These Are Victims: Matthew Shepard and Emmett Till

This Is a Victim: Matthew Shepard

This afternoon, George Takei tweeted out this image. It is great and I’m pleased to share it here. (Matthew Shepard’s name is unfortunately spelled wrong.)

Phil Robertson’s anti-LGBT comments were totally offensive. And they show a creepy obsession that conservatives have with anal sex. Think about it. I assume none of the Ls are into anal sex. At least half of Bs aren’t into it. I don’t think any of the Ts are into it. So really, Granddaddy Robertson seems to only be concerned with some fraction of homosexuality. It shows that his Bible thumping is just an excuse for his intolerance. Typical American conservative Christian, “Goody! The Bible says I can hate on the gays!” It’s despicable and I’ll repeat what I said before, “In a nation that had any shame, this would be the last season of Duck Dynasty. Because no one would watch it anymore.”

But here’s the thing. I don’t find Phil Robertson’s comments on homosexuality nearly as offensive as I do his comments about the “happy blacks” of his youth. Maybe it is just because I am so used to “religious” people using their 2500 year old Bible verses to get away with their vile bigotry. Regardless, Matthew Shepard deserves to be remembered. But so does Emmett Till. So I used my meager artistic skills to create a corresponding image for him:

This is a Victim: Emmett Till

Hidden Welfare for the Rich

Socialism for the Rich

If there is one issue that I find most difficult to get across to conservatives, it is the idea that tax deductions are a form of welfare. The best example of this is the mortgage interest tax deduction. Conservatives almost always say something like this, “Allowing people to keep more of their own money isn’t welfare!” Sorry, but that just ain’t true. There are laws saying that we must all pay taxes. If two people who make the same amount of money pay different amounts just because one of them is buying a house, then he is getting welfare. The government might as well be sending him a check each month to help with the mortgage.

I didn’t learn this from some freaky liberal sociology teacher in college. I learned it from about the most conservative man of his generation, Milton Friedman. But I understand the difficulty with the concept. Most conservatives have this weird idea (that most won’t admit to) that taxes are a form of theft. And this idea has only gotten stronger as tax rates have gotten lower. But unless you are going to claim full anarchy with absolutely no taxes—not even for the military or police—then you agree that we have to tax.

People also get confused about how taxes are applied. A common bit of folklore goes something like this, “I got a raise, but because it put me in a higher tax bracket, I’m taking home less!” No, that’s not the way it works. The year before last, I made about $20,000. In a tax system with no special deductions (like the mortgage interest deduction), even someone who made $20 million would pay the same amount of taxes on that first $20,000. But as I know, because of the various special deductions and tax rates, that year, I paid roughly 13% in federal taxes. Mitt Romney, who made a thousand times as much paid roughly the same rate. So clearly, he was paying next to nothing on that first $20,000. That’s welfare, folks![1]

I bring this up because of a really interesting article by Matt Bruenig over at Demos, Here’s Why the US Spends More on Social Needs Than You Think. In it, he shows that if you take into account this kind of welfare, the United States spends about as much as Sweden does relative to GDP. So how is it that Sweden doesn’t have all the terribly poor people that we have? Bruenig focuses on how poorly our social spending is structured. The most notable example of this is our healthcare system where we spend almost twice as much as comparable countries, yet provide mediocre quality care to our people and none at all for about 15% of us.

But it is bigger than that. Our social spending is set up in a way to hide what’s going on. And this allows us to not provide welfare for the poor, while we provide plenty of it for the rich, like Mitt Romney. It’s interesting, because we would have a much better government if we just simplified the tax system. Yet I am absolutely against doing that. Those words—”simplify the tax system”—are code for, “Raise taxes on the poor and lower it on the rich.”

But it would help a lot if we made what is going on explicit. Instead of Mitt Romney getting taxed at only 15% on his capital gains, he would be forced to pay the normal marginal rate (39.6% on most of it). And then, the federal government could send him a welfare check for $5 million. At least then, people could decide for themselves whether it was fair that we were paying Mitt Romney a half million a month while people were living on the street—cold and hungry.

If we did this, I think things might change.

