Saturday, April 26, 2014

"an idea whose time has come" #3

I wrote two posts last week on the new book by Thomas Piketty, explaining that wealth always begets more wealth and widens the inequality gap, because capital investment always grows more than the product and workers' pay.   The only way to tilt that back toward more equality is by a global tax on wealth itself, rather than on income.

Admittedly, any economic theory is complicated and difficult for those who don't work at it.    For those of us who can just barely get Economics 101, Elizabeth Warren has translated Piketty's message.
"Trickle down doesn't workNever did."
Thanks, Sen. Warren.   We needed that.


Revving up the NRA crowd

The National Rifle Association is having its annual convention this weekend in Indiana.   An estimated 70,000 were expected to attend.    Here are some excerpts from the speech by  CEO Wayne LaPierre.
Freedom has never needed our defense more than now. Almost everywhere you look, something has gone wrong. You feel it in your heart, you know it in your gut. Something has gone wrong. The core values we believe in, the things we care about most, are changing. Eroding. Our right to speak. Our right to gather. Our right to privacy. The freedom to work, and practice our religion, and raise and protect our families the way we see fit. Those aren't old values. They aren't new values. They are core freedoms, the core values that have always defined us as a nation. And we feel them -- we feel them -- slipping away. . . .

We know, in the world that surrounds us, there are terrorists and home invaders . . . . campus killers, airport killers, shopping mall killers, road-rage killers, and killers who scheme to destroy our country . . . .  I ask you. Do you trust this government to protect you? We are on our own. . . . 

This election is going to be a bare-knuckled street fight. They're going after every House and Senate seat, governor's chair . . . .  -- laying the groundwork to put a Clinton back in the White House. They intend to finish the job, to fulfill their commitment . . . of fundamentally transforming America into an America you won't recognize. But mark my words: The NRA will not go quietly into the night. We will fight.
Here's what I think this whole crazy gun thing is about:   For a certain kind of white man, their guns symbolize their manhood, with all the privileges and power that has given them in the past.   They feel all of this is being taken away, and they are scared they will have nothing left.

Who has been gaining in our society, as they have been losing their exclusive, privileged status?   Women.   Gays.   African-Americans.    Immigrants.   So they fight against all of them, in some way or other.   With women, the fight is over reproductive rights.   They're beginning to realize they've lost the fight against gays, so they're giving up on that one.   They have our first black president to be the scapegoat for their resentment of the advancement of blacks.   And immigrants -- well, just listen to their rhetoric.

They frame it as losing their freedom -- and they are brave and patriotic to fight for our freedoms.   Behind that they are lashing back out of fear of what they are losing -- and in doing so they magnify what they are actually losing.

So the last line in the sand, for them, is:   "You can't take away our guns."  The Constitution gives us the right, so we're going to assert that right to carry our guns -- even in places where it makes no sense to do so.  But we have to have our guns, because it reassures us that we still matter, we still have some power.


Friday, April 25, 2014

Nevada rancher a "patriot" one day and a "racist crank" the next

Cliven Bundy is a Nevada cattle rancher who for decades has refused to pay the grazing fee that the U. S. government charges to let cattle graze on federally owned land.   Even though it is a bargain (about 10% of what private land-owners charge), Bundy says he does not recognize the government's ownership of the land, so he refuses to pay.  He now owes more than $1 million dollars, accumulated over two decades of his cattle "on the government dole," so to speak.

When the feds finally tried to confiscate his cattle, Bundy called out his milita friends and there was an armed standoff between right-wing, gun-toting, "freedom" spouting, angry men who saw themselves as standing up to the big, bad, illegimate federal government that is trying to bully them.   Harry Reid called them "domestic terrorists," a label they quickly adopted as their own.

This might have gone unnoticed were it not for FoxNews and Sean Hannity ampimg up the furor, continually showing the stand-off, and praising Bundy for being willing to fight for his beliefs.   Nevada Sen. Dean Heller called him a patriot;  other Republicans likened his dissent to the civil disobedience of Gandhi and Thoreau.   Others called it "the beginning of taking back America."  Paul Rand, Marco Rubio, Rick Perry all offered support. 

