U.S. history is studded with presidential dynasties from day one

Whenever the news media begins to stir about Jeb Bush running for president, a pundit or two does some verbal hand-wringing about the ruinous state of our democracy if the wife of one former president ran against the brother/son of two other presidents.

There are certainly many reasons to fret often about the weakening of democracy in the 21st century: the massive increase in election spending by the ultra-wealthy; the demise of trade unions; the prevalence of lying in public discourse, suborned by the mainstream media; and the refusal of politicians to follow the expressed will of the American people on matters such as taxes on the wealthy (we want them higher) and unemployment compensation (we want it extended).

But the fact that relatives of presidents may be running for our highest office is not a manifestation or a cause of a diminishment in our democratic traditions. Presidential dynasties have been a major part of presidential politics since the birth of the Republic. Most Americans living a full life since 1800 have experienced two presidents who were closely related.

Let’s do the math:

1.  34 years rolled by between the time father John Adams, our second president, (president 1797-1801) took office and his son John Quincy Adams (1825-1829) left office.

    • 12 years passed before William Henry Harrison was inaugurated.

2.  52 years rolled by between the time grandfather William Henry Harrison (1841) took office and his grandson Benjamin Harrison (1889-1893) left office.

    • 8 years passed before Theodore Roosevelt was inaugurated.

3.  44 years rolled by between the time cousin Theodore Roosevelt took office and his cousin Franklin Roosevelt died in office.

    • 44 more years passed before George H.W. Bush was inaugurated.

4.  20 years rolled by between the time father George H.W. Bush took office and his son George W. Bush left office.

If Jeb is elected in 2016 and serves eight years, the Bush presidential dynasty will have lasted 36 years. If Hillary is elected and serves two full terms, the Clinton presidential dynasty would have lasted 32 years, with zero time between dynasties.

This catalogue of presidential dynasties leaves out the dozens of other national political dynasties that have always dominated national politics: the Cabots, Dirksons/Bakers, Gores, Hydes, Kennedys, Lehmans, Macks, Madisons, Marshalls, Masons, Rockefellers, Schuylers, Tafts,  Talmadges, Wadsworths, Walkers—the list is not endless, but could go on for pages.

It looks to me as if dynastic families have always played a major role in American politics. Nothing has changed.

I’m not saying that presidential dynasties are good for the country. All things being equal, I would prefer if people got by on their talents, not their names. But the fact that a Bush may run against a Clinton does not symbolize the bankruptcy of American democracy. Rather it serves as an example of how tightly a narrow sliver of the wealthy and the connected has always controlled our politics.  We can exemplify that fact by taking a look at the backgrounds of the 10 men and one woman involved in this discussion of presidents who were related to other presidents or might be in the future.  The Adams, Harrisons, Roosevelts, Bushes and Hillary Rodham all came from privileged and connected backgrounds, all had every opportunity to succeed handed to them on a silver platter.  All, of course, except Bill Clinton, who truly did fulfill the quintessential American myth that anyone can grow up to be President, assuming he or she has talent and drive.

New book shows that poverty affects brain and makes it harder to think, work, learn

Thanks to Cass Sunstein for reviewing Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much in the latest New York Review of Books. In Scarcity, Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir collect and analyze an impressive amount of research to demonstrate that those who suffer a scarcity of a resource—say food or money—dedicate more of their brain to addressing that scarcity, thereby degrading their ability to attend to their daily tasks, in school or on the job.

According to Mullainathan and Shafir, scarcity “puts people in a kind of cognitive tunnel, limiting what they are able to see. It depletes their self-control. It makes them more impulsive and sometimes a bit dumb. What we often consider a part of people’s basic character—an inability to learn, a propensity to anger or impatience—may well be a product of their feeling of scarcity,” to quote Sunstein. The book cites a ton of empirical research that shows that the effects of scarcity cut across all possible types of scarcity.

The most striking study mentioned in the review tested Indian sugar cane workers before the harvest when they were broke and after the harvest when they had lots of money. The difference in scores amounted to 9 or 10 points on an I.Q. test, which measures certain intellectual capabilities correlated with success in school and in professional employment.  On an I.Q. test, ten points means a lot: for example, about 28% of the population scores between 106-115, while only 9% of the population scores between 116-125.

