Thursday, March 25

The Blinkered View (Written 11/25/2007)

Alan Greenspan appeared last Wednesday on C-Span’s Book TV to promote a new book, The Age of Turbulence: Adventures in a New World. In an interview conducted by Daniel Yergin, Greenspan touched on a number of topics, including his insouciance regarding America’s mushrooming levels of personal and national indebtedness; but the most interesting and revealing moment came at the end of the hour, when Mr. Yergin brought up the topic of income inequality.

In my experience income inequality has always been a progressive concern, yet here was Alan Greenspan, disciple of Ayn Rand, implacable critic of the New Deal, proponent of “trickle down” economics, expressing his concern, indeed predicting that a system which does not address the issue adequately “cannot stand.”

As Mr. Greenspan noted, the evidence for serious disparities in wealth and income among Americans is overwhelming. According to the Luxembourg Income Study of 26 industrialized nations, the gap between the wealthiest 10% of the population and the poorest 10% is greater in the United States than in any country except Russia. The Economic Policy Institute reveals that the bottom 4/5ths of the American population controls only 17% of the nation’s wealth. And the situation isn’t getting better. Pay for top level executives continues to skyrocket, while that of middle income workers has been stagnant or actually declining since the mid-seventies in spite of steady increases in worker productivity. No other comparable degree of inequality has been seen in the United States since the early 1900s.

And Alan Greenspan’s worried about it! Has the world turned upside down?

No! As I listened further, it became clear that Mr. Greenspan still doesn't give a damn about the poor and middle class. According to his analysis, income disparity is due to America’s dysfunctional educational system, because poorly trained American workers can't compete with highly skilled immigrants. This, says Mr. Greenspan, is the source of the crippling envy that threatens to paralyze our nation's economy. The solution is obvious, though “controversial". We must relax our restrictions on immigration, flooding the market with skilled workers, and driving down wages. Viola: no more income disparity!

The pathology of this viewpoint is breathtaking. Does Mr. Greenspan expect us to believe that a machinist making $30 an hour lies awake at night worrying that his German-born neighbor makes $40 an hour, while the CEO who employs them both takes home a seven figure yearly salary?

Greenspan’s approach suffers has other defects. In the first place it’s cruel and immoral. Secondly, instead of decreasing income disparity it would do the opposite. By depressing wages executives and stockholders would realize a tidy profit, thus increasing income differential. Finally there’s a better way, that has already demonstrated its effectiveness.

Economic conservatives maintain that progressive taxation reduces capital investment, inhibits small businesses, and depresses the economy. Supposedly wealthy plutocrats are easily discouraged, while middle income workers loyally buckle down and make do with less for the common good. In fact, high marginal tax rates ushered in by the New Deal paved the way for national prosperity and a thriving middle class, while the tax cuts for the wealthy imposed by Ronald Reagan and his supply-side successors have led us to our present sorry state.

Mr. Greenspan seems to think that no one has noticed this.

Tuesday, January 5

Summer Friends

Early August
The sun's barely up
and the morning rush has begun
at the hummingbird feeder outside my window.

It's no wonder these little birds show up for breakfast early and en masse.
With their ferocious metabolism they must often consume
2 to 3 times their body weight in bugs & nectar every day!

It’s an orderly crowd with none of the squabbling that takes place later in the day.
Newcomers hover patiently waiting for their turn,
except for one copper colored ruffian.

This is a Rufous Hummingbird
and he may have reason to be hungry.
Many Rufous hummers fly here from Alaska!

Later in the summer eating will become even more important
as falling temperatures herald the annual migration to Central & South America.
Hummingbirds make that stupendous journey twice yearly,
flying south in the fall and north again in the spring.
Some of them cross the Gulf of Mexico –
more than 500 miles at one go!

And each of them does it entirely alone, even the youngsters,
who are barely five or six weeks old at the time.
Hummers never travel in flocks!

Hummingbirds start their lives as pea sized eggs,
usually laid in pairs.
Although we're surrounded by hummingbirds each summer
I've only found one nest.
It appeared to be made from tiny flakes of leaves
held together with strands of spider silk.
And it was very hard to see!

I wish I could show you images of baby hummingbirds,
but I was lucky to get a shot of the nesting female.

A fellow name Steve Worthington, who obviously lives in
a less rugged part of the country, has done better.
I heartily recommend his
video montage
[Except for occasional popups of ugly animal sculptures.]

