Monday, October 31, 2011

My personal link to the residues of Soviet consumer culture

I happened to be reading a TLS review of a recent book titled Made in Russia: Unsung Icons of Soviet Design, an edited collection that the reviewer describes as combining "tongue-in-cheek nostalgia for Soviet kitsch with important insights into how the Soviet economy worked."

My heading for this post is also tongue-in-cheek to some degree, but not entirely. Unlikely as it might sound now, the Soviet Union really did make an effort to compete with the capitalist world on the terrain of stimulating and then satisfying consumer desires. (For one illuminating account of this Soviet version of modern consumer culture, see Anna Paretskaya's 2010 article on "The Soviet Communist Party and the Other Spirit of Capitalism".)

Of course, that effort was not a spectacular success. It's not hard to think of some iconic triumphs of Soviet design, but the ones that come most readily to mind, at least to my mind, tend to be military—like the T-34 tank, possibly the all-around best tank of World War II, or the Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifle that continues to flood weapons markets around the world. The general run of Soviet consumer goods were notoriously drab and shoddy, or kitschy at best. And according to the reviewer, and presumably the book itself, the better Soviet-era products intended for purchase and everyday use by civilians often tended to be rip-offs of western designs.

But then I came across this passage:
One of the few items still on the market today is the bevelled twelve-sided glass, sturdy and pleasingly tactile. It is even sold in the West, in IKEA stores – the only item you are likely to see with a "Made in Russia" label. The glass was designed in 1943 by Vera Mukhina, the artist better known for her iconic statue of the male worker and the female peasant holding aloft the hammer and sickle.
Well, it so happens that my wife and I have a set of 6 of these glasses, with both "IKEA" and "Made in Russia" announced boldly on the bottom of each. (Purchased at a thrift store, not from IKEA directly. I do a lot of my shopping at thrift stores, and in the Main Line area west of Philadelphia, where we live, the thrift stores carry a lot of high-quality second-hand stuff.) I had no idea of their historic significance, but I can report that they are indeed well-designed: handsome, sturdy, pleasantly comfortable to handle, and reassuringly solid. None of them has ever broken or cracked. So the achievements of Soviet material culture continue to live on in our household. Who would have guessed?

—Jeff Weintraub
POKAL Glass, clear glass Height: 6 " Volume: 12 oz  Height: 14 cm Volume: 35 cl

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Who pays taxes? (continued)

A follow-up to my earlier post on Who pays taxes? — Right-wing propaganda vs. reality.

While Republicans almost monolithically refuse to consider raising taxes on rich people, on the grounds that this would be unfair and punitive as well as economically disastrous, a number of them have begun to propose raising taxes on the non-rich instead. (If you think I'm making that up, or exaggerating, read this informative piece by David Weigel in Slate ... and have a look at the second video clip in this post, too.)

This gambit involves the migration of a long-standing right-wing talking point from venues like the Wall Street Journal editorial page and the right-wing blogosphere, where it remained relatively esoteric except for ideologues and policy wonks, to the unabashed sloganeering of Republican politicians, including Republican presidential candidates. Here is the way Michelle Bachmann formulated this talking point in August:
"Part of the problem is today, only 53 percent pay any federal income tax at all; 47 percent pay nothing," said Bachmann. "We need to broaden the base so that everybody pays something, even if it's a dollar. Everyone should pay something, because we all benefit."
Note the characteristic slide from claiming that 47% don't "pay any federal income tax" to claiming that those deadbeats "pay nothing"—which, of course, ignores other federal taxes, excise taxes, sales taxes, property taxes, and other state and local taxes.

This has long been a rhetorical trick used by pro-plutocratic propagandists: first claim that a certain proportion of non-rich Americans pay no net federal income tax (playing on the fact that "federal income tax" is a technical term which excludes the federal "payroll taxes" that all employed Americans pay on their income), and then pretend or insinuate that this means lots of non-rich Americans pay no taxes at all. If you ever feel tempted to fall for that line, go back here.

Is it really true that the wealthy (or, as they call them on Fox News, the "job creators") already pay a grossly disproportionate share of taxes? Is it really true that a large proportion of the non-rich "pay nothing"? I apologize for repeating myself, but the answers to both questions are no.

In a recent post, Jonathan Chait summed things up concisely:
Here’s the total picture. The highest-earning 1 percent take home 20 percent of the national income and pay 21 percent of the total taxes. Unfair to the rich? Exploitative? I suppose you could make the case. But I haven’t seen any conservative actually make it, as opposed to try to mislead their audience about the underlying facts.
OK, if you want to be picky, the highly informative chart to which we both referred gives those figures as 20.3% and 21.5%, respectively. But you get the idea. And the piece from which that chart is taken emphasizes, correctly, that "All Americans pay taxes."

But right-wing polemicists use a wide range of rhetorical tricks, evasions, and outright falsehoods to deny, distort, or obscure that inconvenient reality. I don't have the time or energy to keep up with all of them, but in two of his recent posts Jon Chait did a good job of surveying and debunking some frequent examples. Like everything Chait writes, they're worth reading. See here and here.

Yours for reality-based discourse,
Jeff Weintraub

P.S. Taxes aside, some right-wing propagandists actually try to argue that increasing economic inequality in the US is just a "myth"—which entails a truly heroic effort to deny the undeniable. Again, if you don't believe me, you can find a systematic examination and debunking of one representative example here.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

The news from Richistan, 2004 (Robert Frank)

Via Brad DeLong:
"By 2004, the richest 1 percent of Americans were earning about $1.35 trillion a year—greater than the total national incomes of France, Italy or Canada."

—Robert Frank, Richistan: A Journey Through the American Wealth Boom [2007]
Of course, as a commenter on Brad's blog pointed out, the term "earning" shouldn't necessarily be taken at face value here. It's just the conventional way of saying that they were "getting" about $1.35 trillion a year. We could also say that most of them were actively "making" money one way or another, since Frank emphasizes that few of the current rich are living on inherited wealth or simply clipping coupons. But the extent to which they had all "earned" such a huge slice of the national income is a more tricky issue. (Bernie Madoff was out hustling, too.)

But anyway, that was in 2004. Since then, as we know, the total income of the top 1% has gone up considerably, both in absolute terms and as a proportion of the overall national income. Not so for the bottom 80%. For some details, see here.

And over the past three decades the social distance between the lives of rich and everyone else has been increasing significantly. (When the merely rich want to assess their situation, they compare themselves, not to the non-rich, but to the very rich, while the very rich compare themselves to the super-rich. Most people worth $5 million, a tiny proportion of the US population, don't think they're rich. This helps explain how the rich, on the whole, can sincerely consider themselves hard-pressed, hard-working "middle-class" families who couldn't possibly afford the burdens of Clinton-era taxes.) To an increasing extent, as Frank shows, the rich live in a different country from everyone else, Richistan. And at the same time, they have an increasingly disproportionate influence in shaping politics and public policy in the country they share with other Americans, the United States.

