Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The "Haves" are winning (Part 4)

Before you look at these graphs/pictures/figures, read my post about Freedom vs. Equality. I make the case that you cannot have freedom without equality.

I think the following figures speak for themselves. The author of our book has been spouting off statistics about inequality in the first portion of the book. These figures show graphically what he's saying and also represent an update to his year 2000 data.

Enjoy... or cry.
Average income per family–distributed by income group
Net worth distribution
Change in income since 1979
Poll data on actual vs. perceived vs. desired wealth distribution
Winners and losers for 2007-2009
CEO vs. worker pay and historic tax rates for the top bracket
Share of total tax revenue by source

The final two figures should be taken together with their mutual source at the bottom.

I don't know whether I want to elaborate on these figures or not. Reading Gates often makes me feel depressed or angry. That's not really a great response. Fortunately, it also makes me determined to challenge the paradigm that brought our society to this point. That's why I'm going to law school and that's why I'm planning some exciting projects for after I'm out of law school.

A lot of this discussion seems so timely. The protests in Wisconsin and the rhetoric about cutting the deficit really illuminates who our elected officials pledge allegiance to. I'll give just one example:

If you listen to the debate around "fixing" Social Security, you'd think that there are only two possible solutions: cut benefits or raise the retirement age. I'd like to offer a third solution that used to be talked about (during the 2008 campaign), but isn't anymore. Raise the Social Security tax cap. Right now, Social Security taxes are only collected on the first $106,800 of a person's income. We can raise that and fix our problem without cutting benefits, raising the retirement age, or burdening lower income workers any more than they already are.

Why should people who don't benefit (directly) from social security (the rich–they simply don't need it) pay into the system? I'd posit two reasons. First of all, I believe everyone benefits from reducing the number of people in this country who live in dire poverty. Social Security acts as a financial safety mechanism for the older citizens in our society.

Second, as the wealthiest country in the world, I think we ought to have the common decency to take care of our elderly in at least a marginal way. To fix Social Security by modestly shifting more of the payroll tax burden to the affluent seems to me a largely painless solution.

Looking at these figures makes the arguments of conservatives during this time of fiscal austerity sound pretty hollow. They're telling us that the only way we're going to balance the budget is to cut programs that provide assistance to or benefit the working class (Social Security, pension plans, collective bargaining rights, etc.), while extending tax breaks for their wealthy friends (like we just did in December). Give me a break. The minimum wage in this country hasn't even come close to rising with inflation (I read something the other day that said it should be somewhere around $15/hour). The working class has worked longer hours for less pay for decades. Look at the third figure, only the top 20% have even seen any increase at all in real after-tax income since 1979. The wealthy make their money off our backs. It's time they pay their dues and give us a break.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

A Perfect Storm (Part 3)

No doubt the title of this post is an overused phrase, but I had a week that lends itself to discussing our book (as in: all the things I wanted to blog about converged on a single passage of the book).

As I posted on the Tickle Closet, I found a dead life-form on the train tracks in Albertson, NY. But the point of that post was a realization about how we should spend our internal vigor. To put it simply, this week has made me revisit my basic assumptions about New Yorkers, Americans, and humans in general.

I took the train to Manhattan this week. I needed to use the Subway to get to Union Square once I arrived at Penn Station, but I assumed there would be signs clearly pointing the way.

Instead, what I found when I stepped off the train was that there are certainly signs clearly pointing the way, but that there are two separate lines that service Penn Station and they are on opposite ends of the station. I stood there dismayed. I knew I needed to go downtown, but had no idea which line I ought to take.

My confusion must have been obvious because a young woman appeared in front of me, "Where do you need to go?" she said. I just stared at her. See, I was suffering from some preconceived notions about people in big cities and New York in particular...

When I drive to my father's house from where I'm living in Long Island, I cross the Throgs Neck Bridge. The toll for the bridge is $6.50 both ways, which would be enough to make someone grumpy, but the drivers at the toll plaza are unbearable. Every time, the cash line is backed up and there is about a half hour wait.

