Comments of most right-wing critics of Piketty’s Capitalism in the 21st Century suggest they haven’t read the whole book

Here is another excerpt from my on essay on Thomas Piketty’s Capitalism in the 21st Century. You can read the full article in the latest issue of Jewish Currents: 

A few years back, when government debt trumped all other macroeconomic concerns in the news media, a fairly shoddy economic study called This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly, by economists Carmen M. Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff, caught the attention of the news media because it concluded that countries with public debt greater than 90 percent of gross domestic product suffered measurably slower economic growth. Politicians and journalists throughout the world used this “new discovery” to bolster assertions that governments everywhere had to reduce debt instead of pumping money into the economy to create jobs. The problem was that Reinhart and Rogoff miscalculated in a number of places and even made counting errors. With their bad math corrected, no real correlation was found between levels of debt and economic growth.

The Occupy movement next grabbed the attention of the media, which began to devote significant time and space to the growing inequality of wealth and income in the United States and worldwide. That set the stage for Thomas Piketty’s left-leaning Capital in the Twenty-First Century to become the “hot book” of our day, a cause célèbre or bête noir, depending on the political views of whoever is commenting.

Summing up years of research by Piketty, a professor at the Paris School of Economics, and his frequent collaborator, UC-Berkeley economics professor Emmanuel Saez, Capital in the Twenty-First Century presents a detailed history of how wealth and income have shifted in the developed world since 1800, and documents the dramatic increase in inequality of wealth and income over the past thirty-five years. Most significantly for the book’s notoriety, Piketty proposes a grand theory of inequality that proposes that in all but high-growth economies, wealth inequality will naturally increase because the return on capital tends always to exceed the rate of economic growth.

For a technical work jam-packed with economic theory, Capital in the Twenty-First Century has sold a tremendous number of copies. Left-leaning pundits and economists have supported Piketty’s research and findings while often disagreeing with his proposal on how to decrease wealth inequality throughout the world. The right and mainstream have had fits trying to disprove Piketty’s findings.

Most of their criticism crumbles under routine inspection. Daniel Shuchman and critics in The Economist, for example, have stated that Piketty’s analysis ignores ways in which wealth and income trickle down, such as through non-profit funding of community activities. These writers merely demonstrate that they haven’t read the book cover to cover, since Piketty addresses these issues extensively.

Tyler Cowan in Foreign Affairs and Martin Feldstein in the Wall Street Journal atomize wealth in a feeble attempt to prove that it doesn’t tend to concentrate. Each of these authors looks at wealthy individuals, pointing out that old fortunes like the Rockefellers’ and Astors’ get diluted over time. If they had instead looked at the wealthy as a class, they would see that Piketty is right to conclude that inequality has increased, even if the monogrammed initials on the cufflinks and bracelets have changed.

Feldstein and the Financial Times claim to have found errors in the data, but Piketty has refuted every one of their objections, in most cases by pointing out that the writer had not read the footnotes or charts that accounted for what they were calling mistakes. Unlike the dubious premise about debt and economic growth put forth by Reinhart and Rogoff, Piketty’s overall theory stands up to scrutiny.

When both supporters and detractors of Capital in the Twenty-First Century compare it to Karl Marx’ Capital, they demonstrate a lack of familiarity with Marx’ 1867 tome. Piketty neither recreates nor transforms Marx, who made a detailed, step-by-step analysis of capital, its origin, its uses, and its relationship to labor. Piketty devotes 577 pages (in a very easy-to-read translation by Arthur Goldhammer) to one sole aspect of capital: its tendency to accumulate in fewer and fewer hands.

Marx postulated that labor creates all surplus value from the exchange of money for a commodity. By contrast, Piketty accepts at the very beginning that both capital and labor contribute to the production and delivery of goods and services and focuses exclusively on the distribution of wealth and income. Marx slowly and carefully constructed an overarching economic theory, whereas Piketty tells a history.

Piketty has written one of the most important books of economics since World War II, but is’ not without its flaws. In tomorrow’s OpEdge, I’ll discuss them.

OpEdge gives extensive analysis of Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century in latest Jewish Currents

Those few (and perhaps imaginary) souls who have been wondering why OpEdge has been relatively quiet about Thomas Piketty’s Capitalism in the 21st Century can fret no more. I’ve been holding fire waiting for the publication of my extensive essay in Jewish Currents which analyzes and critiques Piketty, discusses its relationship to Marx’s Capital and dispenses with the book’s right-wing critics.  That’s the downside of writing for a quarterly publication: you find that you can’t respond to the hot topic immediately. On the other hand, I have the benefit of being able to put the uproar surrounding the initial appearance of Capital in the 21st Century into some perspective.