Those of you who haven't read Richistan should consider doing so. It's witty and engaging as well as informative and illuminating. If you read it, it will probably tell you some significant things you didn't already know about the economic sociology of America over the past 3 decades.

=> By the way, Frank has suggested elsewhere that, despite everything, distinctions of class in America (as opposed to income inequalities per se) are still more "blurred" than they were in some previous eras—largely because so much of current mega-wealth is new money.
Yes, it’s true that today’s rich have become financially removed from the rest of American society. Yet culturally, today’s rich resemble the middle class more than they do the old elite. The vast majority of today’s rich didn’t inherit their money, but made it themselves. So they retain their working-world values, even if they look more like plutocrats in their spending and daily lives. [....] As far as I can tell, the separations today that have created Richistan are far more about money than they are about class.
Well, yes and no. If one examines that disclaimer carefully, it actually says less than it might appear to—and is probably drawing on an overly narrow and misleading sense of the word "class".

And even this equivocal reinterpretation by Frank of the sociological implications of his reporting is hard to square with what Frank himself said in the passage from the Introduction to Richistan from which Brad DeLong was quoting. As Frank did his ethnographic reporting on the New Rich, he says, the following realization began to dawn on him:
Today's rich had formed their own virtual country. They were, in fact, wealthier than most nations. By 2004, the richest 1 percent of Americans were earning about $1.35 trillion a year—greater than the total national incomes of France, Italy or Canada.

And with their huge numbers, they had build a self-contained world unto themselves, complete with their own health-care system (concierge doctors), travel network (Net Jets, destination clubs), separate economy (double-digit income gains and double-digit inflation), and language ("Who's your household manager?"). [....] The rich weren't just getting richer; they were becoming financial foreigners, creating their own country within a country, their own society within a society, and their economy within an economy.

They were creating Richistan.
QED. For some further explanation of what this erosion of common experience actually means in terms of class divisions, one might consult T.H. Marshall's still-classic essay on "Citizenship and Social Class" (1949).

—Jeff Weintraub

Friday, October 28, 2011

Tough times for college graduates (Michael Mandel)

Actually, for some time now the economic situation for almost everyone outside the top 20% has, generally speaking, been stagnant or increasingly insecure (often both), and for significant sectors it has been declining, while the top 1% have been making out like bandits. There have been winners as well as losers, of course, but the losers outnumber the winners.

Some data provided by Michael Mandel (at Mandel on Innovation and Growth) bring out one more aspect of this overall picture. On average, college graduates do considerably better in terms of lifetime earnings than people without college degrees (leaving aside some famous exceptions like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs). But if we look at college graduates alone, their economic prospects have also been declining. And this trend goes back before the current recession.

That's true for both young men and young women with college degrees. But the gender differences remain striking. As Mandel sums it up:
I started writing about tough times for young college grads in 2006, when I was at Business Week. Seems like a different day and age, doesn’t it? Since then things have only gotten much much worse. By my latest calculations:
  • Real earnings for young male college grads are down 19% since their peak in 2000.
  • Real earnings for young female college grads are down 16% since their peak in 2003.
[JW: And the peak for recent female graduates was significantly lower than the peak for males.] These figures are for full-time workers, ages 25-34, with a bachelor’s degree only. See the charts below.

I want to ask an economic question, a political question, and a policy question. First, no one has given me a good explanation yet of why young American college grads should have been hit so hard. Is there increased competition with young college grads around the world? Are new college grads lower quality than their predecessors? Has information technology reduced the need for young grads? I really would like to know. [....]
Me, too. The rest is here. You can click on the graphs below to expand them.

Tyler Cowen notes that this pattern of declining economic prospects for college graduates coincides with increasingly high costs for going to college. If both of those trends continue, that probably means trouble ahead.

--Jeff Weintraub

Thursday, October 27, 2011

"Life Without Stimulus" — A US/UK comparison (Martin Sullivan)

What would have been the consequences for the US economy if Obama and the Democrats had not managed to pass the 2009 economic "stimulus," imperfect as it was, against ferocious and almost monolithic Republican obstructionism? As I have already noted on a few occasions, it's pretty clear that the results would have been disastrous, and we would now be in much worse shape than we actually are. In short, the "stimulus" worked—not as well as it might have if it had been bigger and better designed, perhaps, but a lot better than the alternative option of not passing it at all. (For some details and elaboration, see here & here & here & here.)

In case you remain unconvinced, Brad DeLong just re-posted a very useful and illuminating graph by Martin Sullivan (at that throws some instructive light on this question. The experiment of responding to the current recession with belt-tightening austerity rather than with Keynesian counter-cyclical deficit spending has actually been tried, in Britain. (That followed an initial set of Keynesian stimulus measures by Gordon Brown's Labour government, which did pull the British economy out of free fall; but then Brown was voted out of office and replaced by David Cameron's Conservative/Liberal Democratic coalition government, which switched to a Hooverite approach.) How has that worked out?

—Jeff Weintraub

October 24, 2011
Life Without Stimulus
By Martin A. Sullivan

Republicans constantly remind us that the Obama stimulus--the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009--did not work. They voted against it. In the United Kingdom the government is led by Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron. His government did not adopt stimulus. Instead it boldly enacted an economic program that cut spending and raised taxes. The chart below shows the results and compares it to the U.S. experience. After three and a half years, U.S. GDP is just about returning to the pre-recession peak. That's awful. But it s far better than the U.K. where GDP is still five percent ($750 billion in US terms) below its pre-recession peak.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Reihan Salam explains why my cousin Hal is right, and textbook publishers are self-serving, dishonest, greedy bastards

It's a strange world when a piece in the National Review Online praises a public-service initiative spearheaded by my cousin Hal Plotkin, a Senior Policy Adviser in the higher education division of the Obama Department of Education ... and strongly defends this initiative against efforts by profit-hungry corporations, their lobbyists, and their Congressional lackeys to kill it.

Well, sometimes the world is a little more complicated complicated than one might expect. The author of this particular piece, Reihan Salam, happens to be a genuinely thoughtful and intellectually serious conservative writer, not a party-line hack (unlike most people who write for the National Review, honesty compels me to add). Sometimes he's even correct. This is one of those times, and the message of his piece might actually have more practical impact appearing in a prominent right-wing venue like NRO than it would elsewhere. See below.

(And for some other pieces on this Open Educational Resources initiative and the corporate backlash against it, see here & here & here.)