After they've left the nest, juvenile hummingbirds are difficult to identify.
They're smaller and plumper than mature birds
and their feathers look a bit scruffy.
Here's a photo of a juvenile hummer resting on one of our feeders.

As you can see, he's quite a bit different from the sleek adult
who visited me in my office a couple of summers ago.

End of August

Our feeders are virtually deserted now.
Perhaps half a dozen early risers show up outside my office this morning.
By tomorrow they may be gone too.
The hummingbirds depart abruptly at summer's end.
There's a brief flurry of activity around mid-August.
Then their numbers drop precipitiously.

We maintain the feeders for a couple of weeks
for migrating birds passing through on their way south,
but soon the last stragglers disappear
and it's time to clean the feeders and pack them away for spring.

The air feels empty without the darting shapes,
and their ubiquitous chirps and whistles,
but eventually we grow accustomed to the silence.

When the first winter storm howls through,
in October or November,
it will be nice to think of our tiny friends
flitting about in a warmer clime,
sipping tropical nectars,
and sleeping under gentler stars.

Saturday, December 19

Online Reading

Morning in the mountains:

It’s early, but the sky already heralds a cloudy,
maybe even a snowy day, perfect for curling up with a book ...

or a laptop! You'll see what I mean in a moment.

We live in an era that might justifiably be
called "The Age of the Internet." Anyone who doubts this should consider
the role that this nearly ubiquitous medium played in our recent
election. One of Barack Obama's signal advantages over John
McCain during the campaign was his superior ability to organize
and raise funds online. Every day more than a million new pages of
information appear on the Internet. Much of this -
perhaps most of it - consists of trivial stuff like
individual Facebook profiles. On the brighter side, in spite of energetic
attempts to impose profit-making business models on the
Internet, most online content is still free. The challenge
is to sift through all the dreck for the gems of information hiding there.

For a reader like me some of the most
precious finds are the providers of on-line books. By that I don't mean
commercial enterprises like I mean
websites offering full-length books that can be downloaded or read online
for free! At one time it was speculated that mankind's entire literary
output would soon become available via free electronic media. This ideal
still lies in the future. Indeed, it may never come about, not least
because of the understandable reluctance of living authors to work for nothing.
Nevertheless progress has been made, especially in the area of books that are in
the public domain.

A good place to start is, where you can dive into the 50 volume
Harvard Classics (Bacon, Milton, Emerson, Burns ... )

or the 20 volume companion collection of classic
fiction by writers like Poe, Dickens, Austen, etc.

That's just for openers.

The site offers hundreds and hundreds of other listings.

If you're interested in lighter (but by no means
inconsequential) fare, a good place to start is
Page by Page Books.

If you're a Mark Twain fan, you'll find complete versions of Tom
, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, A Connecticut Yankee
... and others. Then there's Upton Sinclair, Agatha Christie, Jimmy Carter,
Jules Verne, and many more authors, both classic and contemporary.
It's a very eclectic collection.

On the drier side, the University of Pennsylvania's
Online Books Page offers an extensive list of
technical and scientific publications provided by educational
institutions, as well as books published by special interest or
commercial groups. An example of the latter is a fascinating book entitled,
Plank and Beam Framing for Residential Buildings, put out
by the American Wood Council. Especially for those
interested in public policy, there's the
National Academies Press website.

The first and still one of the most
successful literary websites belongs to
Project Guttenberg, which makes more than 27,000
"e-books" available for free (if you don't count the monthly cost of your
ISP subscription!) If you haven't visited their webpage yet, you should
take a look. Bibliophiles like me might want to set aside a
couple of hours for this!

You can visit a website that lists other websites
offering free books. One such is the excellent
Online Librairies. Or you can
google places for yourself. Meanwhile, here are a few more of my

Try their Music category, if you'd
like to read the librettos of Gilbert and Sullivan
operettas, many
of them with accompanying music and commentaries! But there's a lot more.

Free audio instructional
books that you can download to your mp3 player!
For those of you who haven't yet encountered the
charming Mr. Pepys, the absolutely best introduction is Kenneth Branaugh's
audio version:
The Diary of Samuel Pepys. (This is the
only link I've included here to something that you have to buy, but, trust
me, it's worth it! ) For those who've already experienced
Kevin Branaugh's performance and would like to learn more, the website
Pepys's Diary features daily readings from the complete journal,
along with extensive links and references to the world of 17th century England.

