Friday, December 9, 2011

The Gingrinch

I realized, once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary, over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore, that given his entire history and numerous quotes and policy stances, that Newt Gingrich really is the archetypal bad-guy from many a children's story and fairy tale. Hence, I have decided, and am no less pleased than Punch, that Mr. Gingrich's name so closely resembles one of said villains - namely, The Grinch (the jury is still out as to whether or not Mr. Gingrich's heart will eventually grow three sizes). Hence, the Gingrinch.

I have taken it upon myself to do as others in my generation, and condense several children's stories down to their Twitter-type essence. Consider the following as a moment in revisionist history.

  • Newt Gingrich finds no evidence of discrimination in the case of Rudolph v. Other Reindeer, tells Mr. Red-Nosed to "get a job after you take a bath." #thegingrinch
  • Newt Gingrich issues press release condemning Ebenezer Scrooge for gifting a turkey to the Cratchit family. Claims this will only promote a welfare state and that Tiny Tim should have gotten a job as a janitor to support his family. #thegingrinch
  • Newt Gingrich, following the Singapore model, will seek the execution of a young girl named "Alice," accused, among other things, of taking a drugged "potion," eating a drugged "cake," and on at least two separate occasions, consuming drugged "mushrooms." In a related story, Newt "The Professor Moriarty" Gingrich will lead a manhunt for one Sherlock Holmes, ordered for execution for known opium usage. #thegingrinch
  • Breaking: Newt Gingrich plans investigation of citizens of Whoville for alleged communist and un-American behavior. Gingrich sites disregard for capitalist gains and products as primary reason. Working closely with special agent based out of Mt. Crumpit. #thegingrinch
  • Newt Gingrich responds to request from a young Mr. Twist reading "Please sir, may I have some more" with the following: "That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard." Rick Santorum also issued a press release, claiming that Mr. Twist was likely obese anyway and deserved no more social welfare. #thegingrinch

I'm sure many more will come. Please, suggest your own.


Thursday, December 8, 2011

Jesus was not a Free Marketer

I'm going to take a brief break from politics and return to my old stomping ground of religion. Now, I know, in today's day and age, there's not a whole lot of light between those two topics, but, let's just assume some sort of divide...a wall, maybe...that kind of, you know, separates the two.

Anyway, I want you to take a moment and go read this. It's an article by Tony Perkins over at the Family Research Council, about how Jesus is a free-marketer. I know, just go read it. We'll discuss after the jump.

I'm sorry. I'm so, so sorry. I know that you can feel it in your head - your IQ has dropped. Yes, this article is weaponized stupidity, and you are literally dumber for having read it. I'm so, so sorry. Now, most of the time, I'd read something like that, mutter "Idiot..." and move on. But I feel like this is different. This is special some how. Some strange confluence of religion, economics, and politics has swirled into a primal vortex, from which screams an eldritch beast out from the depths of Tony Perkins' black soul, crying, nay, begging for an answer. A hero. Dovahkiin, if you will. So, here I stand. I may not be the one you wanted to reply to this, but perhaps I am the one you needed.

Let's go through this step-by-step.

Here's the parable he's discussing:

11 While they were listening to this, he went on to tell them a parable, because he was near Jerusalem and the people thought that the kingdom of God was going to appear at once. 12 He said: “A man of noble birth went to a distant country to have himself appointed king and then to return. 13 So he called ten of his servants and gave them ten minas.[a] ‘Put this money to work,’ he said, ‘until I come back.’

14 “But his subjects hated him and sent a delegation after him to say, ‘We don’t want this man to be our king.’

15 “He was made king, however, and returned home. Then he sent for the servants to whom he had given the money, in order to find out what they had gained with it.

16 “The first one came and said, ‘Sir, your mina has earned ten more.’

17 “‘Well done, my good servant!’ his master replied. ‘Because you have been trustworthy in a very small matter, take charge of ten cities.’

18 “The second came and said, ‘Sir, your mina has earned five more.’

19 “His master answered, ‘You take charge of five cities.’

20 “Then another servant came and said, ‘Sir, here is your mina; I have kept it laid away in a piece of cloth. 21 I was afraid of you, because you are a hard man. You take out what you did not put in and reap what you did not sow.’

22 “His master replied, ‘I will judge you by your own words, you wicked servant! You knew, did you, that I am a hard man, taking out what I did not put in, and reaping what I did not sow? 23 Why then didn’t you put my money on deposit, so that when I came back, I could have collected it with interest?’

24 “Then he said to those standing by, ‘Take his mina away from him and give it to the one who has ten minas.’

25 “‘Sir,’ they said, ‘he already has ten!’

26 “He replied, ‘I tell you that to everyone who has, more will be given, but as for the one who has nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 27 But those enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them—bring them here and kill them in front of me.’”

