Saturday, April 28, 2007

Outgilding the gilded age

Krugman never disappoints me. I'd been planning to write about income inequality, as I've read a number of articles/blogs lately tackling various aspects of the problem: the top 1% of Americans amassing an obscene percentage of the nation's wealth, the middle class going without healthcare (not to mention the poor), a tax system that audits the "little guy" and turns a blind eye to corporations and the rich cheating the system (both illegally and through loopholes that ought to be illegal), etc.

From 4&20 blackbirds (original has links to the statistics, stories):

Are you thinking what I’m thinking? Eighty-five percent? Almost one in five tax dollars remains uncollected? Sign me up! Right? I mean, that’s a lot of tax dollars going uncollected, they won’t miss little piddly contribution to Bush’s grandiose and delusional foreign policy schemes!

Not so fast. If you’re like me, a regular working joe with a five-digit income, you won’t be getting away with cheating. That’s right! The IRS has stepped up its scrutiny of middle-class taxpayers.

Admittedly the frequency of audits are much higher if you earn a million or more. But what about the super wealthy? The Bush administration has cut the IRS staff investigating the wealthiest Americans in half. Additionally, while IRS staff investigating the super-rich have gone down, the complexity of the tax laws has shot up, and it’s the super-rich with their paid accountants and tax specialists who have the tools and the resources to exploit those laws.

A study of Walmart’s earnings against its taxes shows how much it cheated state governments out of its rightful income. According to the report, Walmart and other multi-state corporations cook their books and shift income made in states with income taxes to states without.

And Ezra Klein:

From The American Prospect's poverty report:

In 2005, the top 20 percent of American households had 50.4 percent of the nation's income, while the bottom 20 percent had 3.4 percent -- the largest margin between top and bottom since this data series began, in 1967. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that between 2003 and 2004, the post-tax income of the bottom fifth rose by $200 a year, while that of the top fifth rose by $11,600, and post-tax income for the top 1 percent rose by $145,500. And the wealth gap is far more extreme, with the top 1 percent of households holding one-third of the nation's net worth, while the bottom 40 percent have less than one percent of the nation's net worth.

I'm always impressed by how remarkably stark the data is. "The top 1 percent of households holding one-third of the nation's net worth, while the bottom 40 percent have less than one percent of the nation's net worth." Utterly unreal. But, of course, we're all to believe that a hammerlock on the nation's wealth confers no advantages, and the children of the poor are exactly as likely to succeed as the children of the rich...

It *is* stark. It makes me wonder what capitalism's endgame will look like. But for now, why are we still cutting the rich's taxes, while shifting more burdens onto the middle class? [Note: I don't believe in Reaganomics. Some people don't believe in God, some people don't believe in evolution, I don't believe in trickle down.]

Anyways, so I had this post in mind. And then I read Krugman's editorial on income inequality hitting and surpassing gilded age levels (see how we just made it back to that first sentence?):

Consider a head-to-head comparison. We know what John D. Rockefeller, the richest man in Gilded Age America, made in 1894, because in 1895 he had to pay income taxes. (The next year, the Supreme Court declared the income tax unconstitutional.) His return declared an income of $1.25 million, almost 7,000 times the average per capita income in the United States at the time.

But that makes him a mere piker by modern standards. Last year, according to Institutional Investor’s Alpha magazine, James Simons, a hedge fund manager, took home $1.7 billion, more than 38,000 times the average income. Two other hedge fund managers also made more than $1 billion, and the top 25 combined made $14 billion.

How much is $14 billion? It’s more than it would cost to provide health care for a year to eight million children — the number of children in America who, unlike children in any other advanced country, don’t have health insurance.

The hedge fund billionaires are simply extreme examples of a much bigger phenomenon: every available measure of income concentration shows that we’ve gone back to levels of inequality not seen since the 1920s.


You might have thought that in the face of growing inequality, there would have been a move to reinforce these moderating institutions — to raise taxes on the rich and use the money to strengthen the safety net. That’s why comparing the incomes of hedge fund managers with the cost of children’s health care isn’t an idle exercise: there’s a real trade-off involved. But for the past three decades, such trade-offs have been consistently settled in favor of the haves and have-mores.

Taxation has become much less progressive: according to estimates by the economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, average tax rates on the richest 0.01 percent of Americans have been cut in half since 1970, while taxes on the middle class have risen. In particular, the unearned income of the wealthy — dividends and capital gains — is now taxed at a lower rate than the earned income of most middle-class families.