—Jeff Weintraub

National Review Online
October 24, 2011
The Attack on Open Educational Resources
By Reihan Salam

Amy Laitinen raises an issue that should be of particular interest to conservatives and libertarians. Under the leadership of Hal Plotkin, the Departments of Labor and Education have been collaborating to make all taxpayer-funded online educational resources freely available to all comers. The idea is that if Uncle Sam pays for these resources, everyone should be able to use them, from the unemployed to for-profit businesses that want to improve on them to homeschoolers. Kevin Carey described the possibilities back in May:
The $2-billion Labor-Education project could transport the open-resource movement to a new level of prominence. Because the materials will be developed under the auspices of a federal-government competition, they will carry an assumed mark of quality absent from random lectures posted on YouTube. The departments also plan to organize the materials so that educators can search and shape them into rational sequences of learning. Private companies will be able to repackage, improve upon, and sell the materials they like, as long as they acknowledge the original developers.
Now, however, there has been a counterattack in a proposed House FY12 Labor, Health, and Human Services appropriations bill, as Laitinen explains:
SEC. 124. None of the funds made available by this Act for the Department of Labor may be used to develop new courses, modules, learning materials, or projects in carrying out education or career job training grant programs unless the Secretary of Labor certifies, after a comprehensive market-based analysis, that such courses, modules, learning materials, or projects are not otherwise available for purchase or licensing in the marketplace or under development for students who require them to participate in such education or career job training grant programs.
As a believer in the potential of for-profit education, I’m not averse to the argument that the public sector shouldn’t simply duplicate what is already available in the private sector. That is reasonable. But that’s a bit like saying that Linux duplicates Windows 7 or Mac OS X. Open, free platforms are meaningfully different because they are far more accessible.

The idea here isn’t to rip off the textbook publishers that want to kill open educational resources. Rather, it is to provide people around the country, and around the world, with the basic building blocks they need to help themselves. The major textbook publishers, in contrast, would go out of business if it weren’t for large, subsidized public educational institutions that will pay almost any price for low-quality instructional materials because they’re not paying for them with their own money. By making a small investment in open educational resources, we can comfortably reduce the amount of money that flows into government purchases of other instructional materials by much more. That is the ultimate promise of the open-resource movement: it can save taxpayers money while delivering a higher quality of service.

To repeat: the textbook publishers might be “private,” but they depend on lucrative public sector contracts. That is why they pour money into lobbying public officials, many of whom they later hire to lobby their former colleagues. We’d be much better off supporting for-profit entrepreneurs who make money by improving the quality of instructional materials rather than by improving their ability to chisel more money out of taxpayers. They are not the same.

US income inequality in the New Gilded Age — CBO report confirms that the past three decades have been a spectacular bonanza for the top 1%

As everyone knows who has been paying any serious attention (with the exception of some propagandists at Fox News, the Wall Street Journal editorial page, and similar venues), over the past three decades there has been a massive increase in economic inequality in the US, taking us back to plutocratic concentrations of wealth and income last seen from the Gilded Age through the 1920s. Not only have the benefits of economic growth gone disproportionately to the wealthy, but an astounding proportion of the overall growth in national income has been monopolized by the top 1% of households. For one very effective graphic presentation of this pattern by Lane Kenworthy in 2008, see here.

The Congressional Budget Office just issued a report analyzing trends in the distribution of household income, after taxes, from 1979 (i.e., just before the election of Ronald Reagan) through 2007 (i.e., just before the current economic crash). The CBO report further confirms the basic picture with which we're already familiar, and adds some more graphs and charts that help to bring it home in a vivid way.

As Brian Beutler of Talking Points Memo sums up the major findings:
CBO found that, between 1979 and 2007, after-tax income grew by 275 percent for the top 1 percent of households. That dwarfs income growth for middle and lower income households over the same time frame — nearly three decades during which the rising tide vaulted yachts and cruise ships, but barely nudged house and tugboats.


CBO finds that, between 1979 and 2007, income grew by:

* 275 percent for the top 1 percent of households,
* 65 percent for the next 19 percent,
* Just under 40 percent for the next 60 percent, and
* 18 percent for the bottom 20 percent.
And here are some of their graphs (you can click on them to expand them):




The key factor, of course, has been the massive long-term redistribution of pre-tax income toward the top of the economic scale. But contrary to what some people may assume, federal taxes and transfers have not done much to counter this tendency. (At least, in terms of money income—I don't know how one would factor in, say, Medicare and Medicaid, since the medical care they help provide represents real but non-monetary income.) Again, Beutler sums up the larger picture:
CBO notes, “the highest income quintile’s share [JW: i.e., the share of the top 20%] of market income increased from 50 percent to 60 percent [between 1979 and 2007]. The share of market income for every other quintile declined…. In fact, the distribution of market income became more unequal almost continuously between 1979 and 2007 except during the recessions in 1990-1991 and 2001.” There’s no professional consensus about why this happened, though the explosive growths of the financial sector, executive compensation, and celebrity pay are among the likeliest culprits.

[JW: Another crucial factor is certainly the long-term collapse of the labor movement and its mutually-reinforcing economic and political consequences, both direct and indirect.]

But federal policy has exacerbated the trend. Income taxes have become less progressive in the last three decades, and federal programs that used to benefit poor people have shrunk or disappeared altogether. That’s left Social Security and Medicare as the biggest federal wealth transfer programs, both of which benefit people at all income levels, not just the poor and middle class. In other words, federal programs have become less progressive in their distribution.

If you think of all income as a single pie, almost everyone’s slice has shrunk since 2007 thanks to the explosive growth of the top 1 percent relative to fairly minor gains for everybody else.
There's more here, and the CBO report is available here.

—Jeff Weintraub

P.S. One counter-argument offered by pro-plutocratic analysts and propagandists is that this dramatic increase in income inequality is justified by the fact that it has helped promote overall economic growth, which has benefited everyone. (The favorite right-wing slogan used to sum up this argument, based on the somewhat misleading use of a quotation attributed to John F. Kennedy, is the claim that "a rising tide" automatically and necessarily "lifts all boats.") But there is actually no good reason to believe that this argument holds any water.

And pro-plutocratic apologists would first have to explain away an inconvenient historical comparison (rather than trying to ignore it, as they usually do): During the quarter-century that followed the Second World War, income inequality in the US was much lower than it is now, tax rates for the wealthy were considerably higher, labor unions were much stronger, financial regulation was much tighter, and the benefits of economic growth were much more evenly distributed across the income scale ... but the overall rate of economic growth was significantly higher than it has been for the period since 1980. (And to complicate matters further, in the period since 1980 overall growth rates were most robust during the presidency of Bill Clinton, after he raised taxes.) How do they explain that?

(Sure, one can imagine possible arguments that could be used to explain away this embarrassment, and some have been attempted. But most of the time the apologists for the new plutocracy don't even acknowledge the problem, and hope that the rest of us won't notice it, either.)

