Category Archives: Reviews

Income Tax – The Original Inequality Equalizer

Did you have a good time compiling and filing your taxes last month? As much fun as I did, I’m sure. Most Americans agree (link to Gallup poll) that it’s time for a change to the tax code.

T.R. Reid’s A Fine Mess: A Global Quest for a Simpler, Fairer, and More Efficient Tax System (Penguin, 2017) breaks down the complicated subject of income taxation with a cursory global compare and contrast of other countries’ taxation efforts with those of the United States. This type of formula worked well in his previous effort, The Healing of America (Penguin, 2009), exposing America’s inefficient and disjointed healthcare system. Reid invites us to see how other countries do healthcare and taxation and asks: What best practices can we adopt to make our systems better?

A bit of history: Property and consumption taxes (excise, duties, tariffs, and sales tax) have been around since colonial days. A temporary federal income tax existed during the Civil War. Corporations have been taxed since 1909. In the wake of the Second Industrial era’s Gilded Age, and its previously unrealized economic inequalities, the Progressive era birthed the federal income tax in 1913 via the 16th Amendment, empowering the federal government to tax Americans’ personal income. Only 4 percent of Americans – the country’s highest earners – paid an income tax that first year. I call the federal income tax the original inequality equalizer – those who had “the ability to pay” did so for the common good. It was only after WW II that a broader base of Americans paid federal income taxes. In 1927, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes opined: “Taxes are what we pay for a civilized society.” As our bridges and rails and other structures deteriorate, a collective reset on our attitude about taxes could help.

A bit of reality: Of the thirty-four richest countries in the world, as measured by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in 2014, the United States ranked thirty-first in taxes paid at slightly more than 25 percent of GDP. Only in South Korea, Chile, and Mexico is there a lower tax burden than in the United States. Reid also reveals that US government spending is comparable low at 15.5 percent of GDP, ranking thirty-second among OECD nations. Reid says the dual argument that Americans are overtaxed and the size of government is out of control is fictitious. More genuine would be for Americans to admit that our societal DNA – “no taxation without representation” – makes us skeptical about paying taxes. We prefer to do some things with private rather than public funding. Americans privately give more to social programs and charities (than do citizens in other countries), but none of these good works fixes bridges or roads or public structures.

Reid explains that there have been major revisions to the tax code in 1922, 1954, and 1986. The mathematical symmetry of a significant change every 32 years targets 2018 as the year for the next reset to the code. While President Trump promotes a revision to the tax code as a major agenda item, a polarized and dysfunctional congress will make it difficult to attain.

The 1986 revision – a bipartisan effort – was widely hailed as a needed breakthrough. Reid says other countries adopted its main thrust of slashing income tax rates for the highest earners. The code has since, however, been overburdened with loopholes, breaks, and complexities. Yes, it’s a mess. The majority of US taxpayers hire professionals to do their taxes, and Reid says that the “Tax Complexity Lobby” (Jackson Hewitt, H&R Block, Intuit, and others) strenuously opposes innovations like pre-filled tax forms that save billions of hours and fees for citizens of Japan, Britain, Sweden, Spain, and Portugal.

Reid discusses three main options from his global survey: BBLR (broad based, lower rates), VAT (value added tax), and flat tax.

Quoting Reid on BBLR (all the hyphens are his): “The tax base – that is, the total amount of income, or sales, or property that can be taxed – is kept as large as possible, then the tax rate – that is, the percentage that people have to give to the government – can be kept low. Virtually all economists and tax experts agree that this is the best way to run a tax regime.” Remember Bowles-Simpson (aka the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform) from 2010? Even though it died in committee (it had its bipartisan supporters and opponents), it featured a BBLR approach to reduce the national deficit. A BBLR approach buttressed the 1986 tax reform law. One of its architects, former Sen. Bill Bradley, a long-time BBLR advocate, says, “The key to reform was to focus on the attractiveness of low rates, not on the pain of eliminating reductions.”

The two main deductions needing elimination in 2018, according to Reid, are well-loved by middle and upper class Americans: the mortgage interest deduction (MID) and the charitable contribution deduction. Reid claims the familiar rationale behind the MID – it encourages home ownership – is now passé; other OECD countries without an MID have home ownership rates similar to ours (about 65%). Reid also contends that Americans will continue to support charitable organizations whether there’s a tax break for itemized deductions or not. His rationale for this latter assertion seems mostly to be personal opinion. I do strongly agree, however, with his overall assessment: “Like the charity deduction, the benefits for home ownership are strongly skewed to the richest taxpayers.” This turns out to be – let me use a loaded phrase to make a point – government dole mostly for the well-to-do to the tune of $200 billion in 2016, with three-quarters of the MID tax break going to households that make more than $100,000/year.

Matthew Desmond, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Evicted (see my review here), goes farther than Reid and claims that the MID is greatly exacerbating American inequality. His NYT article of May 9, “How Home Ownership Became the Engine of American Inequality,” details the cases of four homeowners and three renters in various American locales. Desmond calls the MID “public housing for the rich.” That’s not all: “A 15-story public housing tower and a mortgaged suburban home are both government-subsidized, but only one looks (and feels) that way. It is only by recognizing this fact that we can begin to understand why there is so much poverty in the United States today.” Desmond’s work is provocative and well worth reading.

