Thursday, December 22, 2011

A Visual History of the Christmas Tree

Ah, the Christmas tree, everyone's favorite old pagan rite adopted by Christians:
It's interesting to note though that veneration of the Christmas tree existed long before Christianity came on the scene. Just recently in Østfold, Norway and Bosulön Province in Sweden, archaeologists have discovered over 75,000 rock carvings at more than 5,000 different sites made between 1,800 and 500 B.C.E.. All of these carvings are spruce trees. The archaeologists suggest that because the trees are evergreen, the inhabitants looked on them as sacred symbols of life, survival and immortality.

Research indicates that the adoption of the Christmas tree in Europe happened in about the 11th century. At this time, the vast majority of people were illiterate and so to teach the great-unwashed public the stories of the Bible, the church sanctioned 'mystery plays.' One of these, performed on the 24th December, was the 'Paradise Play,' which told the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The play ended with the promise of a coming saviour, Jesus Christ.

These plays were primitive to say the least. The 'Paradise Play' only had one prop, the 'Paradise Tree,' which was hung with apples. There was no available apple tree in the middle of winter so the evergreen conifer came into its own.
As with many Church traditions, however, the early Paradise Tree became an excuse for drunken debauchery, so people took their trees indoors:
By the 15th century, moral standards had slipped so low that the church banned the Christmas 'Paradise Play' because it, and the other plays, had become an excuse for debauchery (nothing new there then!) People had become used to the tree though, and so they took it indoors. Interestingly, the Eastern Orthodox Church celebrate the feast day of Adam and Eve on 24th December, and in the home the tree was decorated with apples (to represent the original sin) and home-made wafers (to symbolise the fruit of life.)
Thus, the semi-modern-day Christmas tree was born, somewhere in central Europe (people argue over whether the Christmas tree originated in Norther Germany, Estonia/Latvia, or somewhere else in that region). This rather pretty infographic picks up the story from there, tracing the visual history of the Christmas tree through the centuries (but mostly through the last century, which has probably seen the greatest amount of Christmas tree technological innovation:

As I said yesterday, I'm headed over the river and through the woods to grandmother's house for the holidays, so this may or may not be my last post of the year - we'll just have to see how busy I am and how connected to the Interwebz I manage to be. In case I don't see you until 2012, have a Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Merry Kwanzaa, and a very Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Sweet Tooth - Sugar and Health Facts Visualized, In Time for the Holidays

Like many people, I'm gearing up to head over the river and through the woods to grandmother's house for the holidays. Since we're entering this festive time of year, I thought I'd post a couple of fun infographics in the spirit of the season, even though there are lots of interesting, serious topics to write about (e.g. the Congressional meltdown over the payroll tax extension, some interesting studies on marginal tax rates, etc.).

If you're like me, you've been eating a greater quantity of sweets as of late than you normally do during the year. This infographic shares some interesting tidbits about sugar and what it does to your teeth (in fact, it's all the refined sugar, grain, and corn that we consume as a result of the industrialization of the food chain that makes us have all our teeth problems in the first place). Anyway, here's the infographic, for your erudition and entertainment:

See you tomorrow for one more holiday infographic, and perhaps my last post of this year, depending on how busy / how disconnected from the Interwebz I am back at Mom's house.

Hungary Is Becoming a Right-Wing Paradise - A Glimpse Into the USA's Future?

The 1930s and 40s are coming back in style in Hungary.

Hungary, that little country in Central Europe with the funny language, holds a special place in my heart. I lived in Budapest for several years while working with and among the Roma in Central Europe, and I also went to graduate school there. I liked living and working in Budapest a great deal, and though my wife would probably never agree to it, somewhere I had always toyed with the idea in the back of my mind that I/we might return to Hungary one day.

Well, I don't think I'm toying with that idea any more. The little country that I used to love has gone seriously off its rocker, morphing from a struggling but stalwart post-communist European country into a hateful, anti-democratic right-wing paradise.

