Thursday, September 19, 2013

Moving in retirement to avoid school taxes is the epitome of the politics of selfishness

By Marc Jampole

Last time we cited Tom Sightings, self-proclaimed retirement expert, he was conjuring images of the various dream retirements to which he assumed the American public might aspire.  His catalogue of utopias reflected the pro-suburban ideology that dominates the mass media: golf communities, small university towns, beach fronts and suburban houses. Not one of Sighting’s dream retirements involved living in a city with great mass transit, an abundance of public spaces, cultural activities and entertainment, top-rated healthcare systems, the exciting buzz of cultural diversity and tremendous resources for seniors. In Sightings’ world, cities just don’t exist.

The latest view from Sightings highlights an ideological principle that has dominated U.S. public discourse since the election of Ronald Regan in 1980: the politics of selfishness, the idea that everyone should pursue his or her own private agenda, no matter how harmful it might be to others or to the community at large. Symbolic of the politics of selfishness is Reagan’s favorite joke about not having to outrun a bear, just one’s companion (who will then get ripped to shreds by the bear).  

Sightings doesn’t come out and explicitly say, “Care only about yourself” in his recent U.S. News & World Report article.  What he proposes, in a soft-shoe, gently prodding kind of way, is that retired people move out of their communities to avoid paying high school taxes.

After all, their kids have long graduated from high school, so who cares about the next generation!

Sightings employs the increasingly irritating rhetorical device of building the story around himself (the writer) and his situation. The article begins when he receives the school tax bill which has increased by four percent. He grumbles that his income has not increased by that much.  Continuing the article as a first person narration, Sightings tells us of a dinner his wife and he shared a few days later with a couple who had just moved to a new town to avoid high school taxes.  Sightings quotes the husband: “Who needs to pay those high school taxes, he ventured, when your kids are grown up and gone away?” Sightings continues: “Left unsaid was the other question: Who can afford those school taxes when you're no longer pulling in a paycheck, and instead living on a fixed income?”

After some wishy-washy discussion of the pros and cons of moving to avoid school taxes and a spackling of information about states that reduce property taxes for seniors, Sightings ends the column fully on the side of moving: “But then I see that school tax bill sitting over there on the corner of my desk. It's due by the end of September. And our youngest child graduated from the local school system four years ago. Maybe it's time to start looking for our place in the sun, after all.”

What Sightings doesn’t see, or doesn’t want to see, is that when he sent his children to school, large numbers of his fellow townspeople were paying property taxes to fund public schools who had already sent their children through schools and many more who hadn’t had children yet or never were going to have any. Even parents who sent their children to private schools contributed to educating Sightings’ children. Now it’s his turn and he wants selfishly to shrug his responsibility.  After all, he got his.

There are many great reasons to move in retirement: to be near grown children or to live one’s dream, be it on a quiet shore or in a high rise co-op overlooking the hustle and bustle of Manhattan. “Chacun sa chimère,” as Baudelaire once said (which translates into “To each, his or her illusion.”) It’s also true that some people move to smaller homes in retirement or are forced to move to cut expenses.

But to move just to avoid taxes is as anti-social as robbing a convenience store or embezzling from a nonprofit organization.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Latest mass shooting shows need for stiffer gun purchase laws and better national database

By Marc Jampole

The Washington Naval Yard mass murder has produced a macabre good news/bad news story:

The good news is that a week before the shooting a Virginia gun dealer didn’t sell an AR-14 assault rifle to the shooter, Aaron Alexis, because Alexis wasn’t a resident of the state, a requirement under Virginia state law.

The bad news is that the dealer did sell Alexis the pump-action shot gun he used to kill 12 innocent people. 

What if Virginia had tougher laws and only permitted sales of all kinds of guns to residents? Or what if gun purchase standards were higher everywhere and we had a robust database of gun offenders and persons with documented behavior that should preclude gun ownership, behavior like hearing “voices speaking to him through the wall,” as Alexis heard?

It should be tragically clear to everyone that stiffened gun control laws would have prevented Alexis from just walking into a store and buying a lethal weapon.  Those who argue that a criminal will find a way to get a gun forget that Alexis, Lanza and most of our mass murderers are not criminals. Something else they all have in common: all manifested behavioral problems that should have precluded legal gun ownership or use.

