Krugman Op-Ed: Privilege, Pathology and Power

Wealth can be bad for your soul. That’s not just a hoary piece of folk wisdom; it’s a conclusion from serious social science, confirmed by statistical analysis and experiment. The affluent are, on average, less likely to exhibit empathy, less likely to respect norms and even laws, more likely to cheat, than those occupying lower rungs on the economic ladder…

So what happens to a nation that gives ever-growing political power to the superrich?

Modern America is a society in which a growing share of income and wealth is concentrated in the hands of a small number of people, and these people have huge political influence — in the early stages of the 2016 presidential campaign, around half the contributions came from fewer than 200 wealthy families. The usual concern about this march toward oligarchy is that the interests and policy preferences of the very rich are quite different from those of the population at large, and that is surely the biggest problem.

But it’s also true that those empowered by money-driven politics include a disproportionate number of spoiled egomaniacs. Which brings me to the current election cycle.

The most obvious illustration of the point I’ve been making is the man now leading the Republican field. Donald Trump would probably have been a blowhard and a bully whatever his social station. But his billions have insulated him from the external checks that limit most people’s ability to act out their narcissistic tendencies; nobody has ever been in a position to tell him, “You’re fired!” And the result is the face you keep seeing on your TV.

But Mr. Trump isn’t the only awesomely self-centered billionaire playing an outsized role in the 2016 campaign…

…It’s not trivial. Oligarchy, rule by the few, also tends to become rule by the monstrously self-centered. Narcisstocracy? Jerkigarchy? Anyway, it’s an ugly spectacle, and it’s probably going to get even uglier over the course of the year ahead.

RTFA. Krugman expands the number of blivets on the target range – or, rather, the Republican Party has. From Sheldon Adelson to Paul Singer, billionaires who buy newspapers and instruct reporters to snoop on judges investigating their own criminal links, billionaires who want tax laws changed on million dollar art purchases.

Paul Krugman is always entertaining reading – even if the subjects are otherwise as exempt from oversight as a Super-Pac donors list.

“Affluenza” teen and momma busted in Mexico

A Texas woman and her son, a teen known for invoking an “affluenza” defense after a deadly drunken driving wreck, held a sort of farewell party before fleeing his probation, driving to the Mexican border and trying to disguise themselves…

Tarrant County Sheriff Dee Anderson said 18-year-old Ethan Couch and his mother, who were detained Monday in the Pacific Coast resort city of Puerto Vallarta, planned their disappearance.

“They even had something that was almost akin to a going-away party before leaving town,” he said.

Couch was on juvenile probation for the wreck that killed four people when he was 16. During the sentencing phase of his trial, a defense expert argued that his wealthy parents coddled him into a sense of irresponsibility — a condition the expert termed “affluenza.” The condition is not recognized as a medical diagnosis by the American Psychiatric Association, and its invocation drew widespread ridicule.

Anderson said an arrest warrant would be issued for Couch’s mother, Tonya Couch, on charges of hindering an apprehension. A prosecutor says that during a hearing next month they plan to ask a judge to transfer Ethan Couch’s case to adult court…

Ricardo Ariel Vera, the representative of Mexico’s immigration institute in the western state of Jalisco, said the mother and son were being held at immigration offices in the state capital, Guadalajara, and would be returned to the United States aboard a commercial flight to Houston sometime Tuesday…

Couch was apparently trying to lie low; a photo distributed by the Jalisco state prosecutor’s office show him in detention with his blond hair dyed black and his normally blondish beard a light brown.

Anderson has said he believes the two fled in late November after a video surfaced that appears to show Couch at a party where people were drinking. If found to be drinking, Couch’s probation could be revoked and he could be sentenced to up to 10 years in prison.

Couch was driving drunk and speeding on a dark two-lane road south of Fort Worth in June 2013 when he crashed into a disabled SUV off to the side, killing four people and injuring several others, including passengers in Couch’s pickup truck.