We're outgilding the gilded age. And it's obscene.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Wild ox

So the other night I was reading Deutoronomy. And I came across this line from Moses' parting blessing:

"His horns are the horns of a wild ox; with them he gores the peoples, driving them to the ends of the earth..." (33.17)

Remind you of anything (Merrie this is all you)?

Yep: The Last Unicorn. In a bout of nostalgia, I decided to watch it (because I have the DVD, thanks to Andrew). And there it was -- specifically, when the butterfly tells the unicorn about the red bull:

"...they passed down all the roads long ago, and the Red Bull ran close behind them and covered their footprints...and his horns are the horns of a wild ox, with them he shall push the unicorns, all of them, to the ends of the earth."

Ahh, the things I've been missing out on. I finished watching it tonight, over Strauss's organic dutch chocolate ice cream. Which I highly recommend. It's on sale at Andronico's for the next week.

Charlie : Candy Mountain

In the spirit of unicorns: When I got home today, I found this link from Karuna. It's *hilarious.* I'm going to watch it again right now.

Monday, April 23, 2007

In response to Brooks

David Brooks wrote an op-ed for the Sunday NYT, entitled "Postures in Public, Facts in the Womb." In which he spends most of his column space reciting science textbook facts over the developmental stages of a fetus. Which is supposed to have something to do with the Supreme Court decision. Yeah.

Here's my response, which I'm sure will *not* make its way onto the NYT members talk back page:

I was eager to read Brooks's column after the Supreme Court's ruling on so-called partial birth abortions (a term made up by the anti-choice crowd). From the title of his op-ed, I hoped to hear about the ramifications of this decision on women's health: after this ruling, doctors who judge the D & X procedure to be the safest option for a particular woman's health will no longer be able to use it (unless they can prove she would have died without it). These late term abortions are generally performed on fetuses with severe abnormalities and/or no chance of surviving (eg, no brain, severe spina bifada, etc.), and save a woman from carrying a dead or dying fetus, and then going through hours of painful labor only to deliver a dead body. The alternative procedure, from what I understand, can often be riskier (and certainly no less difficult to describe). And yet, the terms of the debate -- particularly in Brooks's article -- focused on the fetus rather than the woman carrying it. NARAL and Planned Parenthood aren't avoiding the term "fetus" so much as Brooks is avoiding the term "woman." If we truly cared about women, we would not take a procedure off the table when they need to make hard decisions about their health and families.

Further, Brooks's supposed "compromise" (that abortions be legal until a certain point, and after that only for rare circumstances; that minors be required to have parental notifications, etc.) continues this political posturing that he complains about. Either women own their own bodies and can make their own decisions regarding fetuses inside said bodies, or they don't. This isn't an issue that can be easily compromised upon, beyond of course the mark of "viability" for the fetus (i.e., the point at which it does not depend upon its mother's body for survival). Do we really want to force every teenager to tell her parents that she needs an abortion, even if one of those parents has raped her? Or abused her? Or will throw her out of the house? Instead of further laws restricting abortion, let's focus on getting these failed abstinence-only sex "education" classes out of our schools; let's make sure that contraception is widely available (and not politicized like the FDA's shameful delay in approving Plan B for over-the-counter sales); let's acknowledge that pro-choice policies are better for women and their families; and let's teach our children that sex is a natural part of life, but something over which they must make responsible decisions.

Life begins in the womb, but in the rush to consider the sanctity of potential life, let's not forget the sanctity of women's lives and the freedom to make their own moral decisions, decisions directly affecting their bodies and families.

Yep. Take that, Brooks. [Note: I did *not* include this last comment.]

That is all. I'm now going to read the Bible for my class tomorrow.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Bill Maher - New Rules 4/20

I kind of have a long standing and problematic crush on Bill Maher. His New Rules always make me happy. This one's particularly good: apparently bees are disappearing to "bee colony collapse." Could be related to our use of pesticides, GMO crops, global warming, or even cell phone use (they avoid flying near them: possibly some bad interaction with their internal navigation systems). Maher points out that Einstein warned if the bees ever went, humans would have four years before we'd die out as well. One more example of why we can't go on blithely destroying our environment so that some oil barons keep raking in millions of dollars.

The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are also incredible lately: Jones does the Rapture version of An Inconvenient Truth (what can we do to hasten the rapture? keep driving hummers!), and Colbert demonstrates that rBGH is "Jesus Christ" for cows (except that whole producing pus in the milk thing. yuck.).