We now seem to have these national days of mourning and hand-wringing about every six months. The public discourse following these tragedies almost always follows a classic formula: Gun control advocates point out the obvious lesson that we need to tighten gun control, while gun industry toadies and factotums create tortuous arguments to show that the mass murder really proves we need more guns in the street and less gun control.  Major political figures say they will renew efforts to pass gun control laws, but “momentum” peters out in days or weeks.  There’s a spike in both gun sales (out of fear of gun control) and articles in the mass media analyzing the impossibility of getting any gun control legislation passed. Nothing happens.

That’s sad, but what’s even sadder is that these occasional mass murders collectively represent a drop in the bucket of all the U.S. deaths and injuries annually from guns—from accidents, disputes among family and friends, suicides and murder.  If we use a base figure of 32,000 deaths by guns a year, that works out to almost 88 a day. We typically have national days of mourning when a crazed killer takes the lives of 12 or 24 people.  Perhaps we should declare every day a day of mourning.  

The gun lobby has tried to sell us the bill of goods that more people packing will make the streets safer, because the bad guys will be frightened of retaliation. A study released today shows that argument is completely bogus: The study, published Wednesday in the American Journal of Medicine (AJM), compares the rate of firearms-related deaths in countries where many people own guns with the gun death rate in countries where gun ownership is rare. The US, with the most guns per head in the world, has the highest rate of deaths from firearms, while Japan, which has the lowest rate of gun ownership, has the least. The study concludes that guns make a nation less safe. AJM published the study early because of the shootings at the Washington Naval Yard.

Nothing proves the collective self-serving venality of our state and federal legislators like the gun issue. All too many lawmakers have been bought and sold by the gun (and the weapons) industry or are too frightened of the gun lobby’s money to speak up on the issue of gun control. And so the needless death of innocents continues.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Editorial: Breakthrough for Cooler Heads

Can President Obama declare victory and bring the cruise missiles home? After a week and a half of saber rattling by the only President we’ve got, the Russian sponsors of Syria’s dictatorship responded to the ultimatum by Secretary of State John Kerry that Syria could avoid an attack by the United States by handing its chemical weapons over to international authorities. And Syria welcomed the initiative, defusing the crisis.

As much as it frustrates conservative talking pointers, President Obama did not make a mistake in calling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to account for his military allegedly using chemical weapons in that nation’s civil war, nor did Obama show weakness in deferring to Congress on authorizing a punitive strike against the Syrian government. Obama followed the Constitution, which gives Congress the authority to declare war. If Syria reneges on its commitment to put its chemical weapons under international control but Congress still declines to authorize a strike against Syria, it probably will be for the wrong reason — Republicans in the House and Senate simply won’t go along with anything the President proposes — but in calling for Congress to delay the vote to see if the Russian peace initiative succeeds, President Obama wisely put on hold the proposed American attack on Syria, which could have caused more damage than it would solve.

Corporate news media, who were looking forward to a quick air war to fill in the dead space around the Labor Day holiday, were noticeably disappointed when President Obama announced on Aug. 30 that he would consult Congress before launching the attack. For the next week, the corporate pundits were practically taunting Obama to get on with it, charging that if he failed to follow through with the attack it would be seen as a sign of weakness.

As for the predictions that a failure to attack Syria would result in a loss of respect for the United States, enemies of the world’s Last Remaining Superpower must realize that the President still has plenty of cruise missiles, satellite-guided bombs and radar-deflecting stealth bombers which he can order into the air in a New York minute if a belligerent nation actually posed a threat to the US or one of its allies (and all it would take is a call from Ankara to give Obama the cover to launch missiles and bombers at Syria in defense of our NATO ally Turkey).

Neither does a failure to follow through with the attack result in a loss of credibility for President Obama. Some wags called Obama “Bush Lite” when he threatened the action against Syria. They ignored the fact that Obama was proposing a limited air strike on Syria in response to an actual chemical attack, not the threat that was imagined by then-President George W. Bush and his war-mongering advisers, which was only proved false after they invaded and occupied Iraq. Also, Obama held off on the attack, which allowed diplomats to get to work. It was particularly galling to watch former defense secretary Don Rumsfeld, the architect of the preemptive invasion of Iraq, criticizing President Obama’s “lack of leadership” as the “so-called commander in chief.” At least George W. Bush has the sense and/or decency to keep his mouth shut.

