Friday, July 01, 2011

On the Dominique Strauss-Kahn Case And Its Tentacles

It looks like the case against him has collapsed, in the legal sense, because of the alleged victim's credibility problems:
The sexual assault case against Dominique Strauss-Kahn is on the verge of collapse as investigators have uncovered major holes in the credibility of the housekeeper who charged that he attacked her in his Manhattan hotel suite in May, according to two well-placed law enforcement officials.
Although forensic tests found unambiguous evidence of a sexual encounter between Mr. Strauss-Kahn, a French politician, and the woman, prosecutors now do not believe much of what the accuser has told them about the circumstances or about herself.
Since her initial allegation on May 14, the accuser has repeatedly lied, one of the law enforcement officials said.
Senior prosecutors met with lawyers for Mr. Strauss-Kahn on Thursday and provided details about their findings, and the parties are discussing whether to dismiss the felony charges. Among the discoveries, one of the officials said, are issues involving the asylum application of the 32-year-old housekeeper, who is Guinean, and possible links to people involved in criminal activities, including drug dealing and money laundering.
The concept of "credibility" that is used in the above quote is a legal concept, as far as I understand, and it means that if the woman has lied to authorities in the past her statements in this context have less credibility. The most crucial one of the possible lies has to do with her past experiences of rape:
In addition, one of the officials said, she told investigators that her application for asylum included mention of a previous rape, but there was no such account in the application.
In her asylum petition, she told of being gang-raped but now admits the story was fabricated. However, she told prosecutors she was raped in the past in Guinea but under different circumstances than what she described during initial interviews, the letter said.
All of this has to do with legal interpretations of the case, not with what may have actually happened in this case. But before we go to the speculations part, let me just point out that if an alleged victim's credibility depends on her general past behavior and criminal connections, surely Dominique Strauss-Kahn's past history of sexually harassing women should affect his credibility, too. Unless one believes that it is only women who ever lie about sexual harassment or rape.

So what did actually happen? There is evidence of sexual intercourse between the two. The only question is whether this was a mutually consensual act or not.

There are at least three alternatives:

1. Dominique Strauss-Kahn was framed by his political enemies in France who somehow hired the alleged victim to get Strauss-Kahn into trouble:
Some of Mr. Strauss-Kahn’s allies even contended that he had been set up by his political rivals, an assertion that law enforcement authorities said there was no evidence to support.

2. Dominique Strauss-Kahn was framed by the alleged victim, either alone or with her boyfriend/fiancee, because she thought it would be useful for her asylum application or as a source of funds. This seems a view of many on the Internet, and the evidence most often given for it is this:
According to the two officials, the woman had a phone conversation with an incarcerated man within a day of her encounter with Mr. Strauss-Kahn in which she discussed the possible benefits of pursuing the charges against him. The conversation was recorded.
I assume "within a day" means after the events in Strauss-Kahn's hotel room. Had the telephone call taken place before that time there would be no case against Strauss-Kahn. But discussing the benefits of pursuing charges does not mean that the woman was not raped. Neither does it mean that she was raped.

3. Dominique Strauss-Kahn raped the woman pursuing charges. There is no videotape, there are no eye-witnesses, and this is why the relative credibility of the alleged victim and the alleged rapist come into play in the court system. But even women consorting with criminals can be raped. Women who have lied about rape in their asylum applications can be raped. Sex-workers can be raped.

I am also somewhat concerned that an illiterate (as far as I understand) hotel housekeeper from Guinea is held to credibility standards which may be appropriate to, say, Dominique Strauss-Kahn when it comes to her asylum application. If she really is illiterate, who wrote that application? Did she know what it contained?

It isn't that I want her to be freed of the concept of credibility. But her background, the desperation of people applying for the right to live in the United States and the possible power dynamics that might exist between her and her boyfriend/fiancee could matter here in a way which the simple interpretation of legal credibility fail to pay attention to.

That is as much as I can say about the actual legal case.

I have more to say about the tentacles of the case: There is a slight hint of something about that in this:
The case involving Mr. Strauss-Kahn has made international headlines and renewed attention on accusations that he had behaved inappropriately toward women in the past, while, more broadly, prompting soul-searching among the French about the treatment of women.

The revelations about the investigators’ findings are likely to buttress the view of Mr. Strauss-Kahn’s supporters, who complained that the American authorities had rushed to judgment in the case.
Perhaps there is no need to do soul-searching about the treatment of French women, eh? Robert Kuttner puts this much more strongly on his blog:
Instead of a belated victory for French feminism, l’affaire Strauss-Kahn and the French election could be a battle of the womanizers. Plus ca change!
As unreliable a witness as the accuser may turn out to be, there is still the lingering question of what actually happened in that hotel room. Money evidently did not change hands. And as we all know from the date-rape controversy, there is a complex spectrum that goes from consent to seduction to misunderstanding to coercion to outright rape.
From consent to seduction, Robert? Hmmm. He continues:
Last month, stories were making the rounds in Europe that Strauss-Kahn’s aides were in the habit of sending prostitutes to his room when he was in hotels out of town, you know, the way an underling might thoughtfully order flowers. The story is not proven, but it would help explain—not excuse—his behavior.
There’s a knock on the door, a young woman enters. Strauss-Kahn expecting his hooker du jour to emerge naked from his toilette, and despite her protests he doesn’t believe that she’s not there to service him. This could be the parsimonious explanation for otherwise almost inexplicable behavior. On the other hand, image the defense trying to use it in his trial. “You see, your honor, my client was expecting a prostitute and didn’t believe it was just the housekeeper.”

I guess that would be the "misunderstanding" stage of the Kuttner scale on rape.


