Monday, April 30, 2012

False Equivalents

    Recently I received two comments on my columns which help to explain the unresolvable political arguments which are tearing our nation apart.

    In response to my column about doing my taxes, someone wrote that the US has the most progressive tax system in the world, and cited an article he had read to prove it. Another reader responded to my column about scientists disagreeing about global warming by suggesting I read an article debunking climate change.

    I read those pieces, and they are junk. Here’s why.

    Veronique de Rugy is a senior research fellow at George Mason University. In an article in the Washington Examiner, and then in a variety of postings, she wrote: “the United States has the most progressive income tax system among industrialized nations.” Her only evidence is that the percentage of total tax receipts paid by the highest earners is greater in the US than in other countries.

    The most progressive income tax systems among industrialized countries, as of 2009, were in Denmark (the rate for top earners is 62%), followed by Sweden (57%), the Netherlands (52%), with Austria, Belgium and Japan at around 50%. The top tax rate in the US is 35%. Very few major industrialized nations have a lower top tax rate.

    So why does the US have the largest percentage of total taxes paid by the highest earners? Because we have more and richer top earners, all of whom pay less than they would in other countries, but who add up to a larger proportion of the whole. The great inequalities of wealth in the US mean that even though we have a much flatter tax system, the rich are so rich that they pay a large proportion of our tax receipts.

    This is not complex economics, but simple spinning of data for political purposes by de Rugy. Her misleading claims, posted immediately on conservative sites like National Review Online, are not designed to promote understanding, but to advance a political agenda.

    The article against global warming was written by Mona Charen, who makes her living as a syndicated conservative columnist. In her first sentence, she accuses those who are concerned about global warming of demagoguery, sentimentality, cynical manipulation, and hysteria. She repeats the hysteria idea in the second paragraph.

    Then she makes three points. Although there have been many warnings that polar bears are endangered by global warming, it turns out that they have not yet suffered any species damage. Her second point is that new science allows us to take better photographs, which show that there are many more Emperor penguins than scientists thought. Her third point is that a prediction made 5 years ago by scientists about the speed of the melting of Himalayan glaciers turns out to be much too high.

    Charen ends by questioning whether the climate is actually warming at all, and then saying that those (all of us?) who are on the other side have hurt science itself, besides being all those things she began with.

    Mona Charen picks and chooses scientific tidbits which she thinks can make her readers believe that science itself is suspect. As soon as you look at the larger picture, you see how manipulative she is.

    The scientists were wrong about polar bears, but that doesn’t mean anything about their ideas on global warming itself. The bit about penguins shows that better technology reveals that the number of penguins has been underestimated by scientists, which also has nothing to do with warming.

    The third point is worse. One of the authors of the study about the melting of glaciers, John Wahr, wrote that the Himalayan glaciers are a small contributor to overall ice melt and that estimates for the largest contributors, Antarctica and Greenland, have been correct. “It's Greenland and Antarctica that pose by far the greatest threat to rising sea levels in the future. That's, basically, where all the ice is.”

    You won’t find out that fact from Mona Charen, just as Veronique de Rugy doesn’t tell you what you really need to know about progressive income tax systems. They both know that the average reader, especially those who want to believe conservative ideas, won’t or can’t follow the trail backwards from their misleading writings to the real facts. They don’t seek truth, they obscure it.

    My two readers, who put these writings forward in opposition to mine, asserted a false equivalence. They equated these bits of right-wing propaganda with my columns, which I suppose they believe are simply left-wing propaganda. They’re wrong.

    I don’t cite misleading factoids, which hide the real facts. I don’t quote people out of context. I don’t try to hoodwink my readers.

    I’m sure I won’t convince my critics by saying that. Every writer claims total honesty. But I’ll say it anyway, because it would pain me if anyone discovered that I was as dishonest as de Rugy or Charen. Nobody will, because I’m not.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, May 1, 2012

Monday, April 23, 2012

What We Don't Know

I just read a long exchange among scientists about global warming, in which they, sometimes harshly, argued against each other from opposite sides of what seems to be a great divide. Most of us know so little about how a climate works and how it might change that we must rely on distant experts to tell us what is going on and what might happen in the future.

I was struck by the agreement among these arguing scientists that significant warming had occurred across the earth, and that it could have major effects on human life. The scientists disagreed about the past and the future: what caused the warming and how much further warming is likely?

We don’t know the answers to these questions. Each model of climate change predicts a slightly different future.

We do know that global warming has occurred. 2010 was the hottest year on record, tied with 2005. Each year since 2001 has been hotter than any year before 2001, except for 1998. Last month was the hottest March on record in the US.