I've been a well-behaved driver recently, so I pull into the back of the line and wait my turn. But, many New York drivers are not so courteous. As you could expect, most of them drive in the faster lanes until right before the toll gate and then try to wedge their way in. After twenty minutes or so of observing this (and realizing that if they wouldn't do that, the line would move faster), I was not in my typical jovial spirit. When it was my turn to deal with these inconsiderate drivers, I maintained a 1-inch gap between my car and the car in front of me, periodically revving my engine for additional intimidation factor. Now, I know my Corolla is already pretty fearsome (just look at it here posing in Bozeman, MT),

but I honestly felt the need to make a particular effort to stare-down the other drivers. Trust me, I won and they gave up. But this experience stayed with me (as did the toll attendant's comment of "They're idiots" when I related my frustration to him). Ultimately, I began to believe something very negative about New Yorkers.

This was maybe unfair. After all, besides drivers in Wyoming and Montana, what state has divers who are completely loving to each other? Further, the New Yorkers at my Crossfit box (yes box, we call them boxes instead of gyms–probably because they're small and square and made of... regular building materials) are some of the kindest people I know.

To make a long story just as long as it actually is, this is why I was surprised when this young woman accosted me with helpful kindness in Penn Station. I managed to recall for her that I was trying to get to Union Square on the subway. She handed me a subway map out of her purse and gave me detailed directions (later, while I was looking at a larger subway map, a man stopped to make sure I knew where I was going). Before I could fully comprehend her gesture of kindness, her train arrived and she climbed aboard.

As I studied the map she gave me, I realized she had given me something extremely valuable. Not only had she extended genuine kindness, she had given me a very special subway map she had been keeping since the U.S. Open in 2005.

Further, on the reverse side of the map... you're not going to believe this... she has pasted the exact image of Andy Roddick's personal American Express card!

As you can see, I've mirrored the image to protect his finances.

Anyway, the point was that she was nice and helpful and essentially restored my faith in the goodness of New Yorkers, the American people, and humans in general (after the 2010 midterms, I had begun to doubt).

On the first page of the first chapter of our book (sometimes I hate prepositional phrases) Jeff Gates writes:
While self-interest is certain to remain a driving force in the success of free enterprise, democracy has long been animated by a latent generosity that longs to be unlocked. Humankind is predisposed to generosity. (3)
This is, undoubtably, one of the most important statements he makes throughout the book. There has long been a debate about whether humans are basically good or basically evil. If left to our own devices, will we be kind to others or will we descend into selfishness and thereby destroy ourselves and others? Note: I'm making a huge assumption here: that selfishness is inherently destructive. If you're a fan of the Bible you probably don't have a problem with that, but if you're a fan of Ayn Rand, you probably do. Take your pick.

I'd like to suggest that we are both good and evil (though I'm going to try to avoid getting into deep theology here). On one hand we have God and love vying to turn us into kind creatures, but on the other we have Satan (no I don't really mean school here, but school's objective isn't too far from Satan's) and hate encouraging us to succumb to selfishness and greed (is that redundant?).

Every moment of every day we choose which force we'll comply with. Giving a lost stranger Andy Roddick's credit card. Or cutting in line at the toll both. Take your pick.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Comfortable Jesus

The following is a letter I mailed to my U.S. Representative and my two Senators today. I was reading this article by Jim Wallis and a link in the article took me to a page where I could send this letter. At first glance, the question, "What would Jesus cut?" seemed cliché and in bad taste. But after thinking about it, I realized it was only that way because we never mean it when we say it (or "What would Jesus do?"). We've made it cliché because we haven't been serious. So, I decided to start taking it seriously and I began by mailing this letter. Join in.
As a person of faith, I believe that the moral test of any society is how it treats its poor and most vulnerable. Our federal budget should reflect our best national values and priorities, so in regard to your upcoming budget vote I ask myself, "What would Jesus cut?"
As your constituent, I ask you to oppose any budget proposal that increases military spending while cutting domestic and international programs that benefit the poor, especially children. 
Programs we need to invest in during these tough economic times include:  
1. Critical child health and family nutrition programs
2. Proven work and income supports that lift families out of poverty
3. Support for education, especially in low-income communities
4. International aid that directly and literally save lives 
In Great Britain, Prime Minister Cameron made the choice to delay a costly nuclear submarine program, while also increasing life-saving funding for international aid. The U.S. Congress should follow this example.  
Cody Lonning
Doing my civic duty

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Cult of Rationality (Part 2)

I wonder how persuasion works. The author of our book, Jeff Gates, goes about persuasion by sheer volume of facts. He piles them on like once he's piled them high enough, opposition will cave under the weight. Will that work?

