We Have Not Been Doing Enough for the Poor

David BrooksOne of the best articles I ever wrote was, I Was a Middle Class Food Stamp Kid. In it, I discussed how my parents owned a 7-11 when I was a kid. There were lots of people who lived near by and they spent food stamps to pay for stuff. That helped them, and that was great. But the truth of the matter is that those food stamps helped everyone — most especially my family. I estimated that 5% of the store’s gross income came from food stamps — probably more than our entire margin. It is a sad thing that people like me tend to look down on poor people who are dependent upon SNAP benefits, even while they help us as much if not more.

On Friday, David Brooks wrote, The Nature of Poverty. As the totally clueless commentator that he is, he thinks he has a big ol’ scoop. You see, silly people like Jon Stewart complain that we aren’t doing enough about poverty in this country. But Brooks has some news for you, “Since 1980 federal antipoverty spending has exploded… in 2013 the federal government spent nearly $14,000 per poor person.” If we just gave that money to poor families, they would be middle class!

It should come as no surprise that Brooks concluded his column, “The world is waiting for a thinker who can describe poverty through the lens of social psychology.” That’s because it isn’t his conclusion. This is his unspoken postulate mascaraing as a conclusion. Where have we heard this sort of thing before, “Individuals are left without the norms that middle-class people take for granted.” Oh, that’s right: the last time David Brooks “tackled” the issue. It’s always about social dysfunction among the poor — the causation never goes the other way. Why would it? The whole point is to tax the rich as little as possible and to tell the poor to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

But as Dean Baker was quick to point out, Brooks’ statistic was nonsense, David Brooks and the Federal Government’s $14,000 Per Year Per Poor Person. A shocking 40% of it is in the form of Medicaid. That is money that doesn’t go to the poor but rather “directly to doctors and other health care providers.” It is true that the poor get medical care, but the cost is so high because doctors make twice in America what they make in the rest of the advanced world.

So this is a situation like mine growing up in a 7-11 store. What we have here is welfare for the well off that people like David Brooks pretends is done for the poor. To him, somehow doctors’ salaries would go down if only poor children did better on the marshmallow challenge. This is just a way for rich people to justify doing nothing while pretending to care.

As for the other 60%, well, it isn’t as Brooks claimed either. That total $14,000 claim is based upon taking all of the money that we spend on programs for lower income people, and then dividing it by the much smaller number of people below the poverty line. So they don’t actually get that much money. As Baker noted, we are a stingy society, “The average family of three on TANF gets less than $500 a month. The average food stamp benefit is $133 per person.”

Paul Krugman later pointed out that the funding for these programs have all basically been flat — except for Medicaid, and it has only been going up because healthcare costs are going up, not the amount of service. He provided this helpful graph:

Non-growth of Welfare State

So people like Jon Stewart are right. And David Brooks is just a jerk.

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Morning Music: Worst Pies in London

Sweeney ToddI don’t quite know why it came into my mind, but I was talking to a friend about the song “Worst Pies in London” from the filmed version of Sweeney Todd. On stage, it is nothing special: just a pretty and amusing song. In the film, it is something quite different: an interesting contrast between the beauty of the song and the reality of mid-19th century London. The pie filling looks like it is something dredged from the sewer; cockroaches the size of mice are everywhere; and the actual pie seems to have mold on it. “It tastes like pity?” I think that is a decidedly optimistic appraisal.

Regardless, I love the song. I love the movie. It is extremely rare that a Broadway musical is brought to the screen so successfully. I can only think of two films off hand: West Side Story and Cabaret. Just the same, I can rarely get myself to watch Sweeney Todd. I admire it, but it is hard to take. It has a lot of great moments, however. And this is definitely one of them.