The context of this parable is that Jesus and his disciples are going into Jerusalem. It's near the end of the book of Luke (chapter 19), and if anything, this parable is pretty clearly about Jesus going to die soon, and how the disciples should live after that. Namely, it's often interpreted in terms of "spiritual gifts," that is, go out and convert, or share your skills and talents. Don't hide them. It also explains that though the Kingdom is coming, it won't be immediately, and it's not going to happen in the way the the contemporary Israelites believed. That's fine. I don't have much of an issue with Perkins' interpretation of that bit. Now, he does choose to use the King James version, because it contains the translation of "Occupy," as opposed to "Engage in business" or "Put this money to work." Fine, "Occupy," it's a relevant topic at the moment, and it helps his, okay. After that, however, this article really goes off the rails. Now, a note. I'll be using the word "conservative" a lot in this post. What I mean by that is essentially the current, radical conservative that could be exemplified by the Tea Party, the majority of the Republican party, the majority of the Republican presidential candidates, and quite a few of the really far-right religious blocks in the United States. This gives me a little wiggle-room, so I want to be clear, this isn't all conservatives, but I think it is representative of the most vocal block of people calling themselves that.

First, he claims that the Occupy movement has taken over and "trashed" public property. While there are some examples of this, it is also clear that the Occupiers are willing to clean up after themselves, and often times, they don't have much of an option if local businesses refuse to allow them entry or use. Likewise, I'm sure there were a lot of conservatives who made similar claims about Hoovervilles...I mean, hell, they set up tent cities and protested their government. Sorry, guys, but this whole Occupy movement has deep precedents.

Now, Perkins will admit that the minas probably represent opportunities in life and abilities. Fine, great. But he misses an important point, one that conservatives love to gloss over. He says that Jesus gave each of his 10 servants equal responsibility and opportunity. Number one, a minor point, if he's talking about Jesus and not the guy in the parable, then he had 12 disciples, not 10. If he's talking about the guy in the parable, then that guy had 3 servants, not 10. I don't know where the 10 comes from, but whatever.

The more important point is that we do not have equal opportunities. Now, i know, the usual conservative screed is that liberals want equal outcomes for unequal participation. No, not really. What we would love to have is equal opportunity. Conservatives will claim that we all have equal opportunity, because the Constitution and Declaration of Independence say that we're all created equal and endowed with equal rights. Now, granted, they do a lot to bar those "equal rights," but whatever. The real issue is that, while that is a great sentiment, it is simply not true. Due to the circumstances of your birth, your location, the connections that your family has, the color of your skin, your gender, and a host of other factors, there is not, in practice, equal opportunity for all. Statistically speaking, the lower the socioeconomic class of your family, the lower your likely socioeconomic class as you age. We have a lot of speeches about the American Dream and rags-to-riches stories, but those are relatively rare, and class mobility has all but stopped (except in the downward direction) in the past couple of decades. So, you can say "Well, we're all created equal, and hey, I started out poor and worked my way to the top. Anyone can do it." Well, potentially, but that's a little misleading. It's true, anyone could, in the sense that the next rags-to-riches story could be about anyone, but in terms of likelihood for any individual, it's very low. Wages for the middle class and poor have been stagnant for the past 30 years, while those for the upper income bracket have skyrocketed for more than 200%. So, we're literally in a situation of riches-to-riches, and the chance of you working your way out of a poor neighborhood and becoming fabulously wealthy is actually quite low.

Perkins claims that Jesus chose for the basis of this parable the free-market system. That's funny to me. For one, free-market capitalism was not a concept that existed in that era of Palestine. The general consensus among economic historians is that free-market capitalism did not really begin to emerge until the Medieval period in Europe, which is notably later than the time period of Jesus. So, sorry, no, Jesus did not chose the free market as a basis for his parable.

Perkins continues to argue that the first servant, the one that got a return of 10 minas, had invested his money and got a nice return. Well, maybe...but I think the terms of investment in this sense is very different from the one that Perkins wants to argue. Moreover, he goes on to claim that it probably took a lot of diligent effort and attention. Well, at that time, probably it did. Now, however, you can play the stock markets - essentially legalized, large-scale gambling. Chance is the ruler of the day, as well as deep-seated fraud and corruption. So, granted, you can poor over stock reports and the news every day and you might get by in the market...or you can join league with speculators, short-sell stocks that you know to be worthless, and make a ton of money on the back end. I'm sure Perkins will argue that Jesus would be very proud of the bankers who short-sold worthless mortgages and crashed the economy. They made a huge profit, and that's what counts, right?

The second servant has much the same story, but the third servant...well, here's a special case. See, that third servant, he knew that his master was a bit of a shady operator, and didn't want to piss him off (which amuses me, as Perkins claims that the master is a stand-in for Jesus), so he basically hides the money and gives it back to his master after he returns. The master is really angry, both because the servant calls him out on his bad behavior, but also because he didn't do anything with the money. Instead, he takes the money from this "wicked servant" and gives it to the richest one. Now, that's exactly the kind of stuff that has been going on in this country over the past few decades, and I know Perkins has gotten quite wealthy from his position, so I can totally understand why he wants to defend taking money from the poor and giving it to the rich (I mean, it's basically the business model of his organization, so, there you go), but I don't think most people consider that to be very, you know, moral.