In other words, not only do rich and upper middle class children have the advantages of classes and lessons, summer camps, trips abroad, private tutors, SAT prep courses and the doors that money and business contacts can offer. The wealthy also have an inherent advantage in that their brains are not drained by scarcity concerns as the brains of poor children are.  The easiest way to improve our educational system would be to end poverty, which would enable formerly poor children to focus their brain on learning and not on the anxiety of not knowing when the next meal will be.

A few years back, the mainstream media and politicians were completely enamored by an article titled “Growth in a Time of Debt” by Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff, which concluded that countries with public debt greater than 90 percent of GDP suffered measurably slower economic growth. In This Time Is Different, the two right-wing economists ostensibly fleshed out the theory with examples across the centuries.  Mainstream politicians and journalists throughout the world embraced this “new discovery,” using it to bolster assertions that we had to deal with the debt instead of pumping money into the economy.

The problem was that Reinhart and Rogoff miscalculated in a number of places and even made typographical errors. When their bad math was corrected, it was found that there was no correlation between levels of debt and economic growth.

Many people wanted to believe Reinhart and Rogoff were right because they wanted to cut the budget, regardless of the pain and the economic havoc it caused. Of course it didn’t work out—Europe’s austerity program backfired and the U.S. limited “rescue” of its economy produced uneven and weak results. Through it all, inequality continued to grow, especially in the United States. The distribution of wealth in this country is now less equitable than it has been in more than in a century.

As of this writing, a Google key word search yields about 3,000 mentions of Scarcity, which is not even a drop in the ocean of web pages floating around cyberspace.  It’s still too early to tell, but I’m betting the mainstream news media is going to ignore Scarcity for the most part and few politicians outside maybe Bill de Blasio will reference it.

But imagine if Scarcity captured the imagination of politicians and pundits the way that Reinhart & Rogoff’s bogus research did, or the way Michael Harrington’s poignant expose of poverty, The Other America, did in the early 1960’s?

What if our various governments started to create public policies and new laws to address the implications of Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much? If Scarcity is true (and the Sunstein’s extensive review makes we want to read it as soon as I can), that puts a whole new light on Republican efforts to decrease funding for food stamps and unemployment benefits. The very nature of poverty distorts and weakens the thinking process, so that once people fall into poverty it is very hard to escape.  It makes sense then to be as generous as possible with these benefits in times of economic distress, to keep as many people out of poverty as possible.

Widespread knowledge of the findings by Mullainathan and Shafir would lean the debate over minimum wage and health care decidedly to the left, as think tank pundits and government policy makers quoted the book to assert the need to protect Americans from the negative effect of scarcity in general, and of medical care in particular.

Scarcity also serves as an epiphany for the great challenge facing the United States in the area of education. Rich people are spending more to educate their children while their state and federal representatives continue to cut budgets for public schools.  Meanwhile, a college education has become a major drain on the finances of most families.  Equal opportunity movements focused on voting and jobs in the 20th century. In the 21st century, the real battle ground for equal opportunity may be over education.

For the past 30 years, we have passed laws and followed policies that increase the number of people facing scarcities of money, food, health care and now education. We have in effect degraded our intellectual stock by putting more panic into more people. Creating a more unequal society has weakened our collective ability to learn and to work. If our leaders believed the message of Scarcity they would pursue an entirely different set of policies that would resemble the policies our nation pursued in the 1950’s, 1960’s and early 1970’s. You know, when we had general prosperity, a lower rate of poverty, a more equal distribution of the wealth, strong unions, mostly great public schools—and, not coincidentally, much higher taxes on the wealthy.


A terrifying reminder of the thousands of nuclear weapons stockpiled around the world

February 1, 2012

My son recently sent me a very beautiful but frightening piece of video art that more than 609,000 people have seen since it was uploaded onto Youtube in October 2010. The video punches us in the face with the realization that we have already poisoned the Earth with radiation from testing nuclear bombs.

The video, by Japanese artist Isao Hashimoto, shows a time-lapse map of the 2,053 nuclear explosions which took place from 1945 to 1998, beginning with the Manhattan Project’s “Trinity” test and concluding with Pakistan’s nuclear tests in May of 1998. The time-lapse of the map unfolds at about one month per second.

