Monthly Archives: July 2013

How Other Countries Do Student Loans

Congress will likely hammer out some sort of deal, which Republicans will love and Democrats will be forced to swallow, but it’s worth considering whether we view education in entirely the wrong way here in America.

In Britain, where my girlfriend lives, students don’t begin paying off their loans until they find stable employment, and the cost is in proportion to their earnings. Australia similarly ties the cost of paying off the loan to the income of the graduate. In Denmark, education is considered a right by the people and an investment by the government, and is therefore free. Some students are even offered a stipend by the government to defray costs. Norway has a similar system of higher education, in Sweden, students pay only a small fee. In America, the university is considered a commodity, one that can easily purchased by the wealthy, but not the poor. These represent a fundamentally different cultural attitude: elsewhere,  education is a public good, an investment or a right, in the U.S., it’s a privilege reserved for wealthy elites.

The OECD measures the difference in test scores between children from a high socioeconomic background and a low socioeconomic background. In the U.S., the difference is 112 points. In Denmark, by contrast, it’s s of 93 points, in Finland, it’s 62 points, in Canada 65, Norway, 77. Unequal primary education, combined with the high cost of college mean that while the U.S. has remained relatively high among college attainment rates (although it is falling), attainment rates for minorities are abysmal.

That’s how the U.S. can have both one of the best education systems and one of the worst education systems in the world: wealthy students have access to top-notch preschools, test prep, summer camps and summers schools and then a high-end university education, while poor students get left in the dust.

Public funding for tertiary (university) education and pre-school education in America is far below that of other OECD countries. (Grey represents public funding, light blue represents household funding, and dark blue represents other private expenditures). In many countries, the government funds tertiary education almost entirely, but the average for public funding is about 70%. In the U.S. public funding amounts to only 40% of a student’s college education, with another 40% paid out of pocket.

But it’s not just funding that’s different: poor children and rich children are taught differently. Whereas the children of  wealthy and middle-class parents are allowed free intellectual inquiry with teachers open to questions, the education of poor children is bureaucratized and dull. Jonathan Kozol described a program called “Success for All” (a curriculum designed for inner-city students) in Shame of a Nation,

[When the school adopted SFA] a martial regimen which teachers spoke of as “a reign of terror,” which included “silent lunch” and, for certain periods of time, even “silent recess,”had been instituted at the school. Children who, on occasion, fell into the natural rambunctiousness of students of their age were denied their recess altogether and compelled instead to remain indoors sitting cross-legged on the floor while other children had a chance to go outside. A fifth-grade teacher told me that her class, a nice group of children who were generally well behaved, was punished for one episode of misbehavior by the loss of recess for more than two months. In order to allow more time for drilling children for their literacy tests, music, art, natural science, and, in some respects most damaging, the social sciences were virtually abandoned at the school.

The problem with education is that for poor children, we’ve tried to make it capitalistic: ruthless, competitive, privatized. We’ve tried to fatten the cows by weighing them. And the result is obvious: a rigid class structure. Remember Waiting for Superman? The few black children who make it into the super-duper education system must leave their family to live in a small boarding house and study nearly every waking hour. Should we be surprised that wealthy students are prepared for higher education, inquiry and investigation, while poor students are prepared for technical high schools and then a minimum wage job.

Is it any wonder that the American dream is dying? Economists like Miles Corak have discovered that upward mobility is now lower in America than a host of other European countries, among them, Denmark, Sweden, Canada, France, Germany, Norway and Finland. Is it, as George Carlin claimed, “called the American dream because you have to be asleep to believe it?” Could this be because of the extraordinary cost of college education in the U.S.?

What can we do? Lowering student loans below the rate paid by the big banks who destroyed the economy and the lives of millions Americans would be a good first step. But it’s also a band-aid. Much like Nixon and Reagan ignored the plight of the power by launching a War on Drugs, Conservatives have obscured the true cost of poverty by advocating school choice union-busting. When I read of proposals to fix schools by privatizing them, I’m reminded of Slajov Zizek’s words,

It is not without irony to note how ideologists who once mocked this critical defense of socialism as illusory, and insisted that one should lay the blame on the very idea itself, now widely resort to the same line of defense: for it is not capitalism as such which is bankrupt, only its distorted realization.

We need government funded day care and mandatory maternity leave. We need to make our society more equal. Richard G. Wilkinson and Kate Pickett have found that more equal societies have higher education scores.  We need to integrate our schools, which are more race and class-segregated now than in the 1970s. New research shows that the U.S. cities that have the most upward mobility have high spending per pupil and low rates of racial segregation. That will mean more busing programs and measures to actively integrate schools. Interestingly, some European countries have moved towards the more capitalistic model of education we have here in America. The result, “educational choice tends to intensify class segregation through the effects of different preferences and information costs.” If we want to really improve schools we have to strike at what is causing some of them to fail: poverty, prison and segregation.

We need to treat education as both an investment in the economy and in informed, intelligent and active citizens. Remember that the biggest boom in American innovation came after WWII, when millions of Veterans attended college under the GI bill. Remember that the American dream, as enshrined by James Truslow Adams, was a place where, “each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”

Many, like Charles Murray, believe that these policies are overly romantic, that education should be a commodity and the best education should be saved for the super-bright. He thinks poor students are failing because, well, they just aren’t as smart as rich kids, not because they haven’t had the same opportunities.

I disagree. As Stephen Jay Gould once noted, “I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.” Could the next Einstein by dissuaded from college because of our flawed education system?

A version of this article originally appeared on

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The Case for Censoring Hate Speech

For the past few years speech has moved online, leading to fierce debates about its regulation. Most recently, feminists have led the charge to purge Facebook of misogyny that clearly violates its hate speech code. Facebook took a small step two weeks ago, creating a feature that will remove ads from pages deemed “controversial.” But such a move is half-hearted; Facebook and other social networking websites should not tolerate hate speech and, in the absence of a government mandate, adopt a European model of expunging offensive material.