Reid says that 175 of the planet’s 200 countries employ some version of a value added tax (VAT). Essentially a sales tax on consumption, the VAT is applied to every stage of commercial production, not just to the final sale in a retail store. Two advantages emerge: there is less incentive to evade the tax for producers, and its collection is more steady. That it tends to be a regressive tax is its main disadvantage.

While praising its potential simplicity, Reid rejects the flat tax outright. He says it can work in countries where a polarity of income doesn’t exist (like the former Russian satellites in the last half of the twentieth century), but not in highly unequal societies like the United States. The flat tax takes in precious little income, and it further increases inequality. Slovakia and the Czech Republic initially utilized the flat tax but them dumped it as an oligarchy class gained prominence.

Reid additionally suggests that the US corporate tax rate be lowered (which would help deflate the current rampant incentive to avoid the tax), that our very richest citizens be taxed progressively, and that a financial transactions tax be implemented on Wall Street. He also says increasing the gasoline tax is a no brainer that can easily help bolster sagging US infrastructure.

Mr. Trump’s Treasury Secretary, Steven Mnuchin, has said the administration is confident that it can create a new tax plan that “pays for itself” with economic growth. Flat taxers, like Grover Norquist and Ted Cruz, spout the same type of fervor – that tax breaks will unleash economic growth like never before. This type of dogmatism has dutifully entered the realm of bogus cliché. The days of robust growth are over – see my five-part blog series on Robert Gordon’s The Rise and Fall of American Growth – and it’s time for Americans to hold political leaders accountable to a responsible and sustainable understanding of economic development.

How a country structures its taxes matters for inequality, economic development, and social spirit – all these included in an understanding of common good. In the earliest days of federal income taxation, “the ability to pay” was recognized by Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt as a patriotic duty of the economically advantaged. The tax also helped America maintain some sense of egalitarianism. Today, with a federal poverty rate of 13.5 percent, the majority of Americans can claim status as economically advantaged. Taxes are what we pay for a civilized society – a tax code that is simplified, more equitable, broader-based, and progressive toward the top can help this society recover some much needed civility.

 

This blog and website are representative of the views expressed in my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. Distributed by ACTA Publications (Chicago), JaLBM is available on Amazon as a paperback and an e-book. It’s also available on Nook and iBook/iTunes, and at the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing.

isbn 9780991532827

If you’re a member of a faith community – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or other – consider a book study series of Just a Little Bit More. The full-length book (257 pgs.) is intended for engaged readers, whereas the Summary Version and Study Guide (52 pgs.) is intended for readers desiring a quick overview of the work. It also contains discussion questions at the end of all eight chapter summaries.

Readers of both books can join together for study, conversation, and subsequent action in support of the common good.

The Spanish version of the Summary Version and Study Guide is now available. ¡Que bueno!

¡El librito de JaLBM – llamado Solo un Poco Más –está disponible en Amazon y el sitio web www.blueocotillo.com!

 

 

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Jesus Was Not a Self-Made Man

I know what people mean when they say someone is a “self-made man” (I’ve rarely heard the phrase “self-made woman” spoken): a person who has risen from dire circumstances to success by hard work and ingenuity. Benjamin Franklin – the tenth son of a humble candle maker – printed, invented, flew a kite, authored, and became a great American patriarch. Frederick Douglass – the son of an unknown father (most likely his original master) and a slave mother – escaped slavery to preach, write, speak, and become a foremost abolitionist and statesman. These two giants of American history have exemplified the term in question for generations.

Franklin I appreciate and Douglass I revere. The credo of hard work and ingenuity I wholeheartedly support. But the term used to describe Franklin’s and Douglass’s accomplishments – self-made? I’m not a fan of the term, nor do I ever use it. Franklin went to school until he was ten at a time when few did, and apprenticed under a brother to learn the printing trade. The wife of a subsequent Douglass master taught young Frederick to read (later, her husband coerced her to renounce this radical activity). Even though Franklin’s beginnings were humble and Douglass’s cruel and unjust, neither could claim complete freedom from the guidance and assistance of others. A community of some sort provided a foothold and direction.

Later historical figures – Carnegie and Rockefeller – and contemporary figures – Oprah Winfrey and Nasty Gal proprietor Sophia Amoruso – fit the bill of achieving success while overcoming difficult circumstances. But again, none of these four could or can honestly say that they did it all on their own. Contemporary figures who have enjoyed business success, such as Ross Perot, Mark Cuban, Michael Jordan, Sean Combs, and Michael Dell all rose from middle class or upper-middle class beginnings.

Little human beings need more caretaking and rearing than any other mammal. Newly born bears, orangutans, and elephants all require less time and effort to develop into adults than do newly born Olivia and Ezra (two of the most popular baby names in the US during 2016). When the raising up of our young ones is negligent or haphazard, catastrophes often result. Combine this proven reality with US society’s increasing inequality, and current troubles could ripen into future disasters.

