Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Keeping the Blacks Far Away

I grew up in Carle Place, a new suburban town on Long Island, outside of New York City. Young families lived in inexpensive but well-constructed houses in quiet residential neighborhoods with good schools. When I get together with my classmates at reunions, we all agree that our little town offered a wonderful place to grow up.

I never thought about black kids, because I never saw one in my neighborhood or at my schools, right up through high school. I knew black people lived in other towns, and sometimes we faced black kids in athletic contests. I never wondered why they didn’t live near me.

Now I know. I’ve been reading a book titled “The Color Of Law” by Richard Rothstein, who explains how residential segregation happened in America and in my home town.

In response to the government-created Jim Crow discrimination in the South, millions of African Americans moved north in the Great Migration after World War I. At the same time, the nation’s population doubled from 1900 to 1950.

Facing growing population, American cities used zoning laws to direct new construction and to control where people lived. Across the country, zoning was designed to keep black and white apart, to protect white neighborhoods against black people. For example, in St. Louis zoning guided liquor stores, polluting industries, bars, and rooming houses into African American neighborhoods, preserving real estate values in white neighborhoods and creating black slums.

Private business supported segregation. The National Association of Real Estate Brokers adopted a code of ethics in 1924 warning its members that “a realtor should never be instrumental in introducing into a neighborhood members of any race or nationality whose presence would clearly be detrimental to property values.”

In the midst of the Depression, the federal government used its enormous resources to promote home ownership. In 1934, the Federal Housing Administration, part of the New Deal, created affordable mortgages and made loans to encourage home ownership based on color-coded maps of every city, where black neighborhoods were colored red, meaning no help for residents. After World War II, the newly created Veterans Administration offered mortgages to returning servicemen with no down payments and low interest rates, but only for whites.

Collaborating with private developers, banks, and realtors, the federal government helped create the new suburbs which mushroomed around America’s cities. I lived in a suburb built by William Levitt, whose name has become synonymous with suburbanization. His signature project was Levittown, a development with 17,500 mass-produced two-bedroom homes a few miles from where I lived. He repeated this success in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Maryland. Behind him stood the FHA and the VA, which financed Levittown on the condition that it be all white. In 1953, the 70,000 residents of Levittown represented the largest all-white American community.

Carle Place was a microcosm of postwar America. Young white men and women could begin their long climb into affluence, security, and respectability through the American dream of home-ownership. Realtors would guide families into the mushrooming modern neighborhoods. Banks offered more favorable terms than ever before. And everybody depended on governments to allocate local spaces for new construction, advise the new projects, and guarantee the loans that bought the houses.

For white people. Not for black people.

So I grew up with no relationships with black Americans, whom I first met in college during the tumultuous years of the civil rights movement. By that time, for me and my suburban baby-boomer peers, getting to know African Americans was awkward and uncertain. We were all, black and white, deprived of the natural development of friendships across lines of race.

Blacks were deprived of much more than that. As I was growing up, Carle Place and much of Long Island embodied a futuristic landscape of tens of thousands of identical houses in geometric patterns on plowed over, treeless ground. Today shady streets, mature landscaping, and countless home expansions and improvements have transformed the aesthetics. The houses that cost about $10,000 to buy now sell for $400,000 to $700,000. Accounting for inflation, the white families like mine, that bought in the late 1940s and early 1950s, tripled or quadrupled their wealth through home ownership.

Instead, black families were forced to live in urban neighborhoods, where discriminatory zoning rules kept home values down. At least into the 1990s, toxic waste facilities continued to be built in minority neighborhoods. Urban highways were typically built through minority neighborhoods. It is still common in American cities to use zoning laws to place businesses that deal with alcohol, firearms, pornography, and now marijuana into low-income neighborhoods, preventing minorities there from building up equity as fast as in residential white neighborhoods.

The end of slavery in 1865 represented the beginning of other forms of government-enforced discrimination for another century. By helping white families to build up wealth through home ownership and preventing black families from doing the same, federal, state and local governments have contributed to today’s racial disparities in wealth.