The microphone went to Bundy's head, apparently, and yesterday he decided to share some more of his "wisdom."   He put forth his ideas about "the Negro," in what was an ignorant, bigoted, racist rant against people who live on government subsidies, abort their babies, and put their young men in jail.  

He thinks the problem is that they've become enslaved to the public dole.   They'd have been better off if they had learned to "pick cotton."  He even questioned whether this form of "slavery" was worse than the other kind.  At least then they had their families, their work, and their gardens.

Strong stuff.   Hannity couldn't run away from Bundy fast enough, calling the remarks racist and beyond repugnant.   Heller's spokesman said he found the comments "appalling" and condemned them "in the most strenuous way."

But here's the thing.   In a little less raw form, Bundy is saying what the right-wing Republican politicians have been saying.   As Jamelle Boule of the Weigel political blog put it: 
In short, the only difference between Bundy and a whole host of conservatives is that the renegade rancher isn't sophisticated enough to couch his nonsense in soundbites and euphemism.
You think that goes too far?    Check out the title of Rand Paul's latest bookGovernment BulliesHow Everyday Americans Are Being Harassed, Abused and Imprisoned by the Feds.

This is not patriotism.   This is anarchy.    The Rand Pauls and Ted Cruzs and Rick Perrys are willing to play with the anarchist message in order to energize their base.   First, it's not a winning strategy for them, because they'll lose the independents;  and they can't win with only their base.   

Second, it's dangerous.   I do not think that Paul and Cruz and Perry are ready for an armed stand-off with the feds -- but they're playing with the fire in the belly of those who are that foolish and easily riled.


Thursday, April 24, 2014

More on "an idea whose time has come"

My first post (4/23) on Thomas Piketty's book and theory about economic growth and inequaliy was about Piketty's analysis of the problem, based on extensive data analysis.

His book also offers a remedy, and this is the more controversial part.   What he calls for is a "global tax on wealth."   Those four words, as Walt Whitman would say, "contain multitudes."

First, it would tax a person's net worth (his assets minus liabilities) rather than income.   Now, the very wealthy get most of their income in ways that are either taxed at lower rates (capital gains) or have various tax exemptions and loopholes.   This is why very wealthy people often wind up paying very little taxes.   The tax code is designed to favor people with lots of money and very smart tax lawyers who know how to take advantages of the special treatment that their influence and money have been able to get passed through congress.

Second, it is global.   If only one country decided to tax wealth (as some do now), it would encourage corporations and wealthy people to simply transfer ownership to tax havens in other countries.

So that is the difficulty.   If a tax on wealth had any chance of getting through the U. S. Congress, would it stand any chance of getting the cooperation of all the other countries to make it a universal, global agreement?

Not too likely, say most economists and political observers.  But Piketty says it could be doneAll you have to do is get enough people to want to do it.    Structurally it is not impossible;  it's all in the motivation.   And Piketty is stirring lots of interest and even excitement.

Still, as a practical thing, it's not likely to happen anytime soon, short of some global catastrophe.   And, from my point of view, that's too bad.


Strip Issa of his committee chair

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) has proven himself to be unqualified to be chair of a major House committee (especially the Government Oversight Committee) because of his undisguised partisanship that goes beyond political rivalry and has become abuse of power.

He has cost the taxpayers millions of dollars, and government workers thousands of hours in bogus investigations of scandals that exist only in his wishful thinking, the most notorious one being the so-called IRS scandal.   According to Issa, there was a conspiracy between the White House and the IRS to unfairly target conservative groups applying for 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) status.  He claims that only Tea Party organizations "received systematic scrutiny because of their political beliefs."

 A special IRS office has the responsibility to determine whether applicants are indeed non-political in their activities, which are limited to advocacy for the general welfare and education.   It turns out that Issa asked for a list of such conservative groups that had to go through extra review -- and was given that information.   He did not ask for a complete list of all organizations that had been scrutinized.

It is true that, at that time, the IRS was using a list of words to target applicants.  And when there was a surge of Tea Party organizations applying, they added some words like "patriot" and "Tea Party" to the list of self-descriptions that would flag the application.

