Glenn Beck Advocates Secession

I suppose we knew it would come to this eventually. Glenn Beck is the tip of the spear for the conservative talkers and activists who are convinced that America is descending into tyranny under Obama. (I like Jon Stewart's line: that's not tyranny; that's just being in the minority.) The Fox News host is (1) often the first major media figure to adopt the crazy right-wing conspiracy theories that circulate on the web, thus pulling them into the mainstream; and (2) takes right-wing talking points the furthest, like when he suggested that Obama is turning America into a Nazi state. The tag line on his Fox News show ought to be: "First Among Nut Jobs: the Glenn Beck Program!"

So it was inevitable that Beck would be the first to suggest that if you oppose Obama enough, you have the right to secede. Here's Beck (audio at the link):

"You can't convince me that the Founding Fathers wouldn't allow you to secede. The Constitution is not a suicide pact. If [a] state says, "I don't want to go there because that's suicide," they have a right to back out! ...I sign into this union, and I can never, ever get out?? No matter what the government does, I can never get out??"

Here's my prediction -- in 12-18 months, conservatives will learn how to be out of power again and we'll see a lot less of the tea parties and Glenn Beck-type ranting. But I gotta wonder: Why didn't conservatives get this worked up when their party controlled the White House and they could actually pressure the president to do what they wanted? The activist/blogosphere left knows how to harness its grassroots energy when it actually matters. It doesn't complain about its politicians, the way conservative activists complain(ed) so bitterly about Bush. It works hard to get its politicians to do what it wants.

Update: Looks like Beck did this once before, in 2008.

2009 Hasselblad Photography Award

Lakewood

 

Oregon photographer Robert Adams won this year's prestigious Hasselblad Award. The Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco hosted the award ceremony, only the third time the award has been presented outside of Hasselblad's hometown of Gothenburg, Sweden.

Adams' work focuses on the American West. His 1974 book The New West looked at the changing landscape of Western states, documenting the creation of suburban landscapes in once pristine, rural areas. The photographs in this body of work helped define Adams' style as a no-frills, descriptive documentary photographer in the tradition of Walker Evans.

Over the course of 40 years as a photographer, Adams' unflinching and unsentimental eye has captured the enviornmental transformations of the Western landscape -- from forests hit by clear cutting and wide mountain landscapes to the rise of housing tracts, motels, supermarkets and trappings of suburbs.

The Hasselblad Foundation gives the photography award each year to a photographer who has contributed significantly to the field and is one of the most significant prizes to be awarded for photography. The past winners list reads like a Who's Who in Photography: Henri Cartier-Bresson, Ansel Adams, Susan Meiselas, Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, Robert Frank, Nan Goldin, Lee Friedlander, William Klien, Josef Koudelka, William Eggleston, and so on. Adams finds himself in excellent company. The winner receives a gold medal (usually presented by the Swedish royal family), a certificate and a monetary prize of 500,000 SKE.

 

How to Think About Taxes

Here's my contribution to today's tax day festivities: an effort to get you to think about federal taxes a little bit differently than usual.  Normally, when we talk about taxes, we end up talking about percentages of people: the top 1% pay a certain amount, the bottom third pay a different amount, etc.  But this is the wrong way to look at things.  What we ought to be looking at is percentages of income.

Have your eyes glazed over yet?  Just wait!  It's going to get worse.  But first a caveat: the numbers that follow aren't exact.  I don't think they're way off the mark, but they're the result of some rough interpolation from several different data sources.  Anyone with access to more detailed data is welcome to correct this, but in the meantime it should be close enough to give you an idea of how to look at this stuff.