Free Classic Audiobooks

Just what it says. Click on the links
and download them in mp3 or Ipod format. The list's not huge, but there
are still lots of interesting titles.

Shakespeare's plays, Uncle Remus stories, de Maupassant ...
There's a lot here. Well worth a look and the
price is right!

This website features a huge assortment of books in audio form read by
members. You can download the audio files or you can volunteer to create
additional audio books yourself!
I'm currently listening to the works of Franz Kafka in the original German!
This is how his famous short story, Die Verwandlung [The Transformation] begins:

“Als Gregor Samsa eines Morgens aus unruhigen Träumen erwachte,

fand er sich in seinem Bett zu einem ungeheueren Ungeziefer verwandelt…”


"When Gregor Samsa woke from restless dreams one morning,

he found while in his bed he'd been transformed into a gigantic insect."

This must be one of the
best known opening lines in all of literature, although I doubt
anything could match the iconic first sentence in
Moby Dick!
Not surprisingly, I've found that, like most great
writers, Kafka isn't as good in translation as the original.

There's much more out there. All you have to do is look.

And have a pleasant day, no matter how you spend it.

Wednesday, December 2

Tax Fantasies

I didn't sleep well last week. A small compensation for my insomnia was this image of the moon setting over the Rockies.

President Obama gave a major speech on the economy last night to a joint session of Congress. As speeches go, it was all right, as long as one doesn't compare it to the speeches of, say, Franklin Roosevelt. In the continuing battle between liberals and conservatives over FDR's legacy, Roosevelt's speeches have been sadly neglected. The man possessed a gift for moving, eloquent, intelligent oratory that few others in American history can match. A single example from his 1932 nomination speech is enough to show the grace with which he spoke.

"The greatest tribute that I can pay to my countrymen is that in these days of crushing want there persists an orderly and hopeful spirit on the part of the millions of our people who have suffered so much. To fail to offer them a new chance is not only to betray their hopes but to misunderstand their patience. "

To find more of this eloquence go to the Roosevelt Institute website.

Roosevelt was referring to a nation that was, as he famously described it later, "ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished." It's difficult to imagine today the condition of the people who listened to these words. Comparisons of today's economic perils to the deprivation that gripped the nation during the Great Depression are inadequate. The most important thing to bear in mind is the possibility that, without effective action, we and our families might actually learn what it was like through bitter experience.

Both before and after Obama's speech the networks broadcast interviews with various politicians, which meant, of course, that we were subjected to the usual "damned lies" about taxes. How often have you heard the claim that Ronald Reagan’s tax cuts stimulated the economy to such an extent that federal tax revenue increased? A dozen times? A hundred? It doesn’t matter. The assertion is false. In the first place, it doesn’t make sense. Here’s a typical example of conservative economic reasoning:

Economic growth requires four main factors:
1) a motivated, educated and trained workforce;
2) sufficient levels of capital equipment and technology;
3)a solid infrastructure and
4) a legal system and rule of law sufficient to enforce contracts.
High tax rates reduce economic growth because they make it less profitable to work, save and invest.

Tax Rebates Will Not Stimulate the Economy – Brian M. Riedl, Heritage Foundation

What's missing from this analysis? In a word, demand! The four factors that Mr. Riedl identifies may be necessary for production of goods and services, but they do nothing to stimulate demand! What assurance is there that anyone will buy new goods and services, when these become available? The writer says nothing about this, apparently assuming that if goods and services are offered, consumers will magically appear in sufficient numbers, with sufficient resources, and with the desire to buy. Is there any guarantee that this will occur, because of a tax cut? Absolutely not, especially when the tax cut is slanted toward the wealthy!

This is the epitome of “supply side” economics, the reigning philosophy of the far right since the days of Ronald Reagan. It's doubled our national debt several times - most recently under George W. Bush - and propelled our economy into the worst recession since the 1930s. Tax cuts benefit primarily those who pay the most taxes – that is, the rich. By channeling the nation’s wealth into the coffers of those who are already well off, these policies have decimated the American middle class and cut the heart out of the vibrant economy that we enjoyed in the mid-twentieth century. When there aren’t enough buyers and not enough spending money to purchase goods and services, sales fall, inventories rise, businesses cut back, and the economy spirals downward. We're watching it happen right now!