As Richard Rothstein wrote, “Government and private industry came together to create a system of residential segregation.” All Americans have suffered from this history of racism.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, December 12, 2017

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Santa’s On His Way

Rejoice! Rejoice! Your tax cut is almost here!

All you taxpayers, your standard deduction is going way up! You will be able to deduct thousands more dollars from your income, tax-free! You’ll save big.

Oh, you’re a single filer? Well, you still save, but not big. Although the standard deduction goes up by $5650, the personal exemption of $4050 disappears. That leaves you an extra $1600 sheltered from income tax. If you are an average earner, with an income of about $31,000, you’ll save about $500. A few more cups of coffee every week. But only for a few years, since the individual rate cuts are temporary.

You’re a married couple? Your standard deduction also nearly doubles from $12,700 to $24,000, but you lose two personal exemptions. Say you’re an average household making $51,000 – your savings could be about $700, nothing to sneeze at. Put it away, because the tax cut expires soon.

Your family has children? That’s much more complicated, of course. Now the loss of personal exemptions really hurts. But there’s another wrinkle: the tax credit for each child goes up from $1000 to $1600 in the House bill and to $2000 in the Senate bill. You have two kids and make $75,000? That higher tax credit really helps, bringing your tax bill down more than $1500. Oops, the higher tax credit is also temporary.

Some other goodies in the Republican plan are really sweet. You’ll still only pay a 20% tax on your carried interest earnings, while your neighbors pay up to 39% on their income. You don’t know what carried interest is? Then you probably don’t own a hedge fund, so it’s better not to think about this tax break for the richest Americans.

But congratulations, you don’t have to worry any more about passing on your hard-earned inheritance to your children. The Senate bill doubles the amount to $11 million that you can pass on and the House bill eliminates the estate tax completely. That’s good – but only if you are even richer than most 1%-ers. If not, rejoice for them!

Stop. Let’s get serious. This tax bill is not for you and me, unless we’re among the lucky 1%-ers who are the real beneficiaries of Republican “tax reform”. Just in the final hours before the Senate vote, even more goodies for the very, very wealthy were shoved into the legislation. Although the top rate for income over $500,000 (know anyone like that?) is 39.6%, a few new categories of income will now get a reduced rate of 29.6%: pass-through entities, investments in mortgages held by real estate investment trusts, and certain income from gas and oil operations. That means about $114 billion less revenue. The White House will be rejoicing: much of Trump family income will benefit from these new loopholes.

Have you been hiding billions in off-shore accounts? If so, you can now bring those profits home for less than 15% tax, even lower than the new 20% corporate tax. Good news for those tax cheaters.

But not for you. Those big breaks have to be paid for somehow. Here’s one way: if your employer rewards you a $50 gift card, you’ll have to declare that as income.

There’s not much for us to rejoice about. But wait – if you want smaller government, rejoice, rejoice! Because the new tax bill will cause huge deficits, a law that goes back to the Bush administration mandates automatic cuts in spending in hundreds of government programs. Smaller government, here we come! Isn’t that great?

Unless you want Medicare to pay for some of your health care – the cut is “only” 4%, so just reach more deeply into your pocket for the $25 billion that will be cut. Unless you are a victim of crime – the cut will be $13 billion. Unless you have black lung disease or need Meals on Wheels or care about wildlife restoration, public health, highways, or hundreds of other federal programs, which will all automatically be cut, often to zero, because of this tax bill.

Well, perhaps we just need to postpone our rejoicing. The Republicans say that the best way to help the rest of us is to give billions now to the wealthy and to corporations. They will be so happy that they’ll raise everybody’s wages and create new jobs.

That’s called trickle-down economics. It’s working right now – the economy is booming, big banks are making huge profits, big corporations have trillions of dollars in reserve, and wages are skyrocketing.

Oops, that last part is not true. Average wages have been rising about 2% a year for 7 years, just a bit faster than inflation has eaten those gains up. The rich have been getting a lot richer, corporations have made huge profits, and the middle class has been stuck.