Stricter regulation of Internet speech will not be popular with the libertarian-minded citizens of the United States, but it’s necessary. A typical view of the case for expunging hate speech comes from Jeffrey Rosen, who argues in The New Republic that,

“…given their tremendous size and importance as platforms for free speech, companies like Facebook, Google, Yahoo, and Twitter shouldn’t try to be guardians of what Waldron calls a “well-ordered society”; instead, they should consider themselves the modern version of Oliver Wendell Holmes’s fractious marketplace of ideas—democratic spaces where all values, including civility norms, are always open for debate.”

This image is romantic and lovely but it’s worth asking what this actually looks like. Rosen forwards one example:

“Last year, after the French government objected to the hash tag “#unbonjuif”—intended to inspire hateful riffs on the theme “a good Jew …”—Twitter blocked a handful of the resulting tweets in France, but only because they violated French law. Within days, the bulk of the tweets carrying the hashtag had turned from anti-Semitic to denunciations of anti-Semitism, confirming that the Twittersphere is perfectly capable of dealing with hate speech on its own, without heavy-handed intervention.”

It’s interesting to note how closely this idea resembles free market fundamentalism: simply get rid of any coercive rules and the “marketplace of ideas” will naturally produce the best result.  Humboldt State University compiled a visual map that charts 150,000 hateful insults aggregated over the course of 11 months in the U.S. by pairing Google’s Maps API with a series of the most homophobic, racist and otherwise prejudiced tweets. The map’s existence draws into question the notion that the “twittersphere” can organically combat hate speech; hate speech is not going to disappear from twitter on its own.
The negative impacts of hate speech cannot be mitigated by the responses of third-party observers, as hate speech aims at two goals. First, it is an attempt to tell bigots that they are not alone. Frank Collins —the neo-Nazi prosecuted in National Socialist Party of America v Skokie (1977) — said, “We want to reach the good people, get the fierce anti-Semites who have to live among the Jews to come out of the woodwork and stand up for themselves.”
The second purpose of hate speech is to intimidate the targeted minority, leading them to question whether their dignity and social status is secure. In many cases, such intimidation is successful. Consider the number of rapes that go unreported. Could this trend possibly be impacted by Reddit threads like /r/rapingwomen or /r/mensrights? Could it be due to the harassment women face when they even suggest the possibility they were raped? The rape culture that permeates Facebook, Twitter and the public dialogue must be held at least partially responsible for our larger rape culture.
Reddit, for instance, has become a veritable potpourri of hate speech; consider Reddit threads like  /r/nazi, /r/killawoman, /r/misogny, /r/killingwomen. My argument is not that these should be taken down because they are offensive, but rather because they amount to the degradation of a class that has been historically oppressed.  Imagine a Reddit thread for /r/lynchingblacks or /r/assassinatingthepresident. We would not argue that we should sit back and wait for this kind of speech be “outspoken” by positive speech, but that it should be entirely banned.
American free speech jurisprudence relies upon the assumption that speech is merely the extension of a thought, and not an action. If we consider it an action, then saying that we should combat hate speech with more positive speech is an absurd proposition; the speech has already done the harm, and no amount of support will defray the victim’s impression that they are not truly secure in this society. We don’t simply tell the victim of a robbery, “Hey, it’s okay, there are lots of other people who aren’t going to rob you.” Similarly, it isn’t incredibly useful to tell someone who has just had their race/gender/sexuality defamed, “There are a lot of other nice people out there.”
Those who claim to “defend free speech” when they defend the right to post hate speech online, are in truth backwards. Free speech isn’t an absolute right; no right is weighed in a vacuum. The court has imposed numerous restrictions on speech. Fighting words, libel and child pornography are all banned. Other countries merely go one step further by banning speech intended to intimidate vulnerable groups. The truth is that such speech does not democratize speech, it monopolizes speech. Women, LGBTQ individuals and racial or religious minorities feel intimidated and are left out of the public sphere. On Reddit, for example, women have left or changed their usernames to be more male-sounding lest they face harassment and intimidation for speaking on Reddit about even the most gender-neutral topics. Even outside of the intentionally offensive sub-reddits (i.e. /r/imgoingtohellforthis) misogyny is pervasive. I encountered this when browsing /r/funny.

Those who try to remove this hate speech have been criticized from left and right. At Slate, Jillian York writes, “While the campaigners on this issue are to be commended for raising awareness of such awful speech on Facebook’s platform, their proposed solution is ultimately futile and sets a dangerous precedent for special interest groups looking to bring their pet issue to the attention of Facebook’s censors.”

It hardly seems right to qualify a group fighting hate speech as an “interest group” trying to bring their “pet issue” to the attention of Facebook censors. The “special interest” groups she fears might apply for protection must meet Facebook’s strict community standards, which state:

While we encourage you to challenge ideas, institutions, events, and practices, we do not permit individuals or groups to attack others based on their race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sex, gender, sexual orientation, disability or medical condition.

If anything, the groups to which York refers are nudging Facebook towards actually enforcing its own rules.