Robert Putnam, in Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis (Simon & Schuster, 2015), joins many in the last few years to say that the phrase “self-made” has outlived its usefulness. Economic mobility in the US (the ability of a person to improve – or lower – their financial status) has not improved in the past fifty years. We no longer lead the world in economic mobility and many older Americans consequently overestimate its vibrancy. Other countries, such as Canada, France, and Denmark, boast higher rates of economic or social mobility than does the US. The cycle self-perpetuates: inequality makes the great American attribute of social mobility a myth because of its availability only to a minority. The majority of American males born today, for better or worse, will live into the same financial status of their fathers. For these, economic immobility is their American reality.

Putnam advocates public policy and private citizen action to support all that can be done to raise up (a phrase of striking symbolism) children born into impoverished situations: investments social and financial in poor neighborhoods, establishment of more mixed income housing developments, and ending the pay-to-play aspect of extracurricular activities in public school systems. Simply relying upon an American attribute increasingly unattainable won’t make for a better society for the generations that come after us. Individual initiative emboldened by hard work and ingenuity is still an absolute necessity, but it must be manifested within the greater context of communal support and societal resolve.

That today’s “self-made man” is a raging financial success who can live the life of ease and luxury is a clear bastardization of the term’s original understanding. In contrast, during Douglass’s day, the self-made man was a positive force in society for integrity, honesty, and love. The point of making money was not personal enrichment, but liberation from the necessity of work, freeing oneself to labor for the betterment of society.

Jesus was not a self-made man. A strong mother, a supportive family, and an established communal tradition raised up, in the course of thirty years, a son who advocated the renewal of society based upon love of neighbor, forgiveness, and compassion – values representative of the coming kingdom of God. Additionally, Jesus criticized excessive trust in wealth, labeling it a worldly, not kingdom of God, attribute.

What twenty-first century America needs: fewer “self-made” millionaires and billionaires who want to tell how they did it (so the rest of us can also strike it rich) and more citizens, be they rich or poor, who understand that strong and healthy communities produce the best and brightest individuals.

 

This blog and website are representative of the views expressed in my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. Distributed by ACTA Publications (Chicago), JaLBM is available on Amazon as a paperback and an e-book. It’s also available on Nook and iBook/iTunes, and at the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing.

isbn 9780991532827

If you’re a member of a faith community – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or other – consider a book study series of Just a Little Bit More. The full-length book (257 pgs.) is intended for engaged readers, whereas the Summary Version and Study Guide (52 pgs.) is intended for readers desiring a quick overview of the work. It also contains discussion questions at the end of all eight chapter summaries.

Readers of both books can join together for study, conversation, and subsequent action in support of the common good.

The Spanish version of the Summary Version and Study Guide is now available. ¡Que bueno!

¡El librito de JaLBM – llamado Solo un Poco Más –está disponible en Amazon y el sitio web www.blueocotillo.com!

 

 

 

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Just Mercy – Book Review

Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption hammers away at its main theme from the first to the last page: courtroom justice in America, contrary to common perception, is not readily attainable if you are poor. Especially if you are poor and brown or black, and living in one of the former slave-holding states. I would have amended the subtitle: Stories of Justice, Redemption, Injustice, and Inequality is much more descriptive of the formidable contents of the book. Stevenson is founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), a nonprofit organization based in Montgomery, Alabama, providing legal representation to indigent defendants and prisoners denied fair and just treatment in the legal system.

My reading experience of Just Mercy was akin to reading Dee Brown’s heartbreaking and daunting Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, the crucial retelling of late nineteenth-century westward expansion and attempted extermination of Native Americans by US government policy and dominant Anglo culture. Both books are must reads for anyone truly desiring to understand modern American society and its complex history.

jstmercy

Admittedly, I’m late to the game in reviewing this provocative memoir published in 2014. I read it recently as a comparative book for a new writing project (concerning retributive and restorative justice) and discovered the insidious theme of inequality prevalent page after page.

Stevenson describes his coastal Delaware home area as poor, rural, and “unapologetically Southern” where Confederate flags flapped in the wind and defiantly defined the 1960s’ cultural landscape in which Stevenson grew up. Church helped shape his early understandings of justice; he studied at Eastern University in Pennsylvania and Harvard Law School. While serving a legal internship at the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta in the early 1980s, he discovered his life’s calling – working with death row inmates.

This calling of more than thirty years has crystalized two primary learnings for Stevenson: Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done and our brokenness is the source of our shared common humanity. Toward the end of the book, after presenting the cases of more than twenty prisoners represented by EJI, Stevenson utilizes the story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery from John 8 to illustrate the synergy between these two primary learnings.

In 2013, Stevenson and EJI scored a great success at the Orleans Parish courthouse in New Orleans. Two inmates of Louisiana’s Angola prison (the setting of Sister Helen Prejean’s work in Dead Man Walking) had life imprisonment without parole sentences restructured – both men, African Americans, had been condemned and sentenced for non-homicide serious crimes as juveniles. Both men, elderly and infirm after having spent nearly fifty years in Angola, would soon know freedom. Stevenson walked down the imposing courthouse steps after the legal proceedings concluded and was stopped by an African American woman he recognized from the restructuring hearings. He inquired of her connection to either of his clients. She responded she didn’t know either of them. She explained, however, that she started come to the courthouse fifteen years previous when her sixteen-year-old grandson was murdered by fellow juveniles.

