Friday, November 7, 2008

Economic Fairness

Conservatives believe two things:

A) Taxes are bad for the economy.
B) Progressive taxation is unjust.

Liberals take the two opposite views:

A) Taxes are good for the economy.
B) Progressive taxation is just.

What’s interesting about these different stances are that they each make one subjective and one objective (at least more so) claim. Whether progressive taxation is just or not, is based in large part on relatively intangible philosophical principles. Whether taxation is good or bad for the economy is more measurable, although hardly reliably so and fraught with complexities likely too advances for the layperson to appreciate.

Yet in both political perspectives, each view is claimed to bolster the other.

For the conservative, if taxes are bad for the economy because they put a burden on investment, then progressive taxation must be doubly bad for the economy because it is especially burdensome – specifically to those in the best position to be investing, namely business owners. And if progressive taxation is unjust because money is private property and each is entitled to a fair share of his earnings, then taxation’s negative effect on the economy must be doubly unjust because it forces individuals to disproportionately contribute to a newly weakened economy.

For the liberal, if taxes are good for the economy because they act as social investments, then progressive taxation contributes to this investment. And if progressive taxation is just because it rewards citizens more fairly, then taxation’s benefit to the economy will of course improve everyone’s life.

So basically, each set of views are ideologically sympathetic. It is no wonder why they would be comfortably embraced as such. But just because they are sympathetic does not mean that either is contingent on the other, or that because one is true so must be the other.

Maybe taxes are bad for the overall economy, yet it is still just to make them progressive because that is indeed fairer. Or maybe the reverse is true: taxes are good for the economy, yet progressive taxation is unfair by principle.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Institutional Chaos

Modern society depends, one could say, on a few powerful institutional entities. Without these, it would surely lose its course and fall prey to any manner of insidious and destructive forces, resulting ultimately in physical and emotional suffering of its people, to say nothing of the failure in living up to the promise of progress, so far defined as general happiness, personal liberties, respect of conscience, etc.

Democratic government is the most significant, but a free press and academia are close seconds and thirds. Imagining the absence of one cannot help but reflect new, poorer light upon the others. And they are interdependent. Arguably, none could really exist without the others, at least to their fullest potential. Without democracy, what good is the expression of journalism, or academic ideas? Without a free press, are democratic principles even possible? And without academia, well, would time not come to a sort of standstill?

But what brings me to this topic a the development in modern conservatism, expressed with vigor by the Republican vice-presidential nominee in the last debate, of a heightened form of ideological fervor that in many ways has essentially obliterated two of those institutions. By defining them in such a way as to make them irrelevant, the end result has been that they have been taken out of the social order.

I have no idea how long this movement has been going on, or how precisely it came to be what it is today. It certainly has roots in many political traditions, some of them more uniquely American than others. Populism is a large part of it: we the people are not our institutions. We create them to serve us, not the other way around. But populism alone is nothing but anarchy, and thus self-defeating as a governmental design.

There seems to be a subtle nihilism at its core - an end-of-days sort of reductionism that, not getting its way, wants to throw everything on the fire and watch it all burn. Sour grapes. In so doing, two of civilization's greatest institutions are spurned.

The first dismissal is the media, often more specifically referred to as the "mainstream media". Derided as hopelessly liberal, biased, partisan, it becomes altogether dismissible. The reporters can no longer be trusted, and so neither can their reporting. Suddenly there is a vacuum. Imagine for a second what life would be like with no journalism. No TV. No radio. No newspapers. No magazines. How would we get our information of the world and current events? Yet, by dismissing all established media as partisan out of hand, this is effectively what one does. In such a cynical situation, there may be hope that a discerning consumer might be able to take their pick from a variety of sources, partisan though each may be in its own right.

But this movement is not skeptical of all media, including that it may agree with - just that of which it does not approve. News is reduced to what comes through one's own approved filter. And what this inevitably means, is that there is news, and then there is news. Certain media outlets, defined by their partisan stances, are to be trusted, while everyone else is not to be. A hallmark of contemporary journalism is the charter claim to attempt objectivity. Yet by defining those one purports to disagree with as wholly biased, and therefore inconsequential, the only alternative is partisan sources. Given that this claim is leveled at almost every major national and international news organization, there isn't much left. One is left receiving only the news which with one preemptively agrees. Inevitably, facts conform to view, instead of view conforming to facts.

