Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Who are the Knuckleheads?

“So who gives a rats ass what some nuckleheaded mr. know it all prof thinks. Look at where he works and this should tell you all you need to know.

That’s an exact reproduction of the first online comment on my last column. It’s no problem for me. I can deal with mean-spirited, ignorant comments. But I think it reflects more than a bad reaction to what I write.

The words of that comment about me are the mean-spirited part. Since the shooting of Representative Gabrielle Giffords and many other people in Tucson, there has been a renewed discussion of the need for civility in our political conversations. That is not a new topic. Many people who have been observing American politics for decades have been shocked at the angry tone of political talk in the past few years. It can be seen in our Open Line, on websites, and in the halls of Congress. I don’t know what sort of comments liberal readers make about columnists whose ideas they don’t like, but the above is nothing out of the ordinary for conservatives to say.

It’s the rest of that comment that is ignorant: just knowing where I work, at Illinois College, is sufficient reason for some people, more than just this one commenter, to dismiss anything I might say. In fact, most of what I wrote last week were facts about taxes in various states taken from a conservative organization. But ignorance is better than expertise, if the experts say things which make one uncomfortable.

Everyone forms their own opinions, and it is natural to find something wrong in someone else’s opinion, especially about politics. The rejection of “know-it-all professors” goes much further than that, and much further than professors. If certain facts of our world make someone uncomfortable, then they too can be rejected. I don’t like your opinions, so I won’t pay any attention to the facts that led you to those opinions. I’ll just pick my own “facts” which fit my opinions, or make some up.

The rejection of fact is clearest in scientific subjects, like evolution and global warming. Again, I am not speaking about interpretations. I happen to be convinced by the broad agreement among virtually all experts all over the world that humans have caused global warming over the past two centuries. That is an interpretation of gigantic piles of scientific evidence, although even among those agreeing scientists and explorers, there are differences of opinion.

I am speaking here of facts, like that the climate actually is getting warmer. It is easy to find people who claim it isn’t so, it can’t be so, it’s not true. They just reject the facts, because they don’t like them. NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration just reported that average global temperatures for 2010 tied 2005 as the hottest year since 1880, when record-keeping began. The 9 hottest years on record have all occurred since 2000. But no accumulation of facts is enough to convince the warming deniers.

There are lots of ways to reject facts. You can dismiss the reporter: I don’t like that guy’s politics, so his facts can’t possibly be true. You can dismiss the source: I know there isn’t such a thing as global warning, so if NASA or the scientists at X University gather temperature evidence about warming, they are part of the bigger conspiracy. You can dismiss the consequences: I don’t want any government program to deal with warming, so I’ll just reject the facts of warming. All these methods depend on first being sure about the result, and then finding a reason to reject any evidence to the contrary.

It disturbs some conservatives no end that Americans who teach in colleges and universities tend not to share their ideas about evolution, global warming, and history. So dismiss the source: just look at where we work, and that should tell you all you need to know.

When I was a kid, I enjoyed the ventriloquist Paul Winchell and his wooden puppets. One of them was named Knucklehead Smiff. Like him, those who close their eyes and ears to the facts of the world around them might as well have wooden heads.

Steve Hochstadt

Jacksonville IL

Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier on January 25, 2011

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

No New Taxes?

This past week the Illinois Legislature passed a major increase in state taxes on personal income, from 3% to 5%, and Governor Pat Quinn signed the bill. Corporate income taxes will also rise.

Many people are very unhappy about the prospect of higher taxes, and are saying bad things about our politicians. The comments that people have posted online are vicious. A local columnist, Jay Jamison, wrote that our legislators are stupid and corrupt. A lot of heat, when we need more serious thought about an important subject. It is worth looking at tax rates around the country to see how Illinois compares with other states. The Tax Foundation, a conservative anti-tax organization, provides much valuable information.

Seven states have no income tax, and 2 states tax only interest and dividend income. Among all the others, the Tax Foundation gave Illinois the highest ranking, meaning Illinois had the lowest overall personal tax rate, before this new law.

Unlike most other states, income in Illinois is taxed at a flat rate, no matter how high or low the income. At 3%, Illinois had the lowest rate of the 7 states with flat rates. Among the other 34 states with graduated rates, most have a lower rate for the poorest taxpayers, but every one had a higher rate for upper brackets. That means that better off people in Illinois have been paying the lowest income taxes in the country, except for the states with no income tax. That is certainly one reason why Illinois has such a disastrous debt problem. In fact, in most states the 233,000 Illinois households with incomes of more than $200,000 per year would pay at least twice as much tax. Illinois has long been a tax haven for the rich. Our tax receipts from middle-class and upper-class taxpayers are so low that the state has not been able to cover spending year after year.