Although the transition has been underway for more than a year now, the "something rotten in the state of Hungary" has come into the news this past week thanks to Paul Krugman, who summarized the situation in an op-ed last week:
[I]n at least one nation, Hungary, democratic institutions are being undermined as we speak.
One of Hungary’s major parties, Jobbik, is a nightmare out of the 1930s: it’s anti-Roma (Gypsy), it’s anti-Semitic, and it even had a paramilitary arm. But the immediate threat comes from Fidesz, the governing center-right party.
Fidesz won an overwhelming Parliamentary majority last year, at least partly for economic reasons; Hungary isn’t on the euro, but it suffered severely because of large-scale borrowing in foreign currencies and also, to be frank, thanks to mismanagement and corruption on the part of the then-governing left-liberal parties. Now Fidesz, which rammed through a new Constitution last spring on a party-line vote, seems bent on establishing a permanent hold on power.
The details are complex. Kim Lane Scheppele, who is the director of Princeton’s Law and Public Affairs program — and has been following the Hungarian situation closely — tells me that Fidesz is relying on overlapping measures to suppress opposition. A proposed election law creates gerrymandered districts designed to make it almost impossible for other parties to form a government; judicial independence has been compromised, and the courts packed with party loyalists; state-run media have been converted into party organs, and there’s a crackdown on independent media; and a proposed constitutional addendum would effectively criminalize the leading leftist party.
Taken together, all this amounts to the re-establishment of authoritarian rule, under a paper-thin veneer of democracy, in the heart of Europe.
In the last couple of days, Krugman has posted two guest blog posts by Kim Lane Scheppele, a constitutional scholar who has been following the developments in Hungary closely. These in-depth posts paint a bleak picture for the future of Hungarian democracy. From the first post:
In a free and fair election last spring in Hungary, the center-right political party, Fidesz, got 53% of the vote. This translated into 68% of the seats in the parliament under Hungary’s current disproportionate election law. With this supermajority, Fidesz won the power to change the constitution. They have used this power in the most extreme way at every turn, amending the constitution ten times in their first year in office and then enacting a wholly new constitution that will take effect on January 1, 2012.
Under the new constitutional order, the judiciary has taken the largest hit. The Constitutional Court, which once had the responsibility to review nearly all laws for constitutionality, has been killed off in three ways. First, the government expanded the number of judges on the bench and filled the new positions with their own political allies (think: Roosevelt’s court-packing plan).... The old Constitutional Court, which has served as the major check on governmental power in a unicameral parliamentary system, is now functionally dead.
The independence of the judiciary is over when a government puts its own judges onto the bench, moves them around at will, and then selects which ones get particular cases to decide.
The new election law specifies the precise boundaries of the new electoral districts that will send representatives to the parliament. But the new districts are drawn in such a way that no other party on the political horizon besides Fidesz is likely to win elections. A respected Hungarian think tank ran the numbers from the last three elections using the new district boundaries. Fidesz would have won all three elections, including the two they actually lost.
Virtually every independent political institution has taken a hit. The human rights, data protection and minority affairs ombudsmen have been collapsed into one lesser post. The public prosecutor, the state audit office and, most recently, the Central Bank are all slated for more overtly political management in the new legal order.
And all of this has happened while the press operates under day-to-day intimidation. A draconian set of media laws created a new media board – staffed only by Fidesz party loyalists with a chair who is appointed by the Prime Minister to a nine-year term. This board can review all public and private media for their compliance with a nebulous standard of political “balance” and has the power to bankrupt any news organization with large fines. It is not surprising that the media have become self-censoring. This new media regime has been severely criticized by the European Commissioner for Communications, among others.
The new constitution also accepts conservative Christian social doctrine as state policy, in a country where only 21% of the population attends any religious services at all. The fetus is protected from the moment of conception. Marriage is only legal if between a man and a woman. The constitution “recognize(s) the role of Christianity in preserving nationhood” and holds that “the family and the nation constitute the principal framework of our coexistence.” While these religious beliefs are hard-wired into the constitution, a new law on the status of religion cut the number of state-recognized churches to only fourteen, deregistering 348 other churches.
In a democracy, the population can “throw the bums out” and replace the government with a different one that can change the policies that do not have public support. But that will be nearly impossible under this constitution. In addition to compromising institutions that are necessary for a free and fair election – like a free press and a neutral election apparatus – the new constitution embeds Fidesz control even if another political party defies the odds and wins an election.
The new constitution makes huge swaths of public policy changeable only by a two-thirds vote of any subsequent parliament. From here on, all tax and fiscal policy must be decided by a two-thirds supermajority. Even the precise boundaries of electoral districts cannot be changed by simple majority vote, but only by a two-third supermajority. If a new government gets a mere majority, policies instituted during the Fidesz government cannot be changed.
According to a proposed constitutional amendment, the crimes of the former communist party will be listed in the constitution and the statute of limitations for prosecuting crimes committed during the communist period will be lifted. The former communist party is branded a criminal organization and the current opposition Socialist Party is designated as their legal successor. It is still unclear, legally speaking, what this amendment means. But it is probably not good for the major opposition party.
The Fidesz government has accomplished this constitutional revolution by legal means after a democratic election. But though Fidesz was democratically elected and has accomplished this program through constitutional change, Hungary is not a constitutional democracy. Instead Hungary is, as Paul Krugman said, sliding into authoritarianism.
So, what's the list of the Hungarian right wing's accomplishments?
  1. Get rid of "activist" judges who "legislate from the bench" in ways the right wing disapproves.
  2. Enshrine gerrymandered districts into the constitution so that the right wing has a practically permanent electoral majority, in spite of what the actual will of the Hungarian people might be.
  3. Enforce "balance" in the media though a partisan panel of only right-wing political hacks.
  4. Get rid of protections for minority groups.
  5. Enshrine conservative Christian ideology as state policy, including protecting fetuses from the moment of conception and delegitimizing all non-Christian and non-Jewish religious bodies.
  6. The left-wing party might be, quite literally, criminalized and outlawed.
Perhaps I'm being uncharitable, but much of this sounds like the Republican political agenda for the USA - I would imagine that not a few Republicans would be ecstatic if they were able to pull off this kind of constitutional coup in the USA too. Maybe U.S. Republicans seeking a right-wing paradise should move to Hungary - if any of you do, let me know how that works out for you, and for Hungary in general.