Throw the key away. Put mom in a cell down the hall. Sentence their lawyers to work at honest jobs.

Our middle class dwindles to less than the sum of the rich + the poor

In the age of rising income inequality, the task of preserving America’s middle class has been taken on by politicians across the ideological spectrum. A new report from Pew Research Center shows just how much the economic fortunes of this group have changed since the 1970s.

In every decade since then, the percentage of adults living in middle-income households has fallen, according to Pew, which is based in Washington. The share now stands at 50 percent, compared with 61 percent in 1971…

Our politicians have accomplished nothing other than gifting the nation to the rich.

Being a member of the middle-class has long been treated as an American badge of honor. However middle-income households have lost their majority status in the U.S, with the size of their counterparts on opposite ends of the income spectrum overtaking them in number.

Some 120.8 million adult Americans lived in middle-class households this year, according to Pew. That’s slightly less than the combined number of upper-income adults – 51 million – and those at the lower tier – 70.3 million…

Blacks are less likely to be part of the middle class than any other racial or ethnic group, the Pew report finds. Some 45 percent of black adults were in the middle-income tier, down 1 percentage point from 1971.

One positive note is that blacks are the only major racial group to see a decline over that time frame in their share of adults who are low-income, which is down to 43 percent from 48 percent. Still, that percentage is the highest of the ethnic groups, alongside Hispanics.

White Americans are the only racial group where a majority is in the middle class, though their share fell to 52 percent this year from 63 percent in 1971.

Almost half of aggregate earnings in the U.S. is now commanded by the wealthiest families, who are “are on the verge of holding more in total income than all other households combined,” Kochhar and Fry wrote.

The Republicans barely give lip service to this question. Unwilling to risk offending the class of owners they obey on every issue.

Many Democrats are merely cowards. Those willing to fight for us know the fight starts with their peers.

Yes, I know the characterizations are too much shorthand. But, when push comes to shove on any truly critical issue – whether it be war and peace, guns and butter, education and tax breaks for the rich – the fine gradations that give job security to TV talking heads and Wall Street analysts alike break down. Almost no one is willing to commit to the class of the many Americans who create and build the wealth of the few.

Smoking rates in America the lowest in more than 50 years — but…

But smoking is increasingly a problem of the poor.

That’s according to newly released data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showing that the percentage of adults who smoke cigarettes has continued to decline…21 percent of Americans smoked regularly in 2005 (about 45 million people), and in 2014 that number was down to 17 percent (about 40 million people):

It’s a remarkable shift. In 1964, when the surgeon general first began a public health campaign on cigarettes, nearly half of the adult population smoked.

But thanks to tobacco taxes, smoking bans, and public awareness campaigns, cigarette use has been on a downward trajectory for decades.

This major public health success story hasn’t been a total victory, either. Cigarette smoking remains the leading cause of preventable disease and death in the US, contributing to some 480,000 early deaths and more than $300 billion in health care expenditures and productivity losses every year. The push to eradicate smoking has been especially slow going among poorer Americans.

Generally speaking, poorer Americans smoke at higher rates than wealthier Americans. The CDC shows this by looking at the relationship between insurance coverage and cigarette use.

People insured by Medicaid or those who are uninsured tend to be poorer, on average. In 2014, 29.1 percent of Medicaid recipients and 27.9 percent of the uninsured smoked. By contrast, only 12.9 percent of those with private insurance smoked.

Relatedly, education also makes a difference: Of adults with a graduate degree, only about 5 percent smoke. Meanwhile, about 25 percent of those who haven’t graduated high school smoke.

Of course, there are no smoking bans at Tea Party cell meetings.

The Inequality Trifecta

— and in the United States, they own pretty much all the politicians

There were quite a few disconnects at the recently concluded Annual Meetings of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. Among the most striking was the disparity between participants’ interest in discussions of inequality and the ongoing lack of a formal action plan for governments to address it. This represents a profound failure of policy imagination – one that must urgently be addressed.

