Good Sense on Goode

The Times-Dispatch this morning quite properly takes Virgil Goode to task for his bigoted comments about Islam in a staff editorial. Well done!

The only quibble here is with the RTD’s observation that, contrary to Goode’s paranoia, “Christianity’s status as the country’s dominant creed is not under siege.” This is (for the moment) correct, but even if it weren’t there’d be no excuse for Goode’s behavior.

This is an important point because, in the long term, I’m not so sure the RTD is right to suggest the religious “preferences” of the American populace will be predominantly “Christian” in the many generations to come. The long-term trend is towards increased religious diversity as well as growing numbers of skeptics, heretics, and other unorthodox views (as well as old-fashioned atheism), and everyone (most especially the Virgil Goodes of the world) is going to have to get used to that without resorting to immature outbursts of the kind seen this week.

Goode would do well to re-read (or I suspect, have a first read) of Locke’s “Letter Concerning Toleration.” As Locke so eloquently argued, religious belief that is coerced or imposed isn’t religious belief at all.

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Published in: on December 23, 2006 at 2:03 pm  Comments (4)  

Another Letter on Taxes

The Times-Dispatch Friday printed yet another letter on taxes, this one defending Barton Hinkle’s focus on income taxes alone as a measure of the overall progressivity of the tax code.

The argument offereed by Daniel Polk of Richmond as to why we shouldn’t look at the overall picture (including Social Security taxes) is a curious one: “If one applies the logic suggested by Williamson and Hollett, one could equate contributions to a pension plan as taxes.”

Um, no. The difference between Social Security and private pension plans is that Social Security is mandatory, and the benefits accrue not to individuals but to a large swath of the public.

Moreover, Polk’s letter seems to presume that Social Security and related taxes go into a separate account insulated from other federal receipts, and dedicated towards the payment of entitlements. That’s simply not the case.

There is an accounting device called the “Social Security Trust Fund,” but this is a convenient fiction; in practice the government spends social security taxes on immediate expenditures other than entitlements. (The Heritage Foundation has a good explanation of how this works; for a very different view on the supposed Social Security “crisis,” see this interview with economist Doug Orr.)

When total federal budget figures are published each year, all expenditures are compared with all receipts. It’s all of a piece.

Published in: on December 23, 2006 at 1:53 pm  Leave a Comment  

Misunderstanding the Social Contract

The Times-Dispatch this morning printed another letter on tax fairness this morning, this time from the far right. The letter writer, Horace McCowan of Richmond, does not get into the specifics of how much the rich actually pay in taxes. Instead, he attacks the conventional metric of whether a tax structure is progressive.

The conventional definition of a progressive tax structure is one in which individuals get taxed at steeper rates as their incomes increase. McCowan posits that the proper standard for judging a system’s progressivity should be the total amount of money paid by each taxpayer. On this definition, if Dale Earnhardt Jr. earns $5 million in a year and pays $25,000 in taxes, whereas the fellow who pumps his gas earns $25,000 a year and pays $2,500 in taxes, it’s still proper to call the system “progressive.”

Why? Because Earnhardt is paying ten times as much money into the coffers as the gas attendant.

The implication of McCowan’s letter is that the rich are being taxed at a vastly unfair rate even now, because our tax system requires them to pay more money into the system than the poor. Moreover, McCowan writes, if you look at who benefits from government services, it’s the poor, not the rich.  If we extend McCowan’s logic a bit further, we reach the surprising conclusion that the United States already is a socialist society, with its vast system of redistributive taxation.

Needless to say, this an extreme right-wing view, but there is a surface logic to the argument which merits a reply. Where does McCowan go wrong? In failing to consider who actually benefits most from the institution of government.

What does government actually do? Fundamentally, it protects and preserves property, and punishes those who don’t respect property (or life and limb). Why is it that day after day, the super-rich can enjoy their quiet days at the country club, undisturbed by anything other than the group ahead of them that is playing too slow or the latest slice into the woods?

