Six Degrees of Adolf Hitler

HitlerKevin Bacon is so yesterday. If you’re an aspiring political pundit, Hitler is the game. Former governor and three-term senator from New Hampshire, Judd Gregg, is the latest to step into the ring.

Writing in The Hill this morning, Gregg draws a wobbly late-night drunkard’s path from “Progressives” to “Wealth Redistribution”, makes a beeline to “Socialism”, a word that appears in the “National Socialism Movement” in Germany that was later shortened to “Nazism”, and by golly, there’s your “Hitler”. A perfect six hops, proving conclusively that Progressives are as bad as Hitler.

What more is there to say? I mean, you can’t argue with that sort of air-tight deductive power, can you? Surely, Sherlock Holmes himself (assuming he was smoking some seriously good shit in that bad-ass pipe of his) would concur.

I’m arguably a bit manic about this at the moment because it’s the second “slippery slope” argument I’ve seen in the last 48 hours. The other was John Goodman’s essay defending inequality. In Goodman’s case, he had the good sense to avoid Hitler, but he did manage to wend his way from a rise in the capital gains tax rate to 28% all the way to full on communism.

Fer cryin’ in yer beer, do these guys apply this sort of convoluted logic to their everyday lives? Do they really think if they don’t get rid of cable their house will explode?

The crime is that there should be a serious debate here. There are solid arguments for and against various plans to modify the tax code. There are pros and cons to changing the minimum wage. And there are pluses and minuses to socializing various functions and services in society. Further, these are complex interwoven policies. You can’t address them in a vacuum. Rather they need to be considered holistically with other policies to further specific goals.

But silly arguments like these do not advance the discourse. Life is lived in the grey, not at the extremes. If you want to model your world using ideological purity rather than data and reason; if you want your emotions to swell at the sound of soaring rhetoric and nationalist pride; if you want to rationalize the “other” as the root of your plight; then maybe you should be following… HITLER. {FTW}

Being Poor Ain’t What It Used to Be

Income with and without the EITCIt’s worse. But I’m getting ahead of the story.

Faithful reader and economics enthusiast Brian K. recently posted an article from the NYT from economics professor David Neumark explaining that the minimum wage situation isn’t as dire as it seems. He asserts the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) helps offset most of the losses to minimum wage in constant dollars.

The professor’s math holds, and in fairness, I was unaware of how much of an advantage the EITC is to low income families. This does take a lot of the wind out of the oft-touted argument that in inflation-adjusted dollars, the minimum wage has declined dramatically over the last several decades.

But the story isn’t quite done there. First, the EITC does very little for families without kids. Granted, families without kids have lower expenses, but an apples-to-apples comparison of childless adults across the decades still shows a substantial decline income across those same 25 years.

Still, let’s focus on Professor Neumark’s standard family of 4. Further, let’s compare that family’s minimum wage income against the U.S. Census Bureau’s Poverty Threshold. And let me preemptively concede that this poverty threshold is an imperfect measure of whether or not a family is “poor”, but whatever its imperfections, it should be consistently imperfect across the years such that it can be useful in a historical comparison. Further, while food stamps and other non-cash subsidies are not included in these thresholds, tax burdens/credits (including the EITC) are in there.

The table below calculates the number of full-time minimum-wage jobs required for a family of 4 to hit the poverty threshold in both 1976 and in 2012.

Year Min Wage Hrs/Yr Annual Wages Poverty Threshold Jobs Required
1976  $         2.30 2000  $         4,600.00  $                   5,815.00 1.26
2012  $         7.25 2000  $       14,500.00  $                23,492.00 1.62

The results show that since 1976, almost an extra half of a job is required just to his this meager threshold. That’s a 28% labor increase required just to achieve the same standard of living.  So while Nuemark’s assertion that real wages have remained flat when adjusted for inflation and taxes may be accurate, it does not take into account that the actual cost of getting by has climbed faster than inflation.

Let’s look at the current “family of 4” situation a bit differently. Harlingen, Texas is consistently deemed the cheapest place in the country to live. If minimum wage constitutes a living wage anywhere, it should be there. However, MIT’s living wage calculator for the Harlingen area estimates that our family of 4 needs a gross income (before taxes, including the EITC) of $36,088 to make ends meet. This calculator assumes minimal costs for food, housing, medical, and transportation needs. It further assumes there are no child care expenses, meaning the parents’ work schedules have to be opposite enough for that to work. And it provides a meager $176/month for “other” expenses outside the 4 basic categories. This expense model hardly qualifies as living comfortably, and yet it requires 2.5 minimum-wage jobs to achieve this standard of living.