But it is not true that only conservative groups were flagged.   They have now released data going back to 2010, when liberal groups like ACORN were suspect.    Overall, the practice of using specific words to pick out applications for further review, has been aimed more at progressive groups than conservative ones.   Charts have now been released to prove this.

Issa knows this.  At least he has been told it again and again.  But he refuses to back down on his vendetta against the IRS and specifically Lois Lerner who was in charge of this IRS section and who has refused to testify under 5th amendment protection.

Even beyond his abuse of investigative power, is the jaw-dropping disrespect he has repeatedly shown to the ranking Democrat on his committee, Rep Elijah Cummings.   It's all preserved on a now infamous clip of the proceedings.    Here's a still photo from that interaction, which captures Issa's look of contempt at his colleague Cummings.

Elijah Cummings, Darrell Issa

Issa had allowed no discussion during this committee meeting, and Cummings was trying to assert his right to speak.  Shortly after this photo, and with Cummings still trying to speak, Issa stood up and told the staff to cut off Cummings' microphone.  Which they did.    The ranking member of the committee was not allowed to raise his objections during this whole committee meeting.

That is abuse of the chairman's power, not to allow the ranking member to make his statement.   Issa later did offer an apology, and Cummings accepted it.   But this was perfunctory.   Issa gave no indication that he has changed either in his feelings or in the way he intends to conduct the committee -- except when the reaction against him demands it.


Wednesday, April 23, 2014

" , , , an idea whose time has come."

The full quotation is from Victor Hugo:   "Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come."    That may be what we're seeing in the phenomenal success of 42 year old French economist Thomas Piketty's best selling, 700 page book of graphs and charts and historical economic data and analysis.

As dull as that sounds, Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-first Century (Harvard University Press) is also about big ideas.  Beyond having the #1 best selling book on, Piketty is the hottest guest for serious tv talk shows right now.   It's the ideas, backed by an extensive data base, that challenge the conservative economic theory of trickle-down economics.

Despite Ronald Reagen and all the conservatives ever since, accumulation of wealth does not "raise all boats."  Piketty has the data to back up that conclusion from historical analysis of wealth and economic growth over the last two centuries.  A former economist with the World Bank has called Piketty's work "one of the watershed books in economic thinking."

What this extensive data base shows is the market place is not self-correcting, and laissez-faire economics is not a benevolent system.  Rather, returns on capital investments will always outpace the growth of the economy;  even without the help of tax cuts for them, the rich get richer and the rest of us don't.   When you give tax advantages to the wealthy on top of that, inequality accelerates.

Piketty is not affiliated with any political ideology;  he considers himself a pragmatist who simply follows the data.  From that position, he argues that extreme inequality "threatens our democratic institutions."   He favors a progressive tax policy that redistributes wealth and reduces the inequality of opportunity.   Democracy is not just about one man, one vote;  but also about equality of opportunity and protection of rights of all.

There will be critics from the right, but this makes a far stronger case for what progressives have believed all along -- because it is based on actual study of the data over two centuries.


Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Legalizing marijuana may save the senate for Dems

According to progressive blog site "Fire Dog Lake," having legalization of marijuana on the November ballot in Alaska could save the U. S. Senate for the Democrats.   Now that's a provocative statement, but the reasoning is sound.

Because of several factors having to do with their legislative schedule, the Alaska election officials have had to move the marijuana legalization vote from the August primary to the November general election.

Incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Begich's race is considered to be the most competitive one in the U.S. senate this year, in which it could come down to one seat margin.  A George Washington Battleground poll found that 69% of young voters say they would be more likely to go to the polls if the marijuana question is on the ballot.  And Democrats have a 13 point advantage with voters under 30.

Simple math:   legalizing weed could save the senate, even though not a single senator has been willing to endorse the legalization.


Monday, April 21, 2014

Poets seem poor judges of words in this survey

We are in the midst of April, the National Poetry Month.   So it seemed natural for Huffington Post to team up with the Poetry Foundation to ask five poets to choose the most beautiful word in the English language.

There was some discussion (inconclusive and unconvincing) as to:   Is it the sound of the word or the meaning/associations of the word that make it beautiful?   I think, when you boil it down to the one most beautiful word, it has to be both.   At the opposite end, "skunk" would probably be considered ugly both for sound and association.