Mr. Perkins also goes on to praise how the parable shows some of the great qualities of the free market system - for example, there are winners and losers. And, according to Mr. Perkins, parroting one of the biggest conservative lines ever, the "winners are determined by the diligence and determination of the individual." Now, for all the reasons that we've discussed above, and more, that is simply not always the case. He wants to save himself from that criticism by saying that "some egregious abuses have" occurred, they aren't inevitable or intrinsic to free enterprise, and that the parable endorses the principles of the free market properly employed. Well, no it doesn't (again, free market economies didn't exist at the time in the same way that they do now), and actually, the abuses that we've seen are intrinsic to the system and are inevitable given the way it's currently set up and running. They aren't that "occasional" either, Mr. Perkins. Oh, if we just practiced it being bridled by "transcendent moral principles," we'd all be fine. Well, that's great, but it's not going to happen. In fact, you're really arguing against yourself at that point. If you truly believe that the free market, bridled by morality, is the best system, you should be all for regulation to ensure that the market actually is accountable to that morality. I mean, the master does return and audits his servants, no? The market, and corporations, are not immoral or moral. They are amoral, by their very definitions. They have a legal and contractual obligation to generate as much profit as possible for their shareholders and hence are profit making machines. A machine does not care if you get hurt using it. A machine does not care at all.

Oh, yeah, sidenote about the end of the parable, the master (who is now king) also commands that everyone who didn't like him be brought before him and executed. I can see why conservatives love this parable. "Take money from the guy who knows that you've done bad stuff and give it to those who are rich? Sweet! And kill people?! Awesome!! Yeah! Jesus is so hardcore!"

Perkins then goes on to say that "Jesus rejected collectivism." Now, that really interested me. I seemed to remember that Jesus wasn't particularly wealthy, he spent a lot of time with twelve other not particularly wealthy guys, and I seemed to recall a bunch of stories and events (i.e., most of the rest of the New Testament...hell, most of the rest of the Old Testament), which really seemed like Jesus was kind of a collectivist.

Also, hilarious Mr. Perkins, you're so funny. You're going to trash collectivism, but corporatism, one of the most prominent examples of collectivism, he's just fine with. Hah!

So, was Jesus a collectivist? I'm not sure I'd use that term exactly, but he sure as hell was not a free-marketer.

For one, we have the feedings of the multitudes. On two occasions (one reported in all four Gospels, one reported in only Mark and Matthew), we see Jesus take a small amount of food and miraculously feed everyone. Note, not feed those who were wealthy, and not feed those according to how much work they had, he took the total amount of food that they had and distributed it evenly to everyone, regardless of their status, job, or anything else (Mark 6:31-44, Luke 9:10-17, Matthew 14:13-21, John 6:5-15; Mark 8:1-9, and Matthew 15:32-39). Huh...that's weird. Rewarding people with the same outcome by distributing everything evenly after having pooled all their resources together...that sure doesn't sound like a free marketer. Maybe you should have chosen this story, Mr. Perkins.

Oh, how about this one, from Matthew 5:

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ 39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

If a man wants your shirt, give him your coat as well? Don't turn away from one who wants to borrow from you? Give to those who ask? What? None of that sounds like the free market, does it Mr. Perkins? Aren't you arguing that the Occupiers just want to trash things and want hand-outs, and that Jesus would have tossed them out? Even though you'd be wrong about your characterization of the Occupy movement, it also looks like your whole argument is just...wrong.

While we're on the subject of tossing things out, how about this, from John 2:

13 The Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers sitting there. 15And making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen. And he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. 16And he told those who sold the pigeons, "Take these things away; do not make my Father’s house a house of trade." 17His disciples remembered that it was written, "Zeal for your house will consume me."

Or this, from Matthew 21:

12 And Jesus entered the temple[b] and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. 13He said to them, "It is written, 'My house shall be called a house of prayer,' but you make it a den of robbers."

Huh...sure doesn't sound like he was too happy at those making a profit around the Temple. Now, you might say that it's really their location that bothers him, but he also seems to be pretty pissed at the general greed as well. He sure as hell did not stand around saying "You see, here it is, free market economics just humming along. Sure, there are occasional abuses, but these guys are just great. We should work on our know, stocks...well, you don't know, but people 2,000 years from now will'll make sense to them."

Oh, and how about Matthew 19:23-24, or Mark 10:24-25, or Luke 18:24-25? A young, rich guy (I'm sure he got that way through diligence and determined effort in a free market economy) approaches Jesus and asks how he can get into heaven. Jesus tells him to follow the commandments, which he has been doing, and moreover, that if he wants to be "perfect," go and sell all of his possessions and give them to the poor, and follow him. Young rich guy isn't willing to do that (I mean, hey, he earned it in the free market, right?), and Jesus says that's hard for a rich man to enter heaven. Hey, Mr. Perkins, if Jesus was a free marketer, and rewards are really only given based on merit, shouldn't it be the other way around? Like, the wealthy are the ones who have "earned" it through "diligence" and "effort," right? So...why does this seem to contradict your whole argument?

Oh, mean the meek inherit the earth, and blessed are the hungry and thirsty, for they will be filled (Matthew 5:5-6)? Wait, that doesn't sound very free market at all.

Mr. Perkins, I think you may want to see this as well, from Matthew 25:

31 "When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. 32Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. 34Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.' 37Then the righteous will answer him, saying, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?' 40And the King will answer them, 'Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers,[f] you did it to me.'

41"Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.' 44Then they also will answer, saying, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?' 45Then he will answer them, saying, 'Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.' 46And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."

