American Political Oppression A-B-Cs

Police Chief Crystal MooreI remember reading something Ayn Rand had written about the way political oppression worked in the Soviet Union. She said it wasn’t that harsh laws were applied to everyone. It was that there were many laws and they were never applied to anyone, except when that person got out of line. Now I’m not sure exactly how true that was, given that she was only there during the very early stages of the government, before things got really bad under Stalin. But the point is well taken.

We’ve seen this in the United States a whole lot. In the 60s and 70s, hippies everywhere found themselves cited and arrested for ridiculous charges like spitting. And anyone arrested today can confirm that you are never arrested for a single thing. If the cops find you with a joint in your pocket, you are likely to find yourself facing a dozen other charges. That’s not explicitly politically motivated, by it is a form of political oppression.

A more explicit form of this has been going on in Louisiana for the last year. The East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriffs’ Department has been staging sting operations by picking up gay when and then arresting them for sodomy. These kinds of laws were made unconstitutional decades ago. But apparently, local officials wanted to “get the fags” and so they did. All the cases fell through and it was embarrassing. So the Louisiana House of Representatives voted on a bill to overturn the law. And it failed by a vote of 27-67. Of the 27 voting for repeal, only three were Republicans. Of the 67 voting to keep the law, 55 were Republicans. So 95% of the freedom loving Republicans voted to make private consensual behavior illegal. The Democrats hardly did themselves proud with only 63% voting for repeal. But then, Democrats don’t claim to be the party of individual liberty. It all makes a clear statement though: stay away from Louisiana because it’s filled with a bunch of bigots.

Meanwhile, we have an even better (and really, more American) example of this process. In Latta, South Carolina, the mayor fired Police Cheif Crystal Moore. This is being reported as a firing based upon Moore being openly gay. But what I think is fascinating about it is that this appears to not be the case. It looks like Mayor Earl Bullard fired her to end Moore’s investigation of one of Bullard’s crony hires, Parks and Recreation Department Director Vontray Sellers. And this is where it gets good.

Bullard seems to have thought that he could use Moore’s homosexuality against her in this fight. During a private conversation with another council member that has been leaked, Bullard said, “I would much rather have—and I will say this to anybody’s face—somebody who drank and drank too much taking care of my child than I had somebody whose lifestyle is questionable around children… I’m not going to let two women stand up there and hold hands and let my child be aware of it. And I’m not going to see them do it with two men neither.” It is vile and ignorant, but it’s made so much worse that he seems to be using it thinking its going to play with a big chunk of the electorate.

The good news is that thus far, the people are supporting the police chief. About a hundred people came to the town council meeting tonight. They weren’t allowed to speak. Bullard said the issue was not on the agenda and so that was that. But it looks like at least part of the council is in open rebellion. And I really don’t see Bullard winning this one.

But notice what Bullard’s plan appears to have been. It wasn’t necessary to even use the law against Moore. His plan was to just use social mores against her. It was fine that she was gay—I’m sure everyone knew that she was. But the moment she did something that Bullard didn’t like, he tried to use her homosexuality against her. This is a key point, because this is something that libertarians like Ayn Rand don’t understand: it isn’t just the government that we have to worry about taking away our freedoms. In modern America, corporations have far more power to limit our freedom than the government does. And it is as big a problem. And any demagogue like Earl Bullard can easily use the bigotry of the American people to oppress pretty much anyone—whether the demagogue is a mayor or not.

Tax the Rich for the Social Good

Matt Yglesias“But would that be so bad?” Matt Yglesias asked that question about the effect of very high marginal taxes on very high incomes. So CEOs retire earlier than they normally would? So celebrity lawyers leave the field early and take up a hobby? So movie stars stop making action films and take small projects with roles more in tune with why they became actors in the first place? The horror!

This afternoon, Yglesias published what may be the best thing I’ve ever read by him, Beyond the Laffer Curve—the Case for Confiscatory Taxation. For those of you who don’t know it, the Laffer Curve is a theoretical idea that increasing taxes will only increase revenues so far. If the government raised the top tax bracket to 99%, the rich would figure out ways to avoid taxes. And even if they didn’t, the theory goes, the rich wouldn’t work as hard and we would all suffer. Here it is:

Laffer Curve

One thing is clear about the Laffer Curve: our current tax rates are far far far below the equilibrium point. So the truth is that we could raise taxes for the sole purpose of raising revenues. And we could do it a lot We have a long way to go. But that isn’t Yglesias’ point. Certainly he knows that higher marginal tax rates would improve government balance sheets. But tax rates are not always about raising revenues:

Maybe at least some taxes should be really high. Maybe even really really high. So high as to [be] useless for revenue-raising purposes—but powerful for achieving other ends.

We already accept this principle for tobacco taxes. If all we wanted to do was raise revenue, we might want to slightly cut cigarette taxes. And since cigarettes are about the most-taxed thing in America, we certainly would want to cut out all our other anti-smoking initiatives. But we don’t do that because we care about public health. We tax tobacco not to make money but to discourage smoking.

