Connecting the dots on ‘Connections’

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The TV character MacGyver once said, “Desperation tends to make one sort of flexible.” I think of it whenever WXXI radio host Evan Dawson reaches out to me to come on his show, “Connections.” I am reliably conservative, and he likes to present a balanced perspective. But I am a minor figure in Rochester with little expertise in anything. Why else would he reach out to me unless he’s desperate?

John Calia

“Connections” is like an oasis in the desert if you crave intelligent discussion rather than screaming insults. Dawson doesn’t facilitate debate so much as moderate a discussion. He leans to the left politically but is fair-minded. He relies on data to inform opinion; so, I knew I had to be well-armed when he asked me to discuss New York taxes. The state budget had just been approved with some new taxes on the wealthy but without others that were the favorites of so-called progressives. 

I was a guest along with Jeremy Cooney, former chief of staff to Mayor Lovely Warren and recent Democratic candidate for state Senate, and Michael Kink, executive director of the Strong Economy for All Coalition. I predict Cooney will be a successful politician simply because he is so engaging in a face-to-face encounter and pragmatic in his approach to policy matters. Kink, on the other hand, is a liberal firebrand.

The rapid-fire Q&A that characterizes discussion shows doesn’t play to my strengths. Following the show, my thoughts about the experience fell into one of three categories: 1) what I said that felt right, 2) what I could have said better and 3) what I didn’t get a chance to say. 

I arose early on the day of the scheduled broadcast and skipped my trip to the gym so I could do some research. I wanted to broaden the context of the conversation. My supposition is the issue isn’t taxing the wealthy but rather a bloated state budget that undermines the economic success of our state.

Data point number one: Florida has 1.75 million more people than New York but its state budget is only $88 billion (as opposed to New York’s $175.5 billion). I then quoted Paul Wetenhall from his recent article in the Rochester Beacon. A former Xerox executive who moved to Rochester in 1975, Wetenhall is now an economic development professional in Charlotte, N.C. Generally, he described how North Carolina government works with business toward productive ends. More specifically, he laid out the structural challenges that New York must address. For example, the cost to educate a pupil in the Rochester area is about $17,000 while Charlotte manages to do the same with only $11,000. Charlotte must be doing something right. Over the last 40 years, its population has more than doubled while Rochester’s has only increased 10 percent.

The mention of Charlotte got the discussion off-script for a while. Kink waxed poetic about North Carolina’s embrace of philosophies and policies that emulated those of New York when it was indeed the Empire State. If I didn’t know better, I would have thought he is a Rockefeller Republican. Alas, he is not. At least four times, he characterized wealth as “immoral” and “obscene.” Neither our host nor my fellow panel member challenged this assertion. It was left to me to point out that doing so characterizes “the engine of our prosperity” as evil. Earning money and having wealth is not, in and of itself, evil. It is power that corrupts. Our state government aggregates power by taking money out of the economy and creating criteria by which we might get it back. That’s “immoral” and “obscene.”

I wish I had I asserted that not only is the process immoral but the practitioners to whom we trust this task are often convicted of corruption. There should be a dedicated wing in state prison for former New York legislators. 

I didn’t get a chance to say that the new state budget includes a plethora of new taxes aside from those levied on the rich. For example, a new tax on online sales will cost consumers $390 million this fiscal year. Meanwhile, the governor doles out unproductive economic development funds by the millions. An example is the Pinnacle North development in Canandaigua. The taxpayers contributed millions to an environmental cleanup of the site, a liability that would normally have been borne by the investors. The governor (who was campaigning for reelection at the time) told us this is the kind of project he would “invest in all day long” because it would provide about 100 low-paying service jobs. But, where did the funds million go? Answer: into the pockets of the investors. A more recent example is the state’s $4 million “investment” in Hickey Freeman.

