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Smithsonian Mag - Bunker Hill and Women in the Middle East

Both Michelle and I have been loving the Smithsonian magazine, which we became acquainted with after Uncle Seanly gifted a subscription to us. We've been renewing every since - one of the few magazines we both read regularly.

Of the many article that have captured my attention, the true story of Bunker Hill and the issues women face in a changing Middle East.

I've heard several interviews with Nathaniel Philbrick and already planned to get the book but the article only increased my interest. I thought the piece on women in the Middle East was thoughtful and a reminder that the radical Islamists are afraid of women, not unlike the conservative "Christians" in this country that want to shackle women as well. Of course, our radical "Christians" are not blowing themselves up to make their point, but then the radical Islamists don't have Fox News working for them, giving them an outlet for their insanity.

End of digression. I recommend those articles...

The IUD and the Individual

Wired covered the recent history of the IUD - a birth control device that is having a strong renaissance presently. I'm intrigued for a number of reasons - over the longer term, it is possibly the most cost-effective and reliable birth control method for people who don't simply deny their human urges (often ineffectively...). But it comes with a relatively high upfront cost, which was limited its popularity.

I found the role of Eve Espey in the article particularly inspiring. It shows what can happen when one takes initiative and the ways a single individual can make an impact when everything lines up.

Toppling Saddam's Statue

Remember that iconic video of Saddam Hussein's statue toppling when we were all amazed at the unstoppable might of the US military?

At the time, many of us knew it was a fraud... not so much faked, but a fraud. Wide shots of the square where it happened showed only a few Iraqis, not the many that were suggested by tight shots framing the small groups (I know about this stuff, one of my jobs is to make half-filled sports events look like they are filled to capacity).

But to suggest it was an organized event planned and executed by a cynical military psy ops or the Bush Administration was always a conspiracy too far for me. Finally, we know what exactly happened there: On the Media did a segment on it. Listen to it or read the transcript.

The upshot is this: US media was invested in the war and wanted to portray it in certain ways -- or risk being the odd outlet out. We have serious problems in this country, largely because of how we have organized the dissemination of media. The outlets tasked with spreading information must focus first and foremost on profits. Not just making profits, but increasing profits every year -- and that does not lend itself to good journalism. The result is a public embarrassingly uninformed public, who are increasingly more confident of how much they know even as they know less and less.

As for this segment, it reminds us that truth is far stranger than fiction.

Lessig Video: Fixing Congress

Sure it has been 3 weeks since I wrote anything on the blog. I been busy - big report at work, spring sports in photography (and what a spring for it!) and wedding planning.

But I found something well worth watching in its 1 hour entirety: a great presentation by Larry Lessig. If it is too long for you, watch it in chunks of time you would have used reading my ramblings if I were posting any...

He spends a lot of time explaining how we got to where we are technologically. He details some key government interventions preventing bad behavior by companies. And he goes on to explain why the government no longer seems interested in intervening when companies screw us over and basically retard the progress of all people. It isn't _all_ about broadband.

Health Care and Reagan's Recession Tax Hike

History from the Daily Beast:

Conservatives delude themselves that the Bush tax cuts worked and that the best medicine for America’s economic woes is more tax cuts; at a minimum, any tax increase would be economic poison. They forget that Ronald Reagan worked hard to pass one of the largest tax increases in American history in September 1982, the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act, even though the nation was still in a recession that didn’t end until November of that year. Indeed, one could easily argue that the enactment of that legislation was a critical prerequisite to recovery because it led to a decline in interest rates. The same could be said of Clinton’s 1993 tax increase, which many conservatives predicted would cause a recession but led to one of the biggest economic booms in history.

Taxes Taxes Taxes

If there is something that Americans love to do, it is bitch about taxes. I have to wonder if Republicans would have the support of any non-evangelical Christians were it not for them positioning themselves as the party of reducing taxes (irregardless of their reckless fiscal record, they certainly act like they are the party of reducing taxes).

In Minnesota, Pawlenty cites his record of not increasing taxes (which is bullshit, he renamed some taxes to fees and raised them and he avoided raising taxes by cutting funds to cities who then had to raise taxes to avoid laying off cops and firefighters) as his greatest accomplishment. Of course, he didn't really reduce spending, that might have been unpopular. He just refused to finance the spending bills he signed, compounding problems for the future.

Let's address this problem head-on ... are we overtaxed? Do tax increases kill businesses and hurt the economy? In MinnPost, Dane Smith smartly asks, "If taxes are bad for us, then how did we get so healthy, wealthy and wise?"

Since 1909, and with big spurts in the 1930s and 1970s, the federal-state-local government's share (anti-tax types like to call it "take") of income in Minnesota and the United States grew steadily and sharply, from about 5 percent to 35 percent.

A seven-fold increase in taxes should have left us a howling wasteland, if one subscribes to the anti-government theory of anti-tax zealots. We should have less wealth, no creativity, diminished entrepreneurialism, little technological innovation, and no incentives to do anything but seek or wait for the next government check.

The exact opposite happened as government grew.

I have to assume that the whole less-government-is-good-government approach is only possible in a culture that does not know its history. Our government grew in reaction to the "excesses" of the unregulated capitalism.

The EPA was not a liberal conspiracy to limit corporate profits, it was a reaction to the poison that many businesses spewed into the environment. And, despite what I believe to be overly lax enforcement, it has greatly improved the environment. From air pollution to previously dead lakes, the environment around us (and therefore us as well) is healthier than it was before government forced businesses to stop poisoning us (because it really is more profitable to poison us that to mitigate pollution - we even have a name for it: negative externality).