Nor would a congressional rejection of Obama’s request for an authorization to attack be a turning point in his relations with Congress. Many Democrats balked at the war vote because they thought it was a bad idea, which their constituents were overwhelmingly opposed to, but they’ll be back with Obama when it comes to his domestic priorities. As Kevin Drum noted at Sept. 9, “Presidents suffer defeats all the time. Obama lost on cap-and-trade. He’s lost on plenty of judicial and executive branch nominations. He couldn’t get agreement for a grand bargain. He lost on gun control. What’s more, Republicans have been opposing him on virtually everything from the day he took office. In what concrete way would a defeat on Syria change this dynamic in even the slightest way?”

If anything, the failure of the world at large to react to the Syrian gas attack questioned the credibility of the United Nations Security Council, which so far has been unable to even debate the issue. But the diplomatic initiative that has gone on while Obama was making his case for intervention bore fruit as Russians called for the Syrian government to turn over its chemical weapons to the control of international authorities. Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem quickly welcomed the Russian proposal, acknowledged for the first time that Syria possesses chemical weapons and said Syria was willing to cooperate fully with the UN and sign the Chemical Weapons Convention.

That could be the best result of this complicated situation. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is a dictator, but he runs a secular regime that among other things is protecting Christian minorities who comprise as much as 14% of the population in Syria (3 million out of 22 million), as well as refugees from Iraq, many of whom are Christians and moderate Muslims who were driven out of Iraq by fundamentalist Sunnis and Shi’ites after the downfall of Saddam Hussein.

Assad also cooperated with the Bush administration after 9/11. As part of its “extraordinary rendition” program, the Bushies sent Arabs who were suspected of al-Qaeda ties to Syria to be tortured by Assad’s secret police. (At least one, Maher Arar, a Canadian Arab who was arrested at JFK Airport in New York in September 2002 when he was in transit back to Canada, was instead sent to Syria and tortured for 10 months before he was found to be innocent.)

Assad’s opponents include al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadists who are fighting Assad in part because his brand of Islam is too moderate for their tastes. They already have been engaging in reprisals against moderate rebel groups, and some rebel groups have been engaging in war crimes of their own, such as summarily executing captured Syrian soldiers. We have no guarantee that the moderate Muslims who Sen. John McCain and other hawks want us to support in the Syrian civil war would win the power struggle after Assad is toppled; we could end up clearing the way for a fundamentalist, al-Qaeda-affiliated government in Damascus, with access to the chemical weapons that Assad has stockpiled. That’s the reason that President Obama, while he will go ahead with arming some of the moderate rebels, is in no hurry to press for regime change. That’s also why he only proposed a limited air attack.

President Obama has agreed to take the proposal to secure Syria’s chemical weapons to the UN Security Council, though Russia is objecting to a French proposal to back up the proposal with the threat of force if Syria fails to comply. Obama and Congress are wise to give the diplomats time to secure those chemical weapons. If Russia is serious about securing the weapons — and Russian President Vladimir Putin also is concerned about Islamic terrorists getting their hands on poison gas — they may be able to get the job done. Good for them. Good for all.

In the meantime, Republicans in Congress are still threatening to take the US government hostage if Obama does not agree to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, which will start enrolling customers on the new healthcare exchanges Oct. 1. Maybe Obama should invite the Russians to try to mediate a deal with the GOP jihadists. Unfortunately, we trust Bashir al-Assad to turn over his chemical weapons more than we trust Republican leaders to negotiate in good faith to resolve the federal budget and debt obligations for the coming year.

Assuming that President Obama does not negotiate with the hostage takers to do away with the Affordable Care Act, people who do not get insurance coverage through their job but who live in one of the states where Republican governors aremaking it difficult to find out about the new insurance marketplaces can get the information on the plans and subsidies that are available at — JMC
From The Progressive Populist, October 1, 2013
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Selections from the October 1, 2013 issue


New book shows that poverty affects brain and makes it harder to think, work, learn

By Marc Jampole

Thanks to Cass Sunstein for reviewing Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much in the latest New York Review of Books. In Scarcity, Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir collect and analyze an impressive amount of research to demonstrate that those who suffer a scarcity of a resource—say food or money—dedicate more of their brain to addressing that scarcity, thereby degrading their ability to attend to their daily tasks, in school or on the job.

