Safety Nets in the Circus and Economy

High Wire ActDo you like to see high wire acts performed without a net? I don’t. In fact, lack of a net makes the whole thing far less entertaining to me. Knowing that the performer might die if he makes a mistake takes most if not all of the fun out of it. I do, however, understand that seeing a performer without a net might heighten the excitement of the event. But it also implied that the viewer doesn’t mind the prospect of watching the performer die.

I think the same thing is true of the conservative campaign against the social safety net. Sure, when someone manages to claw his way out of extreme poverty, it is thrilling. It’s far more impressive than if he had all his basic needs met and been given a good education. But it also implies that watching people born into poverty live unfulfilling and short lives is not a problem. That’s where I have to differ.

The problem with looking at social policy this way is that it is the same as watching a circus act. But a man’s life is not a circus act. There is no pretending. And such a man didn’t decide that he would rather be born into poverty without any help. He’s innocent in this real life drama. He is also not in control. Social policy is set by people who were not born into poverty—people for whom life did work out. And these are exactly the people who should not be making such decisions.

I thought about this because Robert Reich wrote a very good article over at his website, Why Widening Inequality Is Hobbling Equal Opportunity. It is about an issue that I’ve written about a lot around here. There cannot be anything close to “equality of opportunity” if absolute equality is as out of balance as it now is. As Reich points out, “Since the ‘recovery’ began, 95% of the gains have gone to the top 1 percent, and median incomes have dropped.” In other words, the top 1% got 95%; the next 4% got the remaining 5%; the next 5% got 2%; and the bottom 90% lost 2%.

The big problem here is not that the rich are getting richer. The problem is that as the rich get richer, they get more political power to warp the economy ever more to make them even richer. But don’t even get hung up on that. Instead, think about the simplest issue of political power: voting. Why don’t the poor vote at as high a rate as the rich? A big part of it is that the rich have lots of leisure time. If necessary, they can take the whole day to vote. (Of course, in rich areas, it never takes a whole day to vote.) The poor have to be on time to work. The poor have to pick up their kids. In other words, the poor have a lot of other things they have to do with their time and voting is often not an option.

Even aside from this aspect of the unfairness of our system, there is the fundamental problem with the very idea of meritocracy. In such a system, the best and hardest working are supposed to be rewarded with the most wealth. But what are these “winners” supposed to do with their wealth. One of the most natural things is for them to provide the best opportunities for their children. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it does mean that the children of these people will have better health, better education, and better connections than the children of poor people who are otherwise identical. Thus, within just one generation, we no longer have a meritocracy.

This isn’t just theory. Last year, Sarah McBride did a study of which Silicon Valley start-ups got funded by venture capital firms. And as no one should be surprised, pedigree was the most important thing. “A prestigious degree, a proven track record and personal connections to power-brokers are at least as important as a great idea. Scrappy unknowns with a suitcase and a dream are the exceptions, not the rule.” Or in the world at large, my favorite example: Tagg Romney.

So the whole argument that we should work toward “equality of opportunity” and not “equality of outcomes” is just nonsense. It is a way for the power elite to deflect attention from the real issue. And the real issue is that we have an economic system that grossly magnifies differences. A man who is 5% more useful to the economy than another man ends up getting 500% more. And sadly, it isn’t even the case that winners in this system are the best or most valuable people. And that’s not a good system; that’s just a system that hasn’t been fine tuned. But the people who are winners, want to keep the system as rigged as it now is and hopefully make it even more rigged as time goes on.

If we are to provide more equality of opportunity, we must get our absolute equality more in line. I’m not talking about absolute equality. No one thinks that is a good thing, because it doesn’t give people incentives to try. But we have effectively created an aristocracy in this country. The poor are to the point of thinking there is no point in trying. So high levels of inequality are as bad as absolute equality when it comes to incentives. The question is whether we are going to do anything about it. And the very least we can do is to make our social safety nets stronger.

Swimming With Whale Sharks

Whale Shark

I don’t care what they say. Swimming with a 26-foot long whale shark with a mouth that is five feet wide is dangerous. It is also, I’m sure, thrilling. The photo above is from a collection take by marine biologist Simon Pierce and published in GrindTV, Whale Shark About to Eat Diver, Or So It Appears.

The whale shark is the largest fish in existence. In fact, actual whales are the only animals on earth that are bigger than they are. The whale shark in the picture is actually small. The average length is 32 feet, but they can grow to be over 41 feet. And non-confirmed individuals have been estimated to be well over 50 feet. It doesn’t matter. Twenty-six feet is more than long enough impress and terrify me.