That 2.5 job requirement may be partially offset by SNAP (Food Stamps) and other subsidy programs, but considering there’s no child support in the mix, and that runs about $700/month for two kids I would argue that subsidies might at best balance out the missing child support.

So hopefully we can now agree that getting by on your own while working a minimum wage job sucks a lot more now than it used to. And while trying to raise a small family on minimum wage jobs has not seen a commensurate increase in suckage over time, it still draws a mighty vacuum.

The plight of the working poor is a lot like the climate change issue. You can choose to ignore it or claim it doesn’t exist, but it’s going to continue to grow and eventually bite you in the ass whether you believe in it or not.

Oh, if only I were poor…

Homeless-Family-Pic-2I envy the poor, or at least the far-right’s vision of what it’s like to be poor. You see, in the right-wing unreality bubble poor is no longer an affliction, a condition, or even an unfortunate happenstance—it’s a lifestyle choice. It’s kind of like being gay, but with a crappier wardrobe.

It turns out, the poor are only poor because they are good at hiding their assets in order to qualify for government handouts. It’s easier to play the system than work a real job.

Take the woman in the picture above. She could clearly be a paralegal at a law firm and have those kids in daycare. But instead she lounges outside with them, soaking up the fresh air and the stray dollars of the occasional sap walking by. She pockets all that money under the table, and then shows up at the welfare office once a week to plead her case and collect her stipend for her sloth. How do we know she’s an economic con-artist? If she were truly destitute, would she have luxury items like a stroller and 2 different colors of marker?  I think not.

But alas, I was raised with a work ethic. My parents taught me not to be dependent on anyone, and that hard work and determination could get me anywhere. So, I’ll probably never know the joys of hanging out on sidewalks all day raking in the cash, or of heading to the supermarket to buy T-bones and caviar with my food stamps.

Damn my mom and dad for giving me a conscience. Otherwise, I’d be on easy street—probably not driving on it mind you, but at least sitting on the curb with a clever cardboard sign. That would be the life.

And I’ve probably cursed my kids too. Like me, they grew up in comfortable suburban homes and got sent to good schools. They’ve never wondered where they were going to sleep at night or how they were going to get a meal that day. Hell, a food crisis in my house is running out of cheese sticks. But once they get a taste of the corporate rat race, the poor house is gonna look pretty damned cozy to them.

Woe unto my children, for they will never know the happiness to be found in the lethargic and slothful lifestyles of the destitute, resting comfortably in the hammock of social welfare programs. For they are condemned to work jobs and pay taxes and own homes and send their own kids to college some day. Oh, the humanity.

Fortunately, the Tea Party has a solution. Let’s cut out all these social handouts to the indigent, the working poor, the disabled, and other assorted barnacles on our great society. Let’s motivate folks to move back indoors, polish up their resumes, and fill all those open jobs. Tell that lady in the picture up there to scoop her baby up off the sidewalk and land herself a real man to take care of her.

And those that can’t turn that corner and pull themselves out of poverty by sheer force of will? Fuck ’em. Let ’em starve. Just like it says in the bible. We don’t need ’em anyway, and they’ll serve as an example of what happens if you pick your nose up off that grindstone.

Besides, getting all those people off welfare programs will lower the taxes on us hard working folks and assure my children will never again know tragedies like last Thursday… when we ran out of cheese sticks. Oh, the humanity.

Data Over Dogma

dataThis can’t be stated often or emphatically enough. If you are willing to dismiss, suppress, or reject evidence because it conflicts with what you want to (or have been told you should) believe, then you are acting irrationally—by definition. And your judgement should be discounted accordingly.

While this situation usually comes up with regard to a specific topic, it reflects a larger problem with mindset. Sen. Marco Rubio demonstrated this most recently when, in an interview with GQ magazine, he was asked how old the earth is. After declaring “I’m not a scientist, man,” Rubio danced with all his might, ending with the declaration that “it’s one of the great mysteries.” (No Marco, it’s really not.) Rubio is previously on record as stating the “crux” of the disagreement is “whether what a parent teaches their children at home should be mocked and derided and undone at the public school level.”