It’s because they can be quite confident that the have-nots are not going to attempt to sieze their land or homes while they’re out on the golf course–and that if such attempt does take place, the legal system will respond and attempt to restore their property.

The police power of government provides for the basic social stabiilty that allows the rich (and all of us) to enjoy our property and material goods in a climate of reasonable security, in the knowledge that if our claims are violated, society will try to punish the offenders and restore our loss to the degree possible. Who benefits the most from this stability and security? Those who have more.

That point was made most poetically by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his Discourse on the Origins of Inequality, but it also fully consistent with the account of government offered by John Locke, the favorite contract theorist of the American framers.

As society has gotten more complex, government has evolved beyond the exercise of police power to include other functions aimed at promoting the common good, from the provision of basic social insurance to management of macroeconomic policy. While some (though by no means all) of those policies benefit the poor in the most immediate sense, the overall impact is to maintain the basic social cohesion and stabiilty of the society. Who benefits the most from the fact that most people obey the law, that the United States is not racked by frequent violent strikes, that riots in the streets are rare, and that we don’t (a la contemporary Iraq) have marauding gangs everywhere taking whatever they want by force?

The rich. (Indeed, to the extent the United States is plagued by crime, it is the poor who are most vulnerable.)

It’s these considerations which underlie the conventional view that the rich are indeed obliged to pay more in taxes (both in absolute terms and as a percentage) than the poor and middle classes. Simply put, they benefit from the institution of government and the preservation of the social order more than the rest of us.

On another note, McCowan also writes that the 5th and 14th Amendments of the Constitution do not “authorize” progressive taxation or redistribution. Presumably he is referring to the due process clauses in each amendment. Again, this is a fundamental misunderstanding. The purpose of those amendments is not to prevent government from passing legitimate laws which regulate property, but to protect individuals against arbitrary incursions on private property undertaken by the government with no concern for the common good.

McCowan may believe those amendments provide grounds for rejecting the constitutionality of progressive taxation, but he’s going to have to overturn a long history of judicial interpretation on that one. Good luck. There’s also the small matter of the 16th Amendment to the Constitution, which specifically authorizes the federal government to “lay and collect taxes on income.”

Published in: on December 19, 2006 at 3:06 pm  Leave a Comment  

Getting It (At Least Somewhat) Right on Robertson and Latin America: The RTD Has a Decent Day at the Office

Monday’s Times-Dispatch includes two noteworthy editorials which deserve some positive note. The first is its endorsement of councilwoman Ellen Robertson’s efforts to regulate and ensure accountability for mayoral commissions. Robertson’s proposal to ensure basic oversight and accountability for such commissions is a worthy effort to promote transparency in government, and might even help spare the Wilder regime from the embarrassment of a future scandal.

Also noteworthy is the editorial titled “Latin America.” Noting the marked trend toward the left in recent elections in the regions, the RTD expresses regret at the failure of “classical liberalism” to take root in the region.  But it does acknowledge that the recent trends has taken place through democratic elections, and that the recent success of the left has much to do with the failure of neoliberalism to deliver the goods in ending poverty and raising living standards.

The RTD claims that that failure has more to do with local corruption than the bankruptcy of neoliberal economic policies. I disagree, but we can save that discussion for another day. For now, credit the paper for showing the ability to talk about a broad political trend it doesn’t like without descending into hysterics.

Published in: on December 18, 2006 at 3:40 pm  Leave a Comment  

Changing of the Guard at the Times-Dispatch Editorial Pages; What Todd Culbertson Should Do

The Richmond Times-Dispatch today announced that deputy editorial page editor Todd Culbertson will take over the reins from retiring head editor Ross Mackenzie, who retires January 17. Columnist Barton Hinkle also gets a bump up to the deputy position.

At first glance, this succession appears to be an endorsement by the RTD publishers of the status quo. In the news article discussing the transition today, Culbertson praised MacKenzie and in effect promised “more of the same.”