People who argue against such rules generally portray their opponents as standing on a slippery precipice, tugging at the question “what next?”  We can answer that question: Canada, England, France, Germany, The Netherlands, South Africa, Australia and India all ban hate speech. Yet, none of these countries have slipped into totalitarianism. In many ways, such countries are more free when you weigh the negative liberty to express harmful thoughts against the positive liberty that is suppressed when you allow for the intimidation of minorities.
 As Arthur Schopenhauer said, “the freedom of the press should be governed by a very strict prohibition of all and every anonymity.” However, with the Internet the public dialogue has moved online, where hate speech is easy and anonymous.
Jeffrey Rosen argues that norms of civility should be open to discussion, but, in today’s reality, this issue has already been decided; impugning someone because of their race, gender or orientation is not acceptable in a civil society. Banning hate speech is not a mechanism to further this debate because the debate is over.
As Jeremy Waldron argues, hate speech laws prevent bigots from, “trying to create the impression that the equal position of members of vulnerable minorities in a rights-respecting society is less secure than implied by the society’s actual foundational commitments.”
Some people argue that the purpose of laws that ban hate speech is merely to avoid offending prudes. No country, however, has mandated that anything be excised from the public square merely because it provokes offense, but rather because it attacks the dignity of a group—a practice the U.S. Supreme Court called in Beauharnais v. Illinois (1952) “group libel.” Such a standard could easily be applied to Twitter, Reddit and other social media websites. While Facebook’s policy as written should be a model, it’s enforcement has been shoddy. Again, this isn’t an argument for government intervention. The goal is for companies to adopt a European-model hate speech policy, one not aimed at expunging offense, but rather hate. Such a system would be subject to outside scrutiny by users.
If this is the standard, the Internet will surely remain controversial, but it can also be free of hate and allow everyone to participate. A true marketplace of ideas must co-exist with a multi-racial society open to people of all genders, orientations and religions, and it can.

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This piece originally appeared on

Should Dzhokhar Tsarnaev Face the Death Penalty?

The acquittal of Zimmerman has taken up most of the news coverage this week. But with the constant desire for some trial to fill the news cycle, we’ll soon be engulfed in discussion about Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. The first and most important question will be: should he face the death penalty?

Tsarnaev is incredibly young, and give the slow development of the prefrontal cortex (key to rational decision-making) the Tsarnaev in prison at age 60 may be an entirely different person than the Tsarnaev that we incarcerate. So there may be room for rehabilitation. On the other hand, we could argue that Tsarnaev may commit another crime from within the prison system, or that his age means the cost of locking him away for life would be exorbitant. One could argue that the problem of false conviction is absent in Tsarnaev’s case, given the overwhelming evidence. We may even wonder whether making a 19 year old rot in prison for life is really more humane than just getting it over with.

The trial raises important questions for our criminal justice system and I think that a robust case against the death penalty is still possible in the case of Tsarnaev. It’s worth noting that his case is exceptional. Most cases aren’t so clear-cut. That’s why the state of Alabama has exonerated 1 convict for every 5 executed. Florida has exonerated 26 death row inmates. It’s likely we’ve killed an innocent man.

When I write about the death penalty, one of the responses I get the most is “what about cases where the defendant is certainly guilty?” Since the United States should only be sentecing defendants guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt,” an argument like this can lead to a slippery slope. Remember that by using the best arson investigation techniques of the day, Cameron Todd Willingham was guilty. Similarly, nine eyewitnesses originally fingered Troy Davis as the man who shot a police officer. Seven recanted their testimony. Further, since the death penalty has little merit as a deterrence there is no reason to use it unless it is more successful at incapacitating or rehabilitating the prisoner.

This leads to the another objection I hear frequently: can’t an inmate in prison for life still kill, either in prison or, through a criminal gang, outside? Am I too quick when I argue that incapacitation can be just as easily achieved through the prison system? George Lee Hill for instance, had a life sentence for killing his girlfriend and then killed a fellow inmate. Two responses. First, the death penalty doesn’t entirely eliminate this problem. Most inmates spend 14 years on death row, and speeding executions up will only result in more wrongful executions. But secondly, I think that this reflects the awful state of our overcrowded prisons, more than a case for the death penalty. Prisons are understaffed and massively overcrowded with non-violent drug offenders. They are also incredibly underfunded. All of this sets up a system with less oversight and more confrontations that could lead to conflict. With better enforcement and oversight, the risk that a death row inmate could kill inside or outside the prison would be negligible.

There is also the question of cost. In fact, this argument flows against the death penalty. Death penalty cases are incredibly expensive because the legal proceedings are dragged out for 14 years. However, even if the death penalty were cheaper, I still think that this argument is foolish. If the death penalty is immoral, then we shouldn’t use it even if we save a few bucks. If it is moral, and justice requires it, then sparing the money is worth it.

In Connecticut, I wrote a letter to the editor about the Cheshire home invasion case. While I was researching for my letter, I found a statement one of the two killers, Stephen Hayes, had made saying he’d like to die. His accomplice, Joshua Komisarjevsky has expressed a similar sentiment. It’s an interesting quandary. Could it be that death would be the most humane option for the killers? I’m open to the possibility that those serving for life in prison might choose to commit a physician-assisted suicide. My only fear is that an innocent man might commit suicide rather than rot in prison. This could be mitigated with a two-year waiting period, along with a consultation with a lawyer and an independent organization that works on DNA testing, to determine whether the prisoner could be exonerated.

Finally, there is the question of Tsarnaev’s age. With a man as young as he is, and possibly influenced heavily by his brother, are we truly putting in prison the same man who will be alive in 40 years? That’s a question I’m incapable of answering. Maybe Tsarnaev will truly rehabilitate, to the point that he can again be released into society. However, putting him to death leaves no room for that possibility. Death would not be a deterrent, it would not further incapacitate Tsarnaev. It would only satiate our desire for revenge, rather than justice and rehabilitation.The state should not seek the death penalty.


America Must Address its Student Loan Crisis

Congress must lower student loan rates to reinvigorate the economy, invest in America’s future and foster the American dream. For many students, like my brother about to head to UConn, the interest rates on student loans will determine how long he remains under the burden of debt. For other students, it may decide whether college or graduate school is even a viable option.
Broader access to college, which is made possible by low interest loans is an investment in the future. Recently, the U.S. has begun to graduate fewer students, meaning that in 2018, according to a 2010 report from Georgetown University, the U.S. will be 3 million college graduates short of labor market demands. At the very time when the U.S. needs more graduates, our politicians are making it harder for Americans to get degrees and thereby compete on the international labor market.