See Also

We All Deserve to Die
The Nice Side of All Deserving to Die

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Anniversary Post: State Sales Taxes

Sales TaxIt is very possible that on this day in 1921, West Virginia enacted the first broad sales tax. Do you know who loves the sales tax? The rich. I’m sure that the push to get sales taxes all over the United States was the result of the federal income tax enacted in 1913 via the Sixteenth Amendment. The federal income tax remains the only truly progressive tax in the United States. And the sales tax is regressive. This is why conservatives always go on about the federal income tax. They are just fine with the state sales taxes. In fact, many of them want to get rid of the federal income tax and replace it with a value added tax — basically a federal sales tax.

I should be clear, however. West Virginia legislated the sales tax at that time. But it apparently took the state forever to actually getting it working. That great bastion of liberty and supporter of the “common man,” Mississippi was the first state to actually get it going — in 1930, just when the common man could least afford it.

Here in the United States, we have a taxing system that is a mess. It is designed so as to take the maximum amount from the poor, but not make it look like this is what is happening. So everyone focuses on 15 April — the one day when our only progressive tax is collected. But every day — Every minute! — the poor and middle classes are being regressively taxed. But that’s just fairness. Unlike that terrible federal income tax, which is downright un-American!

Happy anniversary to the first broad-based sales tax — the beginning of a terrible American tradition.

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Odds and Ends Vol 15 — Cool Images Edition

Odds and EndsThis is a special edition of our Odds and Ends posts. I’ve been collecting random images from the internet. I’ve been wanting to do something with them, but I haven’t found a use. And they are sitting around in the place I put temporary images before uploading them to Frankly Curious. So they are just in the way. And if I find a permanent place to store them, they are as gone as if I had just deleted them. But they are pretty good. I’ll do my best to provide context.

Nixon: Prince of the Deep

First up is an image from The Daily Show in a segment called, Start Wars — a pun on Star Wars. It is about the Iran nuclear deal, noting the hypocrisy of Republicans in wanting to control the president regarding treaties but not wars. One of those treaties is the Law of the Sea Treaty. James Inhofe said that it would make us relinquish sovereignty of “70% of the world.” Jon Stewart responded, “As you know, America currently owns the oceans ever since President Nixon blew on Neptune’s fabled conch shell and became Prince of the Deep.” That went along with the following wonderful image:

Nixon as Neptune

Bigotry Buddies

Next we have two images from The Nightly Show. The first is from a bit on Ferguson Police Bias. During it, Larry Wilmore joked about a television series featuring George Zimmerman and Darren Wilson called, “Bigotry Buddies.” I’d watch it:

Bigotry Buddies

Blacks Do the Darndest Things!

The second is from Tuesday night’s excellent show on the Baltimore situation, What a Riot. A Fox News commentator said, “We got two stores right now, this guy’s walking out with a Colt 45 poster and then he’s burning it but you certainly got a lot of free liquor there that’s going on in the five finger discount here.” Wilmore responded that the clip was from the new show, “Blacks Do the Darndest Things!”

Blacks Do the Darndest Things!

Mystery Insect

This next one comes from a great photographer I follow on Google+, Robert Langdon. He is out of Florida, and does these amazing backlit shots. I don’t know that much about photography — just enough to be really impressed by his work. One day recently, he posted the following unidentified insect. But even more than the identity of this little charmer, is what that silver ball is underneath her. If you all have any thoughts, let me know.

Mysterious Insect by Robert Langdon

You can also check out Robert Langdon at Fine Art America.

Hipster Flintstones

And finally, we have have something that came to me from someone I follow on Google+, but I don’t remember who it is. But it is everywhere on the internet. Still, I thought it was pretty good. It is also self-explanatory. But I will note one thing: there is nothing to indicate Jesus in this image. Perhaps they are just celebrating the winter solstice?

Hipster Flintstones

That’s all for now kiddos. But we’ll be back later with another loose collection of things whenever it seems appropriate.

