Lord of the Adam West

William GoldingOn this day in 1907, Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell was born. He is a good object lesson in how political the conservative judicial movement has become. Richard Nixon nominated him, even though he was a Democrat. He was considered a moderate at the time, but today, he would probably be more liberal than everyone on the court other than Justice Ginsburg. The liberals on the court have become moderates and the conservatives have become neanderthals.

The actor Adam West is 85 day. People mostly know him as the title character in the TV series Batman. The show really works compared to very serious superhero movies of today. It was ridiculous and it relished that fact. Of course, West is quite a good actor with a very long resume. But in recent years, he’s shown himself to have a really great sense of humor in shows like Futurama and Family Guy where he is a regular. At this point, I don’t think there is an American actor more beloved than he is. Here is a collection of bits from the 1966 Batman:

The actor Jeremy Irons is 65 today. To celebrate his retirement, I present to you his wonderful performance in one of Samuel Beckett’s best short plays, Ohio Impromptu:

Other birthdays: columnist Mike Royko (1932); Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein (1934); Righteous Brother Bill Medley (73); songwriter Paul Williams (73); singer Twiggy is 64; and comedian Jimmy Fallon is 39.

The day, however, belongs to the great novelist William Golding who was born on this day in 1911. He is best known for his bestseller Lord of the Flies, which is unquestionably a great novel. But I think people trivialize the novel when they see it as being about children and socialization. The book is really about our natural instincts as adults. What takes place on that island is what goes on every day between the nations of the world. It also goes on in a less drastic form between individuals. Think about the primal scream therapy session that is Fox News. That is all about taking sides and proclaiming that we are the good, true, and noble ones and they are the bad, invalid, and debased ones—the barbarians at the gate. As we see in the book, anyone can be drawn into the hysteria of killing the weak—or even the very best of who we are, as in the murder of Simon. Our only hope is to not allow demagogues to control us, but my experience in life is that we are addicted to the rush these evil leaders provide. And sadly, there is no navy officer to save us.

Golding wrote a number of other novels as well. But with Lord of the Flies as his first, you can imagine. As a result, I haven’t gone out of my way to read him. However, I did read his third novel, Pincher Martin. Although it is a fine, even great, novel, it made me long for the light hearted content of Lord of the Flies. The book is kind of like Simon’s hallucinations of the Lord of the Flies, but with a character you really dislike. But that shouldn’t stop you from reading him. After all, how many times can you reread Pride and Prejudice?

Happy birthday William Golding!

Americans No Better Off After 24 Years

Matt YglesiasThis week, the Census Bureau released data on the median family income in the United States. They found that it is lower than it was in 1989. That’s a big deal because the US economy has seen huge increases in productivity since 1989, but none of it has trickled down to the people. That isn’t really surprising. In general, since the late 1970s, productivity growth has not been shared with workers. There were modest gains during the Clinton years, small losses during the Bush years, and then huge losses following the 2009 crash. Still, it isn’t obvious to everyone. In particular, Matt Yglesias just doesn’t believe that people today are doing worst than they were 24 years ago.

I understand where he’s coming from. We have bigger houses now. We have more cars. More of us are graduating from college. He speculates that the consumer price index (CPI) is inaccurate over long periods of time. There is something to that. The CPI doesn’t just look at increases in costs; it also factors in technological improvements. So cars today are worth more than they were 24 years ago because they are now better. So even though the absolute price of a car may have doubled in that time, the inflation wouldn’t be 100% because now we get something equivalent to a car and a half. All of this means that the CPI is an imperfect measure, even though the example I just gave should (if anything) overstate how well we are doing today.

But I think that Yglesias is falling into the trap of thinking that marginal changes in standard of living are bigger than they really are. As Ha-Joon Chang noted, “The washing machine has changed the world more than the internet has.” This is an argument that I’ve been having with high tech friends for a long time. In the 1950s, people had AM radios in their cars. Now they have satellite radio and MP3 players. Is this an improvement? Sure! But it is only a marginal improvement. It is easy to overstate the importance of such things.

The things that Yglesias mentions as indicative of affluence don’t really mean that much. Having a home is a lot better than living on the street. Having a 1,700 square foot house really isn’t any better than having a 1,600 square foot house. Having more cars is probably more a function of lifestyle changes—especially more members of the household working—than it is anything else. And more education has not led to more wealth for workers. What’s more, Yglesias admits that fewer people have health insurance now than did then. But even there he diminishes the change by noting that there are procedures available now that weren’t available then. Well, for one thing, that’s a very marginal improvement. But more important, a larger share of people’s income is going to medical care, so that must swamp any improvements and provide a distinctly decreased quality of life.

