Sunday, January 29, 2012

The War in the Streets - Oakland 2012

[click on the four outward-pointing arrows at lower right for fullscreen]


Saturday, January 28, 2012

Dead Pool 2012 - Jack's List

2012 Croakers

1. Michael J. Fox
2. George McGovern
3. Jimmy Carter
4. Queen Elizabeth II
5. Charlie Sheen
6. George Herbert Walker Bush
7. Muhammad Ali
8. John Glenn
9. Demi Moore
10. Liza Minelli

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Monsters Among Us


The record for bicycling around the world is held by Englishman Alan Bate who did it in 2008 in 97 days. The rules require a minimum of 18,000 miles on the bike. Rest days, if any, count against total time. Which means that Bate AVERAGED 185.6 miles per day every day for more than 3 months. And even that assumes he did the minimum, which isn't likely.

Just for comparison, I have been bicycling most of my adult life and the furthest I have ever ridden in a day was 114 miles on a dead flat route with a strong tailwind the whole way.

February 28 is the beginning of a race to beat Alan Bate's record.

Friday, January 20, 2012


[Captain Henry Page and Bealeton at Army of the Potomac Headquarters, 1863]

Saw 'Warhorse' yesterday. I expected some sugary drivel about a boy and his horse. Wrong. Like 'Titanic' it was a sentimental little personal story set in the middle of an actual disaster. As with 'Titanic' the purpose of the little story was to sugar-coat a documentary about a larger subject. 'Warhorse' is about the Western Front during the First World War. Through the device of the horse, the Front is seen from the English, the French, and finally the German side. 

It is an excellent movie, well-made, reasonably well-acted, as one expects from Spielberg. Even though the horror of trench warfare is considerably toned down from the reality, it is still horrible enough that I strongly recommend that no one see this movie. Life is hard enough without recurring nightmares. Don't see this movie. An academic understanding of what the Western Front was all about is all modern Americans need to know about it.

Unfortunately the cinematography of Devonshire at the beginning and end of the movie was so mannered as to verge on the telling of a fairy tale. It detracted from the rest of the movie.

It occurred to me during the movie that any realistic portrayal of the First World War makes a compelling anti-war argument. The British are shown as understandable and human characters. The Germans are shown the same. One does not want to see anyone on either side killed.

The British charge into battle shouting "For G_d and the king!". Spielberg is subtle enough to omit scenes of the Germans doing the same, but leaves it to the viewer to realize that they must have done it too. He leaves it to the viewer to realize that the Germans fighting for Germany and the Kaiser were no more evil than Englishmen also fighting for king and country.

The odd symmetry is that just as any portrayal of the First World War leads to an anti-war argument, any portrayal of the Second World War leads to a pro-war argument. Whether the King defeated the Kaiser or the Kaiser defeated the King ultimately was no more important to English farm boys than it was to German farm boys. It was somebody else's fight that they got dragged into. And died horribly in their millions in the fighting of it.

The Second World War was the opposite. Whether the Nazis conquered Europe and perhaps eventually the world, was everybody's fight. It mattered intensely to English, German, and Russian farm boys who won. It was their fight, it was everyone's fight. The army of the Kaiser was not there to kill your mother. The Nazis were there to do precisely that.

So let no one accept Spielberg's anti-war message uncritically. The Second World War proves otherwise.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Why the Laffer Curve is Wrong

The Laffer Curve, supposedly invented by the conservative economist Arthur Laffer during lunch with Ronald Reagan and sketched on a napkin, is one of the key arguments used by conservatives to justify low tax rates for the rich.  The graph on which the curve appears has tax rates on the up-and-down y-axis and government revenues on the left-to-right x-axis.  The object of the exercise is to figure out what tax rate will maximize government tax revenues.

The argument is that at zero tax rate the government will collect nothing no matter how much money the taxpayers earn because the rate is zero..  At 100% tax rate the government will again collect nothing because no one will bother to work.  The government will take all their money so there is no point in working.  No one works, no one has any money, so the government revenue is again zero.

According to Laffer, somewhere in between is a tax rate that maximizes government revenue.  Among those who accept the premise, the debate is whether the rate should be low (advocated by conservatives) or high (advocated by everyone else).  Conservatives think anything above 35% will discourage capitalists from working to make more money.  Everyone else thinks the figure is around 65%

But even a moment's thought tell us that the two premises behind the Laffer Curve are both false.  First is the idea that capitalists are lazy.  According to conservatives, if a capitalist has to make three million to keep two she will be too discouraged to continue to make more money and will go fishing.  Capitalists are just too lazy to take the trouble of making money if they have to give up more than a third.   (Actually that's a hypothetical male capitalist.  Anybody knows that a woman with two million dollars will go not fishing but shopping, which is  itself a good thing for the economy.)

