Instinct and the Power-Elite

September 12, 2013

A news item in the NYTimes today quoted Joe Lhota, Republican candidate for mayor of New York:

Mr. Lhota said that Mr. de Blasio’s “knee-jerk response to any new program is to raise taxes,” an approach he said was “instinctively wrong.” Instead, Mr. Lhota said the mayor should look to find efficiencies in the city’s budget.

Ah…you can’t make this stuff up.  A “knee-jerk” response to increase revenue is bad, but cutting the budget is obviously good, especially since he and his friends will not even feel it.  But how does he know this for a fact?  Raising taxes is “instinctively wrong.”  Might we say that Mr. Lhota has a knee-jerk response to tax hikes on the wealthy?  Sure seems like it.  It’s just pure instinct.

Of course, Mr. Lhota’s response to increased taxes for the wealthy may be instinct only among his social circle, so it is probably a learned response, with no instinct involved at all, but it sure seems like a reflex!

The article also includes this:

He mounted a direct attack on Mr. de Blasio’s “tale of two cities” campaign theme, saying that Mr. de Blasio was trying to “separate classes” as a political strategy.

“Calling it a tale of two cities, that level of invective has no place in any campaign, at all,” Mr. Lhota said. “It divides people. What we really need to do is to work together and provide a solution, not separating people and then saying that the ends justify the means.”

I would like to know what level of invective is appropriate in a campaign according to Mr. Lhota?  Tale of two cities seems rather tame to me.   By all means, let’s work together to raise taxes on Mr. Lhota.

I Am Entitled

December 20, 2012

newwileyTime to revisit that “fiscal cliff” that everyone is blathering about.  Let’s get some clarity, and take a look at the data, the actual facts of income distribution in the USA.

The chart below, from the US Census Bureau, lays it all out.  It’s not a graph that you see much in the news, and certainly not one that politicians use:  I’m not sure which is the more significant reason for this – that they don’t want people to see the facts; that they are incapable of understanding data charts; or that they assume the public is incapable.  Well, here goes…

US income distribution 2010

click to enlarge

As you can see, the Median Household Income is about $49,500.  That’s household income, not individual income, and the average household is about four people.  You know, parents, children, the usual deal, more or less…

So half of all households in America make less than that amount, with quite a lot of people concentrated in the bottom 1/5th of the income scale.  Of course, not everyone lives in NYC where housing is extremely expensive, but most people do live in metropolitan areas, and would you want to live with your family on $49K a year, or less…assuming that you don’t live on that now?

Sooo, in the negotiations over the ‘cliff’, the Republicans are holding out to keep taxes low for people making up to $1,000,000.  Those millionaires can’t afford more annual taxes!  Obama, because he’s a sap in negotiations, or maybe for reasons even worse to contemplate, gave in, and has proposed to raise the limit from $250,000, on which he campaigned, to $400,000.  Everyone making up to $400,000 gets a tax break again.

Meanwhile, he’s caving in on entitlements, i.e. payments to people through programs they pay into under specified ‘agreements’ worked out in Congress.  No freeloaders here:  you join the system and you get a described benefit.  These payouts benefit everyone who works, but they are obviously vastly more important for the people in the bottom 3/5ths of the scale than for the other 40%.

So here’s the thing…The negotiations are about giving a benefit to the top 2%, that grey bar on the right that represents everyone making over $250K (the chart isn’t wide enough to show each increment, so they lump them together), and cutting back on benefits to everyone else And the vast majority of the people who need those benefits being cut, really need them, to…er…live, you know…

Plutocracy is here.

April 11, 2011

All money, all the time.  As Gore Vidal remarked, there is only one political party in the USA, the party of money.  And now, as we edge towards complete plutocracy, we have a ‘visionary’ president acting as a ‘bridge’ between the ‘two parties.’  That’s the reactionary Republicans, and the Democrats, who have become the left-wing of the reactionary Republicans.

Reform of the financial bad-actors?  Pretty much dead.  Health care reform?  An incremental fix to a jury-rigged system that works badly except for the insurance companies who make piles off of it.  Budget?  Cut, cut, cut…but don’t raise taxes on the wealthy and the corporations.  They are already high enough, at least on paper.  Nobody pays those rates, though.  Wasn’t it Leona Helmsley who said, “Taxes are for little people?”

