Jan 14, 2020

Neither complacency nor despair

Between complacency and despair, there is an intermediate terrain where both sanity and social responsibility lie. Those of us who are painfully attuned to the world’s urgent problems and needless suffering sometimes veer onto the side of despair. To get a grip, consider:

Every single day in recent years, another 325,000 people got their first access to electricity. Each day, more than 200,000 got piped water for the first time. And some 650,000 went online for the first time, every single day.

Perhaps the greatest calamity for anyone is to lose a child. That used to be common: Historically, almost half of all humans died in childhood. As recently as 1950, 27 percent of all children still died by age 15. Now that figure has dropped to about 4 percent….

As recently as 1981, 42 percent of the planet’s population endured “extreme poverty,” defined by the United Nations as living on less than about $2 a day. That portion has plunged to less than 10 percent of the world’s population now. Every day for a decade, newspapers could have carried the headline “Another 170,000 Moved Out of Extreme Poverty Yesterday”….

It can seem tasteless, misleading or counterproductive to hail progress when there is still so much wrong with the world. I get that. In addition, the numbers are subject to debate and the 2019 figures are based on extrapolation. But I worry that deep pessimism about the state of the world is paralyzing rather than empowering; excessive pessimism can leave people feeling not just hopeless but also helpless.

Extracted from an end-of-the-year piece by Nicholas Kristof.

To explore the roots of apocalyptic anxiety in American politics, see Betsy Hartmann’s book (just out in paperback), The America Syndrome: War, Apocalypse, and Our Call to Greatness.

Jan 13, 2020

Getting it in Finland

A couple with a new baby recount their move from Brooklyn to Helsinki:

We’ve now been living in Finland for more than a year. The difference between our lives here and in the States has been tremendous, but perhaps not in the way many Americans might imagine. What we’ve experienced is an increase in personal freedom. Our lives are just much more manageable. To be sure, our days are still full of challenges — raising a child, helping elderly parents, juggling the demands of daily logistics and work.

But in Finland, we are automatically covered, no matter what, by taxpayer-funded universal health care that equals the United States’ in quality (despite the misleading claims you hear to the contrary), all without piles of confusing paperwork or haggling over huge bills. Our child attends a fabulous, highly professional and ethnically diverse public day-care center that amazes us with its enrichment activities and professionalism.The price? About $300 a month — the maximum for public day care, because in Finland day-care fees are subsidized for all families.

And if we stay here, our daughter will be able to attend one of the world’s best K-12 education systems at no cost to us, regardless of the neighborhood we live in. College would also be tuition free. If we have another child, we will automatically get paid parental leave, funded largely through taxes, for nearly a year, which can be shared between parents. Annual paid vacations here of four, five or even six weeks are also the norm….

But surely, many in the United States will conclude, Finnish citizens and businesses must be paying a steep price in lost freedoms, opportunity and wealth. Yes, Finland faces its own economic challenges, and Finns are notorious complainers whenever anything goes wrong. But under its current system, Finland has become one of the world’s wealthiest societies, and like the other Nordic countries, it is home to many hugely successful global companies….

Finland also has high levels of economic mobility across generations. A 2018 World Bank report revealed that children in Finland have a much better chance of escaping the economic class of their parents and pursuing their own success than do children in the United States.

Finally, and perhaps most shockingly, the nonpartisan watchdog group Freedom House has determined that citizens of Finland actually enjoy higher levels of personal and political freedom, and more secure political rights, than citizens of the United States.

What to make of all this?

Read more here.

Dec 27, 2019

The wealth-power nexus

“We must make our choice,” Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis warned Americans as the country emerged from the Great Depression. “We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.” The choice is no less crucial in our own time. Here is Paul Krugman in today’s Times:

The first thing you need to know about the very rich is that they are, politically, different from you and me. Don’t be fooled by the handful of prominent liberal or liberal-ish billionaires; systematic studies of the politics of the ultrawealthy show that they are very conservative, obsessed with tax cuts, opposed to environmental and financial regulation, eager to cut social programs.

The second thing you need to know is that the rich often get what they want, even when most of the public want the opposite. For example, a vast majority of voters — including a majority of self-identified Republicans — believe that corporations pay too little in taxes. Yet the signature domestic policy of the Trump administration was a huge corporate tax cut.

Read more here.

Dec 8, 2019

The price of globlasé

The blasé attitude of Western elites toward “globalization” in recent decades was lubricated by short-run payoffs: it brought handsome profit opportunities for (some) multinational corporations; foreign borrowing (above all, from China) provided a soft alternative to taxing the rich; and cheap trinkets trickled down to placate the masses. But today the long-run political costs of screwing the working class are coming home to roost. Here’s how it’s going down in Italy:

“We lived in a place where everything had been good for 40 years,” Mr. Nesi says. “Nobody was afraid of the future.”

