Why we should care about income inequality

I don’t want to get into the argument of the 1% versus the 99% because I think the issue, unaddressed, will hurt 100% of us. The issue is income inequality in the United States, and the good news is I’m not asking anyone to trust my economic arguments. I’m a dope, after all—a journalism major from a state university in the South who never focused on economic theory much beyond the law of supply and demand. But I know what makes sense, and Timothy Noah’s series in Slate does.

The 10-part series on income inequality published in September 2010 has helped me understand the issues, and understand why they matter. It’s not a question of the vast majority of Americans being jealous of the terrific success of others, or of them trying to take away anything the rich have earned. In a current discussion of this subject on Slate, Noah says “Let me start by conceding a point that conservatives often make: Yes, a certain amount of income inequality is necessary in a capitalist system. You have to let the market reward effort and skill. But a system in which inequality of incomes constantly increases over time is worrisome.”

That’s what’s happening in America today: the inequality of incomes is constantly increasing (the series drills down deep into the numbers to prove that it’s more dramatic now than ever), and Noah argues that “creates alienation.”

Income earners at the median have not shared in America’s prosperity. They’ve actually seen their incomes go down (after inflation) during the past decade, and over the past three decades their increases seem pitiful compared both with people earning top incomes (and here I mean not just the top 1 percent but the top 10 and even 20 percent) and with people at the median during the postwar era. For a long time economists said: Wait until productivity rebounds. Then working families will get their share. But when productivity rebounded like crazy in the aughts, working families saw no reward.

What this means is that if you’re at the median you have no positive reason to care how the economy does. Your only motivation is fear—if the economy does really badly you may lose your job. But there’s no upside.

I think this situation has a lot to do with why there’s so much suspicion of institutions that knit the country together—Congress, the media, etc. Logically the suspicion should be directed at the rich, but nobody knows what Lloyd Blankfein looks like. Everybody knows what Barack Obama and John Boehner look like. So people rage against Washington, and government, and you get both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. These groups are quite different in their political orientation, but both groups express contempt for democratic processes.

Read the series: Noah digs through the numbers that show the historical trends of income inequality, and explores the theories for what’s responsible for today’s situation–and he doesn’t just end up blaming Congress or presidents, or Republicans or Democrats, or Wall Street or the educational system, or trade policy or labor unions or immigrants.

Income distribution in the United States is more unequal than in Guyana, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, and roughly on par with Uruguay, Argentina, and Ecuador. Income inequality is actually declining in Latin America even as it continues to increase in the United States. Economically speaking, the richest nation on earth is starting to resemble a banana republic.

Noah’s current book “The Great Divergence” grew out of the research done for the 2010 Slate series, which you can read here for free.

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A little good news: scientists stand up to politicians

And by politicians, I mean the knuckleheaded, blindered-by-the-right-wing nitwits who refuse to believe anything that doesn’t support their political beliefs…or, the beliefs they profess to believe, in order to maintain their political support (there, I believe that’s clear now).  You know, the ones who don’t get Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s epigram that people are entitled to their own opinions but not to their own facts, and who don’t get the irony that they don’t get it.

Today I ran across this NPR story about scientists in Tennessee fighting a state law that was promoted as an open-minded effort to allow “teachers to question accepted theories on evolution and climate change,” but which the scientists argued was just another attempt to get creationism taught as a theory on a scientific par with evolution.  The story refers to similar efforts in other states where scientists are fighting other efforts to distort science fact into political fiction.

Allow it?  Questioning theories and explaining how hypotheses are proved and become accepted scientific fact is the basis of science.  Teachers don’t need state lawmakers’ permission to break down and explain the parts of any scientific theory, or they shouldn’t.  Not knowing that, while trying to sneak a little religion into the secular science, the grandstanding pols peel back another layer of their own ignorance…or is it another layer of toadiness?

Slamming your eyes shut and screaming “no no no no no no no I can’t hear you” in the face of inconvenient facts is not the reassuring response I want out of my elected representatives.  I agree with Rice University professor Ken Whitney, who thinks that a candidate’s refusal to acknowledge scientific fact as fact ought to be a deal-killer when we go to the ballot box:

I would have an extremely hard time voting for someone who actively argued that evolution should not be taught, or alternately that intelligent design is a valid concept that we should be teaching our kids in public school science classes.

Note, he said we shouldn’t be teaching it in science classes, and that’s because it’s not scientifically valid.  We have to be open-minded enough not to confuse science with religion if we want to get the most value out of each of them.

