Category Archives: Entertainment

Six studies that show everything Republicans believe is wrong

The great 20th-century economist John Maynard Keynes has been widely quoted as saying, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” Sadly, in their quest to concentrate economic and political power in the hands of the wealthiest members of society, today’s Republicans have held the opposite position – as the evidence has piled up against them, they continue spreading the same myths. Here are six simple facts about the economy that Republicans just can’t seem to accept:​

1. The Minimum Wage Doesn’t Kill Jobs.

The Republican story on the minimum wage takes the inordinately complex interactions of the market and makes them absurdly simple. Raise the price of labor through a minimum wage, they claim, and employers will hire fewer workers. But that’s not how it works. In the early Nineties, David Card and Alan Krueger found “no evidence that the rise in New Jersey’s minimum wage reduced employment at fast-food restaurants in the state.” Since then, international, national and state-level studies have replicated these findings – most recently in a study by three Berkeley economists. Catherine Ruetschlin, a policy analyst at Demos, has argued that a higher minimum wage would actually “boost the national economy” by giving workers more money to spend on goods and services. The most comprehensive meta-study of the minimum wage examined 64 studies and found “little or no evidence” that a higher minimum wage reduces employment. There is however, evidence that a higher minimum wage lifts people out of poverty. Raise away!

2. The Stimulus Created Millions of Jobs.

In the aftermath of the 2007 recession, President Obama invested in a massive stimulus. The Republican belief that markets are always good and government is always bad led them to argue that diverting resources to the public sector this way would have disastrous results. They were wrong: The stimulus worked, with the most reliable studies finding that it created millions of jobs. The fact that government stimulus works – long denied by Republicans (at least, when Democrats are in office) – is a consensus among economists, with only 4 percent arguing that unemployment would have been lower without the stimulus and only 12 percent arguing that the costs outweigh the benefits.

3. Taxing The Rich Doesn’t Hurt Economic Growth.

Republicans believe that the wealthy are the vehicles of economic growth. Starting with Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, they tried cutting taxes on the rich in order to unleash latent economic potential. But even the relatively conservative Martin Feldstein has acknowledged that investment is driven by demand, not supply; if there are viable investments to be made, they will be made regardless of tax rates, and if there are no investments to be made, cutting taxes is merely pushing on a string. Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, two of the eminent economists of inequality, find no correlation between marginal tax rates and economic growth.

In fact, what hurts economic growth most isn’t high taxes – it’s inequality. Two recent IMF papers confirm what Keynesian economists like Joseph Stiglitz have long argued: Inequality reduces the incomes of the middle class, and therefore demand, which in turn stunts growth. To understand why, imagine running a car dealership. Would you prefer if 1 person in your time owned 99% of the wealth and the rest of the population had nothing, or if wealth was distributed more equally, so that more people could purchase your cars?

Every other country in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has far lower levels of inequality than the United States. Since there are no economic benefits of inequality, why hasn’t the right conceded the argument? Because it’s based on class interest, not empirical evidence.

4. Global Warming is Caused by Humans.

Even as global warming is linked to more and more extreme weather events, more than 56 percent of Republicans in the current congress deny man-made global warming. In fact, the infamous Luntz memo shows that Republicans have actually created a concerted campaign to undermine the science of global warming. In the leaked memo, Frank Luntz, a Republican consultant, argues that, “The scientific debate is closing [against us] but not yet closed. There is still a window of opportunity to challenge the science.”

In truth, the science of global warming is not up for debate. James Powell finds that over a one year period, 2,258 articles on global warming were published by 9,136 authors. Of those, only one, from the Herald of the Russian Academy of Sciences, rejected man-made global warming. That one article was likely motivated by the Russian government’s interest in exploiting arctic shale. Another, even more comprehensive study, examining 11,944 studies over a 10-year period, finds that 97 percent of scientists accepted the scientific consensus that man-made global warming is occurring.

This is not an abstract academic debate. The effects of climate change will be devastating, and poor countries will be hurt the worst. We’ve already seen the results. Studies have linked global warming to Hurricane Sandydroughts and other extreme weather events. More importantly, doing nothing will end up being far more expensive than acting now. One study suggests it could wipe out 3.2% of global GDP annually.

5. The Affordable Care Act is Working

President Obama’s centrist healthcare bill was informed by federalism (delegating power to the states) and proven technocratic reforms (like a board to help doctors discern which treatments would be most cost-effective). Republicans, undeterred, decried it as Soviet-style communism based on “death panels” – never mind the fact that the old system, which rationed care based on income, is the one that left tens of thousands of uninsured people to die.

