Explore Harvard's Nieman network Nieman Fellowships Nieman Lab Nieman Reports Nieman Storyboard

Social justice and other important issues

ASK THIS | September 17, 2004

Questions from Morton Mintz (Nieman '64), senior adviser to NiemanWatchdog.org, and a frequent contributor to these pages.

By Morton Mintz

A question for the leaders of two influential conservative organizations, Dr. James C. Dobson of Focus on the Family and the Rev. Donald E. Wildmon of the American Family Association:

The New York Times reported on Sept. 17, 2004, that you "are calling for a boycott of two best-selling products of Procter & Gamble." The article said you seek the boycott "to protest a statement on the company's internal Web site that opposes a local statute to exempt gays and lesbians from special civil rights protection."

My question to you concerns defective consumer products that manufacturers knew to be needlessly unsafe but marketed anyway, thus willfully exposing large numbers of unsuspecting people--doubtless including members of your own organizations--to avoidable death, injury and sickness. Examples include SUVs, tires, prescription drugs, medical devices, and, of course, cigarettes.

Q. Have you ever called for a boycott of products made by companies that have engaged in conduct of the kind here described?

Questions for House and Senate candidates
Q. Would you favor or oppose legislation allowing pharmacies to buy drugs for Medicare beneficiaries at the far-lower "best price" paid by Medicaid and the Veterans Administration, and should Congress investigate high drug prices, using its subpoena power to obtain documents and compel testimony?

Q. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that limiting the mortgage debt on which interest is deductible to $300,000 instead of the present $1 million would increase federal revenues by $40.8 billion in the decade 2000-2009. Would you favor or oppose lowering the limit? If you do favor lowering the limit, would you favor dedicating the $40.8 billion to providing minimally decent housing for many who don't have it?

Q. The average CEO of a large U.S. corporation is now paid at least 450 times as much as the average worker, compared with 42 times as much in 1980. By allowing a company to deduct from taxable income "reasonable" but not "excessive" executive pay — defined as salary plus bonus — and by capping the deduction at $1 million, the tax code forces rank-and-file taxpayers to subsidize over-the-top executive pay. Congressman Martin Sabo (D-MN) wants to curb the subsidy by revising "reasonable" to mean 25 times the salary of a company's lowest-paid full-time worker. Would you favor or oppose his bill?

Q. By massively transferring cash, securities and other assets to foreign tax havens, some wealthy Americans evade U.S. income taxes in an amount equivalent to, by one unofficial estimate, the sum of "every tax dollar paid by everyone in New York State and New Jersey who earns less than $200,000 a year." Would you try to eliminate these transfers?

Q. Do you think it fair that some people earning $30,000 continue to pay a larger proportion of their income in federal, state and local income taxes, and Social Security than do some people earning $30 million?

Q. Presently, the Internal Revenue Service audits more people earning less than $25,000 (these audits are quick and easy) than it does people earning more than $100,000 (these audits are time-consuming and complex). Should Congress give the IRS the money it needs to audit taxpayer returns in which the evasions can be huge?

Q. Are you troubled by the near-total exclusion from the criminal-justice system — from arrests, prosecutions, punishment — of business executives who market defective products that they know will kill and injure people? Or who knowingly and willfully market dangerous medicines and medical devices that kill, sicken or injure? Or who deliberately expose employees to avoidable but lethal and disabling workplace hazards? If you are troubled, what remedial legislation would you advocate? If you are not troubled, why not? And if you support the death penalty for those who intentionally kill one-on-one, with, say, guns and knives, do you support capital punishment for those who intentionally kill remotely with the stroke of a pen?

Q. Product-liability insurers refuse to warn unsuspecting consumers when they learn of needlessly unsafe defective tires, cars, medical devices, pharmaceuticals and other products. By keeping such information secret, the carriers expose people to massive injury, disease and death. Should Congress investigate?

Q. The federal government has been spending more than $125 billion a year to subsidize and otherwise support corporations and industries — as much in corporate welfare, as critics on both the left and right call it, as it collects in income taxes from 60 million individuals and families. What if anything would you do about this?

Q. Our arsenal of nuclear weapons is capable of destroying every major city on earth ten times over. By 2012, under a goal set by the administration in June 2004, the arsenal would be reduced by approximately half. Why does the United States need the ability to destroy every major city on the planet even five times over?

Q. Former GOP presidential nominee Bob Dole said in 1983: "When these political action committees give money, they expect something in return other than good government." Do you agree or disagree with that statement?

Q. The American Heritage Dictionary defines a bribe as "something, such as money or a favor, offered to or given to a person in a position of trust to influence that person's views or conduct." Do the campaign-finance laws legalize bribery?

Q. More than 60 percent of U.S. corporations and about 70 percent of foreign companies doing business in the U.S. paid zero federal taxes for the five years ended in 2000, according to a General Accounting Office analysis of Internal Revenue Service data. Federal budget officials say that by 2003, corporate tax receipts as a share of overall federal revenues had fallen to 7.3 percent, the lowest rate since in two decades and the second-lowest rate in seven decades.

Sen. Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat who requested the study by the congressional watchdog agency, said, "Too many corporations are finagling ways to dodge paying Uncle Sam, despite the benefits they receive from this country." Dan Mitchell, a fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a corporation-funded conservative think-tank, noted that corporations are obligated to shareholders to pay as little taxes as they legally can. What is your take on this issue?

Q. Wages subject to the Social Security tax are now capped at $87,900. This means, of course, that the more over the cap a person earns, the smaller the percentage of total wages he pays for Social Security. Eliminating the cap would bring billions of dollars into the Social Security trust fund. Do you favor retaining the cap where it is, raising it, or removing it?

Q. The federal minimum wage has been $5.15 an hour since September 1997 — going on seven years now. To bring a family of three up to the official poverty threshold it would have to be $7.05; to approximate half of the average hourly wage, as it did in the 1950s and 1960, it would have to be $7. Would you vote to raise the minimum wage, and if you would, by how much?

Q. By regularly squeezing the Internal Revenue Service budget since it came under Republican control in January 1995, Congress has forced the IRS to lose 19,000 employees overall. As a result, IRS is able to audit only one in 400 partnerships. Yet more than $5 trillion passed through about 7.5 million partnerships in the year 2000 alone.

Former IRS Commisssioner Charles Rossotti spelled out the consequences in his final report to the IRS Oversight Board. Questionable partnerships alone, he said, according to an article by Samuel Loewenberg in the American Prospect, cause the loss of an estimated $100 billion revenues per year. What would you do about this?

Q. The wealthiest 1 percent of Americans owns more wealth than the bottom 95 percent. Real wages in the private sector are said to be 8 percent below what they were 30 years ago. Corporate taxes in the last two fiscal years amounted to only 1.2 percent of the economy--the lowest level since the 1930s, excepting a single year during the first term of Ronald Reagan, according to Robert S. McIntyre, director of Citizens for Tax Justice. In your mind, do these facts reflect an erosion in fundamental fairness?

The NiemanWatchdog.org website is no longer being updated. Watchdog stories have a new home in Nieman Reports.