The high cost of college shuts many poor and middle class students out of college. A study by Martha Bailey and Susan M. Dynarski found that the college entry gap between wealthy students and poor students had grown from 39 percentage points to 51 between 1979 and 1997, and that gap held even among students with the same cognitive ability. The result is staggering. A recent Century Foundation study found that, “one is twenty-five times as likely to run into a rich student as a poor student at the nation’s top 146 colleges.”

Of course, some college students won’t be affected. Wealthy students rely on parental connections to gain admission to elite universities, gain internship experience and then graduate to a starting job with health care benefits, likely debt-free. For some lucky graduates, like Liz Cheney, daddy makes a new job at the State Department tailor-made for her.

Sadly, most of us don’t have these opportunities and struggle with an uninviting job market, even with a college degree. But, we still have to begin paying off our debts shortly after graduating. In Britain, where my girlfriend lives, students don’t begin paying off their loans until they find stable employment, and the cost is in proportion to their earnings. In Denmark, education is considered a right by the people and an investment by the government, and is therefore free. Some students are even offered a stipend by the government to defray costs. In America, the university is considered a commodity, one that can easily purchased by the wealthy, but not the poor.
Middle class and working class students lucky enough to attend college must often work one or two side jobs, interfering with studies. Is it any wonder that fewer and fewer students invest time in studying or pursue degrees in science and engineering that require intense amounts of work and concentration? Plato noted that students cannot study while exhausted, and yet this is what we demand.

Is it then any wonder that the American dream is dying? Economists like Miles Corak have discovered that upward mobility is now lower in America than a host of other European countries, among them, Denmark, Sweden, Canada, France, Germany, Norway and Finland. Is it, as George Carlin claimed, “called the American dream because you have to be asleep to believe it?”
Lowering student loans below the rate paid by the big banks who destroyed the economy and the lives of millions Americans would be a good first step. But at all levels our education system is slanted towards reducing upward mobility. For my brother, for my friends who can’t pay for college, Congress needs to think big. Maybe Congress should consider expanding the Pell Grant program which has failed to keep up with the rising cost of college. Maybe Congress could consider zero-interest loans. It would be a start.

Remember that the biggest boom in American innovation came after WWII, when millions of Veterans attended college under the GI bill. Remember that the American dream, as enshrined by James Truslow Adams, was a place where, “each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”
This may well be the most short-sighted, ineffective and contemptible Congress in the past fifty years, but are they truly be foolish enough to gamble with the future of America’s children? If they are, we may find ourselves asking us what makes America so great.

Originally published on Huffington Post.

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What the Farm Bill Really Means

The failed farm bill has largely been viewed in light of immigration reform and congressional dysfunction, but it also underlies another spectre: the weakening farm lobby. Since our nation’s founding, farmers (originally slave-owners) have had an unequal voice. The senate, for instance, is made up of two representatives from every state, no matter how large or small. The electoral college was designed to give small states a voice, and with the development of primaries, farm states like Iowa have become more and more important.

Even Republicans, the so-called party against government waste, won’t touch farm subsidies (just food stamps!). Since Reagan, the Republican party has been the party of wealth. Reagan happily doled out tax cuts along with spending cuts, but suspiciously, the tax cuts only went to rich people and the spending cuts only hurt poor people. Similarly, Bush’s tax cuts for the rich tanked a projected 5 trillion surplus to a 5 trillion deficit, which Republicans like Paul Ryan argue, should be paid for by, you guessed it: cutting Medicaid.

So, here’s a quiz dear reader. Q. If the farm bill contains huge subsidies for rich farmers (like Bon Jovi) and food stamps to protect poor people, which half will the Republicans cut? Answer: One of the most effective anti-poverty programs in history. Seriously.

Now that I’m done trolling any Republicans reading this, let’s address the real meat of the story here, the farm lobby. The failure of the farm bill indicates that the great hydra agriculture lobby may have only a few ugly heads left to rear.

What’s the problem with the farm lobby? Don’t farmers need representation too? Don’t farm subsidies help keep the food market stable? Yes and yes. But, American farm policy may be one of the most incoherently developed and rigidly path dependent. P.J. O’Rourke once noted, “Farm policy can be explained. What it can’t be is believed.”

Many of us don’t remember when farming was a killer lobby, able to fight off any representative who questioned the billions funnelled to them. In a supposedly “free-market” country, our ag-policy is run like Russia during central planning. Huge tariffs protect the American sugar manufactures from Brazilian competition, to the tune of 3.5 billion a year. That also drives up the demand for high-fructose corn syrup, giving us something to do with the corn we massively overproduce.

The big story for the farm bill is that the U.S. government is trimming direct payments and replacing them with an expanded crop insurance program. Crop insurance protects farmers from dramatic drops in the price of crops, but the premiums rarely add up to the payouts. Last year, the crop insurance program paid out 17 billion dollars, ¾ of which was paid for by uncle Sam. As any economist knows, such programs (private gain with public risk) encourage moral hazard, and the result is that farmers have taken more risk, “by farming on flood plains or steep hills.” The crop insurance program overwhelming helps wealthier farmers, but that fact that the lobby couldn’t keep direct payments indicates a level of atrophy.

There are other indications of the weakening farm lobby. For instance, last year, the U.S. was hit by its worst drought in 50 years, which was likely exacerbated by climate change. Farmers groups sought a bill that would provide relief, but while the bill made it out of committee, it was never brought to a vote on the House floor.

Of course, the grand narrative of the bill (i.e. that the Republicans in the House are insane) is also accurate. They’re clearly crazy-level congresso-terrorists, something data showed us long ago and other conservatives have been hammering them for it.  The failure of the farm bill is certainly a reminder that this is the most polarized congress in a long time, and a harbinger of more inaction (immigration, student loans, tax reform). But it’s also a reminder that while we consume more food, few, if any of us remain attached to nature and very few of us farm. It’s an indication that what used to be a broadly bipartisan issue has now become an area for savage political fighting. Republicans are willing to literally sink the bill just so they can say, “Hey poor people, screw you.” That will have increasing political implications in the years to come, while the apes in Congress fling poo at each other and pass on opportunities to get things done.