There is good reason for the spike in interest. While inequality has decreased across countries, it has increased within them, in the advanced and developing worlds alike. The process has been driven by a combination of secular and structural issues – including the changing nature of technological advancement, the rise of “winner-take-all” investment characteristics, and political systems favoring the wealthy – and has been turbocharged by cyclical forces.

In the developed world, the problem is rooted in unprecedented political polarization, which has impeded comprehensive responses and placed an excessive policy burden on central banks. Though monetary authorities enjoy more political autonomy than other policymaking bodies, they lack the needed tools to address effectively the challenges that their countries face.

…These are not normal times. With political gridlock blocking an appropriate fiscal response – after 2008, the United States Congress did not pass an annual budget, a basic component of responsible economic governance, for five years – central banks have been forced to bolster economies artificially. To do so, they have relied on near-zero interest rates and unconventional measures like quantitative easing to stimulate growth and job creation…

As a result, most countries face a trio of inequalities – of income, wealth, and opportunity – which, left unchecked, reinforce one another, with far-reaching consequences. Indeed, beyond this trio’s moral, social, and political implications lies a serious economic concern: instead of creating incentives for hard work and innovation, inequality begins to undermine economic dynamism, investment, employment, and prosperity.

So far, Mohamed El-Erian has avoided political office. In the United States as well as Egypt. Understandable when common understanding of officeholders in either nation leaves voters with a choice between the corrupt elected by the ignorant or someone too dumb to comprehend the differences.

Though he easily fits the populist definition of a prince of economics, history and academia both recognize his commitment to common folk, those of us who toil and spin, creating the profits of industry and commerce. I know I needn’t be concerned about most of the wasters in Congress understanding the article. They will not have read it.

Still, around the civilized world, most elected leaders trying to affect the lives of citizens in a positive fashion will read it and at least take his analysis to heart as honest and forthright – whether or not they agree with any logical tough remedies.

I suggest you click the link and read the whole article.

Rising wealth for the wealthy — continued decline for the rest of us

During the first two years of the nation’s economic recovery, the mean net worth of households in the upper 7% of the wealth distribution rose by an estimated 28%, while the mean net worth of households in the lower 93% dropped by 4%, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of newly released Census Bureau data…

These wide variances were driven by the fact that the stock and bond market rallied during the 2009 to 2011 period while the housing market remained flat.

Affluent households typically have their assets concentrated in stocks and other financial holdings, while less affluent households typically have their wealth more heavily concentrated in the value of their home…

Overall, the wealth of America’s households rose by $5 trillion, or 14%, during this period, from $35.2 trillion in 2009 to $40.2 trillion in 2011. Household wealth is the sum of all assets, such as a home, car, real property, a 401(k), stocks and other financial holdings, minus the sum of all debts, such as a mortgage, car loan, credit card debt and student loans.

During the period under study, the S&P 500 rose by 34% (and has since risen by an additional 26%), while the S&P/Case-Shiller home price index fell by 5%, continuing a steep slide that began with the crash of the housing market in 2006…

The different performance of financial asset and housing markets from 2009 to 2011 explains virtually all of the variances in the trajectories of wealth holdings among affluent and less affluent households during this period. Among households with net worth of $500,000 or more, 65% of their wealth comes from financial holdings, such as stocks, bonds and 401(k) accounts, and 17% comes from their home. Among households with net worth of less than $500,000, just 33% of their wealth comes from financial assets and 50% comes from their home…

Looking at the period from 2005 to 2009, Census Bureau data show that mean net worth declined by 12% for households as a whole but remained unchanged for households with a net worth of $500,000 and over. Households in that top wealth category had a mean of $1,590,075 in wealth in 2005, $1,585,441 in 2009 and $1,920,956 in 2011.

Ain’t no one in that 7% living on my block – or in my neighborhood for that matter. And I don’t begrudge anyone the money they earned. Last job I had before retiring I worked for a subcontractor and my specialties often found me working on McMansions. Easily 98% of those folks earned their money. Almost no trust-funders.