From the beginning, Republicans have predicted disastrous consequences or Obamacare, none of which came true. They predicted that the ACA would add to the deficit; in fact, it will reduce the deficit. They claimed the exchanges would fail to attract the uninsured; they met their targets. They said only old people would sign up; the young came out in the same rates as in Massachusetts. They predicted the ACA would drive up healthcare costs; in fact it is likely holding cost inflation down, although it’s still hard to discern how much of the slowdown was due to the recession. In total, the ACA will ensure that 26 million people have insurance in 2024 who would have been uninsured otherwise.

It’s worth noting that every time the CBO estimates how much Obamacare will cost, the number gets lower. Odd how we’ve never heard Republicans say that.

6. Rich people are no better than the rest of us.

Politicians on the right like to pretend that having money is a sign of hard work and morality – and that not having money is a sign of laziness. This story is contradicted by human experience and many religious traditions (Jesus tells a graphic story about a rich man who refused to help the poor burning in hell). But it’s also contradicted by the facts – more and more rich people are getting their money through inheritances, and science shows that they are no more benevolent than others.

More and more, the wealthy in America are second or third generation. For instance, the Walton family, heirs to the Walmart fortune, own more wealth than the poorest 40 million Americans. Thomas Philippon and Ariell Reshef have found that 30 to 50 percent of the wage difference between the financial sector and the rest of the private sector was due to unearned “rent,” or money they gained through manipulating markets. Josh Bivens and Larry Mishel found the same thing for CEOs – their increased pay hasn’t been correlated to performance.

If rich people haven’t really earned their money, are they at least doing any good with it? Studies find that the wealthy actually give less to charity as a proportion of their income than middle-class Americans, even though they can afford more. Worse, they use their supposed philanthropy to avoid taxes and finance pet projects. Research by Paul Piff finds that the wealthy are far more likely to exhibit narcissistic tendencies. “The rich are way more likely to prioritize their own self-interests above the interests of other people,” Piff recently told New York magazine. “It makes them more likely to exhibit characteristics that we would stereotypically associate with, say, assholes.”

Originally published on The Rolling Stone.

We’re All Jordan Belfort

The Wolf of Wall Street debuted to mixed but positive critical reviews and a distinct feeling of disgust among many moviegoers. CinemaScore reports that audiences give Wolf a “C,” which is surprisingly low, since audiences award 47 Ronin and Ender’s Game a “B+”, The Fifth Estateand Bad Grandpa a “B” and Last Vegas and A Madea’s Christmas an “A-.” It is certainly worth pondering why a Scorsese film would fare worse than these panned films. It could be that critics are elitists and that the the sex, greed, language and drugs were too much for middle America, especially during the holiday season. I am sympathetic to that explanation, but I think there is something deeper at work.

In CasinoGoodfellas and The Departed, Scorsese’s celebrated films about the mob, we feel free to empathize with the gangsters, knowing that eventually their sins will catch up to them. American democracy and society depends on the a theory of just deserts. Americans wish very much to live in a just society, so any bubble of wealth, power or fame that is undeserved must be quickly popped. Thus we elevate and then crush (see: Spears, Cyrus and Bieber). Our desire for celebrities is tempered by our egalitarian sentiment.

In CasinoGoodfellas and The Departed, the unjust elevation of the title characters who use manipulation, scheming or violence to ascend are eventually brought down to earth. The last lines of Goodfellas are Henry Hill (played by Ray Liotta) narrating that, “Today everything is different; there’s no action… have to wait around like everyone else. Can’t even get decent food — right after I got here, I ordered some spaghetti with marinara sauce, and I got egg noodles and ketchup. I’m an average nobody… get to live the rest of my life like a schnook.”Casino concludes with Sam Rothstein (played by De Niro), noting that he is, “right back where I started.” The Departed ends with everyone dead.

In The Wolf of Wall Street we again indulge Scorsese’s portrayal of rampant drug use, promiscuity and misogyny financed by a stunning level of greed and callousness. But all the while we hope and wait for Belfort to get fucked by the long hard dick of Johnny Law. But he isn’t. Because the long hard dick of Johnny Law is reserved for low-level drug dealers, shoplifters and muggers. Belfort instead is asked to pay back his victims (he doesn’t) and spend 22 months trapped in a country club, only to come out scamming once again.

