians pay an effective state tax rate of 16.8 percent, while the wealthiest 1 percent effectively pay just 2.4 percent of their income in taxes.

There's a clear explanation for that: Washington has no income tax and thus heavily relies on a sales tax that disproportionately affects the poor. What's harder to grasp is why Washington's liberals put up with it.

Structural conditions help explain why regressive taxes endure in Washington and many other states. Some states require supermajorities to raise taxes or have constitutions that mandate a flat tax. In Washington's case, voters approved a personal income tax in 1932 by a two to one margin but were overruled the following year by the state Supreme Court, which decided that a constitutionally mandated 1 percent cap on property taxes also applied to income. An income tax bill passed by the state legislature a few years later was likewise struck down.

But the courts, weirdly, are no longer the biggest obstacle to a fairer tax code in Washington; over the years, they've gradually overturned most of the legal precedents that had been used to invalidate an income tax, and most experts believe such a tax would become law today if passed. The bigger problem is voters. In 2010, Washingtonians rejected by a whopping 30-point margin a proposal to establish an income tax that would only have applied to people earning more than $200,000 a year.

How do you square this with California, where, just two years later, a similar tax hike on the wealthy easily sailed through? Or with Oregon, Washington's political cousin, which has long had a progressive income tax?

I asked John Burbank, the executive director of the Seattle-based Economic Opportunity Institute and an architect of Washington's failed 2010 income tax measure, why he thought the measure had failed to pass. At first, he cited the off-year election and opposition scare tactics. But when pressed, he offered a third explanation that I think makes more sense: "There is almost like a cultural prohibition that exists."

In other words people, liberal or conservative, who live in states with low or no income taxes get used to paying little. They may differ on protecting the environment, legalizing weed, or raising the minimum wage, but when you start to mess with the system on which they've built their personal finances, they get scared and balk. This is why changing the tax code is so hard, even in states where people may in their hearts believe it's the right thing to do.

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Walmart Gave Workers a Raise—But It's Not Enough to Keep Them off the Dole

Taxpayers will continue to compensate for the megaretailer's miserliness.

| Wed Apr. 1, 2015 6:20 AM EDT
A Black Friday protest at a Walmart store in Chicago

A typical Walmart Supercenter costs taxpayers more than $900,000 a year in public assistance doled out to its low-wage workers. This fact, published in a congressional report in 2013, galvanized labor protests at Walmart stores across the country last year, leading the retail giant to announce in February that it would give some 500,000 workers a raise. (Today, McDonald's announced a similar increase). And that's something. But according to a report released today by Americans for Tax Fairness, Walmart's pay is still far too low to wean many "associates" from federal subsidies such as food stamps and Section 8 housing.

Under Walmart's new plan, full-time associates who've completed a six-month training program will earn at least $10 an hour next year. Many Walmart workers, however, are involuntary part-timers, and nearly half of the associates turn over each year. But workers who qualify for the $10 base wage by working at least 34 hours a week, which Walmart considers "full time," would still earn only $17,680 a year—well below the cutoff for many federal assistance programs, especially if a worker has children.

Americans for Tax Fairness

The four Walton heirs, who are collectively worth $144.7 billion, are Walmart's largest stockholders and constitute the nation's wealthiest family. If they wanted to stop enriching themselves at the expense of taxpayers, they could pay their workers at least $15 an hour for a 40-hour workweek. According to Americans for Tax Fairness, this would have cost Walmart about $10.8 billion in 2014, or about half of the increase in the Waltons' net worth that year.

Scientists Can Predict Your City's Obesity Rate by Analyzing Its Sewage

Big Data meets municipal waste.

| Tue Mar. 31, 2015 6:10 AM EDT
The sewage of fat cities like Little Rock and Toledo is easy to distinguish from that of skinny ones like Denver and San Diego.

If someone were to ask you what distinguishes skinny cities from fat ones, you might think of the prevalence of fast-food joints, the average length of automobile commutes, or the relative abundance of parks and jogging trails. But there's also another, more underground factor: their sewage.

Researchers with the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee collected raw sewage samples from the intakes of municipal wastewater treatment plants in 71 cities around the country. Their results, published last month in mBio, the American Society for Microbiology's open-access journal, showed that the microbial content of that sewage predicted each city's relative obesity with 81 to 89 percent accuracy.

The finding actually isn't all that surprising, says lead author Ryan Newton, a visiting professor at UWM's School of Freshwater Sciences. Other studies have shown that bacterial imbalances in your intestines can lead to metabolic syndrome, obesity, and diabetes. Newton's study, however, is the first to demonstrate that those microbial differences also play out across entire populations, even after our poop gets flushed, mixed together, and sent through miles of pipes.

The UWM study was enabled by computing advances that have allowed scientists to rapidly sequence microbial populations and look for patterns in the results. Other researchers are using similar techniques to look for correlations between gut bacteria and a wide range of health conditions.

Scientists hope other data derived from sewage could help predict epidemics and track public health trends.

Newton isn't the only scientist who sees sewage as a promising place for data dives. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Underworlds project, which began in January, will study sewage for the presence of viruses such as influenza and polio; bacterial pathogens that cause cholera typhoid fever, and other diseases; and biochemical molecules ranging from antibiotics to illegal drugs like cocaine and methamphetamine. Scientists hope the resulting data could help predict epidemics and track other public health trends within particular neighborhoods. 

As scientists gain a better understanding of the interplay between microbes and human health, they may eventually be able to look at municipal sewage to figure out which communities would be the best to target with public health campaigns designed to, say, get people to eat less sugar or more vegetables.

And just as important, sequencing sewage could eliminate the thorny problem of doing public health surveys. Unlike people, your poop can't lie about what you had to eat.

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