The second dismissal is academia, and in many ways is the much scarier position. Journalistic bias is generally not terribly difficult to parse. The assumptions behind its attack may be false, but the requisite facts themselves are usually pretty straight forward. The trust we place in journalists is not so much that we depend on their authority in every issue, but that that do their job well, reporting honestly, accurately and in sufficient detail.

Academia is a much more complex and difficult beast. By its very nature, the contribution it makes to society must be taken on good faith. No ordinary citizen can be expected to be well-versed enough in every area of study to make judgments on the relative merit of each issue. Even the college educated citizen has not been exposed to more than a very brief introduction to most relevant fields. Most research is read by only a very select few. Yet it's effects are obviously enormous. Pertinent information from academic study winds its way throughout the halls of policy-specific think tanks, down into mass media journalism, through the minds of newly graduated job applicants, into courtroom deposition, across government cabinet councils, etc.

And so, faced with its impact on so many issues in so many areas of society, we are forced to choose what makes sense to us and what does not, even while being so little-informed of the context from which each bit of new information arose. What were the parameters of the study involved? What were the prior assumptions involved in examining the issue? What sources were used? We can ask all of these questions. But it would be foolish to pretend that a layman could ever digest the totality of academic output with authority. And so we do not. We trust academia. We may not want to. But what is the alternative?

Looking back over the past 25, 50 or 100 years, the progress of human intellectual development has been staggering. Imagine if 100 years ago, one decided to refuse to accept any new thought coming out of academia for fear of embracing "biased" or distasteful conclusions. Well, we all know what that looked like because there have always been those that have fought every new idea. From evolution to psychoanalysis, racial and gender equality to cigarette smoke, there have always been those uncomfortable with trusting the authority of those more familiar with an issue.

And this is not to say that this forced blind-embrace of academic authority always leads to human progress. Eugenics was maybe the most notorious example of the misappropriation of academic authority. One can only hope for a continued social emphasis on political & social reflection, with an unfailing investment in public education.

But here may lie the greatest irony. Those who would wave away academic thought, especially thought that challenges traditional assumptions, as biased and therefore irrelevant, are themselves contributing to just the sort of environment in which ill-conceived social developments arise. A public who is uncomfortable with the rigors of academic thought, incapable of holding competing positions in their head at once, evaluating issues from many angles, or waiting patiently for more evidence to arise, is exactly the type of public most vulnerable to political & social manipulation.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

No One Knows

God... I've been having a terrible time at work. On Friday I was told, now definitively, that I would be spending the rest of the school year teaching a K/1 blend - which if you know anything about Kindergarten is a nightmare scenario. Basically, I will have to do interventionist teaching to bring two different grade levels of children to benchmark by the end of the year... with each of them receiving half the time - while one group is receiving my full attention, the other will be working independently. And expecting Kindergarteners to be able to do this is crazy.

But as I was given this news, I was also chastised for not having my management down well enough, despite the fact that I was having to have the kindergarten working independently from the second week of class.

I was also accused of not following the curriculum, and not having the students doing enough writing. This despite the fact that Kindergarteners do not even learn their first word until the 2nd month of school.

Oh yeah, and the reason we're in this mess (grade sizes are in the single digits across K-8), is that obviously recruitment hadn't worked. Yet apparently no real recruitment had even happened. Glossy fliers were ordered, yet still sitting in boxes as of the 2nd week of school. The school finally decided to spend thousands on advertising... in mid September.

OK, so that's why I haven't been sleeping. My wife is worrying about me again. But I'll be OK, honest. It's just going to be a ball-busting year.

And in the background... the economy is apparently collapsing into fire and brimstone. On the Sunday news shows, Congressional insiders wouldn't even mention the nightmare scenario Secretary Paulson painted for them if they didn't act quickly on a massive, trillion dollar bailout. They literally would not say. It was as if the economic future was Voldemort.