This is Scorsese’s sin. He reminds us that the same crass materialism that drives Belfort, the same callousness he shows to his victims, is our sin as a society. At least Belfort has to see the people he robs. Do any of us consider when switching from the IPhone 4 to the IPhone 4S whether it might be best to stick with what we have, rather than demand slave laborers to build a phone that will someday poison the small child that disassembles it?

We are all, as John Steinbeck noted, “temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” Certainly we could be Belfort’s, but we aren’t that immoral because greed doesn’t pay. Right? As much as Scorsese may want to tell us that greed doesn’t pay, and make Belfort learn his lesson, Scorsese can’t, because he’s a director, not a liar. In a society of exploitation, the exploiters will never, ever pay. As much as we may like to see this greedy bastard brought down, until we as a nation stop seeing greed as a positive force, we will only be left with more Belforts, or Cohens, Madoffs, Israels and Drews.

The operative theory of markets has always been simple: take your ugly greedy, fearful motives and combine them with my equally ugly motives, feed them through the complex inner workings of this ephemeral market and we get something beautiful. But what if all that remains is our ugliness? That is the possibility this poignant expose of the most useless profession known to mankind — modern finance — offers us. No wonder we don’t like it.

Why Are Conservatives in Love With a Marxist Sponge?

Photo Credit: Conner Kennedy

SpongeBob SquarePants was once loathed by conservatives because he supposedly promoted the “homosexual agenda” and warned children about the dangers of global warming. But now he is one of the few Hollywood types conservatives can stand.

The Hollywood Reporter summarizes a “SpongeBob” episode that aired on Monday and has conservatives cheering:

One day [after being fired], SpongeBob is already a disheveled, wrinkled, unshaven beggar, and his friend Patrick is determined to show him the ways of “glorious unemployment,” which includes free stuff and lots of spare time.

“Being unemployed is the best gig I know,” Patrick tells SpongeBob. But at a no-charge, all-you-can eat meal, SpongeBob has an epiphany: “Unemployment may be fun for you, but I need to get a job,” he tells Patrick. At that moment, he’s instantly transformed into a sparkly clean, enthusiastic and energetic sponge again.

Fox News, Breitbart, the Washington Times and the New York Post see this as a denunciation of the welfare state;  Andrea Morabito writes in the Post, “Lest he sit around idly, mooching off the social services of Bikini Bottom, a depressed SpongeBob sets out to return to gainful employment wherever he can find it.” Fox News et al. based their analysis on this short clip, but if you watch the full episode (available on Amazon), a different story emerges.

SpongeBob arrives at work one day to discover he’s been fired from the Krusty Krab so that Mr. Krabs can save a nickel. “I love you like a son,” Mr. Krabs tells SpongeBob, “but you can’t argue with a nickel.” After being fired, SpongeBob does meet Patrick for “funemployment,” but the two don’t lounge on government benefits. First they anger Squidward who throws food at them — their breakfast. Then they participate in an experiment for Sandy that involves eating toxic (but free!) food. SpongeBob decides he needs a job, but, much like the long-term unemployed, finds his skills are no longer in demand. He tries to find employment at the Weenie Hut, the Pizza Piehole, the Taco Sombrero and the Wet Noodle, but he can only make patties. After being fired from each establishment he returns home dejected only to find he has no “Snailpo” to feed Gary. He cooks his own dinner, which both Gary and Patrick devour. Having realized that he should never have passed up SpongeBob, the owner of the Weenie Hut kidnaps him and forces him to work. Then the owners of the other restaurants fight to force SpongeBob to work for them. Finally Squidward begs SpongeBob to return because Mr. Krabs is a dreadful cook. SpongeBob rejoins the Krusty Krab and Mr. Krabs earns his nickel by installing a pay toilet.

The full episode has a different moral than conservatives imply. The fact that Mr. Krabs fires SpongeBob to make a nickel hardly constitutes a resounding endorsement of capitalism and the ethics of businessmen. And SpongeBob’s dilemma is reminiscent of the days before unemployment insurance, food stamps and welfare, when the unemployed had to depend on the unreliable compassion of strangers. Similarly, his struggle to find gainful unemployment is exacerbated by his unique skill set, which doesn’t translate easily to other jobs, emphasizing the importance of worker retraining. His kidnapping by the Weenie Hut warns viewers of the often exploitative nature of fast food companies. Given that the episode was released during the retail and fast food strikes, it could easily be interpreted as a sign of solidarity with the underpaid, overworked and insecure minimum-wage workers in the fast food industry.