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The True Western Religion

Glenn GreenwaldIt was redolent of how NBC News immediately organized a panel to trash its own host, Chris Hayes, after Hayes grievously sinned against this religion simply by pondering, on Memorial Day, whether all American soldiers are “heroes” (a controversy that died only after he offered some public penance). The church in which Americans worship this religion are public events such as football games, where fighter jets display their divinity as the congregation prays.

This is the religion — of militarism and tribalism — that is the one thriving and pervasive in the west. The vast, vast majority of political discourse about foreign policy — especially from US and British media commentators — consists of little more than various declarations of tribal superiority: we are better and our violence is thus justified. The widespread desperation on the part of so many to believe that Muslims are uniquely violent, primitive and threatening is nothing more than an affirmation of this religious-like tribalism. And nothing guarantees quicker and more aggressive excommunication than questioning of this central dogma.

—Glenn Greenwald
Cowardly Firing of Australian State-Funded TV Journalist Highlights the West’s Real Religion

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Ginger Baker Is a Very Typical Jerk

Beware of Mr BakerI just watched the documentary about iconic drummer Ginger Baker, Beware of Mr Baker. It is quite good, but I don’t mean to talk about the movie here. I want to discuss Baker himself. You see, he really is a vile man. And if you eliminate his amazing musical abilities, he is just like countless men that I’ve known. It’s a curious thing. There is a mixture of narcissism and hopelessness that don’t seem to go together. He clearly thinks that the most wonderful and perfect thing is himself. But that hasn’t made him happy. So he blames the rest of the world.

There is a telling moment toward the end of the film. Baker is, bizarrely, into polo. As a result, he owns about thirty horse. He has to, because apparently, no one will allow him in their polo clubs because, as I said, he’s a vile person. While petting one of his horses, he says, “Horses don’t let you down. Nor do dogs. They all know who I am.” Who is he? I assume he means the center of the universe. This is coming from a man who is known in the music business as one of the very greatest drummers, but someone who no one wants to work with because he’s so unpleasant. He is estranged from his children. Even his current wife seems to have glommed onto him as the best of bad options.

If I hadn’t know so many men who are like this, I might think this is all a function of Baker’s musical brilliance. But it isn’t. Most men who behave as he does don’t have anything particularly impressive to offer to the world. So I’m sure that if Baker had simply become a coal miner, he would be exactly the same. So it’s hard for me to consider him just a lovable rogue. He’s very unlovable. But people are more willing to give him a pass because of his past accomplishments. Obviously, I’m not.

Another moment, just about a minute after Baker’s comment about horses and dogs, the filmmaker, Jay Bulger, asked him if he thought about going back into music. This is following Baker’s never ending complaints about being broke. Bulger tells him that he may be forced to if his ranch is going to be foreclosed on. And he adds, “Besides, it’s who you are.” And Baker, ever the charmer, spits back, “Oh, for fuck’s sake, why are we talking about this shit?!” I get it: Baker is unhappy. But this is just bully nonsense.

During the credits, Bulger runs through various clips of Baker insulting him. In some cases, it is clear that he’s half joking. But mostly, he’s just angry because he isn’t being asked the right questions and given the right respect. But there is no joking at all when Baker slams his cane into the nose of Bulger. The the reason he does this is incredible. Baker doesn’t want him to interview people that Baker has left behind “on my film.” His film. His life. His world. But Bulger’s ultimate reaction to this is part of the problem, “I realized: the madman is alive and well!”

But not really. In that sentence, “madman” is a euphemism for what the Frankly Curious style dictates I call a “jerk” but would prefer to call something more colorful and forceful. And more important, Baker may be alive, but he is not well. He is miserable. And he is one of countless men who deal with their unhappiness about the fact that the world does not worship them by making everyone pay. As a James Thurber cartoon I once saw said, “You’re disappointed? We’re all disappointed!” Most of us manage to get through life without making everyone else more miserable than they already are.

