Robert Reich and Inequality for All

Inequality for AllI really like Robert Reich as a public intellectual. In fact, right now, I have a tab open with an article by him that I want to write about. And he’s a great speaker. So I was very keen to see his documentary Inequality for All. But I was disappointed today when I finally got to see it.

The spine of the film is very good. It comes back again and again to Reich speaking to his class at Berkeley on inequality. There are also various interview segments with Reich outside the classroom. But even in these, the focus is scattered. There is a strong case made that the decline in unionization has been the cause of rising inequality since the 1970s. But he goes off on tangents like the effect of education on inequality that greatly distract. I understand what he’s getting at: the society as a whole needs to invest in education. But in the context of inequality, it feeds a tired myth that inequality is just a story of education. It is like having a segment about bicycle accidents in a film about the causes of spontaneous abortions: it gives the viewer the wrong idea.

But the film really goes off track when it gets away from Reich. There are two extended segments with families. One of them dealing with a father having been laid off and another involving a conservative Mormon family involved with trying to get a union started at work. Each are interesting in their way, but they go nowhere. The viewer is left wondering what the point was. That times are bad? That conservatives support unions too? I really don’t know.

Some of the expert interviews were interesting, and I was pleased to see the work of Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez. And Nick Hanauer is always entertaining doing his “rich people only wear one pair of pants at a time” thing. But all of that was more than offset by Robert Reich palling around with Alan Simpson. I don’t mind that Simpson exists or that he is in the movie. But to refer to him as a liberal, is over the top. What Simpson is is an old fashioned (1990s) Republican. Just because the current Republican Party is a hair’s breadth away from fascism, doesn’t mean we should start referring to people like Simpson as anything other than a conservative.

A big part of the film is its use of graphics, which are all excellent. The following screenshot highlights a point that doesn’t get made enough. It shows that things are much worse than stagnant wages would indicate, because the cost of living has been going up relentlessly.

Disposable Incomes

There is also a great animation that shows wages and productivity rising together until around 1970 when the wages stagnate while the productivity gains continue up and up. So the film has a lot of interesting and important information. And in the end, I enjoyed it. It’s hard not to given just how charming Reich is. But I did expect more.

Michael Been’s Easy Salvation

XXXOn this day in 1950, the musician Michael Been was born. He is best known as the lead singer and bass player of the bad The Call. I always thought that Been was a big time Christian, but there’s not a lot of mention of it online. It is certainly the case that he wrote songs with a whole lot of Christian imagery and theology. In fact, this tended to ruin most of The Call’s albums for me. But one got the mix perfect: Reconciled.

The song “Blood Red (America)” particularly appealed to me. The refrain is: “He says, ‘We’ll walk in the front door and proudly raise our heads.’ I say, ‘Man you must be joking, our hands are covered in blood red.” I thought that it was a comment about the very common belief that all a Christian has to do is to believe in Jesus and he will enter the kingdom of heaven. So I thought Been was saying that if we neglected the injustice in the world and thought we would go to heaven, we are crazy. Sadly, I don’t think he’s saying that at all.

In the song, “he” is Jesus Christ. The singer is saying, “How can we get into heaven with all this suffering that we are responsible for?” And Jesus says, “It’s easy!” And by the end of the song, he has accepted this easy salvation. So Michael Been is pushing the same “salvation on the cheap” claptrap that is so common among Born Again Christians the world over.

I shouldn’t be surprised. This is very much in keeping with another song from that album, “I Still Believe.” But that one isn’t about how all one need do is accept God’s love and everything will be fixed. It takes it as a given that belief is not easy. All of life is a struggle, the singer says, and despite that he still believes that God loves him. That’s a much more compelling message that even an atheist like me can appreciate. So Here’s the song performed live:

I saw The Call once live. It was at a small club. They were very good. But Been spent the entire concert bitching at the sound engineer in the balcony about problems with the monitors. I think he was used to playing in better and bigger venues. But he still came off as a dick.

Happy birthday Michael Been!

The Two Those Kind of People

Those PeopleYou may remember last month, I wrote about Dave Camp’s budget plan that I called Another Giveaway to the Rich. There were a lot of things I didn’t like about it, most especially the timing gimmicks that would “starve the beast” over the long term, and a reduction in the number of tax rates to move toward a flat tax. But I also made a point of noting that the best thing in the plan, a tax on the big banks, was flawed. The idea was to tax the big banks to pay for their implicit “too big to fail” insurance. The problem was that the tax was an order of magnitude less than the benefits they were getting. It would be like giving a 50-year-old full health insurance for $40 per month—something Republicans are absolutely, positively against.

I learned today from Jonathan Chait that even this little tax was too much for the Titans of Wall Street, The Republican Party’s Prague Spring Is Officially Over. He explained the situation thusly:

Wall Street unleashed a furious campaign to destroy and isolate Camp, canceling all fundraisers for the party until his fellow members agreed to denounce his heresy.

And now Wall Street’s efforts have borne fruit. The Wall Street Journal reports today that more than 50 House Republicans have sent a letter to Camp assailing his financial tax, which they call “arbitrary” and say “threatens our economic vitality by reducing access to credit, curbing economic growth, and worsening our nation’s unacceptably high unemployment rate.”