How to Debate your Crazy Uncle at the July 4 BBQ

With the July 4 holiday upon us, you may find yourself gathering with family this long weekend. That might mean a barbecue and fireworks, but it may also mean something else: political conversations with your crazy relatives.

Here, then, is a citizen’s guide to debunking a half-dozen absurdities and myths you may find thrown at you, with an emphasis on the economy (particularly, the inequality debate).

1) CLAIM: “The poor are doing just fine!”

Example: Robert Rector:

In 2005, the typical household defined as poor by the government had a car and air conditioning. For entertainment, the household had two color televisions, cable or satellite TV, a DVD player, and a VCR. If there were children, especially boys, in the home, the family had a game system, such as an Xbox or a PlayStation.

HOW TO RESPOND: The idea here is that a rising tide lifts all boats, but as Warren Buffet has noted, in reality, a rising tide lifts all yachts. Even Adam Smith, the hero of classical economists, knows this is bunk: “A linen shirt, for example, is, strictly speaking, not a necessary of life … But in the present times, through the greater part of Europe, a creditable day-labourer would be ashamed to appear in public without a linen shirt, the want of which would be supposed to denote that disgraceful degree of poverty.” The real question is not whether the poor can afford silly amenities, like a DVD player or an XBox, it’s whether they can afford essentials: food, clothing, comfort, shelter, etc. For poor Americans, the prices of these goods have increased dramatically, while the price of consumer goods has decreased dramatically. By singling out only consumer goods that have gotten cheaper, Rector disguises the real costs of inequality: worse health outcomes, worse educational outcomes and decreased social cohesion.

2) CLAIM: “Rich people work harder, they deserve what they’ve earned!”

Example: David Brooks:

For the first time in human history, the rich work longer hours than the proletariat.

Today’s super-wealthy no longer go off on four-month grand tours of Europe, play gin-soaked Gatsbyesque croquet tournaments or spend hours doing needlepoint while thinking in full paragraphs like the heroines of Jane Austen novels. Instead, their lives are marked by sleep deprivation and conference calls, and their idea of leisure is jetting off to Aspen to hear Zbigniew Brzezinski lead panels titled ”Beyond Unipolarity.” Meanwhile, down the income ladder, the percentage of middle-age men who have dropped out of the labor force has doubled over the past 40 years, to over 12 percent.

HOW TO RESPOND: Really? Jamie Dimon works harder than a single mom with two jobs trying to make ends meet? Gar Alperovitz argues that, in reality, the wealthy live off luck, not skill. As Bruce Bartlett, a former conservative, notes, “Only 61.8 percent of national income went to compensation of employees in 2012, compared with 65.1 percent in 2001.” Middle- and lower-class blue-collar workers are actually creating more, but getting less. While productivity has steadily increased by a total of 85 percent between 1979 and 2012, the inflation adjusted wage of the median worker rose by a paltry 6 percent and the value of the federal minimum wage fell by 21 percent. Richard Branson has said, “Yes, entrepreneurs may work hard, but I don’t think they actually work any harder than, say, doctors, nurses or other people in society …” The idea the right promotes is that poor people are lazy, rather than smart, hardworking people who never get a fair shake. Worse, they say that they are “dependent” on government, when it’s really the rich and their cronies who rely on public financing. The middle class that decries poor “welfare queens” is more and more reliant on government largess. Gore Vidal observed that the American free market system is “capitalism for the poor and socialism for the rich.”

3) CLAIM: “America is the Land of Opportunity; poor people just won’t take them!”

Example: Thomas Sowell

Most people start out at the bottom, in entry-level jobs, and their incomes rise over time as they acquire more skills and experience … Ironically, those who make the most noise about income disparities or poverty contribute greatly to policies that promote both. The welfare state enables millions of people to meet their needs with little or no income-earning work on their part.

HOW TO RESPOND: This argument is the most depressing, because it’s often paired with a call to privatize education, and blame teachers unions. But it, too, is false. America doesn’t have as much upward mobility as the Nordic countries, its upward neighbor and most of Europe. Children who are born rich now get better test scores, are more likely to attend college and make more money than poorer children, even those with the same cognitive ability! The second part of Sowell’s statement is problematic for reasons already discussed: Post-Clinton’s welfare reform, most people on welfare are those who are working, but simply aren’t paid enough.

4) CLAIM: “If you tax wealthy people too much, they’ll stop working!”

Example: Bill O’Reilly

If you tax achievement, some of the achievers are going to pack it in. Again, let’s take me. My corporations employ scores of people. They depend on me to do what I do so they can make a nice salary. If Barack Obama begins taxing me more than 50 percent, which is very possible, I don’t know how much longer I’m going to do this. I like my job, but there comes a point when taxation becomes oppressive. Is the country really entitled to half a person’s income?

HOW TO RESPOND: Where do you start? We could start with the fact that in the early 1950s the top tax bracket paid 91 percent of their marginal income in taxes. In the 1970s, they paid around 70 percent, and today, they pay 35 percent. Now, the top bracket pays so little in taxes that many pay less than middle-class taxpayers. Next, research shows that this claim is false. A study by Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez and Stefanie Stantcheva find that “the top tax rate could be as high as 83 percent — as opposed to 57 percent in the pure supply-side model — without harming economic growth.” The authors argue that even using the assumptions of conservatives, we could have a 57 percent top tax rate (13 percent higher than currently) without decreasing economic activity. Further, they find that better assumptions would allow for a more than doubling of our tax rates without any negative impact on growth.  The reality is that tax breaks for the rich don’t make rich people work more and create jobs, but rather the opposite is true. Tax breaks for poor and middle-class people stimulate demand, thereby creating more jobs. Even if conservatives are right, and people like Bill O’Reilly will quit their jobs, that seems like an advantage, not a disadvantage.