We can get some idea of how high the highest tax rate can go before people will give up working from the old Beatle's song, 'Taxman'.  Click on the link on the next line.
Let me tell you how it will be
There's one for you, nineteen for me
'Cause I'm the taxman, yeah, I'm the taxman

Should five per cent appear too small
Be thankful I don't take it all
'Cause I'm the taxman, yeah I'm the taxman

If you drive a car, I'll tax the street
If you try to sit, I'll tax your seat
If you get too cold I'll tax the heat
If you take a walk, I'll tax your feet

'Cause I'm the taxman, yeah I'm the taxman

Don't ask me what I want it for (Aahh Mr. Wilson)
If you don't want to pay some more (Aahh Mr. Heath)
'Cause I'm the taxman, yeah, I'm the taxman

Now my advice for those who die
Declare the pennies on your eyes
'Cause I'm the taxman, yeah, I'm the taxman

And you're working for no one but me

For those still wet behind the ears, Mr. Wilson and Mr. Heath were the heads of the Labour and Tory parties when the song was released on their 1966 album, 'Revolver'.  The relevance is that even though they were paying a tax rate of 95%, the Beatles continued to write, perform, and publish songs.  So far from stifling their willingness to work, they went on to write, perform, and publish, 'Rubber Soul', 'Sergeant Pepper', 'Magical Mystery Tour',  and 'the white album', some of their best music ever.    We are not talking about mere work here, but work informed by a splendid creativity.

Had they paid no taxes and earned twenty times as much as the 5% that made them absurdly rich, they might well have had too much money to bother to write, perform, and publish at all.  George Harrison would have retired to a huge estate in India with his own private ashram and harem of groupies.  John Lennon would have bought a castle in Scotland and the title that went with it and then gone on to terrorize the House of Lords.  Paul McCartney would have married for love someone who married for money and been fleeced by her attorneys.  Ringo Starr would have gotten confused about how many zeroes were involved and have bought a pub in Liverpool for 182 million quid.

Joking aside, too much money might have made them lazy and uncreative, as the children of self-made women so often are.  Being clipped of most of their money every year most likely kept  them from retiring in their twenties as they might otherwise have done.  

In fact high earners are usually hard-working unto driven and unpleasant.  High taxes will rarely keep them from working.

The unspoken assumption behind the Laffer Curve is that people work for money and only for money.  In fact only people whose jobs are boring drudgery to them work only for money.

Nuns and priests pay an almost 100% tax on what their work might otherwise produce.  They live in cloisters or rectories often in spartan conditions and work long and hard at teaching, nursing, ministry, or as missionaries because they are dedicated to their work and to the service of the Church, not for the money.  They take vows of poverty.   They worship G-d, not Mammon.

Soldiers live in barracks and in wartime in foxholes, eat in messes, are on call 24 hours a day, and perform not only hard work but often heroically struggle to the death.  There is no overtime for being under fire all night.  Selflessly risking her life gets a soldier not a fat bonus but a shiny medal to show her mom.  Soldiers serve for honor, duty, and love of country and of their comrades, not money.

Similarly, it is a rare poet who is in it for the money.  Yet most of what we treasure of our heritage from past ages is poetry.  

So the first premise of the Laffer Curve is mistaken.  Even at a 100% tax rate, dedicated people will work long and hard.  Whether the tax gatherer is the Church or the Marine Corps or the Muse, people work long and hard for no material reward.

The second premise is related.  It is that how hard and well people work in ordinary occupations like small business owners, professionals, highly skilled workers, and so on, is proportionate to the incomes they earn from their labor.

Among ordinary occupations it is everyone's experience that one works harder and longer at work one enjoys doing.  People are excellent and devoted at work they love.  And that is what the economic and tax systems are for - to get people to produce the most and best goods and services they can.  And the social system, according to Aristotle, is about enabling people to use their talents to the full.  People who enjoy their work are only secondarily motivated by money.

So the correlation between tax rate and the amount of work done, i.e. the taxable production of each person, does not correspond in any important way with the tax rate.

So the Laffer Curve, which is merely an extrapolation from its endpoints of 0% and 100%, is wrong at both of them, and wrong at every point in between.

Alexander the Great, when shown the legendary Gordian Knot which could not be untied, drew his sword and chopped it in half.  "Thus do I untie all Gordian Knots", he said.  Thus do I untie all Laffer Curves, and, like the Marine Corps, piss on their corpses.


Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Harvey's Dead Pool 2012

I am keeping the same names I had for 2011. They are due to kick any time now. I did replace the three, yes three, on my list who passed last year, may their memory be a blessing. Also, I am no longer listing new people who are in their nineties. Like shooting fish in a barrel. Some on the list are wishful thinking, others will be missed.

1. Zsa Zsa Gabor
2. Michael Douglas
3. Kirk Douglas - Bam- a father and son team
4. Hosni Mubarak
5. Ruth Bader Ginsberg
6. Mohammed Ali
7. Tariq Aziz
8. Roger Ebert
9. Aretha Franklin
10.Dick Cheney