What Republicans Stand For

What should be clear to everyone about this is how the Republican Party operates as a revolutionary movement. There can be no brooking of even the smallest deviation from ideological purity when it comes to the core issues of the movement. And this was the wealthy’s outrage at having to pay 10¢ on the dollar for their insurance. Just imagine what their reaction would have been had Camp suggested taxing them at a proper level. They would have been screaming. And rightly so! These huge financial institutions wouldn’t show much profitability at all if they didn’t have “too big to fail” insurance. In other words, the federal government is keeping inefficient companies in business. And the main protector of these inefficient companies is the Republican Party.

Although Chait still seems enamored with Camp’s budget, and doesn’t seem to understand that the “too big to fail” tax was a pittance compared to its worth, he fully understands what the Republican Party is all about:

The most important thing to understand about the contemporary Republican Party (which is why I wrote a book about it) is that its organizing purpose is to safeguard the economic interests of the very rich. This isn’t the goal of all or most of the people who vote Republican, or even the goal of all its elites, but even if different vectors within the party veer off in different directions, this is the Party’s inevitable thrust.

He’s quite right that this isn’t the goal of Republican voters. I talk to them all the time. They are often willfully ignorant and hold some of the stupidest and vilest of beliefs. But in general, they hate Wall Street as much or more than the liberals do. They hate crony capitalism as much or more than liberals do. They hate the bank bailouts as much or more than liberals do.

Those Kind of People

But while all that was happening, Republican voters sat on their hands. But when the government was going to give low income homeowners mortgage relief, well, that was a different matter! Then it was time to take to the streets! I just watched Inequality for All, the new Robert Reich documentary. (I’ll probably write more later today.) One of the things I didn’t like in the film was how it tried to equate the Tea Party with Occupy Wall Street. It’s true, as I just indicated, that listening to the rhetoric of the Tea Party (at least at the beginning), they cared about the same issues. But when all is said and done, the Republican Party can depend upon conservatives to vote for it because the voters know the Democrats represent those kind of people. And by that, I’m not even necessarily talking race. Those people are just the other—younger, darker, far away, whatever—and therefore undeserving.

Another aspect of this that I find frustrating is that small business owners skew heavily toward the Republican Party. Yet the Democratic Party is actually better for this group. The Republican Party does not represent business. They don’t even represent big business. They represent the super rich and an outcome of that is that they are freakishly pro-corporate to the point of being anti-American. We can’t stop corporations from hiding their money overseas! But this would never fly without a hundred million people voting to hurt those kind of people. But there’s another those kind of people who the Republican base ought to be paying attention to. Because the Republican Party gives away far more to its those kind of people (the super rich) than the Democratic Party ever even thought about giving to its own (the poor).

Keep Inside, It’s St Patrick’s Day!

St Patrick's DayIt’s St Patrick’s Day! Time to get sloshed on some distinctly non-Irish beer. Of course, if we are to believe Ballykissangel, the Irish don’t drink much Irish beer. One thing’s for certain: Americans don’t much care for Guinness, although they do up their consumption on St Patrick’s day.

I saw a statistic about St Patrick’s Day that was supposed to scare me: 80% of St Patty’s Day drunk driving deaths involve drivers who are over twice the legal limit. I have known lots of people who have be caught drunk driving and not one of them has killed anyone. Yet they almost all had over twice the legal limit. Remember: the legal limit is 0.08%. It used to be 0.12%. The fact most fatalities involve people over 0.16% is hardly surprising.

Having said that, I am very much against people driving at all while intoxicated. As one who walks a lot, I am already concerned about the sober drivers. I don’t need drunk drivers to worry about. Just the same, if I were to walk down the street to the bar, get drunk, and walk back home, I would be breaking the law. The truth is that we live in an authoritarian state were just about anything you do is against the law. And so the laws are never enforced—until you piss off someone. I’m good at pissing off people—especially people in power.

But there are a lot more reasons to avoid the holiday than just that a whole bunch of people get drunk and kill people. Perhaps a bigger problem is that America is more Irish than Ireland. Until the 1970s, St Patrick’s Day was a minor religious holiday in Ireland. It was America that turned it into the green stained whiskey soaked monstrosity that we’ve all know. Personally, I’m fond of Ireland, but not especially so. I’m no more excited about celebrating the Irish than I am celebrating the Swedish. And I am a fair chunk Irish and not at all Swedish.

Four years ago, Matthew Schmitz wrote, My Problem with St. Patrick’s Day. In it, he argues that the reason that we celebrate the Irish and not, say, the Germans, is that the Irish are the last white group that can plausibly claim the mantle of oppression:

When Margaret Mitchell set out in Gone With the Wind to create a narrative of white suffering and triumph, she chose an Irish protagonist with green eyes and a green dress. Scarlett’s father, Gerald O’Hara, a proud Irishman who named his plantation ‘Tara’ after the ancient seat of the high kings of Ireland. This is a strikingly explicit ethnic background for a family meant to represent the overwhelmingly Protestant and Anglo Reconstruction-era South. But her unusual choice makes perfect sense. In order to tell a narrative of white suffering that would not seem laughable beside the injustices visited on enslaved blacks, Mitchell had to turn to the one group of whites that had been oppressed: the Irish…

I think it is weird that one of the reasons the holiday exists is to give the privileged a chance to dress up in the drag of historical oppression.