5) CLAIM: “We need inequality to drive innovation!”

Example: Gregory Mankiw:

Imagine a society with perfect economic equality … Then, one day, this egalitarian utopia is disturbed by an entrepreneur with an idea for a new product. Think of the entrepreneur as Steve Jobs as he develops the iPod, J.K. Rowling as she writes her Harry Potter books, or Steven Spielberg as he directs his blockbuster movies. When the entrepreneur’s product is introduced, everyone in society wants to buy it. They each part with, say, $100. The transaction is a voluntary exchange, so it must make both the buyer and the seller better off. But because there are many buyers and only one seller, the distribution of economic well-being is now vastly unequal. The new product makes the entrepreneur much richer than everyone else.

HOW TO RESPOND: Mankiw’s argument relies upon what Mark Lemley calls the “Hero Inventor” mythos, the idea that one man or woman upends the current consensus, driving innovation forward. But that’s not how innovation happens. Innovation, according to Mark Lemley, occurs by “incremental improvements generally made by a number of different inventors at roughly the same time.” Mankiw, in many ways, undermines his own argument; after all, Spielberg started making movies under the radically higher tax rates of the 1970s. Take CEOs like Steve Jobs as an example; CEO pay has risen dramatically and yet most CEOs add little value to companies. Recent research shows that the higher a CEO is paid, the worse a stock performs. Further, if pay really correlated to how important an individual’s contribution to society is, why does Justin Bieber make more than Norman Borlaug, who saved 1 billion lives? And what of Rowling? Alan Krueger argues that for musicians and artists, luck influences earnings far more than skill. But this myth leads to its corollary.

6) CLAIM: “Inequality is an inevitable consequence of the information economy!”

Example: Phil Gramm

The vast expansion of labor engaged in world commerce has raised the return on capital and reduced the relative return on labor. The share of income flowing to capital—both traditional and human capital such as education and training—has risen.

In relative terms, the return to unskilled labor has fallen. Short of a crippling reversal in world trade, which would reduce the value of both labor and capital, this effect will dominate world markets for the foreseeable future. Since high-income Americans own more capital and have higher levels of education and training, their incomes have grown faster than everyone else’s.

HOW TO RESPOND: And yet, inequality has not increased in most other developed countries. In fact, income inequality is correlated very highly with lower unionization rates. The OECD finds that the U.S. not only begins with a less equal distribution of wealth, it also redistributes less income downward. Inequality increased dramatically in the United States because of tax cuts, union busting and unequal education outcomes that leave the poor and middle class worse off. Policies in other countries like maternal leave, free college, universal healthcare, high minimum wages and guaranteed vacations could all lower inequality in the United States. Inequality is not inevitable, but rather the result of a political system bought and paid for by wealthy corporations.

There’s no excuse for America to continue on the road of inequality. Plenty of other countries have managed to grow quickly without drastic inequality. Inequality is bad for democracy, health, safety, social cohesion and social mobility. Let’s not let anyone sugarcoat it.

This article appeared on the Huffington Post, Alternet and Salon.

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The Death Penalty Has No Good Purpose — Practical Or Moral

The United States needs to abolish the death penalty. It’s archaic, costly, ineffective, and most importantly, unjust. The first place to start with the death penalty may be philosophical. The purpose of our criminal justice system is to deter crime, rehabilitate convicts, and incapacitate hardened criminals. Philosophically speaking, life in prison serves these functions better than the death penalty. Life imprisonment is certainly a deterrent — in fact, it may be worse than death itself. Life in prison allows for rehabilitation, whereas death is final. And with supermax prisons, escape is no longer a real possibility, so incapacitation is served equally well by both.

Therefore, any argument for continuing the death penalty is not an argument about criminal justice, but rather one based on some other preference, usually one which we would have to sacrifice justice to achieve. That is, the death penalty ultimately twists the purpose of the criminal justice system and makes it about: 1) Institutionalized revenge, 2) Emotional closure, 3) Racial violence, or 4) Monetary cost.

Since the death penalty is not actually about criminal justice, that leaves one possible argument in its favor — some sort of deterrence. Sadly, this idea is forwarded by a few Chicago school economists who try to explain all behaviour (even criminal) in terms of homo economicus, and their arguments have been thoroughly discredited. The reason is obvious: Murder isn’t rational, so why expect a rational response to incentives? Further, is the death penalty a significant disincentive compared to life in prison? The reason for confusion has generally been the lack of a significant enough sample for any real empirical work.

However, while it brings no benefits, the death penalty does seriously undermine the the criminal justice system for three reasons: racism, false incrimination, and revenge.

Germany is one of the many countries that has abolished the death penalty. Their reason: After the crimes of Nazism, the very idea of the state putting individuals to death is too much to countenance. Consider the justifiable outcry that would ensue if Germany reinstated the death penalty and Jewish inmates were far more likely to receive the death penalty for the same crime as a German inmate. Consider if, although Jews made up less than 15% of the German population, they made up a large portion of those executed. And consider if the chance of a Jewish prisoner getting the death penalty was far higher if there were no Jews on the jury. There would be widespread accusation of racial preference. And yet, without fail, this is the case with America’s criminal justice system. As Richard Pryor notes, “I went to see justice, and that’s what I saw — just us.”

A study commissioned by the governor of Maryland found, “Defendants who killed white victims were more likely to advance to a penalty trial and are more likely to be sentenced to death than those who killed a black.” Of those on death row, 42% are black, but blacks make up less than 15% of the population. The GAO analyzed 28 studies on capital punishment and found:

“In 82% of the studies, race of victim was found to influence the likelihood of being charged with capital murder or receiving the death penalty, i.e., those who murdered whites were found to be more likely to be sentenced to death than those who murdered blacks. This finding was remarkably consistent across data sets, states, data collection methods, and analytic techniques.”

