Comments on economics, mystery fiction, drama, and art.

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

Banning the (Confderate) flag

Earlier tonight, I read an article about students at Lapel High School (in Lapel, IN) wearing Confederate-flag clothing to school.  The school reacted by banning such clothing; the students, according to the principal, “said they were trying to support the Southern heritage of the flag and not people’s opinion of what the flag may stand for.”

Leaving aside what is (to me, at any rate) appalling ignorance on the part of the students (or a lack of candor about their intentions)—the Confederate flag is not a symbol of southern heritage—it’s a symbol inextricably tied to the existence of slavery in the south and of a war that was fought to sustain slavery and to create conditions for the geographical expansion of slavery—I find myself oddly ambivalent about the whole situation.  You see, I am old enough to remember how political speech was, in another context, treated in schools across the United States.

In the 1960s, and especially in the latter part of the decade, school officials across the US responded to students who wore clothing displaying the peace symbol, not by discussing it with the
 
students, but by expelling them.  It took a lot of time, and a lot of trouble, before the courts recognized, and public officials (like school principals) were forced to accept that wearing such clothing was—and is—protected speech.  (So was, it may be remarkable to recall, clothing made from, or displaying the American flag.) 

The only appropriate response to protected political speech is not to try to suppress it; it is to respond to it (or ignore it).  At Lapel, the principal, as he describes it, tried to explain to the students why such clothing was inappropriate:  "We talked about the Southern heritage, and that for many people, that flag stands for racism. We emphasized they need to know what the message (is) they’re sending."  (Although I think he got the message of the Confederate flag wrong—it’s not –just—racism; it’s support for the institution of slavery, and, more specifically, slavery based on race.)  When the students returned the following day, again wearing Confederate flag clothing, the school banned it.  (The students were not personally disciplined.)

I understand the school’s actions.  (I don’t understand the student’ actions, but that’s because I do not share their apparent—as demonstrated by their actions—politics.)  But if we (I) can prohibit political speech of which we (I) disapprove, what grounds do we (I) have for protesting when someone bans our (my) political speech?  In the 1960s, people fought for their right to express their opposition to the war in Viet Nam (which was growing increasingly unpopular, but which still had a lot of support).  I think that, as a society, we now at least sort of agree that it was a war we should not have fought.  And, at least to some extent, we see the protests against that was as justified

Those students are wrong, I think, to believe that displaying the Confederate flag is a benign act.  It’s not.  Their politics are wrong, their beliefs are wrong.  Say I.  But the First Amendment gives people the right to be wrong.  So I wind up not knowing what to do.  Would shunning those students “work”?  I don’t know.  It could just confirm them in their beliefs.  Will banning the Confederate flag “work”?  I don’t know.  It may just drive the whole thing underground, so that it goes unaddressed, unconfronted, unresolved. 

The problem with believing in freedom of speech, unfortunately, is that we have to deal, somehow, over and over again, with things like this.

Monday, July 24, 2017

All those meetings

I am tired of hearing that the famous meeting between the team of Junior, Kushner, and Manafort and the Russian lawyer wound up being about Americans adopting Russian children.

The reason no adoptions are occurring is a Russian law prohibiting them. If Russia wants to resume adoptions, all it needs to do is *repeal that law.*
But, it might be objected, that law exists for a reason.

And what, we ask, is that reason?

It's that the US has a law restricting investments by American companies in Russian oil & gas extraction projects. And Russia insists that the US end those restrictions *before* it will *consider* resuming adoptions.

So that meeting? It was really an attempt to get the US to end economic sanctions against Russia. Nothing more.

Friday, June 09, 2017

"Representative" Government in the United States

I've wondered about this for a while, and the election in the UK finally stimulated me to do the math.  The 5 most populous countries in western Europe are France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and the UK, with a total population of about 316 million.  The US has a population of about 320 million.  So about the same population base.