Each nation gets its own musical note that is short like a blip and a flashing dot on the map whenever they detonate a nuclear weapon, with a running tally kept on the bars above and below the map. Once the explosions get started by 1950, we hear a strange and terrifying music that is also beautiful, like the etchings of World War I battlefields by Otto Dix. The more textured and complex the music becomes, the more radiation we see erupting into the atmosphere. Yet because the sound is generated by the symbolic detonation through time, there is a random quality to the sound, very much like some serious contemporary classical music.

After the show, we get an encore, which consists of a series of explosions for each of the 7 countries to have exploded nuclear devices between 1945 and 1998.  The more bombs a country has detonated, the longer its little fiery dance lasts.  The countries are ordered from fewest explosions to most.

Here comes the most frightening part for American citizens, as we see and hear the stark truth: our country is responsible for 1,032, or just over 50% of all nuclear explosions.  By ourselves, the United States has exploded more nuclear devices than the rest of the world combined and 44% more than the second place Soviet Union.

I urge everyone to see Hashimoto’s video and send it to their network of friends and acquaintances.  I also urge you to write your senators, congressional representative and President Obama and tell them you support a unilateral ending of the U.S. stockpile of nuclear weapons.

The news media constantly worries about Iran or North Korea developing the capability to produce nuclear weapons, and we’re pretty freaked out about Pakistan having them, too. Yet no one has acted more irresponsibly when it comes to nuclear weaponry than the United States has. We have tested the most weapons and we have the second most bombs stockpiled. More significantly, the United States is the only nation to use a nuclear bomb in war, dropping it on innocent citizens not once, but twice.

I was going to wait until Hiroshima Day in August to mention this video, but I realized that until every nation destroys its stockpile of nuclear weapons, every day is Hiroshima Day.

Who will make weaker opponent for Obama: Mitt or Newt? Doesn’t matter if progressives don’t vote

January 25, 2012

Progressives, liberals and blue-dog Democrats face an interesting mental puzzle: Who do we want to win the Republican presidential nomination: Mitt Romney, who is seen as being able to attract more centrist and independent voters and therefore more likely to defeat Obama? Or Newt Gingrich, who is seen as less likely to defeat Obama but would be a disaster as president?

If we focus on the best possible “worst case” scenario for the country, we favor Mitt, because his track record suggests that he will be a far abler manager and administrator as president than the loosey-goosey Gingrich. But if we focus on the best chance of retaining Obama, who despite his faults is far more progressive, far more interested in the problems of the 99% and far less corrupt than either of the two likely Republican nominees, Newt seems on the surface to be the better choice as the assumption is that centrists will never vote for the corrupt and hypocritical Gingrich.

The flaw in the reasoning is the assumption that Newt would be easier to defeat than Mitt because fewer centrists will like him. Consider that rural-based evangelicals have never seemed to be able to warm up to Mitt, who represents the city-slicker as much as he represents free market values. They have decided to forgive Newt his transgressions, which Gingrich has rewritten into the rebirth narrative so dear to the religious right.  This group, comprising from 20-30% of the population, might sit on its hands in the general election for Romney but might vote in droves for Newt.

Meanwhile in his effort to pander to the far right, Romney cut ties with the Hispanic community by coming out against the Dream Act, which would give long-time illegal aliens with deep community roots the opportunity to go legal. While Newt has not stated a position on this pending legislation, he has expressed sympathy with the long-term illegal immigrant, which has not hurt him with the evangelicals and allowed him to build a bridge to centrists and social conservatives among Hispanic voters. That Newt is a converted Catholic and not a Mormon probably helps his standing somewhat with both evangelicals and Hispanics.

On the other hand, we can safely assume that Mitt Romney would be more able to raise money for the general election than Gingrich could, and many pundits, predictors and politicians put a lot of stock in how much money each candidate raises. Money doesn’t vote, people do. But money can influence votes and money can drive voters to polling places. Whoever the GOP candidate is, we can expect that Obama will raise more money, as much as $1.0 billion total according to a few estimates.

A variation on current speculation is whether the extended campaign for the nomination will hurt or help the Republicans.  It didn’t seem to hurt the Democrats in 2008, and in fact helped keep the party in the spotlight. But we were dealing with two candidates who were relatively scandal free. The Republican race has come down to the King of Republican Scandals against Mr. One-percent. Of course, it’s possible that by the time of the love fest that will be the Republican convention, the country will have grown tired of hearing about Mitt and Newt’s flaws, and will therefore shut their ears to Democratic negative campaigning in the fall.