I’m going to excerpt the article over the next three OpEdge columns, but I urge readers to delve into the full essay at Jewish Currents. In fact, even non-Jewish readers will find a number of fascinating articles in the latest issue.

Let’s start with review of what Piketty wrote:

The grand outline of Piketty’s narrative is simple: At the beginning of the 19th century, there was a great inequality of wealth in Europe, but not in the U.S. American wealth began to concentrate during the Gilded Age of the late 19th century, when on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean manufacturing assets and financial instruments began to complement and then replace land as the primary types of capital. Unlike Marx, Piketty considers land a type of capital.

Piketty depicts the two World Wars as a kind of suicide of capital that led to the social welfare programs in Europe and the U.S. The height of wealth equality in both came during the high-growth decades after World War II, which the last thirty years of low growth have reversed, until inequality of wealth in the U.S. has now reached historic proportions.

The growth of a middle class that owns property, “the patrimonial middle class,” was the principal structural transformation in the distribution of wealth in developed countries in the 20th century, says Piketty. In 1900-1910, the middle class was almost as poor as the poor, while the top 10 percent owned 90 percent of all wealth (and the top 1 percent owned 50 percent of all wealth). Today, the middle class, which Piketty defines as the middle 40 percent of income and wealth, does much better than the poor, which he defines as the bottom 50 percent.

Piketty seeks to understand this history by reducing it to an equation, r>g, where r is the rate of return on capital and g is the growth rate of economic output. The premise of the equation — and of Piketty’s entire system — is that the rate of return on capital is virtually always greater than the growth in economic output. Over time, owners of capital tend to take more of the pie, leaving less for everyone else.

During high-growth eras, r>g does not matter, since a rising tide tends to lift all boats. But as he demonstrates, most of recorded history has seen very low rates of economic growth. It was almost nonexistent before the 1700s, if we take account of population growth, and was a meager 1 percent from about 1800 to the end of World War II.

Comparison of the upper decile (top 10 percent) and upper centile (top 1 percent) to everyone else reveals many insights about wealth inequality. For example, Piketty finds that one of the main reasons wealth inequality shrank so much in Europe between 1914-1945 was because the top centile continued to live a lifestyle requiring eighty to one hundred times the average income, even though the war, inflation and higher taxes were eating into their income and capital. The result: their heirs inherited smaller fortunes. The concentration of wealth in Europe never recovered from the shocks of 1914-1945, in which the upper decile’s share of wealth fell from 90 percent to 60-70 percent; it’s now 65 percent.

In the U.S., inequality of wealth was small in 1800, increased dramatically during the 19th century, saw a less steep decline in 1914-’45, and has soared since then to 70 percent for the top decile and 35 percent for the top centile.

Piketty finds two worldwide trends driving the slide towards greater wealth inequality since 1970:

      1. Privatization of government wealth, which accounted for 10-25 percent of the increase in private worth in the eight leading Western economies and created oligarchs in all of the countries once part of the Eastern Bloc.
      2. The preference of Western countries to borrow from and pay interest to the wealthy rather than funding government programs and war expenditures by raising taxes.

Some have argued that our meritocracy explains much of the growing inequality of income over the past forty-odd years, as those who add more value to the community and economy make significantly more money. While a believer in meritocracy, Piketty nonetheless concludes that “marginal productivity” (by which he means workers who are more highly skilled) explains only some of the growing wage inequality, not most of it. He proposes that “social norms” determine how much people make at various occupations and shape income inequality, and he does not buy into the myth promoted by both liberals and conservatives that the best way to increase workers’ share of wealth is to make them more productive through education. Most wage inequality, he says, results from decisions made by those who control the distribution of wealth and income, and since the Reagan presidency they have tended to give themselves more and their employees less. Piketty traces a transfer since 1970 of 15 percent of national income from the poorest 90 percent to the top decile, with the richest centile getting 60 percent of all income gain between 1977 and 2007 — resulting in a distribution of income in the U.S. today as unequal as at any time in recorded history

He calls the U.S. a “hypermeritocratic society,” but also expresses doubt that the society is truly a meritocracy. Like many progressives, he wonders whether the highest earners — mostly corporate heads, but also investment bankers, hedge fund managers, and elite athletes and entertainers — deserve such a large portion of the booty.  As he points out, executive pay did not skyrocket until marginal tax rates came down; the increase had nothing to do with the productivity of the executives.

Piketty further believes that the increase in inequality created the 2008 financial crisis: One consequence of greater inequality of income was a decrease in purchasing power in the middle and lower classes, he observes, which made it more likely that these households would take on debt. Unscrupulous banks took advantage by writing loans that fueled an unsustainable housing debt bubble.

Capital in the Twenty-First Century predicts a grim future if nothing is done to counteract growing inequality. Piketty conceives of a world in a not-too-distant time in which every country is run by an oligarchy of billionaires.