“This place is full of pain, so people need plenty of help around here . . . someone to lean on.” She continued: “Those boys were found guilty for killing my grandson, and the judge sent them away to prison forever. I thought it would make me feel better but it actually made me feel worse.

“All these young children being sent to prison forever, all this grief and violence. Those judges throwing people away like they’re not even human, people shooting each other, hurting each other like they don’t care. I don’t know, it’s a lot of pain. I decided that I was supposed to be here to catch some of the stones people cast at each other.”

She told Stevenson that she could tell he was a “stonecatcher” too – just like her.*

Life is difficult and people throw plenty of stones – actual and metaphorical – at one another; fewer people, however, do the good work of catching those stones midair. Jesus’s example and teaching in John 8 encourages the practice of compassion, forgiveness, acceptance, and standing firm in the face of injustice. Stonecatching, as described by Stevenson, is a modern-day interpretation of John 8 to help this society live up to its stated credo of liberty and justice – not for some – but for all.

The stonecatcher story is but one of many in the book that underpin Stevenson’s wise assertions about the shared human condition. Though not an overtly theological work, Stevenson’s tome is strongly supported at its foundations by two precepts advanced by healthy faith communities: love of neighbor and the confrontation of oppressive power with truth.

As children we are taught to differentiate between small and big, boy and girl, right and wrong, black and white. Important and necessary, these elementary learnings help us navigate in our early years. Later, however, change and maturity compel us to adopt more nuanced understandings of the world and its peoples: the best of us are not perfect; the worst of us have redeeming qualities; we have more in common than that which makes us different.

The newly elected president uses the elementary language of “us and them.” It helped him win election; I’m not convinced, however, that it will help this society progress. Stevenson doesn’t use the language of “us and them,” he simply uses the language of “us.”  An understanding of shared common humanity permeates Just Mercy – an understanding that will help this society not only progress but heal.

* Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (Spiegel and Grau, 2014), pgs. 307-09.

 

This blog and website are representative of the views expressed in my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. Distributed by ACTA Publications (Chicago), JaLBM is available on Amazon as a paperback and an e-book. It’s also available on Nook and iBook/iTunes, and at the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing.

isbn 9780991532827

If you’re a member of a faith community – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or other – consider a book study series of Just a Little Bit More. The full-length book (257 pgs.) is intended for engaged readers, whereas the Summary Version and Study Guide (52 pgs.) is intended for readers desiring a quick overview of the work. It also contains discussion questions at the end of all eight chapter summaries.

Readers of both books can join together for study, conversation, and subsequent action in support of the common good.

The Spanish version of the Summary Version and Study Guide is now available. ¡Que bueno!

¡El librito de JaLBM – llamado Solo un Poco Más –está disponible en Amazon y el sitio web www.blueocotillo.com!

1 Comment

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Evicted – Book Review

People who are not doing well economically in the United States – are they at fault or are they trapped in a system with little opportunity of moving forward? This has been a pertinent question and conversation point in the United States for generations back to the Gilded Age and the Depression ongoing to the current era of inequality.

evicted

Matthew Desmond is a Harvard sociologist and urban ethnographer. He’s not a blue blood; born at the dawn of the current era of inequality (circa 1980), he went to college with his parents’ encouragement but not their financial backing. While Desmond was in college, his working class parents were not able to keep up with mortgage payments and a bank foreclosed on their home in Winslow, Arizona – the home in which Desmond grew up. It became a defining moment in his educational and vocational journey.

Desmond decided to go to graduate school at the University of Wisconsin. He figured studying sociology would give him the best chance to understand the prevalence of poverty in the richest country in the history of the world. Left-leaners blame poverty on structural forces (discrimination, for example) and right-leaners focus on individual deficiencies; Desmond judges both suppositions as lacking: “Each treated low-income families as if they lived in quarantine . . . The poor were being left out of the inequality debate, as if we believed the livelihoods of the rich and the middle class were entwined but those of the poor and everyone else were not.”

Desmond treats poverty as existing, not in a vacuum, but in a people-to-people relationship system where influences run much more varied than simple one directional causes-and-effects.

For the project that produced the book Evicted, Desmond moved into a lower-income Milwaukee trailer park in May 2008. He lived there four months and then moved into a rooming house on the second floor of a duplex in Milwaukee’s predominantly African-American North Side neighborhood. He lived there until June 2009. (This is the same part of the city that saw violent unrest in August 2016 after the fatal police shooting of Sylville Smith, a twenty-three-year-old African-American.)  Evicted details the lives of eight lower-income families Desmond got to know during the fourteen months he lived in Milwaukee. Some of the families are white, some are black; some with children and others without children. What they all share in common: evictions from their living quarters.

