Canada’s Middle Class Beats US

Poor RetireeOver at The New York Times today, David Leonhardt and Kevin Quealy wrote an excellent article, The American Middle Class Is No Longer the World’s Richest. The only thing that really surprised me in it was that the median income in Canada is now greater than it is in the United States. It’s pretty hard to explain that in any way but that we simply have a political system that is controlled by the rich who have managed to make economic policy that pushes money from the poor to the rich.

It’s actually shocking when you consider that by and large the upper class (top 20%) minus the rich (top 1%) get screwed compared to how the rich alone are treated. But they actually have political power and I’m surprised that they haven’t revolted against the system. These, after all, are the people who pay income tax rates around 30%. The rich don’t; they pay half that much because most of their income in unearned. The upper class also pay a high percentage of their incomes in payroll taxes. The rich pay a tax rate that approaches zero the more they make. I understand that the rest of us are even more screwed, but we’ve long known our government isn’t interested in us. But revolutions are usually fought between the upper class and the rich. Why is our upper class so complacent?

Of course, the problem is more than just tax policy. The truth is that even forgetting about the government, American workers don’t do as well as they do in Canada and many other advanced economies. (Although that’s getting less and less true.) And the reason for that is very simple: unions have been effectively destroyed in this country. This started in a big way in 1947 with the Taft–Hartley Act. And then Reagan signaled open season on them in 1981. (This was no surprise; what was surprising was that many unions endorsed Reagan.) The only reason that capital ever shared any of the benefits with labor was that it was forced to. Unions don’t have the power they once had so workers haven’t seen any part in productivity gains over the last 35 years.

I keep returning to what Milton Friedman always claimed: the rich were getting far richer but the poor were also getting richer. I often fantasize about having him before me and asking him today, “The poor are actually doing worse. So what do you think of your laissez faire now?” Of course, it’s a hollow fantasy. I know exactly what he would say. Like all libertarians, he would retreat into theory and tell me it was still best to have our winner-take-all society because: freedom! He would also prevaricate and claim that the poor losing ground is just the product of us not yet having the libertarian utopia. It is at this point in my fantasy that I beat the poor man to death with my bare hands.

The two issues—unionization and taxes—go hand in hand. The more money the rich have, the more they can lobby the government to destroy unions and lower the raxes of the rich. This feeds back to give the rich even more power and great incentive to use it to destroy unions and lower the taxes of the rich. And it is all done in the name of making America richer. But now with Canada getting ahead of us (and other countries sure to follow), what will be the rationalization? Because I’m sure there will be a rationalization. A change in the facts is not going to stop the power elite from pushing policies that make then more powerful and more elite.


Cenk Uygur provided a great overview of the NYT article on The Young Turks:

Update (23 April 2014 5:44 pm)

Dean Baker once again proves that as bad as anyone says it is, he can always show that it is worse, The American Middle Class Is Doing Much Worse Than the NYT Says:

While this is not a pretty picture to those who would like to see everyone benefiting from growth, the actual story is even worse than shown in the NYT piece. Most of the countries in the analysis have seen a sharp reduction in the length of the average work year since 1980, the United States has not. For example, in France the length of the average work year was shortened by 17.6 percent between 1980 and 2012, the most recent year for which data is available. In Canada the reduction in the length of the average work year was 6.4 percent over this period, in the Netherlands it was 9.6 percent, and in Finland 11.1 percent. By comparison, the average work year shrank by just 1.3 percent in the United States.

This shrinking of the average work year corresponds to the increase in vacation time in other countries, with workers in many countries now enjoying 5-6 weeks a year of paid vacation. Workers in other wealthy countries can also count on paid sick days and paid family leave when they have children or a sick family member in need of care.

These guarantees and additional leisure translate into real improvements in living standards in which workers in the United States largely did not share. In 1980 workers in the United States worked somewhat less than the average for OECD countries. In 2012, they worked somewhat more.

Pedant vs Pedant

David MitchellI have spent much of the last 24 hours watching dozens of episodes of David Mitchell’s SoapBox, a video-cast he did for a few years where he rants about minor issues—often hilariously. It made me realize that as much as I think that Robert Webb is brilliant, David Mitchell is why I am such a big fan of That Mitchell and Webb Look. In fact, I think I must have a man-crush on Mitchell. And I say that without knowing what a “man-crush” is, but if it isn’t what I’m feeling, I can’t imagine the term has much meaning other than that I’ve turned gay. I am not, as far as I know, turning gay. And if I were, I’m absolutely sure it would not be over Mitchell who looks kind of like me—short and dumpy.

On the other hand, I have no illusions that in point of fact, David Mitchell and I would hate each other. We would end up in that uncomfortable hole where another person is enough like you to find them annoying but too different to find them charming. Plus, two guilt ridden shy people never get along. And most of all: two middle aged pedants should never be within shouting distance of one another.