At the end of the day, though, all the speculation in which progressives may engage about the current state of the presidential race leads to one action plan, and it’s always the same action plan for winning all elections:

  1. Support the more progressive candidate, which in this case will surely be Obama.
  2. Drive that candidate leftward with letters, emails and support of other candidates.
  3. Vote on Election Day.

Santorum symbolizes a political party that says it wants to help families but supports anti-family policies

Yesterday was a glorious, almost celestial day for Rick Santorum. He lost last night’s Iowa caucus to Mitt Romney by a mere eight votes. Earlier in the day, he was highly praised in a deceptive article by conservative columnist David Brooks.

The Iowa caucus represents what’s wrong with our electoral process and the Brooks article is the latest example of the deceptive politics that the Republican Party plays.

First Iowa: I am far from the first to note that our primary system gives more weight to rural and conservative voters. The first three “votes” almost always sort out the declared candidates into contenders and also-rans. By the end of these “votes” there are typically just two, and sometimes only one, candidate left standing in either party. Yet those “votes” include the Iowa caucus and the primaries in New Hampshire and South Carolina, three states that have much higher levels of conservative voters than the nation as a whole and no major metropolitan area.  For example, 6 of 10 voters identified themselves as evangelicals in last night’s Iowa caucus, which only decides on delegates to county conventions to take place later in the year. No national survey has ever shown that more than about 30% of voters identify themselves as evangelicals.

Let’s say that the first three “votes” were Massachusetts and New Mexico, two states with relatively progressive voters, and the swing state of North Carolina. After these three states voted or caucused, the candidates left standing in both parties would certainly be more progressive than they are now. More important, those who participated in these early rounds would be more representative of voters throughout the entire country. The electoral process is rigged right from the beginning. 

The David Brooks encomium to Santorum is a masterpiece of political propaganda.  If you read not only what it says but what it doesn’t say, you get a good idea of the game that Republicans have been running on the white working class since Richard Nixon’s 1968 campaign.

In the article, titled “Workers of the World, Unite!,” Brooks slowly builds his case for Rick Santorum. Here is my paraphrase of his reasoning:

  1. The largest voting bloc in the country is white working class (whites with a high school education or a little college) and these voters now tend to vote Republican, which makes the Republicans the party of working class whites.
  2. Virtually all Republican candidates come from an upper middle class or wealthy background. (His exact words dance around this fact:former College Republicans who have a more individualistic and even Randian worldview than most members of the working class.”
  3. Santorum comes from a working class and immigrant background and focuses his concerns not on the individual but on the family.
  4. Santorum is therefore the “working class candidate of the right.”

What Brooks expects us to believe is that the proof a candidate supports the working class is that he or she comes from the working class.

Even a cursory perusal of Santorum’s stands on economic and political issues at his website demonstrates that while he may come from modest means, Rick Santorum definitely does not support the best interests of the working class-white or otherwise: 

  • He wants to curtail the National Labor Relations Board, which is an anti-union move. Unions were the main reason that so many working class whites and minorities achieved middle class status after World War II and the decline of unionism has been one of the major reasons the working class has slipped into poverty and near poverty.
  • He likes Paul Ryan’s plan to gut Medicare.
  • His proposals to lower taxes tend to help the wealthy and near wealthy much more than they help the working class.
  • His proposals to cut government spending would leave less money for creating jobs and educating children.
  • He explicitly states that he would look to the Cato Institute, Heritage Foundation Enterprise Foundation and the Simpson-Bowles Commission’s recommendations for guidance in economic policies. That’s three ultra-right think tanks that routinely propose policies that take money from the poor and middle class and give it to the wealthy, plus the special commission that was supposed to work on reducing the debt, but instead proposed policies that shift even more of the tax burden away from the wealthy and onto the backs of everyone else while cutting spending for jobs, infrastructure improvements and education.

Brooks wants us to judge Santorum on his style and not his substance. In advertising, that’s called selling the sizzle instead of the steak. Santorum’s steak is a tough chew for the 39% of the population that is working class whites, the group for which Brooks proposes Santorum as a “white knight.” (Brooks doesn’t consider the fate or needs of the non-white working class in his article).

The separation of the working class into white (and the unmentioned “others”) is another example of the ruling elite trying to divide and conquer. The interests of working class whites and non-whites are exactly the same. To divide the groups may make sense for analyzing voting patterns, but in a discussion of issues and “best interests” it is patently racist.  