Nothing has been trickling down.

Republicans say this new tax bill will change everything. Trump says about the tax bill, “This is going to cost me a fortune.”

If you believe in Santa Claus, rejoice, rejoice.

What’s next for us? Just take a look at Paul Ryan’s New Year’s resolution – cut Medicare and Social Security.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, December 5, 2017

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Political Humor, Then and Now

From the earliest age, I heard my parents play records by Tom Lehrer, a mathematician who could sing, play the piano, and write devastating verses about current events and ideas. He stopped performing in public in the US after 1960, so few people younger than baby boomers know about him.

He began by writing songs that poked fun at vulnerable elements of culture, such as his first song, composed when he was 17 and an undergraduate at Harvard, which satirized college football fight songs. Those songs were fun to hear and sing along with: “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park” about a program in Boston to control pigeons with strychnine-infused corn kernels; “The Elements” listing all 102 elements known as of 1959; and “Be Prepared”, a salacious version of the Boy Scout creed. Lehrer earned his living as a university professor, and liked to make fun of academics, as in what I think is his greatest song, “Lobachevsky”, about the Russian mathematician Nikolai Ivanovich Lobachevsky, who supposedly taught him the secret of success – plagiarize.

In the early 1960s, Lehrer stopped performing, but continued to write songs that were much more political. His songs were performed by others on the satirical TV program “That Was The Week That Was” between 1963 and 1965. TW3 broke the broadcasting conventions about political neutrality, and paved the way for later political television, such as “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In”, which launched the careers of Goldie Hawn, Lily Tomlin, and other comics.

Lehrer poked fun at serious subjects, such as racism, fascism, pollution and nuclear war. Listening to him skewer racist hypocrites, imagine World War III, and exaggerate the effects of poisons in our air and water certainly contributed to the development of my political views. I wonder if he influenced the burst of anti-establishment protest in the later 1960s among the small segment of record-purchasers and TV viewers who heard his exuberant songs.

It’s comforting to think that listening to some satirical political songs could reduce the polarization in our current politics. But Lehrer himself did not have high hopes for the political effects of his songs. In an interview in 1995, he said about his work, “I don’t think that it would change anybody’s mind. I don’t think humor does that. I think it moves people a little, and softens them up for the hard pitch. By its very nature, as I say, you have to exaggerate, you can’t really make a strong point.” He stopped writing and performing when it was no longer easy to be funny about politics in the mid-1960s. He felt out of touch with the harsher protest politics of the Black Power movement and Vietnam War. He even made fun of political folk songs in “The Folk Song Army”: “If you feel dissatisfaction, Strum your frustrations away. Some people may prefer action, But give me a folk song any old day.”

Some of Lehrer’s subjects are no longer familiar. One of his funniest songs, “Vatican Rag” mocks the Second Vatican Council, the reforms of Catholic practice in the early 1960s: “So get down upon your knees, Fiddle with your rosaries, Bow your head with great respect, And genuflect, genuflect, genuflect!”

Politics today are angrier than in Tom Lehrer’s song-writing heyday, exemplified by our angry President, who seeks conflict wherever he can find it. It is harder to find political humor that doesn’t seem partisan. Johnny Carson has become Stephen Colbert, as each side watches its own form of news and laughs at its own jokes.

The guilty pleasures of Tom Lehrer’s often gross humor seem antiquated in today’s world, where presidential candidates compare the size of their penises and everybody drops F-bombs. His performances in tie and jacket as he plays musical theater piano are quaint. But his intellectual jabs at American culture, political or not, still retain their sharpness. On the liner notes of a 1997 re-release of some of this songs, Lehrer said of his musical career, “If, after hearing my songs, just one human being is inspired to say something nasty to a friend, or perhaps to strike a loved one, it will all have been worth the while.”

One thing remains the same – the inverted relationship between politics and humor. As Will Rogers once said: “Everything is changing. People are taking their comedians seriously and the politicians as a joke.”

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, November 28, 2017