Monday, October 24, 2011

Ethnic simplification in Abkhazia

I happened to come across one more instance of the larger story of post-imperial ethnic simplification in the 20th century.  (For some clarification of what I mean by the deliberately abstracted and ironically euphemistic phrase "ethnic simplification," see here & here.) This case involves Abkhazia, on the eastern coast of the Black Sea, which was absorbed into the Russian Empire in the early 19th century and was a semi-autonomous, multi-ethnic region of Georgia when Georgia was part of the Soviet Union.

Some selections from an openDemocracy piece by Thomas de Waal on "Abkhazia's archive: fire of war, ashes of history":
[In May 1992] Abkhazia had only three more months of peacetime existence. In August that year the Georgian army - or to be precise a collection of ragged armed looters nominally subordinate to the embryonic military forces of a new and barely functioning state - entered and sacked Sukhumi and ousted the Abkhaz authorities. War broke out. The Abkhaz were first driven north by the Georgians, then in the autumn of 1993, with Russian help, turned into vengeful victors, driving out the Georgians.

A history erased

It was ten years before I saw Sukhumi, the archive [of the cosmopolitan history of Abkhazia] and Ioannidi [the archivist] again. In the meantime I had covered the war in Chechnya and the aftermath of conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, but had not been back to my first conflict zone in the Caucasus.

I could barely make sense of the geography of the place I visited. Although fighting had ended eight years before, grass was growing in the streets of Sukhumi and half the city was still in ruins. The vast burned hulk of the Abkhaz parliament loomed over the town, a blackened shipwreck beached in the middle of the central square. There was an air of Pompeii about it: the city's largest community, its Georgians, had fled in their entirety, leaving Sukhumi the half-empty capital of a new separatist state, recognised by no one.

The Abkhaz had won a "victory", but the price was impossibly high.
Abkhazia is still occupied by Russian troops, of course. The bulk of the ethnic cleansing in Abkhazia involved the ethnic Georgians, almost half the pre-1992 population,  most of whom (200,000 or so) are living as refugees in Georgia proper.  I already knew about that.  What I didn't realize, I guess, is that the long-established Pontic Greek community in Abkhazia is also gone. By an interesting coincidence, I happened to discover a few weeks ago that Greece has taken in a number of ethnic-Greek refugees from Abkhazia (and Georgia) and resettled them in Thessaloniki–or, to use the alternative version of the name, Salonica.  (Another instance of the centuries-old history of modern Greek 'Zionism', with its ingathering of the Greek diaspora from the Balkans, Anatolia, Ukraine, etc.) According to the local Greeks, the "Georgians" live predominantly in one ghetto-like part of the city, and a number of locals wonder whether all of them are actually Greeks. Whether or not those last observations are correct, I have no way of knowing ... but these are typical reactions, reminiscent of the way that "Old Greeks" reacted to the Greek refugees from Anatolia in 1923.

As de Waal explains, his perspective on the Abkhazia story happens to be Greek-centric, more or less by accident:
I had a rather skewed view of this strange tense situation because all my companions [in 1992] happened to be Greek. I had chosen Abkhazia, pretty much at random, as a location to make a BBC radio feature about the plight of the Pontic Greeks, and the dilemma they were facing as the Soviet Union collapsed: should they abandon their ancient Black Sea habitat and emigrate to a strange country called Hellas?

I spent several days, living in a wooden hut by the Black Sea, being plied with too much cognac, touring villages, schools and cultural societies - and never for a moment freed from the hospitable guard of my Greek hosts. It felt as though I was the captive of some long-lost Greek domain from the Byzantine era.

One day they took me to see the archive and its remarkable Greek curator, Nikolai Ioannidi. He was tall, gaunt, with parchment-pale skin and keen blue eyes - from his German mother, it seemed, rather than his Greek father. He smoked a lot, talked clearly and exactly and wore a navy-blue beret. He was the great expert about the history of Abkhazia and about the Pontic Greeks of the Black Sea.
Then, when de Waal went back a decade later:
Instead of an archive there was a damp square of ground with the low black empty shell of a building - one wreck amongst many. Ioannidi now worked out of two corridors in the cold wing of the university, piled waist-deep with cardboard packages. He told me the story of what had happened.

Ioannidi lived in Sukhumi's "new town", a Soviet dormitory of tower-blocks two miles from the centre, where the archive was. On 22 October 1992, the city was under Georgian military control and curfew and he had made his precarious way home when it was still light, as the snipers were beginning their evening's work.

At 8pm a neighbour who lived next to the archive rang and said the building was on fire. There was no way Ioannidi could make his way back, so he had to wait until morning to find out what had happened during the night.

Late in the afternoon a car with five or six young Georgians wearing black uniforms of the Sukhumi military police had drawn up outside the archive. They broke down the door of the building, went in and set it on fire. Neighbours of all nationalities, including Georgians, rushed to put the fire out. However, the armed men returned forty minutes later. This time they drove away the neighbours with shots, ringed the building, poured kerosene over it and set it ablaze again. A fire-engine, which came to put out the fire, was not let through.

Frantic telephone calls to the KGB, the police, even the Orthodox bishop, yielded no result. It seemed as though the arson had been officially sanctioned, though no one would ever claim responsibility for it.

Ioannidi arrived at 6am the next morning to find it all gone. When he opened the safe in his wrecked office he believed for a moment that his own unpublished manuscripts had survived, only to see them turn to ashes from the heat before his eyes.

A crowd of curious onlookers gathered. Then the distinguished Abkhaz writer, Shalva Inal-Ipa, walked up stiffly and, observing the ritual of an Abkhaz funeral, bowed his head to the ground.

In a single night Abkhazia's documentary history had been virtually erased. 95% of the archive was destroyed. The only section that more or less survived at all was the radio archive from the 1930s. Nothing from the extensive 19th-century collection was preserved.

The following year, Abkhazia's Communist Party archive, kept in a different building, was annihilated in fighting, as the Abkhaz recaptured Sukhumi from the Georgians. Ioannidi estimates that of 176,000 archival documents in Abkhazia, before the war, 168,000 were destroyed. He ensured that at least some of it survived, for a long time keeping the remaining documents piled at home in his damp ninth-floor apartment, before he was allocated the empty rooms at the university, where the remnant of the archive is now housed.

A legacy project

It is a truism that combatants in war try to rewrite history. This is a chilling instance where one side succeeded comprehensively in actually destroying the history of its adversary. Part of the struggle between Georgians and Abkhaz is the complaint by the latter that their history was always belittled by their bigger neighbour. But there are multiple ironies here: Abkhazia was a cosmopolitan Black Sea territory with many different nationalities. By erasing the documentation of its rich multi-ethnic past, the Georgians were not only denying the Abkhaz their right to have a history of their own, they were also wiping out the complexity of the real history of this mixed region and sending it back to Year Zero. And of course they also erased themselves.