Kim Lane Scheppele's second post talks more about the background to the changes in Hungary and points out that Fidesz's approval rating currently stands at about 20%, with the vast majority of Hungarians opposed to Fidesz's new constitutional order - but Fidesz is bulldozing through their sweeping changes anyway. Everything they're doing is perfectly legal, and it might be impossible for even a super-majority of Hungarian voters to undo these changes.

I am greatly saddened to see Hungarian democracy deteriorating in this way. Until things change, I probably won't even visit Hungary, let alone toy with the idea of moving back there. As a foreigner, I would never subject myself to the whims of the kind of semi-lawless and anti-democratic regime currently in power in Hungary. I wish the Hungarian people the best, and I hope they find the power to undo these changes peacefully, if the majority does not want Hungary to go down this dark path.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Space Waste - A Growing Threat to the 21st Century, Visualized

As human technology advances, we're going to want to put more and more up into space - satellites, people, aircraft, semi-permanent dwellings, and the like. Unfortunately, there's already a lot of junk up there causing problems for satellite communications, and the space junk problem is only set to grow as we, collectively, want and try to do more and more with and in space.

Learn more about the growing space waste problem via this interesting infographic, from Good, via Daily Infographic:

Click on image above for huge version.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Statistical Analyses Say the Recent Russian Election Was Probably Fraudulent

All of these pissed off Russians are probably right. Image source.

In case you weren't paying attention, Russia had a big parliamentary election a couple of weeks ago, and many Western observers have commented that the election was marred by widespread fraud - fraud perpetrated in order to continue the rule of Putin's party, United Russia.

Now, the statisticians have also weighed in, and it's a near certainty that the elections were fraudulent. The original post has a number of graphs and plots and explains the implication of them all, but I'll highlight the two that I find most powerful:

First, the above scatter plot shows that there were a large number of polling stations that experience perfect or near-perfect turnout, which itself is bizarre and extremely unlikely. Second, at these polling places, United Russia received an extremely high percentage of the votes cast (i.e. 90% or greater).

And this is/was the distribution of overall voter turnout:

We would probably expect for the distribution of voting turnouts to be Gaussian - i.e. that it has a bell shape with one peak and very small values at the extremes (i.e. at 0% and 100% turnout). Obviously, the distribution of voting turnout in Russia in this most recent election does not follow a Gaussian curve.

The conclusion from the statisticians who created the above charts:
There is strong evidence for widespread vote manipulation in the 2011 Russian elections. While much of the press has focused on reports of voter fraud in large metropolitan areas, this analysis indicates that fraud may have occurred on a ever-wider scale in other areas. It is difficult to quantitatively estimate how much fraud occurred, but a simple estimate would be to see how many less ballots would have been cast for United Russia if the polling stations with the highest 20% of turnout voted along the same lines as the others. In this case United Russia would have received 3.54 million fewer votes.
I haven't done the math, so I don't know the exact numbers, but given the incredible deviation from what's expected in the charts above, I would guess that the odds of a fair election having an outcome like the charts above is one in many trillion - i.e. that we would expect to see the above outcome less than once per the entire lifetime of our universe.

The banner says, "We are for Normal distribution." Aren't we all, my dear Russians, aren't we all. Image source.

So, yes, the Russian elections were almost certainly fraudulent, and Putin is now likely clinging to power illegitimately. Thus far, Putin refuses to annul the results of this obviously fraudulent election. We'll have to see if the Russian people currently marching in the streets will be able to force him to change his mind.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Making Kids Cry for Our Amusement By Giving Them Intentionally Crappy Gifts

A short Saturday post in the (sort of) spirit of the season!

Not long ago, Jimmy Kimmel issued a challenge to his viewers (well, those of them who are also parents): give your kid an intentionally crappy early Christmas present and film the fallout. Here's the video:

So, some of the reactions are funny, but many of them are just horrifying and depressing - yet more evidence of the rise and triumph of a consumer culture that measures everything and everyone by their material possessions and wealth.