A warming climate could mean the end of maple syrup production and the proliferation of tree-killing insects, just to name two of many inevitable changes. If the trend of warming continues for the next 20 years, the odds of catastrophic floods in our coastal cities rise to dangerous levels.

Some things about global warming are uncertain. But one thing is not – if we do nothing, we will face enormous problems which could have been avoided.

We don’t know exactly how humans evolved from apes. Very recently another fossil find in Africa added a new species, not yet named, to the now long list of almost humans. We do know that evolution, working incrementally over millions of years, has allowed humans to develop larger brains, which in turn permitted us to make tools, create language, and build civilizations which lower animals could never dream of.

We don’t know exactly how the many chemicals which we have synthesized and then used all over the earth affect our health. An article on WebMD says, “How much hormone is in a hamburger, and could it hurt you? The answer is, no one really knows.” But we do know that pesticides can cause cancer, as do some of the additives fed to the animals we eat. The Food and Drug Administration has known for decades that putting antibiotics into animal feed to make them put on weight can cause more resistant strains of human diseases to develop.

We know that human inventions, created to make life better, can make life worse in unpredicted ways. Asbestos, lead, and mercury were employed in a wide variety of materials in our homes, because they appeared to be useful, until scientists realized that they were also toxic to humans. Then it took years to get them out of our daily lives.

A major uncertainty today is how much the process known as fracking, the injection of chemicals under high pressure into rock to release natural gas, could harm our health. Scientists in many states have documented that fracking contaminates water supplies, causes small earthquakes, and pollutes the air. But exactly how and how much is not certain, because the studies are scattered, and the oil and gas industry vociferously denies any dangers from fracking.

Although the vast majority of scientists in every nation agree that global warming caused by human activity will continue to levels dangerous to our society, the media and some politicians in the US continue to stress uncertainty. Americans are so confused by the claims of public figures that global warming is a “hoax” that a Rasmussen poll last year showed the majority distrusted science: 40% thought it was very likely and 29% thought it was likely that scientists have falsified global warming research.

There is no evidence for such falsification, just the wishful thinking of those who don’t want to face uncomfortable reality.

Here’s one thing we do know. Science works.

Tornado prediction is an even less certain science than global warming. Yet weather scientists were able to broadcast the earliest tornado warning in years and save lives across the Midwest earlier this month. Despite the uncertainties of such forecasts, weather science was on target.

Great and powerful people have argued against accepting the basic findings of science since well before Galileo. They have always lost, after a long, tiring, and wasteful battle. Their political unwillingness to accept science squanders society’s precious time, which it needs to face the real question: what does the science mean for us?

That question is devilishly difficult to answer. It’s the main thing we don’t know.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, April 24, 2012

Monday, April 16, 2012

Doing My Taxes

I just finished doing my taxes. And my mother’s taxes. And the tax returns for a small philanthropic organization whose Treasurer I am.

If I had not waited so long, I would not have squeezed hours of filling out forms into just these last few days. But that concentrated my mind on our tax system: how much time it takes, how complex the paperwork can be, how much money is at stake.

It’s hard to find out how many people do their own taxes with pencil and paper and calculator, as I do, but I found a couple of online “polls”, one of which proclaimed “This is not a scientific poll.” They both showed that only 4% of filers do it that way. Most people use some tax software and file electronically.

I don’t mind paying my taxes, exactly the amount that comes out at the end of lots of calculations. I don’t want to pay more than I have to. I don’t begrudge what I do pay to fund our public goods.

I think the forms are a nightmare of poorly explained instructions. The difficulties mostly lie in the forms that allow you to take advantage of the loopholes written into our tax code. The biggest loopholes for most Americans are listed on Schedule A, Itemized Deductions. With that form, the taxpayer can deduct from taxable income many kinds of expenses: interest paid on a mortgage, state income taxes, charitable contributions, money spent on the job. Some income is not taxable at all. For a widow living only on Social Security, the first $50,000 in benefits is not taxable. All Medicare benefits are excluded from taxation.

The fancy phrase for these loopholes is tax expenditures. This is what the Joint Committee on Taxation of the US Congress, with 5 Republicans and 5 Democrats, said in a 2011 report about these “special tax benefits to particular taxpayers”: “Tax expenditures are similar to those direct spending programs that are available as entitlements to those who meet the statutory criteria.” They are just like unemployment benefits or free school lunches, except they tend to go to different people. We all benefit from some form of government-created welfare. That’s a bipartisan judgment.

