Friday, November 30, 2012

Quick Primer on US Politics

If you need to explain contemporary US political divides in a nutshell, here you go:

Liberals look at 1950s economic policy with nostalgia and 1950s social policy with horror. Conservatives look at 1950s social policy with nostalgia and 1950s economic policy with horror.

"Yes, dear, you were telling me about our 91% marginal tax rate?"

Friday, November 23, 2012

"All-of-the-Above" Strategy for a "Balanced Diet"

A few days ago, after signing one of many climate change-related petitions, I received a response from the White House.

The letter began with the following summary of the President's energy policy:

"My Administration’s all-of-the-above energy strategy is about developing every source of American energy—a strategy aimed at saving families and businesses money at the pump by reducing our reliance on foreign oil, expanding oil and gas production, and positioning the United States as the global leader in clean energy."

When I sign a petition related to climate change, clearly I am expressing my desire to hear you tout your expanded oil and gas production.

Continuing the rather cliched language:

"While developing new sources of energy is critical to our future, the hard truth is there are no overnight solutions to our energy challenges.  The only way to deal with this problem is through a sustained, serious, all-of-the-above approach"

I am so glad that the approach will be "serious."  That line just exudes the elite centrism that drives the Beltway consensus (and is embodied by Paul Krugman's term "Very Serious People.")

To fill me with further joy, the response continued to outline the wonders of fossil fuel production:

"Under my Administration, American oil production is at its highest level in 8 years, and we are now less reliant on foreign oil than in any of the past 16 years.  We have more working oil and gas rigs than the rest of the world combined, and we have opened up millions of new acres for oil and gas exploration where appropriate and where it can be done safely.  My Administration has also approved dozens of new pipelines to move oil around, including from Canada, which will help create jobs and encourage more energy production."

Oil production higher than it was under W?  Why, every environmentalist should be so happy right now!  I found the phrase "including from Canada" to be particularly disconcerting.  As of yet, the President has not signed off on the Keystone XL pipeline.  Regardless, I do not see why it would excite anyone to know that we now have oil from Canada as well.

Despite my arguments with the substance of the email (and the policy it reflects), one of my largest pet peeves remains the "all-of-the-above" language.  It sounds very focus group-tested and quite pseudo-serious but accomplishes nothing other than evading the actual problem.

It reminds me of the language that soda companies often embrace when campaigning against proposed soda taxes.  Soda, they say, can be a part of a "balanced diet" and is a wholesome, all-American diet.  We are not saying that soda should be the only thing that you consume, and we don't deny the value of more healthful foods and drinks; all we want is to highlight the "balance" that we all know is important and we all strive to embrace.  The "all-of-the-above" energy policy embraces the same empty and deceptive rhetoric.  Just as a body will be healthiest without soda, the environment will be healthiest without the consumption of fossil fuels.

Perhaps an even better comparison, though, would be to the "all-of-the-above" agricultural policy that the US has even though we don't use such language.  You want to have your food raised on a local, organic family farm? You can do that (depending on place, of course).  You want to have your food from monocropped GMO corn plantations run by Monsanto?  You can have that, too!  Although studies by the UN have shown that organic farming has the potential to meet the world's demand, Congress will continue to subsidize such monocropping, with crony capitalism for an added touch.  Of course, we act as though the outcome, i.e. the dominance of GMO, chemical-ridden food, is what the "free market" wants even though the government has been distorting the market in favor of the companies like Monsanto that already have monopolistic control.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Math? Why, That's What Servants are For!

Yesterday, the New York Times had an article that featured interviews with some rich people who seem completely innumerate (or at least illiterate in economics).

Take as an example this:

Kristina Collins, a chiropractor in McLean, Va., said she and her husband planned to closely monitor the business income from their joint practice to avoid crossing the income threshold for higher taxes outlined by President Obama on earnings above $200,000 for individuals and $250,000 for couples.
Ms. Collins said she felt torn by being near the cutoff line and disappointed that federal tax policy was providing a disincentive to keep expanding a business she founded in 1998.
“If we’re really close and it’s near the end-year, maybe we’ll just close down for a while and go on vacation,” she said.
 Kristina does not seem to understand that the tax increase would be only for income above (or over or in excess of, all the same thing) $250,000.  The reduced rates from the Bush tax cuts stay on that first $250,000.  The 39.6% marginal tax rate only applies to that first $0.01 earned above the $250,000 threshold.  The only way in which you would have lower take home pay despite earning more would be for the marginal tax rate to exceed 100%.  If it's at 100%, there's a maximum income (an income cap); all extra "work" would yield no more take home pay.  However, even then, your take home pay is not less than it was before; it just stagnates.  Once the marginal tax rate becomes 100.01%, then you will start to lose money by earning more.  But last I checked, no one is talking about raising the marginal tax rate to 100.01% or even 100%---or even, for that matter, 94%--the highest the marginal rate has ever been.