In the national parliaments of the European countries, each parliamentary member represents, on average, about 112,000 people (ranging from a high of 131,000 in Spain (46.1 million people, 350 MP) to a low of 95,000 (Italy: 59.8 million people, 630 MP.

In the US, the average member of the House of Representative represents about 720,000 people, or abut 6.5 times as many constituents as in Europe.  (The US would been a Congress of about 2,700 members to have the same constituents-to-representative ratio as the US does.)  Just for comparison sake, here are some numbers for the US through its history:

..............Number of
..............Members of................People per

Year......Congress................Representative
1900..........357........................213,479
1910..........391........................235,879
1920..........435........................243,727
1930..........435........................283,224
1940..........435........................303,827
1950..........435........................347.875
1960..........435........................412,237
1970..........435........................467,361
1980..........435........................520,795
1990..........435........................571,747
2000..........435........................646,947
2010..........435........................709,769

Compared to countries in Europe, this suggests that for at least 100 years US member of Congress have represented significantly larger constituencies that has been the case for European members of parliaments.  We are, in that sense, a "small government" country and always have been.  It seems to me to be impossible for any Member of Congress to know any significant number of the people s/he is representing personally--today, that would mean knowing over 7,000 in some sense personally.  It's even more difficult to believe that a member of Congress knows personally very many people who actually support the other party.


Clearly a Congress of 2,700 people is preposterous (unwieldy, impossible to manage effectively, and way too expensive).  But a Congress of 435 people, it seems to me, is increasingly creating the reality of a Congress composed of people who are literally incapable of knowing whom they represent.  (And, no, I don't have a solution.)

Monday, May 29, 2017

Robert Heinlein, Concerning Stories Never Written: A Postscript to Revolt in 2100

As for the second notion, the idea that we could lose our freedom by succumbing to a wave of religious hysteria, I am sorry to say that I consider it possible.  I hope that it is not probable. But there is a latent deep strain of religious fanaticism in this, our culture; it is rooted in our history and it has broken out many times in the past. It is with us now; there has been a sharp rise in strongly evangelical sects in this country in recent years, some of which hold beliefs theocratic in the extreme, anti-intellectual, anti-scientific, and anti-libertarian.

It is a truism that almost any sect, cult, or religion will legislate its creed into law if it acquires  the political power to do so, and will follow it by suppressing opposition, subverting all education to seize early the minds of the young, and by killing, locking up, or driving underground all heretics.  This is equally true whether the faith is Communism or Holy-Rollerism; indeed it is the bounden duty of the faithful to do so.  The custodians of the True Faith cannot logically admit tolerance of heresy to be a virtue.
Nevertheless this business of legislating religious beliefs into law has never been more than sporadically successful in this country – Sunday closing laws here and there, birth control legislation in spots, the Prohibition experiment, temporary enclaves of theocracy such as Voliva’s Zion, Smith’s Nauvoo, a few others.  The country is split up into such a variety of faiths and sects that a degree of uneasy tolerance now exists from expedient compromise; the minorities constitute a majority of opposition against each other.
 
 Could it be otherwise here?  Could any one sect obtain a working majority at the polls and take over the country? Perhaps not – but a combination of a dynamic evangelist, television, enough money, and modern techniques of advertising and propaganda might make Billy Sunday’s efforts look like a corner store compared to Sears Roebuck. Throw in a depression for good measure, promise a material heaven here on earth, add a dash of anti-Semitism, anti-Catholicism, anti-Negroism, and a good large dose of anti-“furriners” in general and anti-intellectuals here at home and the result might be something quite frightening – particularly when one recalls that our voting system is such that a minority distributed as pluralities in enough states can constitute a working majority in Washington.
 
I imagined Nehemiah Scudder [the first Prophet--DAC] as a backwoods evangelist...[who was left] several millions of dollars...on their wat to fame and fortune.  Presently they needed stormtroopers; they revived the Ku Klux Kln in everything but the name...Blood at the polls and blood in the streets, but Scudder won the election.  The next election was never held.
 
Impossible?  Remember the Klan in the Twenties--and how far it got without even a dynamic leader.  Remember Karl Marx and note how close that unscientific piece of nonsense called Das Kapital has come to smothering out all freedom of thought on half of a planet, without--mind you--the emotional advantage f calling it a religion.  The capacity of the human mind for swallowing nonsense and spewing it forth in violent and repetitive action has never yet been plumbed.
 
Written in October 1952

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Personal history: Taxes and growing up

The other night, I was thinking about health care, and about the fairly common practice, as late as the 1950s, of primary care physicians (or, "family doctors," as they were called then) engaging in (informal, and mostly secret) price discrimination.  It was , as I say, common--doctors charged their low-income patients lower prices for office visits and often for simple, routine operations (tonsillectomies, for example), and their higher income patients higher prices.[1]  I was aware of this, even at the time, because my family was, in fact, a beneficiary of that price discrimination--we were low income, my father did not have health insurance through his employer, and my mother did not work outside the home for pay until around 1959 (when I was 11, and the youngest child in the family was 5 and in school half-days).

This led me to think, for some reason, about taxes.  In 1956/1957, my father was working as a credit manager for a wholesale plywood company.  The job was "white collar," but did not require significant skills; someone who could be employed as a bookkeeper could do the job.  At that point, he was 35/36 years old, with a BS (business, with a concentration in accounting) from a well-regarded local university.  He was making $300 a month.[2]  He was married, with four children. My mother, who at that time was not working, had a BA in music (with a minor in English) and an Indiana elementary/secondary teacher's license.  So what was the family tax situation?

He earned $3,600 per year.  At the time, the federal income tax provided personal exemptions of $600 per person for a family which was married and filing jointly.  Our family, then, had no federal income tax liability.  Indiana (where we lived) had a 2% personal income tax, applied to the family's adjusted gross income from the federal return.  Our AGI was $0, so we paid no state income tax.  The state had no sales tax until 1959.  Social Security tax was 2.25% per year, or $81 per year.

That leaves (besides excise taxes on cigarettes, gasoline, and alcohol) the property tax.  When my family moved to Indianapolis in 1952, my parents bought a fairly large 2 story house, for $9,600.  By 1967, the house was probably worth around $12,500, and the property tax rate (f my subsequent experience of living in Indianapolis is applicable) would probably have been (roughly) 2% of the market value of the property, or about $250 per year.  My best guess is that state excise taxes on gasoline, alcohol, and cigarettes probably cost our family another $150 or so per year. 

Adding that all up, I get something like $500 per year in federal, state, and local taxes, or about 14% of the total family income.  We were, in a very real sense, either very, very near the bottom of "lower middle income," or below that...we were most likely poor.  And our family doctor most likely knew that, and so we got a break on his rates.  (We were, I should note, a generally healthy family, so our health care expenses were probably quite low, but definitely not zero; I know that when my father broke his left thumb and wrist, paying the doctor and hospital bills were a big deal.)

There's no big point here, just a little family history...

[1] The practice is described here:
Reuben A. Kessel , "Price Discrimination in Medicine," The Journal of Law & Economics,Vol. 1 (Oct., 1958), pp. 20-53.

[2] The equivalent of about $2,600 per month today.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Student Debt

I posted a snarky comment on a blog I read  about levels of student debt in the 1970s and decided to take a look at actual data, which are here:
file:///C:/Users/donco/AppData/Local/Microsoft/Windows/INetCache/IE/KWD7VJ0E/Baum.pdf

Inflation-adjusted (2012 prices) debt per enrolled student (in 4-year colleges and universities):

Year......Average Debt
1971.......$1,006
1976........$   883
1981........$2,186
1986........$2,356
1991........$2,485
1996........$4,046
2001........$4,597
2006........$6,626
2011........$7,407
2013........$6,928