The righteous are the ones who have fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, clothed the naked, visited the sick and imprisoned? Oh man, Mr. Perkins, you might want to really rethink that whole free market thing, because that certainly sounds pretty...well..."socialist" (in today's American terms), at least. But, that's probably an isolated example, right? Or Jesus was just kidding around? You know, he liked to have a few jokes about socialism before going and preaching about free market economics.

You mean there's another? From Luke 10? Oh, that Jesus, always going on about seemingly collectivist stuff:

25 And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, "Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?" 26He said to him, "What is written in the Law? How do you read it?" 27And he answered, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself." 28And he said to him, "You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live."

29But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?" 30Jesus replied, "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. 31Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. 32So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. 34He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35And the next day he took out two denarii[c] and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, 'Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.' 36Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?" 37He said, "The one who showed him mercy." And Jesus said to him, "You go, and do likewise."

Oh man...paying for another guy's health care, that certainly doesn't seem free market. But, the one who shows mercy, that's the righteous guy. Mr. Perkins, that doesn't sound a lot like your vision.

One last thing, from the book of Acts, chapter 2. Now, you may say that hey, that's just the apostles, that's not Jesus, and you're right. But, I think most people who agree that the people who are mostly to have gotten the whole "living a Christian life" thing right were probably the apostles...because, you know, they lived with him and had all his teachings. So, they're living it up in a free market environment, just wheeling and dealing left and right, correct, Mr. Perkins?

42And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43And awe[d] came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. 44And all who believed were together and had all things in common. 45And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, 47praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.

Oh...they were living as a collective in a commune...selling all their stuff and distributing the money to all, according to need...well...that seems pretty bad for you, Mr. Perkins.

Okay, so all of that was a long way of saying that Mr. Perkins is dead wrong...actually, it's so bad it's not even wrong. The above is giving Mr. Perkins a lot of credit in assuming that all he states is actually true, and assuming that the Bible can be used to justify any sort of economic or social policy. There are numerous other criticisms (beyond the easy one, "Bible's a series of supernatural myths punctuated by some sometimes alright moral philosophy [often not that great, though], and thus we can reject it as a foundation of an argument". I've tried to avoid the easy path on this).

We could go on to say that parables, by their very definition, are not really about the things that are spoken about within the parable, e.g., the parable of the sower is not about good agricultural practice, and Mr. Perkins wants to have it both ways with this one.

We could also go on to say that since free market economics did not exist at that time and location, obviously the parable is not about that, and it would be impossible for the Bible to be praising an economic system like that, and Mr. Perkins is just reading into it.

We could also say that this proves that point that if you're really diligent and willing to bend some wording a little bit, you can find a quote from the Bible to justify nearly any position, and thus, maybe it's not the best source to be using in broad arguments.

We could also say that the Bible should not be the basis of us determining economic and political policies because, you know, it was written in a time vastly different from our own and does not speak directly to our times without a little massaging of the content.

With all that in mind...I'm going to go ahead and call it. You lose, Mr. Perkins. Good day, sir, you lose.


Monday, December 5, 2011

The Militarization of Police

Radley Balko over at the HuffPo has an excellent breakdown on the militarization of police. I'd highly suggest going to read to it.

It's chilling, and quite relevant to today's circumstances. We live in a world where everything is being declared a war, the "War on Drugs" being the most obvious. Of course, with the "War on Terror," it only makes sense that the police need to be militarized, or that the military needs to operate as police within the country, right?

When you couch things in the language of warfare, you're not really looking at "suspects," or "witnesses," or "citizens;" you're considering "enemy combatants," or "potential targets." We sent SWAT teams in to avoid search warrants and arrest low-risk offenders. Anyone who gets killed, even when it's cases of incorrect information, is "collateral damage" in the overall war. It's meant to teach us all a lesson - if we don't completely police ourselves and follow every government edict exactly, we may end up as collateral damage. Actually, scratch that, even if we do all the right things, we may still up getting gunned down because of falsified or incorrect information.

Again, I want to make it clear - I don't hate the military or the police. I think both groups provide a very useful and necessary function. However, I think their functions should remain quite distinct, and I don't think they should have the same tactics or theaters of operation. Use of force is sometimes necessary while on the job as a cop - this doesn't mean that it should be the first option for all situations.

In slightly more humorous news, Fred Upton (R-MI), a member of the GOP Supercommittee, has no idea why job growth was better with higher taxes on the upper income brackets than under the Bush tax cuts, but still thinks that tax cuts will create jobs.


Friday, December 2, 2011

A Run-Down of the Ridiculous

Here's a brief run-down of some of my top ridiculous recent stories.

First, we see that Republicans are continuing their war on the right-to-vote. But this time, they've actually just given away the game. You see, the problem is, those people who they want to be disenfranchised just don't vote Republican, at least according to New Hampshire House Speaker William O'Brien. Now, beyond the fact that his statements are either a) untrue, or b) at the very least short-sighted, conservatives for years have been trumping up this fear of voter fraud as a means to an end to disenfranchise demographics that don't typically vote strongly for Republicans. This, despite the fact that fear for widespread fraud is patently unfounded, with even law schools writing policy briefs about it.