Yet they hinted at competing ideological rifts that may impede such an act from getting passed, even as they promised that the levity of the situation assured a minimum of friction. Then Kristol comes out saying it's all a big establishment power-play. Gingrich tells NPR that Bernanke & Paulson had been wrong before, so we couldn't trust them now. A scanning of the various blogs and columns reflects a frustrated clamoring for answers, explanations, solutions... seemingly in vain. Its almost as if the fabric of space-time is rupturing, and the public is being asked to digest, and give support to political positions on theoretical physics.

OK Newt, the function of time divided by the root of variable constants can't be exponential-dependent.

No One Knows. And everything depends on it. Reading David Brooks today, wily devil though he often is, seemed to paint a perfect portrait of the nebulousity of these times. Liberal + Conservative = "..........."

Friday, September 12, 2008

David Brooks had a great piece this morning...

My response...

Wow. How refreshing to read an argument for conservatism that is logically coherent and intellectually honest. Just like the far-left reactionaries who apologized for communism's corrosive double standards, contemporary conservatism's loudest pundits seem equally ready to ignore glaring inconsistencies between the hubris of their policy analysis and proven socio-economic theory.

Conservatism has a vital role in acting as a counter-balance to liberalism's utilitarian emphasis, reminding us of the value of improvisation in social transformation. But ignorance in the face of fact is no way to develop political philosophy, and instead of a quest for truth, one follows a cult-like obsession with being "right".

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Socioeconomic Status

So I recently posted that I've always wanted to find an index for figuring out my SES. It's obviously complicated, and dependent upon what variables you throw into it. But here's a great interactive graphic from the NYTimes article a few years back titled "Class Matters". Apparently as an elementary school teacher, with a Master's degree, making 48k a year, with less than 10k in the bank, I'm in the 66th percentile overall. What's scary is that moving the income slider up to 200k a year puts you in the 99th percentile. Those poor Republicans again...

What the graphic doesn't include is family data. How about number of kids, single parents, dual incomes, etc.?

Anyway, so now I know.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008


Miss Anthropic

No, Tom Friedman, the problem is not that someone "slipped .... Valium into Barack Obama’s coffee". The problem is that Americans are fucking stupid. OK, not just Americans, we just happen to be pretty good at it. How else to explain Sara Palin's energizing of the McCain campaign? Putting aside the fact that there is a HUGE difference between the Republican and Democratic parties - not to mention what they supposedly stand for, who the fuck are these people who are now voting Republican because of the Alaskan Governor? White women, mainly, according to polls. One was interviewed on the news last night, and admitted she didn't really know any of Palin's policy stances, but liked her. You know, she's "one of us".

Didn't we try that 8 years ago? We elected "one of us"? Fucking asshole. What kind of dipshit votes for people this way? Go back to American Idol.

And Maurice Sendak is gay. Good for him. I don't know why. But good for him.

I guess I'm just cranky because our nation is going to shit, Tillie was up half the night throwing up, I got my kids way too giddy after recreating a Rube Goldberg device after reading Lights Out, meanwhile one of them wouldn't stop crying for his Mommy, and all the colored paper I ordered was the wrong size. And Sara Palin makes me want to throw up.

If McCain is elected I'm going to move to Australia.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Invested Employment

I've wondered about something for a long time. What effect does luxury spending have on the economy? I suppose this falls directly in the context of my thoughts on progressive taxation, and the conservative supply-side argument. I'm sure there are entire classes in economics devoted to just this subject, but what's the point of being a layman if you can't write about it?

So supply-side says you grow the overall economy by cutting taxes on the rich, who will then invest it in the economy, via stocks, bonds, etc. Progressive taxation says, whether or not you grow the economy, you have a moral obligation to some manner of equalization, whether schools, libraries, parks, clinics, etc.

Yet could both be correct? I mean, could cutting taxes on the rich, if it stimulates the economy - providing jobs, opportunities, etc. - be worthwhile and justified save for the moral obligation part? Conservatives will argue no - that progressive taxation not only increases the tax rate, which is then spent by a wasteful & inefficient government, but it also removes that money from the investment pool, further stifling growth.