Democrat Pat Quinn was very clear in his campaign for Governor that he favored raising taxes substantially. Overall he was not a particularly strong candidate: he is a poor speaker, he made numerous public relations goofs during the campaign, he could point to no particular achievements of his administration, and he represented the party in power during a time of severe economic crisis. Republican Bill Brady made his opposition to any increase in taxes his primary selling point. He and other Republicans relentlessly pounded their anti-tax message during the campaign.

The voters spoke in November: they picked Quinn and a tax increase over Brady and no new taxes. One reason is that Brady could not identify for voters where he would cut much spending. The opponents of taxes did not propose any reasonable alternative to raising taxes to solve Illinois’ debt crisis.

One response of anti-tax pundits to these facts might be that Illinois voters are stupid and corrupt. But there’s more. The Tax Foundation takes an annual Tax Attitudes Survey across the country. The latest data they offer is for 2009. They asked, “Would you support or oppose the government redistributing wealth by a much higher income tax on high income earners?” Note how loaded the question is -- it says a progressive income tax redistributes wealth and asks about a much higher rate on high incomes. Yet here are the results: national support for a highly graduated tax system, 52%; oppose, 31%; not sure or neither one, 17%.

Because the discussion about taxes in Illinois has focused entirely on their level, nothing has been said about their structure. Under the new law, Illinois will now tax our poorer citizens at a higher rate than all but 3 states. Only 16 states will tax their richest citizens at a lower rate than Illinois. Illinois will be a worse place to be poor, but remains a good place to be rich.

Illinois’ tax system has contributed to our state debt crisis. It will continue to contribute to the social crisis of poverty and economic inequality which has vastly increased over the past few years. That is not what voters want.

Steve Hochstadt

Jacksonville IL

Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier on January 18, 2011

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Don't Discriminate

The 24-hour news cycle swallows the important and unimportant events of yesterday in favor of the newest headlines, newsworthy or not. Unless we stop a moment to reflect, momentous accomplishments might disappear. One of the final political acts of 2010 was a milestone in the continuing civil rights struggle: Congress declared that the US military would no longer discriminate against homosexuality. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” finally became “Don’t Discriminate”.

A long history of legal persecution of homosexuals by the US government has come to an end. Alongside the red scare of the postwar decades, which used exaggerated fears of domestic communism to attack labor unions and civil rights advocates, the so-called “lavender scare” attacked Americans suspected of homosexual behavior. It is possible that as many suspected gays lost jobs as suspected Communists.

The popular movement to give gay Americans equal rights began in the late 1960s, inspired by the demands of the movements on behalf of African Americans and women -- treat us equally as Americans. As in the case of African Americans, the US government used military arguments to justify its own discrimination. Arnold Rampersad’s splendid biography of Jackie Robinson explains how Robinson and other blacks were prevented from playing baseball in the Army during World War II. In the immediate postwar years, major league baseball gradually dismantled its racial barriers and President Truman officially integrated the armed forces, well before a broad popular movement developed to demand racial equality. I believe that the example of the military, and the fact that many whites met blacks as equals for the first time in the service, gradually changed popular opinion about race in America, leading to the broad popularity of the civil rights movement.

For homosexuals, that process was reversed. During decades of political activism, many communities across America passed laws banning discrimination on the basis of sexuality. But the government persisted in its claim that homophobia was justifiable military policy. If our soldiers are heroes, a gay person could not qualify.

The key to repeal was an enormous survey, one of the largest surveys in military history, covering over 115,000 responses from members of our armed forces. The central question was, would repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” affect how “members in your immediate unit work together to get the job done?” 18% said the effects would be all positive, 32% said there would equal positive and negative effects, 20% said there would be no effect, and 30% said there would be negative effects. With less than one-third saying that repeal would have an overall negative effect, the members of our armed forces themselves decreed the end of discrimination.

Part of that survey which has received less attention is the response of tens of thousands of military spouses, mostly women, to questions about social relationships with gay people. Asked about the possibility that a gay military couple lived in their neighborhood on the base, 63% of respondents answered, “I would get to know them like any other neighbor,” 13% answered, “I would do nothing,” and 13% answered, “I would generally avoid them when I could.” That question gets to the heart of the issue. It is not about military readiness, but simply about social attitudes. Those who would avoid homosexuals because they are homosexuals represent only 13% of military spouses. Homophobia is not dead, but it is no longer the will of the American public.