That could turn out to be the case, which would be most unfortunate for the newspaper’s readers and the city of Richmond itself.

But until proven otherwise, I’d like to hold out the possibility that the tone of the RTD pages might change. Sometimes reformers come in unlikely clothing. Few predicted the demise of apartheid when F.W. De Klerk took power in South Africa, just as few predicted the fall of Soviet Communism when Mikhail Gorbachev gained control in the USSR.

This not to say that a dramatic overhaul of the RTD’s editorial philosophy is a realistic possibility. The newspaper is still going to maintain a right-of-center orientation; that much is clear.

But there are few things Culbertson and Hinkle could do over the next year or so that would dramatically improve the content of the editorial pages. Here are my top five “doable” reforms for the RTD:

1. Stop writing and printing intellectually lazy editorials and op-eds that are poorly researched and feature significant inaccuracies. (Case in point: this fall’s unsigned editorial about food stamps, which falsely implied that California is trying to get illegal aliens signed up for food stamps.)

2. Stop making illogical, off-the-point comments or attacks that add nothing of substance to the debate. (Case in point: the recent Election Day editorial which cited the 1989 Central Park jogger attack as an argument against New York City’s proposed ban on trans fats in restaurant food.)

3. Print more guest columnists who represent the true face of Richmond.  Poverty and all that goes with it is a grinding reality in the city of Richmond, yet how often do we hear the voices of the poor, especially of poor African-Americans in the RTD’s editorial pages? How often do we hear from leaders of groups who work with and on behalf of the poor? Not very often. Far more frequently, we’re treated to explanations from syndicated conservative columnists of why poverty isn’t such a big deal or is the poor’s own fault.

4. Draw more on the intellectual capital in the city. Between VCU, UR, VUU and neighboring academic institutions, there’s a wealth of substantive knowledge in this city about practical problems facing the city, state, nation, and world. Very little of this finds its way into the Times-Dispatch, and I don’t think it’s unfair to suggest that many local academics feel utterly alienated from the newspaper. Culbertson and Hinkle could change that by actively reaching out to local experts.

5. Hire a regular columnist representing a liberal point of view. Finally, the RTD, which it claims it prints a variety of perspectives, should follow up its words with concrete action. Take the plunge, and hire a regular columnist who dissents from the paper’s own editorial philosophy. Print that person twice a week, and give him or her complete editorial freedom. Nothing could do more to enhance the intellectual credibility of the newspaper than taking that step.

Moreover, there’s a natural candidate for the job already on the newspaper’s staff: Metro columnist Michael Paul Williams, a lifelong Richmond-area resident who is deeply knowledgeable about this region and also more than capable of commenting on national and international affairs.

That’s my agenda for change at the RTD; I sincerely hope that in time, at least some of it becomes Culbertson and Hinkle’s agenda as well.

Meanwhile, here at Richmond Talks Back, we’ll keep on doing what we always do: responding to whatever the paper chooses to print, trying to hold the paper accountable when it makes bad arguments or presents misleading information, and giving credit when credit is due. 

Published in: on December 15, 2006 at 4:30 pm  Comments (1)  

If You Ain’t Got a Friend, You’ve Still Got the Radio

Just a quick note to let readers know that this blog will be the subject of a radio interview Tuesday at 12:30, on WRIR. I’ll be on the Richmond Indymedia News show, hosted by Rebecca Farris. Tune it at 97.3 FM, or listen to the site’s live web stream.

Published in: on December 11, 2006 at 8:05 pm  Comments (1)  

Letters to the Editor on Tax Fairness

The Times-Dispatch today printed two letters responding to Barton Hinkle’s recent column on economic populism, focussed on how much of the overall tax burden the rich actually carry.

The first is an extract from this site’s post on Taxation and Fairness, stressing the fact that social insurance taxes are regressive, which offsets the progressivity in the income tax. The second letter, making almost the identical point, is written by Lee Hollett of Ashland, who used tax software to compare the estimated tax burden of a minimum wage worker and a corporate executive.