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Judith Miller Hasn’t Learned a Thing

Judith MillerIn general, Judith Miller’s book tour has been really upsetting. It isn’t that I blame her for the Iraq War. But she was at a bare minimum a useful fool of the Bush administration that was determined to go to war with Iraq. Yet here she is with her new book, The Story. And every time I see her, she is making the same reasonable sounding, but wrong, claims that it wasn’t her — it was the flawed intelligence. If pushed, she will admit that, sure, it wasn’t the intelligence as such, but rather the intelligence filtered through the White House that was wrong. But then she will follow it up with something to the effect that all the reporters got it wrong — except Knight Ridder. But even that heads back at her, because eventually even they assumed they were wrong because, well, look at what The New York Times was reporting!

So normally, I wouldn’t have watched Jon Stewart’s interview with her on The Daily Show. But I heard that he really went after her. And he did indeed. But the truth is that Judith Miller is very good at deflecting criticism. And she is just going to sit there, smile, and repeat her mantra, “I was just reporting what I thought was true; all the other reporters were doing it.” It’s just shameful. And Stewart’s conclusion was appropriate:

We’re obviously never going to see eye-to-eye on it. I appreciate you coming on the program. These discussions always make me incredibly sad because I feel like they point to institutional failure at the highest levels and no one will take responsibility for it, and they pass the buck to every individual but themselves. It’s sad.

But the main thing was the total disgust that was on his face. Miller, of course, smiled through it all. She is, after all, not just selling a book; she’s selling herself. But the best that Stewart could manage was a very tight, clearly angry, forced smirk. I was glad to see it. He clearly feels the way I do.

I want to be clear about what this feeling is. I have no wish to see Judith Miller harassed and belittled for the rest of her life. People make mistakes. For some, it is small and maybe all it does it ruin their lives. But some make mistakes on a grand scale. Miller is such a person. Now I fully appreciate that if Cheney and company didn’t have access to her, they would have found someone else. But they did have her, and it isn’t asking so much for her to admit that she did a bad job.

Ultimately, the problem is with the media system itself. Judith Miller has presented herself — and continues to — as a neutral observer. She’s just reporting the facts as she finds them. But as The Daily Show interview shows, this isn’t the case. She actually did have an ax to grind. I don’t doubt that she was unaware of it. But she appears to be so focused on exonerating herself that she is still unaware of her biases. If she were honest and admitted that, yes in fact, she wanted to believe the nonsense that the White House was dishing, then it would all be over. I would accept that she — very much like myself — is imperfect. But the Judith Miller going all over the nation pimping her book? She hasn’t learned a thing.

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Morning Music: Blind Faith

Blind FaithI’ll be writing about Ginger Baker later today, but it made me think about a lot of the great music that he was involved in. The Steve Winwood song “Can’t Find My Way Home” of the original Blind Faith album really sticks out to me. It works very well as Baker’s lament about not being able to find the key to happiness and thinking it is just one person or thing away.

Here is the band at its premiere concert in Hyde Park, London. They really are an amazing band. And Baker’s work on the drums is stunning. But as you will see later today, I still think he’s an awful human being who is not at all redeemed by his music.

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Anniversary Post: Folies Bergère

Folies BergèreOn this day back in 1869, the Folies Bergère opened in Paris, France. Of course, at that time, it was known as the Folies Trévise. It’s always been a little sexy, but it has never been the kind of coarse entertainment venue that most Americans imagine. It certainly isn’t anything that I couldn’t take any of my wives or girlfriends to — although that probably says more about my wives and girlfriends than it does the Folies Bergère.

A better way to look at it is like the club in Cabaret. And based upon that, we can say of the performers, “Each and every one: a virgin!” According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, Folies Bergère was a standard nightclub in its early days, featuring “musical comedies and revues, operettas, vaudeville sketches, playlets, ballets, eccentric dancers, acrobats, jugglers, tightrope walkers, and magicians.” It followed other clubs into nudity, but apparently with much gusto.