There are hundreds of different tax expenditures that are designed to benefit certain people. The Joint Committee on Taxation takes 7 pages just to list the tax expenditures enacted into law since 1986. A recent one from 2007 is the “exclusion from gross income of benefits provided to volunteer firefighters and emergency medical responders”. An older loophole which comes at a much bigger cost is the medical savings account, allowing people to shelter money used to pay medical expenses. That concept was a major plank of the Republican Party's health care agenda in the 1990s.

The same report explains which of the many tax expenditures are the largest. For middle-class taxpayers, the second most important exclusion from income is the home mortgage interest deduction. But saving us even more money is the exclusion of employer contributions to health care insurance and health care. We don’t even have to declare that income on the 1040 form. Each year that provision costs the federal government over $100 billion in lost tax revenues.

Millions of American families benefit from these two loopholes. The third largest loophole is much more narrowly focused: the much lower tax rate on capital gains. Anyone with money in stocks could benefit from this loophole, but how much income does the average taxpayer gain from the stock market? It mainly affects the very wealthy, people for whom a large portion of their income can be considered capital gains. Like Mitt Romney, nearly all of whose 2010 income of $21 million was taxed at the special low rate for capital gains.

Republicans like Romney are proposing a major overhaul of our tax system. They want to lower tax rates by doing away with many of the big deductions, although they refuse to specify which ones. They are sure about one thing, though – they want to keep the tax expenditure on capital gains. In fact, the Congressional Republican tax plan put forward by Paul Ryan, and supported by Romney, would eliminate all taxes on capital gains. That would make it the biggest tax expenditure ever.

Eliminating the deductions I use would make it much easier to file my taxes. I would no longer get a special break as a homeowner, which might seem fair to those who rent their dwellings. The special breaks would all go to the wealthiest Americans. I would pay taxes on every penny I earn. But the millionaire next door might not pay anything. Good for him. But is that fair to the rest of us?

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, April 17, 2012

Monday, April 9, 2012

Today it is Passover

Passover and the two fall celebrations of Yom Kippur and Rosh HaShanah are the holiest days in the Jewish year, the high holidays. Many religions welcome the spring with rituals that reach into much earlier times. Jews celebrate for eight days the story of their liberation from slavery by God, who passed over Jewish homes when he killed the first-born children of the Egyptians. Religious observance takes place at home, and is focused on one highly ritualized meal, the Seder dinner, usually on the first night of Passover.

For several hours, a prescribed text is read by everyone around the table. At specified moments, unleavened bread, horseradish, a green vegetable dipped in salt water, and a lamb shank are eaten, and wine is drunk four times, accompanied by praise for God, Adonai.

Seder is always about family and friends. For thousands of years, Jewish families have lit candles, eaten the bitter herb, drunk the wine, said the prayers, and told a story about their spiritual ancestors being enslaved in Egypt, until Moses led them to freedom through the Red Sea, miraculously parted by God.

The Passover story is framed as a lesson from parents to children. The youngest at the table asks what is special about Passover, and is told about the bitterness of slavery and the joy of liberation. The text is about ancient Jews and Egyptians, but the lessons are universal. Jewish parents tell their children to hate oppression, to understand the vacillating but ultimately evil ways of dictators, and to believe that freedom will eventually come.

The historical Passover story symbolizes every oppression and promises liberation to those who are persecuted. Every subjugated people has its own Moses, who told Pharaoh, “Let my people go.”

For many hundreds of years, when they ate the bitter herbs Jews thought of the persecution they suffered as a religious minority by the Christian majority across Europe and America. After the Holocaust, the widespread oppression of Jews has disappeared, just in my lifetime. Jewish families in most places in the world no longer yearn to be liberated.

As Jews in the US have shifted our liberationist gaze from ourselves outward to others, demand has grown for new versions of the Passover text, the Haggadah. The civil rights movements which took off in the 1960s, supported then by most Jewish Americans, influenced what Jews recited and thought about at Passover dinner. Modern texts eliminate the sexist language of the traditional Haggadah and honor female biblical figures, such as Miriam, sister of Moses.

The tragedy of Nazi genocide, which touched nearly every Jewish family, the welcoming of immigrants into the US, and the promise of freedom for all that America embodies have all influenced the political beliefs of American Jews. A poll taken last month by the Public Religion Research Institute shows that one of the most important political values among Jews is “welcoming the stranger”, which 72% think is important. Even more important, for 84%, is “pursuing justice”. That means caring for the poor and ending discrimination. When asked what is most important to their Jewish identity, twice as many American Jews select a commitment to social equality as select support for Israel. Two-thirds say that the American government should do more to reduce the gap between rich and poor. About three-quarters believe that the American economic system favors the wealthy. 81% favor the “Buffett rule”, increasing the tax rates for those who make over $1 million per year. About 70% favor the DREAM Act, allowing children of illegal immigrants to gain legal resident status if they enter the military or go to college. Over 80% favor allowing same-sex couples to marry legally.