It is one of only three sharks that filter feed—the others being the rarely seen megamouth shark and the equally bizarre basking shark. As such, it feeds on plankton and similar foods. To feed in this way, they have roughly 300 tiny teeth and ten filter pads. They are said to be docile, even allowing divers to grab onto them for a free ride. But I can’t get past the notion that these gentle giants could swallow me whole, even though it would doubtless be on accident.

If you’ve seen Planet Earth (And if not, why not?!) you will remember seeing something like this when whale sharks feed:

Whale Shark Feeding

So I’m going to stay out of the water. But I’m glad there are brave souls out in the world who can provide me with wonderful pictures of these magnificent creatures. They really are beautiful.

Queer, Junkie, Burroughs

William S BurroughsTom Wilkinson is 66 today. He is one of my very favorite actors. He first came to my attention in The Full Monty, where he plays a character whose authority has caused him to be estranged from other people. The part is incredibly well written, but Wilkinson’s performance adds greak depth to it. I really thought he stole the show, in a show filled with great performances. Later, of course, he played Hugh Fennyman, the loan shark who falls in love with the theater in Shakespeare in Love. Although it is kind of a silly role, he makes it completely believable. Most recently, he was wonderful in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. But the performance I most associate with him is Arthur, the manic-depressive lawyer in Michael Clayton. I love this scene where he effectively plays two characters at once:

Jennifer Jason Leigh is 52 today. I think she is a fine actor. I especially liked her in The Hudsucker Proxy (doing her best Rosalind Russell), Dolores Claiborne, and eXistenZ. But to be perfectly honest, I’ve long had a crush on her.

Other birthdays: German Romanticism painter Carl Spitzweg (1808); outlaw Belle Starr (1848); presidential candidate and sole hole shoe wearer Adlai Stevenson (1900); actor John Carradine (1906); film director Michael Mann (71); musician Al Kooper (70); actor Charlotte Rampling (68); comedian Christopher Guest (66); actor Barbara Hershey (66); comedian Tim Meadows (53); actor Laura Linney (50); and actor Nora Zehetner (33).

JunkieThe day, however, belongs to the writer William S Burroughs who was born on this day in 1914. He is best known for the novel Naked Lunch. It is an interesting book. An amazing book! But I don’t think it works that well. It has amazing highs though. Like a lot of great art, it is an important book because it was trailblazing. It inspired generations of writers. As I’ve noted before, the science fiction legend William Gibson would have been nothing if not for Burroughs. But for me, Burroughs was at his best in his first novel, Junkie: Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Addict. Admittedly, I’m interested in the subject matter. But I still prefer the more straightforward narrative.

Ultimately, Burroughs was a lazy writer. And it is doubtful if he ever would have gotten anything published had it not been for his Beat Generation friends—most especially Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. That’s not to minimize what Burroughs did. I think it is often the case that people who are hung up on form and technique aren’t able to make really original contributions to the art. And ultimately, what Burroughs offers is something quite unique: honesty. Even in the books I most love, that is in short supply.

Happy birthday William S Burroughs!

Coke Gets America, Conservatives Don’t

CokeI have a personal note about the Coke diversity commercial which is embedded below. I didn’t watch the Super Bowl on Sunday, but it was on at the place I was staying, so I saw a bit of it. And part of that was the Coke commercial. It is extremely beautiful and the sound design was just perfect. But I only really got one thing out of it: the Muslim women buying Chinese food from a street vendor. That was totally brilliant!

It bothers me that others look at the ad and think that it divides us. Such people have an incredibly simplistic view of community. People don’t have to share religion or language or anything specifically. What binds us together is not our particular totems. What binds us together is shown in that image of Americans from different places meeting to do business. That is America. And that is what conservatives always claim to be in favor of.

We can disagree about most things. The essence of what we are is commerce. In times long past we were bound together to hunt and gather and farm. Now we bind together because one of us makes delicious Chinese food and one of us wants to eat delicious Chinese food. What is more American than that?

Chinese Food Menu

All my life—Five decades!—I have gone to Chinese restaurants. And then as now, they always had menus that looked like the image above. The fact that they had Chinese characters on them did not make the restaurants un-American. Nor did the fact that the waiter often spoke almost no English. That’s why the menu items are numbered! So we can do that most American of things: buy stuff in the most convenient way possible.

But the conservatives complaining about the commercial don’t seem to understand America. What’s more, they seem afraid. They seem to be worrying that America is becoming less American. And by that they mean white and protestant. But it’s time to wake up. That was never what America was. And even if it had been, there’s a great big world out there. America represents less than 4.5% of the world’s population. It’s time to stop thinking that we are the only people who matter in the world.