I think the graph that he provides tells us all that we need to know:

Household Income Time Series

What we see here is roughly what we already knew. During the end of the Reagan-Bush years, wages had stagnated. Under Clinton wages went up. They again stagnated under Bush until the crisis when they plunged down. Are we worst off now than we were in 1989? Maybe yes and maybe no. The main thing is that we aren’t doing much different than we were 24 years ago. This is during a time when per capita GDP has increased by more than 70%. I think that Yglesias is just being picky. I don’t think he would question that the median family is not doing substantially better today. And that is the important point, regardless of how accurate the CPI is.

Update (20 September 2013 9:23 pm)

Matt Yglesias has written another article on this subject, The BLS Says Incomes Are Up Since 1989. In it, he notes that the BLS data indicate that after tax incomes are 11% higher since 1989. He is too caught up in the details of this. The point is, as I said above, that after 24 years the median family is at best doing very slightly better. The fact that statistics might be off by a few percentage points after all that time is not a story. The fact that Americans are not sharing in large productivity gains is a story.

Theresa Vail vs Female Stereotypes

Despite the heroic efforts of 22-year-old Miss Kansas, Theresa Vail, Miss America’s stereotypes are still firmly in place.

Not only is Theresa the first woman ever to join the National Guard, she took on the male-dominated world of archery with her femininity intact. How many beauty queens have those bragging rights?

Perhaps even more inspiring was her brave act of defiance when she willingly chose to “step outside the box” and flash her ink at the judges. In an interview prior to the competition, Theresa reminded anyone who was listening that showing her permanent support of AA was “a bold move!” She went on to say, “And it’s risky, it could very well cost me the crown.”

Theresa did indeed jump out of the box, hoping to leap the hurdles of beauty pageantry, only to be forced to prance around in a two-piece. Hopefully she will find comfort in knowing that she strutted her stuff with dignity.

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GOP Bad Faith Obamacare “Replacement”

IPABThe always great Austin Frakt and Aaron Carroll at The Incidental Economist have provided a summary of the new Republican plan to replace Obamacare, The Republican Study Committee Has a “Replace” Plan. Their take on it is very much the same as what I wrote yesterday, Republicans New Healthcare Distraction. That isn’t too surprising, given that much of my thinking about healthcare has been informed by Aaron Carroll. But as usual, they noticed some things that I had missed.

The big part of the Republican plan is to provide a standard tax deduction for purchasing health insurance. The current system is unfair. If your employer provides you with insurance, he gets to write it off; but if you buy insurance for yourself, you don’t get to write it off. So the Republican plan allows individuals to write off up to $7,500 per year for insurance. But there are two problems. First, this is going to be a very expensive program. It’s weird: when the government spends money to pay for a program, conservatives understand that this costs money. But when they cut taxes to pay for a program, they somehow think it is free. Regardless, of what they think, this program is not free.

The second problem is that this is basically just another tax cut for the rich. Most of the poor will not be able to afford health insurance, so they won’t get the tax break. Those poor people who do manage to buy health insurance will not see their taxes go down by much because they aren’t paying high marginal tax rates. So the program is little more than a giveaway to those relatively wealthy people who are already buying insurance on the open market. It will do very little to make insurance affordable for those without it now.

That is generally true of the Republican “replacement” program. Obamacare has two major goals. First, it tries to provide health insurance to those who do not currently have it. Second, it tries to reduce healthcare costs. Even though the program has not been fully implemented, we are already seeing success with these two goals. But the Republican plan does nothing to reduce healthcare costs other than the usual “magic of the marketplace” nonsense. And at best it does nothing to provide health insurance to those who currently have none.

It is more likely that the plan will make healthcare less affordable for those without it. A good example of this is the tired old conservative idea to allow insurance companies to sell policies across state lines. Frakt and Carroll note, “[The policies will] be great if you’re young, healthy, or wealthy enough to afford to fill in the coverage gaps. They’ll be terrible if you are older, have a chronic condition, or, again, if you’re low income.” We see this time and time again with their ideas. It really is as simple as this:

The Affordable Care Act is intended to help people who don’t have insurance, especially those who are less than healthy, get it. The House proposal is intended to make insurance cheaper and easier to get if you are healthy.