Published in: on December 9, 2006 at 9:19 pm  Comments (1)  

Why Inequality Matters

Finally, the third part of our response to Barton Hinkle’s critique of economic populism.

Hinkle in effect poses this question: why care about inequality at all, as opposed to simply caring about poverty?

After all, he reasons, if real living standards are improving for everyone, why worry that some are getting much more than others?

That question invites five kinds of responses.

The first is simply to observe that for the bottom quintile, life has not gotten a whole lot better as measured by income standards in the last quarter century. In 1979 the bottom quintile had an average post-tax income of $13,500 (in 2003 dollars). In 2003, they had $14,100. Over that same time period, the proportion of families in poverty has actually risen, from 9.7% in 1975 to 10.2% today. All this has taken place over the same time period that the real (post-tax) average income of the top 1% of the income pile has more than doubled, from $305,000 to over $700,000.

Nor, as Hinkle suggests, does the advance of technology make up for the stagnant prospects of the poor. Yes, some of the poor have access to cable TV and computers and cell phones and Playstations—more sophisticated forms of entertainment. But do they really derive dramatically greater utility, satisfaction, and happiness from those items than they did 30 years ago from black-and-white network TV and old-fashioned pinball machines? That’s questionable. What’s not questionable is that an American child or family that does not have access to most of those items is going to feel left out, socially excluded.

That observation points us to our second response: there is good reason why the “goalposts” (Hinkle’s term) of living standards should change over time as a society develops. The necessaries of life are to a substantial degree socially determined. In some societies historically, it was not a big deal not to have a pair of shoes. But in contemporary societies, to go shoeless would be unthinkable, and a sure sign of utter exclusion from mainstream society.

 In short, what people need is not simply calories and shelter and medicine, but also the goods which make it possible to be a fully functioning, fully-respected, and indeed self-respecting member of society. The content of those goods changes over time, and as societies get richer, people need access to more and/or better goods in order to perceive themselves and be perceived by others as full members of the society.

Third, consider again the issue of class mobility across generations. Many conservatives, cogently, insist we should be concerned with not just inequality but with social mobility. But few recognize or acknowledge that there is an internal connection between increases in inequality and rates of mobility. Simply put, the wider the gap there is between classes, and in particular between the very top and everyone else, the more difficult it will be for those in the bottom to climb all the way to the top (and the harder it will be for those at the top to slide very far down the ladder).

Fourth, apologists for growing inequality often write as if workers are simply getting their just desserts in the marketplace. But there is strong evidence that since the mid-1970s, the American worker has simply not been getting a fair share of the economic growth his or her efforts have helped produce. Average productivity per hour jumped 76% between 1973 and 2004; but the median compensation only increased by 18.5% over that same time period. If compensation had increased at the same rate as increases in productivity over that entire time period, the median compensation in 2004 would have been $25.76 per hour, not the $17.36 it actually was.

That huge gap can be explained by two primary factors. First, average compensation only went up 46.4% for workers as a whole over that time period, compared to productivity growth of 76%. In short, workers’ compensation as a whole grew just over 60% as fast as the increase in their own productivity. Second, the best-off workers captured the lion’s share of the increase in compensation which did take place. When the top end gets huge gains and the majority not very much, you end up with what the data show–a big difference between the average increase and the median increase in compensation.

Finally, and perhaps most fundamentally, large-scale inequalities call into serious question the meaning and relevance of two fundamental American ideals: equal opportunity and democracy. Hinkle (and others) seem all too willing to accept as “normal” the fact that some persons within this society have dramatically less promising life prospects than others. But would conservatives who say inequality is no big deal be willing to take their chances and trade places with someone in the bottom quintile of the income bracket? Would they be willing to send their kids to a randomly selected public school within the city of Richmond?

The idea that anyone can make anything that want to of themselves is fundamental to Americans’ conception of this country and what it stands for. The fact that, increasingly, it just ain’t so points to a troubling and growing contradiction between what American claims (or aspires) to be and what it actually is.