Throughout his book, Piketty entertains and educates us with gee-whiz facts and observations that explode many of the common myths we hear in the mainstream news media about the superiority of the unregulated free market, U.S. exceptionalism, and the nature of economic growth. Here are some of the many pearls of wisdom that Piketty shares:

      • Wealth inequality within single generations is much greater than inequality between generations, although older people tend to have more money. In other words, intergenerational warfare has not replaced class warfare, as some pundits have proclaimed.
      • The share of income of the highest centile is the same in developing countries as in rich countries. The highest share of income given to the top 1 percent is, of course, in the United States. So much for our bashing of oligarchs in other countries.
      • In all known societies of all eras, the least wealthy half of the society has always owned virtually nothing.
      • Before the French Revolution, the Catholic Church owned 7-8 percent of wealth of France, compared to the 6-7 percent of American wealth owned by nonprofit organizations today.

In tomorrow’s OpEdge column, we’ll take a look at the criticism aimed at Capitalism in the 21st Century by right-wing economists.

Holder may have done some good things, but he also betrayed his country by not prosecuting torturers

It’s fun to see the differences between the mainstream media’s coverage of Eric Holder’s resignation as U.S. Attorney General and that of the right-wing media. The mainstream is praising Holder, in particular for his department’s actions to protect voting rights, decision not to defend the federal law against same-sex marriage, supporting sentencing reform and going after corporate criminals. The right-wing media is glad to see him go, mostly for the same reasons.  I write “fun” and not “illuminating,” because we learn nothing new from how the various media are analyzing Holder’s impact. Most people could have predicted that the New York Times would basically like Holder, while the Wall Street Journal would hate him.

But in the battle to define Holder’s legacy, virtually all the news media are leaving out the disgraceful decision that Holder and his boss, President Barack Obama, made early in their first term: not to pursue criminal cases against the traitors who betrayed American ideals and broke U.S. laws by creating a global gulag of torture chambers. Obama, Holder and their coterie of advisors declared that the past was the past and that it was better for the country to move on.  True, the torture stopped (as far as we know), but those like Dick Cheney, John Yoo, Jay Bybee and David Addington were let off the hook with not even a slap on the wrist.

Remember what these men ordered others to do: Pushed prisoners’ heads underwater until they were about to drown, pulled them up under and then plunged the heads into water again, multiple times. Made prisoners stand with their hands tied in an uncomfortable position for days on end.  Stripped and blindfolded prisoners. Set vicious dogs on them. Pushed lit cigarettes into their ears. Made them roll over excrement. Humiliated them by making them masturbate then taking photos of it.

Some of these prisoners were hard-boiled terrorists, but others were merely fellow travelers or completely innocent.  None of them received the due process that should be the right of anyone who goes through the U.S. judicial system, citizen or not. Of course, they never had the opportunity to go through the system, but instead were illegally dumped into torture chambers.

What did the torturers and everyone else learn from Holder and Obama’s refusal to prosecute the creators and implementers of the torture policy: That it’s okay to break whatever law and moral code that you like in the United States—as long as you are in power.

Whatever Holder’s legacy, refusing to prosecute the torturers is a blood-red stain on it that can never be expunged. Like Gerald Ford pardoning his former boss, Richard Nixon, it attempts to put a lid on a stinking cesspool which instead should have been drained and cleaned.

Success of People’s Climate Change March depends on how media covers it

Like many of my friends, I’m excited about marching in the People’s Climate Change March this Sunday in New York City. Organizers are hoping it will be the largest demonstration in history in support of solutions to climate change. The march on Manhattan’s West Side coincides with the start of the United Nations 2014 Climate Summit two days later.

By the grace of good luck, the Peoples Climate Change March and the U.N. summit come on the heels of a new study that demonstrates what anyone with common sense should have always known: that weaning the world’s economy off carbon-based fuels will not wreck the economy. For years, intellectual factotums of the oil and electrical generation industries have insisted that replacing carbon-based fuels with solar and wind power would hurt the economy.  Their arguments didn’t take into account that designing, making and servicing solar and wind equipment created jobs or that using less oil, coal and natural gas saved money that companies and individuals could spend, creating jobs elsewhere in the economy.

I haven’t marched in a demonstration since 2008, so I’m psyched! I’m hoping that the turnout runs into the hundreds of thousands.

But be it the largest climate change demonstration or a bust, the success of the march will depend less on how many and who walks and more on the attitude of the news media. The news media will define how many people showed up, and their numbers often stray from reality. The news media will determine whether the march is forgotten three years later or goes down in history.

I first learned this lesson during the Viet Nam War era—my youth—when the news media underestimated the attendance at every antiwar demonstration in the early years of protest—before the media followed the country and started to oppose the war.