Five poets, none of whom I had ever heard of, each chose one word as the most beautiful.   I was baffled at the results:   "a," "belittle," "clarity," "dusk," and "ever."  Only one, "dusk," comes close.  The others are just strange or miss the mark entirely, in my opinion.  

Here's my choice, which I think is the perfect combination of beautiful sound and beautiful associations:   "Lullaby."

You got a favorite?


Putin caught with his hand in the cookie jar

Vladimer Putin has steadfastly maintained that no Russian military personnel are active in Eastern Ukraine, just as they were not in Crimea.    He has been lying and continues to lie to the international community.

Prior to now, everyone has known that there were in fact Russian agitators in Ukraine stirring up the unrest, leading the protests, occupying government buildings.   Although their uniforms and vehicles are unidentified as Russian, they are identical and far too advanced to be indiginous in Ukraine.   In addition, this is the pattern he followed in the Georgian provinces.

Now there is concrete proof.   Ukraine has supplied comparison photographs taken of men in action in Ukraine who are identical to prior pictures of the same men in Russian uniforms.   In addition, there are several men who have acknowledged that they are Russian and only came to Ukraine since the unrest.

So, now Putin is being confronted by international bodies and leaders.   Will he continue to just lie about it?   It does seem to give the pro-Ukrain forces an extra leverage in negotiating an end to this charade of indigenous revolt.


Sunday, April 20, 2014

Church/State separation

Perhaps today, Easter Sunday, is a good time to address the church/state separation issue, which came up in a news item on my home page, Huffington Post.

A woman in New Jersey sent in her application for a "vanity" license plate for her automobile -- you know, the kind where you get to choose some name or word that supports a cause -- like "protect wildlife" or "Georgia Tech."   But these usually have some limits vaguely stated as "not being offensive."

This NJ woman wanted this to be her license number: "8THEIST."    Her request was denied on the grounds that it "may carry connotations offensive to good taste and decency."   So she sent in another application request that her license number be: "BAPTIST."   It was accepted without comment.

Further, when Associated Press called the Motor Vehicle Commission offices to ask for comment, the call was answered by a recording that stated the offices were closed "for Good Friday."

Need I say more?


A conservative pundit who really does think

Long-time readers of ShrinkRap know that I usually disagree with syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer on almost every issue.   When he appears as a pundit on tv news shows, I find him personally unpleasant.    Yet he is one of the more reasonable, thinking conservative pundits.

His recent column "Transparency no longer key to campaign giving" lays the problem out this way:   "On the one hand, of course money is speech. . . .  contributing to politicians or causes is the most effective way to amplify speech with which they agree. . . .  On the other hand, of course, money is corrupting."

Krauthammer then says that in the past, full disclosure of who gives what to whom had been the compromise that allowed freedom while keeping down corruption through disclosure of sources of the potentially corrupting money.

However, he goes on to say that there have been too many incidences of personal information obtained in the disclosure being used to hurt the donor and even the unlawful disclosure of confidential data.    He cites the newly appointed CEO of Mozilla internet company, who was politely encourged to resign after it surfaced that he had made a $1000 contribution to support the anit-gay marriage Prop8 back in 2008.  

I'm not sure that I agree that this is the problem as much as that it opens the donors to backlash from the opposition to the mega-donors, as we are now seeing with the Democrats' trying to undercut the Koch brothers by exposing the extent of their corrupting influence in our political process.  It's funny how they want to protect their freedom to express their views -- and pay millions to advertise them -- but want to restrict the freedom of others who criticize them for holding those views.   This was the theme that Charles Koch took in his op-ed whine about people criticizing him.

Nevertheless, Krauthammer does at least have a rationale for his opposition to any campaign finance regulation, even when I disagree with his conclusion.  And it is refreshing to have an opponent who actually does think and reason, instead of the unthinking shouters that echo the latest lies and conspiracy theories.

Krauthammer concludes with the very reasonable formulation that I so often employ:   The dilemma is basically a clash of two values, each of which has merit.   Here it is the clash between right to freedom of expression and right to equal opportunity.

Krauthammer chooses unfettered freedom of expression;   I would stick with some limitations of that freedom in order to bring some balance back into the equal access and equal opportunity to influence the political process.