It is, of course, also hilarious to see the paranoid rich or conservative blowhards like Rush Limbaugh decry the return to Clinton-era marginal tax rates for income above $250,000 as (you guessed it) socialism, or even communism.  As we all know, Clinton was a rabid socialist who passed laws like TANF (or, the Make Low-Income Single Mothers Work Bill), NAFTA, and GLBA (the repeal of Glass-Steagall).  One would have though that Soviet economics came to the US right after it died in Russia!

Anyways, what also entertains me about such paranoid rants is that they often refer to increased tax rates as communism.  If the economy were fully socialized, then, obviously, the government (or the collective) would fully control the means of production and distribution.  Consequently, the idea of salaries, wages, and taxes lose their logical coherence.  How can there be taxes to pay if if your money only comes back to you in the form of allocated goods?  The purported no-tax utopia is a characteristic of anarchy (in which there is no state to tax) and communism (in which there is no private property to be taxed).

Monday, November 19, 2012

On Tragedy and Farce

In an article in The Guardian last Friday, Giles Fraser, reflecting on the situation in Gaza, concluded,

"Poets understand tragedy better than politicians. For what makes tragedy tragic is not that the situation is sad (there are other words for that) but that it is where the sloganising binaries of right and wrong no longer function as a useful guide. Which is why making peace means leaving the protected place where we are right."

A farce is where no one is fully right, and no one gets hurt.  A tragedy is where no one is fully right, but everyone gets hurt.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

An eye for an eye...and no more

It is important to remember that the biblical precept of "an eye for an eye" contained the implicit corollary of "and no more."  Although one may, from a modern perspective, view such retributive justice as crude, it was nevertheless a step in the direction of justice at its time, when blood-feuds prevailed.  The precept "an eye for an eye" demands that the punishment be commensurate to the crime, that the victim not seek to remedy the offense by exacting greater suffering from the offender, that the act of retribution be merely like the settling of debts, for to seek to inflict greater suffering, to demand a full body as compensation for the taken eye, would lead to a vicious cycle of retribution and pain with no conceivable end.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

This is What Happens When You Don't Teach Shapes in Kindergarten

 Hello friend, let's take a journey through the newly designed districts of Pennsylvania, the Keystone State.  I've decided to choose the most aesthetically and geometrically offensive districts for our little tour.

Starting West, let us begin with PA-12, the former home of Rep. Mark Critz (D) and soon-to-be home of Rep. Keith Rothfus (R).

PA's 12th congressional district is the pale yellow part of this map.  (Here's another hint for finding it:  It's marked with a 12).

Ultimate conclusion: A bird with a long, narrow neck sticking out of a nest with an unusually flat/sharp top

"But PA's 12th just looks so strange because it was just gerrymandered now," you might think.  You are wrong.  It is arguable that PA's 12th is less aesthetically offensive than it had been.

File:Pa12 109.gif

The district, with its new design, has moved slightly to the north and is, in fact, more compact.  When I tried to come up with a clever idea for what the old PA-12 resembled, I originally gave up.  But then I came to the conclusion that, if you tilt your head a bit to the left, PA-12 resembles a woman playing a grand piano standing up near the edge of a stage.  It's a stretch, but I think it will work.

Let's continue our journey through the beautiful PA's 7th, now home to Republican Rep. Pat Meehan. When I first saw PA-7, I could tell that it was awkwardly designed.  And then I noticed the piece of PA-7 in Montgomery County that falls between Allyson Schwartz's and Mike Fitzpatrick's district that makes PA-7 really push the definition of "contiguity."

It took me a little while to figure out what this travesty of a district resembles.

Ultimate conclusion: A woman with a strange hairstyle wearing rubber gloves while trying to clean up the body of a decapitated monkey

Oh, look, the 70+% African American city of Chester is conveniently not in the Republican rep's district and awkwardly linked up to Bob Brady's district in Philadelphia (which, of course, is a mess in its own right.)

Because of the cluster that is PA-7, PA-6, its neighbor to the North (home to Republican Rep. Jim Gerlach) is also a bright and shiny example of the failure of our elementary schools to teach drawing and shapes.

If you turn PA-6 upside down (bear with me here), then it looks like a large-nosed witch clenching one hand in a fist and extending her other arm, cloaked in the sleeve of her loose robe.

Moving up north a bit to PA-17, we find what is either a boat with a mini-stage on which a couple is dancing (the male dancer lifting up his female partner ballet-style) or a sleeping camel with several layers of blankets on its lower back and a feathered headpiece.

You can check out the rest of the geometric glory of the Keystone State here.