The even onger tentacles have naturally to do with the insidious impact of cases like this on women who have been raped. Who would want to pursue charges in a climate where the MRAs tell us that women lie about rape All The Time and where the legal system might take your case to court only if you taught Sunday School, never left your home without a male relative in the past and had regular virginity tests which you passed with flying colors?

The overall effect is to discourage women from going to the police, and that means encouragement for anyone contemplating sexual violence, because they would be less likely to be caught and punished.

This is not a desirable outcome.
For important insights from media quotes about the case, go here.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Day Four of the Begging

*Turns readers upside-down and watches for any coins falling from their pockets."

Thanks for all who have contributed or who read here and would contribute when their ship comes home.

Meanwhile, in Kansas

A new law comes into force on July 1. Its intent is to make running an abortion clinic impossible:
The new law, which takes effect Friday, establishes new standards for abortion providers—standards apparently designed to make compliance difficult. The rules require changes to the size and number of rooms, compel clinics to have additional supplies on hand, and even mandate room temperatures for the facilities. Given that the rules were released less than two weeks before clinics were expected to be in compliance, many providers knew they wouldn't be able to obtain a license to continue operating. The laws, often called "targeted regulation of abortion providers," or TRAP laws, are an increasingly common legislative maneuver to limit access to abortion by redering it tough, if not impossible, for providers to comply.
Right now it looks like Planned Parenthood will be allowed a license.

The TRAP laws have been most effective. Abortion may be legal in theory but in practice is it much harder to obtain. Unless you are as well-off as probably most families of the Kansas legislature.

The Incredible Racially Bigoted Gay-Finding Fertile "Smell" Machine

That would be a heterosexual woman before menopause, when she ovulates, my friends. Yes, I have been reading popularizations again.

The first example:
If a woman tells you she can spot a gay man just by looking at him, don’t dismiss her claim out of hand.
Scientists say women really do have ‘gaydar’, which helps them spot whether a man is straight or gay just by looking at his face.
And the instinct is at its strongest when she is at her most fertile and in the mood for romance.
Their findings suggest that a woman’s ability to determine whether a potential male partner is straight or gay is linked to the impulse to have children.
And another way of talking about the same study:
Scientists have concluded that a woman’s ability to tell apart gay men from straight men increases when they are ovulating, according to a study published this week in the journal Psychological Science.
Another popularization links this study to the whole field of ovulation research (which is all done by people who are looking for evolutionary explanations, by the way, and not by people who are skeptical of them):
Is this the only way ovulation affects a woman's senses?
No. Previous studies showed that ovulating women can identify a man's face quicker than they can a woman's. Lesbians, however, can identify women quicker than men. And ovulating women are only half as likely to telephone their dads. Researchers explain that since incestuous relationships can produce offspring with birth defects, women unconsciously shun their fathers when they're at their most fertile. "Around ovulation, the mind is reallocating its resources in ways that are relevant evolutionarily," says Nicholas Rule, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Toronto and the study's lead author, as quoted bt TIME. "It shows us that the link between body and mind is greater than we often think."
I Googled Nicholas Rule. His work seems to be all about the recognition of gay and lesbian faces and the idea that this is linked to evolutionary pressures. But it's hard to see what fertility benefit lesbian women would have from identifying women's faces faster than men's faces.

What bothers me about this field of studies is not their findings but the fact that the field pretty much has nobody working in it who carries alternative theories. As far as I can tell, all the researchers studying ovulation have the same theoretical framework. They want to find support for that framework, not to criticize it.

And this is not quite the way science is supposed to proceed. The criticism is needed, too, but in the case of many evolutionary psychology (ep) topics it doesn't exist in the inside of the universities. Because you are EITHER an evolutionary psychologist with a particular set of prior theories OR you are not in the field at all.

I'd love someone from the outside of ep to take these ovulation studies and to try to reproduce their findings.

Then about that bigotry study. Here is one example of how it was popularized:
Then there's a study from Michigan State University researchers published in Psychological Science this month that says women are most biased against "men of a different racial or social group" when they are at their most fertile. Study author Carlos David Navarette says this is a conditioned psychological response to guard against the "male strangers" and "male invaders" who have posed the "greatest risk to their reproductive choice" throughout history. It's based on thousands of years of evolution, but still, nobody wants to believe they have a racist reproductive cycle.
And another example:
But the increase in bias occurs only when women perceive the men as physically threatening, says Carlos David Navarrete, assistant professor of psychology at Michigan State University.
Previous research has focused on men within the same racial and social groups. In those cases, women who were fertile had more positive impressions of men who were physically imposing.
The new results suggest that the same traits that fertile women find attractive in men of their same group may actually lead to more negativity against men when those traits are associated with men of a different racial or social group, says doctoral student Melissa McDonald, the study’s lead author.
“Our findings suggest that women’s prejudice, at least in part, may be a byproduct of their biology.”
Mmm. I'm trying to get my poor female head around this argument. Let's see.

First, women prefer physically intimidating men of their own type when they are ovulating, right? The types which might rape them, depriving them of that "reproductive choice." Second, they don't like physically intimidating men not of their own type when they are ovulating, because those men might rape them, depriving them of that "reproductive choice."

OK, I guess. But what evidence do we have that the raids prehistoric tribes suffered from were by men who looked different from the men in the tribe? How likely would it have been that there were such strong racial differences in those long-ago days? If this argument would work, it should differentiate between familiar men and strangers in general, but that is not what those photograph tests measure at all.

And why would the bias be less when a woman is not in the ovulation stage of her menstrual cycle? Don't raiders usually do stuff like kill the children, murder the men and so on, even if they left the women alive? It would seem that IF racial bias is linked to evolutionary pressures it should be humongous on all days of the month.

I'm not discussing the original studies here but how they are popularized. Still, I'm wondering about the lack of criticisms when it comes to the basic theories. Couldn't the popularizers find at least one critical commenter to make their summaries look at tiny bit less biased? And to report that "scientists have concluded that..."!!

I don't know. Writing about all this is like trying to carry water on a fork. But note that women's hormonal balance does change over the menstrual cycle and this could affect all sorts cognitive and emotional aspects without this implying that they are linked to fertility and its evolutionary imperatives. In other words, there are other possible theoretical bases for looking at data these kinds of studies discuss.

A final thought. I see an edifice being erected here where fertile women are responsible for a whole lot of stuff that goes on in the world, just by the way their stone age brainz decide things for them! This edifice is not because of actual facts about how power is divided and who actually determines mating outcomes, but because of the type of research evolutionary psychologists are eager to do.

Something to be aware of.

Echidne Sayings

This is a filler post. It might become a series! Today's thought:

After I'm dead, I want my tombstone to say this: Psst! I'm standing right behind you!

What would you pick for your stone?

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Day 3 of the Fund Drive

There is still time to feed me if you haven't done so in the last year. My thanks to all.

And The Other Inequality Fairy Tale: What Republicans Do And How It Works

This is the next-to-last post in my series about income and wealth inequality in the United States. To appreciate it fully, read the first fairy tale and the post on evidence before enjoying this one!

Remember those peasants, merchants and feudal lords from the first fairy tale? The peasants were made to believe that it is in their interest to get rid of any help from the feudal lord, that schools and physicians and fire prevention and policing are all things they should do themselves, out of their meager funds and with their scarce leisure time. The merchants were made to believe that getting rid of the fees they had to pay for town councils were money wasted, that having the scales tested at the markets was horrible bureaucracy and an unnecessary pain in the butt, that nobody needed a police force and so on. The feudal lords and ladies thought that they could squeeze the same amount of work out of the peasants, even if they were given less and less help each year.

What all this caused is told in the first fairy tale. That all this is happening in the United States was shown in the evidence post. This post shows how it is done, and mostly it is done by the Republican Party while the Democrats ride along as hand-wringing co-dependents, also pocketing a few feudal coins.

Let's begin with what the Republicans most want, based on what they advocate and work for. I have chosen only a few examples of the many possible ones, just to keep this post a manageable length.

1. Keep The Peasants Hungry

They work harder that way, right? You have to get work if you can't eat, and the work that is offered benefits the merchants and the nobility. Getting rid of subsidies for giving food for the poor is a twofer for the Republicans: The peasants will be leaner and more eager, and the taxes will go down for the rich.

An example:
In March 2011, a record 44.5 million Americans received food stamps, which was an 11.1% increase over the year before. Even more illustrative of the profound impact the economic recession has had on poor and working-class Americans is the fact that this represents a 64% increase over the number of recipients in March 2008.
Faced with this evidence of increased need, on 31 May, the House appropriations committee nevertheless approved the fiscal year 2012 agricultural appropriations bill, which includes $71bn for Snap – $2bn less than President Obama's recommendation. On 16 June, the bill was just barely approved with a 217-203 vote in the House.
Meanwhile, Wisconsin Republican and House budget committee
chairman Paul Ryan's "Path to Prosperity" budget proposes deep cuts to Snap, and even more fundamental changes to how it is administered:
"[P]rogrammes that subsidise food and housing for low-income Americans remain dysfunctional, and their explosive growth is threatening the overall strength of the safety net."

His plan would turn Snap into a block grant programme in 2015 (along with Medicare, starting 2013), meaning the funds would be delivered to the individual states with only loose stipulations about how they are to be used. The belief is that this improves flexibility and promotes innovation and creativity in the delivery of federal funds. But coupled with Republicans' intention to slash Snap by 20% over the next ten years – or $127bn, as the Centre on Budget and Policy Priorities calculates – Ryan's plan could leave millions in danger of going hungry.
How odd that the safety of the safety net is something Ryan worries about at the very moment when the safety net is needed! It's as if the net under the circus acrobats should be taken up to save it when the acrobats are actually performing.

But otherwise Ryan's arguments make perfect sense if you put them into the peasants/merchants/nobility framework. He wants to cut the spending on anything that benefits the peasants, especially the very poorest of them. Watch the 60 Minutes program on homeless children to see what it is the Republicans want to cut. They are also successfully demolishing the very successful nutritional program for poor pregnant women, infants and children, WIC. That this appears to be in direct contradiction to their supposed "pro-life" stance is only an illusion as well become clear later.

Republicans justify these moves by we-cannhNOT-afford (though we can afford wars and wars and wars) and by the incentive effects: Make being poor scarier and even those not yet poor will struggle harder not to fall into poverty! That this creates docile and hard-working and non-complaining serfs is just a side-effect.

And of course all this increases inequality in the United States.

2. Keep The Merchants and Feudal Lords Rich and the Peasants Poor

Keeping the peasants hungry helps with this, too, but the Republican Party is much more open about its desire to make the income and wealth distributions even more skewed. Here Michelle Bachmann tells us what she thinks should be done:
Representative Michele Bachmann, a Minnesota Republican planning to seek the party's presidential nomination, said she would stoke U.S. economic growth by cutting taxes on corporate income and capital gains and considering elimination of the minimum wage.
Corporate tax rates should be significantly reduced from a maximum 35 percent and capital gains taxes should be eliminated, Bachmann said in an interview on CBS's "Face the Nation" today. Congress should also reevaluate the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, she said.
Get it? This is spoken about quite openly. We should tax the merchants and feudal lords and ladies less and we should be allowed to pay the peasants even less than they currently earn. Capital gains taxes should be abolished! Capital gains are something the peasants seldom gain.

The current Republican goal to Kill All Unions is part and parcel of their push towards greater inequality. Unionized workers have higher earnings and more rights, and therefore unions Must Die. That way every tiny worker will negotiate with -- oh, say -- Wal-Mart to get a fair labor contract! It's fair-and-balanced! Two parties at the table and all. Hence unions must go. That they also fund the shadow Republicans (Democratic Party) is another reason for the Republicans to kill them.

All this increases inequality in the United States. Which, quite honestly, is its intended effect, because the Republican Party is the party of the feudal lords and the rich merchants.

But what the Republicans argue that cutting taxes provides jobs. If you give the one percent an even bigger and bigger slice of the overall wealth and income cakes, they will somehow magically bake all of us a bigger cake. That this doesn't seem to happen much in reality is a never-mind.

3. Shred The Nets Of Civil Society

This is the most important point of my post series. The Republican Party indeed desires to get rid of old-age insurance, health care for the elderly, public schooling for children and pretty much all shared concerns except the legal system and the military. Those two are excused and allowed to survive because they are needed to protect the rich and their wealth. The rich don't need public schools and don't use them, the rich don't need old-age pensions or subsidized health care. They need none of that, and they don't want to fund it.

But given the inequality in this country, the overall levels of all public services will decline to Third World levels if the rich are allowed to bail out. But then, of course, the United States already has Third World levels of wealth and income inequality.

The device for shredding the civil society is to focus on government deficit reduction, combined with all these other moves. It's the WE-can't-afford argument, shouted over and over and over again, even though the "rainy day" for which we are to save and scrimp is, in fact, today!

An example of the arguments the Republicans use:
Congressional Republicans are standing firm on their principle that for every dollar of increase in the national debt limit, President Obama and the Democrats must agree to a dollar of spending cuts. That means if President Obama wants to increase the debt limit by $2 trillion to $3 trillion, then he will have to agree to $2 to $3 trillion in future spending cuts. But President Obama and the Democrats are insisting they won’t agree to any spending cuts unless the Republicans agree to tax increases.

Most people don’t know that sweeping tax increases have already been enacted in current law for 2013. In that year, all of the tax increases of ObamaCare go into effect, and the Bush tax cuts expire, which President Obama has refused to renew for singles making over $200,000 per year, and couples making over $250,000. Together, these job killing tax policies would sharply raise tax rates on the nation’s small businesses, job creators and investors for virtually every major federal tax.

The top two income tax rates would rise by nearly 20%, the capital gains tax rate would rise by nearly 60%, the tax on corporate dividends would nearly triple, the death tax would rise from the grave with a 55% top rate, and the Medicare payroll tax rate would increase by 62% for these taxpayers. This is on top of the current corporate tax rate of nearly 40% nationwide on average. Even Communist China has a 25% corporate tax rate, with the average in the socialist European Union below that.

Can you hear the bards hired by the feudal lords and ladies singing? "Obamacare", "small businesses", "job creators", "death tax rising from the grave", "socialist European Union." Yes, the bards sing to the peasants and tell them to identify with the nobility and the merchants. Otherwise the darkness of socialism will overtake them.

I have written earlier that the actual income taxes corporations in this country pay are quite low because of the large number of allowed deductions. The initial tax rate isn't a meaningful basis for comparisons but the actual taxes firms pay.

And listen to this bard about those high tax rates. He doesn't sing about the high wealth differences there or about the fact that doubling one's taxes when one makes a million a year doesn't hurt anywhere as much as children going to sleep hungry because we decided not to double those taxes. He doesn't mention that the "death taxes" only affect a miniscule number of very rich families every year, and that it is not death that is taxed but inheritance.

Your views might differ, but do remember that the bards are paid by the rich merchants and feudal lords.

Meanwhile, in Ohio

Embryos got more rights and women less rights. Watch the justifications the lawmakers give:

The Think Progress post lists some of them but not the comments the last "gentleman" made. I think those are the most important ones, because he is willing to go into that frightening hinterland where women are Russian dolls, always with a possible other person inside them, and all fertile women must be policed to make sure that the invisible person gets rights.

This means that it is time for me to write that post, about the world we will all live in once zygotes are given full legal personhood rights, the world where any fertile woman may suddenly be raped and -- presto! -- she now has another person using her body, with rights that seem to supersede any that she might be given. That other person has rights over her body, even rights to force her not to get treatment for serious illnesses. Everything a pregnant woman does will fall under the possible heading of child endangerment. If she eats the wrong stuff, off with her head (or at least a long prison sentence). If she exercises too much or not at all, off with her head!

That all women are potentially aquaria in the eyes of the forced-birthers will mean that women can never have equality with men. Men cannot have miscarriages which might be subject to police investigations, men cannot be raped to force them to have another person inside them, men cannot be blamed for child endangerment if they take medications which help their own body or their minds.

As the last "gentleman" on the video so sweetly put it, the forced-birthers' view of the world is one where women don't have rights to control their own bodies because those bodies just might house another person.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Dismantling Civil Society: How It Is Done in Ohio

Isn't it nice for the news to give me fresh material, every day, in direct support of the two posts I have so far written on inequality in the United States, the fairy tale one and the evidence one?

Now Ohio is showing us how it is done. Yes, it sounds like a Ringwraith attack on the poor hobbits in Tolkien's Lord of The Rings, but these hobbits voted the Ringwraiths in.

Here is what the Republicans have done in Ohio:
State senators voted today to approve Ohio's nearly $56 billion, two-year state budget bill, a far-reaching collection of policy changes that would privatize state operations, overhaul Medicaid, limit unions, ban abortions at public hospitals and provide tax breaks on investments, income and estates.
The sweeping spending blueprint, strongly influenced by new Republican Gov. John Kasich, emerged from compromise talks between the GOP-controlled House and Senate shortly before midnight last night. In last-minute changes, lawmakers voted to allow private oversight of the Ohio Turnpike but not the Ohio Lottery and added provisions tying pay for teachers to a new evaluation system to be developed by the state Education Department.


Labor unions hit hard by many of the budget's provisions -- including those that impose a merit pay system on teachers, suspend prevailing wage requirements at public construction jobs, and allow privatization of five state-run prisons and the Turnpike -- have blasted the bill as anti-jobs.
There's more stuff about handing the state's assets over to the private section to manage, such as a desire to privatize or semi-privatize the state colleges.

Pay attention to the winners and losers. It is the one percent on the top of the wealth and income distributions who win. They get more tax breaks and cheaper labor.

The losers include workers whose earnings will decline with the increased obstacles to unions and fewer legal protections, the poor in general and everyone who worries about the oversight of privatized prisons or privatized turnpikes.

The effects of a budget like this are to increase income inequality in Ohio, and Ohio is simply a fairly typical blueprint of what Republican-ruled state governments are doing all over the country.

And what about that abortion ban? Hmmm. It's the price the Republicans pay for their power. You have to give the "peasants" something to make them vote for their feudal lords and their own demise, and that something is essentially a ban on abortions. Everyone is happy now! The society will go down the drain but at least every sperm is sacred! Or nearly so.

My Annual Fund Drive: Day Two

A reminder to pay the piper if you can. Goddessing is not cheap.

Thank you.

Back To The Gilded Age: Inequality in the United States. The Evidence.

Remember the fairy tale I wrote about income inequality? Here's the big revelation:

It is not a fairy tale. It is what is happening right now, here in the United States, and this post is about the evidence.

Now, "evidence" is one of those words which puts people to sleep. That's because we are programmed to do just that. So let's see if we can look at the evidence from some more interesting angles.

Wealth Inequality

Let's begin by looking at wealth. The pie chart for the distribution of wealth in the US in 2007 is shown below. For the time being, forget about it showing wealth. Assume that it is a picture of a giant strawberry-chocolate cake (from above) which is the dessert for a one hundred person block party.

How should we divide that cake between the hundred eaters?

The chart shows us that the wealth cake in the United States is divided in a way which translates to the following slices at our block party:

One guest gets a bit more than one third of the cake, another nine get four tenths between them, and yet another forty guests get to share a quarter of the cake. The rest, fifty guests, are essentially given but crumbs.

What's so bad about this? Perhaps the one person who got a third deserves that third. Perhaps she or he has worked that much harder than any one of those fifty who are now licking the crumbs off the plate? But how likely is that, really? What is the incentive system which would require HALF of all the guests to be given only crumbs? Are half of all Americans so lazy and shiftless? Could it truly be the case that some can work so many times harder than others that they deserve to almost monopolize the cake?

You figure that out. But maybe next year a different person will be the one who gets one third of the cake? Maybe this year's greedy hog will be among the crumb-getters of the future? In other words, what if we had good social mobility so that the winners and losers would change fairly easily? If nothing else, that would give hope to those surviving on crumbs.

Sadly, social mobility in the United States is harder than in most European countries.

Remember the term "ownership economy?" It's a Republican term which tried to make us think that we are all now capitalists, owners of wealth. But we are not, as the next pie chart shows us:

This particular cake is even more unequally divided than the general wealth cake: One person (one percent) gets more than half of it!

An income cake would show similar cutting patterns. They are less extreme in their inequality, because non-labor income accrues mostly to the rich.

Taxes and Transfers

All that talks about wealth in general and its unequal distribution. But we know that the rich pay more taxes, that the government transfers some money to the poor, that there are (or used to be) support systems such as Social Security, Medicaid and Food Stamps. The value of those should be taken into account before we compare final measures of inequality.

This graph compares the taxes and transfers in a bunch of countries. The horizontal axis measures reductions in income inequality that are achieved through these means. Note where the United States stands.

Mmm. And here's what has happened to the taxes over the last fifty years:

Which partly explains why:

Inequality Is Rising

Like this for income in general:

Or like this for the distribution of wealth:

Or to sum it roughly as my source did, the rich are getting richer and everyone else is getting poorer or running much faster just to stay put.

But don't we all read about the need to attract more firms to the United States? To cut corporate income taxes, to reduce regulation, to lower labor costs? Isn't all this inequality just a necessary part of the new global economy?

The Global Competitive Imperative

This is total hogwash. First, the actual taxes paid by firms in the US are among the lowest in the OECD countries, whatever the initial tax percentage might be, because of all those clever deductions which are allowed. Second, the regulation here is certainly no tighter than in those European countries which somehow manage to have much less wealth and income inequality.

Third, and finally, the US system gives workers far fewer legal benefits than those regarded as obvious in other countries. Take the example of paid maternity leave. Here is a map showing where the United States stands with respect to such a horrible labor-cost-increasing requirement:

Or the case of paid annual vacation days:

How terribly unfair to force American firms to compete against foreign firms which actually have to pay their workers for vacation time and parental leaves! So unfair.

What About The Rising Tide

Does a rising tide lift all boats? That's the saying which means that if we could just increase the societal strawberry-chocolate cake enough, then even a very thin slice would be plenty. But it doesn't quite work that way if the top on percent keeps hogging a bigger and bigger slice whenever the cake grows (if it grows). And remember that we are not just the eaters of that cake but also its bakers. Those who own the bakery see their profits rising while those of us who work near the hot ovens see their incomes either fall in real terms or stay stagnant.