The 2010 election exemplifies how the new media can make or break a march. There were three marches and demonstrations on Independence Mall in Washington DC during the election season:

  • March of Tea Party organized by and featuring Glen Beck
  • March of progressives organized by unions
  • March organized by Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and the Comedy Central which was also a demonstration for progressive causes.

Despite the fact that the most reputable estimator, the one used by CBS—AirPhotosLive—estimated all three demonstrations to have attracted 75,000-100,000, the two progressive demonstrations are lost to history already, while the Tea Party affair is mentioned in virtually all contemporary recounting of the 2010 election.

The mainstream media virtually ignored the union demonstration in the weeks before it occurred, whereas it orchestrated a build-up for the Tea Party demonstration more suited to the first inauguration of a president who won in a landslide.

An apt analogy, since some right-wing liars claimed that as many people attended the rally as made the scene at Barack Obama’s first inauguration—just less than 2.0 million, a number that injected new meaning into the expression, the big lie.

Aided and abetted by the right-wing media, mainstream newspapers tended to float a number of figures for the Tea Party demonstration—the favorite being 400,000. But never did a mainstream print publication claim any number above 100,000 without attributing to someone suspect—nor did most right-wing media for that matter. It was a mass example of the Matt Drudge effect, which occurs when instead of reporting something scurrilous and unprovable, a mainstream reporters says that someone with a poor record of reliability said it, someone like Matt Drudge or the late Andrew Breitbart.

It was the mainstream news media that overhyped the Tea Party’s 2010 Washington DC demonstration, the mainstream news media that irresponsibly misreported the numbers, the mainstream news media that ignored the demonstration of progressives organized by the unions and the mainstream’s leading pundits who have made the Tea Party march a major political milestone in 21st century politics.

As much as I wish for a large turnout at the Peoples Climate Change March on Sunday, I wish harder that recent studies, extreme weather and polar melting have convinced the ownership of the mainstream media to like the march and embrace the cause by reporting accurately. 

Photograph shows what American political spectrum would look like without right wing—and what it was 50 years ago

The 16th century Venetian painter Paolo Veronese might have painted a photograph in the New York Times, so rich it is in symbolic content. Veronese crowded his paintings with myths, symbolic objects, references to literature and visual connections to contemporary politics. Whether intentional or not, the Times photo on page A 20, by Michael Appleton, does the same.

The photo accompanies a story of a news conference about what the New York City area is doing now to coordinate responses to potential terrorist threats. The photo shows the four principle speakers in this order, right to left, as viewers see it:

  • Republican Governor of New Jersey Chris Christie at the far right of the frame
  • Jeh Johnson, homeland security secretary, at the podium doing the talking. Johnson is a political appointment, so he profoundly represents the views of President Obama
  • Democratic Governor of New York Andrew Cuomo
  • Democratic Mayor of New York City Bill de Blasio, with Elizabeth Warren one of the two most prominent progressive Democrats nationwide.

Christie, Johnson and Cuomo are bunched around the podium, with Christie a little closer to Johnson than Cuomo. De Blasio is way to the left (as the viewer sees it), the gap between him and Cuomo roughly twice what the combined gaps are between the other three. 

In short, we see pretty much the spectrum of political opinion in America today, if we lop off the right-wing. Christie, Obama and Cuomo are centrists with not much difference between them, although Christie is to the right of the two Democrats on social issues. De Blasio, by contrast, is far to the left of the centrists.

There are a few symbolic subtleties in the photo. As he speaks, the Obama administration official Johnson stands as a centrist but is looking left, just as Obama acts as a centrist even if he sometimes talks like a progressive.  In a  similar manner, de Blasio is looking right, but with an uncomfortable expression on his face, perhaps expressing the lack of comfort he feels supporting centrist Democrats like Cuomo in the elections. Or perhaps he understands that in responding to the threat of terrorism, we’ve gone overboard on militarizing society and spying on the private lives of individuals.

To my mind the most powerful symbolic association comes from de Blasio’s position in front of an American flag. The good mayor covers a little of it, but a swatch with pieces of five stripes and 17 states is visible and seems almost to be waving. As a progressive I read into this image a statement—probably inadvertently made by the photographer—that de Blasio’s path is the best one for the United States. De Blasio stands for raising taxes on the wealthy; providing greater support to public education; policies that help unions and raise middle class incomes, like ending support of charter schools; government intervention to make housing more affordable; humanistic policing; protection of women’s reproductive rights; increased mass transit; equal rights for all minorities; gay marriage; and diversity in government.

