Tax policy is human rights policy

Zak Manfredi – 

“[T]ax policy is…human rights policy.”

– Philip Alston, UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights

On the eve of December 1, 2017—as members of the United States Senate prepared for a late night of political contestation—Senator Bernie Sanders made the Republican tax bill a human rights issue. Senator Sanders drew attention to UN Special Rapporteur Philip Alston’s then-ongoing investigation into how “extreme poverty” implicates human rights in the United States. Alston later met with Senator Sanders, and, after concluding his visit, castigated the Republican tax legislation for its potential to exacerbate already historic levels of economic inequality and extreme poverty. In the wake of the finalization of the tax lawone of the greatest tax transfers of wealth to the rich in modern times—numerous activists also decried the human rights implications of radical economic disparities. Alston’s trip to the United States might nevertheless have seemed controversial to other observers precisely because it treated extreme economic inequality and poverty as human rights concerns. As a formal matter, the United States has never ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), and even its assent to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) consisted of many formal reservations that render the treaty almost entirely non-justiciable in US courts. More generally, as Alston’s preliminary report noted, legal institutions in the US have been notoriously reluctant to apply the language of “rights” to address social and economic justice claims.

6720.jpgFor contemporary scholars and activists invested in challenging extreme inequality and concentrations of corporate power, however, human rights may prove controversial for a different reason: the long-shadow of the left critique of rights. Since at least Karl Marx’s critique of the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, many left thinkers have been suspicious of the conceptual foundation and practical implications of human rights.  For Marx, the Rights of Man helped underwrite a regime of private property law that stifled “genuine human emancipation,” while simultaneously absolving the state from addressing social and economic domination in the sphere of “civil society.” On this account, just as the state recognizes the formal equality of all persons, it simultaneously abdicates responsibility for private forms of discrimination and social domination—rights to hold private property offer no comfort to those without means to acquire food, shelter, or housing. More generally, leftists have long observed that a narrow focus on formal equality obscures and ratifies substantive inequalities. Indeed, many subsequent critics—including notably early writings of the Critical Legal Studies Movement—contend that the promulgation of legal rights can exacerbate conditions of oppression. Contemporary scholars note how rights claims are invoked to prevent the redistributive taxation of privately held capital, to protect the rights of corporate entities to “speak” as in Citizen’s United, and to weaken the power of labor unions with “right to work” laws.

Today, thinkers have updated these critiques to consider how human rights law can function as a form of “neoliberal governance”—these critics stress that complying with human rights norms often requires states to make certain “reforms” that align with political and economic agendas that favor “free market” principles. As Naomi Klein observes, the neoliberal economic programs championed by Reagan and Thatcher spread across the globe during the 1970s and 80s at precisely the same time when international human rights NGOs also flourished. Jessica Whyte’s astute analysis argues that even the social and economic human rights frameworks of the twentieth century were designed to be “flexible” enough to allow for the implementation of new forms of neoliberal economic governance. While I cannot do full justice to these critiques in the space here, it is important to note that they ultimately rest on a set of concerns about the kind of normative vision of the “human” that human rights laws underwrite. Anthropologist Talal Asad, for one, suggested that “the historical convergence of human rights and neoliberalism may not be purely accidental,” since human rights notions of “self-ownership” and “self-preservation” align with neoliberal economics’ understanding of human beings as pieces of “human capital” always striving towards greater self-augmentation. Consider, for instance, whether a theory of human rights imagines human being as, in Marx’s critique, “egoistic individuals” preoccupied with holding and consuming private property, or in contemporary terms, as entrepreneurial creatures always seeking to maximize their individual capital and credit-worthiness; when such a theory of human rights is implemented in practice, critics worry that the legal protections it offers will focus primarily on creation of “free markets” and justify policies that intensify social and economic stratification. Perhaps more distressingly, left critics of human rights also worry that particular rights regimes encourage and produce different self-conception among rights holders—if a human right to private property or wealth accumulation is enshrined in law, it helps establish a framework for how people evaluate their own, and each others, life projects. Continue reading

Understanding the Political Economy of Academia Through the Tax Bills

Alyssa Battistoni

Paying for corporate tax cuts with revenue raised from grad students and universities sounds like a parody of a Republican tax bill. Unfortunately–like many seeming parodies these days–it was all too real. The tax bill that originally passed the House would have taxed both graduate student tuition waivers and university endowments above a certain level, measured per-student.

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The tax on tuition relief wasn’t in the version of the bill that passed the Senate, and has been dropped from the bill entirely in the reconciliation process—thanks largely to grad students and their unions, who led a wave of protests against the provision. The endowment tax, however, remains intact despite the best lobbying efforts of university administrators.

Understanding the various versions of the bill in relation to both grad students and endowments provides a valuable window into the political economy of contemporary academia. In particular, Congressional Republicans have unintentionally revealed the ways in which the labels of “school” and “student” are only partial descriptors of contemporary universities and the people who study at them.

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Why Civil Disobedience, and Why Now?

Amy Kapczynski – 

On December 5th, I joined hundreds of people from 32 states in Washington D.C to protest the Republican tax bill.  We packed the hallways outside of the offices of seven key members of Congress, and mic-checked one another so that people’s stories about the bill’s devastating consequences could be heard.   A group of us – around 130 in total – refused to leave when the Capitol police arrived, and were arrested.

It was in many ways not an unusual act – the next day, more than 200 people were arrested in D.C. demanding a Clean Dream Act.  I’m heading back to D.C. today for another protest, joining hundreds more in a last ditch effort to head off the tax bill.*

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Many people have thanked me for what I did two weeks ago.  Perhaps it’s because I’m a law professor.  Or perhaps it’s because so many of us are wondering what more we can – or must – do to save our democracy and bring about a more equal society.

Confrontational protest and civil disobedience are an indispensable part of the answer. Here are five thoughts on why I decided to participate in the protest, and what it means to me, and what I hope it might mean to some of you.   Continue reading

How the Tax Bills Target Good Government, Workers, and Young People

Anne Alstott –

If the details of the House and Senate tax bills under consideration in Washington make your eyes glaze over, it’s because they’re supposed to.  The tax-writers, as they often do, are using the technicalities of the tax law to mask major changes in national economic policy.  It’s fairly well-known that both bills are stacked in favor of the wealthy.  But the details of the tax bills (please don’t call them “tax reform”) contain a neoliberal agenda that, if enacted, will punish good governance, reward capital over labor, and favor the old over the young.

The United States, perhaps more than any other developed country, shapes its economy via the tax law.  Neoliberals often say that the United States – unlike socialist Europe – has no government-sponsored industrial policy. And it is true that (for the most part) we don’t have big spending programs that subsidize business or  have big bureaucracies that manage the economy. Instead, our politicians hide economic and social policy in the tax code and leave administration to the IRS. In 2015, for instance, the United States devoted $1.2 trillion to tax-based subsidies – an amount that exceeded federal discretionary spending in that year.

Paul Ryan

So, even as politicians rail publicly against tax loopholes, both parties use the tax code to reward favored industries and citizens. The current tax code, for instance, favors owners of capital, wealthy dynasties, highly-paid workers, and industries including tech and pharmaceuticals as well as finance, insurance, and real estate.

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