"My Lord, I am the First Accused." Those were Nelson Mandela's opening words as he stood in the dock in the Palace of Justice in Pretoria, South Africa, on the morning of April 20, 1964—nearly half a century before his death December 5 at the age of 95. Mandela and eight other defendants had been charged with violating the Sabotage Act and the Suppression of Communism Act, accused of plotting violence against the apartheid government with the aim of overthrowing it. By fomenting "chaos, turmoil, and disorder," the prosecutor explained, the accused hoped to achieve "liberation from the so-called yoke of the white man's domination." Mandela, who was already serving a five-year sentence for organizing a strike and leaving the country without a passport, assumed that they would be sent to the gallows.
With the verdict all but certain, Mandela and his codefendants decided to turn their trial into an indictment of the apartheid state. When he had been asked for his plea, Mandela replied, "The government should be in the dock, not me. I plead not guilty." Yet the lengthy statement he prepared to open his defense was not an attempt to prove his innocence—in fact, he readily admitted to many of the charges made against him. He instead took the opportunity to forcefully promote his cause. But he also knew that he was offering a doomed man's final words, in essence, a self-written epitaph.
Mandela took two weeks to write the speech. A white lawyer who reviewed a draft exclaimed, "If Mandela reads this in court they will take him straight out to the back of the courthouse and string him up." Mandela's own lawyer urged him to cut out the final paragraph, but Mandela held firm. "I felt we were likely to hang no matter what we said, so we might as well say what we truly believed," Mandela recalled in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. The final lines of Mandela's 60-page, 176-minute statement have since become its most famous:
During my lifetime I have dedicated my life to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realized. But, My Lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.
The richest 1 percent of Americans have seen their average income jump more than 270 percent over the past five decades. Meanwhile, the average income of the least wealthy 90 percent of Americans grew an anemic 22 percent during that time. (Those figures are based on inflation-adjusted real dollars.)
So how much would you be earning today if the phenomenal income growth at the very top of the income scale had trickled down to most Americans? Use this calculator to find out.
If most Americans' incomes had grown at the same rate as the 1 percent's over the past 50 years, you currently would be making $0, the same amount you already do. Congrats! You're already in the top 1 percent of earners!
In other words, if you're in the bottom 90 percent of earners, your current income would be an estimated 205 percent higher if the vast majority of incomes had kept up with the gains experienced by the superwealthy.
At the lowest end of the bottom 90 percent, the difference is even more extreme: If the minimum wage had kept up with the 1 percent, it would be nearly 250 percent higher than it is today.
Back in the real world, most Americans' incomes have stagnated over the past few decades. Meanwhile, top incomes have skyrocketed, leaving middle- and low-income Americans behind and accelerating the growth of the income gap that began opening in the 1980s.
Methodology: The data used to the make this calculator is from the World Top Incomes Database. All income figures used to make the calculator are in 2012 dollars and do not include capital gains. Your hypothetical income is an estimate based on applying the overall change in the average income of the top 1 percent between 1960 and 2012 to the average incomes in 2012 for the bottom 90th, the top 10th to 5th, and top 5th to 1st income percentiles.
This Thursday, fast-food workers in more than 100 cities are planning a one-day strike to demand a "livable" wage of $15 an hour. They have a point: The lowest-paid Americans are struggling to keep up with the cost of living—and they have seen none of the gains experienced by the country's top earners. While average incomes of the top 1 percent grew more than 270 percent since 1960, those of the bottom 90 percent grew 22 percent. And the real value of the minimum wage barely budged, increasing a total of 7 percent over those decades.
More of the numbers behind the strike and the renewed calls to raise the minimum wage:
Median hourly wage for fast-food workers nationwide: $8.94/hour
Increase in real median wages for food service workers since 1999: $0.10/hour
Last time the federal minimum wage exceeded $8.94/hour (in 2012 dollars): 1968
Change in the real value of the minimum wage since 1968: -22%
Median age of fast-food workers: 29
Median age of female fast-food workers: 32
Percentage of fast-food workers who are women: 65%
Percentage of fast-food workers older than 20 who have kids: 36%
Income of someone earning $8.94/hour: $18,595/year
Federal poverty line for a family of three: $17,916/year
Income of someone earning $15/hour: $31,200/year
Income needed for a "secure yet modest" living for a family with two adults and one child…
In the New York City area: $77,378/year
In rural Mississippi: $47,154/year
Growth in average real income of the top 1 percent since 1960: 271%
What the current minimum wage would be if it had grown at the same rate as top incomes: More than $25
How would you and your family fare on a typical fast-food paycheck? How much does it really take to make ends meet in your city or state? Use this calculator to get a better sense of what fast-food workers are up against.