Afterword

I haven’t read the research that Bruenig is writing about, so exactly what shows up as “social spending” may be different than what I’m talking about. For example, I suspect it does not include the extra money we give out as welfare for people who make money by owning instead of working. But that doesn’t change the argument.


[1] The main reason Romney paid so little was that he didn’t work for his money. It was almost all capital gains that for some reason we think should be taxed less than money earned through work.

Conservative “Populism”

Up From ConservatismEven before Washington conservatives like William Kristol repudiated the conservative populist strategy that the Republican right had pursued since the days of Nixon, conservative populism was revealed as a fraud by the deeds of Newt Gingrich and his allies in the Republican Congress elected in 1994. When they came to power, the Republican congressional leaders claimed they were leading a “revolution” against the rule of special interests on Capitol Hill. Within weeks, it was clear that nothing had changed apart from the substitution of Republican special interests for Democratic ones. Gingrich and other Republican leaders began a massive shakedown of Washington lobbyists, warning that if they did not fund the Republican Party they would lose access to Congress. When a bipartisan coalition of Republicans and Democrats tried to introduce campaign-finance-reform legislation, Gingrich sought to prevent the subject from coming quickly to a vote by turning the matter over to a commission.

The First Hundred Days of the Republican Congress turned into the greatest romp for business interests since the Gilded Age. A few conservative reformers, like House Budget Commission Chairman John Kasich, had promised to go after corporate welfare. Then corporate PAC money began pouring into Republican coffers, and the crusade against corporate welfare was put off indefinitely by the same method employed to thwart campaign-finance reform—a proposed independent commission. Instead of balancing the budget by getting rid of subsidies and tax breaks for corporations and the rich, the House Republicans concentrated on eliminating programs for the powerless poor. While leaving untouched $50 billion in tax breaks for big business, and subsidies like the $2.6 million the federal government pays to promote the products of the E & J Gallo Winery, the Republican “revolutionaries” saw to it that more than half of the $9.4 billion in cuts in the House budget proposal came from low-income housing programs. While proposing to increase the federal deficit by several hundred billion dollars through new tax cuts that would have chiefly benefited the rich, Gingrich’s Republicans posed as friends of wage-earning Americans by pointing to a “profamily tax cut” that would have given each American the handsome sum of an additional $9.60 a week. Even though full-time minimum-wage workers do not earn enough to reach the poverty line, Gingrich and Dole—each with an enormous salary compared with those of most Americans, and a generous government health care plan—argued that the economy could not afford an increase in wages for the poorest workers.

—Michael Lind
Up From Conservatism: Why the Right Is Wrong for America

Joseph Smith and the LDS Ossification

Joseph SmithWould I be allowed to just skip the birthday post today? I think so. It’s just horrible. Really. But what am I gonna do? I would be so upset if I missed a day. So we grind. We grind along. We grind another birthday post out, even though I really need to get to the grocery store and start cooking for Christmas. Yes, I know: Christmas is two days away. You know what I really need? I really need to uncork that Louis Jadot Beaujolais. But I’m saving it for Christmas. All right, enough chitchat. On with this really sucky birthday post.

The poet Robert Bly is 87 today. I’m not that into him. But I remember my friend James Haining used to make fun of him, saying his poetry always seemed like this:

The white house
Next to the black pond.

It’s totally unfair. But very funny.

The great guitar player Adrian Belew is 64 today. The following isn’t a great video, but listen to him play!

Other birthdays: actor James Gregory (1911); trumpet player Chet Baker (1929); bowling icon Dick Weber (1929); co-inventor of TCP and IP Bob Kahn (75); mathematician Mikhail Leonidovich Gromov (70); comedian Harry Shearer (70); soap opera legend Susan Lucci (67); comedy writer Reinhold Weege (1949); and a musician who isn’t even worth mentioning, Eddie Vedder (49).

The day, however, belongs to the founder of the Latter Day Saint movement—the Mormons—Joseph Smith, who was born on this day in 1805. Was he a religious visionary or a charlatan? You know, I really think that he was both. And I think that’s true of most religious leaders. Of course, that’s the best way that I can put it. A less charitable person would say, he bought his own bullshit. I mean, his story is amazing with golden plates and the “seer stones” and all that. But I suspect that if he told the truth—he had a mystical or at least creative experience—no one would have cared. It probably didn’t hurt that he told men they could have multiple wives. (I’ve never quite gotten that myself; I always though one wife was too much; I’d be more into a wife that just spends Tuesdays with me.)