I was fortunate enough to go to college when I was 18 in part because I was not working in mines when I was 8. My parents were not bankrupted taking care of my grandparents in part because of social security.

Things certainly could be better. Health insurance providers should not be allowed to just drop people or refuse to fund necessary medical treatments because they want to maximize their shareholders' dividend.

I can just imagine that if anyone still reading this disagrees with me, they are fuming that I would choose to encourage policies that will just drive all the rich people out of the state or country or whatever. Fortunately, Daniel Gross just tackled this at Slate with "Who is Killing America's Millionaires?"

In May, the Wall Street Journal op-ed page argued that millionaires fled Maryland after the state legislature boosted the top marginal state income tax rate to 6.25 percent on the top 0.3 percent of filers. "In 2008 roughly 3,000 million-dollar income tax returns were filed by the end of April," the Journal notes. "This year there were 2,000, which the state comptroller's office concedes is a 'substantial decline.' " The Journal uses this small sample to warn the federal government and states with progressive tax structures and lots of rich people—New York, New Jersey, California—to heed the lesson. Tax the wealthy too much, and they'll leave.

Such logic makes sense to the Journal's op-ed page staffers, who inhabit an alternative universe in which people wake up in the morning and decide whether to go to work, innovate, or buy a bagel based on marginal tax rates. But if people were motivated to choose residences based solely on high state income taxes, then California and New York wouldn't have any wealthy entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, or investment bankers—and the several states that have no state income tax, which include South Dakota, Alaska, and Wyoming, would be really crowded with rich people.

He tackles the question from multiple angles, explaining how this particular argument (rich people move from tax increases) is based entirely on specious data and an extremely lazy approach to causality. Having debunked some right-wing stinktank reports myself, I am shocked at just how lazy they are. It is a truism that you can pretty much convince some journalists of any argument and once it is in print in a supposedly neutral source, it becomes fact.

However, if there is evidence that rich people move to avoid taxes, I have yet to see it. Moving takes a lot of effort and there are many variables to consider. I think it more likely that rich people will move to areas with rich cultural life and a high quality of living because they will want to enjoy their wealth rather than say, living in a state like Mississippi where they will have to ship their kids across the country to give them a decent education.

None of this is to suggest that taxes should be constantly increased - there is a point when increased government is not worth it. In the U.S., probably most of us that support a strong role for government in regulating things like pollution and providing health care are less supportive of continuing to spend more of the discretionary budget on the military than any other program. So we recognize tradeoffs. We would rather use our tax dollars to protect our citizens from Medica and Enron than protecting Exxon's business interests abroad.

Further, I believe in some deregulation. For instance, I believe that government deregulation of the airlines and trains (since the 1970's) has been positive on the whole. Again, there are clearly tradeoffs, but I prefer making it cheaper to fly than getting a meal on the flight. That said, there needs to be some regulation - ticket prices to many destinations are again approaching those high prices from the era of massive government regulation because of increasing concentration among the airlines (it is competition that keeps prices low, and competition flourishes from the right policies, not an absence of them).

However, we should be clear about who caused the problems we are currently attempting to resolve. Daniel Gross addressed this in "War on the Rich?.

The Bush team and congressional supporters had seven years to manage fiscal affairs in such a way that they would be able to extend the tax cuts in 2010. But they screwed it up. Instead of controlling spending and aligning tax revenues with outlays, the Bush administration and its congressional allies ramped up spending massively—on two wars, on a prescription drug benefit for Medicare, on earmarks, etc. Oh, and along the way, they so miserably mismanaged oversight of Wall Street and the financial sector that it required the passage of a hugely expensive bailout. Even before the passage of the TARP, the prospect of extending all the Bush tax cuts was a nonstarter. Once Bush signed the $700 billion bailout measure into law, extending tax cuts was really a nonstarter. The national debt nearly doubled during the Bush years. So if you want to blame someone for raising taxes back to where they were in 2001, don't blame Obama. Blame Bush, his feckless Office of Management and Budget directors, his economic advisers, and congressional appropriators like Trent Lott and Tom DeLay.

The Republicans (with some help from the Democrats, but clearly the R's deserve most of the responsibility) pushed the policies that have bankrupted the country.

Who Was that Lincoln Guy?

For all my reading about history, my knowledge of the mid 19th century and Lincoln is woefully inadequate. I was pleased to find an engaging and lengthy review of several Lincoln books dominating a recent issue of The New Republic. Sean Wilentz, a historian I plan to catch up on, wrote Who Was Lincoln?"

It is definitely quite timely, with so many comparing Obama to him. Wilentz looks to be an authority on the mid 1800's though he was also an Obama critic and fan of Hillary. Nonetheless, I found his analysis to be impressive and found myself more engaged than I suspected I would be.

There was a quote that offered some hope for the future. Following the Gettysburg Address, the partisan media was split, those who hated Lincoln attacked him in ways that would make even Fox News blush.... maybe.

Although pro-administration newspapers such as the Springfield Republican in Massachusetts pronounced it "a perfect gem," the Democratic press echoed the Chicago Times's ridicule of Lincoln's shamefully "silly, flat, and dishwatery utterances."

So there you have it, long before the "terrorist fist jab," partisans attacked "dishwatery utterances."

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