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Portland Press Herald: Fighting for the right to pay higher taxes

Originally published 5 August. Linked from Portland Press Herald.

By Bill Nemitz

If you’re one of those well-heeled Mainers who think your country is careening headlong into full-fledged socialism, you might want to take a sedative right about now.

Chuck Collins is coming to town.

Collins is a co-founder of Wealth for the Common Good, a new group of rich folks who think, especially in these fiscally challenging times, that they’re not getting taxed enough.

You heard that right. People with money – in some cases, mountains of money – who see it as their civic duty to help foot a bigger chunk of the bill for health care reform, the economic recovery, deficit reduction …

“I love a good conversation about this,” said Collins, who will speak at 7 tonight at the Wishcamper Center at the University of Southern Maine. “It goes really to the heart of what kind of society you want to have.”

As opposed, Collins noted, to the kind of society we’ve had under “the Bush-era tax cuts” on everything from wealthy estates to capital gains and dividends to plain old, six- and seven-figure salaries.

Collins’ message: “People who have achieved high accumulations of wealth should pay back the society that made it all possible.”

So who exactly is this guy?

For starters, he’s a great-grandson of hot dog magnate Oscar Mayer who grew up in a world where money was never a problem. A world where talk of wealth-generated tax havens was “part of the oxygen you breathe.”

His childhood, Collins said, “gave me a good window into the nature of taxes and privilege.” His conscience, on the other hand, constantly reminded him that “I am so blessed” as he graduated debt-free from pricey Hampshire College in 1984 and embarked on a career dedicated to narrowing the ever-growing gap between the haves and the have-nots.

Hence, when Collins inherited $500,000 from his great-grandfather’s estate at the age of 25, he didn’t run to the nearest high-yield, low-tax investment strategy. Instead, he went looking for worthy charitable foundations – and gave every penny of the inheritance to them.

And now, as a senior scholar at the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Public Policy, Collins argues that the “organized complainers” who howl at the mere mention of higher taxes for the rich do not reflect what all wealthy people feel these days.

Rather, he said, a “silent majority” of the wealthy understand that they’ve been pretty darned fortunate – maybe too fortunate – over the past decade as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the worst recession in half a century and a record-breaking federal deficit have left middle- and lower-income Americans reeling.

“We (people making more than $235,000 a year) got $700 billion in tax cuts from George Bush since 2000,” Collins said. “For a lot of us, the idea that we could get those cuts during a time of war is really unseemly. In all of our history, it’s never been done before.”

So now what?

Wealth for the Common Good’s most immediate goal, Collins said, is to persuade the Obama administration to immediately rescind the Bush tax cuts (which are scheduled to expire in 2011) on households that make more than $235,000 a year. Doing so, he said, would pump $43 billion of much-needed revenue into federal coffers to help fund health care, education, green energy and transportation infrastructure.

How well that message will play in Maine depends, as always, on whom you ask.

At the Maine Center for Economic Policy, which is sponsoring Collins’ appearance this evening, Executive Director Christopher St. John calls Collins “one of the very, very few people who can actually talk about taxes in a way that makes sense to ordinary folks.”

Moving over to the right side of the political spectrum, Chief Economist Scott Moody at the Maine Heritage Policy Center would beg to differ.

Noting that many of those “households” that make over $235,000 are actually small businesses that can ill afford to pay more taxes, Moody said Collins’ call for an early end to the Bush tax cuts “is like using a bazooka to kill a mouse.”

“Ideally, you want a flat-tax system where everyone pays the same rate,” Moody said. “In our opinion, that’s the best way to level the playing field.”

Then there’s Andrew Cadot, an attorney with Perkins Thompson in Portland and one of a dozen Mainers – out of more than 1,000 people overall – who have logged onto Wealth for the Common Good’s Web site (www.wealthforcommongood.org) and signed the petition calling for Obama to reset the tax code sooner rather than later.

Cadot said that while he’s not one of the 225 (and counting) petition signers who now make more than $235,000 per year, his asset portfolio does put him in the top 1 percen” of Americans when it comes to net worth.

And why did he sign?

Because, Cadot said, it’s high time that those with the most money in this country accepted their responsibility not just to themselves and their heirs, but to the society that helped put them where they are.

“Many of them can’t possibly spend in their lifetime what they’re carrying in their hip pocket,” Cadot said.

Right next to their anxiety pills.

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: bnemitz@pressherald.com