His point is that income inequality is so bad that we ought to create taxes to address the problem, just as we did with cigarettes. It will probably come as no surprise to all of you that I totally agree with him. The truth is that without a decent amount of income equality we cannot have democracy. It isn’t just me; the only unquestionably great Found Father, Thomas Paine, was deeply interested in the issue. And surely, the recent Princeton study should make it clear to anyone who isn’t completely closed minded.

Yglesias makes another great point about this. If we taxed incomes over $10 million at 90%, corporations would have incentives to pay lower level employees more. And certainly, taxes could be set up to facilitate this even more. The way we have set up our political economy is such that it tends to create winner-take-all markets. I know that conservatives think this is because that is the “natural” and “proper” outcome of markets. But it is actually just the result of society’s winners manipulating our laws to their advantage.

The only problem with Yglesias’ idea is that the rich have all kinds of incentives to find ways around these restrictions. But generally, such loopholes are put into the law because the law is created by these very same rich people. If we had a true democratic process, we would doubtless have better laws. And as loopholes showed up, we could fix them. All we need is a democracy.

Cost of Minimum Wage Rise Is Nominal

Raise the Minimum Wage?

The standard conservative argument against the minimum wage is that it will cost jobs. If you scratch at it, however, it falls apart. As I discussed in Rasing Minimum Wage Won’t Hurt Employment, the truth is that the data on this issue are at worst murky. And one has to ask, “If raising the minimum wage is so catastrophic, why are the data supporting this claim so poor?” What’s more, the argument against raising the minimum wage is the same as the argument against even having a minimum wage. Though this is an argument that appeals to the Tea Party base, it doesn’t fly with any other voting block.

So it was quite interesting when the Associated Press reported, Budget Office: Wage Boost Would Cost Firms $15B. The Senate plan to raise the minimum wage up to $10.10 per hour (Still too low, but a good start!) would cost the business community $15 billion per year as of 2017. That sounds like a lot of money, but the AP was nice enough to put it into perspective:

But it could also be beneficial to Democrats because the private sector spent $5.4 trillion on wages in 2012, according to the most recent data from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. That means the increased pay would boost employers’ wage costs by just 0.003 percent, or about one-third of a penny for every dollar spent on salaries.

It would also cost the government an extra $2 million for the ten year planning period. That’s almost nothing: less than 0.0001% of the federal budget, according to CEPR’s indispensable Responsible Budget Calculator. Why so little? Because the entire federal government only has 4,000 employees who currently make less than $10.10 per hour!

Of course, I know what the next line of attack would be from conservatives, “That’s $15 billion more that we will have to pay for stuff!” Now this is absolutely not true, as I explained in, Raising Minimum Wage Won’t Raise Prices. But let’s assume for the moment that it does. The United States’ economy is enormous. The initial estimate of our GDP last year is $16.8 trillion dollars. So this extra pay represents less than one-tenth of one percent of our economy. But it doesn’t work that way. Mostly, what raising the minimum wage will do (especially in our depressed economy) is take money away from people who don’t spend it all and give it to people who do spend it all. So the economy won’t be hurt.

This afternoon, Dean Baker wrote, $15 Billion In Higher Pay: Cheap Fun for Republicans Over the Minimum Wage. In it, he noted:

Those looking for useful comparisons of the costs imposed by the higher minimum wage may also want to compare it to the savings we have seen from slower health care cost growth. Back in 2008 the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services projected that we would be spending $3,313 billion on health care in 2014. Their most recent numbers show us spending $3093 billion in 2014. This amounts to a savings of $220 billion, or more than 14 times as much as CBO projects the higher minimum wage will cost employers.

Of course, the conservatives will have no trouble batting that aside. It’s the usual issue that $10 billion spent on Exxon is Right and Proper. But $10 million spent on hungry kids is an Outrage. The rest of us don’t have to listen to that though. A rise in the minimum wage is long overdue.

Conservatives and the Lucky Duckies

Lucky Ducky PanelOn 20 November 2002, The Wall Street Journal editorial page used the term “lucky duckies” to describe people who made so little money that they owed no federal income taxes. It is a ridiculous claim. The implication is that its hard to be a billionaire paying a 13% tax rate on your income, but it’s very easy to live in poverty. It also depends upon a common conservative distortion by focusing on the one tax in America that is moderately progressive. The payroll tax is never mentioned, given that it is highly regressive. Similarly, state taxes tend to be flat, meaning that the poor pay a far higher percentage tax on their expendable income.

When the editorial came out, it was widely criticized. Jonathan Chait at The New Republic then, wrote, “One of the things that has fascinated me about The Wall Street Journal editorial page is its occasional capacity to rise above the routine moral callousness of hack conservative punditry and attain a level of exquisite depravity normally reserved for villains in James Bond movies.” Following off this, Farhad Manjoo at Slate, wrote:

Chait and countless others pointed out that the Journal’s argument was both factually wrong—it considered only the federal income tax, not all the taxes that poor and middle-class people pay, in particular hefty payroll taxes like Social Security—and culturally out of touch. Had the editors ever met a person of little means? Did they realize that being poor, while perhaps an attractive tax shelter, tended to come with such hard-to-bear downsides as not knowing where your next meal will come from?