So: percentages of income.  What I mean by this is that you'd expect a group of people with, say, one-fifth of the nation's total income to pay one-fifth of total federal taxes.  (Note: one-fifth = 20%, or one quintile in tax-speak.)  It doesn't really matter if that group has one-fifth of the people or not, just that it has one-fifth of the money.  Like this:

But hold on.  That's a flat tax, and I want to appeal to your native sense of fairness here.  Even most conservatives agree that taxation ought to be at least mildly progressive, so let's make this mildly progressive.  First, let's say that the middle quintile, almost by definition, ought to pay 20% of total taxes.  Like so:

The next quintile up ought to pay a higher share, and the quintile above that even more.  The slope of the increase doesn't need to look like a hockey stick, but it should trend clearly upward.  Let's say it should be 8% more for each quintile:

Likewise, the quintile below the middle ought to pay a lower share, and the poorest quintile ought to pay even less.  Something like this:

Question: does this seem roughly fair to you?  If you're a die-hard flat-taxer, it won't, but for most people, even conservatives, it ought to seem reasonable.  It's progressive, but the slope is moderate and consistent.  So now let's take a look at the income cutoffs that produce our five quintiles.  Here they are:

Most people are surprised at how high the income cutoffs are.  But that's how it works out.  If you add up the incomes of every single household that makes less than $50,000 — all 50 million of them — they earn only a fifth of the total income.  If you add up the tiny number of people who make more than $300,000, they also earn a fifth of total income.  So now, instead of looking at our theoretical progressive system, let's see the actual numbers.  Here they are:

As you can see, when you add up all federal taxes and compare it to where the money is, our system is only barely progressive at all.  The bottom quintile doesn't do too badly, though they're probably paying a little more than they should, but CEOs and bankers are paying only slightly more than teachers and engineers.  And if you add in state and local taxes, even this small amount of progressivity goes away.  You can come at this from a lot of different angles, but you always end up with the same answer: taken as a whole, our tax system is close to flat.  Does this seem fair to you?  It shouldn't.

NOTE: As I said above, these numbers are rough interpolations from several sources.  The high-end income data is from Piketty and Saez, here.  The middle income aggregates and cutoffs are from Census figures, here and here.  Tax shares are from the CBO, here.

Now that Somalia's finally gotten our attention, it's worth rereading a piece David Case filed for MoJo in late 2007, after (unlike most of the people who now claim expertise on the subject) actually spending time in the region. At the time, Case was one of the few reporters noting the US role in supporting the Ethiopian invasion, which helped turn a failed state into a full-on war zone:

Somalia may barely register with the American media, but the [post-invasion] bloodshed is a major story on Al Jazeera. Across the Middle East, Somalia is viewed as another hostile front in Bush's war against Islam, says Colin Thomas-Jensen of the Washington-based Enough Project. "In the minds of Muslims, this is the third time the U.S. has supported the toppling of an Islamic government with no political plan for the aftermath, leaving behind chaos."

In other words: Pirates are the least of our problems. Read the whole thing.

 

 

Paying Back the Feds

Over at TNR, Simon Johnson talks about what might happen if Goldman Sachs is allowed to pay back the TARP bailout money it was given back in October.  The government money came with certain restrictions, including restrictions on executive compensation, and Johnson argues that removing these restraints would allow Goldman to go back to the swashbuckling business model that got us into our current mess in the first place.  Plus there's this:

Another risk is the effects on other banks.  If Goldman can really attract all the talent, which is what they're arguing, and really go back to an earlier business model, that's going to take away profits and remove future profitability from other banks, and that could increase the pressure on them.

Hold on a second.  I thought high earners didn't deserve their pay because it turns out they produced huge losses instead of huge gains?  So why would Goldman Sachs be so eager to hire them all back?  And even if they do, who cares?  The rest of the industry is better off without them.  Isn't that the party line?

Not anymore, I guess.  Johnson is basically admitting here that if Goldman can use high pay to attract top talent, then they'll be more profitable and competitors will suffer.  But if that's the case, no direct cap on executive pay is ever going to stop firms from bidding top talent into the stratosphere.  They'll always figure a way around any cap we put in place, and trying to keep up is a mug's game.

Much better is to let them pay whatever they want, and focus instead on ways to shrink both the size and profitability of the industry as a whole.  A limit on bank size is one possibility.  Limits on leverage are another.  Stricter regulation of opaque credit derivatives and off-balance sheet accounting is yet another.  Or, if you want to focus on pay itself, do it indirectly by creating tax advantages for long-term restricted stock grants that motivate better investing behavior.  And needless to say, do this for everyone, not just banks that took TARP funds.  Do this, and deflation of the Wall Street pay bubble will follow naturally.

