Friday, March 2, 2012

Arizona professor finds that tax progressivity does not matter in creating an equitable society

By Marc Jampole

Most people who have been reading the progressive or the mainstream news media know that the last 30 years have seen the United States become a less equitable society, with fewer people in the middle class and more people who are poor and near poor. By income, assets or any other measure, the top 1% now control much more of the wealth of the country than they did in 1979.

In my view, that net transfer of wealth took place in three ways:

  • Tax rates were lowered and the tax system made less progressive, which means the difference in the tax rate paid by the wealthy and the poor narrowed.

  • Government programs transferred less money to the poor and middle class.

  • Less income went to the wages of the non-owners, non-executives and non-professionals and more went to high earners and to corporate profit.

It has long been a mantra of the left, including myself, that making taxes more progressive is one of the best ways to reduce income and wealth inequality. When I spoke with Professor William Domhoff of “Who Rules America?” fame in Santa Cruz this past January, he began to make the case that maybe we shouldn’t harp so much on tax progressivity.

Earlier this week Professor Domhoff sent me a link to an article at the blog of Professor Lane Kenworthy, Professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of Arizona in which Professor Kenworthy analyzes how different industrialized countries reduce income inequality. He uses existing statistics, but looks at them in an innovative way.

It turns out that no other country reduces income inequality through a progressive tax system except the United States, the nation that does the worse job of reducing the inequalities of wealth that the free market seems to generate naturally.

Professor Kenworthy writes that “the chief contribution of taxes to inequality reduction is indirect. Taxes provide the money to fund the transfers that reduce inequality.” He finds that “it is the quantity of the tax rather than its progressivity that matters most.”

Professor Kenworthy reaches the conclusion that we should consider a national consumption tax with all the proceeds earmarked for programs that help the poor and middle class. Kenworthy suggests a 5% tax with funds used for universal healthcare, universal preschool and/or high quality child care. Everyone pays the same rate on a consumption tax, which people and businesses pay when they purchase goods and services, so it is regressive.

I think the idea of any tax that has all funds earmarked to improving our tattered social service net is a great idea, and certainly worth very serious consideration when we are talking about reforming the tax system. But I warn progressives interested in getting behind this idea not to sever the link between the tax and the earmark to social service programs. If that link is severed, the right-wing will jump on the tax part and then use it to pay down the debt or cut other taxes on the wealthy.

Moreover, I was wondering if perhaps there were a more direct way to transfer wealth, and that’s to implement policies that equalize income, such as:

  • Raise the federal minimum wage

  • End state “right to work” laws and other anti-union laws

  • End privatization of government services, such as prisons, charter schools and military supply line support, since this privatization typically leads to lower salaries for most of the employees of the privatized operation.

No matter how we prioritize the progressive economic agenda, Professor Kenworthy has thought outside the box and uncovered an important idea—that tax progressivity is not important and therefore can be a bargaining chip with the right.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Study begs question: do people get rich acting unethically or act unethically because they think they are privileged?

By Marc Jampole

The news this week that a new study found that wealthier people were more likely to behave unethically set off a chicken-or-egg debate in my mind.

In the study, Paul Piff, a graduate student at the University of California-Berkeley, led a team of researchers at UC-Berkeley and the University of Toronto in a variety of behavioral experiments involving about 1,000 people.

They ran 7 experiments, all of which concluded that upper-class individuals behave more unethically than lower-class individuals:

  • In two of the studies, upper-class individuals were more likely than lower-class individuals to break the law while driving.

  • In a laboratory study, upper-class individuals were more likely to exhibit unethical decision-making tendencies.

  • Other lab studies showed upper class people more likely to take valued goods from others, to lie in a negotiation and to cheat to increase their chances of winning a prize.

  • Yet another lab study showed that those in the upper class were more likely than the poor to endorse unethical behavior at work.

The researchers used a number of ways to evaluate socioeconomic status, such as education levels, annual income and the participants’ own perception of their social standing. But it didn’t matter what measure they used to sort participants into classes: those with higher status tended to behave in ways that served their own self-interest, even if it was unethical. My own view is that the reason it didn’t matter which criterion they measure: In the United States, virtually all social status reduces to money. The wealthier you are, the higher the social class, the higher the self-perception of class, the higher the annual income and the higher the level of education.

By the way, neither the study nor anyone else is saying that all wealthy people are unethical, only that a larger percentage of wealthy people than poor people will do or consider doing things that most people consider to be unethical.

Now comes the chicken or egg: do people gain higher status primarily by engaging in unethical activities? Or does having a higher status make people think they are better than others and can play by their own rules?

Let’s start with the “chicken” speculation of the authors of the study, i.e., being rich changes how people behave:

  • The independence offered by financial security may foster a sense of entitlement and a lack of concern for others.