Funny, the photo would have described the full political spectrum presented in the news media in the 1950s, 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s before Ronald Regan started mainstreaming wacko right-wing ideas.  I imagine it would be impossible to place most of the Republican and the Tea Party in the photo today unless it was about three times as long as it currently is.

Obama has other ways to address the ISIS threat than going to war

President Obama has decided that there is only one way to respond to ISIS, a pan-Islamic military organization that now controls parts of Iraq and Syria, and that’s the way the United States usually responds to foreign events that displease us: go to war.

Early reactions suggest that Congress and the American people are going to fall behind the president in lockstep, just like they did—at least at first–for both Iraqi wars, our  invasion of Grenada and the Viet Nam war.

So once again, we’re diving head first into a violent quagmire that will end up costing some U.S. lives, a lot of money and many lives of the people we claim to be helping.

The United States should have tried economic sanctions first.

The creation of a truly global economy and financial system over the past 30 years may have disappointed the economic hopes of all Americans but the very wealthiest, but it has made it much easier to fight aggressive behavior by states and other governing entities without picking up a weapon. What is happening in the Ukraine is a good example of the power of economic sanctions: Instead of continuing to grab pieces of the Ukraine, Russia has negotiated a treaty that seems to have ended the fighting and set the stage for a peaceful resolution of a situation far more complicated than what is depicted in the mainstream American media. Economic sanctions also brought Iran to the negotiating table to discuss its development of a nuclear capability, a step towards peace frowned upon only by Islam-haters among the right-wing.

The immediate response to my argument to apply economic sanctions is that ISIS is not a real state, but a terrorist organization that is trying to redraw the map in the Middle East; a map, BTW, that was gerrymandered after World War I by western powers.

But ISIS is as much a part of the new world economic order as Russia, Iran and China. We keep hearing in the mainstream news that the biggest advantage ISIS has over other terrorist organizations is that it has a lot of cash to buy weapons and maintain troops because of oil sales from the wells it controls. ISIS must be selling the oil to someone. The United States and our allies against ISIS—which should include most Middle Eastern and Western European countries—should be able to put enough pressure on whoever is buying ISIS oil to make them purchase elsewhere. We could also offer oil at cut-rate prices or other economic help to current ISIS customers. Without oil revenues, ISIS will quickly deteriorate into another gang of hoodlums.

We should also take into account that war always tends to destabilize any region. Just as overthrowing Sadam Hussein led to ISIS, the violent destruction of ISIS could lead to something much worse.

The Quaker lobbying group, the Friends Committee on National Legislation, has come up with some other actions we can take to defuse ISIS, including ceasing to ship arms to the Middle East, investing in humanitarian efforts to help the victims and developing forums for negotiation between the parties.  These all seem like sensible proposals.

I’m not saying that a combination of economic sanctions, cessation of arm sales, humanitarian relief and diplomacy will work, but we ought to at least give it a try. We know that invasion does not work and we know that bombing does not work. Why are we resorting to these tried-and-wanting solutions once again?

I urge everyone to write, phone or email their congressional representatives and U.S. senators and ask them to vote against funding military action against ISIS and for directing the president to use economic sanctions, humanitarian aid and diplomacy to address the threat of ISIS.

When will economists & pundits stop telling lie that education will cure inequality of income?

Eduardo Porter of the New York Times is the latest journalist to advocate that the way to narrow the gap between what the wealthiest and everyone else earns is through education.  It’s an absurdly ridiculous argument that depends on us believing that with a college diploma nonunionized burger flippers, garbage haulers, shelf stockers and medical orderlies will be able to command higher salaries.

In an article titled “Equation is Simple: Education = Income,” Porter uses two sets of statistics to confuse and distract us about why the top 1% have seen their incomes rise precipitously in recent decades, while the incomes at every other economic level have stagnated or deteriorated.

First Porter quotes some computations of Lawrence Katz, a Harvard economics professor and former chief economist for the U.S. Department of Labor. Katz calculates that if the top 1% were taxed at the rates in effect in 1979, the government could split it up equally and give every family not in the top 1% the grand total of $7,102. Katz and Porter then contrast this $7,102 with the estimated $30,000 a year difference in wealth between what couples with two college graduates make and what families with two high school grads make.

Porter and Katz think this contrast proves that education will address the growing inequality of income.  The reasoning sounds like something a group of died-in-the-wool right-wing first-year economics majors would cook up at 3:00 in the morning after smoking a few joints. While it’s true that education can turn the daughter of a janitor into a high-priced accountant, it couldn’t possibly qualify everyone for great-paying jobs because there aren’t that many great-paying jobs around today.

These economists who think greater education will push incomes up haven’t been looking at job trends. Most of the jobs lost in the Great Recession have been replaced by lower-paying ones. Those who predict job trends estimate that virtually all of the 20 job titles to gain the most employees over the next decade are low-paying.  It is true that many of the job titles likely to grow the most on a percentage basis are high-paying, but these job titles start with a small base: 20% of 100 engineers is a lot less than 2% of 10,000 cashiers.