Desmond argues that the fight against poverty has rightly focused on jobs, parenting, education, and public policy to alleviate social problems caused by issues such as mass incarceration. But he clamors that a sharp focus on the dynamics of the private housing market is sorely missing and intricately linked to the persistence of poverty. “We have failed to fully appreciate how deeply housing is implicated in the creation of poverty.”

According to Desmond, the majority of Americans living in poverty spend over half their income on housing, with one in four Americans spending more than 70 percent of their monthly income on housing and the electricity bill. It’s hard to stay put when there’s more month than income. One in eight Milwaukee families experienced eviction during 2009-2011. Desmond takes his readers to eviction court – a well-lubed machine in Milwaukee (and other large US cities) involving landlords, judges, sheriff deputies, moving companies, and belongings dumped onto the street curb.

Poverty in America, Desmond shows, has become a lucrative business. The trailer park owner – Desmond’s first landing spot in Milwaukee – was a Cadillac-driving millionaire who made upwards of $400,000 a year off the dilapidated trailer park. Categorize the owner as a top 1 percent earner making his living off of bottom 10 percent earners. (He was eventually forced to sell the park as the city wouldn’t renew his license because of multiple living code violations.) Desmond writes: “We need a new sociology of displacement that documents the prevalence, causes, and consequences of eviction. And perhaps most important, we need a committed sociology of inequality that includes a serious study of exploitative and extractive markets.”

Desmond writes well. The first chapter describes Milwaukee’s formidable winter “as cold and grey as a mechanic’s wrench.” Read on and you’ll discover that he also researches well. His meticulous transcribing of recorded conversations and note-taking yielded more than 5,000 handwritten pages from which to tell this crucial and important American story of poverty.

Evicted joins a recent chorus of work (Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, Bill Bishop’s The Big Sort, Linda Tirado’s Hand to Mouth, among others) that documents the lack of knowledge that exists in upper- and middle-class America about their fellows who live in poverty. Since the advent of the current era of excess and inequality beginning in 1980, America has emphasized fiscal over social policy. We’ve figured out how the rich can get richer and what makes the stock market rocket upward. We’ve fallen behind, however, in compassion and understanding.

Desmond doesn’t write himself into the story. In the Epilogue (the only part of the book where he uses his first person singular voice), he asks readers when telling others of this work not to focus on him but upon the characters in the story: Scott, Pam, Sherrena, Arleen, Vannetta, Tobin and the others. I’ve strayed from Desmond’s request in this review. I can’t give, however, a stronger recommendation for this book – bump it up to the top of your to-read list, now. Evicted is must-reading for any and all concerned about poverty and inequality in American society and for those wanting to go beyond simple suppositions about their neighbors living in poverty.

Desmond, Matthew – Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (Crown, 2016).

 

This blog and website are representative of the views expressed in my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. Distributed by ACTA Publications (Chicago), JaLBM is available on Amazon as a paperback and an e-book. It’s also available on Nook and iBook/iTunes, and at the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing.

isbn 9780991532827

If you’re a member of a faith community – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or other – consider a book study series of Just a Little Bit More. The full-length book (257 pgs.) is intended for engaged readers, whereas the Summary Version and Study Guide (52 pgs.) is intended for readers desiring a quick overview of the work. It also contains discussion questions at the end of all eight chapter summaries.

Readers of both books can join together for study, conversation, and subsequent action in support of the common good.

The Spanish version of the Summary Version and Study Guide is now available. ¡Que bueno!

¡El librito de JaLBM – llamado Solo un Poco Más –está disponible en Amazon y el sitio web www.blueocotillo.com!

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Poverty, Scarcity, and Your Next Diet

Have you ever failed at dieting? A newer book gives an insightful explanation as to why the diet didn’t work; additionally, the same explanation helps us understand why many get stuck in poverty and what might be done to combat its persistence.

jalbm food

In a previous blog post, I asked: Do you know anyone who is poor? In our increasingly stratified society, most better-off Americans don’t maintain friendships with people living in economic poverty; nonetheless, many have an opinion about their societal brothers and sisters struggling to get by on less. And – let’s be honest – that opinion is generally not favorable.

Scarcity: The New Science of Having Less and How it Defines our Lives, by Harvard economist Sendhil Mullainathan and Princeton psychologist Eldar Shafir, exposes as flawed the opinion that being poor is due mostly to moral failure.

Using the term bandwidth to describe fluid and accessible mental capacity, the authors explain how we process information and make decisions. None of us, they maintain, has unlimited mental capacity. As evidence, think about the last time you saw someone texting while driving. The culpable person was either driving ten miles per hour under the limit or weaving in and out of the lane, like a drunk driver. We can only do so much with what we have, especially as concerns texting and driving. Mullainathan and Shafir say that scarcity of differing types (caused by lack of time, money, or other resources) causes tunneling, a concentrated type of focus. Tunneling helps you send or read a text message while driving, but it hampers your driving performance. None of us is as good at multi-tasking as we think we are. Our available brain capacity, or bandwidth, is taxed when we’re doing more than one thing at the same time.