Which leads me to the point of this post: Where do the rich actually spend their money? Certainly they invest a portion of it, and this could be seen as either a good thing or a bad thing, depending on the wisdom of the investment. But they certainly spend a portion of it on luxury items. We all do this to an extent. As our paycheck increases, so do the perks we allow ourselves - maybe more cable TV options, maybe an extra dinner out, maybe a piece of art or music. Yet for the middle and lower class, such non-essential expenses are few and far between, after things such as gas, food, utilities, rent or mortgage payments are made. Hopefully we'll have enough to put away some of it for retirement, a rainy day fund or possibly even a child's college tuition. These things are all essential, and necessary to a minimum standard of living.

What I am thinking of though really goes beyond all this, into a realm of expense few of us have likely even experienced. First class flights. Five star hotels. Exotic vacations. Cleaning services. Couture fashion. Personal chefs. Etc. Etc. How much does all this cost? It must add up rather quickly, wouldn't one think? All of this cash being spent on non-essential, certainly enjoyable but somewhat frivolous excess...

Now, where does this money actually go? It is not as if four star restaurants are actually glazing and serving hundred dollar bills, or ski chalets are being insulated with them. No, these services require actual human beings to labor, sometimes skillfully, sometimes not. They are then paid and that money is injected directly back into the economy - most likely into more essential expenses like water bills or dog food. And yet what of the money the government spends on services such as healthcare, schools, or libraries? It is being used to pay for the labor of schoolteachers, principles, janitors, construction workers, landscapers, etc., who in turn are spending it on water bills and dog food. So, in this sense luxury spending is really no different than government spending.

Except in one crucial sense. When the teacher, janitor or librarian is paid, they are not only providing a service, they are creating wealth. Because when a patron of the library reads a book or magazine, they are increasing their earning potential. When the construction worker adds a new wing to the local school, he is providing a facility within which children will be taught, and ultimately increase their earning potential. When people visit a nearby park, allowing their children a sdafe, engaging place to play, they are ostensibly stabilizing family bonds and decreasing daily stress, allowing them to be more productive in their working lives. And so on. Not all government services create wealth in this way, some merely serve to provide basic sustenance or critical healthcare. Although even then, one can easily imagine how this contributes to a more productive population.

Yet luxuries, almost by definition, create no wealth at all. Sure, there is some psychological benefit to be had in many of these services, just as that gained from a walk in a public park or museum, but they are by their nature quite excessive. Does not the expense of luxury almost rise in direct proportion to their relative enjoyment? Does the psychological comfort of a first-class transatlantic flight merit a doubling or tripling in the price compared to coach? There must be studies of this sort of thing in psychological journals. But that isn't the point, is it? Some of the most expensive luxuries have little real intrinsic value, except the mere fact that they are expensive. The difference between a real diamond and a cubic zirconium, is really in the cash value each represents. And what is that cash value, but an estimation of the man hours involved in some type of labor (certainly not in the production of the thing itself, which is valued for rarity)? And so in this extreme example, we see luxury as the refined essence of wealth, yet creating nothing.

But even in luxuries that do reflect very real human exertion, we see no wealth created. For instance the man who spends his days waxing and polishing cars. He his payed for his service, but what does his service provide to the larger economy? A nice looking car. I enjoy seeing nice looking cars. I suppose you could find some way of measuring this satisfaction. Neighborhoods full of freshly waxed and polished cars certainly increase in value based on this cosmetic advantage. Among other things. But we can't really begin attributing economic stimulus to car detailing. In that case just what would be the dollar-to-shine ratio? Does the brand of wax matter? How about the angle of the sun, or cloud covering?

Then there are things payed for and provided that are not merely zero-sum transactions, but rather exponential increases in wealth, the stuff of which Adam Smith famously referred to at work within the "invisible hand". Here, the sweat of one man not only passes wealth from one hand to another, but in the process creates, by providing some new level of skill or specialized leveraging, additional economic prosperity. This may be seen immediately, as in the bus driver who maximizes efficient transportation, or over longer periods of time, as in the school teacher who teaches his students to add fractions and who then themselves provide greater skill to the marketplace.