Santorum, like all the current Republican candidates, says that he supports the working class, but his policies say otherwise. An old saying goes, “Look at what I say and not what I do.” In considering Santorum, let’s change it a bit: Don’t look at what he says he represents, look at what he says he’s going to do. And what he says he’s going to do will further erode the economic well-being of anyone who doesn’t have a lot of money, which means most people and all of the working class.

Vocal opposition to preparations for sea-level rise on Virginia coast is end game for anti-science ideology

Goya’s masterful etching, “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters,” has haunted western culture since it first appeared as part of Los Caprichos in 1797. Goya brings to life the idea that reason can produce monsters with his usual light but precise touch that seems always able to depict both figures and their motives. At the time, the thought that reason can produce monsters was prevalent, especially among conservatives, as many saw the Napoleonic wars as the monster created by 18th century rationality. It’s an idea that has also occurred to many people when contemplating nuclear weaponry.

But all too often, it is unreason that produces the monsters, which has happened in Virginia’s middle peninsula region. 

Organized residents there are shouting down planners, engineers and government officials at meetings of the Middle Peninsula Planning District Commission. Their angry-mob demagoguery is in opposition to preparations that the district wants to make to respond to an almost certain rise in the sea level over the next few decades.  The rise in sea level will result from global warming and therein we find the principle objection raised by the opponents: They don’t believe that global warming is taking place, and therefore believe that the costly and inconvenient infrastructure modifications and other changes are a waste.

In other words, these true believers in anti-science intend to write their own obituaries or those of their children and grandchildren by ignoring what science is telling them they have to do to prevent massive flooding.

Here we see the gloomy, self-destructive end game of the campaign to discredit the facts of global warming, financed over the past few years by a handful of industrialists who would make less money if we imposed environmental regulations and pursued alternative energy with the zeal of China. That campaign has built on the anti-intellectual rhetoric that has dominated mass media for decades and the campaign against the theory of evolution that the religious right has waged with greater and lesser intensity for a century or more. 

Every depiction of smart kids as nerds, every article glorifying the rare successful person who did not get his/her college degree, every off-hand remark that math is hard, every “Animal House” portrayal of higher education, every list of birthdays or deaths containing only celebrities, every questioning of scientific truth in the news media—this constant decades–long accumulation of ideologically tinged detail in our news and entertainment has built the base for the benighted citizens of middle peninsula Virginia to not just doubt the experts but get angry enough to coalesce into an unruly and uncivil bunch.

A reason always stands behind the unreason of these irrationalities: The funders of global warming deniers make and keep more money when we do nothing about this man-made problem. Religions lose power when people accept the truth of evolutionary science.  People with money gain influence and status when the world respects money instead of knowledge.

I’m not saying that there is a decades old conspiracy. I do think however that there is a tendency for people with power and money to act as if they believe that the ideas that keep them in power are accurate, no matter how many times and in how many ways they have been disproved.

But this constant sowing of anti-intellectualism and anti-science is reaping an ignorant population. At a time in which all but the very wealthy are suffering economically and our elected officials prefer spewing out inaccuracies and inflammatory labels to governing, what has happened in Virginia is predictable. People are angry, but instead of lashing out at those who have created an unfair tax system that starves the public of the resources needed to confront global warming, the people believe the charlatans and lash out at those government officials who want to help them avoid the monstrous nightmare of losing their property and possessions to flooding.

Media and pandering politicians should hang heads in shame at goading vaccine deniers to put children at risk

The news sent a chill up my spine: In eight states more than 1 in 20 school children now don’t get all the vaccines required for attendance. The number of parents denying vaccines to their children is up in virtually every state. I immediately winced, imagining the unavoidable increase in children getting debilitating diseases and dying because they haven’t been vaccinated.

Many people now believe that certain vaccinations can cause autism. Others minimize the risk of getting disease. Because those opposing vaccination tend to cluster geographically, the United States is going to have pockets of disease spring up, primarily in rural areas; for example, vaccination exemptions for school children in some rural counties in Washington State have exceeded 20%. 

This non-vaccinated population is going to be visited by a plague of diseases they didn’t have to suffer. And guess who is going to pay to treat these people? Unless we end all health insurance and government health benefits, it will be all of us, just as we all pay for the irresponsible behavior of smokers and over-eaters.

