"We have to figure out what kind of people are we going to be and what policies will help us be our best selves."
In 2009 my union, the California Federation of Teachers, started a movement for progressive taxation to counter the terrible impact of the Great Recession. California was then suffering a spiraling budget deficit, 12 percent unemployment, and one of the nation’s highest rates of home foreclosure.
Our push for fair taxes had many moving parts, including opinion research, member education, public outreach and media work, coalition building with labor and community organizations, and finally a statewide ballot measure, Proposition 30, that passed by a 55-45 margin in 2012.
Prop 30 imposed the highest income tax rates on top earners in the Golden State since World War II, raising some $7-8 billion a year through bumps of 1, 2, and 3 percent on family incomes of $500,000, $600,000, and $1 million.
The state’s voters extended this temporary tax increase in 2016 for twelve years. It won’t sunset until 2030. In the meantime — and defying the dire predictions of anti-tax opponents that a Prop 30 victory would have all the “job creators” leaving California and taking all the jobs with them — California’s public sector has recovered alongside its private sector, the state has thousands more millionaires and two million more jobs, and schools, public services, and the general welfare are in demonstrably better shape than in any of the tax-cutting Republican states like Kansas.
One small moving part in all this: an eight-minute animated cartoon I wrote and directed, Tax the Rich: An Animated Fairy Tale, that my union released a month after Prop 30 passed.
A classic narration from actor Ed Asner has helped ‘Tax the Rich: An Animated Fairy Tale’ reach a million viewers.
Drawn by labor cartoonist extraordinaire Mike Konopacki, with voiceover narration by actor Ed Asner, our intent was to help export progressive tax ideas eastward beyond California’s border. We were under no illusions the cartoon could do that by itself. We just thought it might make a positive contribution to broader efforts to rebuild some progressivity in the federal tax code, or perhaps in other states.
The animation’s story line follows the sad events taking place in a prosperous land after rich people decide they didn’t need to pay taxes any more. The rich get richer while services for the people get cut. Giant towers of money grow from the tax savings. But the towers, after growing too tall, become unstable and fall on buildings where people work and live, destroying jobs and homes. Rich people divert attention from their responsibility for this disaster by telling everyone that the greed of public employees like teachers and firefighters helped cause all these bad things to happen.
What might the people of this land do, the fairy tale concludes by asking, to live happily ever after?
The cartoon created some serious public conversation, if not exactly in the way we imagined beforehand. A week after I posted it on YouTube, we had 10,000 views. So far so good. Then we saw a sudden massive spike, rising at the rate of thousands an hour. I soon discovered that Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, and other right-wing media personalities had made our little cartoon their hate-on-the-unions cause celebre of the moment.
Our ten California Federation of Teachers offices across the state were soon deluged with irate phone calls, including death threats. One was egged. Our officers and staff received abusive emails. I received more than a hundred phone calls, before I stopped taking them after a few days, learning from a couple that Limbaugh had given out my cell phone number on the air.
Some callers turned out to be more creative than others. But their complaints had a curious sameness, including the bizarre claim that “this was how Nazi Germany and Hitler got started, only this time scapegoating the rich instead of the Jews.”
All the complainers singled out one particular six-second scene in the movie: a visual representation of the decades-old trope that “trickle down economics” might be best understood as the rich urinating on the poor. This “pee scene” featured a top-1-percenter standing above the heads of the bottom 99 percent, ensuring them that his own enrichment would be good for them, too.
Hannity et al did not treat this scene as a visual metaphor. With the trademark Faux News outrage, they labeled this image, the union, all teachers, public education as simply disgusting! The cartoon, the right-wing commentators agreed, had to have been created to be shown to children, since, well, it was a cartoon. And how disgusting that teachers are showing this horrible scene to little children!
Our cartoon’s narrator Ed Asner, appearing at the time in a Broadway show, was ambushed by a Fox reporter late one night when he emerged from the theater after a performance. The reporter asked Asner what he thought of this scene that had a rich person urinating on regular people. Asner thought for a moment.
“How disgusting,” he responded, holding for a beat. “Should be reversed.”
The union leadership worried, understandably, that our office staff might suffer physical harm amid all the right-wing yelling and screaming. The executive council discussed our options. Some of the newer leaders, unfamiliar with conservative media attacks, had never experienced anything like this.
I argued that if we accepted Fox’s invitation to send a spokesperson on the air, it might then be possible to interest progressive television hosts in an appearance, and we would achieve our goal of moving the public conversation. In the end, however, no officer wished to accept the Fox interview. I was directed to edit out the six-second “pee scene” visual and repost the video without it, while leaving the voiceover intact.
Today, five years later, the reposted cartoon still receives more than a thousand views a month, with no publicity, just word of mouth, driving the downloads. Between the first and revised version, the animation has received nearly a million views.
The cartoon still elicits comment-thread flames between right and left. And, no, the animation hasn’t been shown to little children, but it has been used in high school and college classrooms as a discussion starter on tax policies and their consequences.
If I could do anything over, I would argue more strenuously to union leadership that we should stick with the original plan, keep the trickle-down scene intact, go on Hannity’s show, take our lumps there, and use that to get on Rachel Maddow, Democracy Now or the Daily Show, all of which had been contacted but hadn’t responded. Sometimes opportunities don’t show up in the precise form you imagine they should.
Would this greater exposure for the cartoon’s ideas have made any difference in moving a progressive tax agenda nationally? Stiffened a few fearful Democratic politicians’ spines on the issue? Probably not. No doubt things would have unfolded inexorably, as they have, toward the current Republican tax revision.
Tax the Rich: An Animated Fairy Tale, after all, is just a little cartoon. But as Ed Asner might point out, sometimes small things can accumulate, and a trickle might reverse course and become a flood.
Fred Glass recently retired as the California Federation of Teachers communications director. He is the author of From Mission to Microchip: A History of the California Labor Movement (University of California Press, 2016).