Second, we have Steve King (R-Iowa), totally forgetting about the 14th Amendment, you know, the one that talks about citizenship. Now, I know, Republicans would love to do away with the 14th Amendment, and probably declare all sorts of new policies about how you have to prove ancestry back to 4 generations or some such nonsense (unless you're a white male, of course), but sorry, the Amendment still currently stands. Is that characterization unfair? Only partially. Supporters of eliminating or changing the Amendment are specifically against birthright citizenship, which essentially states that any person born in the country, no matter the circumstances, is a citizen of the country. They want to enforce proof of legality for both parents (at least in Steve King's mind, having one U.S. citizen parent doesn't cut it). They say that the 14th Amendment was never meant to grant citizenship to the children of people who were not legal citizens. Problem is, the framers of the Amendment did discuss those issues. Perhaps even more importantly, the Supreme Court in 1898 ruled in favor of Wong Kim Ark, arguing that this man, who was born to non-citizens in the United States (in fact, Chinese immigrants who were outlawed from becoming naturalized citizens), was a citizen under the 14th Amendment. So, sorry guys.

Third in our ridiculous round-up is Grover Norquist. What mash-up of ridiculous stories would be complete without Grover "Anti-Tax" Norquist? Well, now he's changed his stance a bit. You see, raising taxes on middle-income families isn't really raising taxes at all. Again, this is really just giving away the game.
"Should we raise taxes just a little, tiny bit on those making the most money in the entire country?"

-"NO! Of course not, that's ridiculous and will kill the economy!"

"Well, since you're against taxes, obviously we shouldn't raise taxes by not extending the payroll tax cuts, right? I mean, even though they'd just go back to previous levels, when we wanted to let the Bush tax cuts expire (and let them return to their previous levels), you said that would be raising taxes...right?"

-"That's ridiculous. Of course we should let the payroll tax cuts expire, that's not raising taxes at all. At lot of people don't pay taxes at at! [ed. note: this separates into two categories - people who don't make enough money to be taxed at all, or people who make such low wages that they get a refund on their federal/state tax. Everyone still pays sales tax, food tax, etc. Those are also the taxes that disproportionately affect the poor.] The only sector of the economy that matters is the extremely wealthy. They're job creators! [ed. note: no, they're not.] And they give good donations, after all."

Finally, for a bit of good news, and definitely not ridiculous, Nick Hanauer, a venture capitalist who helped start Amazon, has written an excellent op-ed, describing how backwards our tax policy has been for the past 30 years. This is the fundamental problem with supply-side economics, which I also described earlier. There is no way that the additional expenditure of a very small group of people, who are already having their needs and wants fully satisfied, will make up for the wasted potential economic activity of the majority of people who are just getting by.


Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Myth of Trickle-Down Economics

Here's a post I've been working on/thinking about for a while, and I think it's more relevant now than it was when I first wrote any of it. It's about trickle-down economics, or supply-side economics, if you want the hype.

What is supply-side economics? Well, it's a nice coating for the more pejorative "trickle-down" theory. Both of them essentially state that economic prosperity flows downward from the top to the bottom, and if you give tax breaks, subsidies, or whatever else, to those at the top of the income brackets, it will raise the general economy indirectly, which will benefit the poor and middle-class. You hear all sorts of rhetoric in relation to this idea, such as "a rising tide raises all boats." While that quote was originally spoken by John F. Kennedy, responding to criticisms that a dam project was just pork barrel spending, it has been taken over by supply-siders to defend their theory.

So, the basics are, if you cut tax rates or give fiscal benefits to top earners, this will improve the economy (through several means we'll explore in a bit), and when the general economy improves, everyone gets a lift, so the poor and middle class benefit eventually.

To me, however, this is all a scam, and built on bullshit. We'll explore that after the jump.

Let's examine some basic evidence.

The Great Depression and the Golden Age of the 1950's

Conservatives today seem to revere the post-war 1950's in America as a time when you could walk down the street, and if you dressed sharply and were persistent, you could get a job just about anywhere. They also believe that social mores were stronger, that the nuclear family was held as an ideal, and that everything was just plain "good."

Well, that's not entirely true...if you were a straight, white male from a Protestant background, the 50's were probably very good for you. If you weren't...things weren't that great. But let's examine the situation. The economy was indeed better than it is now, and there was significant growth throughout that period. That's great, and Republicans say that they want to get back to that growth (later also seen in the 80's and 90's for very different reasons), but let's review what was really going on, and if we're actually replicating any of that.

The Crash: Or, How the 2000's Mirrored the 1920's

A few decades prior to the Golden 50's, the stock market crashed, causing (or perhaps was merely a symptom of) a trickle down (more of a deluge, or flood) through the rest of the economy, wiping out people's savings, creating massive runs on the banks, destroying businesses, and sending us into the Great Depression. The Great Depression was a massive shock to the system, and is still not fully understood. There is likely no single cause that led to the Depression, but there are a lot of factors which we share with that period today, and understanding those are really key. The response to the crash and the change of those factors eventually pulled us out of the Depression, but we seem to have forgotten its lessons.