The other threatened value is democracy. Democracy is not simply about the right to cast a ballot; it’s about the right and ability to exercise meaningful self-governance over the conditions that shape one’s life. In short, the ability to have a genuine say about decisions and policies which affect them, and the ability to have one’s ideas and viewpoints be taken seriously by others.

 Democracy in this sense requires a fairly substantial degree of equality, if it is to be real. Incomes and wealth do not need to be literally equal, but opportunities, skills, and resources to participate in politics need to be broadly distributed over the population. Moreover, no group should be so wealthy or so powerful that they can exercise disproportionate influence over the political process and claim unequal access to and influence over decisionmakers.

That’s a test that American democracy simply can’t meet right now, and growing inequality is both cause and symptom of that failure.

So what would a more fair distribution of income look like? That’s a difficult question to answer with a high degree of specificity, but we can begin to gauge the gap between where we are and where we might and should be by considering this hypothetical scenario: what if, between 1979 and 2003, the bottom three quintiles of the income distribution experienced an increase in income equivalent to the average growth of the income of society as a whole over that time period?

Well, people in those groups would be dramatically better off. After taxes, the average family in the poorest quintile would now earn in $17,900, not $14,100—equivalent to an annual raise of over 25%. Families in second poorest quintile would have post-tax income of $36,200, not $30,800. And families in the middle quintile would earn $51,600, not $44,800. (All figures in 2003 dollars.)

That would have been an economy in which economic growth led to broadly shared prosperity. It also would have been an economy that lifted millions of people out of poverty and made life better and easier for the bulk of workers and middle class folk who form the backbone of American society.

But that’s not the economy we have, and it’s not the economy we are going to have in the absence of some substantial shifts in public policy aimed at bolstering workers’ bargaining power and distributing the benefits of economic growth much more equitably.

That’s where economic populism comes in.

We can’t go back and undo the enormous increase in inequality of the 25 years. But we can take steps to assure that the next quarter century (and beyond) produces something quite a bit better for ordinary people.

 All data derived from charts compiled by the Economic Policy Institute

Defending Economic Populism, Part One and Part Two

Published in: on December 7, 2006 at 4:44 am  Comments (1)  

The Rumsfeld Memo

It’ll be interesting to see how the hard-core apologists for the Iraq war at the RTD and elsewhere try to process/rationalize outgoing Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s memorandum, published today by The New York Times, on future policy options in Iraq. The memo is the clearest evidence yet that the people who have been in charge of this war have absolutely no idea what they are doing.

As Boston University’s Andrew Bacevich points out in a Washington Post article about the memo, the brief is simply a “laundry list” of future possible actions, with no serious analysis of the pros and cons of each or how the various strategies might work together. As Bacevich puts it, “The memo is a tacit admission of desperation and of impending failure.”

Bacevich, a retired Army colonel and author of the superb The New American Militarism, will be in the Richmond area at the end of January to give a talk on democracy and the military at UR.

For what it’s worth, perhaps the most intriguing suggestion in Rumsfeld’s memo is that of a massive program to combat unemployment among Iraqi youth, overseen by the U.S. military. Don’t expect President Bush to rush to embrace that suggestion, however much pragmatic sense it might make. The idea of a massive government program to actually provide jobs in a direct way flies in the face of free market ideology, and if the initiative worked people might begin to ask questions about why we can’t do the same thing at home.

Published in: on December 3, 2006 at 7:47 pm  Comments (1)  

A Dramatic Look at Webb v. Bush

RTD columnist Ray McAllister succeeded in uncovering a fresh perspective on the Bush-Webb brouhaha by talking to local rhetoric expert Paul Achter of the University of Richmond. It’s an interesting read that suggests why those who’ve used the week’s events to paint Webb as a hothead may be missing what he’s really up to.

Published in: on December 2, 2006 at 7:26 pm  Leave a Comment