Coke is certainly aware of that. I don’t think the commercial was aimed at Americans. They are going after that more than 95.5% of the world who might enjoy a refreshing Coke. But Coke is still seen as an American company. So they are selling this notion that America is the world. And in so doing, they’ve created the best advertisement for America ever created, all in the name of selling some product. What’s more American than that?!


A lot of conservatives have compared the new commercial with the “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” commercial from 1971. They claim that the old commercial was inclusive whereas the new one is divisive. I wasn’t old enough then, but I have little doubt that conservatives hated that old ad at the time. It’s so very liberal and hippy and feel good. But that is exactly what conservatives always do. Of course they are in favor of whatever happened socially 40 years ago, just as conservatives will be fine with the new ad in 40 years. Same as it ever was and sadly always will be. It’s the song they sing!

ObamaCare Is Not Destroying Jobs

CBO 2014Let’s do a little dive into the CBO report (pdf) that is wrongly being reported as, ObamaCare Will Cost America More Than Two Million Jobs. This is not at all what the CBO report actually says. But I do think the CBO screwed up by presenting this convenient factoid for conservatives to spin. And it isn’t the first time they’ve done this. They should be more careful.

What the CBO actually said is that ObamaCare will reduce the number of hours worked by people that is equivalent to 2.3 million jobs. The vast majority of this reduction is workers cutting back because they are now working more hours than they want to in order to keep their health insurance. (I will discuss the others below.) For example, a lot of people work full time when they would rather work part part because they have to work more to get health insurance. The fact that these people will cut back on their hours is a good thing, not a bad thing.

Of course, to modern conservatives, it may be a bad thing. Again and again, we have seen major conservative politicians calling for things like an end to unemployment insurance because they feel that more desperate people will find jobs quicker. A similar argument can be made for forcing people to work more hours than they want. Of course, conservatives are not making this argument. They are instead acting as though ObamaCare will destroy two million jobs. This just isn’t true.

People who cut back on their hours will create more slack in the labor marker. According to the CBO, the first effect will be to put upward pressure on wages as companies try to keep employees by paying them more. To me, this would imply that companies create new jobs to offset the lower hours that current employees want to work. That would be what they would do if businesses acted the way conservatives always claim: rationally. But that doesn’t seem to be the case. The CBO says that any actual job losses or gains will be negligible. Companies will apparently just live with reduced productivity. But the main thing is that ObamaCare is not causing these people to lose their jobs; it is giving them more freedom so they can work as much as they want.

There is another aspect of ObamaCare that is not so good. This is a problem with all means tested programs. Some people will get incentives to work less because the more they work, the less healthcare subsidy they get. Almost two years ago to the day, I wrote about this in, Catch 22 for Poor in America. What happens is that people who get this kind of government assistance experience huge incentives not to work more because of benefit cuts. For example, consider someone who gets $100 in food stamps per month but who is right at the edge of qualifying at all. If he makes $50 more per month, his food stamps will be cut off. So by working more, he comes out with $50 less per month. That’s a huge disincentive. (The actual effect is generally smaller because benefits are cut gradually.)

(Note: this never happens with taxes. I’m sure everyone has heard stories of a guy who got a raise but ended with less money because he was bumped up into a higher tax bracket. This can’t happen because we have marginal tax rates. The new 39.6% top tax rate does not apply to all income of people who make over $400,000 per year. That is the rate on all income above $400,000. See: Of Puppets and Marginal Tax Rates.)

The same thing is going on with ObamaCare. Personally, I think this is a small price to pay for the benefits of the program. But if conservatives were really concerned about this problem, they would do something about the disincentives in other welfare systems. And they would have backed “Medicare for all” instead of this cumbersome “free market” approach in ObamaCare. But of course conservatives don’t do these things because they don’t care. This is just a convenient opportunity to misreport information in the name of clubbing ObamaCare some more.

The bottom line for all of this is the 2.3 million full time equivalent hours that ObamaCare will cost is mostly a good thing—a very good thing. But I’m sure that this new conservative talking point will be with us for years. Facts don’t matter to the conservative movement. And in a fundamental sense, facts don’t matter to the media. It is just easier for them to do their both sides now routine, “Republicans say ObamaCare will cost over two million jobs but Democrats counter that this isn’t true. Who can say what’s true?!” Well, now you can.

Update (6 February 2014 8:27 pm)

The CBO says that Obamacare overall will create jobs: