Friday, March 25, 2011

Pity the Suffering Rich

I read a statistic recently that was so frightening I doubted it could possibly be true. When I came across Jenny Smith’s piece on the Our Progress page, the first part in her “Are you Kidding Me” series, I could believe the stat that 42% of millionaires don’t feel wealthy. “The average respondent had $3.5 million in investable assets,” she reported. “They'd ‘like to have more.’” Who wouldn’t? I would bet that people with 3.5 mil in the bank spend less time thinking about small purchases and more time thinking about big ones. When you’re looking at really big price tags, you probably start thinking that three and a half million is nice, but four or five would sure be handy. There but for the grace of God go we, right?

But at the end of the piece, Smith shared a statistic that seemed dubious to me. “Oh, and a not-so-fun fact I learned last week - the richest 400 people in the US have more money than HALF of the country.” Sure, she hyperlinked it to another article, but I didn’t even bother clicking. I wanted to check that for myself. I went to Politifact, a group that fact-checks claims made by politicians and pundits. Sure enough, they reviewed the methodology that came up with the statistic and found that it was not only true when it was calculated using numbers from Forbes from 2009, but the gap between has grown using stats from 2010. It’s true and getting more true. (Where would Ms. Smith’s link have taken me? Turns out it would have taken me to Poltifact. I looked for any site that might dispute their findings but couldn’t find any.)

So, 400 people have more net worth than half the people in this country put together. How could this be? And why isn’t there a greater push toward a more equal distribution of wealth?

I found an answer to that question pretty quickly after I posted the statistic to my Facebook page. One friend and family member quickly responded that the Clintons, the Kerrys, numerous Hollywood big names, Michael Moore, and all the Democratic high rollers are included in those 400, and thus have no authority to speak about income inequality. So I checked through the list (it’s only 400 names, after all.) No Clintons. No Kerrys. No Michael Moore. The only Hollywood name was Oprah Winfrey. Some are certainly contributors to Democratic candidates, though. George Soros is on the list. I’m not sure if Warren Buffet is a Democrat, but he did say, “There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.” Personally, I think he has the authority to say that.

I don’t begrudge anyone on the Forbes 400 their money (as long as they got it legally and morally). I think my friend is missing the forest for the trees. The problem isn’t the top 400. It’s not the top 1% who have more financial wealth than the bottom 95%. The problem belongs to all the folks in the bottom 50% who believe that the interests of those 400 people must be protected at all costs. They believe this, I think, for two reasons. For one, they think these billionaires are a put-upon minority who require their protection. Second, they believe there’s an off-chance they will someday be in this group themselves, and that by protecting the Forbes 400 they are protecting their future selves.

The Forbes 400 are certainly a minority, but their suffering has been overstated by people who lack the most basic understanding of mathematics. The folks at the bottom worry that burdensome taxation will make these men and women poor. It will take their billions of dollars and winnow away at it until they are paupers. Now, I’m not going to weigh in on who works harder, billionaires or ditch-diggers. These folks have worked hard and they’ve been lucky. Even someone like Oprah, who had a brutal childhood, had the luck to be born in a country where a combination of infrastructure, cultural milieu, and demand for her talents could facilitate her rapid rise to Queen of Television. Did she work her butt off? (Pun avoided here.) Yes. Does she deserve to be rich? Yes. Would increasing her tax burden make her poor? No.

Income tax is… wait for it… tax on income. If income taxes are staggered so that the wealthy pay higher rates, they still make more money than everyone else. Imagine if a millionaire had to pay a 50% tax on their income of $200 thousand a year. They’d pay $100,000. They’d only make $100,000 that year. Only. Now, imagine if a billionaire in that same year had to pay 75% on the $200,000,000 they made that year. They’d make $50 million. Would the long-suffering millionaire who says they would “like to have more” suddenly give up on their financial pursuits? “Well, I wanted to have more, but going from an annual income of one hundred thousand dollars to a mere 50 million simply makes it not worth the trouble.” Find me the millionaire who isn’t interested in having 50 million dollars.

And yet, we’re told that increasing the marginal tax rate will cause these folks to stop trickling their money down to the rest of us. George Bush Sr. called this “Voodoo Economics” for a reason. And it wasn’t because he comes from a long line of rabid socialists. It just doesn’t work. Concentrating wealth in the hands of a few people does not lead to improved employment or higher standards of living for more people. Surprise: It leads to higher standards of living for a few people.

But raising the tax burden would lead these 400 people to leave the country and take their money with them, right? Then we would miss out on all those trickle-down benefits we’ve been enjoying so much! Except that’s not true after all. I got into a debate about an experiment in just this kind of thing with another college friend today. When I posted a link to a petition that would ask Congress to raise taxes on millionaires and billionaires, my friend asked, “How many companies have left Oregon (for example) following the recent tax increase on the top brackets?” He linked to an article about a particular company which was leaving the state. The proprietor who was taking 20 jobs with her said that the decisions was “absolutely tied to (tax measures) 66 & 67.” The problem with this anecdotal example is that it doesn’t gel with the larger statistics about employment. Since the passage of those two tax measures, unemployment has actually dropped here in Oregon by 2%. Those twenty manufacturing jobs might have left the state, but more came in to take their place.

The other little factor my friend’s article gave less prominence than the hostile business climate of post 66 and 67 Oregon: The proprietor had found a buyer for her company in Ohio. So, will the Forbes 400 suddenly emigrate to countries where their income is less threatened by taxes? No, because they make that income here in the United States! Africa has about three times as many people as the United States. I’m sure Oprah could find some despot in Africa who would offer her zero income tax if she would relocate to his country to build her house and store her wealth (and serve as a human shield in the case of a U.S. no-fly zone should his people rise up against him). So why doesn’t Oprah pull her shows off of U.S. TV and relocate? Because she’s not stupid. She knows she can’t possibly make as much money in markets where people don’t have power, let alone TVs. Think Ted Turner (also on the Forbes 400) is going to take TNT and TBS off the air and relocate to Russia if we raise his marginal tax rates? Yeah, right. Think the Koch brothers will give up on mining and drilling in the U.S. if we say they have to pay for the pollution they cause and also have to pay a higher tax rate? Let’s take a little bet on that, shall we?

But I’ll tell you what will make these Forbes 400 leave. If, out of a desire to protect the interests of these 400 people, we de-fund our education systems, cut into our infrastructure spending, and generally do everything we can to provide them with the cheapest, lowest skilled labor possible, we’ll give them a country where they can build call centers and factories, but not one where the people can actually buy the products they’re selling. Tired of hearing someone with a slight Indian accent when you call tech support? Just wait until you’re learning another language to serve the needs of someone who has more buying power than you do in some other country. It will make you wish you’d been a bit nicer to “Bob” and “Mary” from Bangalore. Which language will you be speaking in that call center? I’m not qualified to speculate, but (since this is unapologetic conjecture) let me hazard that it will be the country that realizes the fashionable “austerity measures” that are slowing economic growth are for chumps, and invests in services for the broadest swath of its consumer base. They’ll be the buyers, and buyers lead markets.

The Forbes 400 will be fine, regardless. That’s the kind of security we covet, the ability to roll with the punches of a global economy, and, combined with our innate American optimism, that’s why so many poor and middle class Americans continue to believe that they will someday breathe that rarefied air. And what’s wrong with dreaming, right? I’ve bought a few lottery tickets in my life, not because I thought I’d win but because dreaming is fun and, to a point, healthy. After a point, it’s sick. There is no lottery that will make anyone a member of the Forbes 400.

You will never be that rich.

Read that again.

You will never be that rich.

Whatever job you are currently working at does not create a means wherein, by increasing your effort, you will make a billion dollars. I could be the greatest public school teacher of all time, working 26 hours a day (yes, even if I bent the laws of space and time), creating the most wonderful lessons and meeting all of my students educational needs every day, and they will not pay me a billion dollars.
But this is America, you say. This is the land of opportunity. Anything is possible here.

Yep, but that doesn’t make anything likely. If you really want to increase your chances of getting rich (work smarter, not harder, right?), your first step should be looking into which countries really offer social mobility. You might want to move to Denmark, Australia, Norway, Finland, Canada, Sweden, Germany or Spain. Oh, guess what’s one of the leading predictors of social mobility. Income equality. “The greater a nation's inequality, the harder it is for its children to improve their lot,” Dan Froomkin writes in the Huffington Post. “That confirms findings by other researchers. ‘The way I usually put this is that when the rungs of the ladder are far apart, it becomes more difficult to climb the ladder,’ Brookings Institution economist Isabel Sawhill tells HuffPost. ‘Given that we have more inequality in the U.S. right now than at any time since the 1920s, we should be concerned that this may become a vicious cycle. Inequality in one generation may mean less opportunity for the next generation to get ahead and thus still more inequality in the future.’”

I have no problem with people trying to get rich. If some people from Publishers Clearinghouse show up at my door with a big check tomorrow because of something I sent them ten years ago, I won’t send them away, and you will probably hear me squeal like a six-year-old girl who just got the newest Barbie doll.

But please, if that check is for one billion dollars, and you see me on the Forbes 400, please, please don’t try to protect my financial interests. Because, since social mobility is related to income distribution, when you put my billionaire interests ahead of your own, you aren’t protecting your future self. You’re hurting your children. That’s not hopeful or patriotic. It’s selfish and stupid.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Stick a Fork in the Meta-Superhero

I just saw Kick-Ass. I know some people were bothered by the amount of blood and the adult language. I wouldn't show it to my six-year-old, but I couldn't care less about those things. Those weren't my issues. Kick-Ass isn't a bad movie (meh) but it's the last nail in the coffin in a particular sub-genre, I hope. I know I'm late to the party, but as an avid comic book fan and devotee of our shared American mythology, I want to officially declare the meta-superhero dead. Fini. Kaput. Done. Played-out.

If not the original, among the first and greatest of the meta-superheroes was The Tick. I loved the dark humor of that story, which served up its satire of the comic book world through the lens of a simultaneously delusional and truly superhuman protagonist who broke out of an insane asylum in the first issue. The Tick was unaware that he was wearing a blue suit (or maybe it was his skin?), "nigh-invulnerable", ridiculously naive, and completely at home in his world of equally ridiculous super-villains. This send-up aimed most of its focus on the tropes of comic books themselves, though it had a bit to say about the nature of madness and the assumption of sanity in a crazy world. It was perfect for me as a high school student, and I will be forever grateful to Ben Edlund for speaking from within the comic book community (i.e. my world) about its shortcomings.

And then there was Watchmen. This pre-dated The Tick, but I missed it in 1986 and probably wouldn't have understood it anyway. I deeply disagree with Alan Moore's politics, a form of extreme libertarianism that casts all attempts at do-gooding as short-sighted, authoritarian, and ultimately evil, and I sympathize with his frustration over the way his V for Vendetta was twisted by Hollywood into an anti-Bush movie even though I love it. (It retains his anti-authoritarian message but turns it on conservatives, while he wanted it turned on the U.K.'s Labor Party.) Watchmen takes the meta-superhero to a much more intellectual, philosophical, and literary level, and despite my disagreements with his conclusions, I have the highest respect the way he used the tropes of superheroes to make an argument against what I am sure he would deem patronizing efforts to help others. Nothing has been done yet which reaches that intellectual level within the world of comic books or comic book movies.

And then there's Deadpool. Deadpool started off as a throw-away villain in one of the last issues of the New Mutants series, and even his name, Wade Wilson, is an inside joke, since he's essentially a rip off of the Teen Titan's villain Deathstroke, whose real name is Slade Wilson. But Deadpool, unlike his DC Comics progenitor, was funny, and after some character development in the X-Force series, he got his own comic book. How meta is Deadpool? He not only makes Shakespearean soliloquies directly to the reader about the comic, but even critiques the comics continuity, complaining that his real back-story is so mysterious because it keeps changing every time there's a new writer. Oh, and he once learned that he'd been cursed by the Norse god Loki to be a character in a comic book. Not too shabby.

(Here's Deadpool in the comic talking about how he doesn't look like the actor who played him in the movie. How you like them meta-apples?)

Hollywood recently gave us two animated super-villain spoofs which were both good despite their similarities. Much like the year when we got both A Bug's Life and Antz, 2010 gave us both Despicable Me and Megamind. Despicable Me chooses to focus on a villain who is a bit more James Bond, while Megamind goes right at the Superman villain, but both glean their share of gags by satirizing the cliches of comic books. And both are genuinely funny. And we don't need a third.

I'm half tempted to include Wanted in the list of meta-superhero movies, because it was so gawd-awful that the viewer is tempted to think they are intentionally having fun with the cliches of comic books. But they aren't. It just sucked. Then it insulted you for watching it. Not just implicitly, mind you. Explicitly. The protagonist gives a monologue at the end criticizing you, the viewer, for wasting your life doing uninteresting things. And since you've just spent the last two hours watching his muddled mess of a story, he's made himself a little bit right.

I'm also tempted to include Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, but there are two reasons it shouldn't be lumped in with the meta-comic book stories. First of all, the comic-book-ish-ness of it was internally consistent and not self-referential, so it wasn't poking fun at comic books or saying anything about them. Second, as my wife pointed out, it wasn't really comic books but video game tropes which were being used as plot devices. It was like Doom the movie, only smart, well-made, and enjoyable.

And now, Kick-Ass, an inherently meta-comic book movie about a kid who wonders why comic book fans don't give the whole superhero thing a whirl, decides to try, and proceeds to learn why it's a bad idea. This premise could have been a lot of fun. As I watched the movie, at every step I could see why the writers made their choices. Now, having read up on the comic, I see that the original writer really did hew to the premise and produced a conclusion in which Kick-Ass ends up basically back where he started, rather than the happier movie ending. But even he made the mistake of introducing other, more "real" superheroes (well trained, well armed, lethal costumed vigilantes) to keep upping the ante. While this makes the story far more exciting, it betrays the idea that this kid's plan is obvious folly. Sure, things don't work out so well for the other heroes, either, but they are really heroes, and their failures are heroes' ends based on heroic flaws. The story was at its strongest when it was about this kid's wild-eyed optimism and naivete putting him in danger, but he's not naive to believe superhero-dom is possible if you introduce real superheroes! Anyway, the ending doesn't spoof cliches, but inhabits them so much that it ultimately becomes one. It even ends with a direct reference to a real comic book villain coming from a fake comic book villain who, we're to believe, is now going to become a real comic book villain.

That's why the meta-superhero is finished. He can no longer don his tights and trip clumsily into our normal world, mocking the cliches of comic books, because comic books and comic book movies are now populated with enough of this character that it would be repetitive, reductive, and nostalgic.

But will this stop Hollywood? I worry. Here's what I expect: A movie about the making of a movie about a superhero who has to learn he's a meta-superhero off-screen (but on our screen). Only it's animated. And the superhero who isn't really super is a dog.

Crap, I forgot about Bolt.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Will Republicans Allow Themselves to Be the Party of Racism?

I just sent this letter to Speaker of the House John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell,

I am writing you in reference to the protest of a dinner held to provide money to women’s shelters and to relieve homelessness. The dinner was held in Yorba Linda, California, by the ICNA, an American Muslim relief organization. The protest was one of the ugliest, most hateful things I’ve ever seen. The video footage of the event is posted here:

The rally was organized by Pamella Geller, the co-founder of Stop Islamization of America, a hate group. Speaking at the rally and depicted in the video were three members of your party, two Congressmen (Ed Royce and Gary Miller) and a local councilwoman (Deborah Pauly).

Rep. Boehner and Sen. McConnell, my conservative friends often remind me that the Republican Party is not the party of racists. They tell me that fringe elements who appear at Tea Party rallies or ask repugnant questions of their congressional representatives in public meetings are not speaking for the party as a whole, and that the party should not be judge based on these voices. I think that sounds fair. Then I see something like this, and watch Republicans, not just Republican voters but Republican elected officials, speak in favor of a protest where such pure, despicable hatred is spewed, and I can’t help but judge the whole party which allows any of its representatives to support this kind of thing. I know you want to have a “Big Tent,” but if you allow this kind of filth inside, the whole thing smells. And no amount of spin can Fabreeze this away.

Please let me, and all Americans who worry that one of our two major political parties harbors this kind of bile, know that your party is not the party of racism, not just by paying lip service to bromides or declaring your tolerance for difference of opinion, but by taking decisive action to expel those who promote this kind of hatred from your Big Tent. I am very proud of America’s broad defense of the right to free speech, and I recognize these protesters' right to spew whatever hatred they feel, but those elected officials at the rally are not granted a constitutional right to serve in your political party, and our constitutional right to assembly does not obligate you to include supporters of hate groups. I am asking you to convince me that this rally does not represent the Republican Party. Because if you just shrug or shake your heads, then, gentlemen, they are a part of you.

I’m a registered Democrat, so you might not care what I think. But I can assure you that if an elected Democrat spoke in favor of this kind of hatred of anyone, let alone Americans, and no action was taken by party leadership when it was brought to their attention, I would change my registration that very day. In that circumstance, would your party be an alternative, or a party that tolerates this kind of rhetoric?

Please let me know how you will address this disturbing event. Thank you for your time.


Benjamin Gorman
Independence, Oregon

I will post their responses when I receive them.