In retrospect, they should have been. By the 1990s, the Germans were purchasing cheaper fabrics woven in Bulgaria and Romania. Then, they shifted their sights to China. The German customers felt pressure to find savings because enormous new retailers were carving into their businesses — brands like Zara and H&M, tapping low-wage factories in Asia….

What Ms. Travaglini knows is downward mobility. She buys groceries with cash from her parents. Her younger son is about to move to Dubai to look for work, seeing no future in Prato.

Her older son used to consider himself a Communist, worshiping Che Guevara and Fidel Castro. Now, he is active with the League.

Read – and think – about the lessons here.

Dec 7, 2019

A death rattle for supply-side economics?

The times they are a changin’:

Led by Elizabeth Warren, presidential candidates and liberal economists are pushing an unorthodox “pro-growth” argument for raising taxes on the rich.

Since the days of Reagan and Thatcher, supply-side orthodoxy has maintained that taxation is always bad for the economy – and this ideology has maintained a stranglehold on public policies. At last, change is in the air. Read more here.

Dec 2, 2019

Predation 101

“Vulture capital” asserts its priorities in Puerto Rico:

The hedge funds scoured the island’s budget. The Department of Sports and Recreation’s allotment of $39.2 million: Nonessential, the lawsuit said. Ditto the $12.6 million for the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture; $7.3 million for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting; $1.8 million for the Boys & Girls Club; and the $88,000 commitment to a nonprofit ballet company. One assertion in particular stood out. Puerto Rico’s budget had set aside $205 million in discretionary money for things like disaster relief. “While a ‘rainy-day fund’ is nice to have,” the hedge funds conceded in Paragraph 159, “it is impossible to see how this is an ‘essential service’ or how it can be justified,” in part because natural disasters were not “likely to occur” in the coming fiscal year. Three months later, Hurricane Maria made landfall.

Read more here.

Nov 15, 2019

How to become a billionaire

Robert Reich writes:

Billionaires are wailing that Elizabeth Warren’s and Bernie Sanders’s wealth tax proposals are attacks on free market capitalism.

Rubbish. There are basically only five ways to accumulate a billion dollars, and none of them has to do with being successful in free market capitalism.    

Read how, here.

Nov 5, 2019

Human costs of dirty air

Highland Park Optimist Club members wearing smog gas masks at a banquet, Los Angeles, circa 1954

From a terrific piece in the New York Review of Books:

Using the Huai River as a dividing line between colder and warmer parts of the country, from the 1950s to 1980 the Chinese government provided free coal for household heating north of the river and no subsidy to those living south of it. Researchers at the University of Chicago looked at mortality data in ninety Chinese cities and found a shocking result: those living in the north had their lives cut short by 5.5 years on average due to “cardiorespiratory mortality” from exposure to levels of particulate pollution that were 55 percent higher than in the air of the south. They estimated that the well-intentioned policy destroyed 2.5 billion life-years…. And, in the US, there’s a new problem: the guardians who craft and enforce air pollution policy are busy dismantling the protections created by decades of careful science and study.

Read more here.

Oct 9, 2019

Tax injustice

The rich really are different from you and me: they pay a lower tax rate. The cheerleaders on behalf of tax breaks for the rich claimed that benefits would trickle down throughout the economy. Guess what? The joke’s on us.

Read about it here. And here.

Sep 26, 2019

Say hello to ecofascism

An important piece in The Baffler exposes some strange bedfellows:

On March 15, a white supremacist in Christchurch, New Zealand, murdered fifty-one worshippers at a mosque. In a sprawling manifesto, the killer identified as an “ecofascist” and aimed to “show the invaders that our lands will never be their lands.” Less than six months later, another man who combined resentments about environmental degradation and immigrant populations in his manifesto walked into a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, with a rifle and killed twenty-two people, many of whom were Latinx. “Invaders” the killer wrote, “have close to the highest birthrate of all ethnicities in America.”

Climate denialism remains deeply entrenched on the American right, but the glaciers are beginning to recede; recent polls show increasing alarm about the climate crisis across the political spectrum, especially among the young. As the crisis worsens, denialism itself might very well go extinct, opening up the possibility of new political configurations in response to the question of what to do about it. This is already underway in many European countries, where younger activists within far-right parties—those who will have to live with the worsening effects of climate change—are agitating to cut into green parties’ monopoly of the issue by tying it to their anti-migrant appeals.

Read more here.

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