How did conservative viewers get it so wrong? They have watched only one short clip of SpongeBob SquarePants. I’ve watched every episode numerous times, and have come to the opposite conclusion: SpongeBob is a Marxist. Here’s the evidence:

While classical and Austrian economists view the capitalist system as inherently competitive, Marx saw it as entirely uncompetitive. Bikini Bottom clearly resembles the latter. Competition doesn’t lead to innovation; there is no creative destruction, rather there is one monopoly firm (the Krusty Krab) and another firm (the Chum Bucket), constantly trying to siphon customers, not with a better product but by theft and through political manipulation. SpongeBob shows the capitalist mode of production, with its fealty to “competition,” to be entirely farcical. In Marxist economics, competition eventually leads to one monopolistic firm that exploits workers and customers. Sound familiar?

Speaking of exploitation, in SpongeBob’s world, production follows the labor theory of value that Marx predicts, rather than the marginal theory of value predicted by Austrian economists. SpongeBob is the greatest fry cook in the universe, yet he is paid almost nothing! The marginal theory of value predicts that a worker will be paid according to the value they add to the good. But SpongeBob, who can cook like a god, is paid less than minimum wage. His only attempt to obtain a raise ends in failure. This is what Marx’s labor theory of value predicts: Workers will be squeezed, they will never reap the full value of their contribution to the final product. Since the capitalist and the landlord input nothing, all their profits must come at the expense of the worker, and further, the more product the worker produces, the less value he has. Mr. Krabs definitely has enough money to pay SpongeBob more –  he’s a millionaire who at one point buys a massive hotel — yet he refuses to properly compensate his workers and regularly runs afoul of labor standards, like the 1920s robber barons and today’s megacorporations.

SpongeBob seems to inhabit an Oscar Wildean post-capitalist utopia. SpongeBob exemplifies  the “Soul of Man Under Socialism”: He loves his job and prefers cooperation to competition. He eschews a life of labor for a life of art, his “job” isn’t drudgery, but ratherbrings him joy. Rather than continuing to accumulate “long after he has got far more than he wants, or can use, or enjoy,” SpongeBob takes a job he loves and pursues a life of friendship, cooperation and love. This manifests itself in SpongeBob’s uncanny knack for art, which is juxtaposed with Squidward’s inability to produce art, presumably because his job is so draining.  In contrast to SpongeBob, Mr. Krabs is devoted entirely to the acquisition of money, to the point that he is willing to sacrifice his life and the lives of his customers for a cent.

SpongeBob is Ralph Nader, Naomi Klein and Eugene Debs rolled into one. In one episode, SpongeBob laments that corporate control of the Krusty Krab has led to a decline in the quality of service because the patties are made by machine, leading SpongeBob to wonder,“Where’s the love?”In another, SpongeBob protests a superhighway that will destroy jellyfish fields. The episode critiques the way corporations manipulate the political process (the plans are made in secret by Plankton to destroy the Krusty Krab), voter apathy (citizens were entirely unaware of the implications of the project, even Mr. Krabs votes aye) and the role of police in squashing dissidence (the police arrest SpongeBob numerous times on false pretenses when he tries to protest). SpongeBob makes a quixotic stand against corporate power: “Well all I have to say is that um, well, STOP THE MADNESS! We need to get Jellyfish Fields back to the jellyfish, which will restore their natural habitat so they will be in peace. So what do you say everybody, will you help me?” The crowd initially hesitates, then joins SpongeBob to prevent a tractor from destroying Jellyfish Fields. SpongeBob also dabbles in organized labor, joining Squidward on strike. The strike is largely ignored when Mr. Krabs brings in scabs, leading Squidward to note, “Nobody gives a care about the fate of labor as long as they can get their instant gratification.”

Nor is the show’s treatment of labor issues its only progressive element. SpongeBob’s inability to drive means he protects the environment by walking to work. Sandy Cheeks doesn’t stay home and cook for the kids, she defies gender stereotypes by being really, really good at science (she came to Bikini Bottom to study sea life). Patrick, by far the poorest member of Bikini Bottom, lives securely, yet has never been incredibly successful at holding a job. Conservatives should think twice before they make a kindhearted hippie-sponge their hero. Bikini Bottom is a liberal utopia where public transportation is the norm, women are free of ugly stereotypes and society adheres to the motto “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.”