No doubt he's right about the things he says. We do need a "genuinely vibrant democracy" (xi); socioeconomic polarization is out of control (19); and daycare is a significantly bad idea (42). My question is whether factual proof of these things will convince anyone. Let's face it, Fox News is the most watched cable "news" channel (I really truly hope I don't have to explain why that fact is relevant to this discussion). C-Span doesn't have a very high viewership, Fox does.

At the same time, we're right in the middle of an era when what I call the "cult of rationality" has boomed. In our era, it seems like nothing is more powerful than statistics and other forms of "factual" analysis.

When I met with the Vice President for Academic Administration at Walla Walla University to discuss the fact that academic credits weren't functioning as they should (it's a long story, but essentially I had a problem with the fact that one or two credit classes often demanded more time than four credit classes), the only thing she wanted to know is if I had statistical evidence of the phenomenon.

She could have stepped out of her office for five minutes and asked students that passed by, or she could have simply thought about it, but instead we launched into eight months of drumming up proof. Ultimately, "proof" came in two forms: a spreadsheet her office compiled and dozens of emails written by students detailing their experiences. I don't know which one sufficed as proof, but the email campaign certainly got me called into her office for more discussions.

This is only one example, but let me assure you that my time in the working world (and I suppose the academic as well) has certainly led me to believe that we care (or think we do) about facts and quantifiable evidence. So, how does Glenn Beck remain convincing given that his show is largely devoid of facts?

Further, if you follow public policy as closely as I do, you know that Congress does not run on logic or facts. The health care debate (which apparently is still ongoing: herehere, and here) is one of my favorite examples of a policy debate that was almost exclusively conducted outside the realm of reality. Nate Silver is a genius and I read his blog daily. During the health care debate he posted about the fact that many people simply did not know what was in the bill. Frankly, opposition to the bill was (and I would argue still is) based substantially on ignorance.

What does this mean? Well, in my opinion, it means that regardless of our preoccupation with quantifiable facts and statistics, our opinions are largely shaped by something else. Malcolm Gladwell, in Blink, makes some interesting statements about decisions not based on facts and careful thought.

It may sound here like I'm siding with Glenn Beck. I am not. Nor am I advocating for a society that would reject the "cult of rationality" and live by some other creed. My concern is that Jeff Gates will not be persuasive in the book we're reading. After all, it's over 10 years old and not much has changed the way he wants it too.

I have a tendency to write using quantifiable facts. The posts I get the best responses from are ones where I don't do that. Live and learn.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Christmas in February (Part 1)

David celebrates his new book
Last month, I sent some people (including David obviously) copies of Democracy at Risk with the following letter inside:
Around every holiday where gift giving is customary, I find myself in a conundrum. Most of the people I buy gifts for already have more things than they need. It almost seems spiteful to burden them with more, but at the same time I don’t want them to think I’m not appreciative. Given that one of the most pressing challenges our planet faces is our excessive consumption, my reservations about gift giving run much deeper than mere lack of need.
One of the solutions to this problem is to give books. Books facilitate the deliberate transfer of thoughts. Not stooping to the hasty and shallow banter that so often devalues our language, good books represent the other end of the spectrum. They are thoughtful, cautious, and represent vast amounts of time on the part of the author.
This year, I’m trying something new. For everyone on my Christmas list I have purchased the same book. I have not read this book and I do not know if it falls into the “good” category (though my research says it does and I surely hope it does). I will be reading this book over the next month and will be blogging about it during the month of February. I hope you will engage in the discussion (
I am giving this book to you because I value you. I am giving this book to you because I think you are thoughtful. 
Merry Christmas.
 Note: If you didn't receive one, don't be offended. I had a limited number and I'm really not that great at giving gifts. I hope even if I didn't send you one, you'll join in the discussion.

I was a little nervous about the book initially. It was published in 2000 and the world was a much different place then. It was written at a time when the markets were "booming" and "prosperity" was rampant. Now, after reading some of the way through the book, I think it is ideal.

It's easy to bemoan the economic problems of today; the economy is bad, people are out of work, etc. It's much more difficult to avoid wishing our economy behaved like it did back in the 90s. Nevertheless, the author gives us a less dreamy picture of the Clinton economy.

Of course what I like most is his affirmation for an engaged electorate. Howard Zinn said "You can't be neutral on a moving train," and if the trajectory of our politics says anything, it says we must be invested in our democracy.

Today's post is really just meant to be an introduction. This book's message has the specialty of being transcendent. For that I am thankful. I'll be posting all this month. Chime in.