Or put into yet different metaphoric terms: The rising tide floats the yachts real well but the waves this causes drown all the smaller sea vessels.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Today's Gift From The Gang Of Five in the Supreme Court

This is aimed at protecting the merchant classes and at hurting the peasants (see the fairy tale):
The Supreme Court gave the pharmaceutical industry a pair of victories, shielding the makers of generic drugs from most lawsuits by injured patients and declaring that drug makers have a free-speech right to buy private prescription records to boost their sales pitches to doctors.

In both decisions Thursday, the court's conservative bloc formed the majority, and most of its liberals dissented.

About 75% of the prescriptions written in this country are for lower-cost generic versions of brand-name drugs. Federal law requires the makers of brand-name drugs to label their products with FDA-approved warning information and to update the warnings when reports of new problems arise.

But in a 5-4 decision, the high court said this same legal duty to warn patients of newly revealed dangers did not extend to the makers of copy-cat generic drugs.

Hmm. What recourse do patients have now? Better to avoid the generics altogether! And that will benefit the powerful pharmaceutical industry.

The Problem With Michelle Bachmann

She is a Republican presidential candidate with rather extreme views on most things, but that is not the problem I want to point out here. It's something more fundamental. Matt Taibbi:
When Bachmann finished her studies in Oklahoma, Marcus [her husband] instructed her to do her postgraduate work in tax law — a command Michele took as divinely ordained. She would later profess to complete surprise at God's choice for her field of study. "Tax law? I hate taxes," she said. "Why should I go and do something like that?" Still, she sucked it up and did as she was told. "The Lord says: Be submissive, wives, you are to be submissive to your husbands."
And this is THE problem for fundamentalist Christian women who wish to enter politics. They are expected to be governed by their husbands. In Bachmann's case this must mean that if she became the president of the United States, it would really be Marcus who would be governing the country.

How do women like Bachmann get around this pretty big problem? You guessed it, I bet. They appeal to an even higher power than the boss in the family: God. If God tells Michelle to do it, she can bypass that submissive-to-husband bit:
The slate of five had been put together by a local Republican kingpin named Bill Pulkrabek, who this spring was jailed for domestic assault after he allegedly pulled his mistress down a set of stairs by her hair. According to Pulkrabek, Bachmann initially came to him asking for advice on how to defeat Gary Laidig, a moderate Republican state senator, but he advised her to run for the school board first. "We talked about knocking Gary off later," Pulkrabek recalled. And indeed, right after the school-board fiasco, Bachmann decided to take on Laidig.
In her later telling of the story, however, Bachmann substituted a higher authority than Bill Pulkrabek. It was God, she insisted, not a girlfriend-abusing politician, who instructed her to get involved in politics. "As if we didn't have enough to do, He called me to run for the Minnesota State Senate," she said in 2006. "I had no idea, no desire to be in politics. None."

All this clarifies the god-mentions of Bachmann and Palin. They have to do that, within their subcultures, because otherwise they would be expected to shut up and be governed by their husbands. Oddly, this resembles the way medieval women in the church acquired some independence: By stating that God spoke directly to them, poor, inferior creatures though they were, with no interest in sainthood.

My Annual Fund Drive

This will last the whole week. It's time to pay the piper, my sweet and erudite readers. Or rather, to help me with my computer and chocolate rations. You can click the begging button on the right. That will take you to my other site with various options.

Don't give if you have no money to give or if you already gave. Read and click instead. My sincerest thanks to all of you.

Once Upon A Time. A Fairy Tale About Income Inequality: The Story So Far

NOTE: This post is the first in a short series about American income inequality and why we should really, really care about it.

Once upon a time there was a country where the peasants and serfs did fairly well. They had to work hard, true, but they got to keep at least a portion of their own harvest and the annual days they had to work for the feudal lords were bearable in number.

When they got old and sick the feudal lords and ladies brought them doctors and baskets of food. In some towns the children of the poor even had schools paid by the towns or the feudal lords. They were taught to read and write and to do simple sums so that they could work in the workshops of the wealthy.

Those included not only the feudal lords but also the merchant classes. The market places were booming and the local authorities made sure that the scales they used were fair. Town councils made sure that the water was clean and that the sewers didn't breed infectious diseases. They also ran orphanages, fire brigades and police forces. All this was viewed as natural and proper by most in the society.

Sometimes a male peasant could rise up to the merchant class or even become a feudal lord! No, the system was not perfect. Serfs had little power and much work, women were sometimes treated as cattle (not a misspelling) and the law was not the same for the poor and the rich. But it was a better system than what followed.

And what did follow? Something ominous and frightening, something that appeared to have no real cause: A collapse of the whole society.

The stories told of those events depends on the teller. But what we know is this: The feudal lords suddenly had their bards sing about the ungrateful and lazy peasants, the great expense they had to keep the system going, the unfairness of having to care for the sick and infirm servants after they no longer could serve.

And what we know is this: The merchant classes would complain to each other of their trials tribulations over pints of friendly beer: Having to fill in forms, having to refuse good bargains in food stuffs just because they might be adulterated, having to maintain the scales, having to endure the inspectors of the town councils. All that paper! All that ink! Who needed it? And good help was too expensive.

But what we do not know is this: What did the peasants sing about? Did they sing at all? Were they too tired to sing, too uninformed to know about the growing disgruntlement of their betters?

What is left as a record of their complaints has to do with a desire for more religion and less help. What we are told is that the peasants saw themselves as the feudal lords and ladies because they had a small patch of ground to farm. Or perhaps they thought that their sons would be the next feudal lords, the new generation of merchants? They believed that everything was too expensive, that this was why they had to work so many days for the feudal lords and ladies, that this was why they couldn't keep more of their harvest.