What the Republicans seem to be saying is, “Obamacare is a law that involves healthcare, so here is a replacement bill that also involves healthcare.” There is no consideration of what the new healthcare law is actually being used for. And that’s because the Republicans are not putting forward this “replacement” plan in good faith. It is only put forward as political cover. It is like replacing SNAP (food stamps) with another “poverty program” that let’s everyone write off their food purchases.

Of course, the media is not covering it like that. For example, the Christian Science Monitor covered it as though it were a real plan and only mentioned a single (weak) liberal complaint against it. And that’s the big problem with political coverage: the media will always present clear Republican nonsense as though it were a real effort at legislation. There continues to be no downside for the Republicans’ continuing efforts to destroy civil society. And so the Republicans continue to try to destroy civil society.

Rich Get Great Returns on Their Taxes

Rich Uncle PennybagsThe Urban Institute recently put out a video on the big Romney line that 47% of Americans don’t pay any federal income taxes. The video itself is okay, but more important, it provides some really great information that is worth stressing. What’s more, it gets to a problem with the way that Americans think about how the government taxes and spends. It is absolutely not the case that the rich are taxed to take care of the poor. In general, everyone is taxed for benefits that go overwhelmingly to the rich.

It rightly points out that while higher income earners pay more in taxes, they also get more from the government. There is a strong tendency for Americans to think that government only helps people through direct cash payments. This is absurd. It means that families receiving $100 in food stamps are getting government help but banks getting billions of dollars in free loans are not. This confusion is exactly what the power elite want, of course. But it is deadly to the society and ends up giving us terrible policy. For example, over the last 20 years, it has become harder and harder for individuals to file for bankruptcy. But during that same time, it has become easier and easier for corporations to file for bankruptcy. That only makes sense in a society in which we define welfare as only something that goes to poor people.

The video then goes on to discuss three issues related to Romney’s fact. (Note: it is an old conservative talking point, but Romney is the one who made it famous.) The first issue is that the 47% number is only this high because the economy is doing so poorly. That’s important to remember in light of recent reporting (pdf) that 95% of the income gains since 2009 have gone to the top 1% of earners. In 2008 and 2009, an even higher percentage of people paid no federal income taxes. But before the crisis, the number was lower—only 38% in 2007. It is estimated to be 43% this year and 34% in 2022.

The second issue is one that I’ve talked about a lot here: federal income taxes are just one form of taxes. It is like saying, “99% of Americans pay no luxury tax!” This is deliberately misleading, implying that the poor pay no taxes. No mention is made of payroll taxes for example, because that wouldn’t make the argument that the poor are freeloaders. For example, a person making $20,000 per year pays a payroll tax rate of 7.65% while a person making $50 million per year pays a payroll tax rate of less than 0.02%. That’s our tax code too, but we never hear conservatives ranting about it.

The third issue is the most important part of the video. It divides up the 43% (this year’s value) to show who they are. Of these, 29 percentage points (67%) work. They pay the payroll tax, but they simply don’t make enough money to owe federal income taxes. The remaining 14 percentage points (33%) pay neither federal income nor payroll taxes. Of these, 10 percentage points (23%) are retired and too poor to pay federal income taxes. Almost all the rest (3 percentage points or 7%) are just too poor to pay anything. That leaves us with 1 percentage point (2%) who are either rich (all income is capital gains) or they own businesses that are failing or are going bankrupt because of medical bills.

So the whole idea that there are 53% who are “makers” and 47% who are “takers” is just ridiculous. But conservatives and liberals alike accept this framing of our society. Of course, no one sees themselves as a taker. I’ve talked to a number of people who are on SSI who are very conservative and do not think that they are takers. It is always his “welfare” and my “government program that I paid into!” That’s fine if conservatives want to think this way. But as liberals, we need to fight against accepting conservative frames for policy debates. And when it comes to this issue, I don’t think that most liberals even realize that it is a conservative frame.

As I’ve shown in the past, when you look at all taxes paid, our system is barely progressive:

Total Taxes Paid by Income Quintile

Even though the rich of this country get enormous direct support from the government, the bigger benefits are implicit. For example, the implicit insurance of “too big to fail” banks is estimated to be worth $60 billion per year. That is roughly the same amount the government spends feeding the poor. Similarly, the rich disproportionately benefit from the stable domestic and international infrastructure. In fact, I think the rich are fools to think that they would like a “libertarian utopia.” The truth is that such a thing would be far less stable and that would hurt, if not eventually destroy, their wealth. Regardless, the rich do very well by our system and are not over taxed. It is an outrage that we blame our underfunded government on the fact that the poor aren’t being taxed enough. It is even worse that those who most want to cut the taxes of the rich simultaneously call for raising the taxes of the poor.