For one, debt had massively increased before the Great Depression, both individually, commercially, and federally. In one eerie similarity, the banks and brokerage firms at the time were massively overleveraged, with margin requirements at only 10%. This meant that for every dollar they took in, they could loan out nine. When the economy started to slow, brokers demanded payment on the loans, which created a massive problem - the capital was not present to pay them. A lot of people and institutions defaulted, creating a massive shock through the system. We saw the same thing in the mid-to-late 2000s, where banks had massively overleveraged bets, creating a huge housing bubble that eventually burst when those bets were recognized as being shoddy and called in. Today, overleveraging is even worse, and financial industries want the margin requirements to be even lower. In addition, many theorists from the monetarist side and the Australian school (similar in many ways to the supply-side today) blame policies of the Federal Reserve for causing the crash, and today we have many people who blame the Fed for fueling the Recession. I blame the Fed for the back-door bailouts and continued idiotic policies today, so I feel some sympathy for them. The period before the Great Depression had also seen massive surges in productivity, and may have caused a sort of "productivity shock," where there was excess output and not enough demand or purchasing ability to consume it. This should obviously produce some caution for supply-side theory, but it's a lesson that has been lost.

In response to the crash, and the resulting Depression, we tried a lot of policies to get the economy going again, and to prevent something similar from ever happening. Legislation such as Glass-Steagall Act, enacted after the crash, separated investment banks from commercial banks. This meant that the bank that you go and deposit your money in would not then use that money to make bets in the stock market - investment banks would have to use the money of their investors, specifically designed to be gambled with in the markets. Glass-Steagall likely had a huge influence on stabilizing the economy and preventing another crash for the next 70 years, until the last bit of it was finally repealed by the Republican-controlled Congress under Clinton in 1999. Following that, investment banks and commercial banks merged and gobbled up as much as they could, using depositors money to make gambles, and investing in mortgage-backed securities and collateralized debt obligations, which eventually led to our more recent crash. Added to that, banks also bought up credit-rating agencies, so they could package shoddy loans and have their in-house raters rate them as triple-A. Corruption at its finest. While Glass-Steagall, given the context of the times, may not have prevented a crash entirely, it likely would have lessened the blow. But, the repeal was essentially the final straw in a period of poorly informed Keynesian spending and deregulation.

Let's look at some other similarities: for one, income inequality has now hit its highest point since just before the Great Depression. And I don't mean, "oh, it's been close the whole time and is just now starting to get back into that narrow range," I mean more that it has been skyrocketing recently. Take a look here to see what I mean. You can read the full story here. I'll wait.

Tax rates for the top bracket are also massively lower than they have been for much of U.S. history. Coincidentally, tax rates for the top bracket also fell to very low levels in the years leading up to the Great Depression, as you can see here. It's also interesting to note that the top marginal tax rate in the 50's, that period of massive economic recovery/expansion, was 91%. 91%! And here we are at 35%, excluding capital gains taxes, estate taxes, etc, which are much lower. So today, if you're already massively wealthy, or the majority of your income comes from capital gains (e.g., dividends from investments), you may end up paying less, as a proportion of your income, than say your secretary. Great news if you're wealthy already.

Given all of that, and given the massive deregulation campaign that has been waged since the 80's, we should be in a supply-side paradise, right? Well...obviously not.

How We Recovered

Here is part of the important thing about the economic recovery following the Great Depression, which led to a period of economic expansion through the 50's and 60's: the period after the crash saw a massive hike in taxes and massive amounts of spending on domestic issues. We also had the War spending starting in the 40's, which provided a huge boost to the US economy. During the 30's-50's we invested in the country - in infrastructure such as the Tennessee Valley Association, the interstate system, bridges, public parks, and basically anything to put people back to work. We invested in education, perhaps most importantly with the G.I. Bill to send soldiers back to school. When the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, we poured massive amounts of money into science and mathematical education and funded the Space Race. We invested in our people with the New Deal and later programs by creating Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. You pay into those programs so that there will be a safety net to fall back into if something traumatic happens in your life, and to support yourself as you age and retire. To be honest, we've kind of been living and resting on the laurels of those investments, and our politicians have steadily been working to undercut many of them since they were created.

Republicans today want to have the war spending and the social morality of the 50's, but they don't want to raise taxes or invest in domestic issues. They're happy to do deficit spending if it's to fund a war or tax cuts (a really terrible misinterpretation of Keynesian theory), but programs which are deficit-neutral, which you pay into and are entitled to the money back (that's why they're called entitlement programs), well, we just can't afford those any more. This is the fundamental misapplication - if you want to live in that Golden Age, you have to have similar economic policies and investments. You can't completely invert the economic and investment policies and expect to see identical growth. What you end up with, instead, is the bubbles of the 80's and 90's. Yes, I will say it here, supply-side economics ultimately leads to a continuing boom and bust cycle. It works, occasionally, but only very briefly before it crashes again.

Now, why would they want to do that, and what does all of this have to do with supply-side economics? Well, that's a rather complicated topic. Follow me, if you will.