The myths surrounding vaccinations have grown with public distrust of both government and science, which is why I don’t blame the parents who deny their children the protection of vaccines. They may anger me, but I don’t blame them. For the most part, they are loving parents, but misguided, gullible and poorly educated.

I blame the politicians, pundits and reporters who spout an anti-science bias in their statements denying climate change and evolution. 

I blame the anti-intellectualism of the news media that conflate the opinions of the person-in-the-street and untrained office seekers with the reasoned empirical results presented by scientists and engineers.

I blame the producers and hosts of talk shows who give ignorant celebrities time to air their mistaken notions about the dangers of vaccines.

I blame all the politicians who have told lies about vaccines causing diseases, abortion causing cancer and brain dead people being able to communicate, all in an effort to garner the votes of the ignorant and uneducated.

For the past decade or so, the main actors in our marketplace of ideas have created an atmosphere in which faith trumps science, even in the kingdom of science. They have shamelessly undercut the authority of science—which is based not on majority rule or inherited rights but on real-world facts. Now we as a nation will reap what they have sown in sick children and increased health care costs.

The Associated Press article announcing the disturbing news exemplified the approach that the mass media takes to scientific issues. The article states unequivocally that there is no truth to the myths that vaccines cause autism or other diseases. Yet the writer feels the need to quote four women who have withheld some or all of their children’s vaccinations to balance the quotes from five experts on how important it is to have children vaccinated. The writer presents everyone’s quotes with respect and objectivity, which equates the views of the misinformed parents with those of the scientists and professors. Thus, even as the AP reports the news, it undermines the authority of science in a matter of science. 

The use of this pros-versus-Joes approach leads to an aggrandizement of the vaccine deniers. Remember, they still represent a miniscule portion of the population, and yet they get feature billing of their views. The views of 99% of the public are ignored.  

I could understand putting the views of the parents opposed to vaccination in the article if the article also included the views of parents who get their children vaccinated, and in some ratio that reflected popular opinion. Since that would require quotes from 20 non-experts, I would settle for the common sense approach, say quotes from five parents who have their children vaccinated and from two who don’t. Having quotes from parents who get their kids vaccinated would have reminded us that the non-vaccinators were expressing opinions only, and that the reporter did not seek their views to balance those of the scientists.

Since god-given talent and IQ give some people an edge, why reward them so much for winning?

I’m still catching up with the Sunday newspapers.  I want to recommend “Sorry, Strivers: Talent Matters” by David Z. Hambrich and Elizabeth J. Meinz, both professors of psychology, that appeared in the “Sunday Review” section of the New York Times.

Hambrich and Meinz dismantle the myth that time on task can make anyone a success, and in particular the silly idea that an IQ of 120 is enough to ensure anyone can go to the top of their fields if only he or she work hard enough. Just like a basketball player of average height and speed for high school teams has no chance against the size, speed and dexterity of Shaquille O’Neil, at any given level of endeavor, the one with the photographic memory has an enormous edge on the average Joe of middling intelligence.

What does that mean to our reward system, which lately pays outsized amounts to the winners and miniscule amounts to all the other players?  Think only of the business game in which most employees have lost ground to inflation over the past 30 years, while the winners—the executives and owners—take home lots of cash.

Many of those winners are the talented and the high IQ: gifted athletes, entertainers, writers and high-end knowledge workers like lawyers, surgeons and senior executives.   Do they (do we?) deserve the enormous sums of money they rake in?

Hambrick and Meinz have established for us that hard work can only take you so far.  Those geniuses that go the farthest may or may not work hard. They’re at the pinnacle because of something they had when they were born. They can cultivate, apply or fine tune their natural abilities, but never can they create their ability. It was given to them, so I don’t care if we call it “god-given talent.” You have it or you don’t. And if you have it, succeeding in what you do best is easy as pie.

Don’t forget that success must manifest itself within a social context. Once upon a time, we rewarded people with superior marksmanship and strong arms. Now we reward people who can add numbers quickly and use words to communicate clearly.  Having the right talent for the current age is worth a lot to many of those who currently make a lot of money. Sadly, Willie Mays might have been a field slave if he had been born 100 years earlier.

If a large and perhaps the most important part of your success had nothing to do with anything you did, why should you reap unlimited benefit?