And those plutocrats, they are not ashamed to hold out their hand for me, after all, they paid for it!  What are all those campaign contributions for?  They squeeze mega-bucks out of the most vulnerable and least affluent sectors of the economy with credit card flim flam, mortgage flim flam, and every other trick in the book.  And they skim mega-billions off of the economy through financial speculation.  How would they do this if there were no economy?  The economy that they ransack is the collective production of all citizens, but they game the system for themselves.  And they, through the Tea Party surrogates, call for Big Government to get off the backs of the citizens.  How convenient.

Not much good news out there.

Resentment Politics…

September 5, 2008

Yeah, so, Krugman has a column today about the skill with which the Republicans manipulate feelings of resentment – or shall we say resentiment? – in our body politic.  Isn’t this the fuel that fed the fire of Hitler’s rise?  The simmering anger of the better-off-than-workers-but-not-well-off-enough-not-to-be-worried class? 

The key to this feeling in politics is that it isn’t logical.  People feel pissed off, pissed on, and treated unfairly – and they are!  But not by the people they think, necessarily.  I mean, Romney, a gazillionaire and former governer of Mass. railing against the Eastern Elite?  Pleeeezzzz… 

So why do Republicans get away with this?  Because they play dirtier politics?  I think not.

The best rejoinder to the politics of resentment is to tell it like it is.  You feel spat upon, well THIS is who is to blame.  And here’s why…It’s not hard to lay out the facts, and people aren’t stupid.  For instance, it is a dirty little secret that the Republican party has wanted to eliminate, not fix, Social Security from the day it was implemented.    And they very much like reducing taxes on the top 1% of the people, especially when everyone else will pick up the slack.  And that estate tax that all those regular folks are upset about even though it doesn’t apply to them, they’ll be happy to see that go too.

Why don’t the Democrats say more of this flat out?  I think it’s because when they do, the Republicans accuse them of fomenting “class warfare”.    The Republicans fear that, rightly, as they have NO answer to it.  And the Dems…they usually pull back because, after all, they get a lot of their money from the same people as the Republicans.  We’ll see what happens this time…

Tom Paine, Libertarian. NOT!

April 5, 2008

Poor Tom Paine! He was all for the French Revolution, and travelled to Paris to support it, but was nearly guillotined for his trouble! In his own land, with the post-revolution religious revival under way, he was reviled as a free-thinking atheist, though he was a Deist who denouced as wrongheaded those who denied the existence of a Supreme Creator (I beg to differ…) And today? He is the favorite of right wing libertarians, many of which can be found spouting off here and there around the Internet.

When I hear so-called “conservatives” say that they are against people being “forcibly taxed” to support things that some others have decided is a public good, I am reminded of Lenin’s characterization of anarchists as “infantile.” Not that I’m a Leninist, but he had a point – and these libertarians are similarly situated on the maturation-politico spectrum. In other words, like so many of us, they want something for nothing, though they will not admit it.

The excerpt below is from an essay Tom Paine wrote for the Pennsylvania Gazette in 1782. Would that it were read more widely by students of American politics and history (emphasis added):

It is a pity but some other word beside taxation had been devised for so noble and extraordinary an occasion, as the protection of liberty and the establishment of an independent world. We have given to a popular subject an unpopular name, and injured the service by a wrong assemblage of ideas.A man would be ashamed to be told that he signed a petition praying that he might pay less than his share of the public expense, or that those who had trusted the public might never receive their money; yet he does the same thing when petitions against taxation, and the only difference, that by taking shelter under the name, he seems to conceal the meanness he would otherwise blush at.Is it popular to pay our debts, to do justice, to defend an injured and insulted country, to protect the aged and the infant, and to give to Liberty a land to live in? then must taxation, as the means by which those things are to be done, be popular likewise.

…Why has the back country been ravaged by the repeated incursions of the enemy..but from the inability of the revenue to provide means for their protection?And yet the inhabitants of those countries were among the first to petition against taxation.In so doing, they eventually prayed for their own destruction, and, unhappily, for them, their prayer was answered.Their quota of taxes would have been trifling, compared with their losses, and, what is still worse, their domestic sorrows.