So add a subtext of racism to your enjoyment of the day! But as Schmitz notes, there are real reasons to love the Irish. And here’s one, even though it was first written in French:

Nothing to be done but to wish you a happy St Patrick’s Day. Try not to kill anyone.


Can we at least agree to stop saying that corned beef and cabbage is a traditional Irish dish?! Eat some shepherd’s pie for God’s sake!

Odds and Ends Vol 10

Odds and EndsI just have a few shorts bits for you today. As usual: they are just things that I didn’t have a lot to say about but which are interesting. I have to say: I’m getting tired of talking about Republican racism. But the fact remains that racism seems to be all that they have to offer. In fact, Paul Krugman made that exact point in his column today, That Old-Time Whistle. There is also a great artist and a little microeconomics that may make a train ride much more pleasant.

  1. War of Southern Racism: There’s a whole lotta racism going on in the Republican Party, ain’t there? This time it is the genial Mike Huckabee. On 12 March, he was speaking to Susan B Anthony List. Now the SBA List might sound like a liberal group, but it is actually an extremist anti-choice group. Because, you know, the first thing people think of when they hear the name “Susan B Anthony” is abortion. Unless you listen to historians, who claim that Anthony did not spend any time on the abortion issue at all. Egghead scholars; who needs em?! But you get the idea: they are conservative extremists and so Mr Huckabee must have felt right at home. And that’s why he said, “I don’t believe I can own another person, I thought we settled that after the Civil War, or as some people in the South when I was young used to still call it, the War of Northern Aggression.” Ha ha ha! What a card that man is! But maybe Dave Weigel will want to explain how that isn’t racist. He should, actually; he’d have a hell of a lot better a case than he had with Paul Ryan.
  2. Potato Famine: Speaking of Paul Ryan, Timothy Egan wrote a great article in The New York Times, Paul Ryan’s Irish Amnesia. It turns out that Ryan’s great-great-grandfather fled the Irish Potato Famine of the late 1840s for the opportunity (and food) in America. Ryan is rightly proud of this legacy. But he also doesn’t seem to know much about it.

    The famine was the result of years of English abuse of the Irish peasantry leading to their dependence upon potatoes as a food source. When potato blight hit the island, the people starved. But as John Mitchel wrote, “The Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the famine.” As Egan notes in the article:

    A great debate raged in London: would it be wrong to feed the starving Irish with free food, thereby setting up a “culture of dependency”? Certainly England’s man in charge of easing the famine, Sir Charles Trevelyan, thought so. “Dependence on charity,” he declared, “is not to be made an agreeable mode of life.”

    Sound like anyone you know? Maybe the great-great-grandson of one of the Irish who escaped the famine? During the 2012 campaign, Irish historian John Kelly wrote, “Ryan’s high-profile economic philosophy is the very same one that hurt, not helped, his forebears during the famine—and hurt them badly.” I recommend reading the whole article; it is excellent.

  3. Homeward Bound: In case you don’t know, Andrea runs a couple of other blogs, one of which is ALE Designs, where she presents interesting artists who she comes across. There is always fun stuff there that is worth checking out. But a couple weeks ago, she featured collage artist Catrin Welz-Stein. She does wonderful, haunting, surreal work. You can see a bunch of her work on her Red Bubble page. But here is a great example of her work, Homeward Bound:
    Homeward Bound - Catrin Welz-Stein
  4. Monopsony: I don’t know a lot about microeconomics, probably because (1) I only took a single course in economics and (2) I’m not really interested in markets as such, but rather in the policies affecting all markets. But there is a very interesting microeconomic concept that I do find interesting: monopsony. This is a market where there are many sellers but only one buyer. Without strong unions, we have this in the labor market. Think about it: when McDonald’s advertises a job, a hundred people apply for it. That obviously gives McDonald’s the ability to dictate terms. Thus, McDonald’s effectively has a monopoly in the labor market. Pretty much all employers do. The next time you are forced to talk to some idiot conservative who claims that we can’t raise the minimum wage because “it’s just simple supply and demand,” throw the concept of monopsony at him. He’s probably never heard of it and so will stutter. This will give you the opening to change the subject to something he may know something about—like the weather.
  5. The Good News: At 84 years old, it isn’t great news that Fred Phelps is near death. It would have been great news if he had died much younger, before he was able to poison the world and abuse his children. But it is nonetheless good news that we may soon be rid of the hateful preacher. The news comes from Nathan Phelps, his son who escaped the hatred of his father’s church and is currently an LGBT activist in Canada. It isn’t his death that matters, of course. As I noted about Andrew Breitbart, I don’t know Fred Phelps. But his absence from our society will be a public good.

That was fast! And I got rid of a whole bunch of Chrome tabs. Onward we go!