In order to make $___ a year, the typical fast-food worker has to work __ hours a week.
A household like yours in ___,___ needs to earn $__ annually to make a secure yet modest living. A fast-food worker working full time would have to earn $__ an hour to make that much.
The average fast-food employee works less than 25 hours a week. To make a living wage in ___,___ at current median wages, s/he would have to work __ hours a week.
In __ hours, McDonald's serves __ customers and makes $__. That's about __ Big Macs.
Alpaca: Not about those cute little llama-looking animals.
One of the odder details in Dallas 1963, Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis' new book on the JFK assassination and the superheated political climate of the early '60s, is a modest proposal for transforming American democracy as we know it. The source of the idea is Dallas oilman Haroldson Lafayette "H.L." Hunt—a JFK-bashing billionaire bigamist whom William F. Buckley, Jr. described as a man "of eccentric understanding of public affairs, of yahoo bigotry, and of appallingly bad manners." Once one of the richest men in America, Hunt is thought to have been an inspiration for J.R. Ewing.
In 1960, Hunt self-published a novel called Alpaca. In it, he described a fictional republic of the same name whose constitution enshrined the concept of "graduated suffrage," by which votes are apportioned by income and age, with as many as seven "bonus" votes going to the richest citizens.
Here's how it works: In Alpaca, every citizen 18 and older may vote. Voters between 22 and 65 automatically get two votes apiece; young and elderly voters get one vote. Beyond that, citizens may earn "premium votes," based on how much they pay in taxes:
Assuming that the Alpaca's tax system works like ours, the top 10 percent of taxpayers likely would be the wealthiest 10 percent of citizens. So the 55-year-old CEO of Alpaca's largest fast-food chain might get nine votes, while his 19-year-old counter worker might get just one. (The Alpacan system has some wiggle room for the under-enfranchsied: It doles out two extra votes to retirees who forsake their official or military pensions, government employees who give up half their salaries, and citizens who pay a "poll tax" of more than 440 pounds of wheat or rice.)
Hunt explains the rationale behind the income-based rationing of voting power:
The grant of additional voting power to those who pay a larger part of the taxes is prompted by the logic that the citizen's sense of responsibility rises in direct ratio with his contribution to the nation. The recognition that he has a direct stake in the government and its spendings gives him an alertness and caution in the exercise of his citizenship which is seldom found in the non-taxpayer and the very small taxpayer.
In other words, the makers and job creators deserve a greater political voice than the takers and moochers, who "could be expected to vote alike"—and presumably in opposition to the interests of their wealthy betters. (Fast forward to Mitt Romney's 47 percent video.)
Though Hunt clearly endorsed the Alpaca system, his book didn't speculate how its application at home might affect American politics. Yet what would happen if we implemented his plan in 21st century America? How would officially stacking the deck in favor of the superwealthy change a system where they already wield disproportionate influence? Would it upend partisan politics as we know it?
First, let's look at how Americans voted in the 2012 presidential race based on income. According to exit polls, 53 percent of voters making $50,000 or more voted for Romney, while 60 percent of those making less than $50,000 voted for Obama.
The younger the voter, the more likely she would vote for Obama; a majority of older voters preferred Romney. Sixty percent of voters between 18 and 29 voted for Obama. Half or more of all voters 40 or older picked Romney. In short, the younger and less wealthy the voter, the more likely she would vote for Obama, and vice versa. Even though voters making $50,000 or more and voters over 40 made up nearly 60 percent of the electorate, respectively, Obama won with 52 percent of the overall vote.
So, if Hunt's system of graduated suffrage was in place, would it have boosted the electoral power of Romney's older, richer constituency enough to flip the election? To find out, I did the math. In order to determine how many income-based bonus votes would be distributed, let's first look at who pays taxes. According to IRS data, the roughly 198 million Americans who filed income tax returns in 2011 broke into these income levels:
After applying the Alpaca model to the taxpayer data (7 additional votes going to the top 10 percent etc.), here's how many extra votes each income level would receive:
In this scenario, the 500,000 or so Americans earning $1 million or more would get 3.9 million extra votes, effectively increasing their voting power by 700 percent. The 84 million Americans making $50,000 or more would get 453 million extra votes while the 114 million making less than $50,000 would get just 63 million bonus votes. And that's before you count the extra votes given to voters between 22 and 65.* Once I factored in extra votes for age (assuming that the age breakdown of 2012 voters was the same across all income levels), I was ready to rerun the most recent presidential election, Alpaca-style.