Supply siders would have us believe that, when the wealthy receive a tax cut, they immediately run out and start new businesses or expand existing ones; but this violates basic business economics. Well run companies employ just enough workers to satisfy demand for their product. They expand, when changes in the marketplace create more demand than they can currently satisfy, and they don't require a tax cut in order to do this. They can borrow needed capital in the assurance that they will enjoy increased sales and therefore increased profits over the long term. On the other hand, if there's no market for the added productivity, it makes no sense for them to hire additional workers, even if they receive a cash windfall in the form of reduced taxes. They will lose that money and more, because they will be unable to sell the added goods or services that their larger workforce produces. The same applies to business start-ups.

Let's look at the other side of this coin. Republicans claim that increased taxes invariably lead businesses to lay off workers. This is absurd. Remember, an efficient business employs just enough workers to satisfy existing demand for its product. Suppose the CEO of a business learns that he must pay a higher corporate tax. He can accept a smaller profit or reduce dividends to shareholders. He can seek economies of one type or another to offset the tax. But if he lays off workers, he will no longer be able to satisfy current demand for his product. Sales will drop and he will lose even more money! Well run businesses don't do this!

So much for theory. Let's examine the facts. Republicans boast that Bush’s 2001 and 2003 tax cuts stimulated the economy. According to the Congressional Budget Office they did nothing of the sort! In fact, the CBO reports, 2007 should have produced a surplus; instead, thanks to those tax cuts, it produced a large deficit. In the year 2000 (before Bush!) federal revenues amounted to 20.9% of the country's Gross Domestic Product. By 2005 this had fallen to 16.8%, lower than at any time since 1960. According to the CBO half of that decrease was due to the Bush tax cuts!

As for Reagan the decreases in marginal tax rates that he promoted caused such massive federal debt that Congress had to pass an even larger tax increase - the largest in American history up to that time - in order to prevent an economic meltdown. This tax hike was disguised as an increase in FICA withholding, which had a number of advantages: it allowed Reagan and the Republicans to continue promoting their economic fantasies; it boosted an ailing Social Security trust fund; and, best of all from the viewpoint of conservatives, it benefited the wealthy at the expense of the the poor and middle class, for whom FICA is a larger fraction of total taxes.

One of the most comprehensive sources for information about tax policy is a September, 2006 report entitled: "REVENUE EFFECTS OF MAJOR TAX BILLS" from the Treasury Department’s Office of Tax Analysis. Here’s a summary of the report's analysis of Reagan’s 1981 tax cut. During the four years following its enactment the "Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981" produced the following decreases in federal revenue:

Years Revenue loss
1 -$54.9 Billion
2 -$123.7 Billion
3 -$178.9 Billion
4 -$217.2 Billion

If that’s not enough, a more detailed discussion of the tax cut myth can be found in this report, which analyzes all three of the tax cuts that conservatives like to tout: Reagan’s, Kennedy’s, and Bush’s. As you’ll see, none of these measures produced the increases in revenue that the right wing politicians and talking heads assert.

Okay, what about job creation? During 25 of the first 31 months of Bush's administration, in spite of the massive tax cuts that he sponsored, the country lost jobs! By the end of his second term, Bush had racked up the worst record in 34 years, creating less than a tenth as many new jobs as Bill Clinton had. In fact, job growth under Bush wasn't even enough to keep up with the growth in population!

This is not to say that the Bush tax cuts helped no one. According to the CBO, families earning more than $1 million per year made out handsomely. Of course, middle income families saw their incomes fall (assuming they had any!) and most of them wound up paying higher taxes. But who cares about them?

Will these tax myths ever disappear? I doubt it. By now they’ve become part of conservative Gospel, immune to criticism. But at least you'll know better. The next time you hear someone holding forth about how wonderful tax cuts are, how they stimulate job creation, boost the economy, and make Americans bettter off, check you bank book. If you're raking in seven figures per annum, then clap that fellow on the back and say, "Right on, brother." But, if you're like the rest of us, maybe you should ask some tough questions.

Monday, April 9

Sick Bastards

Not long ago, driven by what can only be called morbid curiosity, I picked up a copy of a magazine called Field & Stream. For someone who likes animals as much as I do, this kind of publication evokes a kind of nauseated fascination, similar to what one might feel while reading a newsletter from a Nazi concentration camp.