I'm not sure that giving kids intentionally crappy gifts and then filming them for our amusement is a positive development; if anything, this kind of thing might scar these kids for life and turn them into the crazed Black Friday rioters I blogged about not too long ago.

Though somewhat entertaining (and simultaneously horrifying), Kimmel's video just reminds me of what a bad job we (the collective we) are doing to teach our children the true meaning of the season of celebration of Thanksgiving through Christmahanakwanza. Remember - it's not really about the presents!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Newt Gingrich's Crazily Bad Tax Plan in 10 Graphs; or, "Let Them Eat Cake"

Well, as more details about Newt Gingrich's tax plan dribble out, this blog is starting to reconsider whether its endorsement of him in the Republican primary race might have been a little too hasty. Oh sure, we still think Mitt Romney is a soulless opportunist who will tell you anything you want to hear in order to "earn" your vote and will be forced by the Tea Party to rule as President with a far-right iron fist, but at least Mitt's tax plan isn't "out of this world," "I can't believe this plan comes from a serious Presidential candidate from a major political party" insane.

My favorite detail from the below charts? Under Newt's tax plan, Mitt - who is probably worth more than $200 million and made as much as $40 million dollars last year - would owe exactly $0 in taxes, since Newt's plan would eliminate all taxes on capital gains, dividends, and interest. So, Mitt's tax rate would fall from the [less than] 15% he pays now (compared to the 20%+ that the middle class pays now) to 0%.

If Newt's going to offer Mitt that kind of deal, maybe he can get Mitt to drop out of the race and endorse him for President - after all, the President only earns about $400k/year, and Mitt's tax cut under Newt's plan would be worth waaaaaaaaaay more than that.

As an added bonus, everyone who is not part of the top 1% would have to calculate their taxes twice, in order to see which system is better for them, each year. Delightful.

Again - this plan is so crazy, irresponsible, and dangerous, I can't believe it's coming from a serious Presidential candidate from a major political party - especially from someone who touts his credentials as the "ideas" candidate. But, then again, I guess he never claimed that they would be good ideas.

Check out the infographic from American Progress for all of the crazy:

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Getting Pregnant at 16 Might Be The Most Rational Course of Action for Poor Kids

Many people mock these girls for their own amusement,
but they are likely behaving perfectly rationally.

Gene Marks over at Forbes published a column a couple days ago entitled, "If I Was a Poor Black Kid" (it's useful to note that Marks describes himself as "a middle aged white guy who comes from a middle class white background," and given that he's writing for Forbes, he's probably relatively wealthy, too). [Ninja edit: it looks like he fixed the grammar mistake in the title, as the title is now "If I Were a Poor Black Kid."]

The column is a thinly-veiled attack on the notion that any kind of special attention, programs, policies, or safety net is required in order to address poverty and income inequality in the U.S., arguing instead that every single person in the U.S.A. could succeed if only he or she'd work hard at it:
It takes brains.  It takes hard work.  It takes a little luck.  And a little help from others.  It takes the ability and the know-how to use the resources that are available. Like technology.
If I was a poor black kid I would first and most importantly work to make sure I got the best grades possible.
If I was a poor black kid I’d use the free technology available to help me study.  I’d become expert at Google Scholar.
Is this easy?  No it’s not.  It’s hard.  It takes a special kind of kid to succeed.
The division between rich and poor is a national problem.  But the biggest challenge we face isn’t inequality.   It’s ignorance.  So many kids from West Philadelphia don’t even know these opportunities exist for them.
Technology can help these kids.  But only if the kids want to be helped.
Wow ... just ... wow.

There are so many things wrong with this column, as many people have pointed out - everything from the grammar mistake in the original title to the stereotyping and generalization of poor blacks to the tacit condoning of post-Civil War racism in the U.S. to an utter lack of understanding of poverty in general, and more.

I, however, am going to focus on one particular problem with Marks's column - he utterly fails to take into account the fact that our surroundings/community/socialization affect our understanding of reality. I mean, seriously - the sentence, "If I was a poor black kid ... I’d become expert at Google Scholar," has to be one of the most ridiculous things Forbes has ever published.