Is God Speaking Through Pope Francis?

Pope FrancisI have long had a desire to be a member of a church. Being an atheist, I know that the kingdom of God must be here on earth if it is to be anywhere. It is only through our connections with others and our work for a better world that we can be whole. And I really would like to be part of an organized group to share in that.

Generally, I imagine something very nebulous in its theology but committed to social justice. So I’m surprised to see what’s happening in the Catholic Church. Pope Francis is making me feel like God (who I know doesn’t exist) really is reaching out to me. Up to now, I’ve been fairly impressed with him, but I thought a lot of what he said was a little too carefully stated. This morning, however, I read the following from the Associated Press:

Pope Francis has warned that the Catholic Church’s moral structure might “fall like a house of cards” if it doesn’t balance its divisive rules about abortion, gays and contraception with the greater need to make it a merciful, more welcoming place for all.

The man is starting to sound like the Dalai Lama! The dogma is still a problem, of course. (It is with the Dalai Lama too.) The Bible does indeed say a lot of vile things. But it isn’t clear to me that the church is stuck with these things. Despite what Biblical literalists say (and Catholics are not Biblical literalists), there are things in the Bible that no one accepts today. For example, everyone is against slavery, even though the Bible is pretty keen on it. So the Catholic Church really is capable of changing into the kind of institution that I could support.

Now, I’m not expecting this in my lifetime. But if the Catholic Church is to get to the point where the Sermon on the Mount is its basis rather than Leviticus, it must start with a Pope who prioritizes mercy above dogma about whether embryos have souls. And it looks like this is what Francis is doing. I’ve long desired a religion that spoke to the needs of modern man. But maybe that isn’t really so necessary. Maybe all that is necessary is a reinterpretation of the old religions—one that jettisons the old fearful and bigoted dogma and focuses on enlightenment, community, and mercy.

Francis is the first Pope through whom it seems God just might be speaking—to me.

American Acceptionalism

Congratulations to Nina Davuluri. Her genetic lotto ticket really paid off!

She and loser Theresa Vail are both stunning examples of American Exceptionalism. They both encapsulate our country’s obscene attraction to all things superficial and its tacit acceptance of implicit misogyny.

As for the racist flak that is being hurled at Nina, I hope she can ignore the hate grenade tossers—they won’t go away, but they’ll be distracted by another target soon enough. In the meantime, she can amuse herself with the thought that if her family did own a 7-11, Theresa’s family would be buying chewing tobacco from them.

Don’t cry for Theresa though! As a lovely distillation of America’s exceptional white trash patriotism, she’s sure to get an offer from Playboy any minute now. That validation of her true merit will undoubtedly ease the pain of losing to someone who didn’t even have the decency to be born a dyed-in-the-blonde American such as herself.

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Jeb Bush Is an Extremist Like All in GOP

Jeb BushSteve Benen called Jeb Bush to task for all the politicking he has been doing with some offensive characters, apparently in his pursuit of the Republican nomination for president in 2016. It got me thinking, “Would the country really vote in a third Bush as president?” There seems to be a bit of a contradiction to the whole idea. I’m sure that most people would not have a problem with it on its surface. After all, Jeb Bush is an individual; he really shouldn’t be judged based upon his father and brother. That idea is fundamental to who we are as a society. Just the same, if he did become president, there would be no denying that the Bush family was a dynasty in a way that the Adamses and the Kennedys were not.

Regardless, I’m not at all clear that people would vote for him in large numbers. Although I think it is wrong, people see George Sr as a mediocre president—riding on the coat tails of the great Reagan. And George Jr is still seen as a total disaster. That would be a heavy lift. In addition to that, there is something that binds all of these Bush men together. None of them are particularly ideological at their core. That doesn’t mean that they aren’t the worst kinds of demagogues, of course. Just think back on Sr’s Willie Horton ad or Jr’s push poll, “Would you be more or less likely to vote for John McCain…if you knew he had fathered an illegitimate black child?” But what really binds them together is what they do care about: corporate power—especially of the fossil fuels industry.