Nowadays, you would barely know that any Georgians had lived in Sukhumi as all traces of their heritage have been removed. And the Greek community of the city, amongst which Ioannidi grew up, has virtually disappeared. What Stalin began and the Georgian warlords continued, the Greek government helped complete by sending a big empty cruise ship to evacuate a thousand Greek citizens from Abkhazia at the end of the war in what they grandly called "Operation Golden Fleece".

Ioannidi stands as a dignified emblem of a multicultural road not taken. [....]
As we know, in the whole area that was covered in 1900 by the Ottoman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the western and south-western portions of the Russian Empire, that potential "multicultural road" very rarely survived the upheavals of the terrible 20th century. So this is not an isolated incident, but one more example of that larger process.  And where that process of ethnic simplification wasn't completed by the end of the 20th century, it's often still going on.

So it goes, unfortunately  ...

=>  It occurs to me, by the way, that de Waal's historical account of what happened in Abkhazia in the 1990s is incomplete in one potentially misleading respect.  Russian troops were not the only outsiders who helped to carry out the expulsion of Georgians & other non-Abkhaz ethnic groups from Abkhazia. Muslim irregulars from various other parts of the Caucasus also played a significant role ... including, ironically, some of the same Chechen fighters who later wound up fighting a long and brutal war against the Russian army.

Yours for facing reality (though not necessarily accepting it without protest),
Jeff Weintraub

Sunday, October 23, 2011

"The untold story of the actual Obama record" (Andrew Sullivan)

(With some analytically pertinent remarks by Barney Frank about the problem of counterfactuals.)

Andrew Sullivan and one of his readers (quoted below) get it basically right. One could quibble about some points, and overall my assessment of the Obama administration's record is more mixed than theirs—mostly because I think that in some critical ways Obama and his administration really have been too timid, too willing to cave in to the Republicans, and at times too close to Republican thinking themselves. But Sullivan and his reader accurately sum up a very important part of the overall picture ... which, as they correctly point out, is strangely missing from a lot of public discourse nowadays. And the right-wing counter-narrative about Obama's record is, of course, ludicrous.

=> For example, it's clear that the 2009 economic "stimulus" (the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) was too small—especially since the economic crash of 2007-2009 turns out to have been more severe than most analysts recognized at the time—and in various ways it could have been better designed. But if no serious stimulus had been passed at all, and passed quickly, the results would have been disastrous. The self-reinforcing downward spiral of the economy would almost certainly have gone into free fall, official unemployment might well be closer to 15% than 9%, and instead of our current Great Recession we would probably have something more like another Great Depression. Instead, within a few months of the passage of the ARRA the economy stabilized and then gradually began to recover. Let's just quote Mark Zandi, who is not a left-liberal neo-Keynesian but a quintessential mainstream economist who was an economic adviser for John McCain in 2008.
[W]e would be in a measurably worse place if not for the stimulus. I don’t think it is any coincidence that the great recession ended [i.e., the economy stopped contracting] at precisely the same time that the stimulus, and in this case when I say stimulus I am talking about the [American Recovery and Reinvestment Act] … was providing its maximum economic benefit.
Here's a handy graphic illustration that captures one dimension of this story. It shows the month-by-month record of net job gains and losses in the private sector from January 2008 through November 2011. Notice any difference between the first three months of 2009 (the first three blue lines) and the period since then?
In short, the 2009 economic "stimulus" worked—probably not as well as it could have, but definitely a lot better than the alternative option of not passing it at all. The only people who try to pretend otherwise are economic illiterates, a few sincere but misguided economic cranks theologically committed to pre-Keynesian economic dogmas, and/or cynical partisan propagandists who don't really care about the facts one way or another. On the other hand, the Democrats, including Obama, have been remarkably ineffective in telling their side of this story. They need to do a lot better.

It should not be forgotten that the ARRA, which played a crucial and indispensable role in saving the economy from disaster, was passed against monolithic, almost unanimous opposition by the Congressional Republicans. It did not receive a single Republican vote in the House of Representatives, and the Republicans proposed no serious alternative (obviously, the adjective "serious" is key here, since they did come up with various inadequate and mostly irrelevant flimflam proposals). Then the only way to get the ARRA through the Senate, in the face of a Republican filibuster, was for the Democrats to obtain the cooperation of what were then the last three "moderate" Republican Senators, the two Senators from Maine and now-former-Senator Arlen Spector. And in order to do that, they had to agree to a series of extremely unwise modifications that rendered the ARRA even less effective than its House version (which was already too watered-down). Except for those three, the other Senate Republicans voted monolithically against the ARRA. If it had been up to the Republicans, the economy would almost certainly have gone over the edge in 2009.

=> So while Obama's record so far is definitely subject to a lot of valid criticisms, in my opinion, it's also true that critics need to keep a sense of perspective. Policies and outcomes always have to be judged, not only in light of the ideal or the most desirable, but also in light of the range of realistically available alternatives (which, admittedly, are usually not easy to specify precisely).

The deepest and most illuminating analyses of the resulting dilemmas, for both political judgment and historical explanation, are probably those of Max Weber. But in 2009 the well-known social philosopher Barney Frank offered an interesting reflection of his own on this larger analytical point. What follows is a quotation that I have been saving for a paper I plan to write (eventually) on the subject of what analytical philosophers call "counterfactuals". But why wait?

From a Congressional hearing reported by the Washington Post (7/21/2009):
REP BARNEY FRANK: Not for the first time, as a -- a -- an elected official, I envy economists. Economists have available to them, in an analytical approach, the counterfactual. Economists can explain that a given decision was the best one that could be made, because they can show what would have happened in the counterfactual situation. They can contrast what happened to what would have happened.

No one has ever gotten reelected where the bumper sticker said, "It would have been worse without me." You probably can get tenure with that. But you can't win office. [....]
Probably true. But it's the kind of argument that often should be taken seriously in politics ... up to a point.

—Jeff Weintraub
Andrew Sullivan (The Daily Dish)
October 20, 2011
The Untold Story Of The Actual Obama Record


I can't put it better than this longtime Dish reader:
Personally, I am praying that Obama's messaging improves drastically. (It has failed on multiple occasions - not the least of which was during August/September of 2008.)

The truth is that this President has done a good job in what has been one of the most difficult periods of modern history. He saved the economy from ruin (until the Tea Party took over Congress) with a stimulus that was as large as possible given the political realities, presided over a stock market that fairly quickly recouped many of its losses, presided over almost consecutive monthly increases in private sector job growth (unfortunately balanced by monthly decreases in public sector jobs which I attribute to the GOP further starving government), enacted the only meaningful healthcare reform ever in our history [JW: obviously a bit of an overstatement, probably written carelessly and in haste], passed financial reform (no matter what the Left says, he did this), saved the auto industry (which Romney is on record opposing), fired the first salvo of the Arab Spring with his address in Cairo no less, drawn down our footprint in Iraq in a responsible way (and headed toward almost total withdrawal), stopped numerous terrorist attacks in this country, stopped torture as policy, repealed DADT, joined the international community in a measured and responsible way to bring down an odious tyrant in Qaddafi, and killed a whole generation of al Qaeda leaders. And taking out Osama bin Laden the way he did will go down as one of the bravest military actions in American history.