In my closing remarks (too late to explore), I was able to point out that the U.S. already has the most progressive tax code among the nations of the seven largest developed countries. I didn’t get a chance to provide the data substantiating that claim, detailed in a 2018 Wall Street Journal op-ed. The article noted income data reported by the U.S. Census Bureau doesn’t include the impact of non-cash transfers. Consider: 

  • Medicare and Medicaid pay $760 billion to the bottom 40 percent.
  • 93 other programs transfer $520 billion to low-income households (CHIP, TANF, SNAP).
  • States transfer another $310 billion

The bottom 20 percent of U.S. earners receive 84 percent of their income from taxpayer-funded transfers. The next 20 percent receives 57 percent of their income the same way. Overall, 28 percent of household income in the U.S. is received from the government, a percentage larger than any other country in the OECD except France. The top 10 percent of U.S. taxpayers earn 33 percent of total household income and pay 45 percent of taxes, a ratio of 1.35 times their income. In Germany, the ratio is 1.07. In France, it’s 1.1. The U.S. collects only 35 percent of taxes from non-income sources, the smallest share of OECD countries. All those countries have a value added tax (VAT), which acts like a national sales tax. To close the $1 trillion annual federal deficit, Americans would have to pay an 8 percent VAT. 

Off air, Dawson and I casually discussed the attraction of moving to a low-tax state like Florida. 

“The difference in my tax burden would send us on a European vacation each year,” I told him. 

“Yeah,” he joked. “But if you move to Florida, you’d have to buy a boat.”

So, what would you want to spend your retirement income on? Paying taxes or owning a boat?

John Calia is an executive coach and author of “The Reluctant CEO: Succeeding Without Losing Your Soul.”

3 thoughts on “Connecting the dots on ‘Connections’

  1. The rich are immoral on the aggregate level. Individually perhaps not, but as a class of humans they rig the system in their favor. The author above laments that it is power that corrupts…But what gets you power in nearly all societies, especially capitalist ones, it is money. Rich people are not “the engine” of prosperity, that is the greatest joke that the capitalist education system brainwashes everyone with. It is the workers that are a major part of this engine, but I shouldn’t expect a CEO so remote from poverty and the factory floor to understand any of this…

  2. The degree of wealth accumulation and inequality we have today is counter-productive, whether one views it as immoral or not. It destabilizes societies, and strong societies are critical to quality of life, whether you are rich or poor. It’s who we are as a species — social creatures who have thrived due to our ability to form societies in which individuals thrive. To reject this is to reject being human. The Reagan-Thatcher revolution did incredible harm to our societies, and the harm accumulates more and more with each passing year. Ever-voracious corporate capitalism is taking us to the brink (and probably over it) of civilizational collapse because it is never done with exploiting all the earth can give. I am not a socialist, but a welfare-capitalist. Capitalism is a tool, and growth is not the point of our society. Markets and corporations need to be strongly regulated, taxes need to be high, and quality of life based on clear-eyed analysis of what will work for society needs to be the goal. More stuff does not make us happier. More government does not necessarily make you less free, although more and ever larger corporations sure do. Our governments are rife with corruption, as are our businesses. This needs to be rooted out, and is a long and hard-fought struggle always, but hating on government and taxes is a lazy solution in my view.

  3. I’ll start by saying flat-out that I’m a bleeding-heart liberal, and that there’s a lot to take exception to in what you’ve written. As one small example, lower costs of educating students in Charlotte might perhaps correlate with lower quality education, not efficiency or failure on Rochester’s part. You know, in the early 1900s it cost nothing for the government to enforce worker safety, because, of course, there were basically no worker safety laws. The documentary on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire is worth looking at if you want to see why “efficiency” often desperately needs to give way to “less” efficient systems where human beings are treated as more than cogs.

    I could go on to comment that when I lived in Raleigh NC in 2001-2002 everyone my wife and I talked to said the public schools were uniformly horrible, I suspect the same may well have been true of Charlotte, and may perhaps still be true, again that lower-cost-to-“educate” may not correlate with a good education. Although it may.

    But what I really want to say is that, if indeed one of the panelists called wealth “immoral,” that’s a bone-headedly stupid statement that deserves rich opprobrium, no matter your politics. Wealth isn’t inherently bad, and certainly the inverse isn’t true: poverty a) isn’t good, and b) doesn’t generally make for goodness. I remember Al Gore running on that sort of platform in 2000; my wife worked on H.W.’s reelection campaign and she and I had some interesting discussions about Gore’s tropes about wealth, especially “wealth” as it was becoming then, tech millionaires who (at that time) weren’t obviously anything like the Robber barons who left a trail of Pinkerton-instigated slaughters behind them.

    So the point is that while I don’t agree with the article on most points, I emphatically detest simple-mindedness about wealth and money being bad. They’re not the problem. What’s done with them is, as is the rift between the rich and the poor.

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