And that name! Could there be a more white bread name for a white bread religion? Why, yes; yes there could: John Smith. But still: it’s second in line. But you gotta give the man credit; he was continuing to expand the religion to the end. And if there is one thing that religious people don’t like it’s uncertainty. And that really did lead to his death. And like most of the founders of religions, death was a great career move. I doubt very seriously that the Mormon Church would have become the colossus that it is today.

There is no doubting that he is a very important figure in the history of the United States. In general, I would say he’s been a net harm. But I’m not sure that’s true during his lifetime. That period of spiritual awakening in America was authentic. It is sad to see how religions like the LDS and the JW have ossified into what they are today. Certainly their founders didn’t want that.

Happy birthday Joseph Smith!

Income Inequality Solutions 2: Higher Inflation

This is the second in a series of articles about what we can do to reduce our unacceptable levels of income and wealth inequality. The first was on the Estate Tax. This one discusses how our society’s obsession with low inflation exacerbates income and wealth inequality.

GoldWhen I was in middle school, we took some kind of class on critical thinking. I remember there being a question about building a parking lot and whether it ought to be perfectly level. It shouldn’t, because you want water to drain off it. I think about that example a lot when the issue of inflation comes up. A lot of people think that having no inflation would be perfect. Some libertarians have even argued that negative inflation would be good. After all, the “good” people who saved their money would see it go up in value. What could be wrong with that?!

Well, as it happens, there is something really wrong with that. Having zero inflation (much less negative inflation) encourages people to hoard money. Instead of spending it so that people can have jobs providing products and services, the economy stagnates. Clearly, this situation is bad for income inequality. It would be disastrous for employment. But it would be bad in another way. Almost by definition, poor people owe rich people money. That amount continues to grow because of the interest they must pay. In a negative inflation situation it is even worse: the principal actually grows over time even without interest.

It should come as no surprise that the rich want inflation to be really low. But as you must know, the rich are a very small number of people. Oh, let’s say they represent about 1% of the population. So why is it that the rest of us buy into this idea that inflation ought to be kept down? Part of it is the media who are the lapdogs of the power elite. And part of it is just that the Federal Reserve is the power elite and there’s no way they are going to put the needs of the unemployed and over-extended above the “needs” of the rich. This is why they target a 2% inflation rate instead of the much more reasonable 4%.

But most people who I talk to who are concerned about inflation are not rich and powerful. (In fact, I don’t think I know anyone who fits into that category.) For them, I think it is a matter of fairness. It seems right that if you earn a dollar, that dollar ought to keep its value. What’s more, if you borrow a dollar, you should have to pay it back and not be helped out by a bunch of inflation. I get all of that. I’m a big believer in fairness. But by focusing on this kind of fairness, people are missing other kinds of unfairness.

I’ve already talked about how low inflation keeps unemployment high and hurts those who owe money. But it also hurts those who live hand to mouth. They aren’t going to see any impact of a 4% inflation rate when they spend their entire check every two weeks. The rich, who don’t have to spend all their money just to survive, will be hurt by the higher rate of inflation. Or to put it the other way: low inflation doesn’t help the poor, but it does help the rich. None of this is fair; it all helps the rich relative to the poor.

I got thinking about this because this morning, Paul Krugman wrote, “Talk to gold bugs and they’ll tell you that paper money comes from governments, which can’t be trusted not to debase their currencies.” He’s definitely right. There is almost nothing more frustrating than talking to a libertarian about monetary policy and the gold standard. What’s interesting about this is that these people are worried that the government will allow high levels of inflation (debased currency), but it is just the opposite of what they should be worried about. The government is overly worried about inflation because our government is primarily of the rich, by the rich, and for the rich.

Clearly, hyperinflation would be bad. But we don’t have to worry about that, because it would be as bad or worse for the rich. But trying to get the inflation rate up to 4% would do a world of good. It would help the poor reduce their debts. It would stimulate spending and thus increase employment. And it would reduce the value of the cash that the rich hold on to — encouraging them to spend and invest. A higher inflation target would help reduce income inequality.

Afterword

See also: