Protecting you from free tax filing

The astro-turf campaign by major tax preparers against the IRS’s plans to offer free online tax filing is descending into parody. For decades both Republicans and Democrats have campaigned around programs aimed to simplify tax compliance. Meanwhile the IRS has been fighting to make such a program available to the public over fierce, well-funded political opposition from both parties.

Intuit, the maker of TurboTax, has found the perfect ally in their fight to stop the simplification of tax payment – Grover Norquist, far-right icon and President of Americans for Tax Reform. Perhaps it’s from Norquist that they learned how to organize “grassroots” outrage against yet another example of IRS oppression.

The company may have discovered that a public political campaigned aimed to “protect my massive fortune from the effects of competition” somehow failed to generate enough energy. Instead they are sponsoring a “Stop IRS Takeover” website. They are campaigning to stop the “Big Government” takeover of tax preparation the evil Obama Administration.

From the Communists over at ProPublica:

In an emailed statement, Intuit spokeswoman Julie Miller said, “Like many other companies, Intuit actively participates in the political process.” Return-free programs curtail citizen participation in the tax process, she said, and also have “implications for accuracy and fairness in taxation.” (Here is Intuit’s full statement.)

In its latest annual report filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, however, Intuit also says that free government tax preparation presents a risk to its business.

Roughly 25 million Americans used TurboTax last year, and a recent GAO analysis said the software accounted for more than half of individual returns filed electronically. TurboTax products and services made up 35 percent of Intuit’s $4.2 billion in total revenues last year. Versions of TurboTax for individuals and small businesses range in price from free to $150.

So far not even Tea Partiers have been gullible enough to fall for this. Perhaps if Intuit had invested more energy recruiting Glenn Beck instead of Norquist they could have laid better astroturf. Nonetheless, the company has been consistently successful in blocking efforts to simplify tax filing.

The mechanics of this so-far successful campaign provide disturbing insights into the way Washington works. This is the kind of issue that should be at the center of the Republican agenda, yet it’s clear that much of what IS at the center is designed to distract the public from this problem and feed this monster.

 

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Posted in Taxes

So where is all the growth?

Technology in our time is moving at a pace so fast it seems that only children have the time to stay current. This dizzying pace of progress is bringing wonder after wonder, so why is economic growth so sluggish?

Economic growth, as measured in terms of GDP, has been on a long slow decline in the West since the 1960’s. The authors of The Second Machine Age point out that digital age economic progress looks like stagnation when measured by traditional means.

We measure economic growth in terms of production and consumption. There is nothing in our economic calculus that measures improvements in well-being, happiness, health or satisfaction. Whatever increases productivity or units of consumption is good. Anything that decreases consumption or production is bad.

While economic “growth” in the Western world has looked relatively flat, our quality of life has improved by nearly every measure. Most of the benefit of the computer age escapes our traditional economic measures entirely. In fact, on paper much of it looks like economic contraction

Take the music industry as an example. Once again, from The Second Machine Age:

Music is hiding itself from our traditional economic statistics. Sales of music on physical media declined from 800 million units in 2004 to less than 400 million units in 2008…Before the rise of the MP3, even the most fanatical music fan, with a basement stacked high was LP’s, tapes, and CD’s, wouldn’t have had a fraction of the twenty millions songs available on a child’s smartphone via services like Spotify or Rhapsody…If you’re like most people, you are listening to more and better music than ever before.

What has been the impact of this spectacular improvement in lifestyle? By traditional metrics, the introduction of digital music has been economic catastrophe.

The value of music has not changed, only the price. From 2004 to 2008, the combined revenue from sale of music dropped from $12.3 billion to $7.4 billion – that’s a decline of 40%. Even when we include all digital sales, throwing in ringtones on mobile phones for good measure, the total revenues to record companies are still down 30%. Similar economics apply when you read the New York Times, Bloomberg Businessweek, or MIT Sloan Management Review online at a reduced price or for free instead of buying a physical copy at the newsstand…Analog dollars are becoming digitial pennies.

Overall, what has been the value of making dictionaries, news, music, encyclopedias, health information, and other formerly expensive products free or virtually free? Our lives have been meaningfully enriched and our productivity in a sense improved. Yet the impact to economic growth in traditional consumption-oriented terms has been almost entirely negative. Again from the book:

A simple switch to using a free texting service like Apple’s iChat instead of SMS, free classifieds like Craigslist instead of newspaper ads, or free calls like Skype instead of a traditional telephone service can make billions of dollars disappear from companies’ revenues and the GDP statistics.

It is extremely difficult to reduce the lifestyle improvement delivered by the iPhone or improved medical imaging technology or the self-driving car to a metric. What this means is that the most radically concentrated improvement in human life and happiness which has ever occurred in our history is happening with remarkably little notice. By failing to note this transformation, we are missing many of the opportunities presented by this era to improve our lives even further.

Another example of what economic progress looks like in our time, and why we do not recognize it, comes from an earlier GOPLifer piece on social capital:

In 1985, a top of the line Ford Mustang GT carried a sticker price of $14,000 which, adjusted for inflation, equals roughly $30,000 today.  That car featured an AM/FM radio with an optional cassette deck.  The finest Mustang you could buy in 1985 had no air bags, no anti-lock brakes, no remote electronic door locks, no CD player, USB port, or heated seats.

It had no cup holders.

Visit a Ford showroom today and you can drive away with their finest Mustang GT tricked out with advanced safety features, every imaginable gadget, excellent engineering and reliability, a spectacular warranty, and even cup holders for about $30,000.

We are living longer, healthier lives with better access to quality food, information, transportation, art, literature, entertainment and almost anything else we desire. Those advantages are compounding at a fantastic rate, changing what it means to be rich, poor and everything in between. Virtually none of this shows up in our traditional calculations of economic growth or progress, and much of it is actually depressing our growth metrics.

Distortions we experience in our measurement of economic growth provide a clue to wider difficulties. As we struggle to adapt to the second machine age, the very definitions we use to describe what’s “good” and “bad” in policy terms are becoming cloudy.

By failing to recognize our changing circumstances we are tangling ourselves in pointless debates over policy issues that in many cases no longer matter. Along the way we fail to recognize the critical waypoints that will determine whether the benefits of this new age will outweigh its burdens. Understanding the second machine age isn’t about appreciating the cool new gadgets around us. Our ability to recognize our changing landscape will determine who will prosper in this time and how much.

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Posted in Economics, The Second Machine Age

Grappling with Exponential Growth

Since the sixties, analysts have been using Moore’s Law to summarize the expansion of computing power and, by extension, the growth of information technology as an industry. Named for Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, his “law” can be summarized to state that computing power per-dollar spent can be expected to double every 1-2 years.

Moore himself expected the phenomenon to hold for a decade or so across the early life of the computer industry but it remains fairly consistent forty years later. If anything, there are signs that this phenomenon may actually be accelerating. Though computing based on silicon chips may struggle to keep up with Moore’s Law, the introduction of quantum computing and even biocomputing may soon make Moore’s Law seem quaint.

The authors of The Second Machine Age argue that one of the challenges of adapting to this new economic reality is our mental struggle to comprehend the power of exponents. They illustrate the point with a reference to an Indian folktale:

As the story goes chess was invented by a very clever man who traveled to Paliputra, the capital city, and presented his brainchild to the emperor. The ruler was so impressed by the difficult, beautiful game that he invited the inventor to name his reward.

The inventor praised the emperor’s generosity and said, “All I desire is some rise to feed my family.” Since the emperor’s largess was spurred by the invention of chess, the inventor suggested they use the chessboard to determine the amount of rise he would be given. “Place one single grain of rice on the first square of the board, two on the second, four on the third, and so on,” the inventor proposed, “so that each square receives twice as many grains as the previous.

If his request were fully honored, the inventor would wind up with 2 to the 64th power, or more than 18 quintillion grains of rice. A pile this big would dwarf Mount Everest; it’s more rice than has been produced in the history of the world.

What’s truly fascinating about this process is the way the growth curve bends upward on the second half of the chessboard. This is not a bell-curve phenomenon, but a launch.

Why does computing follow a steeper growth curve than earlier technologies? The chess board analogy helps us recognize that this is a misunderstanding of the situation. It’s not that computing is such a unique technology as compared to, say, the steam engine. The difference is that computing is arriving on the second half of the chessboard.

Looking at the growth of technology across all of human history, almost nothing happens until about 1750. The development of fire, agriculture, and the wheel were thousands of years apart. Gunpowder was another few thousand years later. Steam and mechanical technology were rather farther along this curve, but still early.

It’s not that computers are so special. It’s where they fall on this general expansion of knowledge that makes them more dynamic than previous technologies. And seeing the growth of technology along this long timeframe, we begin to recognize that this phenomenon is not about computing at all, and that it is likely to accelerate from here in ways we that our brains can barely process.

What this means beyond computing can perhaps be illustrated with a look at the industries spawned by this expansion in computing power. Again, from The Second Machine Age:

The ASCI Red, the first product of the U.S. government’s Accelerated Strategic Computing Initiative, was the world’s fastest supercomputer when it was introduced in 1996. It cost $55 million to develop and its one hundred cabinets occupied nearly 1600 square feet of floor space at Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico. Designed for calculation-intensive tasks like simulating nuclear tests, ASCI Red was the first computer to score above one teraflop – one million floating operations per second – on the standard benchmark test for computer speed. By 1997 it had reached 1.8 teraflops.

Nine years later another computer hit 1.8 teraflops, but instead of simulating nuclear explosions it was devoted to drawing them and other complex graphics in all their realistic, real-time, three-dimensional glory. It did this not for physicists, but for video game players. This computer was the Sony Playstation 3.

….

The ASCI Red was taken out of service in 2006.

It took humans about 3000 years to move from ox-driven plows to mechanical plows. In fact agricultural technology at the time of the American Revolution was no better, and in some regards perhaps less advanced than that practiced by the Romans. By contrast it took 25 years to go from Pong to Halo.

Why does this matter politically? This kind of growth is a major adaptive challenge for traditional institutions. We need them more than ever, but they groan and occasionally fail under the strain. Government built to meet the bureaucratic demands of 20th century Industrial Capitalism is struggling to remain not just relevant, but intact.

Industrialization destroyed an old political order based on aristocracy and land ownership. How will automation transform our order?

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Posted in Economics, The Second Machine Age

Meet your automated replacement

automationIt would wise to revisit our assumptions about what computers can and cannot do. Many of us were surprised at the development of computers that could defeat a human at Chess or on the game-show Jeopardy! While those achievements were novel, we still generally understood that certain tasks remain essentially human. Computers follow an algorithm, but they do not learn, compose or adapt to scenarios they were not programmed to see.

In The Second Machine Age, the authors illustrate the remarkably rapid crumbling of barriers to automation with a ride in a Google Car. Only a few years ago the pursuit of self-driving automobiles was practically abandoned following a series of humiliating failures. Driving is a task which is not only computationally challenging; it is filled with surprises which cannot be programmed. Driving is the kind of pattern-recognition task which was generally assumed to lay beyond the frontier of automation.

Now Google regularly has visitors picked up from the airport in fully automated vehicles. Their progress in this area is sufficiently advanced that they have moved their efforts into the regulatory sphere, working to pass state laws ensuring that their technology can be deployed on the road.

And that’s not all. Right here in Chicago the folks at Narrative Science are automating journalism. This is not some distant goal being played out in a lab. A significant portion of what you read today, especially in sports or financial reporting, is generated by the computers at Narrative Science.

Their software combs through a data feed searching for relevant elements, then assembles them into a fully developed, publishable story. This gives a news organization, or a data analyst, access to more content than ever from which to identify meaning. The ways that humans use Narrative Science provide a glimpse into the future of employment for everyone who will benefit from the second machine age.

Narrative Science and other similar big-data tools do not eliminate journalists, but they change what a journalist does. That process stands to radically reduce the number of jobs in the field while making those jobs vastly more lucrative and interesting.

Gone are the days of typing up box scores or summarizing last night’s arrests. A journalist using a big data feed is looking for meaning, not content, and that’s a good summary of what high-value employment looks like in the second machine age. A journalist in this context is leveraging a machine to reduce drudgery, augmenting the challenge of finding value among a stream of data.

Similar roles will provide rewarding work training machines to perform new tasks; using machines to do things we’ve never done before, and interpreting machine output that we have never before seen. Those who work with machines are increasingly artists, whether in the literal sense or merely in the shape of their work. From software developers to Daft Punk, success in the second machine age means marrying creativity to automation.

Artists and entertainers were once poor almost by definition. The transition we’ve seen over the past half century has been so dramatic that we’ve largely forgotten that for all of human history performers were social outcasts, the lowest of the low. Celebrity culture is in many ways a by-product of the second machine age, not just because the bounty of this phenomenon creates more disposal income to be used for entertainment. Almost everything humans do successfully in this environment is at its core a creative or artistic pursuit.

The winners in the second machine age are all in some sense artists, whether they post their work on YouTube, github, or the New York Times. Those liberal arts degrees may deserve more respect than we’ve been giving them. The only job category reasonably secure from automation, at least for the near-term, may be poetry.

My automated replacement is likely to eliminate the job I did yesterday. Along the way it could open doors to work that I never imagined might exist. That work will likely be more independent, with a less dependable future, and more spectacular earnings than we have come to expect. It will also likely lead to shorter careers that start later, often preceded, interrupted, and followed by exploratory ventures that may or may not pan out.

This transition from the boring reliability of Industrial Age employment toward the terrifying excitement and reward of the digital age completely transforms our understanding of what government can and should do in the economy. We need to think a little harder about how to adapt our institutions to support our values in a rapidly transforming world.

****

For your consideration, let me present one of the winners in the second machine age. Jason Isbell is not Daft Punk. He is not cranking out digital tunes. Yet, he has leveraged the infrastructure of the digital age to build an impressive career for himself in an artistic niche that would never have existed in the past. Isbell is taking a music form that one might have expected would be wrecked by celebrity culture and participating in its renaissance. Jason Isbell is how one survives and succeeds in the second machine age, making a living as a poet.

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Posted in Economics, The Second Machine Age, Uncategorized, Welfare State

A closer look at The Second Machine Age

Reading the new book from Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee was like a breath of fresh air. The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies, elegantly summarizes the radical economic changes I’ve been trying to describe in blog posts.

In short, The Second Machine Age describes the ways that information age technologies have changed the rules of economics. In many ways the book is a summary of material dealt with in greater depth by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (Black Swan), Michael Lewis (The Big Short), James Gleick (Faster) and Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson (Why Nations Fail). As such, it’s a fast read that cruises across the surface of dozens of potentially complex topics.

Anecdotes and generalizations substitute for depth, but no truly detailed treatment of this subject could be boiled down to an airplane book. The Second Machine Age is neither the most insightful nor profound book about our time. It is, however, extremely accessible and reliably accurate. As such, the authors have delivered a mass read that can bring these important topics to a broader audience.

Some of the main points from the book:

1) Machines can do more now than we ever imagined they might be capable of. No one can confidently claim that a particular activity or field is comfortably beyond the range of our machines.

2) Information technology is introducing a kind of exponential economic expansion that we did not experience in the Industrial Era or at any time previous. It gives rise to a “superstar” dynamic, concentrating returns on investment in the hands of very few winners.

3) Most of the progress brought by this digital revolution has escaped our notice and passed under the radar of our usual methods of economic measurement.

4) Digital economics is radically more lucrative and unequal than anything we have faced before. The “bounty” and “spread” of the second machine age are shredding our social safety net and weighing us down as we struggle to ride this wave.

5) The second machine age may not drive unemployment overall, but it has already nearly destroyed middle income employment. Our vision of what employment means needs to change.

6) Winners, for the most part, will be the people who find way to successfully augment, not replace, automation. Almost no one has a job which cannot in some respects be automated. Successful workers will be the ones who learn to enhance what computers or machines do.

7) What should we do about it? Recommendations include education reform, streamlining government, infrastructure investment, aggressively recruiting immigration, pollution taxes, and of course, a basic income. Any of these sound familiar?

Brynjolfsson & McAfee’s book is too important to merely summarize. The next few posts will include excerpts and my strong encouragement to give it a read.

An excerpt:

Our generation will likely have the good fortune to experience two of the most amazing events in human history: the creation of a true machine intelligence and the connection of all humans via a common digital network, transforming the planet’s economics. Innovators, entrepreneurs, scientists, tinkerers, and many other types of geeks will take advantage of this cornucopia to build technologies that astonish and delight us, and work for us. Over and over again, they’ll show how right Arthur C. Clarke was when he observed that a sufficiently advanced technology can be indistinguishable from magic.

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Posted in Economics, The Second Machine Age

What comes after the culture wars?

The culture wars seem to be grinding toward a close. So what comes next? Are there ways that elements of the old left and right can hash together new alliances to deal with the circumstances we face now?

Noah Smith from the Noahpinion economics blog published an article in The Atlantic proposing what he described as a liberal “Marshall Plan” to reach out to defeated social conservatives. Its an interesting opening, encouraging the left to forego “the temptation to pillage the lands of the conquered enemy” and instead look to forge common ground in the quest to support the struggling working class.

The reason we need to reach out to conservatives is simple—there are a lot of them, and they are our countrymen. America is not going to be healthy unless conservative America is healthy. And America is not going to be a fully effective nation-state until conservative America feels completely included in the new liberal America that is now emerging.

It’s time to reach out to conservatives on the issue of family stability. It’s becoming clear that traditional family gender roles—the idea that the man should be able to be the sole breadwinner—are not sustainable in the modern economic environment. This is probably one reason behind the breakdown of two-parent families among the working class, as documented by Charles Murray in his book Coming Apart. But liberals—the same kale-munching, bottle-recycling goofballs that National Review and David Brooks have spent decades lampooning—have found a better way. The better way is what Richard Reeves, in a landmark article in The Atlantic, calls “High Investment Parenting.” When families focus on the kids, instead of on maintaining traditional gender roles, it turns out to be a lot easier to keep the family together.

That’s great, but there are a couple of problems with this approach. For starters, I think it’s more than a little arrogant to conclude that the culture wars led to a decisive liberal victory. As I’ve stated elsewhere:

A social conservative from the ‘70’s, plopped down into our age, might be thrilled by what they found as most of the greatest fears of their era have faded.  Divorce rates have not only leveled off, but declined.  Children are treated with near-reverence, buckled up, cherished, and sheltered from negative influences.  New York’s Times Square in our time is a ’70′s conservative’s wildest fantasy made real.

Substance abuse, crime, and smoking not only halted their rise, they have declined significantly.  Public disapproval of adultery has strengthenedAbortion is in steady, long-term decline.  Teen sexual activity and pregnancy are in dropping.

Our visitor from the ‘70’s would be treated to one particularly mind-boggling phenomenon.  Homosexuals, once mistakenly derided as lust-driven deviants, are pressing for the right to settle down in stable families and raise children.  The Village People now have entirely different plans for the YMCA – signing their kids up for soccer and gymnastics.

The only thing social conservatives lost in the culture wars was the opportunity to leverage government to impose their religiously inspired sexual repression on everyone else. The rest of what “family values” actually mean remains not only intact, but more vital than ever.

The fact that the “victory” Smith points to is based on same sex couples earning the right to get married says a lot about the direction taken by the sexual revolution since the eighties. For a vast majority of people who can still afford it, a “traditional” family remains not just desirable, but the standard. The problem is not that people have rejected family life. The problem is that in a highly dynamic, intensely market-dominated world, it has become extremely expensive to engage in any activity that does not produce an immediate profit. Traditional motherhood and fatherhood have become a radically expensive undertaking. If people on the left really want to engage constructively in a post-culture war detente with conservatives, it might be helpful first to acknowledge that the conflict ended with a new paradigm that was vastly different, and better, than what either side envisioned a generation ago.

In general though, this is a promising approach. If both liberals and conservatives recognized the desirability of stable families and the key role that economic stability plays in supporting them, we might have a basis on which to collaborate. That would require a bit more humility than Smith shows in this piece, but it’s a start.

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Posted in Religious Right

How Protestant Evangelicals shifted their abortion stance

prolifeJamelle Bouie had a great piece at Slate last week explaining the long strange journey of Protestant Evangelicals from pressing for the expansion of abortion rights to vehement opposition to nearly every aspect of women’s reproductive choices. Bouie correctly identifies the trend, but he misses an important pivot point that calls the rest of his analysis into question.

Bouie correctly points out that political conservatives and Protestant evangelicals were relatively warm toward pro-choice causes until the ‘70’s. The nation’s most liberal abortion rights legislation prior to Roe v. Wade was signed into law by California Governor Ronald Reagan. Barry Goldwater was staunchly pro-choice across his entire career.

In 1971 the Southern Baptist Convention endorsed abortion rights for women in a remarkably bold statement for the time. The Baptists responded to Roe v Wade in 1974 by re-affirming their previous statement in favor of abortion rights.

The Protestant theological mainstream was described in a quote from Bouie’s main reference, a recent book by Jonathan Dudley:

“God does not regard the fetus as a soul no matter how far gestation has progressed,” wrote professor Bruce Waltke of Dallas Theological Seminary in a 1968 issue of Christianity Today on contraception and abortion, edited by Harold Lindsell, a then-famous champion of biblical “inerrancy.” His argument rested on the Hebrew Bible, “[A]ccording to Exodus 21:22–24, the destruction of the fetus is not a capital offense. … Clearly, then, in contrast to the mother, the fetus is not reckoned as a soul.”

Bouie goes wrong in identifying Roe v. Wade as the galvanizing factor that brought Protestant Evangelicals into politics in opposition to abortion and to broader reproductive rights. Anti-abortion politics was almost exclusively the realm of Northern Catholics, mostly Democrats, into the 80’s. Why would a Supreme Court decision in favor of something they generally supported change Protestants’ views on the matter? The answer is that it wouldn’t and it didn’t.

This shift in Protestant politics was a by-product of new alliances inspired by a different controversy. It was not Roe, but an earlier Court decision that created the Religious Right.

In 1971 the Supreme Court ruled in Coit v. Green that the Federal government could revoke the tax-exempt status of private religious schools that engaged in racially discriminatory admissions. This sparked a decade-long legal fight led by Bob Jones University that resulted in defeat after defeat.

That case was the catalyst that would eventually bring a Southern Baptist TV preacher named Jerry Falwell together with a Northern Catholic political operative, Paul Weyrich, to found the Moral Majority. For years Weyrich had been working to bring religious fundamentalists into politics. His efforts were slow to gain momentum and were unaffected by Roe. The Religious Right remained an inchoate force, disorganized, derided, and unpopular in both parties until the Carter Administration gave them the fuel they needed to ignite a populist firestorm.

In the wake of Coit and the long series of Bob Jones decisions the Justice Department had the authority, but not necessarily the will, to take the campaign against school segregation into the private school market. Desegregation had brought a stampede out of public schools. In the North, Catholic parochial schools were the main beneficiary. In the South, Evangelical churches launched into this industry, providing middle and upper income families a place to hide their white kids.

In 1978 the IRS under Carter announced new rules. White private schools that had begun or rapidly expanded under segregation would have to affirmatively prove non-discrimination in order to retain their tax exempt status.

Weyrich’s own description of how the Moral Majority found its feet makes no reference whatsoever to abortion:

“I was trying to get those people interested in those issues and I utterly failed. What changed their mind was Jimmy Carter’s intervention against the Christian schools, trying to deny them tax-exempt status on the basis of so-called de facto segregation.”

It is no accident that 1980 is the first year that the religious right shows up as a force in Presidential politics. It is also no accident that one of the Reagan Administration’s earliest major policy moves was the cancellation of this IRS policy.

Abortion politics, like positions on school prayer, porn, divorce law, and other religious issues followed in the wake of segregation, not the other way around. The Southern Baptists declined to take an unequivocal stand against abortion rights for almost a decade after Roe v. Wade. The culture war got its impetus from desegregation, not from abortion.

By the late ’70′s, overt race-baiting was no longer tolerated on the public stage. The forces threatened by the Carter Administration’s decision were in no position to campaign openly in favor of segregation. They needed a proxy. In time, abortion and school prayer became convenient, race-neutral rhetorical banners beneath which Southern Protestant Evangelicals and Northern Catholics could march together, however uneasily. The tensions that once divided them have not faded away entirely, but have come to matter less and less as the “culture” issues they share in common take center stage.

That awkward marriage has in time produced a unique offspring, best symbolized by Sen. Rand Paul. The modern Neo-Confederate movement has now managed to synthesize an alliance between the conservative Northern Catholics who once supported George Wallace and Southern Dixiecrats on the basis of a shared interest in religious fundamentalism and a resentment of government efforts to strip religious groups of their policy influence.

Bouie is right to point out that evangelical abortion politics has changed dramatically over a single generation, but it was school segregation, not Roe, that provided the catalyst.

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Posted in Civil Rights, Neo-Confederate, Race, Religious Right, Reproductive Rights, Republican Party

Invasion? What Invasion?

Yet again we are reminded of how much hard-core Libertarians have in common with old-school Communists. Ron Paul’s think tank is striking back at the Students for Liberty founder who broke with the Paulites over Russia. Their reply is hilarious.

They call reports of an “invasion” a conspiracy theory. After all, 93% of the population voted to join Russia. They defend Putin and describe the criticism of the Russian invasion as “neo-con warmongering.” They then proceed through a series of hair-splitting arguments to assert that the Russian troops have done nothing in Ukraine that goes beyond the rights granted in their basing agreements.

When ideology trumps data the consequences are at best absurd, but too often tragic. All the same it’s fun to watch them wrangle. Brings back memories of Trotskyites battling Leninsts over the soul of Communism. And the running dogs of statism look on in laughter.

The full description is over at Slate.

Posted in Uncategorized

White people are poor because of their culture

The Atlantic - Map of OpportunityPaul Ryan has been in trouble recently because of his comments about the “inner city” poor and their culture of laziness and dependency. Ryan’s courage in standing up to the PC Nazis is admirable. His stand may finally open up the potential for Americans to confront poverty without hiding behind euphemisms or dodging uncomfortable facts.

Thanks to Rep. Ryan, we may at last be able to confront the last taboo in political correctness. We may finally be able to address the culture of poverty that keeps white people poor.

It is unfashionable to talk about the depths of poverty in the white community, but the truth is that white people are the most persistently and deeply impoverished Americans. Poor whites are far more government dependent than their minority peers. Their poverty is more persistent, stretching deeper into history than any other group. Worst of all, their isolation, drug dependence and decaying culture renders them far more resistant to relief than other groups.

America’s most persistent poverty is found among the benighted white people of the Banjo Belt, stretching in an arc from West Virginia across the mountain South into East Texas and Missouri. Their condition is far worse than their lucky brethren in the urban ghetto. An unemployed Kentucky coal miner may have no place within a five hour drive to find alternative work. Meanwhile, a struggling young person on the hardest streets of Chicago’s West Side is within walking distance of some of the most vital and dynamic economic activity in the world.

This proximity to opportunity is a key reason why persistent poverty is so rare in urban areas compared to the countryside. The largest portion of the poor in cities are in fact recent émigrés, struggling to establish themselves. Since many of these people are not yet citizens, they have little access to the safety net, aggravating their poverty while they make their climb and skewing poverty statistics. The urban poor are many and they are a constantly regenerating pool, but they are temporary.

Compared to the miserable stretches of countryside that have been poor for as long as they have been settled , urban residents experience upward mobility at the same rate as in Western Europe. If you want to find persistent, widespread, inter-generational poverty in America, you need to find Southern mountain whites.

Though the politically correct will punish anyone who mentions it, culture plays as much of a role as geography in keeping Banjo Belt whites poor. Family structures there have always been informal, brittle and transient. The inhabitants are consistently some of the country’s most drug-addicted and the region is a center for crime, violence, drug-production and trafficking going back into time immemorial.

White cultural degradation is readily apparent from generations of their music and art. Cherished traditional songs like Little Maggie celebrate drug addiction and prostitution. The entire catalogue of Hank Williams is a litany of addiction, betrayal and misery. Johnny Cash got his big break with a hit song about a sadistic murder. The most popular sport in the region was originally developed as a competition among drug traffickers. From Lefty Frizzell to Dolly Parton and beyond, the culture elevates habits that destroy prosperity.

The problem is so bad that it has passed barely noticed into popular culture, tolerated by whites at almost every level. The unofficial theme song of the University of Tennessee commemorates drug traffickers who murder anyone foolish enough to wander into their lair. The site of thousands of young students blithely singing this song about drugs and violence should chill the hearts of those who long to see white people reach their potential.

White poverty is fed by other cultural burdens that interfere with their children’s ability to compete. Raised with an almost paranoid fear of outsiders and a resistance to change, many white children never have a chance at a decent life. A religious structure that crushes curiosity and instills a desperate suspicion of science means white children of the Banjo Belt face considerable difficulty mastering technical or scientific fields so essential to a modern economy.

Capitalism demands a global outlook and a willingness to enthusiastically embrace nearly continuous change. The cultural baggage of white people leaves them crippled in this environment, unable across generations to develop the habits and skills that breed success. White children bred in this culture are doomed to failure before they even get started.