Temporary scarcity helps the mind focus and causes it, for better or for worse, to tunnel. If you missed breakfast for some reason, there’s a good chance you’ll get some lunch – your mind and stomach united, focused on the task. Chronic scarcity, however, is always disadvantageous. One’s mental bandwidth is heavily taxed when living in a state of chronic want and need. Mullainathan and Shafir maintain that chronic scarcity hampers decision making; living in poverty constitutes an austere tax on the mind.

The co-authors agree with the assessment made by many better-off Americans: specifically, the stereotype of those living in poverty as having a “lower effective capacity” concerning positive decision making for their own health and well-being, and that of their families. But – THIS IS A MAJOR DIFFERENCE – Mullainathan and Shafir attribute the diminished capacity of those living in poverty (compared to those who are well-off) not to sub-par character issues and moral failure. They attribute it to the mental bandwidth tax: “part of their mind is captured by scarcity.” Would you and I make some of the same questionable decisions in similar circumstances that poor people make – like spending too much on basketball sneakers for a kid? It’s easy to say “no.” But, have you or I ever lived in chronic poverty? If we answer the latter question in the negative, we best leave the former questioned unanswered.

We’ve all heard of slackers who do their darndest to game the system; some of these are in our own families. They, however, are the minority. In today’s America, a lot of the folks living in poverty are the elderly and children. Mullainathan and Shafir report that 50 percent of American kids today will at one point or another be on food stamps. It’s a great country, as the saying goes, but it’s also an incredibly unequal country.

In my book Just a Little Bit More, I quote the English historian and economist R. W. Tawney who lived in a time of similar inequality to ours – the 1920s. Tawney spoke of an unequal society that lacked understanding of and compassion for those who lived in poverty: “A society which reverences the attainment of riches as the supreme felicity will naturally be disposed to regard the poor as damned in the next world, if only to justify making their life a hell in this.” Tawney wrote these lines in Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, published in 1926. Some things haven’t changed in close to 100 years.

Mullainathan and Shafir do not shun individual responsibility as they encourage an expanded understanding of poverty and its causes. There is no substitute for hard work and personal responsibility for those desiring to rise above the poverty line. The co-authors do call for something they call fault tolerance – I call it compassion for those living in poverty. Perhaps there is a single mother in your community, working a job that pays $10/hour, juggling childcare and household responsibilities, trying to pick up a class or two at the local community college. What does she need? She needs supportive family, friends, neighbors, and public policy that don’t further tax her mental bandwidth. She needs timely helping hands, an occasional day off, and political representatives and appointees that shape ethical public policy, in part, because they are in touch with her reality.

As for your next diet, Mullainathan and Shafir have a suggestion: Sabbath. The traditional Jewish practice of rejuvenation, tranquility, and rest, Sabbath encourages a break from normal activity. According to the co-authors, food deprivation and trade-offs (adding up allowed calories and carbs, depending on types of food consumed) are activities of self-imposed scarcity that tax one’s mental bandwidth. Psychologically, this type of dieting is exhausting. Consequently, take a day off from your diet when necessary. Don’t blow it or ruin it by consuming all things forbidden! But, be compassionate with yourself – allow for some fault tolerance. Relax and let your mind reboot. The very next day, get back on the diet and have a goal to stay on it for six days or so. Sabbath comes once a week, every seven days.

The long-term goal is new practice. The only diet that works is the one that acts as a bridge to new practice. Good ol’ proper diet and exercise – there’s no substitute for it. Sabbath might help you get there, to the “new you.”

 

 

This blog and website are representative of the views expressed in my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. JaLBM, distributed by ACTA Publications (Chicago), is available on Amazon as a paperback and an ebook. It’s also available on Nook and iBooks/iTunes, and at the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing.

isbn 9780991532827

If you’re a member of a faith community – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or other – consider a book study series of Just a Little Bit More. The full-length book (257 pgs.) is intended for engaged readers, whereas the Summary Version and Study Guide (52 pgs.) is intended for readers desiring a quick overview of the work. It also contains discussion questions at the end of all eight chapter summaries.

Readers of both books can join together for study, conversation, and subsequent action in support of the common good.

 

 

 

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“A Reasonable, Balanced, and Authoritative Public Word”

PhilRugePHOTO

Professor Phil Ruge-Jones in action at TLU

Phil Ruge-Jones is a pretty bright guy. That’s not hyperbole; you can ask anyone who knows him or knows of his work. ELCA pastor, bearer of a Ph.D. in systematic theology, and professor of theology and philosophy at Texas Lutheran University in Seguin, Texas, Phil is also bilingual en el bendito Español. For close to twenty years, he and his spouse, ELCA pastor Lori Ruge-Jones, have been leaders in the biblical storytelling movement. As a matter of fact, Phil recently recited the gospel of Mark – in two one-hour sessions – for the theological conference gathering of the three Texas/Louisiana synods of the ELCA.

Phil recently took some time to digest Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. Here’s what he has to say:

     “Anderson’s book is an extensive chronicling of the people, movements, and streams of thought that have led us on the quest to want just a little bit more. In the role of a theologically aware social critic, he reminds me of Niebuhr. He is deeply embedded in the Christian tradition, but has listened carefully to many other voices and thus speaks a reasonable, balanced, and authoritative public word. Anderson shows us the way back to the North American commitment to egalitarianism that has become lost over the last century.”