Debating the Bush Six Case on "Hardball"

I was on Hardball again with uber-hawk Frank Gaffney Jr., a onetime Reagan Pentagon official. The subject tonight: the possible prosecution in Spain of six past Bush officials--including former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, former undersecretary of defense Douglas Feith, former Justice Department official John Yoo, and David Addington, onetime counsel to Vice President Dick Cheney--for devising the legal justification for torture conducted at Guantanamo. Gaffney, of course, decried the Spanish action as an attack on US sovereignty. If I heard him right, he essentially argued that the United States need not abide by any international rules (or treaties) if they lead to any undue infringement of national sovereignty. And who gets to judge what makes for such an infringement? I think Gaffney would like that job.

Two Crimes, Two Stereotypes

This week I've been following the tragic case of Sandra Cantu, an eight-year old California girl who was raped and murdered. Her suspected killer is Melissa Huckaby, a local Sunday school teacher. Also this week, I learned that rapper Lil Wayne told Jimmy Kimmel that he first had sex at age 11. Kimmel termed it "lost your virginity," but due to Wayne's age at the time and the 13-year old girl who lured him with board games, I think the incident would be better categorized as rape.

Both the Wayne and Cantu cases stuck out to me because they really run against the stereotypical depictions of men as predators and women as victims. While statistically women commit only about 10% of murders, if Huckaby is guilty, it will be a sad case-in-point that women, even white, Sunday school-teaching mothers, can indeed rape and kill. Wayne's childhood assault is completely deplorable—and so is the fact that Kimmel thought it was okay to joke about it on TV—and it's a stark reminder that men are also victims of sexual violence. Even African American, bling-loving rappers who write hypersexual, misogynist songs like "Ask Them Hoes."

I really wonder if Kimmel would have asked Britney Spears or Missy Elliot or any other female celebrity about losing their "virginity" before they turned 12. My feeling is, such an exchange would have had a lot more of "you're a survivor" and a lot less of "wow, cool, what was that like?" What do you think? If Lil Wayne were a woman, would Kimmel even touch the subject?

Google Health Records: Ready for Prime Time?

The short answer: Not so much. From the Boston Globe (via ProPublica):

When Dave deBronkart, a tech-savvy kidney cancer survivor, tried to transfer his medical records from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center to Google Health, a new free service that lets patients keep all their health records in one place and easily share them with new doctors, he was stunned at what he found.
Google said his cancer had spread to either his brain or spine - a frightening diagnosis deBronkart had never gotten from his doctors - and listed an array of other conditions that he never had, as far as he knew, like chronic lung disease and aortic aneurysm. A warning announced his blood pressure medication required "immediate attention."
"I wondered, 'What are they talking about?' " said deBronkart, who is 59 and lives in Nashua.

The culprit: Bad billing records. Read the rest of the Globe story for deets.

If Google's wicked smart crew can't get the backend of a health care e-record repository right, can anyone?

Quote of the Day #2 - 04.14.09

From Robert Farley, on the problem with the feeding frenzy of pundit bloviating about how to solve the pirate crisis:

Long story short, the super-simple proposal you've developed for ending piracy has probably already been thought of, and probably has a host of problems that you haven't considered.

Actually, that's pretty sound advice for nearly everything more complicated than tying your shoelaces in the morning.

But as long as we're talking about pirates, here's my pet peeve: the endless rounds of joking and snark that they provoke.  I know it's kind of hard to resist, but latter day pirates have actually been around for a long time, and the particular problem with them in the Gulf of Aden has been in the news for over a year now.  We really ought to have the giggling out of our systems by now.

Are Twitter and Facebook Bad for You?

Obsessed with Twitter and Facebook? Then you're probably immoral and stupid.

At least, that's what two new studies claim. USC researchers allege that speed-tweeting leaves no time for compassion. I wonder if this applies to recent-Twitter convert Jesus. (Apparently, Twitter may also have jumped the shark. Poor Biz Stone.)

Meanwhile, a survey by Ohio doctoral students reveals that Facebook users get inferior grades in school. Because stalking ex-boyfriends online totally cuts into study time.

Somehow, I doubt these studies will stop anybody from social networking. Which reminds me: Did you know MoJo has its own Twitter feed and Facebook page? Check them out!