Whatever might have gone on among the peasants (and the tales are mostly silent about that), we know that the bards were sent out to sing to them about the poor princes and princesses who were mistreated, about the problems of the rich and about their solutions. The peasants were taught to identify with the lords and the ladies!

The bards sang beautifully, the notes easily entering the minds of the peasants, lulling them into believing that they were only a step removed from belonging to the takers rather than the givers, and that they, too, deserved more available for the taking.

That all this taking would have to come from the peasants themselves, did anyone wonder about that? Perhaps some did, and perhaps that is the reason why the priests were sent out, to preach about degeneracy, the anger of the sky god, the need to repent, the need to control those below even the peasants. There would be witch burnings. There would be public entertainment for all!

These versions are confusing, seen through a mist, perhaps all wrong.

But what happened next all agree on: This society decided that having a society was too expensive! It was too expensive to guarantee clear water, it was too expensive to take care of the educational needs of the peasants, it was too expensive to make sure the merchants' scales were fair or that the meat they sold wouldn't stink. All too expensive! The police forces were too expensive, the fire brigades were too expensive. Everyone with power agreed, everyone ignorant agreed, and the country changed. What we would call taxes and public spending essentially disappeared.

The lords of the manor houses liked the initial changes. They were no longer expected to pay for the peasant schools or to visit the sick or elderly peasants. If those lazy and ignorant creatures needed physicians or schools they should pay for them out of their own pocket. They should pull themselves up with their bootstraps!

The merchant class also liked the initial changes. Suddenly a clever but dishonest man could make a whole lot of money overnight and disappear with the takings! Or even better, did not have to disappear with them because there were no longer any police officers to investigate such cases. The honest merchants were relieved of the burdens of bureaucracy. They could concentrate on making profits and taking care of their own lives. They agreed that up-by-the-bootstraps and every-man-for-himself were the proper foundations of the new society.

The peasants... The peasants couldn't quite understand why everything got so much worse. They were cheated in the market place, and the trips there and back were dangerous because of pickpockets and gangs of hooligans.

Nobody came to put off the fires which were common in those days, and a family who lost their home in a fire had no help from the feudal lord or the town council (which was disbanded) but was expected to rebuild it without help or to move out of the community. And they didn't understand the bootstraps concept, what with not owning boots in the first place.

Let's look at the society after the change happened. Note that the lords and the merchants are happy, the peasants are unhappy and confused. But in the next round the merchants become unhappy, too.

Why? Because the peasants are now too scared to come to the marketplace, both because of the crime and because of the bad weights and adulterated produce, and because many of them are now poorer, having to care for the sick and the infirm themselves, having to help each other rebuild the houses that fires burnt down.

The merchants now make less money. Their customers can't tell bad and deceitful sellers from good sellers, so all merchants suffer. As their incomes decline, some start slip-sliding down in the class system. Just one fire, just one burglary, and down the whole family goes: Out of the door with bundles on their backs. It may be that the feudal lord will accept them as servants or serfs.

Finally even the feudal lords and ladies will suffer. The peasants can no longer read and write which makes them less profitable workers. When infectious diseases strike the area, the peasants die like flies and those who survive are too weak to work well enough. The standard of living at the manors goes down because of all this. The manors may try to raise the peasants' annual required work days or tax them more in other ways to return to the old good days, but those moves will simply initiate the next round in the societal destruction.

What a silly story, you might mutter. You forgot all about the foreign wars the feudal lords will wage. Yes, I forgot about those, but the story works even in their absence. It works, whether some of the peasants indeed were lazy good-for-nothings exploiting the system, and it works even if the feudal lords and ladies and merchants were all good people except for having decided that a society is no longer affordable.

Because it is not only in this fairy tale that the concept of a society absolutely requires some shared concerns and some shared control. Once we dispense with it bad things happen.

The ending of this fairy tale: Best to pick your own ending, because the tale is not finished. But bad things are likely to happen before we can all live happily ever after.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

A Cool Critter Picture

This is nick carraway's Gracie enjoying the snow. Carpe diem.

A Guest Post by Anna: A Literary Canon of Women Writers, Part Five: The Tenth Century to the Eleventh Century

(Echidne's note: Earlier parts of the series can be found here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4.)

Rābi'a bint Ka'b al-Quzdārī, popularly known as Rābi'a Balkhī and
Zayn al-'Arab, was a semi-legendary tenth-century Persian poet,
possibly the first female poet in the history of New Persian poetry.
Her name and biography appear in 'Awfī's lubābu 'l-albāb, 'Attār's
maṭnawīyat, and Djāmī's nafahātu 'l-uns. She is said to have been
descended from a royal family, her father Ka'b al-Quzdārī, a chieftain
at the Samanid court, reportedly descended from Arab immigrants who had
settled in eastern Persia during the time of Abu Muslim. She was one of
the first poets who wrote in modern Persian, and she was, along with
Mahsatī Dabīra Ganja'ī, among a very few female writers of medieval
Persia to be recorded in history by name. When her father died, his son
Hāres, brother of Rābi'a, inherited his position. According to legend,
Hāres had a Turkic slave named Baktāsh, with whom his sister was
secretly in love. At a court party, Hāres heard Rābi'a's secret. He
imprisoned Baktāsh in a well, cut the jugular vein of Rābi'a and
imprisoned her in a bathroom. She wrote her final poems with her blood
on the wall of the bathroom until she died. Baktāsh escaped the well,
and as soon as got the news about Rābi'a, he went to the governor’s
office and assassinated Hāres. He then committed suicide.
Her love affair with the slave Baktāsh inspired Qājār poet Rezā
Qulī-Khān Ḥedāyat to compose his Baktāshnāma.