In the spring a young man’s fancy also turns to baseball and cars; politics is getting in the way

Yep, another great day: sunny skies and highs in the low 80s in southeast Texas, got a ticket for my first game of the new baseball season tonight, made some good progress with a new swing thought out on the driving range yesterday, and I’m about a week away from trading in a serviceable but boxy and uninspiring VW for a very low mileage Honda two-seater—just the kind I’ve always loved and used to drive—while lowering my costs in the process!  With Rick Santorum’s exit from the GOP presidential primary, I’m hoping we can all enjoy a period of relative campaign quiet, too, but here’s something to roll around in your head before Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, and the permanent political class, use up all the oxygen.

It has looked like, from the vantage point of today, that come November we voters would face a choice between the radicalism that defines today’s Republican Party or another four years of divided government and damn little constructive effort on crucial economic issues.  Even the most moderate-seeming Republican candidate, Romney, was disavowing anything in own past that smelled of reasonableness and compromise, to appeal to the extremists who make up most of the GOP primary voters.  But the need for that should be over now, absent a mind-boggling resurgence from Newt Gingrich or Ron Paul or a last gasp charge to the convention from Sarah Palin or someone of that ilk to rally the “true conservatives.”

But even as Romney starts to redefine himself to appeal to the less ideological among us, Republicans will have a quite a slog in front of them if they wish to broaden their appeal beyond those who’ve already drunk the Kool-Aid.  Former White House speechwriter and senior policy adviser Michael Gerson says it’s not just a matter of trying to counter the Democrats’ “war on women” meme: “The GOP’s main problem is not the contraceptive issue; it is the perception that it has become too ideological on many issues.”

Women and independent voters have seen a party enthusiastically confirming its most damaging stereotypes. The composite Republican candidate—reflecting the party’s ideological mean—has been harsh on immigration, confrontational on social issues, simplistic in condemning government and silent on the struggles of the poor. How many women would find this profile appealing on eHarmony?

This is the hidden curse of the Republican congressional triumph of 2010. Republican activists came to believe that purity is all that is necessary for victory. But a presidential candidate, it turns out, requires a broader ideological attraction than your average tea party House freshman.

From an academic standpoint it will be interesting to see if and how Romney and the more traditional Republican elements work to sand the scary edges off of their primary campaign messages, to widen their appeal and entice the plurality of American voters who don’t ritualistically identify with the Republican or Democratic parties; those are the people who will decide this election.  (The Obama campaign isn’t going to make it easy, already working to reinforce Romney’s “severe” conservatism and other primary campaign highlights.)  Gerson argues that “Mainly, women and independents want some reassurance that Republicans give a damn about someone other than Republican primary voters. It is not a high bar. But Romney needs to start somewhere…”.  I’ll check back in after Memorial Day to see how he’s doing.

Racism and gun culture? Gotta be time for Bob in the Heights

The reasons why vary from topic to topic, but I don’t always have something worthwhile to say on every hot story du jour while it’s driving the cable news echo chamber nutty; the shooting of Trayvon Martin is one example.  But my friend Bob Eddy has something worthwhile to say about that, and related issues to which it gives rise, and I asked him to say it here; the comments button is right up there:

Watching, and listening, to the continuing story of the Trayvon Martin shooting—which after a good run in the media is already being pushed aside by our latest multiple shooting, in Oakland—I think beyond the hoodies and other nonsensical side stories basically lie two societal issues that continue to plague America today: racism and our gun culture. And I might add, a tip of the hat to today’s rabid media, which remain so ready to leap before looking. As soon as this story became hot (oddly, almost a month after the event) sides were taken. When did it all slide from investigative reporting of known facts toward conjecture and opinion? I’m guessing somewhere around the start of the 24/7 TV news cycle, which also gave birth to the polished and primped Ken and Barbie bobble heads passing for journalists today. Somewhere, Water Cronkite is crying in his grave.

No, I’m not accusing George Zimmerman of being a racist, but much like the Rodney King beating at the hands of the L.A. police and the O.J. Simpson trial, America’s visceral divide has suddenly become exposed and naked to the sun like the sensitive underbelly of a turtle tipped onto its back. Why is it that our country is so reluctant to talk about race—is it painful? Still too touchy a subject even 50 years past the civil rights movement of the 60s? That’s half a century, folks. Healing starts with self-awareness, not denial. The truth sets you free and allows you to move on. These thoughts were recently provoked by an excellent opinion piecein the Houston Chronicle.

Yes, the days of the Jim Crow laws are long gone, and we have a black president (even some black pro football coaches!), but this doesn’t negate the statistical facts (rate of unemployment and incarceration, to name two) that prove racism’s more subtle vestiges remain, revealing a less than level playing field in America today. Using the tragic shooting of Trayvon Martin as an easy example, I challenge anyone to look at me with a straight face and convince me that had the “colors” been reversed, the outcome would have been the same. Yes, I’m talking about a Twilight Zone world where an armed black man trolling the streets of a gated community follows a “suspicious looking” young white man—11 years younger and 20 pounds lighter than he, I might add—ignores the pleas of the 911 dispatcher to stay in his vehicle, and instead challenges, and then shoots the other man dead in a scuffle, declares self-defense, and after a brief trip to the station is set free with no charges filed.  “Well Mr. Washington, everything seems to be in order, just a couple of things to sign here…poor son of a bitch…now you be more careful next time, hear?”