  • Affluent people may be more likely to get away with misbehavior because they have better paying jobs and better paying jobs are associated with less supervision.

  • The affluent may be more willing to take ethical risks because they have the resources at their disposal to address the inconvenience of getting caught.

We know that there is less social mobility in the United States than ever before in its history and less than any other industrialized country.
What that means is that today’s upper class of wealth is primarily, but not exclusively, children of the upper class. That would certainly speak to the idea that the chicken came first, that is, that wealth created the pattern of bad behavior and not the other way around, at least in the current generation.

The researchers did find an “egg” explanation, which means that there may be something about cheating, lying and other unethical behavior that helps people get rich. The researchers found that unethical behavior was closely related to positive feelings about greed. Although the connection appeared to be strongest among high-status individuals, even lower-status individuals were more prone to ethical lapses if they felt that greed was good.

In other words, if you want money as an ends to itself and value the acquisition of wealth, you will be more likely to behave unethically.

Here comes the paradox: greed imbues our entire value system. We equate the pursuit of happiness with the pursuit of wealth. We measure success by wealth and what it buys: the amount of the sports or book contract, the size of the diamond or the house. We admire rich people and follow their doings. Much of the mass media revolves around celebrities, who for the most part are either rich or striving to be rich. Over the past 30 or so years, our leaders have created a system that provides no constraint on the accumulation of wealth, even if that means a decline in public services for everyone else, thus confirming private greed as the central economic value.

Everywhere we go, we are told to be greedy. Now comes this research that shows that greed causes people to turn their backs on our shared norms of social and economic interactions. In other words, the basic drive that propels our society erodes its foundation.

The right-wing likes to blame many groups for the decline of American civilization that they see: The real implication of this research is that it shows that it’s not the pointy-headed academics who have led us into the fix we’re in, nor the European-style socialists, nor those who offend archaic family values.

No, it’s greed pure and simple that is sinking the United States.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Great Courses video lectures presents a history of the west and calls it world history

By Marc Jampole

On the back cover of this past Sunday’s New York Times Book Review was a full-page advertisement for a “Great Course” (that’s the brand name) set of DVDs or CDs titled “The World Was Never the Same: Events That Changed History.”

I never read these ads, but the idea of reducing history to 36 incidents appeals to my “top 10” mentality, like the “10 greatest battles in history” or the “25 most influential people of the 20th century.” Great Courses describes the video course as “36 of the most important and definitive events in the history of the world. It’s an intriguing and engaging tour of thousands of years of human history.”

With only 36 events, I assumed that selection of events to include on the list would reveal the ideological bent of the lecturer, in this case a professor at the University of Oklahoma by the name of J. Rufus Fears.

Never fear, in his list of important events of world history, Fears reveals himself to be another white male selling an old-fashioned and specifically American version of the growth of the Christian world, spiced with a survey of world religions to promote a superficial diversity. Check out the list or skip to my analysis:

  1. Hammurabi Issues a Code of Law (1750 B.C.)

  2. Moses and Monotheism (1220 B.C.

  3. The Enlightenment of the Buddha (526 B.C.)

  4. Confucius Instructs a Nation (553–479 B.C.)

  5. Solon—Democracy Begins (594 B.C.)

  6. Marathon—Democracy Triumphant (490 B.C.)

  7. Hippocrates Takes an Oath (430 B.C.)

  8. Caesar Crosses the Rubicon (49 B.C.)

  9. Jesus—The Trial of a Teacher (A.D. 36)

  10. Constantine I Wins a Battle (A.D. 312)

  11. Muhammad Moves to Medina—The Hegira (A.D. 622)

  12. Bologna Gets a University (1088)

  13. Dante Sees Beatrice (1283)

  14. Black Death—Pandemics and History (1348)

  15. Columbus Finds a New World (1492)

  16. Michelangelo Accepts a Commission (1508)

  17. Erasmus—A Book Sets Europe Ablaze (1516)

  18. Luther’s New Course Changes History (1517)

  19. The Defeat of the Spanish Armada (1588)

  20. The Battle of Vienna (1683)

  21. The Battle of Lexington (1775)

  22. General Pickett Leads a Charge (1863)

  23. Adam Smith (1776) versus Karl Marx (1867)

  24. Charles Darwin Takes an Ocean Voyage (1831)

  25. Louis Pasteur Cures a Child (1885)

  26. Two Brothers Take a Flight (1903)

  27. The Archduke Makes a State Visit (1914)

  28. One Night in Petrograd (1917)

  29. The Day the Stock Market Crashed (1929)

  30. Hitler Becomes Chancellor of Germany (1933)

  31. Franklin Roosevelt Becomes President (1933)

  32. Mao Zedong Begins His Long March (1934)

  33. The Atomic Bomb Is Dropped (1945)

  34. John F. Kennedy Is Assassinated (1963)

  35. Dr. King Leads a March (1963)

  36. September 11, 2001

There are so many things wrong with this list from the standpoint of world history that I don’t know where to start!