Imagine the choice of a poor teenage girl deciding whether or not to have unprotected sex and possibly become pregnant, or to study hard, make good grades and stay in school.
Forget the unprotected sex itself, which we almost all find enticing.
The key is the pregnancy. For a 16 year-old girl regular unprotected sex will result in a full term pregnancy in the modern world with roughly probability one. There is little chance she will die in child birth. Late term miscarriages at her age are rare.
Now, just like any other parent the birth of that child will be the most important event in her life. And, the love of that child will be the most valuable thing she experiences. Some people say that looking back their career was more important than their children, but those people are few and far between.
So, if the girl has unprotected sex she gets right here, right now, the most important and valuable thing in life will happen immediately with PROBABILTY ONE.
We also need to point out that, when one is in poverty, the future is full of uncertainty, and so one's discount rate is (quite rationally) very high - that is, you are far more concerned about what's going to happen to you today or this week rather than in 3 years, because you literally have no idea what the future might hold (starvation? death? murder? homelessness? disease? etc.).

So, we have a poor teenage girl who, logically, has a very high discount rate and is considering whether to have a baby (and receive the most valuable thing in life) right now, versus taking a huge risk and waiting, during which time something might happen to prevent her from having a baby. And aside from the huge risk, you're also losing all those hours with your baby that you'll never get back. That is a very high cost to pay in order to take the gamble that school might pay off - particularly since school hasn't paid off for many (any?) of the people you know personally.

If anyone (yes, ANYONE) examines this situation from a purely rational, utility-maximizing perspective, it's difficult to come to the conclusion that the most rational thing to do is to do anything other than get pregnant at a young age - it makes sense to play it safe and take the sure thing (a baby) instead of waiting and gambling.

Smith also points out why poor teenage girls don't listen to older, "wiser" adults like me (or him):
Now, of course teachers, parents and helpful people like Marks will tell me to do otherwise. Should I believe them?
Not on your life.
By their own admission they want to see me “succeed.” That is, they benefit from my gamble. Yet, they incur none of the risks. They don’t lose time with their child. They don’t risk their fertility. They don’t experience the disutility of social climbing.
Heads they win. Tails I lose.
Listening to them would be nothing short of foolish.
And, so of course the teenage girl does not listen. Not because she is irrational, but because she is rational.
And how do people try to change her mind? Through irrational arguments or coercion. Parents might threaten her. Teachers might tell her noble lies - that she can do anything if she tries - or appeal to her emotions, telling her to believe in herself. No wonder she does what she wants and doesn't listen to them.

The problem is not that poor kids who get pregnant at 16 (or younger) are stupid or irrational - instead, many of them are probably looking around at the world around them and making the most rational choice that they can.

In pointing this out, I'm not trying to argue that this is a good thing - I'm simply pointing out that if you want to change people's decision-making processes, you often have to change the reality they inhabit. (Check our Megan McArdle's response to Marks's column for a detailed list of how poor kids' realities affect their decision-making.)

If Marks had been a poor black kid, I can say that it is highly likely that he would have made the same bad, rational decisions that many poor black kids make because he would have faced the same constraints that poor black kids face. It's not enough to hand them some books (or Google Scholar) and exhort them to "do their best." If you want to change their decision-making, you have to change their realities, which is a whole lot more difficult - and a whole lot more expensive - than directing them to the CliffsNotes website (which is one of Marks's "helpful" suggestions).

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

A Beautiful, Myth-Busting Infographic Straight from the CBO

Via the Atlantic, we have the following fascinating infographic, straight from the CBO (I didn't know they had graphic designers on staff?), which lays out cleanly and simply the major revenue sources and spending priorities of the U.S. government:

Click on the image above for the huge version.

I don't have much to add to the Atlantic's comments on the myths busted by this particular graph:
Myth 1) "Half of Americans don't pay any taxes!" No. Half of American households have negative tax liability under the federal income tax code. That means that, due to deductions and exemptions and the like, they don't pay federal income taxes. But as you can see on the left, "social insurance taxes" account for nearly as much federal revenue as income taxes. This is a regressive tax borne on all workers but not on income above about $107,000. To be fair, the way Social Security distributes income, the effect of the Social Security program is progressive for many families. But it's wildly misleading to say that, since a family doesn't pay federal income taxes, they'd don't pay the government any money.

Here's another graph I quickly put together breaking down tax receipts by source: income taxes vs. social insurance taxes vs. corporate taxes, since 1981. Income and social insurance taxes have long accounted for nearly equal parts of government revenue.

Screen Shot 2011-12-12 at 5.50.21 PM.png
Myth 2) "The stimulus turned the U.S. into a big government behemoth!"
 Hardly. If the big circle on the left says "big government" to you, then we were a big government long before Obama put his hand on the Bible, and we would still be a big government even if the president's last name were McCain. The policies that made government big -- Social Security, Medicare, and Social Security -- are decades old. Nearly half of government spending is income security for the elderly (Social Security) and sick (Medicare and Medicaid) that was passed into law and augmented under Republican and Democratic administrations and Congresses.
Here's hoping that some of our law makers and political commentators take these facts to heart and that U.S. policy and political discourse gets more intelligent as a result. A pipe dream, for the most part, I know, but hey, a guy can hope, can't he?