A good example of the potential problem when two pedants meet is found in, “Dear America…” The first half of this video deals with one of the pedant’s favorite issues: the difference between “I couldn’t care less” and “I could care less.” It’s still quite funny, so have a look:

This is where pedants collide. Because David Mitchell just failed as a pedant. Originally, the phrase was indeed, “I couldn’t care less.” We all know this, so there is no need to watch Mitchell sitting on a graph to illustrate the point. Taken literally, “I could care less” means that what the speaker is talking about is something that is not the most worthless thing in the world. And that is never what the speaker actually means.

I haven’t look into the history of it, but I do remember when I was a kid, people were being sarcastic (with the typical kid’s sarcastic voice) when they said, “I could care less!” In other words, “I couldn’t care less.” Over time, the explicit sarcasm left but the meaning remained the same. Throughout the English language there are similar phase. For example, no one complains about the phrase “big baby,” because it isn’t used to describe large infants.

Now I understand: most people who use the phrase don’t know this. They’ve never thought about it. And children can be forgiven for being confused after working out the exact meaning. But adults can’t! No one is confused about what people mean when they use the phrase. When asked about his feelings about his baby, a new father would never try to minimize his feelings by saying, “I could care less!” And that’s because everyone who uses “I could care less,” whether knowingly or not, means “I couldn’t care less.”

This is an issue for me because I remember being a kid and working this out. And so for a couple of years, I was a typical precocious jerk, correcting everyone who misused the phrase. And given that it was America, that was just about everyone. Now I look back on that with great embarrassment. It’s an example of having a little knowledge and thinking you have it all. I didn’t. Neither does David Mitchell.

On the second issue of the video, I agree with him. It is “Hold the fort.” But I quite like the idea that the fort might blow away. It’s magical. So I’m thinking that maybe I’ll start using the phrase, “Hold down the fort.” This, of course, would go along with one of the great pedant traditions: saying things just to piss off other pedants. And that’s why I have a man-crush on David Mitchell, yet would never like to meet him.

Update (22 April 2014 8:19 pm)

This is a good example of why I so love David Mitchell. I have spent my whole life keeping mental track of money that I owe to friends because of this kind of casual attitude to gifts. They may not realize it, but I feel terrible while I’m on the owing side of that. And it’s awful.

The whole thing reminds me of a That Mitchell and Webb Look skit about the “All Party Committee to Combat Social Misunderstandings.” I really do worry a lot about whether to flush the toilet in the middle of the night when I’m a guest at someone else’s home. I really don’t need all this extra anxiety!

Statistics and Pornography

XXXYou may have heard about the Pornhub report that indicated that people in blue states watch more pornography than people in red states. To some extent, I think it didn’t get more attention because it goes along with people’s prejudices. Now if it had turned out that people in blue states were more into scatological porn, I would have been surprised because I assume (perhaps wrongly) that people in those states tend to be sexually repressed and so tend to get into what I think of as sick and twisted stuff. But the truth is that there is really no reason to think that porn consumption has anything to do with politics. There are various issues.

Jordan Ragusa addressed probably the most important issue in a brief post, Nickelback, Herpes, and Obama’s Vote Share in 2012. The issue is simply that meaningless correlations show up all the time. And that’s especially true when you are looking at a lot of different things. For example, imagine correlating first names with cancer rates. Because you would look at an enormous number of first names, some would—through random chance—be correlated with high cancer rates. The problem would be even worse if you subdivided the kinds of cancer. Being named Jerry makes you twice as likely to get testicular cancer! Um, no.

Seth Masket addresses the problem more directly in his post, Are Democrats Pervs? Some Problems with a State-Level Analysis of Individual-Level Behavior. He’s actually focused on an important issue that I doubt is at play here: the ecological inference problem. This is the problem that we are looking at aggregate data and trying to say something about individuals. In other words: maybe it’s the Republicans in the blue states who are consuming so much porn. Like I said: I don’t think that’s actually the problem here.

Porn and the 2012 Vote

Masket doesn’t seem to think this is the problem either. As he wrote, “Chances are that even if there is an individual relationship here, it’s not a direct one.” That is to say that higher levels of porn consumption and Democratic voting patterns correlate to something else. What I original thought of was youth: people (okay: men) consume more pornography when they are young than when they are old. Blue states have younger populations. Social Security and Medicare are the main reasons why red states take more from the government than blue states. So I suspect that population age is most of the effect.

Consider the youngest state in the nation: Utah. It has far more porn consumption than would be indicated by its 2012 voting. On the other side, we have the oldest state: Maine. It has far less porn consumption than the model predicts. And if you go through all the data (Age and Sex Composition: 2010) you will see this pattern over and over. In fact, as far as I can tell, that is the only thing that we see in the data.

But Masket brings up a couple of other interesting possibilities. One is marriage levels. I’m sure that’s part of it. But I suspect that age and marriage are highly correlated, so I doubt this tells us much more than we already knew. He also mentioned poverty. I don’t exactly see how that works. Certainly unemployment could raise the rates of porn consumption. And he mentions high speed internet availability. That could certainly be a factor; you can’t watch porn if you can’t watch porn.