The long civil rights movement is not over. Its cause, the persistence of discrimination in American life, stubbornly remains, still proclaiming the tired slogans of biological superiority and moral exclusivity. But our society in its wisdom keeps moving towards equality. Another significant recent step forward was the so-called Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which allows women to sue employers who violate the laws about equal pay for equal work, based on the 1964 Civil Rights Act. This legislation gives women redress against employers who persist in paying them less than men; it was the first legislative act of Obama’s Presidency.

Conservatives opposed both of these efforts to end discrimination. Nearly every Republican in the House and Senate voted against both the Lily Ledbetter Act and against repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”. Our own Congressman, Aaron Schock, voted against both of these efforts to make American society more equal.

Ending discrimination will not be achieved through a new military policy nor by new laws. Such political acts reflect an evolving popular understanding that America can prosper by defending equality. New policies can also encourage that understanding, by demonstrating that whites and blacks, men and women, straights and gays can do the nation’s work together. Part of that work is ensuring that the nation lives up to its high ideals.

Steve Hochstadt

Jacksonville, IL

Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, January 11, 2011

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Thinking about the New Year

The beginning of a new year is a moment for wild celebration. In New York’s Times Square hundreds of thousands of people gather in freezing weather to see the ball drop at precisely 12 midnight. In Berlin, Germany, fireworks light up the entire city for hours. Even up in Springbrook, Wisconsin, population 500, we put on party hats and toasted with champagne, although we had set the clocks ahead 2 hours so the little kids and the old folks would still be awake.

New Year’s is also a time for reflection. People make lists of the 10 greatest things about the year just gone by. We also think about the worst things in our immediate past, and resolve to fix them, even though we all know that New Year’s resolutions are as likely to be kept as campaign promises.

Rather than make futile resolutions, I have been thinking about happiness. If I know what makes me happy, perhaps I can find more happiness this coming year.

I am happy to be an American. That doesn’t mean that I think that Americans are better than anyone else, or that America is the greatest nation in history. The unique tolerance for nonconformity, the encouragement to create our own lives, the openness to change and renewal offer me possibilities that seem closed in the older European societies from which my ancestors came. I have lived in other countries, but I fit best in America.

I am happy to be a Jew. That doesn’t mean that I think that Judaism is a better religion or that Jews are better people. I am often sad about the repeated persecution that my family has suffered, persecution which brought my relatives to America from Russia and Austria. But mainly I am happy to have been raised in that peculiarly cosmopolitan culture, which laughs a lot, mainly at itself, which reveres books and learning, which urges us to do good deeds, called mitzvahs, for those around us.

I am happy to live in Jacksonville. That doesn’t mean that I think that Jacksonville is better than Beardstown or Springfield or any other place. But for me it is a good place, a place with friends, with beautiful homes, with a rich history based in education.

I am happy to have a job. Many people I know don’t have jobs, including friends and relatives. Not all jobs are good jobs, but especially in these difficult times, a job means more than money. It means being part of something bigger than myself, having colleagues who share my goals, having people who depend on my work and on whose work I depend. It means having a place to go in the morning with a purpose, accomplishing big projects one day at a time, building a career over a lifetime.

I am happy to be a teacher. I don’t know everything, or even everything about what I teach. I love to learn new things and tell students about them, to help young people gain insight into the world around them and acquire skills to influence that world. Teachers are paid less than most other people who have made a similar investment in their education, but I feel rich beyond measure when a new student’s eyes light up with new knowledge, or when an old student remembers our mutual efforts to teach and learn.

I am happy to be part of my family. Except for my wife, I didn’t choose my relatives, nevertheless I feel happiest among them. My life was shaped by a heritage over which I had no control, by generations of ancestors who died before I was born. I tried to control who my children became, but I am happiest to be surprised by their independence, their individuality, their differences from me.

I am happy to be who I am. That doesn’t mean that I think I am better than anyone else. Many things I have tried have not worked out well. I have flaws I can’t control and desires I will never satisfy. But regrets do not contribute to happiness and we rarely get a chance to right the wrongs we have done. I could resolve to be a better person, but I doubt I could keep such a resolution. Instead, I’ll just keep remembering what makes me happy, and then try to share that joy with others. Happiness, like sadness or anger, is infectious. It can be spread to those around us. It just takes a word, a glance, a smile.

Happy New Year.

Steve Hochstadt

Jacksonville IL

Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier on January 4, 2011