Monday, December 12, 2011

A Good Line - "Remember: It's Only Class Warfare When the Poor Fight Back"

(Credit for the title of this post goes to a commenter on this post. I'm reminded of Anatole France's famous quote: "The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich and the poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.")

I was going to post about something different today, but I got distracted - it seems that I'm slowly turning into a real blogger, as strangers on the Internet are starting to insult me, misread and misunderstand my posts, and put words into my mouth. My previous post about wealth inequality and the Wal-Mart heirs got me called "covetous scum" on Facebook - I'm so proud; you can check it out via the link in this sentence or on the right side of the page.

Thanks to that little exchange, I thought I'd talk about Republicans' continued attempts to worsen the wealth inequality already plaguing the United States. Newt Gingrich, recipient of this blog's very prestigious first political endorsement ever, has joined the rest of the Republican field and come out with a fiscal (read: tax cut) plan of his own.

Bloomberg, which also notes that the plan would blow a $1.3 trillion hole in the budget, summarizes Gingrich's plan:
Gingrich’s plan would create an optional 15 percent flat tax with a per-person deduction of $12,000. He would drop the corporate tax rate to 12.5 percent from 35 percent, allow businesses to write off capital expenses and eliminate taxes on capital gains and estates, according to his website.
People earning more than $1 million a year would receive an average tax cut of $613,689 in 2015, compared with what they pay now. That change would boost their after-tax income by 28.7 percent and put their average tax rate at 11.9 percent.
Thinkprogress notes: "Under the plan, half of the entire benefit goes to the richest 1 percent of taxpayers. The richest 0.1 percent of the country will receive a tax cut worth nearly $2 million each and every year. These tax cuts are in addition to what the wealthy are already receiving from their disproportionate share of the Bush tax cuts."

The Atlantic compares the benefits accruing to people with varying income levels in the following (very long) chart:

For comparison, here is the chart comparing the tax cuts households would receive under Rick Perry's plan:

And, though I've blogged about it before, here's a reminder of the outcomes under Cain's (now dead, I assume) 9-9-9 plan:

So, do you notice anything similar about these very long graphs (other than that Newt's plan is likely the most regressive of them all)?

These plans all demonstrate, once again, that Republicans don't care about deficits or fiscal discipline - all they really care about is cutting taxes for the already fabulously wealthy. Well, at least they're being quite candid about what the U.S. will get if the Republicans increase their power in Washington - massive tax cuts to the already wealthy, even bigger deficits, an even shoddier safety net, and no money to spend on things like transportation, education, research, or anything else that the average American really cares about.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Wow - The 6 Wal-Mart Heirs Are As Rich As the Poorest 90 Million Americans

Holy Enormous Wealth Inequality, Batman!

From Berkley, via ThinkProgress, we learn that the 6 Wal-Mart heirs have the same amount of wealth as the poorest 90 million Americans (30% of the US population):
The triennial Survey of Consumer Finances (SCF) is one of the best sources for data on wealth in the U.S. And, of course the Forbes 400 estimates the worth of the wealthiest amongst us—all 400 wouldn’t be captured in the SCF. If we look at both the SCF and the Forbes 400 we can glean some interesting insights.
In 2007 (the most recent SCF) the cumulative wealth of the Forbes 400 was $1.54 trillion or roughly the same amount of wealth held by the entire bottom fifty percent of American families. This is a stunning statistic to be sure.
Upon closer inspection, the Forbes list reveals that six Waltons—all children (one daughter-in-law) of Sam or James “Bud” Walton the founders of Wal-Mart—were on the list. The combined worth of the Walton six was $69.7 billion in 2007—which equated to the total wealth of the entire bottom thirty percent!
For those of you out there who learn better visually:

Don't worry, all you nay-sayers out there - I'm sure these 6 fabulously wealthy people worked really hard for all their riches, and that their obscene wealth has nothing to do with the fact that they were lucky enough to be born into the top 0.00000002%.

But seriously, which outcome would be more beneficial for both society and the economy - for these 6 people to control that much wealth, or for the net worth of the poorest 30% of Americans to double? The fat cats themselves admit that things would be better off if there wasn't so much wealth inequality in the US. The wealth inequality in this country is so preposterous, I can't wrap my brain around it.

Sigh ... I now understand why Andrew Carnegie (yes, THAT robber baron Andrew Carnegie) advocated for extremely high estate taxes:
While more suspicious of government intervention than Paine, Andrew Carnegie heartily endorsed estate taxes. The greater part of this steel magnate’s little magnum opus, The Gospel of Wealth, is devoted to a discussion of the three possible ways to dispose of wealth: (1) leave it to the families of decedents, (2) bequeath it for public purposes, and (3) administer it during one’s life. Carnegie abhorred the first, tolerated the second, and encouraged the third.