Thursday, April 19, 2007

More bad news.

The Supreme Court majority officially declares: women's health less important than the fact that these 5 white men feel a little queasy when you describe an IDX abortion (by the by: can we all agree not to fill them in on what happens during *most* surgical procedures, lest those are outlawed as well?)

From Amanda at Pandagon, who has an insightful post up:

What is medically recognized:

- 90% of abortions occur in the first trimester.
- Intact dilation and extraction (also known as IDX, or sometimes just D&X) is used in approximately .17% of all abortions.
- It is probable (though definitive data do not exist) that the majority of IDX procedures are performed because of fetal abnormalities.
- IDX, because it delivers a fetus whole, creates less risk of uterine perforation from bone fragments than other forms of late-term abortion.
- IDX has less risk of infection than other forms of late-term abortion, because it takes less time and requires the insertion of fewer instruments into the uterus.
- IDX (like other late-term abortion procedures) can prevent a woman who has found that her fetus is dead or not viable from having to undergo labor and delivery of a dead fetus.
- IDX can allow women whose fetuses are not viable to view and hold their dead babies after delivery.
- Most IDX procedures are performed between 20-24 weeks gestation–that is, within the second trimester, and before fetal viability.
In cases where a fetus has severe hydrocephalus (water on the brain, which can cause a fetuses head to be grotesquely enlarged), the options to a woman may be IDX or a Cesarean section–that is, a three-day outpatient procedure or major surgery, with attendant potential complications.
- The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists explicitly opposed the ban.

Shorter medical facts: This ruling will not prevent a single abortion. It will, however, endanger women making difficult decisions about doomed pregnancies, and cut down on the options available to doctors in trying to preserve a woman's life, health, and future ability to have children.

From the NYT editorial:

As far as we know, Mr. Kennedy and his four colleagues responsible for this atrocious result are not doctors. Yet these five male justices felt free to override the weight of medical evidence presented during the several trials that preceded the Supreme Court showdown. Instead, they ratified the politically based and dangerously dubious Congressional claim that criminalizing the intact dilation and extraction method of abortion in the second trimester of pregnancy — the so-called partial-birth method — would never pose a significant health risk to a woman. In fact, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has found the procedure to be medically necessary in certain cases.

Wait, can we back up again and ask why five men without medical training are making this decision for women and their doctors?

Justice Kennedy actually reasoned that banning the procedure was good for women in that it would protect them from a procedure they might not fully understand in advance and would probably come to regret. This way of thinking, that women are flighty creatures who must be protected by men, reflects notions of a woman’s place in the family and under the Constitution that have long been discredited, said a powerful dissenting opinion by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, joined by Justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter and Stephen Breyer.

And in the full write up from the NYT:

In her opinion, Justice Ginsburg said the majority had provided only “flimsy and transparent justifications” for upholding the law, which she noted “saves not a single fetus from destruction” by banning a single method of abortion. “One wonders how long a line that saves no fetus from destruction will hold in face of the court’s ‘moral concerns,’ ” she said.

Thank God for Justice Ginsburg. Protecting women from making their own decisions? Kennedy is sounding more and more like a pompous and self-righteous misogynist. The NYT's full write up has more, in which Kennedy waxes poetical about the loving bond between mother and child, clearly taxing his imagination to spew paternalistic stereotypes onto women's private medical decisions. But I think I'm going to refrain from quoting him, because it is simply too depressing.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

In which I'm back

Where the weather's *nice* and the caterpillars are out of control. Spring in full swing -- we're past the trees budding and flowering, and in full leaf mode. Makes the view out of my window much nicer.

It was good to be home: my traveling ended well, as we had an aerial tour of the bay area (esp. around the Marin Headlands and the Golden Gate Bridge) before landing, sunny weather, interesting talk on the ride home, and the Super Shuttle driver let me pay with what I had in my wallet at the moment rather than bother with calling in my credit card. And then I quickly did a little unpacking and organizing before meeting up with Ryan and our final visiting admit. Which was a pleasant way to settle back into normal life. Then shopping, quick dinner, and out for more admit activity: sugar overload at the Cheesecake Factory.

The next day I had my first PWR class of the quarter: punchy group. I've been settling in: it was difficult to believe that I was starting over from the beginning of the syllabus.