I know this President is not popular, and it is very unpopular to defend him in such a way. I don't care. For this country to dump him for anyone on the other side would be a terrible thing. Progress is slow and painful, but we are doing it. Is that fashionable to say? No. Again, I don't care.
Amen. And the way in which the ADD media simply jumps to the next cycle of spinmanship only furthers the amnesia. But the Obama administration also shares some of the blame.

Many of them have been too focused on governing to explain what the fuck they're doing. There's a technocratic arrogance to them at times that is too blind to winning and sustaining arguments and narratives. And this is kinda mind-blowing because the record is so remarkable in retrospect.

If you'd told me in January 2009 that the banks would pay us back the entire bailout and then some, that the auto companies would actually turn around with government help and be a major engine of recovery, that there would be continuous job growth since 2009, however insufficient, after the worst demand collapse since the 1930s, that bin Laden would be dead, Egypt transitioning to democracy, al Qaeda all but decimated as a global threat, and civil rights for gays expanding more rapidly than at any time in history ... well I would be expecting a triumphant re-election campaign.

But we are where we are - and the economic pain is real and the president must take his lumps. The good news for those of us who still back Obama and hope for his re-election is that even with all this positive record essentially dismissed and little of it capitalized on politically, Obama is still neck and neck with any likely opponent. And he is his own best messager.

At some point, he needs to shuck off the restraint, and tell the actual story of the last three years - against the fantastic and self-serving lies and delusions we keep hearing in Republican debates and Beltway chatter. If he does it with panache, he won't need a jumpsuit onto an aircraft carrier. And many of his missions may even be accomplished.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

"Almost comical" anti-Israel prejudice in the Guardian, dissected by Jeffrey Goldberg & Norman Geras

A constant drumbeat of obsessively hostile anti-Zionist propaganda (sometimes shading off into borderline anti-semitism), presented in the guise of serious analysis, has become so routine and reflexive in allegedly "progressive" British newspapers like the Guardian that one can feel tempted to simply ignore it. But it's worth highlighting examples from time to time, to avoid taking this stuff for granted and having it start sounding like common sense.

I notice that a recent piece of this sort by a columnist named Deborah Orr ("Is an Israeli life really more important than a Palestinian's?") was called out by Norman Geras in Britain and by Jeffrey Goldberg in the US. Both of their critiques are worth quoting.

Here is Orr's Guardian piece in full (the bolding is Goldberg's). The key point is that the mind-set it reveals is neither unusual nor extreme, but entirely run-of the mill. And her piece is also short enough that one can easily quote the whole thing:
It's quite something, the prisoner swap between Hamas and the Israeli government that returns Gilad Shalit to his family, and more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners to theirs. The deal is widely viewed as a victory for Hamas, the radical Islamist group that gained power in Gaza after years of frustration at the intractability of the "peace process". Conversely, it is being seen by some as a sign of weakness in Israel's rightwing prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

All this, I fear, is simply an indication of how inured the world has become to the obscene idea that Israeli lives are more important than Palestinian lives. Netanyahu argues that he acted because he values Shalit's life so greatly.

Yet who is surprised really, to learn that Netanyahu sees one Israeli's freedom as a fair exchange for the freedom of so many Palestinians? Likewise, Hamas wished to use their human bargaining chip to gain release for as many Palestinians as they could. They don't have much to bargain with.

At the same time, however, there is something abject in their eagerness to accept a transfer that tacitly acknowledges what so many Zionists believe - that the lives of the chosen are of hugely greater consequence than those of their unfortunate neighbours.
The Israeli government and Israeli public opinion were willing, rightly or wrongly, to pay an enormously lopsided price in order to set Gilad Shalit free, even if that required the release of hundreds of convicted murderers who might well try to kill other Israeli civilians in the future. Orr's immediate reaction, of course, is that this must reveal something evil (even "obscene") about the way Israelis and those who sympathize with Israelis view the world ... and that any discussion of this incident has to be somehow given an anti-Jewish spin, even if that requires a bit of logical and rhetorical straining. Presumably, Orr is just doing her job as a columnist as she understands it. I suspect she doesn't even think of herself as a bigoted person. (Bigots often don't.)

Jeffrey Goldberg responds with some pertinent "thoughts and questions":
  1. She's got to be kidding.
  2. Assuming Ms. Orr is not kidding, how is it possibly Israel's fault that Hamas demanded the release of 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Gilad Shalit? Isn't this a question for Hamas?
  3. Is the prime minister of Israel not supposed to value Israeli life? Asked another way: Is the British prime minister not supposed to do whatever he can to help one of his soldiers? Have I missed something about the nature of the relationship between the British prime minister and his fellow citizens?
  4. "Chosen"? Really? Does Ms. Orr understand Jewish theology? (This is a rhetorical question). "Chosenness" in Jewish theology actually means "burdened," as in, Jews are burdened by their faith with special responsibilities to carry out what Judaism understands to be God's wishes. Chosenness does not mean "exclusive" or "more equal than others." It never has, except to anti-Semites. Christians believe they are in possession of the final word of God, as do Muslims. This belief fosters a feeling of theological superiority. Does this make Christians and Muslims "chosen" as well? Or is the term "chosenness" only a weapon for use against Jews? (This, too, is a rhetorical question).
  5. A question for the Guardian: Shouldn't your editors do a better job of masking prejudice on your website?
And here is Norm's reaction (Either-Orr):
You may think you've plumbed the depths of human stupidity and blind prejudice, but you never have. It is bottomless. Deborah Orr is of the opinion that the exchange of Gilad Shalit's freedom for that of more than a thousand Palestinian prisoners underwrites 'the obscene idea that Israeli lives are more important than Palestinian lives'. She asks: 'who is surprised really, to learn that Netanyahu sees one Israeli's freedom as a fair exchange for the freedom of so many Palestinians?' By accepting the terms of the exchange, she contends, Hamas display their eagerness 'to accept a transfer that tacitly acknowledges what so many Zionists believe – that the lives of the chosen are of hugely greater consequence than those of their unfortunate neighbours'.

I urge upon you this brief thought experiment. The Israelis offer to free a single Palestinian prisoner - one, let us say, not responsible for terrorist murder, and in that regard just like Shalit - for the young Israeli hostage. Hamas's leaders deliberate. Do they hold out for a better 'rate of exchange'? Orr do they just agree, 'OK, guys, why not - one for one?' I won't insult anyone's intelligence further by suggesting the result.