Back on planet Earth, any black man cruising an affluent neighborhood in America today is much more likely (again, check the statistics for racial profiling) to experience only one thing: being pulled over and questioned, and if he’s lucky, that’s all. Ask Robbie Tolan, a [Houston area] 23 year old black male (and son of an ex-professional baseball player) who on New Years Eve 2008 was shot at three times (fortunately only wounded) by the local police after pulling into his parents’ driveway—in front of his hysterical and pleading mom! As a matter of fact, it was the cop’s manhandling of his mother that provoked Tolan, who was already lying on the ground as instructed, to protest. You see, unfortunately mom and dad lived in Bellaire, a predominately white and affluent city tucked inside of Houston, and, well, it was 2:00 in the morning, and there was the (inaccurate) report of a stolen vehicle…

To me, the bottom line is George Zimmerman in all probability wasn’t necessarily a bad guy; evidently, to many, he was even likable and would fall outside the definition, if there is such a quantifiable thing, of a racist. But on that day, against the advice of a 911 dispatcher and contrary to his training as a neighborhood watch person, he provoked a common misunderstanding, it quickly went south, and he chose to defuse the situation with a gun—sentencing Trayvon’s parents to an empty life of grief and unfulfilled dreams. For this he should be held accountable.

For those of you interested in a, granted, lengthy, but reasonable and balanced account of events leading up to this tragic shooting, I encourage reading this story in Sunday’s Times.

Which leads to our second national topic, and an important question I think America needs to ask itself today: are we, as a society, ready to accept armed neighborhood watchdogs? If yes, well, all I’ve got to say is get ready for a lot more of this. Does anyone really feel any safer? Certainly not Trayvon Martin. He’s dead. Welcome to the utopian world of the NRA, where roughly 30,000 Americans a year lose their lives to bullets, and every American—thanks to our permissive own and carry gun laws and under the protection of the “stand your ground” ruling (currently upheld in 27 states)—can legally find themselves judge, jury, and executioner in a split, life-changing second. Ask Joe Horn, of Pasadena, Texas, who in 2007 also chose to ignore the repeated advice of the 911 dispatcher he called, and while still on the line, shotgunned in the back two unarmed Hispanic burglars as they fled his neighbor’s house—and got acquitted of any charges. What a civic hero!

The fact that the latest gun rampage in Oakland is already relegated to “ho-hum,” on page five in my local paper, speaks volumes about our unique American culture. Oh, I know, I can hear the outcry now, as it did after the Virginia Tech massacre: “If only one of those students had a gun!!” Yes, any logical person can see that the answer to easy gun access is, well, more guns. Recently, 22-year-old Trey Sesler of Waller County, Texas had more guns—six, to be exact—and he used them to kill his parents and brother. Ho hum…

Who do we have to blame for this? No one but ourselves and the gutless politicians of both parties who bow down before arguably the most powerful lobbying organization in Washington today. After all, even after the nearly-successful assassination attempt on one of their own, Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona, America watched as Congress, and this Administration, stood united in their silence. I mean, come on, when is the last time the NRA got slapped down on anything? Almost comically, these patriotic defenders of our Second Amendment recently became so imaginative in their quest to stay on a roll that they dreamed up muscling state legislation through in Missouri, Alabama, and Tennessee to protect gun owners from the scourge of discrimination. Say what!? Oh, the oppression and shame!

I guess my biggest puzzlement is I just don’t get the frothing, rampant paranoia of suppression—have you seen this recent “interview” of the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre? Short of mail-ordering a howitzer from the back of a comic book, exactly what can’t your average gun enthusiast today do—hunt with a Gatling gun? Has Obama even mentioned the words “gun control” once since becoming president? Yet gun sales continue to skyrocket, because we all know “He’s going to take away our guns!!” Like the screwball prophets predicting the end of time, it’s coming any day now! Ironically, Barack Obama is the best thing that ever happened to gun shop owners.

Well, enough said…this horse got out of the barn a long time ago, and I can’t imagine what it would take to get it back in. But remember, citizens: stay vigilant! Guns don’t kill people—hoodies do.

Bob in the Heights

[One update: this week the police officers in the Robbie Tolan case, previously acquitted on the criminal charges, were dropped as defendants from Tolan’s civil suit by the federal judge hearing the case. PR]