The result? Mitt Romney wins, but not by the landslide you might expect.
The result? Mitt Romney won—but not by the landslide you might expect.
In fact, under graduated suffrage, Romney would get 52 percent of the 1.8 billion votes cast—essentially the mirror image of Obama's actual win. And it wouldn't be the superwealthy that carry the election for him, but the well-off voters in the $50,000 to $100,000 bracket, who received the lion's share of extra votes based on income. The 10-percenters are enough of a minority that their overall share of the total vote didn't change much under the one-millionaire-seven-votes system. But the share of the Romney-leaning folks with above-average incomes jumped considerably—from less than a third of total votes in 2012 to more than half in the hypothetical election. And the millions of Americans making $30,000 or less got crushed: Their share of the vote dropped from 20 percent to 4 percent.
Clearly, Hunt's system would turn the American political system on its head, but perhaps not as dramatically as he might have hoped. But then, Hunt's oligarchic utopianism extended beyond vote rigging: Alpaca also bans discussing politics and government business via "radio, TV and the theater" as well as public meetings of more than 200 people. Print media would be the only officially sanctioned medium for news and opinion. "The purpose of this limitation," Hunt wrote, "is to prevent the illiterate or thoughtless from being aroused in "mass to impulsively overcome soundly considered, responsible views expressed by the printed word." No doubt he would have loved the internet.
*A couple of things I did not try to include in my calculations: In Alpaca, corporate taxes are also counted toward one's total tax bill, so it's possible that the final distribution of votes is more concentrated toward the very top. Also, the Alpacan system assumes that men are primary breadwinners: A woman who earns less than her husband gets the same number of bonus votes as he does; yet a man who earns less than his wife "is on his own in making his showing for increased voting power."
An Afghan policeman stands guard at a border checkpoint.
The United States and Afghanistan are close to finalizing a deal that would set guidelines for the two countries' relationship after 2014, when the bulk of American forces are supposed to leave the country—more than a dozen years and hundreds of billions of dollars later.
The New York Times reported Tuesday that Secretary of State John Kerry and Afghan President Hamid Karzai had reached tentative agreement on one of the last remaining holdups preventing a long-term deal: whether American forces could continue to raid Afghan homes during security operations. The new agreement would prevent American-led raids except under "extraordinary circumstances," but it's not yet clear that the deal will pass the Loya Jirga, a body of Afghan elders. The raids, among other issues, have created deep mistrust between American forces and the Afghan people.
If a deal is reached, US forces could remain in the country at least another 10 years in some fashion, committing taxpayers to spending millions more on security and nation-building projects. So far, many of those projects have been undermined by corruption and dysfunction. Here are a few examples of US investments in Afghanistan that have already either fallen apart or show little signs of lasting success:
At least 19 of the hospitals built by the international community—including two US-funded facilities that cost nearly $20 million—may be too expensive for the Afghan government to run.
The Pentagon has invested $770 million for nearly 50 planes to patrol the countryside for opium poppy and hashish fields. But the Afghan government can't afford the $100 million annual overhead—nor does it have enough qualified pilots to fly the aircraft.
With two-thirds of Afghans lacking regular access to electricity, the United States has spent more than a billion dollars beefing up the country's power grid. But according to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), the state-run power company may not be able to pay its bills after 2014, when US funding expires. Meanwhile, the US Agency for International Development recently gave the utility control of the construction of a hydroelectric dam in a restive section of Helmand province—a project 29 Marines died to make possible. As the Los Angeles Times reported, there are doubts about the "utility's competence and experience, as well as the government's commitment to a project that insurgents have violently opposed."
The United States spent $1.7 billion on road and bridge building from 2002 to 2007, but some of the projects have already started to fall apart, "mainly because of the poor quality of initial construction, poor maintenance, and overloading," according to SIGAR.
More Afghan children are being educated than ever before, thanks to international development efforts. But the Afghan government won't be able to operate all the new schools, especially as international personnel and aid trickle out of the country. "Of course we built too much," one British official told the Guardian. "We didn't think about how the Afghans would pay for it…We wanted to show them what we could do for them, but without regard for sustainability."
All in all, military operations in Afghanistan have cost nearly $700 billion. That's still less than the United States spent fighting in Vietnam, but it's still a major chunk of the more than $1.6 trillion spent on the Afghan and Iraq conflicts since September 11.