This year, as usual, the Exodus story made all of us around the Seder table think of those people whose oppression we hope one day will end. The religious centrality of the Passover story of liberation might partly explain the liberal political attitudes of American Jews. The Haggadah explains that it not enough to remember that we were oppressed long ago. We must relive that slavery and realize that the struggle for freedom never ends. Because we were enslaved, we must help others become free.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, April 10, 2012

Monday, April 2, 2012

The Republicans Have No Foreign Policy

It would be difficult to find a time in our recent history, when the foreign policy of a Presidential administration was as unsuccessful as under George W. Bush. Not just one, but two wars started and carried out for years without any success, bin Laden still hiding after years of fruitless search, a worsening situation in the Middle East, and anti-American feeling growing all over the world.

Not one mission was accomplished.

So it’s not surprising that Republicans since 2008 have been scrambling to figure out what they should advocate. The ideas that the Republican Presidential candidates have proposed over the past year demonstrate the bankruptcy of their foreign policy thinking. These problems are exemplified by expressions of the candidates’ policy towards Israel.

Obama called on Israel to stop building settlements in the West Bank and to use the1967 borders as a starting point for negotiations with the Palestinians. This is the position taken by every President since Nixon.

The Republican candidates, for all of their criticism of each other, have spoken with one voice about their Middle East policy. Michele Bachmann said last November, “President Obama hasn’t been willing to stand with Israel. Israel looks at President Obama, and they do not see a friend.” In February, she called Obama “the most dangerous president” when it comes to the Middle East.

Rick Perry said in September that “the Obama policy in the Middle East” is “naive and arrogant, misguided and dangerous.”

Mitt Romney, the front-runner, said last May, “President Obama has thrown Israel under the bus. He has disrespected Israel and undermined its ability to negotiate peace.” Romney liked that image, and has repeated it over and over. In June, in an interview with Sean Hannity, Romney said, “Obama threw Israel under the bus. You stand by your allies, you don't dictate to them.” In an interview in October: “My view is that he threw Israel under the bus by laying out his view of the policies he thought Israel should adopt in the peace process. I believe that the role of an ally is to stand behind your friends and let them speak for themselves, rather than be spoken for by the United States of America.” And again in January.

Herman Cain could do no better than copy Romney’s words. When he was briefly the front-runner in October, Cain said that the President “threw Israel under the bus.” And Rick Santorum last week also played copy-cat: “We're throwing Israel under the bus, because we know we're going to be dependent upon OPEC. Folks, the president of the United States is selling the economic security of the United States down the river right now. This is a president who is not standing by our allies.” He is “trying to find a way to allow Iran to get this nuclear weapon.”

Jews have always been concerned with the word, spoken and written. Jews are also very attuned to metaphorical language about killing. Buses, by the way, are a much more common method of transportation in Israel. That is why there have been so many suicide bombing attacks on buses. So using the metaphor of murder, throwing someone under a bus, means a lot to Jews, here and in Israel. It means that Romney and his fellow Republican leaders think that President Obama is a deadly enemy of Israel and thus of Jews.

I don’t remember any time in my life when all the official representatives of one party have called a President an enemy of Israel. US policy towards Israel has shifted often, from one critical moment to the next. But it has always been bi-partisan and supported across the political spectrum.

Now the Republican Party says something different. Obama is your enemy. Oppose him with everything you’ve got. Make no deals with him, because he will betray you. Wait for us, until November, or if we lose, which is quite possible, wait another 4 years before trusting the American government.

I’m sorry. I have been saying I was writing about foreign policy, but I wasn’t. There is no foreign policy here, except “whatever Obama has done is wrong.” Every foreign policy act in Obama’s three years, a time of continual and unpredictable Middle East crisis, has received the same Republican treatment, from Obama’s comments about Israeli settlements, to his decisions about what to do in Libya, to his gradual withdrawal from the wars which were Republican policy the last time one was President.

Here is what a conservative Israeli leader thinks. After President Obama sided with Israel in opposing the Palestinian Authority’s attempt to get a seat at the UN, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, “I want to thank you, Mr. President, for standing with Israel and supporting peace through direct negotiations.”

These would-be Commanders-in Chief act like they don’t know how much America is weakened by their political posturing. They don’t seem to care that if they win, they will be trusted less to know what they’re talking about.

But these guys are not talking to Jews. They are talking about Israel to their base, where Jews are few and far between. Israel for them is just another weapon in their war against Obama. And everyone in Jerusalem knows it.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, April 3, 2012