Those Bush Tax-Cuts: Science Lessons from Mr. Softy

April 11, 2005

Who says that the social sciences are the soft sciences?! That never made much sense to me. Sure, you can’t do experiments in a lab, but you can formulate hypotheses, predict logical outcomes, and then search for confirmatory and disqualifying evidence. Yes, it’s devilshly hard to get the method right, hard to separate out bias and cultural convention, and to make a well controlled examination, but it’s possible. Triviality is more of a threat to the social sciences than softness. That is, doing statistical research to prove earth-shaking suppositions, e.g., that people prefer sweet things to sour things.  Here’s an example of the soft at their hardest,

The Ig Nobel Prizes: The Annals of Improbable Research by Marc Abrahams.  I didn’t know the Republican right was so interested in advancing social science!

Dying to Save Taxes

Economists like to believe that people make rational decisions… could the timing of death be, to some extent, a rational decision? Economists presume that the timing of other important events, childbearing, marriage, may be so affected – why not dying?

Joel Slemrod of the U of M Business School examined death rates for 13 years in the 20th century during which estate taxes were either markedly increased or decreased by law.  It all boiled down to a simple conclusion:

“There is abundant evidence that some people will themselves to survive in order to live through a momentous event… some people will themselves to survive a bit longer if it will enrich their heirs… To be sure, the evidence is not overwhelming.”

In his acceptance speech at the Ig Nobel Prize Awards, Slemrod remarked:

“Little did we know when we did this research, the US Congress, in its wisdom, would vote to abolish the US estate tax for the year 2010 – and only the year 2010 -setting up the best natural experiment for [our] hypothesis ever conceived… Franklin once said that the only two inevitable things are death and taxes.  Well, come 2010, it will be death or taxes.”

Slemrod said that he was partially motivated by a desire to show that research in the social sciences could be fun. Hasn’t he heard of the Dismal Science?  Find out more about the Ig Nobel Prizes at their websiteWhile you’re there, check out this exciting development in census cartography!


Two Toms: Jefferson and Paine

March 8, 2005

No, I’m not talking about that neighborhood restaurant in Brooklyn (“Two Toms” on 3rd Avenue – get ready for LARGE portions) but our own Odd Couple of the Founding Fathers. I link these two because they were friends, and in the latter part of their lives, when Tom Paine was reviled at home and in England as a vicious, revolutionary atheist, denounced as a traitor to liberty in France, where he narrowly avoided the guillotine because of his opposition to the execution of Louis XVI, Thomas Jefferson stood by him, made sure he was allowed to return home to the USA, and publicly treated him as a friend. A rare display of strong principle by Jefferson, a man who was known by his supporters and enemies to be as emotionally and intellectually slippery as an eel.

Paine is often treated as a bit of a crank, something of a fanatic, perhaps a dangerous, incendiary character, while Jefferson, as we know, is the epitome of enlightened statesmanship and open-minded rationality. True? As far as T. Paine goes, the received wisdom is way off the mark, that’s for certain. He was not at all an atheist as charged, but subscribed to the straightforward deism of his day. He thought that the universe itself was evidence of a divine creator, but he knew that the creator had no truck with ordinary affairs of men and matter. I beg to differ, atheist that I am, but he was marvelously clear in his expositions. What put him on the wrong side of the righteous Christians was his argument in The Age of Reason that revealed religion has no factual or intellectual basis. Sacred texts, sacred prophets, miracles, he would have none of it, whether from the Christians, the Jews, the Moslems, or anyone else. He was committed to his principles, and they were good ones:  freedom, liberty, abolition of slavery, and secular government. He railed against his countrymen when they embraced unrealistic platforms, such as opposition to all federal taxes, the occasion of his wonderful essay, The Necessity of Taxation.”

TJ, on the other hand, with his hypocrisy regarding slavery, his puerile enthusiasm for blood in the streets in Paris, [ a strange feature of contemporary politics, that we have ultra-reactionaries using the rhetoric of the 60s counterculture – didn’t Newt Gingrich often sound like a rebel without a cause?] his political chicanery, his willingness to go for the jugular, seems like the political fanatic at times. Connor Cruise O’Brien has suggested that he is the intellectual grandfather of our militia movements. Perhaps he is the prototype for the modern political intellectual, the one’s who find sound, logical reasons for watering the soil with the blood of traitors (a few million or so) every few years. Reading him, and about him, you certainly get the feeling that politics was for him, as perhaps for some dangerous political leaders we know about, the working out of something intensely personal. First principle of good, democratic, politics:  don’t let their problems become our problems.