Brian Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, argues that if the victim is white, the defendant is 11 times more likely to receive the death penalty than if the victim is black. If the victim is white and the defendant is black, than the likelihood of death penalty sentence is 22 times higher. Further, all-white juries are more likely to hand down a death sentence then a jury with African-Americans.

I used to argue, when defending the death penalty, that if someone could show me a single instance of an innocent man being executed, I would concede. I knew that this would be tough. After all, most murder investigations end when the accused is killed by the state. But there is ample evidence that we have already killed an innocent man. Consider Carlos DeLuna. OrCameron Todd Willingham. Or Troy Davis. With the number of death row exonerations in triple digits, it’s likely we would have killed many more. In Alabama, there has been one exoneration for every five executions.

The justice system, if it is anything, must be greater than institutionalized revenge. The death penalty turns the justice system from a mechanism of controlled force aimed at eliminating violence, to a system of violence itself. Rather than move our society towards mutual cooperation and understanding, we have institutionalized the very “eye for an eye” justice we have sought to end. We would do well to note which other countries our commitment to death aligns us with: China, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, North Korea, Somalia, Afghanistan, and Yemen.

The death penalty undermines the very purpose of our criminal justice system. Since the death penalty does not serve any purpose that cannot be served through the justice system without it, and any potential benefits (already shown to be illusory) would serve ancillary ends, it should be abolished – again.

This piece originally appeared on

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The Death of the American Dream

Credit: Jennifer McMillan

America is the land of the “American Dream,” where, according to James Truslow Adams, “Each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”

And yet, recent research shows that social mobility is not a vibrant as a Horatio Alger novel implies. There are two ways to measure social mobility. The first is to see how children compare to their parents, and the second is to see how individuals fare over time. On both counts, the United States is rather dismal. The chart below comes from a 2008 Brookings Institution study and shows inter-generational mobility. It shows the percentage of sons who remained in the same income bracket as their father. I re-created the chart with just the bottom quintile, and the result is depressing: some 40% of children with a poor father remain poor, while only 8% will make it to the highest income bracket. In Sweden, the corresponding numbers are 26% and 11%.

Brookings, 2008

American also fails to facilitate lifetime mobility. The following chart is compiled from Treasury Department data comparing tax returns from 1996 and 2005. The color of the bar corresponds to the individual’s earnings in 1996. So those who were in the highest quintile in 1996 (purple bar) make up a whopping 70% of those in the highest bracket in 2005. Those in the lowest bracket in 1996 (blue bar) make up a dismal 5% of those in the highest bracket in 2005.

Treasury Department, 2007

Economists measure what is called “inter-generational elasticity,” essentially, how sticky earnings are. Inter-generational elasticity measures how much of each dollar earned by a father is passed on to his son. If a society has high mobility, a child’s earnings will be determined on their own merits, rather than their father’s. So a high IGE score means low social mobility. Unsurprisingly, the United States has a high IGE score, as seen below in a chart made from data compiled by Miles Corak.

Corak, 2006 

America’s IGE has increased from .297 in 1950 to .545 in 2000, indicating that social mobility has decreased dramatically. Various economists, including Corak, Dan Andrews, and Alan Kreuger have noted the uncanny correlation between inequality and social mobility, and both historically in the United States and internationally the correlation has held up solidly. But why? The most important factor in social mobility is education, and the United States has been educating not only poorly, but unequally, for the last few decades.

2011 study for the National Bureau of Economic Research by Martha J. Bailey and Susan M. Dynarski finds that between 1979 and 1997, “the gap in the college-entry rate between the bottom- and top-income quartiles increased from 39 to 51 percentage points.” This shift is largely due to poverty, not cognitive ability. The authors write, “Even among those who had the same measured cognitive skills as teenagers, inequality in college entry and completion across income groups is greater today than it was two decades ago.” Read that twice. Between roughly 1980 and 2000, the gap between poor students going to college and rich students increased by 10 percentage points. Worse, that gap held for students with the same cognitive ability.

The National Center for Education Statistics confirms the trend. A 2003 study examined how many students who graduated eighth grade in 1988 had a bachelor’s degree by 2000. What it discovered is that among students with the highest cognitive ability but the poorest parents, 29% of students had a bachelor’s degree. Among students with the lowest cognitive ability but the richest parents, 30% had a bachelor’s. If you want a college degree, you are better off being born rich and dumb than poor and smart. A report by the Century Foundation, aptly titled “Left Behind,” finds, “Seventy-four percent of students at the nation’s top 146 colleges come from the richest socioeconomic quartile and just 3% come from the poorest quartile. Put differently, one is 25 times as likely to run into a rich student as a poor student at the nation’s top 146 colleges.”

Much of the college gap occurs because of events earlier in life: Poor children have little access to preschool, poor mothers cannot take time off work, the United States does not guarantee paid leave, and a 2011 Department of Education report confirmed that poor school districts receive less federal funding than rich ones. It appears the American Dream may well be just that – a dream. Until we improve our education system, it will remain that way.

Of course, lower taxes on the wealthy, the corporate takeover of the political process, the demise of unions, the uniquely American distrust of government, racial prejudice and our prison system also exacerbate inequality and dampen upward mobility.

In many ways, I think these types of statistics are responsible for a lot of the “millennial apathy” that we youth catching so much flack for. We were promised meritocracy and we got nepotism. Look at the evidence. In Hollywood you have the Arquettes, Sheens, Douglases, Coppolas, Baldwins, Afflecks, Gyllenhaals, Goldie Hawn-Kate Hudson, Aaron Spelling-Tori Spelling, and Colin Hanks. IMDB has a list here. In politics you have Liz Cheney who benefited immensely from her father’s dictatorial penchant for appointing loyal advisers to accrue more power. She scored a State Department job that was specially created just for her! How lucky! Her husband also got a nice little bonus from his father-in-law, a job as chief counsel for Office of Management and Budget. Then you have the Adams family, Bush family, Kennedy clan, Ulysses S. Grant handing out patronage to his relatives, the Roosevelts, the Gores, and the Clintons, just to name a few.