He asks his reader: “Why should men leave great fortunes to their children?” If it is from affection, then it is a misguided affection because “great sums bequeathed often work more for the injury than the good of the recipients.” The instances of public servants that live off their wealth in order to devote themselves to community service are rare. “It is not the welfare of the children, but family pride, which inspires these legacies.”

Carnegie sharply distinguishes between the intended consequence of the inheritance tax (to create funds for public purposes) and its unintended consequence (private philanthropy). The unintended effect of the tax is “to induce the rich man to attend to the administration of wealth during his life.” Wealth is a trust fund for the community that helps the rich “dignify their own lives.”

According to Carnegie, philanthropy in a capitalist economy solves the problem of rich and poor alike. “The laws of accumulation will be left free, the laws of distribution free. Individualism will continue, but the millionaire will be but a trustee for the poor.” Carnegie concludes his famous tract with the words: “The man who dies rich dies disgraced.”

Carnegie practiced what he preached and gave away more than 90 percent of his estate before his death, leaving a modest trust fund for his family. He included a trust fund for Theodore Roosevelt’s widow because the government at the time made no provision for the wives of former presidents.
I guess Sam and Bud Walton died horribly disgraced.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Dumbest Tax Break of Them All? - [In]Flexible [Health] Spending Accounts

(I wrote the below post last year, but since I just had to make my FSA declaration for the upcoming year, I thought I'd re-post it, since almost nothing has changed, and FSAs remain just as dumb and annoying as ever.)

How I feel about FSAs, except replace the money with my throat.

Disclaimer: I have a Flexible Spending Account (FSA), and it provides me with a nice tax break. However, based on my own experiences with FSAs, I have concluded that they are among the dumbest tax breaks ever passed into law, and in spite of the benefit I receive from them, FSAs should be abolished.

I'm reminded of a post over at Economix, which lays out the stupidity of FSAs:
  1. They are inequitable and unfair. FSAs exist entirely at the discretion of one's employer - whether or not you can have an FSA and how much money you can tax-shelter in the FSA are completely decided by who you work for. Furthermore, as of 2006, only about 6% of the U.S. workforce participated in FSAs (though probably about 3 times that many had access to an FSA and declined to participate). Most of the workers with access to FSAs are relatively well off, so like many tax breaks (I'm looking at you too, mortgage interest tax deduction), it shovels money to the middle and upper classes, giving the poor no opportunity to participate.
  2. They are administratively burdensome, creating lots of deadweight loss (it certainly decreased my consumer surplus, anyway). I can attest to this personally - the amount of paperwork involved in setting up an FSA and making a claim through an FSA is ridiculous, and like much of private U.S. health care administration, it seems primarily set up to provide jobs for claims processors rather than to maximize patients' health care outcomes.
  3. They are inflationary. If you put money in an FSA, you have to spend it within the year that it's allocated, or you lose it. The Economix post author describes receiving (or "consuming") a colonoscopy on Christmas Eve that he otherwise would not have gotten, just to spend the unused money in his FSA before he lost it. As Economix notes, the use-it-or-lose-it provision "annually unleashes the year-end scramble by Americans to spend down the balances in their accounts, most commonly on eyeglasses and marginal medical supplies, or on sundry elective medical procedures." Also, they let Americans consume health care tax-free, which leads Americans to consume too much health care.
  4. They piss everyone off. Between the administrative burden, the pressure to spend all the money in your account, and the general lunacy surrounding FSAs, they're super annoying to participate in - but if you have an FSA available to you (like I do), I feel a pressure to use it anyway, since otherwise I'm throwing money away (as long as I can calculate my yearly health care spending with relative accuracy a year in advance).
The health care reform did not eliminate FSAs, as advocated by the Economix author, but it did place further restrictions on FSAs and placed a cap on the amount of funds people could contribute to FSAs, and it used the savings from these restrictions to pay for health care coverage for the poor - so, not a good solution, but it's a start, at least. Of course, the Republicans want to undo these restrictions as part of their plan to defund the health care reform law.

As one MIT economist put it:
Is it really so bad to pay for insurance for our lowest-income citizens by removing a tax break for our middle- and upper-income citizens that they use to buy aspirin and glasses?
Let's hope the Republicans fail, and perhaps in the next round of health care reform, we'll be able to get rid of FSAs once and for all.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Why Newt Gingrich Would Make a Better President Than Mitt Romney

If you have to pick one of these two, pick the guy on the left.