But it is 'the lives of the chosen' - she means Jews - that are of 'hugely greater consequence'. Yes, indeed. That has been the world's opinion to date, has it not? - and is still the opinion of those many who find room in their consciences for the idea that murdering Jews is understandable in the given circumstances.

[See now also here.]
—Jeff Weintraub

[Update, 10/26/2011: Deborah Orr has issued a routine sort of non-apology apology which evades all the important issues and indicates that she still doesn't quite understand why some people got so upset about her original piece.]Link

Friday, October 21, 2011

Elizabeth Warren explains why the US had no serious financial crises between the New Deal and the Reagan administration

That's right, there weren't any. Why not, and why have they come back after 1980?

Basically, the answer is that during the the 1930s a remarkably intelligent set of regulations was enacted to cover banking and the rest of the financial sector, and it worked. Then, starting in the 1980s, this valuable and highly successful framework of financial regulation was increasingly dismantled—not sensibly updated and adapted to new conditions, but heedlessly dismantled—in a process that combined free-market-fundamentalist ideological illusions with substantial amounts of irresponsibility, plutocratic muscle, political corruption, and simple greed. And it so happens that during the same period, starting in the 1980s, we have once again experienced recurrent financial crises (and massive bailouts), escalating most recently into the great financial crash of 2007-2009 from which we are still recovering. Coincidence? Unlikely.

In short, we have been engaged in a large-scale socio-economic experiment to test whether the unhampered operation of radically deregulated financial markets makes them more self-stabilizing, more efficient, and more beneficial for the economy and the larger society or, on the contrary, more volatile and unstable, more economically distorting, and more dangerous. Well?

This historical story should be one of those things that everyone knows about, to which everyone refers as a matter of course in debates about economic policy. But it isn't. In the video clip below, the always impressive Elizabeth Warren does an excellent job of boiling the story down to its essentials.

—Jeff Weintraub

P.S. By the way, it's worth noting that even Adam Smith, the great theorist of the self-regulating market economy, recognized that financial markets posed special dangers and required special protections and precautions ... which he described in one passage as safety measures analogous to requiring firewalls in sensible housing codes.
Such regulations may, no doubt, be considered as in some respects a violation of natural liberty. But those exertions of the natural liberty of a few individuals, which might endanger the security of a whole society, are, and ought to be, restrained by the laws of all governments; of the most free, as well as of the most despotical. The obligation of building party walls, in order to prevent the communication of fire, is a violation of natural liberty exactly of the same kind with the regulations of the banking trade which are here proposed. (Wealth of Nations, Book II, ch. ii)

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Bridenapping today (Mick Hartley)

Another slice of reality from the ever-observant Mick Hartley. This is the sort of phenomenon the one sometimes assumes everyone must know about. Not really.

—Jeff Weintraub
Mick Hartley (Politics & Culture)
October 12, 2011
Put simply: to not kidnap your wife means you are not a man.
I posted last year on the practice of bride kidnapping - "bridenapping" - in Kyrgyzstan. By some estimates the practice accounts for around 70% of marriages there. And, according to Emily Dugan, the practice is growing, not only in Kyrgyzstan, where it's seen as a reassertion of traditional cultural values after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but elsewhere too. In Somalia, for instance:
Last year, Asana, a 14-year-old from Somalia, popped out to get some meat and milk for her mother. As she walked in a Mogadishu market, a car with blacked-out windows pulled up, a door was flung open and she was dragged inside. A man she had never seen before said to the driver: "This is my wife; we just got engaged." The man was Mohamed Dahir, a leader of the terrorist group Al-Shabaab. Her money was taken, she was locked away and forced to become Dahir's wife....

The lack of awareness, and therefore of any worldwide campaign on the issue, leaves little hope for women such as Asana (her name has been changed to protect her from Al-Shabaab, who still send her death threats). Now 15, and bringing up Dahir's baby son, she considers herself one of the luckier ones. She managed to escape to Kenya after Dahir was killed in a shoot-out. Her story, however, would not be considered "lucky" by many.

Sitting in a plastic chair that dwarfs her childlike frame, she describes her experience: "He beat me and locked me up for one and a half months in a house. He said, 'If you talk I'll kill you'. I was so afraid that I accepted. Even when I wanted to go to the toilet, he escorted me. He wouldn't let me do anything on my own. He also used force to get me to have sex with him; he tied each of my legs with rope so they were apart. It was every night at midnight."
That this could happen in Somalia, with its "toxic combination of lawlessness, extreme Islamist values that give women no rights, and the shame of lost virginity", may not be too surprising. Elsewhere the signs are perhaps more worrying:

[JW From a simplistic supply-&-demand perspective, the increasingly skewed gender ratios among younger cohorts in China, with more young men looking for wives than there are women to go around, should automatically improve women's situation. Maybe, in some respects and for some women, but not necessarily.]
A shortage of women in China, blamed on people having sex-specific abortions because of the one-child policy, has resulted in men being willing to go to extreme lengths to find a wife. Future grooms pay kidnappers between £120 and £500 to find them a bride. Dealers in wives will often go to Vietnam, where women are a less scarce commodity, capture young women, and smuggle them across the border to their new Chinese "husbands".
With over 30 million excess young males now, the problem can only get worse.

Panic of the Plutocrats (Paul Krugman)

Paul Krugman is always on-target (OK, with a few exceptions sometimes), but in some ways his NYTimes column on Monday was especially worth noting. It nicely captures some of the crazier aspects of public discourse in US politics right now.

I do have a small quibble with the title—which I assume was written by an editor, not by Krugman. Unfortunately, I'm not sure that "panic" is precisely the right word to capture the present sentiments of the American plutocracy and its propagandists.

Yes, there's a good deal of anger, defensiveness, phony outrage, and noisy paranoia about the rich being victimized and "demonized". And some of it is even genuine. For example, at a time when there is widespread and justified public outrage at Wall Street and big business, the Obama administration has gone way overboard in its efforts to reassure, accommodate, coddle, and assist them. With what result? Incredibly enough, it's clear that many businessmen and financiers genuinely believe that Obama and his administration are anti-business or even anti-capitalist. These beliefs are quite delusional, of course, but mass delusions can be significant social facts—especially when the people holding these delusions control a grossly disproportionate share of the country's wealth, and the right-wing judicial activism of the current Supreme Court has authorized them to use it for unlimited political spending.