Arguments for Supply-Side

The Government is Incompetent

First of all, let's take a look at the standard arguments. We've all heard a lot that the government shouldn't be in the business of picking winners and losers, and that the government isn't smart enough or agile enough to spend effectively to induce economic growth. While in specific cases that argument is basically impossible to refute, I'm not sure that it's correct in the general picture. Certainly, our past investment in infrastructure and education spurred a great deal of growth, and a government-created job is just as much a job as a privately-created one, despite what Republicans will say. Many will argue that the government creates do-nothing jobs, but, again, while that may be true in specific cases, it doesn't hold in all cases. For that argument, I'll give them a half point for having some truth, but being in general misleading.

Tax Cuts Spur Growth

Now we go to the argument we hear the most today - that we have to put more money into the hands of the "job creators," i.e., the richest in the country. The argument basically follows from the above, saying that since the government is incompetent, we need to empower those who have proven themselves to be successful - basically, give them more money and opportunity to do what they've been doing, only more so. That's the stated reason for all the tax cuts to the top bracket - these people are successful and run businesses, so if we give them more money, obviously they'll grow their business and hire more people. Right? Well...not so much.

See, we actually know from past experience that cutting the top tax rate does not automatically mean more investment in business at home. It actually leads to several different things - for one, people will simply pocket the money or put it into savings. They will also invest it in the stock market, which doesn't so much create jobs as institutionalize and legalize gambling - it's a great way for a CEO to pad his bank account, but it creates nothing aside from more money for people who get lucky. It also leads to massive investment overseas. Tax cuts will create jobs alright, they just don't create them here. For more evidence that tax cuts do not lead to job creation, you can check out here and here.

What this has led to is a massive income disparity, and positive income growth for pretty much only those at the top.

To add insult to injury, the Bush tax cuts, which were billed and promoted as an across-the-board cut that would benefit all, really were weighted toward the top, to the end result that the average tax cut for the top 1% this year will be greater than the average income of the rest of the 99%. Now, before you statisticians begin clamoring that it's reporting the average (i.e., the sum of all household incomes divided by the number of households) and not the median (i.e., the income at which 50% of incomes are below, and 50% are above), yes, the median income is even more depressing (in 2004, the median US income was $44,389). In this year, the average income for the 99% is $58,506. Hey! I'm above the median but below the mean...awesome?

Creeping Influence and Starving the Beast

Why would this happen? Well, you have to understand that there has been a progression of decisions since around the 70's that allow for massive corporate donations and lobbying of Congressional members, culminating in 2010's Citizen's United decision, which basically removed the last restrictions on donation amounts. Our representatives don't really represent us, they represent the people who pay them the most, which is not their constituents. It makes good fiscal sense, but it's playing havoc with our system. Beyond that, conservatives since the 80's (at least) have been promoting a strong stance against government spending for all the above reasons - they want to throw the reins to the private sector, who pays them very well for their work. They also really can't stand entitlements and have wanted to do away with them basically since they were enacted. Now, you can't make a campaign (typically) out of saying that you want to eliminate Social Security and Medicare directly, so what do you do?

Well, if you're smart, you start modifying them and using them as piggy banks that you can spend from whenever you want. Social Security, on its ledger, is running a huge surplus, but that money isn't actually there anymore. Where did it go? Well, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Bush Tax Cuts. And now they don't want to pay it back. You create a crisis by stealing the money from the account and then complaining that its bankrupt. You also cut taxes to reduce revenue, and without that money coming in, the crisis deepens. All of a sudden you have a budget and deficit crisis because you've been engaging in massive deficit spending while cutting revenues. At that point, no one wants to cut Defense, right? So, what's left? Entitlement programs!

Starve the beast, indeed. The majority of this is a calculated and long-running scam to eliminate entitlement programs and get rich quick while doing it: Promote your economic vision as "helping the job creators," by which you mean reducing taxes. This decreases revenue. Then you take money from those programs that you want to cut and refuse to pay it back, instead using it for your own ends. You engage in budget-busting policy decisions that creates a fiscal crisis when your reduced revenues can't match your current spending, and then you turn around and say "Hey, we can't raise taxes in a crisis like this! We've got to cut spending. And if you cut Defense spending, you're threatening the well-being of the nation. So, sorry, but we're really forced into this, we've got to cut Social Security and Medicare."

It's entirely manufactured, and it's paying off well for the conservatives right now.

The Relation to Supply-Side Economics

So how does this all relate to supply-side economics? Well, that's the fancied-up language they use to defend this move. You make the argument that you're spurring jobs growth by giving more money to the private sector, the people who produce things, instead of wasting government money on other programs. The people who get the tax cuts will produce more, and that will help everyone.

But this doesn't make sense.

Let's consider a few brief examples. Let's say that we have a group of 100 people. One of them is fabulously wealthy and can afford anything they want or need. The other 99 are getting by, some better than others, but can't satisfy their every desire. Now, if you're a Republican, you say that we need to put more money into the hands of that one person, and they'll spur some economic growth by investing more in their business, or by buying more and stimulating the economy directly. If they want another yacht, well, someone has to build the thing, right? It creates jobs.

If you dont' think about it too much, that makes a sort of sense. But when you really think about it, it all falls apart. See, they already have everything they want, and the economy is already supplying that for them. Given more money, their demand is not going to increase that much, and you're likely to see the tax-cut money disappear into their pocket or into investment banking, which, again, doesn't really create any jobs. The additional economic demand of one individual isn't going to be that great. Now, let's say instead you inact a policy which forgives the other 99 people's debt, or puts more money into their hands. Now, they have a lot of things they want and need - their demand is high, and given the ability to make additional purchases, they are likely to do so. The additional economic demand of ninety-nine people is much more likely to have an impact in our hypothetical scenario.