Busy weekend, and slept most of Sunday. Agonizing over which classes to take. I'm taking Eliot & Trollope, and a class on the Bible and literature. And yes, I am indeed reading the Bible. Finished Genesis this week: have concluded that it should not be read literally (take note, right wing evangelicals). It's incredible how little I noticed that the first time around, back in the day. Best discovery so far: there are really *two* creations of humans, and the first is that man and woman are created in the image of God. It's only the second version (which Milton picks up and is then seared on our collective consciousness) that has woman at two removes from God. That's what happens when you have a holy text that's a compilation.

Not much else going on -- had a CA neighborhood meeting... faculty search lunch and talks...

Time to go to bed... although what I'd really like to do is finish Adam Bede.

RIP Kurt Vonnegut.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Spring Break

It's been a relaxing almost two weeks -- sleeping, watching movies, and eating.

Tuesday: Arrival and Law & Order!

Weds: Andrew skipped class, and I read materials for my final paper... Took a trip to Woodman's (largest supermarket ever) & the mall. Andrew made sushi for dinner, and proceeded to get me addicted to the show Lost.

Thurs: Continued reading for the final paper. Tv. Watched This Film is Not Yet Rated -- excellent film about the MPAA's rating system, which seems to be based upon 1) the assumption that sex is much more dangerous for kids to see than violence (which makes NO sense), 2) scenes in which women are enjoying and/or initiating sex are to be avoided at all costs, & 3) any hint of gay sex or female masturbation = NC-17 (however, if you show a woman being killed rather than masturbating, you'll probably slide by with a PG rating).

Friday: Outlining my paper, starting on the grading, shopping (clothes & food), and then going to Andrew's admit weekend party. At which I learned about the beard contest.

Sat: Started writing, continued grading...

Sun: Writing, grading, walking down State St. (sunny day, but windy).

Mon: INCREDIBLE weather. The lakes had been frozen when I arrived, but on Monday it reached 80 degrees. We ended up at the zoo (prairie dogs!!), and then sitting by the lake at the terrace, eating ice cream. Finally finished grading! Drove all over looking for a ripe avocado & mango for sushi. Best mango ever.

Tues: Finished paper. Watched Marie Antoinette and Law & Order over wine and cake.

Weds: Worked on my syllabus for spring quarter while Andrew was at school. Headed to Mother Fool's to proofread, where I realized I had actually originally read the play (last summer during quals studying) that I was now writing about. Amazing whipped cream on their mochas. More Lost!

Thurs: Andrew was at school most of the day, and I decided to finally take some time completely off. So I watched Medium and trashy MTV shows, until I finally had to sit down and read some of Adam Bede just to feel my mind work again. After Andrew's test, we decided we needed beer: which meant driving to the one nearby liquor store that's not officially in Madison, so therefore doesn't need to stop selling it at 9 pm. Then we had a late night grocery shopping extravaganza at Woodman's. More Ben & Jerry's!

Fri: Shoe shopping! Final day with the car before Andrew's lease was up. Haircuts at Cha Cha. Short stop at the bar to see people. Back to watch For Your Consideration -- hilarious. "Home for Purium."

Sat.: Andrew had to turn his car in, which was kind of sad (since it was the same car Andrew had while I was at MHC, and we've had many fun trips w/ it -- especially to the drive-in theater at the Dells & our U.P. adventure last summer). We had planned on going to school to watch a movie with Andrew's group afterwards, and even got so far as the bus stop, but due to the ridiculous rain we ended up turning back (my feet were soaked, and cold). So instead we watched The Day After Tomorrow (figured I should see it for my class) and some of The Village of the Damned (really bad movie). Andrew made an amazing dinner (as usual): baked halibut in vegetables and wine sauce, w/ a mango salsa couscous mix. Then headed over to Genna's, where we stayed with the group till after midnight. Andrew and I left a bit earlier than others to make our own onion rings at home (crazy). I started watching SAW, and then decided to watch some of a horrible MTV "Super Sweet Sixteen" in order to think of something more "cheerful." Not sure if it worked (not because I kept thinking about the movie, but rather because "My Super Sweet Sixteen" is also disturbing).

Sun: Breakfast, Andrew helped edit my final paper one last time, tv, and then: tried out the Mini to take one last trip to TJ's! Andrew joined Community Car (practical, environmentally-friendly, and cheaper than leasing/insuring a car), which means he now has more choice in what vehicle to drive.

Have begun packing... off to enjoy the last night in Madison before returning to sunny CA (love the sun, but not terribly excited for spring quarter).