If we educate everyone for higher paying jobs, what is likely to happen is that the wages for these jobs will fall, thanks to the law of supply and demand. In other words, what is proposed by Porter, Katz, Claudia Goldin, Robert Reich, economists at Standard & Poor’s and the rest of the army of scholars and pundits who have swallowed the “education ends income inequality” Kool-aid may actually end up creating more inequality.

The only way to foster greater equality of income is to implement laws and regulations that change the distribution of income. The actions are obvious, because they worked to create a more equal society roughly from 1935-1979:

  • Increase the minimum wage
  • Pass laws and regulations that make it easy for workers to unionize
  • Use tax increases on the wealthy to provide services and support to the poor and lower the cost of higher education for the poor and the middle class
  • End privatization of traditional government functions, since privatization generally leads to workers making less and management making more.
  • Pass laws that place high tariffs on imported goods and services produced in countries that do not hew to our wage, safety and environmental regulations.

The “education ends income inequality” canard is one of many falsehoods routinely perpetrated on the American economy and public by economists and economic writers. The theory that lowering taxes on the wealthy leads to the creation of more jobs has proven to be false. The theory that illegal immigrant workers lower the incomes of other workers has been proven false. The notion that unions get in the way of one-on-one negotiations between workers and employers is an absurdity, as is the idea that people are less likely to look for work the longer their unemployment insurance runs (despite the fact that unemployment compensation is a miniscule portion of their former salary).  Privatization of prisons, the military and schools (through the charter school movement) has proven to be disasters.

That free trade between nations improves the domestic economy is not quite a lie, as shown by a study cited by Harvard’s Dani Rodrik in The Globalization Paradox, his critique of globalization.  Rodrik quantifies both the amount of wealth distributed domestically and the added gain to the U.S. economy if all tariffs were removed on all imported and exported products and services. He finds that the for every additional dollar that would be created in the United States by a totally free global trade regime there would be $50 transferred from the pockets of some groups to the bank accounts of others, primarily from workers losing their jobs to the wealthy who own the means of production, distribution and finance.  In other words, free trade is great—for the wealthy only.

In fact, the one factor that unifies all the distortions and myths believed by most mainstream economists is that acting on each of the myths leads to greater inequality of wealth.  That makes economics as practiced throughout most of the United States more of a propaganda arm of the wealthy than it is a social science.

A cornucopia of shlock: 72 pages of gifts related to White House you can buy from 2014 White House catalog

Two years ago I noted that it was September 28 when the first Christmas catalog arrived in my mail box. This year the first catalog showed its pages on September 4, stretching the holiday shopping season to one third of the year.

The winner of this year’s award for first Christmas catalog to arrive is the White House Catalog, 72 pages of tchatchkes that have some connection to the White House.  The catalog comes from the White House Historical Association (WHHA), which describes itself as a nonprofit educational association “for the purpose of enhancing the understanding, appreciation, and enjoyment of the Executive Mansion.”

And in America, what better way to enjoy or appreciate anything than to buy something connected to it!

How WHHA can come up with 72 pages dense with commemorative products is an exemplar of 21st century merchandising.

Let’s quickly dispose of the first few pages of the catalog, which display White House tree ornaments. Evidently every year since at least 1981, WHHA has designed and sold a unique tree ornament, typically dedicated to one of the presidents. This year’s is a model train elaborately chiseled with details in red, white and blue, dedicated to Warren G. Harding, who evidently loved trains. The past collection of Christmas ornaments and Christmas cards featuring the presidents or the White House take the catalog to 12 pages. The ornaments are clever and well-crafted.

But what about the other 60 pages? They are jam-packed with merchandising’s greatest hits. Let’s make two lists to illustrate:


  • Address book
  • Book mark
  • Calendar
  • Candy bowl
  • Coasters
  • Decorative boxes
  • Jewelry
  • Jigsaw puzzle
  • Letter opener
  • Mug
  • Napkins
  • Note cards
  • Pen
  • Prints
  • Scarves
  • Ties
  • Tote bag
  • Tray
  • Umbrella

  • Green room
  • Blue room
  • Red room
  • Medallions in Eisenhower’s china
  • Cherry blossoms
  • Scenes from White House neighborhood
  • Artists’ views of the White House
  • Eagles in White House decorations
  • American Impressionism
  • White House in 1914
  • White House Christmas tree lighting ceremony
  • For children
  • For business people

Evidently the White House Historical Association took these two lists and matched many products from column A with every theme in column B. For example, red room themed products include a letter opener, Limoges box, jigsaw puzzle, scarf and jewelry.  The cherry blossom themed items include a bookmark, note cards, puzzle, Limoges box and scarf. Scenes from White House neighborhood offers us coasters, cocktail napkins, a tote bag, placemats, jewelry and a puzzle. The Christmas tree ceremony theme brings us another two jigsaw puzzles, bookmark and prints.