This is the average level of student debt, across all students, and includes students with no debt. The increase is extraordinary--averaged across all students, (inflation-adjusted) debt was about 7 times as high in 2013 as in 1971. The same report from which I extracted the above data also reports:
"Most discussions of average debt levels focus on debt per borrower, setting aside the significant number of college students who do not borrow at all, or at least do not rely on education loans. In 2007-08, 34% of bachelor’s degree recipients, 52% of associate degree recipients, and 37% of those who earned postsecondary certificates did not have education debt. Including these students may obscure some of the potential problems facing borrowers, but it paints a clearer picture of how students finance their education. For example, in 2007-08,median debt for bachelor’s degree recipients who borrowed was $20,000 and 10% borrowed more than $44,500. The median for all bachelor’s degree recipients was $11,000 and the 90th percentile was $39,300."

So in 2007-2008, 2/3 of all bachelor's degree recipients had some student debt. I can find no data for the early 1970s, but my own experience suggests that less than 1/3 of degree recipients in the early 1970s had student loans. So the median in 1971 was probably zero, whereas the median in 2007-08 was, according to t his report, $11,000 (looking only with students with some debt, the median was $20,000).

Friday, March 17, 2017

Lance Kenworthy and the Declining Employment Status of Men

Lance Kenworthy has written a two-part essay appearing in Foreign Affairs (Part 1Part 2) discussing the argument that the employment prospects for prime working-age men (age 25-54) have deteriorated.  His Figure 1 shows a decline in the employment-population ratio for men age 25-54 from about 94% in 1950 to about 85% in 2016.  (Over the same time period, the employment-population ratio for women rose from about 33% to about 71%; overall, the employment-population ratio has increased from about 63% to about 78%.)  In general, his discussion of factors proposed as causes specifically for the decline in men's employment-population ratio is reasonably comprehensive (he leaves out one major factor, of which more below) and quite good.

But this discussion is only partial, and, when it touches on differences between with and black men, does not deal with those differences in depth.  Below is a chart showing the employment-population ratios for white and black men, ages 25-54; unfortunately, the available data go back only to 1994.  What this chart shows is something that one would not expect, based on Kenworthy's discussion (all data from the BLS web site):



(Click to enlarge)
 

The remarkable aspect of this, to me, is that between 1994 and 2007, both for black males and for white males, the employment-population ratio was remarkably stable--between 75% and 80% for black males and between 88% and 90% for white males.  Unsurprisingly, employment dropped sharply for both groups in The Great Recession, and began to recover in only in 2009 for white males and in 2011 for black males.  Perhaps surprisingly, the recovery has actually been greater for black males--up from 66.4% in January 2011 to 74.9% in February 2017 (for white males, the recovery began from a low of 81.4% in January 2009--two years earlier than for black men--but has reached only 86.1% by February 2017). 

If anything represents a problem here, it  is not that the employment population ratio for prime-age men has continued to fall; it is that the recovery of employment since the trough of the recession has been so slow.  If there is an issue to discuss with men's employment, it is the contrast, during the same period, with women's employment-population ratios (also for blacks and whites, age 25-54:

(Click to Enlarge)
 

In contrast to men, women's employment fell much less (albeit more for black women than for white women) during the recession and recovered to their pre-recession levels by 2017 (while men's employment levels remained below their pre-recession levels).  The story, then, since 1994, is (1) relatively stable employment-population ratios for prime age men and women, disaggregated by race and (2) the recovery of women's employment, but not men's, to the pre-recession level. 

The policy challenge, then, might be something quite different from what Kenworthy focuses on (especially in part 2 of his discussion)--what needs to be done--or, perhaps, what should have been done during the recovery from 2009 to 2017--that would move men's employment prospects back to their pre-recession levels.  The number of jobs involved is large--about 1.860 million (3.9%) more jobs for prime-age white men, and 0.450 million (3.1%) more jobs for prime-age black men. 

An economy that had generated 2.3 million more jobs by February 2017 would look very different from the economy that we actually have.