What pisses me off is the power their money has over our elected officials. Politics in America is deliberately guided by the almighty dollar. Politicians prefer it that way. Corporate lobbyists prefer it that way. The greed breed that’s stolen the mantle of what is now conservatism in America absolutely loves it.

So, we get screwed.

Best place to be born in 2013 — Switzerland

Switzerland is the best country for a baby to be born in 2013, according to a new study by the Economist Intelligence Unit, which is based on both subjective and objective quality of life factors.

The variables include life expectancy, gender equality, political freedoms, and even climate, but because the study looks at where “to be born” not “where to live,” some of the factors look at what life will be like in those countries in 2030, when children born in 2013 reach adulthood.

Rounding out the top 10 are:

2. Australia
3. Norway
4. Sweden
5. Denmark
6. Singapore
7. New Zealand
8. Netherlands
9. Canada
10. Hong Kong

The report authors write:

Being rich helps more than anything else, but it is not all that counts; things like crime, trust in public institutions and the health of family life matter too. In all, the index takes 11 statistically significant indicators into account.

The United States didn’t crack the top 10 this year, because American “babies will inherit the large debts of the boomer generation,” the researchers write. Could have included mediocre education, crumbling infrastructure in that same sentence.

In the 1988 survey, the United States came in first, followed closely by mostly European countries and several high-performing Asian ones, such as South Korea and Japan…

Now, Japan and South Korea rank 25 and 19, respectively, perhaps because their economies have become more troubled in recent years.

Europe has also slipped in the rankings because the ongoing euro-zone crisis there has caused severe unemployment and “eroded both family and community life,” the authors write…Germany has dropped to 16 – a tie with the United States.

Disagree with the list? The full methodology can be found here.

The Economist is a magazine grounded in conservative economics. That’s conservative in the traditional sense, rather like the term used to be in the United States before today’s Republican Party started their outreach policy for governance by homophobes, religious nutballs, various and sundry bigots.

So, the list will be accused of being part of a mythic liberal conspiracy – regardless of credentials.

Ryan says he’ll reduce tax favors for rich – and pledges to increase their biggest tax break!

Paul Ryan, the Republican candidate for vice president, says he wants to scuttle the tax breaks of America’s rich, but he also proposes expanding one of the biggest breaks enjoyed by the wealthiest – the low tax rate on investment income.

Ryan, Mitt Romney’s running mate, last week hinted at how their ticket would revamp the tax code starting in 2013. He vowed to unveil details only after the November 6 elections…

Wealthier Americans generally trim their taxes in two big ways. One is through tax deductions such as those for charitable donations. The other, a lower tax rate on investment income than on wages, favors the rich because they have more investment income than taxpayers further down the income ladder whose salaries make up the bulk of their income.

The wealthier also reap a bigger benefit because their steeper marginal income tax rates mean that a lower rate on investment income translates into a bigger discount…

“When I look for tax advantages enjoyed by very high-income people, everything else pales in comparison to the favorable treatment of their capital gains and dividends,” said Clint Stretch, former counsel at the congressional Joint Committee on Taxation.

The top 1 percent of taxpayers derive 35 percent of their income from investments, while the poorest 20 percent derive about 2 percent of their total income from capital investments, according to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center.

If you expect someone like Paul Ryan or Mitt Romney to move into your neighborhood, you might be one of those folks who doesn’t care for tax reform. The rest of us are still in favor of progressive income tax structures and want to see an end to offshore escape roads.

We may not be Greece, yet — Wall Street’s not entirely in charge of our country’s economy. But, we’re damned close to being Italy with all the ways and means available for the rich to slip their money out of the country.

Who’s unhappiest in the UK? Men in their late 40s living in London

Middle aged men who live in London or the West Midlands are the unhappiest people in the UK, while pensioners enjoy life the most, official research from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) shows.