Oh yes, WHHA does dedicate some pages to books and art work, mostly portraits of presidents but also scenes of the White House and other patriotic fare such as Norman Rockwell’s “Statue of Liberty.” But mostly we see a succession of themes applied to the standard mix of items people buy as gifts when they go on vacation: mugs, note cards, tote bags, scarves and puzzles.  There are even plush toy replicas of several presidential family pets.

It’s a merchandising plan that writes itself and makes the White House Historical Association Christmas catalog look no different in product mix from the catalogs of other museums, associations and nonprofit organizations.

What’s interesting is that other than the Christmas ornaments, the product category with the most items is the jigsaw puzzle. There are enough puzzles in the catalog to keep a family of four busy every evening for several years.

The ornaments are first rate, if you are into exotic Christmas ornaments, and several of the books go beyond encomiums of mealy patriotism.  But for the most part what we see here is a cornucopia of schlock, which is Yiddish for the bargain basement, the cheesy and the coarse.

But it represents something more American than apple pie or gas guzzling cars. It represents the transformation of emotion into the purchase of a product—any product. The WHHA puzzles, bookmarks, mugs and tote bags are perfect stocking stuffers or small gifts for the seventh or eighth night of Chanukah. You can give them to whomever’s name you drew out of the gift exchange hat at the office. When you visit Washington, D.C. you can do all your obligatory souvenir gift shopping at one of the association’s two shops.

These are the throwaway presents that clutter the tables and walls, but also the drawers, closets, attics, basements and garages of much of America.

Although schlock they are, the relative worthlessness of the products is what gives them their special value, because it’s not the product that’s important, it’s the fact that a purchase was made.  It’s the fact that a relationship, emotion or holiday was celebrated by buying something and then giving it to someone.  Without the “buy” there is no emotional transaction. The advantage of cheap schlock is that it is so cheap and the reason it’s so cheap is because it is schlock. But as long as organizations make it, Americans keep buying it.

Progressives all over the country should Reach Out for Teachout!

When I analyzed the long-shot possibilities of progressive Zephyr Teachout winning the Democratic primary for New York governor a few days back, I made a huge analytical mistake.  I forgot that the Working Families Party has already nominated Andrew Cuomo for Governor, so even if Teachout should pull off the miracle of miracles and defeat Cuomo for the Democratic nomination for governor of New York state, Cuomo will still be on the ballot come November.

There is no telling what could happen: New York is the bluest of blue states, so many voters may vote the Democratic party line, no matter who the candidate is. Cuomo’s name recognition may swing the election his way. Cuomo already has $23 million in his election kitty. The national Democratic fundraising machine may do nothing for Teachout.

Or Teachout and Cuomo may split the votes, swinging the election to conservative Republican Rob Astorino. Most progressives believe that electing Astorino as Governor would be an unmitigated disaster.

On the surface it seems as if New York progressives better vote for Cuomo or risk Astorino.

But consider the facts: Both Cuomo and Astorino are for fracking. Both are for lower taxes for businesses and against higher taxes for the wealthy. Both support union-busting charter schools.  Hasn’t Cuomo just spent four years playing ball with Republican state legislators?  It is true that Cuomo is much better on social issues than Astorino, but it’s New York we’re talking about. No one is messing with a woman’s right to an abortion and no one is taking away the hard earned right of gays to marry. Evolution and climate change will be taught in the public schools.

Consider, too, that Cuomo has refused to debate Teachout and has said that debates can be a disservice to democracy. This kind of fascist double-talk in and of itself should disqualify Cuomo from our consideration.

In her career and political life, Zephyr Teachout has never swayed from standard progressive positions on the environment, the economy, social issues and education.  She is a true progressive who deserves the votes of those opposed to fracking and charter schools, and in favor of more support of education and alternative energy and government policies that promote job growth and an equitable distribution of wealth.

Progressives in New York have an historic opportunity to send a real message not just to New York state but to the country that we want policies that lead to economic equality, higher wages, more jobs, smaller classrooms, lower tuition, more unionized workers, alternative energy development, more mass transit and a cleaner environment.  It’s easy for the ruling elite to ignore and invalidate a series of demonstrations like the Occupy movement. But they can’t turn their backs on the voters—that is, if we vote.

Because of the national implications of the New York state primary race for governor, I’m proposing a national campaign by progressives to “Reach Out for Teachout.”