It’s called the “American Dream,” George Carlin once said, “because you have to be asleep to believe it.” Sad but true.

This piece originally appeared on the Huffington Post.

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American’s Awful, Terrible, No Good, Very Bad Prison System

The United States prison system is a blight for the country. The International Center for Prison Studies estimates that America imprisons 716 people per 100,000 citizens (of any age). Thatcompares (unfavourably) with Russia (484), China (121) and Iran (284). Over two and a half million American children have a parent behind bars. A whopping 60% of those incarcerated in U.S. prisons are non-violent offenders, many of them in prison for drug charges(overwhelming African-Americans). Even while our crime rate has fallen, our incarcerated population has climbed.

Politicians win elections by being tough on crime and portraying all prisoners as violent and subhuman. Convicted felons are not allowed to vote in America, disenfranchising them and preventing them from wielding any political influence. Nearly 6 million Americans, or 2.5% of the voting age population, cannot vote because they have a felony on record.

Harvey Silverglate, a civil libertarian, has noted that with the broad laws on the books, especially those relating to technology, most Americans commit three felonies a day. These are the laws that allow the DOJ to harass people like Aaron Swartz with trumped-up charges. Silverglate argues that an overzealous prosecutor could charge almost anyone with one of the many absurd, archaic or overbroad laws on the books. Silly laws, like the infamous “three strike laws,” create the illusion of safety at a high cost: the American prison system is bad for society and dehumanizing for those who are incarcerated.

High rates of incarceration, and our inability to deal with recidivism (partially a result of high rates of incarceration) are bad for society. In 2008, the federal, state and local prison systemcost a whopping $75 billion dollars. It’s estimated that the total cost of the drug war over the last 40 years could be over $1 trillion. And that doesn’t include opportunity costs: investments that could have been made with that money, humans that could be innovating and increasing GDP, etc. There are further, unquantifiable costs in the form of less social cohesion, the breakdown of neighborhoods, and fatherless children.

Those who are incarcerated are ostracized, but also face a cruel dehumanization. Consider the widespread rape of prisoners, which remains unacknowledged in wider society except for a joke now and then.

An estimated 217,000 American prisoners are raped each year. That’s 600 new victims every day, and the results are horrifying and traumatizing. In 2010, the Department of Justicereleased a report about abuse in juvenile detention centers. The report found that 12.1% of all youth held in juvenile detention reported sexual violence; youth held for between seven and twelve months had a staggering victimization rate of 14.2%.

Dr. James Gilligan told ABC News that “the more violent, powerful inmates — are in effect being given a bribe or a reward to cooperate with the prison authorities . .. as long as they cooperate, the prison authorities will permit them to have their victims.”

Worse, state, local and federal authorities who are aware of the problem do nothing to stop it. Back in 2009, the National Rape Elimination Commission released a set of proposed standardsto reduce rape, including: make data on sexual assaults behind bars public; improve staff training, supervision and protection for vulnerable detainees; limit cross-gender searches and supervision, particularly when prisoners are undressed; and make it easier and safer for prisoners to report abuse. Here are how some correction departments responded.

The New Mexico Corrections Department submitted this in response to the proposed standards: “A simple cost-benefit analysis shows that when weighed against the twelve million dollar cost of compliance, non-compliance would be much cheaper.”

To be clear, the Department has every intention of complying with whatever standards are ultimately approved, but the fact remains that compliance with the currently proposed standards would be very expensive.

The Alabama Department of Corrections estimated that implementing these standards would cost the state $58 million dollars, but that the state could cut costs by keeping the definition of “prison rape” limited:

We strongly recommend the use of the statutory definition of ‘rape,’ as directed by PREA. The term ‘sexual abuse’ is much too broad and encompassing of incidences such as verbal harassment which is not the intent of PREA.

There is some hope for detainees. The Department of Justice released its new standards May of last year, to praise from Human Rights Watch. Prisons have until August of this year to comply, and then the Justice Department will conduct a round of audits. The new standards are welcome, but they come far too late for the far too many abused prisoners.

The saddest thing about the entire saga is what Jesse Lerner-Kinglake from Just Detention International tells me: “This abuse is preventable. Indeed, the BJS studies showed that some facilities have all but eliminated this abuse.” The problem is that no one cares enough to demand stricter standards.

The American prison system should be our greatest source of shame. The only country that imprisons more people per capita may be North Korea (estimates are obviously tough to find). That’s not a good comparison. I’ve noted here some of the causes and singled out one perncious problem, but I could have noted others. Consider the fate of the detainees held in Orleans Parish Prison (OPP) in the weeks after Katrina:

As floodwaters rose in the OPP buildings, power was lost, and entire buildings were plunged into darkness. Deputies left their posts wholesale, leaving behind prisoners in locked cells, some standing in sewage-tainted water up to their chests …

Prisoners went days without food, water and ventilation, and deputies admit that they received no emergency training and were entirely unaware of any evacuation plan. Even some prison guards were left locked in at their posts to fend for themselves, unable to provide assistance to prisoners in need.

Or take East Mississippi Correctional Facility, run by the private corporation GEO Group, Inc. The ACLU has recently filed a federal suit on the behalf of the prisoners alleging that prisoners defecate into Styrofoam trays and plastic trash bags because they lack functioning toilets, the cells lack working lights, prisoners are often left naked, the cells are rat-infested, medical attention is limited, and that rape, stabbings, and beatings are often committed against mentally handicapped prisoners. Gawker has obtained the letter of one prisoner who was raped and robbed at the private prison.

It’s time for reform. The voiceless and voteless prisoners and former prisoners in America need us to demand reform.

This article originally appeared on Policymic.

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