In a survey of 80,000 people’s happiness, the first of its kind, the ONS found that men aged between 45 and 49 are the least satisfied with life in the UK. Conversely, men and women aged between 65 and 80 are the most satisfied. This is followed closely by teenagers aged between 16 and 19.

London or the West Midlands are the gloomiest regions. People who live here are the least happy with their lives and also value the worth of what they do with their lives less than people in other regions. The findings come despite London being the wealthiest part of the country by some distance.

The happiest place in the UK, and also the one with the highest levels of life satisfaction and feelings of worth, is Northern Ireland, the ONS found…

In terms of the general outlook on life, the ONS found that women routinely put higher worth on the things they do in their lives than men do. Women were also found to be happier than men in most age groups. However this changes when men reach retirement age. Once they hit 65, men are found to become slightly happier than women…

The findings are based on four questions that people were asked about their happiness, anxiety levels, satisfaction and feelings of worth. They were asked to rate how they felt on a scale of one to 10. People were not asked about their incomes…

The survey also found that married people have higher levels of “life satisfaction” than couples who co-habit. However cohabiting couples are happier than single people…

Juliet Michaelson, a senior researcher at thinktank Nef, said: “This data tells a story overlooked by traditional economic measures about what really matters to us. London is the richest region in the UK, but it is not the happiest – respondents scored poorly on all of the well-being indicators.

The usual saw will be trotted out about money not buying happiness – the wealthiest will prattle on about how happy poor people must be. In truth, the decisions you make about how you live your life may have little or no correlation with income; but, rather expectations and how well they are realized – goals, how realistic they may be and how thoroughly you realize them.

Wind farms making money for rural Sherman County, Oregon

wind farms, Oregon, NY Times

It pays to live in Sherman County: $590 a year.

“Now you wake up and the wind is blowing and it’s like, yes!” said one Sherman County resident who is making money from wind turbines on her farm.

In this sparsely populated landscape south of the Columbia River Gorge, annual checks for that amount are local residents’ share of a windfall brought by the growing wind energy industry. In an area otherwise dominated by wheat farms, hundreds of 300-foot wind turbines now generate electricity and cash.

“Wind is the only thing that is going to save rural Oregon,” said Judge Gary Thompson of Sherman County Court, “especially since all the timber is gone and the sawmills and all that are closing down. I think what it is is a breath of fresh air.”

The Columbia Gorge has been like an expressway for hard-blowing wind since long before the turbines arrived. Trees here lean to the east from the gusts that rip across the plateau.

Sherman County, which earned $315,000 in property taxes from the first wind farm in 2002, raked in $3 million from wind farms in 2010. The bounty, while mostly flowing to the farmers who lease their land for the turbines, also benefits the public. Taxes, fees and assessments on more than 1,000 megawatts of wind turbine capacity have brought $17.5 million in nine years to a county with just 1,735 residents.

The county’s four towns — Wasco, Moro, Rufus and Grass Valley — are prospering. At Sherman Junior/Senior High School in Moro, wind money paid for new computers, musical instruments, robotics equipment, portions of a greenhouse and a new teacher to instruct the most gifted of its 124 students last year…

Judge Thompson said the payments were intended to reward residents who have made no financial gains from wind energy development, but whose views of Mount Adams and the county’s stunning landscape now include a panorama of turbines. The checks are also intended to soothe any unease about the influx of corporations, occasional turbine noise and the risks posed to bats and birds by turbines.

“It’s modeled after a lot of Alaska compensation,” Judge Thompson said. “There are a lot of people who live in the county who are not necessarily going to benefit from the renewable energy, and we felt we needed to share it with all the county residents.”

The judge is the kind of politician liable to be indicted – or lynched – by the Kool Aid Party and the Oil Addicts they cohabit with in the Republican Party.

Meanwhile, it’s just a heckuva nice story about folks who band together and distribute a little bit of their new-found environmental wealth among those who surely can use it. Especially schoolchildren.