Now in the United States we let there be a free market, which means we let the winners take all, or most, of the stakes. We then use tax policy (or until Bush II, we used to use tax policy) to make sure that no one gets an unfair share, making people pay an ever greater percentage of additional income in federal income taxes. On the level of ethics, what we’re saying is that the more money you make, the greater likelihood that the reason you made it had to do with something out of your control, such as inherent talent or high IQ. Thus the less of your money you get to keep and the more of it goes to fund government services to the entire community.

The one exception we make to this idea is the tax for Social Security and Medicare, for which everyone pays the same percent of their wages. In fact, there is a cap on the amount of wages for which the Social Security tax applies, but there is also a cap on the amount you can collect each month in benefits.

Every Republican candidate except the honorable Jon Huntsman has called for some kind of a flat tax. The flat taxers are really saying that no matter how much a person makes, it’s entirely resulting from his or her time and efforts solely, with nothing caused by other factors, such as the circumstances of the time, god-given talent, family wealth and connections, the support of society or plain old luck.

That’s why outside of Huntsman, every Republican candidate, from Newt to Mitt to the Pizza King, will be disastrous for this country. All will pursue a flat tax, which will lead to the wealthy paying even a smaller share of the tax burden, which in turn will lead to a greater erosion in government services and a larger tax burden for the poor and middle class.

On social issues such as abortion, gay marriage and birth control, the Republicans represent about a third of the country. But on economic issues, however, they represent the top one percent, and no one else.

When will media stop trying to sell us on a car- and mall-dependent suburban life?

It’s really hilarious how often it is that some organization or another comes up with a study that concludes that the best place to live or raise a family is a distant suburb in which all there is to do is visit the chain stores in the mall, take drugs and get into trouble.  A suburb, where the cultural highlights of the year are the church choir Easter concert and whatever is playing at the Cineplex on Black Friday, where children under the age of 16 are prisoners of drivers and those over 16 are helping to clog up the roadways. A suburb, each of which may have a little ethnic diversity, but all of which will be regimentally uniform in economic background and life goals of the inhabitants.

The latest to create a bunch of pseudo criteria for quality of life and then declare that suburbs meet them better than cities do is BusinessWeek.com. In a survey that Yahoo! and other portals have blasted out to us over the past few days like a pro-communist song over the loudspeakers in the meeting hall of a Chinese village, BusinessWeek.com names the top five places to raise a family. 

First the criteria, which might serve as a good guide if BusinessWeek.com actually understood what they mean:  “We evaluated educational factors (such as school scores, the number of public and private schools, and colleges), economic factors (including median family income, expenses, job growth, and unemployment), crime, amenities (such as child day-care centers, zoos, aquariums, museums, theaters, recreation centers, green space), air quality, and ethnic diversity. School performance, expenditures, and income were given the most weight.” 

BusinessWeek.com biases the study from the start by only focusing on places with populations between 1,000 and 50,000 people, and median family income within 20 percent of the state median.  So New York, Pittsburgh, Seattle, Boston and any place big enough for a vibrant urban life is eliminated right from the start. In fact, the closest cities to four out of five of the winners are all on the small side, with relatively few of the amenities of urban life. The underlying assumption is that the best place to raise a family must be in a small community.

The article about the study claims that the researchers looked only at cities in which the crime index was less than 10% above the national average. But I don’t imagine that crime played all that big a role in the final decision, since the number one city turned out to be Blacksburg, Virginia,  home of one of the worst mass murder in American history, the killing of 32 students on the Virginia Tech campus less than five years ago. In fact, it’s a bit creepy to read that Blacksburg finishes on top in a study of the best places to raise a family.

The study gave no points for mass transit, probably because there is no real mass transit in any of the more than 4,000 small municipalities that qualified for consideration. And although the survey criteria include ethnic diversity, museums and theatre, I don’t think the authors really took a close look at these factors, seeing that only one of the five is situated near anyplace with decent theatre and museums or any kind of ethnic diversity to speak of.

The winners, with name of closest large city in parentheses):

  1. Blacksburg, VA (40 miles from Roanoke)
  2. Arlington, NE (35 miles from Omaha)
  3. Morton Grove, IL (15 miles from Chicago)
  4. St. Henry, OH (60 miles from Dayton)
  5. Spring Arbor, MI (8 miles from Jackson)

Living in any of these “five best places to raise a child” would have bored my son to tears—and his parents as well. In all five of them, all I see is a relatively constrained and unimaginative childhood, devoid of regular opportunities to expand horizons.