It’s easy to dismiss this as being isolated to the topic of geology or evolution, something that doesn’t impact the lives of the vast majority of citizens.  Rubio asserts as much when defending his GQ statement.  He said this didn’t matter, pronouncing it “a dispute amongst theologians” that has “has nothing to do with the gross domestic product or economic growth of the United States.”

Yet, as I’ve argued in this space before, and as Paul Krugman points out in his recent column, it matters greatly. It matters because we are hindering a crop of potential petrogeologists who are limited to guessing where God hid the oil.  But moreover, it matters because we are teaching kids that evidence can be ignored if it’s uncomfortable. And it is this mindset which is particularly damaging, and not just to the field of science, and as Rubio has demonstrated, not just to kids.

We have adults rejecting global warming and progressive tax codes, not because of evidence, but because of ideology.  We saw dismissal and rejection of pre-election poll data, not because it was inaccurate, but because it supported the wrong conclusion.

We live in an increasingly technological world with a complex multinational economy. Our success as a society, a country, and a culture depends on our ability to carefully and rationally understand and control that abstruse system.  Reliance on irrational explanations and positions in the face of evidence backed models of the world is simply dangerous.

That is not to say that faith and ideology have no place in society. They add value to the lives of many. All the world is not explainable using logic and reason.  Faith and ideology help most fill the gaps. But where data and dogma collide… bet on data every time. All our futures depend on it.

The Dangers of American Exceptionalism

American ExceptionalismSean Hannity often says that America is the greatest best country God has ever given man on the face of this Earth.  It’s an oft repeated mantra, which if taken in the spirit of national pride and unity would be just fine.  However, it is more often interpreted as some sort of birthright that America should rule the world… militarily, economically, intellectually, spiritually, and well hey… did I mention that we’re number one?

The trouble, of course, is that when you view everyone else as subordinate, you tend to believe they have nothing to teach you.  I’ve written before about how there are countries out there with proven successes in achieving exactly the goals we’re trying to achieve in healthcare and education, but we are not even seriously studying or talking about these foreign models.

Now comes evidence that Iceland has done wonders in solving their housing market issues as well as getting their financial system back in order following the 2008 meltdown of both.  In a nutshell, Iceland took over its banking industry rather than just bailing it out as we did here in the US.  It then forgave any mortgage debt above 110% of a home’s value for all its citizens.   This dramatically reduced the debt burden for most households and kept consumer spending from plummeting. It then instituted extensive new regulations on the banking industry to prevent another 2008-style catastrophe.  Further, it has actively pursued criminal charges against almost 300 banking executives who were directly responsible for decisions leading up to the crash.  The result?

Iceland’s $13 billion annual economy declined 6.7 percent the following year, in 2009, but has since rebounded and will expand by 2.4 percent this year and in 2013, the OECD estimated. Meanwhile, in the rest of debt-ridden Europe, the economy will collectively expand by a paltry 0.2 percent this year and only 1.6 percent the next, OECD estimates said in November.

Housing is now just about 3 percent below values in September 2008, just before the financial collapse. So improved is the nation’s economic and fiscal outlook that Fitch Ratings in February raised the country to investment grade with a stable outlook, stating the country’s “unorthodox crisis policy response has succeeded.”

By comparison, the US is projected to grow at 2.2% in 2012, the housing market remains underwater, and the banks are returning to many of the same policies that led to the crash in the first place.

It’s not clear that what happened in Iceland is directly applicable to the US.  Perhaps those programs and policies would not function here as well for one reason or another.  But the crime is that we are not even talking about it—not even trying to learn from their experience.  The mainstream press has given Iceland almost no coverage.  Politicians are not discussing what happened there and debating its applicability to our economy.  As far as the US is concerned, Iceland doesn’t exist.

Is this because we’re too proud to admit a bunch of foreigners have something to teach us?  Or is it because the special interests have a stranglehold on the media and the politicians and are suppressing stories that would lead to policies unfavorable to their moneyed interests?  It’s not clear.  But what is clear is that other countries are solving problems that we need to solve, and we’re idiots if we can’t find something to learn from them.