And now one can begin to compare these two types of expenses, luxury vs. value-added, let's call it. One hundred man hours could be spent in the laborious transition of a sum of money from one hand to another, from a wealthy teenager, say, through the car wash man, to his local grocer, and aside from a shiny car, no greater wealth is created.

Or, that same one hundred hours could be spent transferring a sum of money from one hand to another, say, a local grocer, but this time at some value-added task, such as policing a street so that business can flourish, or cleaning a kitchen so that unsanitary meals won't injure restaurant guests. Sure, how much value is added through each form of employment is debatable and certainly some more productive than others. But it is theoretically quantifiable - and no doubt economists somewhere are busy at it this very moment.

One last point to make in all this, is that value-added wealth can also be measured in its loss. Would that car wash man, instead of toiling his hundred hours at nothing but a simple shine, spend his labor instead at something that does increase wealth in some way, he would be adding to the economy. Yet if he were working some value-added shift, and then decide to begin laboring for nothing but a shine, or a sweet oil, or leathered toilet-seat cover, could we not chalk it up as a loss to the economy?

In this way, I make the case that luxury not only creates no greater wealth, but actually stands in the way of it being creted by tying up more man hours in its innane charade.

Now I'm off to play GTA IV on my Xbox, which will increase my serotonin production, thereby providing a more productive teaching experience to my kindergarten class tommorrow. Or something?

Sunday, September 7, 2008

The Conveyor belt

NYTimes has a piece on efforts to preemptively target at-risk kids. We all know that by the time many hit kindergarten and the larger system they're already way behind. Over the summer I read Meaningful Differences , by Betty Hart and John Risley, which detailed their study of how family interaction between the ages of 1.5 and 3 impacts cognitive and language development, putting lower SES (socio-economic-status)* kids at least a good 2 years behind upper SES peers.

From the times:

The American social contract has always identified public schools as the one place where the state can and should play a role in the process of child-rearing. Outside the school’s walls (except in cases of serious abuse or neglect), society is seen to have neither a right nor a responsibility to intervene. But a new and growing movement of researchers and advocates has begun to argue that the longstanding and sharp conceptual divide between school and not-school is out of date. It ignores, they say, overwhelming evidence of the impact of family and community environments on children’s achievement. At the most basic level, it ignores the fact that poor children, on average, arrive in kindergarten far behind their middle-class peers. There is evidence that schools can do a lot to erase that divide, but the reality is that most schools do not. If we truly want to counter the effects of poverty on the achievement of children, these advocates argue, we need to start a whole lot earlier and do a whole lot more.

The piece makes it sound as if Obama's people have an ear to this stuff. An interesting point made was that there isn't any natural consituency for this area, like there is with unions, or the environment. Its basically people looking at poverty from (usually) the outside and intervening.

Speaking of unions, the piece mentioned the fact that charters are often non-union, and gave an example of one. Some proponents of school reform often point to this element of the charter movement as a good thing. I'll agree that it may often be, but as a teacher at a non-union school in a poor area, in which we are put in the position of effecting intensive interventions on a daily basis, the lack of representation, while possibly stimulating of best practices, also has many negative aspects. The wall between leadership and staff is quite rigid, and staff are generally in constant fear of rocking the boat. Performance-based employment is great if you have good leadership. But what happens when it is out of touch, negligent, or downright hostile? As for evaluation, it is a completely one-way street, with teachers having little say in the decision making process schoolwide, and none whatsoever in the performance of the administration.

Anyway, back to the piece. At the very least I think a renewed national debate about how to actually effect change in poor schools/neighborhoods will be good. NCLB was a good slap in the face, but now comes the more difficult task of taking a good look at what the roots of poverty really are, and what role government, via schools, etc. needs to play.

*edit: You know, I want to know what my SES status is. I've looked for an index but never found one. I kow there are a lot of factors, such as education and income potential. But I'd like something concrete!

Well here we go

So I've finally decided to start a blog. I tried myspace, multiply and facebook - but for various reasons I just wasn't that interested in them.

My hope here is to be able to post new pictures and videos, link to stories - or possibly post full articles (I tend to like to have the piece in front of me when I comment) - and jot down my latest thoughts on this or that subject.