According to Mullainathan and Shafir, scarcity “puts people in a kind of cognitive tunnel, limiting what they are able to see. It depletes their self-control. It makes them more impulsive and sometimes a bit dumb. What we often consider a part of people’s basic character—an inability to learn, a propensity to anger or impatience—may well be a product of their feeling of scarcity,” to quote Sunstein. The book cites a ton of empirical research that shows that the effects of scarcity cut across all possible types of scarcity. 

The most striking study mentioned in the review tested Indian sugar cane workers before the harvest when they were broke and after the harvest when they had lots of money. The difference in scores amounted to 9 or 10 points on an I.Q. test, which measures certain intellectual capabilities correlated with success in school and in professional employment.  On an I.Q. test, ten points means a lot: for example, about 28% of the population scores between 106-115, while only 9% of the population scores between 116-125.

In other words, not only do rich and upper middle class children have the advantages of classes and lessons, summer camps, trips abroad, private tutors, SAT prep courses and the doors that money and business contacts can offer. The wealthy also have an inherent advantage in that their brains are not drained by scarcity concerns as the brains of poor children are.  The easiest way to improve our educational system would be to end poverty, which would enable formerly poor children to focus their brain on learning and not on the anxiety of not knowing when the next meal will be.

A few years back, the mainstream media and politicians were completely enamored by an article titled “Growth in a Time of Debt” by Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff, which concluded that countries with public debt greater than 90 percent of GDP suffered measurably slower economic growth. In This Time Is Different, the two right-wing economists ostensibly fleshed out the theory with examples across the centuries.  Mainstream politicians and journalists throughout the world embraced this “new discovery,” using it to bolster assertions that we had to deal with the debt instead of pumping money into the economy.

The problem was that Reinhart and Rogoff miscalculated in a number of places and even made typographical errors. When their bad math was corrected, it was found that there was no correlation between levels of debt and economic growth.

Many people wanted to believe Reinhart and Rogoff were right because they wanted to cut the budget, regardless of the pain and the economic havoc it caused. Of course it didn’t work out—Europe’s austerity program backfired and the U.S. limited “rescue” of its economy produced uneven and weak results. Through it all, inequality continued to grow, especially in the United States. The distribution of wealth in this country is now less equitable than it has been in more than in a century.

As of this writing, a Google key word search yields about 3,000 mentions of Scarcity, which is not even a drop in the ocean of web pages floating around cyberspace.  It’s still too early to tell, but I’m betting the mainstream news media is going to ignore Scarcity for the most part and few politicians outside maybe Bill de Blasio will reference it. 

But imagine if Scarcity captured the imagination of politicians and pundits the way that Reinhart & Rogoff’s bogus research did, or the way Michael Harrington’s poignant expose of poverty, The Other America, did in the early 1960s?

What if our various governments started to create public policies and new laws to address the implications of Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much? If Scarcity is true (and the Sunstein’s extensive review makes we want to read it as soon as I can), that puts a whole new light on Republican efforts to decrease funding for food stamps and unemployment benefits. The very nature of poverty distorts and weakens the thinking process, so that once people fall into poverty it is very hard to escape.  It makes sense then to be as generous as possible with these benefits in times of economic distress, to keep as many people out of poverty as possible.

Widespread knowledge of the findings by Mullainathan and Shafir would lean the debate over minimum wage and health care decidedly to the left, as think tank pundits and government policy makers quoted the book to assert the need to protect Americans from the negative effect of scarcity in general, and of medical care in particular.

Scarcity also serves as an epiphany for the great challenge facing the United States in the area of education. Rich people are spending more to educate their children while their state and federal representatives continue to cut budgets for public schools.  Meanwhile, a college education has become a major drain on the finances of most families.  Equal opportunity movements focused on voting and jobs in the 20th century. In the 21st century, the real battle ground for equal opportunity may be over education. 

For the past 30 years, we have passed laws and followed policies that increase the number of people facing scarcities of money, food, health care and now education. We have in effect degraded our intellectual stock by putting more panic into more people.  Creating a more unequal society has weakened our collective ability to learn and to work. If our leaders believed the message of Scarcity they would pursue an entirely different set of policies that would resemble the policies our nation pursued in the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s. You know, when we had general prosperity, a lower rate of poverty, a more equal distribution of the wealth, strong unions, mostly great public schools—and, not coincidentally, much higher taxes on the wealthy.