To be part of Reach Out for Teachout, all you have to do is identify every New York state resident among your friends and family and contact all of them about Teachout by email, Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter. Ask all of the New York residents in your vast (or not so vast) network to vote for Teachout on September 9 in the Democratic primary election.  And tell them to tell all of their friends to vote for Teachout.

Starting with OpEdge readers, maybe Reach Out for Teachout will go viral. We have seen the power of social media to aid in revolutions in other countries.  Maybe it can help start a revolution by vote in the United States. First beat Cuomo, then beat Astorino. Put the Democratic Party and our elected officials across the country on notice that we expect policies that help others than just the top one percent of the wealth ladder.

I urge you to work your lists and get out the New York vote for Teachout, even if you live in Duluth or New Orleans.

Reach Out for Teachout.

The lesson from LA’s decaying infrastructure is that tax rates are too low

The front page of today’s New York Times tells the sad story of Los Angeles’ crumbling infrastructure.  Roadways, sidewalks and water pipes are in a state of decay thanks to several decades of tight municipal budgets. Close to 40% of LA’s roads are graded D or F. The average age of a city water pipe is 58 years. More than 4,000 miles of sidewalk—37% of all pedestrian walkways in the city—are in severe disrepair. A nonprofit transportation research group says that the average LA driver spends $842 a year just on car repairs resulting from the bad roads. How much more does fixing the water damage from broken pipes cost residents each year?

In total, city officials estimate that it will take $8.1 billion to fix the worst roads, repair the sidewalks and replace aging water pipes.  Much of the Times article bemoans this expense in light of the total LA city budget of just $26 billion.

But $8.1 billion should be chump change for LA, a city with a population of about 3.85 million.

Let’s do the math, something that the Times and the city officials and experts quoted in the article fail to do. $8.1 billion breaks down to $2,085.30 per person living in the City of Los Angeles.  If bringing the LA infrastructure up to snuff were financed over 10 years, it would cost less than $210 per person per year, or $420 per year if only households in the top half of the annual income spectrum were obligated to pay for these necessary infrastructure improvements. In the scenario in which the top half of income-earners were assessed the entire bill to fix what’s broke with LA roads, sidewalks and water pipes, the poorest taxpayers paying the assessment would see an additional 7/10ths of a percent in income taxed. But on average, these people would save a minimum of $422 overall, since auto repair costs would plummet.

Now one could make a very strong argument that the roads, water pipes and sidewalks of the City of Los Angeles serve all residents of the county. If we therefore spread the costs over all 10 million residents of Los Angeles County, it would compute to $810 per resident, or $81 per year for 10 years, or $161 per year if only the top half of income earners paid.

If presented with the option of spending $81 of $161 more per year for 10 years and getting safer and faster highways, more efficient water systems and more walkable pedestrian ways (probably not of too much interest to Angelinos, who seem to prefer riding in cars), most county residents would vote “yes.”

But of course, we’re never presented with the costs broken down in such a common sense way. We get the big number and a lot of hand-wringing from politicians.  And in all too many cases such as the Times article, we’re reminded how much of the municipal budget is dedicated to paying the pensions of former city workers. The implication of course is that if we walked away from our commitment to pay pensions—as many on the right would like us to do—we’d have the money to pay for maintaining highway and water pipes.

In Los Angeles, and throughout the country, we are seeing the disastrous end-game of the lower tax philosophy that began strangling the nation some 35 years ago. The big idea behind the brand of conservatism called Reaganism has always been to starve government. Now we know what anorexic government looks like: Pot holes everywhere. Frequent flooding from broken water pipes. More slip and fall accidents. Larger school classes. A gutting of extracurricular activities and enrichment courses such as art and music in public schools. Public colleges that are unaffordable to many of a state’s citizens. Inadequate mass transit.

And what did lower taxes get people? Not much unless you’re wealthy or upper middle class, since those are the people who have received the lion’s share of the income transferred to private individuals through reducing federal, state and local tax rates so many times since 1980.

Also think of these numbers: Trillions of dollars spent to destabilize Iraq through invasion (not to mention thousands of American and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives). $34 billion in grant funding from the Department of Homeland Security to militarize local police department with sophisticated vehicles and weaponry meant for wars, not domestic policing.

Anyone interested in the future of our country should judge all elected officials on their willingness or lack of willingness to raise taxes. Don’t vote for anyone who wants to lower taxes. Actively support anyone who explicitly states they want to raise taxes on the wealthy, near wealthy or businesses. It doesn’t matter that much what the candidate wants to do with the money—we have pressing needs in education, infrastructure development, mass transit, development of alternative energy sources and cleaning the environment. It doesn’t matter, as long as the candidate doesn’t want to use additional tax revenues to pay for more guns or tax breaks to businesses.