Benen complained about Jeb Bush’s recent fundraising for Ken Cuccinelli and Paul LePage. But I disagree with him here:

I realize the former governor is considering a 2016 presidential campaign, but is all of this outreach to the ridiculous wing of the GOP really necessary? Has Bush decided to completely abandon his so-called “brand” as a mainstream, substantive Republican?

I’m not sure what is this “ridiculous wing of the GOP” to which he is referring. I’m only partially facetious here. Bush and the other “thoughtful, forward-thinking mainstream conservatives” are in no fundamental way different from the “ridiculous” conservatives. It is all a matter of style. As Benen himself noted previously: Jeb Bush doesn’t actually know much about immigration and education reform. On both issues, he is simply shilling for corporate interests.

The example of education “reform” is telling. He may claim that it is all about giving poor children the same access to good schools as rich children. But he isn’t. He is opposed to doing anything about our disgraceful policy of tying educational resources to local tax collection. He just happens to be for a policy that (1) gives rich parents money to pay toward private schools they would send their children to anyway; and (2) undercuts the power of teachers’ unions. Just because he doesn’t say that his primary aim is destorying teachers’ unions and giving poor children bad educations doesn’t mean he is a “thoughtful, forward-thinking mainstream conservative.” It just means that he is a more capable and urbane politician.

The example of abortion is even more telling. He claims that he is not an extremist. But it is hard to take that as anything but a strategic position. He’s pushed mandatory counseling for women seeking abortions—as though they are children who don’t know what they are doing. He is against abortion is all cases except for rape, incest, and life of the mother. As I’ve argued, that is not the reasonable position and it indicates a hatred of women—especially independent women. What’s more, this position on abortion means that he thinks that not only is a fertilized egg a full human being, he thinks it is a full citizen with equal rights to that of the host woman. He is also against the use of government funds for stem cell research. It is true that he’s never called giving birth to a rapist’s child turning a “lemon situation into lemonade.” And he’s never claimed that some rapes are legitimate and others aren’t. But when it comes to policy preferences, Jeb Bush is no different than Sharron Angle and Todd Akin.

There are some people in the Republican Party who don’t actually care about social issues. But I don’t see any of them with much in terms of power. Even the great “libertarian” icons Rand and Ron Paul are social conservatives. It isn’t that many of the elites care about the social issues. But they understand perfectly well that they would not have a base if they didn’t have people voting for them because of the social issues. Jeb Bush will only be able to further enrich his wealthy friends by giving the social conservative base their restrictive laws—or at least rhetoric. It costs him nothing. If his daughter ever needed an abortion, he could just fly her to France. Where Bush differs from someone like Todd Akin is that Akin actually believes the social conservative claptrap. But the fact that Jeb Bush lies to get elected doesn’t make him any less ridiculous. It just makes him far more dangerous.

Homework: An Unnecessary Evil

StressedSchoolBoyThis is a somewhat ranting response to my friend, Erika’s, recent post. There is a book, The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing, that shares the research showing the clear ineffectiveness of homework.

I have a pretty decent memory. When I was in 4th grade, I don’t remember having more than about a half-hour’s worth of homework. It was intended as a little bit of reinforcement rather than a pummeling of busywork. I didn’t get burned out until high school (though junior high had it’s own problems and was possibly worse for me).

Kids are burned out in first grade, typical kids, and it is much worse for children who don’t have conventional learning styles, as is the sad case with my friend Erika’s son. Yet there are parents who actually want the schools to give lots of homework; led to believe lots of extra work makes for smarter kids.

Looking at the current schedule of many children, they aren’t given much time for free play. After school, there is soccer (which is, to be fair, a physical activity and beneficial for kids) and violin lessons and dance class or some other school function. After that, there is dinner, healthy or not, depending how much time can be budgeted for cooking and eating. After that there is homework. Forget about there being a break on the weekends. There are more scheduled activities sprinkled among the schoolwork required for Monday morning. Then the whole cycles starts all over again.

In addition to the aforementioned book, I would recommend viewing the film, Race to Nowhere. It’s about schools turning kids into basket cases with the carrot of a college education held in front of their noses. Many kids in high school are spending hours and hours a night doing homework in order to be competitive, believing that is the only way they will get into college. They are overworked and sleep-deprived. Further, the situation is producing adults that are limited in their ability to be creative. But, hey, at least they’re really good at taking tests! In case you’re interested, click here if you would like to download a pdf of Race to Nowhere’s healthy homework guidelines.

(Image provided by David Castillo Dominici and FreeDigitalPhotos.net)