The main thing is simply that correlation is not causation. Age, marital status, and internet access all provide potential mechanisms. Liberalism really doesn’t provide a mechanism except in the sense of a caricature that social conservatives might have of the abortion-on-demand, sodomy-requiring liberal. And it doesn’t really get us anywhere. So when you hear that Democrats are more interested in pornography than Republicans, remember what that means: the Republican base is dying.

H/T: Jonathan Bernstein, Read Stuff, You Should

Taxes Are Rape and Other Libertarian Fantasies

Stefan MolyneuxI was just watching Stefan Molyneux answer Jon Stewart’s list of questions for libertarians. I’m not going to put a link in because the truth is that the answers that I heard were so pathetic that I don’t think it is a good idea to spread them around. But there is one issue that I want to discuss. Stewart asked if things like the social safety net don’t enhance freedom. Molyneux’s response was (and this is close to if not exactly a quote): sure it does but then allowing rape enhances the freedom of the rapist. There are so many things wrong with this that it would take a book, so let me address just three varied issues.

First, this is a false analogy. To start with, it is offensive to suggest that rape is equivalent to a sales tax. I’m sure that Molyneux would counter that he isn’t saying they are equivalent, but that hardly matters. His argument throughout what I watched was that the problem is simply coercion. So taxing is coercive and rape is coercive. No one who is not stuck in a theoretical frame of mind would make such sweeping comparisons.

The second issue is that there is a fundamental contradiction between the libertarian non-aggression principle and the belief that people should be protected from coercion. According to libertarians, there should be laws to stop one person from raping another. So how are these laws enforced? There are two potential answers. Either it can all be done with donations or the government can coerce people into paying taxes for these “proper” government functions. The former case is just a might-makes-right system with a patina of justice painted on. The latter yields the liberal point: we all do have some duties to one another. There is no reason that we should accept libertarian dogma that the only valid purpose of government is to enforce non-aggression.

To pretend that non-aggression is the only shared good in society is just nonsense. As the years go on, I’ve begun to see that while libertarianism appeals to smart, theoretically minded people, it is also the most lazy of political philosophies. It depends upon defining most social interactions out of existence. And then, caught in its own theoretical framework, it is never forced to confront its own practical ramifications. And that’s why when libertarians make practical claims, they are always dependent upon cherry picked data and conservative political apologetics.

And for the third issue, I need to dig a bit deeper into what else our libertarian friend said. He noted that the social safety net allows people to make bad choices. Unlike raping, poverty is not a choice. In general, poor people don’t make the decision to avoid getting an education because they can depend upon the government. The idea that they do is just an old conservative canard that is not based upon any actual data. Conservatives just know these kinds of things, and the facts don’t matter at all.

The main reason for having laws against rape is to stop people from raping in the first place, not to punish them after the fact. There is no equivalent argument against poverty, which is very rarely a choice. In almost all cases it is a complex phenomenon that is almost completely determined by social factors. Allowing poor people to starve will not provide a substantial incentive to reduce poverty—most especially in the world where all the property has already been divided up.

I have heard things about Molyneux in the past, but I’d never seen him before. I can see why libertarians like him. He’s got that zestfully clean look and manner. And he’s got the libertarian dogma down. But I can also see why he makes liberals apoplectic. He’s breezy with his thinking, and breezy is not a good way to think about serious subjects. Having been a keen observer of libertarians for three decades now, I see what Molyneux is all about. He sticks mostly to theory but peppers it with practical claims. I have little doubt when it comes down to it, he will jettison all of the practical claims when they are shown to be wrong. And he’ll be left with his non-aggression principle. Taxation is rape! There is no serious political discussion to be had here.

Law, Humor, and Henry Fielding

Henry FieldingOn this day 1707, the great novelist Henry Fielding was born. I think of him as the English Cervantes. Their first loves were the theater, they fell into writing novels almost by accident, and they lived much of their lives in and out of poverty. They also shared a very sharp wit. Of course, there are various important differences. Fielding was more successful in his own life, but died young. Cervantes really only found success at the end of his relatively long life.

Fielding was mostly a satirist and social critic. He was especially fond of attacking the government under Robert Walpole. In fact, it is speculated that the censorious Theatrical Licensing Act of 1737 was enacted especially for Fielding. With little hope of getting his plays produced, Fielding went back to practicing law. Soon after, he started writing novels, initially just to lampoon the melodrama of the day.

This, of course, led to his masterpiece The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling. It tells the story of Tom Jones, a bastard who is abandoned by his mother and taken in by a wealthy squire. In the end, it is revealed that Jones is actually the squire’s nephew. And there is much hilarity in the middle. You should really read it. That Penguin Classics edition I just linked to is free on the Kindle.

Fielding was also very liberal minded. Mostly because of his beating up on the Wings and the Jacobites, at the end of his life, he was made (along with his brother) London’s Chief Magistrate. And he did a very good job. He created what is probably the first police force there. But more important, he was responsible for reforming the judicial system and improving prison conditions. There are a lot of people in modern America who are distinctly disinclined to care about such matters.

Happy birthday Henry Fielding!