In what might come as a bit of a surprise for many readers of this blog, The Angry Bureaucrat is today making it's first political endorsement ever - and we endorse Newt Gingrich over Mitt Romney for the Republican nominee for President. (Granted, there might be other Republicans we'd prefer to see over these two, such as Jon Huntsman, but since he seems to be a non-starter and is starting to flip-flop himself on such scientifically proven topics as climate change, we're just looking at these two candidates in this post.)

What will come as less of a shock is that part of this endorsement comes from political cynicism - we think it would be far easier for Obama to beat Newt than Mitt, and as this blog spends much of it's time outlining how the modern Republican Party is wrong on just about every major economic issue facing the country, I think it will be far better for the U.S. if Obama remains President.

But, another part of this endorsement is genuine - Newt would make a far better President than Mitt, if the U.S. had to pick between only those two candidates.

As often happens on the Internet to non-professional bloggers like me, someone else articulated my ideas first - specifically, Robert Shrum over at The Week - but I'll give my take on why Newt would make a better President.

Despite Mitt's protestations to the contrary, his flip-flops on issues dear to conservatives are well-documented - he's changed his position on abortion, gay marriage, health care mandates, stem cell research, climate change, Don't Ask Don't Tell, gun control, amnesty for illegal immigrants, etc. - all well-documented on websites such as Mitt is one of those politicians who will (and has) said anything he needs to say (regardless of his actual beliefs) in order to get elected - that's why he swung pretty far left (after all, that's the only way you can get elected to be governor of Massachusetts) and has now swung to the far far right in order to try to garner the Republican nomination for President. It's no wonder that many Republicans don't know what Mitt stands for - because the reality is that Mitt doesn't really stand for anything, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that Mitt stands for whatever you want him to stand for.

Newt, on the other hand, while not being able to boast of the fanatical ideological purity of, say, Michelle Bachmann, is generally considered by everyone to be a bona fide conservative.

"OK, that's great," you say, "but why does it matter?"

The fact that the conservative right harbors such mistrust of Mitt means that he would have to govern as an uncompromising, hard-line right-wing President, since the conservative right would always be second-guessing his true motives and allegiances. Mitt would not have the latitude to, say, raise taxes in order to fight budget deficits (as Reagan did) or to cut a deal with a sworn U.S. enemy in order to make the world a safer place (as Reagan did with the Soviet Union). These were moderate (or even leftist) policies that right-wingers at the time hated but that Ronald Reagan was able to implement precisely because he was seen as THE bastion of conservativeness. If people had questioned Reagan's conservative credentials, he never would have had the latitude to implement some leftist policies that were nevertheless the pragmatic and "right" thing to do (he did a bunch of other things that I think were terrible, but on these points, he was at least moderate in his policies).

Mitt doesn't have the trust of the conservative base, so he will be forced to govern as he is campaigning now - from an utterly uncompromising far-right position, since the Republican base (which is now far more right-wing than it was when Reagan was running for reelection) might otherwise throw him out of office after his first term. At best, Mitt would usher in even more partisan gridlock in Washington, as few (if any) of Mitt's far-right policies would make it through Congress. At worst, Mitt might actually get some of his policies through Congress, which would most likely lead to increased unemployment through premature budget cuts, while his slashing of the safety net would likely turn the next recession into a depression. The government would no longer do things that people care about - take care of the most vulnerable, invest in research, support education and college attendance, and the like. Instead, the fabulously wealthy would get even richer, while the rest of America would continue to fall further behind.

For all his shortcomings, Newt does not suffer from the above handicaps, and he'd have the freedom to cut deals with the Democrats and implement practical moderate (and even liberal) policies from time to time, if the situation demanded them.

Therefore, if we have to pick between Newt and Mitt, The Angry Bureaucrat endorses Newt as the Republican candidate for President. We wish him the best of luck in the coming months, for the U.S.'s sake - though I suspect that the endorsement of this blog will do nothing to bolster Newt's standing in today's Republican party.

P.S. Wow, what a speech by Obama today - seriously threw down the gauntlet. I guess the 2012 race is on for real now. I'll stick with this post, since it's what I had planned for today, and I hope to be able to write about Obama's speech tomorrow.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

A Visual Guide to US Incomes (and Inequality) by State

So, I rarely post on Saturdays anymore, but I came across this interesting infographic from and thought I'd share it. It shows some things everyone already knows (like that the Southeast is the poorest part of the US), but it also shows some interesting tidbits, particularly which states have the highest proportion of relatively wealthy people.

The states with the highest proportions of wealthy people are DC, MD, and VA (in large part because of government contractors, I'd guess), as well as CT and NJ (states that are slowly turning into the suburbs where NYC's rich people live).

Anyway, check it out for yourself:

Source. Click on image above for huge version.