Michitsuna no Haha (c.935-995) was a Heian period writer in Japan. Her
true name is unknown to history. The term "Michitsuna no Haha"
literally translates to "Michitsuna's mother".
She wrote the "Kagero Diary" about her troubled marriage to Fujiwara no
Kaneie; it is a classic of Japanese literature and is available in
English as "The Kagero Diary: A Woman's Autobiographical Text from
Tenth-Century Japan (Michigan Monographs in Japanese Studies),"
translated by Sonja Arntzen.

Hrotsvitha (c. 935 – c. 1002), also known as Hroswitha, Hrotsvit,
Hrosvit, and Roswitha, was a 10th-century German secular canon of the
Benedictine Order, as well as a dramatist and poet who lived and worked
in Gandersheim, in modern-day Lower Saxony. Her name, as she herself
attested, is Saxon for "strong voice." She wrote in Latin, and is
considered by some to be the first person since antiquity to compose
drama in the West. She wrote six plays in rhymed prose, two historical
epics, and eight legends in verse. One legend she wrote in verse,
the story of Theophilus, was one of the most popular written in any
language. It describes how the young archdeacon was disappointed about
his promotion. He consults a Jewish sorcerer and is taken to a meeting
of devils, renounces God in a written document, then repents. He is
rescued by the Virgin Mary. The most well known and original of the
works of Hrotsvit are her six plays. She writes in her preface to them
that her writing will appeal to many who are attracted by the charm of
style.. Her plays are widely available in English in the book "The
Plays of Hrotswitha of Gandersheim", by Hrotswitha of Gandersheim and
Larissa Bonfante (Jan 15, 1979). Her plays feature the chastity and
perseverance of Christian women and contrast these to the Latin
portrayal of women as weak and emotional.

Sei Shōnagon (c. 966-1017) was a Japanese author and a court lady who
served the Empress Teishi, also known as Empress Sadako, around the
year 1000 during the middle Heian period. She is best known as the
author of "The Pillow Book", which is a book of observations and
musings recorded by her during her time as court lady. The book was
completed in the year 1002. In it she included lists of all kinds,
personal thoughts, interesting events in court, poetry, and some
opinions on her contemporaries. While it is mostly a personal work,
Shōnagon's writing and poetic skill makes it interesting as a work of
literature, and it is valuable as a historical document. There are
several English translations of the book, a notable one being "The
Pillow Book", translated by Meredith McKinney in 2006.

Murasaki Shikibu (c. 973 – c. 1014 or 1025), or Lady Murasaki as she is
often known in English, was a Japanese novelist, poet, and a maid of
honor of the imperial court during the Heian period of Japan. "Murasaki
Shikibu" was not her real name, which is unknown. Some scholars have
suggested that her given name might have been Fujiwara Takako, recorded
as a name of a lady-in-waiting ranked shōji on the 29th day of the 1st
month, Kankō 4 (February 19, 1007) according to Midō Kampaku Ki, a
diary written by Fujiwara no Michinaga, although this theory has not
been supported by many others. Her own diary, The Murasaki Shikibu
Diary, states that she was nicknamed "Murasaki" ("Violet") at court,
after a character in her novel "The Tale of Genji". "Shikibu" refers to
her father's position in the Bureau of Ceremony (shikibu-shō). She is
best known as the author of "The Tale of Genji", written in Japanese
between about 1000 and 1008. While universally hailed as a masterpiece,
the precise classification and influence of "The Tale of Genji" has
been a matter of debate; it is variously called the world's first
novel, the first modern novel, the first psychological novel or the
first novel still to be considered a classic. It is widely available in
English, with the most recent complete English translation being "The
Tale of Genji", translated by Royall Tyler. This translation also
includes notes, glossaries, character lists, and a chronology to enable
the reader to better appreciate the richness of this classic of world
literature. Murasaki Shikibu's diary is available in a 1999 English
translation by Richard Bowring, called "Diary of Lady Murasaki."

Izumi Shikibu (born circa 976) was a mid Heian period Japanese poet.
She is a member of the Thirty-six Medieval Poetry Immortals, a group of
Japanese poets of the Nara, Asuka, and Heian periods selected by poet
Fujiwara no Kintō as exemplars of Japanese poetic ability. There are
five female poets among them. Izumi was the contemporary of Murasaki
Shikibu (who had high praise for her work) at the court of Joto Mon'in,
and was perhaps the greatest poet of her time. Some of her poems are
available in English in the book "The Ink Dark Moon: Love Poems by Ono
no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu, Women of the Ancient Court of Japan,” by
Jane Hirshfield and Mariko Aratani (1990). A diary she wrote is also
available in English as part of “Diaries of Court Ladies of Old Japan,”
translated by Annie Shepley Omori and Kochi Doi.

Sugawara no Takasue no musume (born 1008), also known as Lady
Sarashina, was a Japanese author. "Sugawara no Takasue no musume" means
a daughter of Sugawara no Takasue. Her real name is unknown. She is
known for her classic Heian period travel diary, the "Sarashina nikki".
In his later years, poet Fujiwara no Teika admired it enough to copy it
out for his own perusal. It stands out for its descriptions of her
travels and pilgrimages and is unique in the literature of the period,
as well as being one of the first in the genre of travel writing; it
intersperses personal reflections, anecdotes and lyrical poems with
accounts of her travels and descriptions of the Japanese countryside.
It is available in English as "As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams:
Recollections of a Woman in 11th-Century Japan", translated by Ivan