Now, you may say that's a little unfair. It's not just about direct purchases - these people will invest in the economy in general, and it will improve. Well, not really, again. Just because you increase productivity or increase supply, does not mean that demand will rise to meet it, or that consumers will have the purchasing power to satisfy their demand. Say I own a pizza company, and the government decides to cut the tax rate for pizza companies who make a certain number of pizzas per day. Or, alternatively, they decide to just subsidize pizza companies and give them money to make pizzas. "Great!" I think, as I hurry to make a lot more pizzas than I ever have before. Unfortunately, even though I have much more supply, the demand just isn't there. It's okay, though, because even though I waste money on the surplus pizzas, I get a huge tax break which more than makes up for it (or, alternatively, I'm being paid to waste money).

See, if you're already making a profit, there's little reason to hire additional workers - there's not much reason for job creation. Beyond that, we know that a lot of times, it's much more profitable for a company to lay off people. Shareholders see their stock prices jump massively after layoffs, because the company is supposedly becoming "more efficient." Just giving the heads of companies more money does not produce any real incentive for them to invest that money in hiring additional workers. And why would they? Demand is pretty low - companies aren't hiring because people aren't buying. It's ideal to match your supply to the demand so that you aren't wasting any production, and companies aren't going to artificially boost productivity if there's no demand.

This is the ultimate flaw of supply-side thinking - boosting supply does not automatically boost demand. Typically, it creates waste, and when you subsidize waste, you're just putting money into the pockets of people who have no intention of ever creating a job.

If you really want to spur economic growth, you have to increase demand, and that usually means increasing the purchasing power of consumers. For people who are massively in debt, or working very low paying jobs, it doesn't matter how much supply is out there - they can't afford it. So could tax cuts work for the middle-class and the poor? Well, potentially, but you'd have to wait a long time. People in that situation typically spend additional money paying down debt, which does not directly boost economic growth.

Henry Ford had a crazy idea when he hired people to work on his assembly line. He paid them $5 a day. That doesn't sound like much, but it was vastly higher than any other similar job would pay. Ford took a hit on his profits by paying his workers so much, but he also turned them into consumers. With that kind of money, they not only built Model T's, but they could afford to buy them too. This is part of the idea behind a minimum wage, and it's why "welfare" programs like Food Stamps have the largest economic multiplier of any government policy - these are people who have massive demand for food, shelter, basic necessities, and every so often, some luxury. When they receive food stamps or other such money, they spend it directly, and that demand fuels the economy. When you give more money to people whose demand is already low, i.e., those who already have everything they desire, you don't see it going back into the economy.


So don't believe the hype. When people say that they're for cutting taxes to the top brackets to spur economic growth, you know they're lying or are deluded. Ultimately, the proof is in the pudding. We've tried supply-side economics for basically the past 30 years, and look at where we are. We had some good growth times, but those turned out to be bubbles, and now we're basically on the edge of falling even further. The road to economic recovery is not through tax cuts and slashing spending on the programs that people need the most (and which also have the best economic multipiers). We need to boost demand, and we need to have a safer system in the markets and banking industries. I think the government can sometimes spend wisely, and it needs to invest in the country to stimulate job growth and consumer demand when the private sector refuses to step up.

But that's just my two-cents.


Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Make No Law Respecting The Establishment of Religion and Free Exercise Thereof

This is posted without comment, because both Cenk and Craig Scarberry are pretty eloquent in their views:


Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Airport Body Scanners and Privacy

To add to the hassles of airline travel, now we've got to deal with X-Ray body scanners, or, if you are opposed to that, rather invasive pat-downs. This is yet another in the long line of reasons that I really dislike flying these days. I'm going to rather agree with this article on CNN. This is more invasive, more onerous, and more...well...disturbing than any other country puts up with.

Now, TSA wants to argue that they are merely trying to keep us safe and working "with" the American people, and like to point out that in 2009 a majority of Americans agreed with the idea of having body scanners in airports. I'd like to cite a bit of buyer's remorse in this case, but moreover, I'd like to add that this a strange case of invasion of privacy. Now, for security purposes, the courts have largely argued that these agencies are able to circumvent certain laws that bind the rest of us. Certainly we've all heard of warrantless wiretaps, and how the courts are sort of okay with this, despite the fact that it violates a lot of civil liberties. But now we have a case where, if these people were not TSA agents, are undertaking actions which could easily be taken to court, or grounds for immediate termination. I mean, if I demanded to perform an "extended" pat-down on anyone, I'd be fired. If I used a backscatter X-Ray to gain images of people's bodies...well, I'd likely be charged with a lot of things, including sexual assault.

While I am all for a certain measure of security in flying, I find this excessive. I find it sad that we've had to give up on a lot of our liberties and privacy for the sake of "safety." I don't think this is ever a good trade-off, and I hope that sometime in the near future we can have sensible security measures at airports that are not this invasive and...well...absurd.