Today, of course, the Folies Bergère is an institution in Paris. It sound like a lot less fun to me than it would have been in the early 1870s:

Each of its shows requires about 10 months of planning and preparation, 40 different sets, and 1,000 to 1,200 individually designed costumes.

Happy anniversary Folies Bergère!

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Why People Like Moonrise Kingdom

Moonrise KingdomThere is a wonderful moment in Moonrise Kingdom. Suzy just revealed a painful secret to Sam and he laughed at her. She stormed away and hid inside the tent. Shortly after, Sam opens the entrance to the tent and says, “I’m sorry… I’m on your side.” And the conflict is over. It’s very mature. Yet those two are outcasts in the world. No one understands them. But more important, they don’t understand the world. They are looking for a way to navigate the world in the same way they attempt to french kiss. And in this way, they are connected to everyone else.

Despite its extreme charm, Moonrise Kingdom is an existential nightmare. It is a narrative demonstrating what Schopenhauer said in The World as Will and Idea, life consists of “momentary gratification, fleeting pleasure conditioned by wants, much and long suffering, constant struggle, bellum omnium [everyone against everyone], everything a hunter and everything hunted, want, need and anxiety, shrieking and howling; and this goes on in saecula saeculorum [forever and ever] or until once again the crust of the planet breaks.” Physical circumstances may change — generally for the better in this film — but no one is anymore happy at the end than at the beginning. They simply make it through today in order to be allowed to make it through tomorrow.

None of this depresses me. This is simply the way I see the world. At least for the time, I have made my peace with the Will. But most people find my outlook on the world to be a decidedly unpleasant one. So why does everyone seem to find this film so pleasant? Is it just that they don’t over-think films like I do? Or is it just that it is about children and we assume that things will work out? After all, we all know how well things work out for our childhood selves! I don’t think it is any of this.

Wes Anderson creates such odd characters that we don’t see them as real people, even as we recognize ourselves in them. The characters are taciturn as they suffer through their lives — just as we all secretly think we are. It doesn’t matter how much we complain about the injustices that plague us, there are more profound wounds that we simply don’t have the language to communicate. But only in an Anderson film do we see characters manifested who share this existential dread that, just as always, today will be just like yesterday.

A good part of Wes Anderson’s work leaves me cold. But as big a part of it is exceptional work. And I think Moonrise Kingdom is the best film of his that I’ve seen — unquestionably a great film. But it is great almost by accident. And this may be why so many of his films don’t really work. They are cut off from external reality, and so only sometimes do they manage to grab hold of an internal truth and sing it. Otherwise, it is just odd characters acting in odd ways.

Having said this about his films working, I want to be clear that they are always well made. He has a distinct visual style that is usually rendered with great care. And that really is the case here. Moonrise Kingdom is an incredibly beautiful film. It could consist of only still images and it would be compelling. What’s more, it is genuinely funny with an extremely well structured story that triumphs over its own cherished absurdity. But what makes it work escapes me. And I think it escapes Anderson too.

So what is the “happy” truth in Moonrise Kingdom? I think it is that we are all lost — muddling through life on a hopeless quest. One moment we are the shame of the troop and the next, we are the hero. But always, we should cut each other some slack. Not that it matters.

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Matt Bruenig on “Clever” Libertarians

Matt BruenigI thought it would be fun to also shoot from the hip and theorize on why libertarians… behave as they do as youths and later in life, especially regarding [Frédéric] Bastiat. Young libertarians are smug, arrogant, and contrarian. Above all else, they love to be the smartest and cleverest guys in the room. So they latch on to simplistic arguments that cut against what most people think in order to mock others as stupid and unlettered. I’ve met plenty of libertarians in my life, and a good 90% of them seem to regard themselves as the smartest and cleverest person in any room they happen to be in.