Most of the articles I read dealt with fishing. To judge from the photographs humans appear to enjoy this activity. It was harder to tell how the fish felt about their role, but I suppose that being dragged from the water with hooks and drowning in air isn't much fun. This was a common theme throughout the magazine: hunting and fishing are distinctly one-sided amusements.

After reading the fishing reports, I thought I could handle anything that Field and Stream might throw at me. That was before I encountered a one-page article entitled "Knockdown Power." Its author, David Petzal, began by lamenting the time he wasted in high school memorizing data on muzzle velocity, shot weight, and kinetic energy of ammunition. (Picture a sullen, pimply faced youngster, backpack stuffed with gun magazines and shell casings, striding silently along school corridors, while girls giggle and whisper. Did scenes like this occur at Columbine, I wonder?)

Eventually young Petzal found a role model: a man named Warren Page, who preceded him as author of the column I was now reading and who had "killed more animals than I had dreamed of." (This evidently passes for flattery among readers of Field and Stream.) What wisdom did Mssr. Page impart to his idealistic protégé? According to Petzal it was "the dirty secret that no projectile actually takes an animal off its feet." Petzal illustrates this revelation with examples from his own experience. Quoth he, "I killed … I killed … I killed ... ." Get the idea?

Well, no. You can’t truly understand something like this without subjecting yourself to the details. Here’s Petzal on shooting a deer. For those of you who didn’t spend your high school years as profitably as he did, ".270" is the weight of a bullet in grains.

A few years ago I killed a white-tail doe with a .270 that entered the rib cage on the left side and ranged forward to exit the right shoulder, breaking it in the process, and demolished both lungs and the heart. The bullet almost cut the poor creature in half but did not knock it down. That doe ran for 70 yards.

"Good taste," Petzal continues primly, "Constrains me from going on, because good taste is everything to me." [I didn’t make this up!] If you're wondering where there's evidence of good taste in the passage, I can't help you. Nowhere is there a hint that Petzal has any conception of what animals experience, when he pulls the trigger, or that he cares. In the caption of a photograph showing a magnificent bull moose he asserts that animals "don’t react to bullet impact. They look bitter and resentful for a while, then keel over."



For non-hunters the callousness and brutality implicit in this "sport" may be hard to credit without actually reading a magazine like Field and Stream, but a word of caution. If you’ve previously bought into the hunting community’s propaganda, that animals don’t suffer, when they're shot, that they die quickly, or that hunters rarely miss, prepare to be disabused. Among their own, hunters are more honest. The rates of animal wounding by hunters are absolutely appalling. Even presumably "good" shots routinely describe shooting animals which survive for minutes or even hours. Some manage to elude a second shot altogether, only to suffer a protracted and agonizing death from blood loss or infection. Others will eventually succumb to thirst, or starve, or fall prey to carnivores.

And some, terribly mutilated, live on for years. I remember a beautiful little doe who lived for several seasons in the woods behind my house in Virginia. A hunter’s bullet had crushed her shoulder – the scar was still visible – and her leg, limp and shrunken, dangled pathetically whenever she moved. She’d managed somehow to reach the protected environment around Great Falls Park, but life must have been difficult for her even there. It broke my heart to watch her limp slowly after the other deer, as they bounded away through the forest.

For some reason hunters are immune to pity or at least they're able to turn the emotion on and off at will. They seem to regard wild animals as mere things, devoid of fear and untouched by pain, that have been placed in the woods for their amusement. The ability of hunters to distance themselves from the horrors that they inflict resembles what soldiers do in warfare, a process of extinquishing sympathy by redefinition called "depersonalization." Thus hunters, who often enjoy warm, loving relationships with their dogs, can without the slightest compunction put a bullet through an inoffensive creature differing in no crucial respect from their canine buddies.

How do they do this? I have no idea, but I’m bothered by the similarity between this kind of emotional disconnection and that shown by mass murderers and other sociopaths. Although hunters and the organizations that represent them vehemently dispute this, there is evidence for a link between childhood exposure to hunting and various types of violent crime.

In the long run none of this may matter. According to recent statistics, hunters today constitute a dwindling minority in the United States as well as in Europe. While I may not live long enough to see it, I rejoice to think that someday this repulsive activity and the ugly periodicals that celebrate it will disappear from the planet. It can't happen too soon.