Just a Little Bit More describes the dominant American culture of the last thirty-five years – the confluence of commerce, materialism, consumerism – as a religion. It’s been a good religion that has clothed, fed, employed, and sheltered us. But it has a tendency to go too far and when the aforementioned pursuits become excessive, the religion breaks bad and the common good suffers.

Available as a paperback or ebook, Just a Little Bit More is an excellent resource for personal reflection and/or group discussion. Is social inequality the necessary price to pay for the uninhibited pursuit of wealth? Do social inequalities destroy democratic ideals? Is there a connection between the common good and God’s realm or kingdom? These questions, and others, await you in the reading of Just a Little Bit More.

Just a Little Bit More is available through the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing, www.blueocotillo.com, and Amazon. Blue Ocotillo Publishing – paperback – $14.95 + tax (for Texas residents) + shipping. Ebook format available on Amazon, iBooks, and Nook.

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Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century

Summers are meant for reading longish, thick works of non-fiction – correct? Alright, I know I’m so wrong with that take, but if you are an unabashed non-fiction junkie like me, you know there’s simply not enough time for experimenting with mediocre fiction. I remember reading Buckley’s Thank You For Smoking when it came out in the ’90s; a truly hilarious and well-written read that lasted . . . five days. I have read other good fiction since then, but – I got to speak the truth – I’m in the game for the longer haul. Reading great narrative history (Lansing’s Endurance and Branch’s Parting the Waters, as examples) and good social commentary is what we n-f zealots do all year long. Ain’t it a blast! Here’s the latest review of a non-fiction must read (or, at least, of which one must read a few good reviews).

Thomas Piketty is a French economist; his 2013 book Capital in the 21st Century (English translation, Belknap Press, 2014) is a best-seller in the States and Europe. He teaches graduate level economics in France, specializing in economic inequality. He taught for a short while at MIT in the early 1990s and then returned to Paris to continue his teaching career. I knew enough about Capital before reading it to understand that Piketty and I speak similarly of capitalism’s susceptibility to political intrigue and its (potential) consequent propensity to siphon wealth upward, favoring the wealthy classes. For awhile I was thinking that my book, Just a Little Bit More, could be billed as the local, indie, American (and shorter) version of Capital. But then I read Dr. Piketty’s tome – so much for the local indie angle. Just a Little Bit More covers a lot of territory, but it doesn’t do r > g, or other economic equations. Capital, for the most part, is economics through and through.

Piketty states early on that “the history of the distribution of wealth has always been deeply political, and it cannot be reduced to purely economic mechanisms.”* According to Piketty’s work with extensive data, the rate on the return of capital (r) typically exceeds the growth rate of the economy (g), thus r > g. Historically, the interest garnered by accumulated wealth outpaces the gains of economic growth by about 5% to 1.5%. Are you still with me?

Things are the way they are – the rich getting richer in the US, especially in the last thirty-five years – not because it’s naturally intended by capitalism, but because it’s been manufactured. Piketty’s r > g has been buttressed by policy. Income and capital gains tax cuts for the wealthiest among us, along with reduced rates for inheritance taxes, have all contributed to the widening gap between America’s richest and poorest. The United States was founded to be an egalitarian country where primogeniture was not practiced as it was in Europe. Primogeniture – family inheritance passed onto the first born male – enabled Europe’s staid aristocracy to maintain its power and place. The two great democratic revolutions (American and French) wanted to give meritocracy a chance; you move yourself upward economically not by inheritance or family connection, but by hard work, ability, and effort. The good ol’ American Dream: one has to work to attain it.

There’s been a slight uproar this past week (third week of July, 2014) as it’s been revealed that the late actor Philip Seymour Hoffman didn’t want his children to be “trust fund kids.” His estate, valued at $35 million, will go (after a significant tax bit since he was not married) to his partner, the surviving parent of their young three children. As if a cruel fate (I jest), their children will need to forge their way forward more reliant upon their relationship with their mother than with a choice inheritance. The new American Dream: just give it to me. Hoffman was apparently adamant of his conviction; his accountant was not able to convince him otherwise.  The following Piketty comment supports Hoffman’s suspicion of oversized inheritance: “Every generation must in some sense construct itself.”~

Piketty, benefitting from the vantage point of an outsider, recognizes an important attribute of American taxation and its history that many Americans overlook: progressive taxation serves the purpose of reducing inequality. And a society that is more so (than less) economically egalitarian has fewer social problems. (If you missed Wilkinson and Pickett’s The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger, put it on your reading list now – Bloomsbury, 2009.) Piketty reminds his readers that the great country that led the way in democracy and egalitarianism – America – was also one of the last Western nations to abolish slavery. US society maintains a certain schizophrenic attitude about equality and inequality – we tolerate and accept both simultaneously. “This complex and contradictory relation to inequality largely persists in the United States to this day: on the one hand this is a country of egalitarian promise, a land of opportunity for millions of immigrants of modest background; on the other hand it is a land of extremely brutal inequality, especially in relation to race, whose effects are still quite visible.”**