Even better is Ruben Bolling‘s Lucky Ducky cartoon. Here is a typical episode:

Lucky Ducky

But by far the best response came from Pier Petersen, who offered a modest proposal to the editors of The Journal:

I am one of those lucky duckies, referred to in your June 3 editorial “Even Luckier Duckies” who pay little or nothing in federal income tax (at least by the standards of Wall Street Journal editors; $800 is more than a chunk of change to me). I am not, however, a stingy ducky, and I am willing to share my good fortune with others.

In this spirit, I propose a trade. I will spend a year as a Wall Street Journal editor, while one lucky editor will spend a year in my underpaid shoes. I will receive an editor’s salary, and suffer the outrage of paying federal income tax on that salary. The fortunate editor, on the other hand, will enjoy a relatively small federal income tax burden, as well as these other perks of near poverty: the gustatory delights of a diet rich in black beans, pinto beans, navy beans, chickpeas and, for a little variety, lentils; the thrill of scrambling to pay the rent or make the mortgage; the salutary effects of having no paid sick days; the slow satisfaction of saving up for months for a trip to the dentist; and the civic pride of knowing that, even as a lucky ducky, you still pay a third or more of your gross income in income taxes, payroll taxes, sales taxes and property taxes.

I could go on and on, but I am sure your editors are already keen to jump at this opportunity to join the ranks of the undertaxed. I look forward to hearing from you.

But despite all this well deserved derision, not only did The Wall Street Journal not back down, the term “lucky duckies” has become something of a staple in right wing media. One hears it all the time on Fox News, for example.

The thought occurred to me this morning after reading Paul Krugman about the current state of Obamacare. Conservatives seem to have the same attitude toward health insurance. The poor are “lucky” to get insurance. They aren’t unlucky to be poor—most of them born poor with virtually no opportunities. But I wasn’t going to write about this connection until I saw an article by Ed Kilgore this morning, Blaming the “Losers.” At the end of the article, he even uses the term, “Lucky duckies.”

The article is about new research from HuffPost/YouGov. The results are stark and horrible. Conservatives believe that the rich are rich because they earned it and the poor are poor because they are lazy. The numbers are overwhelming. Among Republicans, 48% of Republicans think the poor are just lazy as opposed to just 23% who don’t think that. Democrats skew even further in the opposite direction: 14% to 61%.

This shows the same kind of callousness as the editorial in The Journal. And I think it is very much in line with Manjoo’s question: haven’t they ever met a person of little means? It strikes me as typical of racist beliefs: it is much easier for people to be racists when they have no actual contact with people of the race they hate. Watching Fox News, people get the impression that the poor are just losers who spend all their time gaming the system. But if they knew actual poor people, they would see them struggling to make ends meet. If there ever was a welfare gravy train, it is long gone.

I’ve been concerned about this issue for a long time. This is why gay rights have made so much progress: gay people are evenly distributed throughout society. But poor people are not. It doesn’t matter how badly Tagg Romney screws up in life, he will not be poor. If he is convicted of murdering his wife, when he gets out of prison, he won’t have to find a job working as a busboy at Denny’s. There will be people who will take care of him and find him a respectable job. So there will never be a groundswell of support for the poor, because they will always be The Other. And increasing income inequality only makes the situation worse

So it is no surprise that conservatives continue to think that not paying federal income taxes and not paying for healthcare make people lucky duckies. Because the rich do mind paying for those things. And they have no experience with the other aspects of the supposed lucky duckies’ lives.

Shinobu Hashimoto at 96

Shinobu HashimotoThe great Japanese screenwriter Shinobu Hashimoto is 96 years old today. He is especially associate with Akira Kurosawa, having co-written a number of his greatest films. He started his career writing the multi-perspective classic Rashomon, based upon Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s short story. This led directly to his second film, Ikiru, and then Seven Samurai. Both of those films were co-written with Kurosawa and the great older screenwriter Hideo Oguni. They also wrote Throne of Blood and The Hidden Fortress. But during that time, Hashimoto increasingly worked with other directors. In fact, The Hidden Fortress was his large film with Kurosawa.

Hashimoto went on to write well over 50 files. And I have only seen a handful of them. Those that I’ve seen are great, but that’s hardly surprising because weak films are unlikely to be released here. Two films particularly stand out to me, because they are samurai films, but not sword fighting films. The first is Harakiri, the story of a ronin who wants to kill himself after his children and grandchild die. The second is Samurai Rebellion (which I reviewed a year and a half ago), the story samurai who rebels against his lord to honor the love of his son and daughter in law. Both films are well worth checking out.

Here is Shinobu Hashimoto talking about the making of Harakiri:

Happy birthday Shinobu Hashimoto!