Except for the Hammurabi Code and the founding of some major world religions, all the events involve the growth of the Christian West according to the mid-20th century middlebrow American version that goes from Greece to Rome to Christian Europe to the land of the free.

One quarter of all the events involve the United States, a nation that has existed for about 230 years, or a mere 2% of the time since humans began cultivating plants and animals. How, for example, did the assassination of John Kennedy change world history? Eisenhower and Kennedy had already committed us to Viet Nam and the civil rights movement was already growing. And how do both the 1929 stock market crash and the election of FDR get onto a list of 36 events that changed history?

Neither of the events representing arts and letters changed history. There are commonalities between the creative artists involved: Both are recognized by most people. Both represent more of a summing up of a tradition than a break with tradition. Both have created examples of Christian art:

  • Dante is one of my favorite poets, one who I have studied extensively and reread quite often, but I would never claim that he changed history, not even literary history, unless you believe that no one else would have thought of writing in the vernacular instead of Latin. Other than the innovation of writing in Italian, his style represents the height of medievalism, soon to be swept away by the stylistic innovations of the Renaissance. Real literary innovators with lasting influence include Li Po and Tu Fu (late Tang Dynasty poets), Cervantes and Joyce.

  • Same thing goes for Michelangelo, whose event was getting the commission to paint the Sistine Chapel. A magnificent and extremely famous painting, but Michelangelo, though imitated, did not revolutionize painting, only helped it a little to evolve. Nothing Michelangelo did was as influential as the work of Giotto, Masaccio, Van Eck, Monet or Picasso, not to mention the late Yuan Chinese painter Zhao Mengfu, who had a lasting impact on both Chinese and European art.

There are subtle signs of ethnocentricity everywhere: For example, the founding of Europe’s first university in 1088 is mentioned, but not the introduction of the examination system in the Chinese civil service more than 475 years earlier. We learn of the Battle of Vienna in which the Christian Hapsburgs turned back the Islamic Ottomans, but nothing about the founding of any Chinese dynasty, nothing about the Mughal conquest of India, nothing about Chinggis Khan! Also note the male-centric nature of the lectures: no event involves a woman.

We would have to hear or see the lecture to know for sure, but the promotional materials suggests that Fear’s handling of slavery and its bloody demise—a major theme in world history—is a whitewash. The event representing the American Civil War is presented from the point of view of the South, i.e., “General Pickett leads a charge.” The paragraph description of this lecture on the website makes the specious claim that the South would have won the Civil War if it had won the Battle of Gettysburg. This understanding of the war conveniently forgets the tremendous resource advantage that the North had, which Ulysses S. Grant understood and used to his advantage in planning his battles. But more to the point, there is no room in the course for any event depicting the 400-year history of the slave trade, which funded the economic and technological advances of Western Europe and the United States from the 16th through much of the 19th centuries.

And who is this J. Rufus Fears, who lectures to us about these important events in world history?

The Great Course promotional material calls Fears a “historian,” but judging from what I could find about him on the Internet, he is as much of a practicing historian as Rufus T. Firefly.

An Internet search finds that Fears teaches a lot of video/audio courses for adults, all about great men or great ideas of the West or of world religions. His only publication other than course material that I could find is as editor of a book by Lord Acton, a 19th century English Catholic historian and politician. Fears did write an article in “Atlantis: Fact or Fiction,” a 1978 book of essays on possibilities of the actual existence of Atlantis that focuses on Atlantis in myth and literature. The University of Oklahoma says that he’s a professor of classics, which is not really history, although it can involve history. I cannot find one scholarly article or book by Fears, or even one book or article of popular history of the sort that David McCullough or Bruce Catton might write.

While perhaps not a historian, Fears is a regular guest on “The Rusty Humphries Show,” a right-wing radio talk show that runs on more than 250 stations. A visit to Humphries website lists some other recent guests, the usual right-wing suspects, including John Bolton, Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, Paul Ryan, anti-choice activist John Schneider and Rand Paul.

I’m not saying that “The World Was Never the Same: Events That Changed History” doesn’t provide history to those who buy the course. But everything I can find out about the course and the good Professor Fears indicates that what we’re getting is comforting if distorted verification of the ideological imperatives of western superiority and American exceptionalism.

I think I’ll pass on Fears’ version of world history and instead reread some Fernand Braudel, Mote’s magisterial Imperial China: 900-1800 or Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.

How is the money race going?

(Click to make the images bigger. Graphics by Kevin Kreneck.)