Bastiat is super-helpful for those pursuing contrarian cleverness. His little stories are comprehensible and allow you to laugh heartily at someone who supports things like the minimum wage. The problem arises when the dumb minimum wage supporter actually ends up being right for a more complicated reason. That enrages the libertarian because even though he was clearly cleverer than the average minimum wage supporter, he is ultimately wrong. That insufferable reality drives the ashamed libertarian to clutch on to Bastiat even as Bastiat is shredded. Bastiat still allows them to point out how stupid the reasoning of the bulk of minimum wage supporters is even if their policy conclusions wind up being right. In that way, Bastiat allows the libertarian to preserve his status as super-clever even if he is actually wrong.

Libertarians love really flashy simple arguments that ultimately fall to pieces. A sophisticated debate doesn’t score the big humiliation points because it’s so complicated. Since Bastiat is truly irrelevant when it comes to modern debates on the kind of issues he discusses, the libertarian is in a bad spot. He wants to pretend to be clever and better than everyone else in his grand powers of reasoning, but he cannot really do that anymore. So instead the modern libertarian brings up Bastiat to show how clever he is and how stupid everyone else is, and then makes up some post-hoc bullshit about how discussing Bastiat is actually meaningful when it isn’t.

—Matt Bruenig
The Never-Ending Libertarian Quest to Appear Clever


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Haymarket Affair and Continuing Workers’ Struggle

Haymarket AffairToday is International Workers’ Day, or in many places, just Labor Day. It was originally chosen to commemorate the Haymarket affair. It’s easy enough to get all of the history of labor organizing confused because it is all very repetitive. Workers try to get rights, businesses get the government to beat down the workers. It really is that simple. The primary purpose of the police and military is to keep the power elite in control by “controlling” the lower classes. If you see the police as being represented by the “Officer Friendly” nonsense, you’ve lived a charmed life — most likely because you are rich.

It is hard not to relate the Haymarket affair to what has been going on in Baltimore. Things really haven’t changed. Then as now, the media tended to ignore protests unless they got violent. Then as now, police and other kinds of brutality on behalf of the power elite were ignored. And, of course, the police were rarely held accountable. The day before Haymarket, the police began shooting into the striking workers — killing a couple of them. This led to the Haymarket demonstration when a group of anarchist threw a bomb that led to the deaths of seven police officers and an unclear number of workers. Typical that the number of civilian deaths is uncertain.

The direct result of the Haymarket affair is that four anarchists — none of them directly responsible, and probably not even indirectly — were put to death. Let’s be really clear here: they weren’t put to death because of the bombing. They were put to death as a cultural symbol — a message to uppity workers. The case against these men had nothing to do with the crime itself. The trial was all about what they had written in the past. Does we still believe free speech exists in the United States when it clashes with powerful interests? Sure, we allow Nazis to parade through Jewish neighborhoods. But businesses must be allowed to counter any union organizing with weeks of mandated propaganda. People’s feelings don’t matter. Businesses’ profits do.

The short term result of Haymarket was a huge backlash against the labor movement. And, of course, a groundswell of support for our brave men in uniform. You know: the ones who the day before Haymarket had shot indiscriminately into a crowd on peaceful strikers. Oh, and what were these terrible workers fighting for? A little thing called the 8 hour work day. At that time, people at the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company were working ten hours per day, six days per week. Do you get overtime if you work more than eight hours per day? Thank a union.

Despite public opinion — and all those truth-telling journalists who just so happened to find the truth by supporting the power elite — the Haymarket affair stiffened the resolve of union supporters. It is all about solidarity. I have argued in the past that this is what capitalists most fear about unions. Any given benefit or workplace reform can later be destroyed — as long as the capitalists can divide and conquer the workers. And they’ve largely succeeded. About the only people I know who are big supporters of unions are those who are in unions. And even inside of some unions, such as grocery workers, there is now a double standard: older workers are well paid and younger workers have more or less minimum wage jobs.

But the fight continues. Happy International Workers’ Day!

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