Clearly, if the white children of the Banjo Belt are ever to have a realistic chance to break the fetters of a culture of poverty, some intervention will be required. This will be impossible so long as the dictates of political correctness prevent us from describing white poverty as what it is – an illness bred from a sick culture. The PC-police who would characterize such an assessment as anti-white bias are simply ignoring the facts. Their misguided attempt to protect the precious “feelings” of the white community are condemning a new generation of young whites to continue in a cycle of relentless degradation.

We have got this tailspin of culture, in our mountain South in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work, and so there is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with. No poverty relief will succeed until we address the cultural factors that keep white people poor, shiftless, and unemployable. Government programs are admirable, but until white people are ready to confront the ways that their culture enforces their poverty conditions will not substantially improve.

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Posted in Race, Welfare State

Local regulation and the politics of social conservatism

Time has a story on the impact of state and local regulations on market innovators like Tesla, Uber and Airbnb. There’s an opportunity here for Republicans, but it’s an opportunity we are unlikely to seize.

From the article:

Airbnb, a website that allows people to rent out everything from vacation homes to spare couches for short-term stays, works great for everyone but conventional hoteliers and cities trying to bilk travelers for tourist taxes. Operating in 192 countries and typically showing hundreds of thousands of offerings, Airbnb has faced stiff regulations in towns supposedly famous for their weirdness and openness to lifestyle experimentation, such as Austin, Texas (which charges hosts an annual licensing fee and limits the number of participants) and Portland, Oregon (which has banned the service in residential neighborhoods). In New York, rent-control advocates are teaming up with hospitality-industry heavyweights to try and shut down Airbnb and similar services.

Look carefully for the hand of the notorious Republican bogey-man in this piece and you will not find it. Sure, the Feds play their part in limiting competition and protecting economic incumbents, but it’s an extremely small part. Washington has nothing to do with the fact that I can’t use Uber to get to O’Hare. It’s not Washington that prevents food trucks from revolutionizing dining in freedom-loving, gun-toting downtown Houston.

Where were the “liberty” advocates of the Tea Party when Houston entrepreneurs were trying to break through stifling local regulations? Probably out protesting at abortion clinics and that gets to the heart of the problem.

It is harder than most people think to use use Federal power to build market protections. It happens, like in oil drilling, television broadcasting, and Internet service providers, but it accounts for a minimal fraction of our overall regulatory burden. Federal regulations are the simplest to track, the easiest to fight, the most practical to mobilize resistance against.

The forces that most complicate efforts to introduce innovation, and the creative destruction that accompanies it, are preferential rules, taxes and fees scattered throughout the more than 10,000 local government entities in our country. The City of Wheaton, a Republican bastion here in the Chicago area, issued regulations in 2010 to control the size and placement of RedBox machines. Why? A councilman described it as a “preventive measure.” What they were looking to prevent he did not say.

These kind of regulations exist everywhere, regardless of party or politics. The simple if cynical fact of the matter is that a local councilman is far cheaper to “influence” than a Congressman. It doesn’t take many of these nuisance regulations to gum up the works for a company trying to move into new markets. Though you hear Republicans rail about government intrusions in the marketplace you don’t see them do anything about this class of regulation for good reason.

It is politically expensive on many levels to tackle local regulations that protect established hotels, taxi services, restaurants, and other interests. On the other hand, it is politically cheap to target homosexuals, immigrants, or abortion clinics. There are no entrenched financial interests to confront and no hard choices to make.

It’s a fine formula. Complain about regulation in the abstract, where it matters little while focusing your real energy on poorly organized or financially weak targets who cannot hurt you (in the short run). Talk about EPA rules or government spending, abstract subjects far removed from the bump and grind of the political ground game. Meanwhile your real legislative attention is directed at under-represented scapegoats with little ability to fight back.

Companies keep their politically purchased market preferences while teen girls lose access to a safe abortion. That’s the political calculus that has made the GOP the party of social conservatism and left the party largely toothless in the real world effort to promote a more dynamic, prosperous economy. That’s why there is no major political force in the US championing the kind of economic dynamism that the Republican Party pretends to support.

 

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Posted in Economics, Political Theory, Religious Right, Uncategorized
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