But these hysterical reactions to even the mildest criticisms go together with breathtaking levels of arrogance, chutzpah, and feelings of entitlement. One can only imagine how they would respond if there were prominent national Republicans, like Teddy Roosevelt, railing against "malefactors of great wealth" ... or, for that matter, a Democratic President like Franklin Roosevelt denouncing them as "economic royalists". But we're far away from that, and the overall balance of public discourse is tilted way over in the other direction. Panic? Right now, it seems to me, plutocratic forces in US politics and public discourse are aggressive and self-confident and feel like they're on a roll. Still, I think Krugman is right to detect a certain degree of nervousness underlying this outlook, and they may have some cause to feel panicky if a serious political backlash against them starts to take shape. Let's hope so.

Selections from Krugman's column are below, or you can just read the whole thing.

—Jeff Weintraub

New York Times
October 9, 2011
Panic of the Plutocrats
By Paul Krugman

It remains to be seen whether the Occupy Wall Street protests will change America’s direction. Yet the protests have already elicited a remarkably hysterical reaction from Wall Street, the super-rich in general, and politicians and pundits who reliably serve the interests of the wealthiest hundredth of a percent.

And this reaction tells you something important — namely, that the extremists threatening American values are what F.D.R. called “economic royalists,” not the people camping in Zuccotti Park. [....]

[T]here has in fact been nothing so far to match the behavior of Tea Party crowds in the summer of 2009.

Nonetheless, Eric Cantor, the House majority leader, has denounced “mobs” and “the pitting of Americans against Americans.” The G.O.P. presidential candidates have weighed in, with Mitt Romney accusing the protesters of waging “class warfare,” while Herman Cain calls them “anti-American.” [....]

[JW: By the way, anyone who thinks that expressing outrage against Wall Street and bloated plutocrats is "un-American" clearly knows very little about American history.]

The way to understand all of this is to realize that it’s part of a broader syndrome, in which wealthy Americans who benefit hugely from a system rigged in their favor react with hysteria to anyone who points out just how rigged the system is.

Last year, you may recall, a number of financial-industry barons went wild over very mild criticism from President Obama. They denounced Mr. Obama as being almost a socialist for endorsing the so-called Volcker rule, which would simply prohibit banks backed by federal guarantees from engaging in risky speculation. And as for their reaction to proposals to close a loophole that lets some of them pay remarkably low taxes — well, Stephen Schwarzman, chairman of the Blackstone Group, compared it to Hitler’s invasion of Poland.

And then there’s the campaign of character assassination against Elizabeth Warren, the financial reformer now running for the Senate in Massachusetts. Not long ago a YouTube video of Ms. Warren making an eloquent, down-to-earth case for taxes on the rich went viral. Nothing about what she said was radical — it was no more than a modern riff on Oliver Wendell Holmes’s famous dictum that “Taxes are what we pay for civilized society.”

But listening to the reliable defenders of the wealthy, you’d think that Ms. Warren was the second coming of Leon Trotsky. George Will declared that she has a “collectivist agenda,” that she believes that “individualism is a chimera.” And Rush Limbaugh called her “a parasite who hates her host. Willing to destroy the host while she sucks the life out of it.”

What’s going on here? The answer, surely, is that Wall Street’s Masters of the Universe realize, deep down, how morally indefensible their position is. They’re not John Galt; they’re not even Steve Jobs. They’re people who got rich by peddling complex financial schemes that, far from delivering clear benefits to the American people, helped push us into a crisis whose aftereffects continue to blight the lives of tens of millions of their fellow citizens.

Yet they have paid no price. Their institutions were bailed out by taxpayers, with few strings attached. They continue to benefit from explicit and implicit federal guarantees — basically, they’re still in a game of heads they win, tails taxpayers lose. And they benefit from tax loopholes that in many cases have people with multimillion-dollar incomes paying lower rates than middle-class families.

This special treatment can’t bear close scrutiny — and therefore, as they see it, there must be no close scrutiny. Anyone who points out the obvious, no matter how calmly and moderately, must be demonized and driven from the stage. In fact, the more reasonable and moderate a critic sounds, the more urgently he or she must be demonized, hence the frantic sliming of Elizabeth Warren.

So who’s really being un-American here? Not the protesters, who are simply trying to get their voices heard. No, the real extremists here are America’s oligarchs, who want to suppress any criticism of the sources of their wealth.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Who pays taxes? — Right-wing propaganda vs. reality

Here are a few more points that should be widely familiar and uncontroversial but, unfortunately, need to be repeated over and over because of a constant stream of propaganda designed to obfuscate, evade, distort, and/or deny them. Is it really true that the wealthy (or, as they call them on Fox News, the "job creators") already pay a grossly disproportionate share of taxes? Actually, no. This clear and cogent explanation from Citizens for Tax Justice (below) does a good job of providing a necessary reality check.

Obviously, the source of these statistics has a polemical ax to grind. But the basic numbers are, broadly speaking, pretty solid and hard to dispute. It's mostly a matter of how one chooses to interpret them—or, more precisely, whether one pays serious attention to them or tries to ignore them and/or obscure their significance.

I've reproduced most of the text in this item, but I can't seem to copy the figures (a table and two graphs). If you want to see the whole thing, which I would recommend, go here.

—Jeff Weintraub

[Follow-up 10/30/2011: Who pays taxes (continued)]

Citizens for Tax Justice
Contact: Bob McIntyre | 202-299-1066 x22
April 15, 2011
America’s Tax System Is Not as Progressive as You Think

Conservative lawmakers and pundits often claim that the richest Americans are paying a disproportionate share of taxes while a huge number of lower-income Americans pay nothing at all. They’re wrong.

It’s true that the very rich pay a large share of federal income taxes [JW: this is a technical term that does not include "payroll taxes," which fund Social Security and Medicare, and which in the real world are also federal taxes paid on income], and that many taxpayers are too poor to owe any federal income taxes. But federal income taxes are only part of the picture. Other types of taxes, like federal payroll taxes, federal excise taxes, and state and local taxes are regressive, meaning they take a larger share of income from a poor or middle-class family than they take from a rich family.

• The share of total taxes paid by each income group is similar to the share of total income received by that group.

• The share of total taxes paid by the richest one percent (21.5) is not significantly different from the share of total income received by this group (20.3).

• The total effective tax rate for the richest one percent (30.0) is only about five percentage points higher than the total effective tax rate for the middle fifth of taxpayers (25.1).

All Americans pay taxes. Everyone who works pays federal payroll taxes. Everyone who drives pays federal and state gas taxes. State sales taxes affect everyone who shops, and state and local property taxes affect everyone who owns or rents a home (the tax is passed on to renters in the form of higher rents). Most states also have income taxes, most of which are not particularly progressive.

Many conservative lawmakers and pundits focus only on those federal taxes that affect the rich more, like the federal personal income tax, estate and gift tax and corporate income tax. But as these figures illustrate, the tax system as a whole, including all the types of taxes that people pay, is just barely progressive.

[JW: To see those two graphs, click HERE and go to the end of p. 2.]