Inequalities based on individual talent and effort, Piketty asserts, are quite acceptable in democratic societies. But when the deck is stacked, so to speak, democracy is threatened. Whereas today in the Scandinavian countries, along with France, Germany, England, and Italy, the richest 10 percent own between 50 and 60 percent of national wealth – in the United States, the richest 10 percent claim 72 percent of America’s wealth, with the bottom half (the majority of these being women) holding just 2 percent. These figures for the European nations and the United States are similar to what they were at the end of the Gilded Age, shortly before the intervention of World War I.~~ Piketty also argues that the Great Depression was a similar type of intervention to counter the rising inequality of the Roaring ’20s. What is to intervene now and combat, as it were, this current era’s rising tide of inequality? The 2007-08 recession hurt most everyone’s bottom line, but the inequality gap is unaffected; it’s as wide now as it was before the recession.

Boldly, Piketty calls for an international tax on accumulated wealth. Obviously, as Piketty himself concedes, such a measure is highly unlikely to be implemented any time soon. Nonetheless, let’s have a conversation about it. There has been plenty of conversation about the “size of government” and the need to reign in the excessive growth of the public sector. (I agree; please read chapter 6, “Excess,” in Just a Little Bit More.) Inefficiency, redundancy, and waste – none of these are helping the cause of societal common good. But let us also converse and discuss – with some depth of argument – the plight of citizens living in and among social and economic inequality. Piketty says that inequality in America could reach record levels by 2030 if contributing factors (which include the meteoric rise of top salaries) continue unabated. “The egalitarian pioneer ideal has faded into oblivion, and the New World may be on the verge of becoming the Old World Europe of the 21st century’s globalized economy.”*** A highly inegalitarian society requires more attention (social programs) in order to maintain social and political order. A more balanced and egalitarian society requires less public attention to mend its ills and deficiencies. This angle of the debate on social inequality and social programs needs greater voice. Piketty reminds: “The primary purpose of the capital tax is not to finance the social state but to regulate capitalism.”~~~ In other words, to keep capitalism in check.

As a person of faith and a public religious leader, I understand Piketty’s warning about the perils of continued and increasing economic inequality as crucial and urgent. What kind of society do we want to live in and consequently pass on to those who follow us? One where the uncritical pursuit of more and more is encouraged as a way forward regardless of the increasing gap between the richest and poorest? Revolutions – many violent – have risen from such chasms. I will continue to work that we (and those who come after us) might live in a society where the value of egalitarianism is upheld for its own good and for the beneficial consequences it brings.

 

Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good (2014) is available at the Blue Ocotillo Publishing website.

 

* Location 454 (Ebook markings – the first one I’ve read!)

~ Location 1493

** Location 2770

~~ Locations 4409, 4429, 4509 – Piketty claims that the 72 percent figure most likely is underestimated – meaning it should be higher.

*** Locations 4556, 9009

~~~ Location 9073

 

Interested in more summer reading? I also recommend Lawrence Summers’s “The Inequality Puzzle: Piketty Book Review,” available online and in the Spring 2014 edition of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas. A rec and a pun together – how good is that!

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Reviews of Just a Little Bit More

Reviews are coming in for Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. Available at the Blue Ocotillo Publishing website.

Nancy Snell of Mt. Prospect, Illinois writes:

It was a breath of fresh air for me to find in one book mantras I had been chanting for a very long time . . . the author has done extensive research, spells out our dilemma, and offers his views of how to work our way to a healthier society.

John D. Rockefeller’s answer to the question “How much is enough?” reportedly was “Just a little bit more.” A seemingly simple question with a simple answer is not so simple at all. T. Carlos (Tim) Anderson, author of Just a Little Bit More, contends that our “god of excess” prevents us from knowing when enough is enough, an extremely complex issue indeed.

Anderson provides a comprehensive, thoughtful, well-researched study of how our present day American culture has developed. In an age when politicians are bought more than elected, when unchecked capitalism is deepening the divide between the rich and the poor, when greed and self-interest are outpacing our concern for our neighbors and the common good, Anderson makes a case for egalitarianism as the centering point on the pendulum.

Just a Little Bit More left me with many thoughts to ponder. How can we distinguish between needs and wants when the line between them has become so blurred? Having more and better things doesn’t bring deeper meaning to our lives, so why do we keep searching in the stores? Recognizing that we are greedy by nature, will that greed cause our demise? How can we manage our greed? Anderson’s book provide a solid foundation for discussion.  He proposes sustained development, not unlimited growth, as our future’s solution. It would be energizing, productive even, to engage in group discussions of so many thoughts to ponder in search of paths leading toward that sustained development goal. A “must read” for those who love our country, are concerned about the social, political, and economic trajectories we are on, and long for change.

July 8, 2014

Kevin Byckovski of Austin, Texas writes:

A very well researched and balanced perspective. T. Carlos Anderson effectively weaves historical philosophies and behaviors into a well written, easy to read narrative on how we have been addicted to excess and its consequences.

July 15, 2014

Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good is available at the Blue Ocotillo Publishing website. Ebook available in August.

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