I’m wondering if BusinessWeek.com was really trying to figure out what were the worst upscale places to raise a child.

Thumbs up to Naomi Klein’s six strategies for addressing climate change; thumbs down to tax-hating Republicans

Everyone should read “Capitalism vs. the Climate,” Naomi Klein’s fine article on a wide range of climate change issues in the November 28 issue of The Nation. 

First Klein presents a lively history of how the right wing has reduced the percentage of Americans believing in man-made climate change from 71% to 44% in a mere four years, pointing out that virtually all of this historic shift away from science has come among card-carrying Republicans. 

In the next part of this very long article, Klein admits that the right wing is correct to fear the changes that we must make to halt climate change and deal with its ill effects.  The rightwing values the free market above all else, even above the well being of others, and to address climate change we will of necessity have to impose government solutions on society and the free markets, the result of which will be a redistribution of wealth from the wealthy downward to the middle class and poor. I have made this connection between fixing the environment and government intervention on a number of occasions for more than two years, and I’m delighted to see that Klein and others agree with me.

Klein offers six strategies which government must pursue to address climate change, and again, OpEdge has proposed all of these strategies over the past few years:

  1. Reviving and reinventing the public sphere.  Klein wants to reverse the 30-year trend towards privatizing government functions. To quote Klein, “Climate change is a collective problem, and it demands collective action.”
  2. Remembering how to plan. Klein calls for world, regional, state and local governments to develop environmental plans that are realistic and effective.
  3. Reining in corporations. Amen, sister!
  4. Relocalizing production. Transporting goods long distances raises their environmental cost. Relocalization, which simply is buying locally-produced goods, will not only cut fuel costs, over time it will diversify local economies everywhere, making them inherently stronger.
  5. Ending the cult of shopping: As I frequently point out, Americans consume too many resources.
  6. Taxing the rich and filthy. Often, they’re the same people, as with the case of Koch brothers and other executives and owners of large companies that pollute the environment.

Klein’s last strategy—to tax the wealthy—reminds me that I haven’t commented yet about the slow-mo train wreck called the Congressional Debt Reduction Special Committee. Despite rumors of deals earlier in the week, as of this writing the committee is still deadlocked with no solution in sight and the deadline before a solution is enforced on the country is Wednesday at midnight.   

The main impediment to a deal, as usual, is the obstinacy of Republicans who, like spoiled five-year-olds who can’t get their way, refuse to admit that it’s mathematically impossible to reduce our debt without raising taxes on the wealthy. 

As the National Priorities project computes, the value of the Bush II tax cuts to the wealthiest 5% of the population is more than one trillion dollars and counting, with more than $715 billion going to the top 1%. Judging from recent surveys, the public’s positive reaction to the Occupy movement and stories in the mass media, more and more people are coming to realize that one of the two main reasons for our current fiscal crisis is that these temporary tax cuts were passed 10 years ago (the other reason being that we waged expensive and useless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan). If we just let these temporary tax cuts expire, we would go a long way towards solving the debt crisis.  

I also like the idea of reducing the maximum value of mortgage deduction. I’m not sure why the federal government ever got into the business of subsidizing the housing market in the first place. Guaranteeing viable loans I can understand; giving a tax break to every home owner seems inflationary. All it does is fuel increases in prices, as people can afford to buy more expensive homes with the tax break. Curtailing the deduction will hurt everyone with a mortgage, but the entire country will benefit as the additional taxes raised can be deployed to create real jobs and/or pay down the deficit.

Now the idea of ending the corporate deduction of health care benefits that I’ve also heard is bad, bad, bad. It would drive many if not most employers out of the business of providing healthcare insurance to their employees. Like it or not, our current system of healthcare insurance relies heavily on private coverage by employers. As of today, we don’t have anything to replace it except a still infant market for private individual insurance policies and government-paid insurance for the poor and elderly. Until we have more viable alternatives to employer-sponsored healthcare, we need to keep the deduction in the tax codes.

But I’ve drifted lazily into wishful thinking and indolent day-dreaming.  I’m just wasting my time and yours, since it’s nothing more than a pipe dream to consider any of these tax increases given the ostrich-like ability of Republicans to stick their heads in the sand and ignore the necessity of raising taxes on the wealthy.