Friday, September 19, 2008

The Asymmetry of Bailouts

Why is it that we socialize failure but privatize success?

Oh, I know the reason given: these failures are so significant that they would destroy our economy if we didn't collectively take on the burden. But I say that if we're responsible when they go down, we ought to benefit when they go up. This should be an either-or proposition. Either the corporations are socialized as public goods, or they are not but we let them die. And if they are so significant that we can't live with out them, and therefore can't let them die, then they ought to not be privately owned and operated in the first place. Only market fundamentalist nutjobs would think privatizing other essential services such as fire and police is a good idea. Health care and financial services are just as essential, and ought to therefore be matters of mutual aid rather than left to the fickle hand and invisible jackboot of the market.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Market Fundamentalism

Can we all just admit now that the libertarians and fiscal conservatives and other market fundamentalists are just plain wrong about the magical hand of the "free" market? Have the failed and flailing deregulation experiments of the "Washington Consensus" given us enough data to say, collectively, "The market isn't always the answer?"

I am a socialist, but I am also a market agnostic and a pragmatist. I don't think that we need to automagically abolish all market activity in favor of strict central planning -- my socialism is based primarily on a moral argument for extending democracy to economics, not on any particular system. When we're subject to totalitarian politics we fight it and call it a dictatorship; when we're subject to totalitarian workplaces we acquiesce, do as we're told, and call our rulers "management." Whether economic democracy entails a decentralized planning scheme or merely democratic control of investment and workplaces embedded in a market for goods and services is an empirical question: which will be the best for those involved?

What is clear, however, is that the "free" market strips from most people the freedom to live the kinds of lives they want to live by denying them a voice as well as denying them their fair share of the wealth they create. When you create a system designed for cutthroat brutality in the pursuit of profit, you can't be surprised when the results are brutal.

Disqus commenting

I installed Disqus commenting here. I realize, of course, that my readership has dropped to essentially nil, but I hope to be more active soon and it would be nice to have some social aspect to the ol' blog.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Social Justice Quiz 2008

From Bill Quigley at Dissident Voice:

1. How many deaths are there world-wide each year due to acts of terrorism?

Answer (highlight): 22,000. The U.S. State Department reported there were more than 22,000 deaths from terrorism last year. Over half of those killed or injured were Muslims. Source: Voice of America, May 2, 2008. “Terrorism Deaths Rose in 2007.”

2. How many deaths are there world-wide each day due to poverty and malnutrition?

Answer: About 25,000 people die every day of hunger or hunger-related causes, according to the United Nations. – Hunger and World Poverty. Every day, almost 16,000 children die from hunger-related causes – one child every five seconds. Bread for the World. Hunger Facts: International.

3. 1n 1965, CEOs in major companies made 24 times more than the average worker. In 1980, CEOs made 40 times more than the average worker. In 2007, CEOs earned how many times more than the average worker?

Answer: Today’s average CEO from a Fortune 500 company makes 364 times an average worker’s pay and over 70 times the pay of a four-star Army general. Executive Excess 2007, page 7, jointly published by Institute for Policy Studies and United for Fair Economy, August 29, 2007. 1965 numbers from State of Working America 2004-2005, Economic Policy Institute.

4. In how many of the over 3000 cities and counties in the US can a full-time worker who earns minimum wage afford to pay rent and utilities on a one-bedroom apartment?

Answer: In no city or county in the entire USA can a full-time worker who earns minimum wage afford even a one bedroom rental. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) urges renters not to pay more than 30% of their income in rent. HUD also reports the fair market rent for each of the counties and cities in the US. Nationally, in order to rent a 2 bedroom apartment, one full-time worker in 2008 must earn $17.32 per hour. In fact, 81% of renters live in cities where the Fair Market Rent for a two bedroom rental is not even affordable with two minimum wage jobs. Source: Out of Reach 2007-2008, April 7, 2008, National Low-Income Housing Coalition.

5. In 1968, the minimum wage was $1.65 per hour. How much would the minimum wage be today if it had kept pace with inflation since 1968?

Answer: Calculated in real (inflation adjusted) dollars, the 1968 minimum wage would have been worth $9.83 in 2007 dollars. Andrew Tobias, January 16, 2008. The federal minimum wage is $6.55 per hour effective July 24, 2008 and $7.25 per hour effective July 24, 2009.

6. True or false? People in the United States spend nearly twice as much on pet food as the US government spends on aid to help foreign countries.

Answer: True. The USA spends $43.4 billion on pet food annually. Source: American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, Inc. The USA spent $23.5 billion in official foreign aid in 2006. The government of the USA gave the most of any country in the world in actual dollars. As a percentage of gross national income, the USA came in second to last among OECD donor countries and ranked number 20 at 0.18 percent behind Sweden at 1.02 percent and other countries such as Norway, Netherlands, Ireland, United Kingdom, Austria, France, Germany, Spain, Canada, New Zealand, Japan and others. This does not count private donations which, if included, may move the USA up as high as 6th. The Index of Global Philanthropy 2008, page 15, 19.

7. How many people in the world live on $2 a day or less?

Answer: The World Bank reported in August 2008 that 2.6 billion people consume less than $2 a day.

8. How many people in the world do not have electricity?

Answer: World-wide, 1.6 billion people do not have electricity. 2.5 billion people use wood, charcoal or animal dung for cooking. United Nations Human Development Report 2007/2008, pages 44-45.

9. People in the US consume 42 kilograms of meat per person per year. How much meat and grain do people in India and China eat?

Answer: People in the US lead the world in meat consumption at 42 kg per person per year compared to 1.6 kg in India and 5.9 kg in China. People in the US consume five times the grain (wheat, rice, rye, barley, etc.) as people in India, three times as much as people in China, and twice as much as people in Europe. “THE BLAME GAME: Who is behind the world food price crisis,” Oakland Institute, July 2008.

10. How many cars does China have for every 1000 drivers? India? The U.S.?

Answer: China has 9 cars for every 1000 drivers. India has 11 cars for every 1000 drivers. The US has 1114 cars for every 1000 drivers. Iain Carson and Vijay V. Vaitheeswaran, Zoom: The Global Race to Fuel the Car of the Future (2007).

11. How much grain is needed to fill a SUV tank with ethanol?

Answer: The grain needed to fill up a SUV tank with ethanol could feed a hungry person for a year. Lester Brown,, August 16, 2006

12. According to the Wall Street Journal, the richest 1% of Americans earns what percent of the nation’s adjusted gross income? 5%? 10%? 15%? 20%?

Answer: “According to the figures, the richest 1% reported 22% of the nation’s total adjusted gross income in 2006. That is up from 21.2% a year earlier, and is the highest in the 19 years that the IRS has kept strictly comparable figures. The 1988 level was 15.2%. Earlier IRS data show the last year the share of income belonging to the top 1% was at such a high level as it was in 2006 was in 1929, but changes in measuring income make a precise comparison difficult.” Jesse Drucker, “Richest Americans See Their Income Share Grow,” Wall Street Journal, July 23, 2008, page A3.

13. How many people does our government say are homeless in the US on any given day?

Answer: 754,000 are homeless. About 338,000 homeless people are not in shelters (live on the streets, in cars, or in abandoned buildings) and 415,000 are in shelters on any given night. 2007 U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Annual Homeless Report to Congress, page iii and 23. The population of San Francisco is about 739,000.

14. What percentage of people in homeless shelters are children?

Answer: HUD reports nearly 1 in 4 people in homeless shelters are children 17 or younger. Page iv – 2007 HUD Annual Homeless Report to Congress.

15. How many veterans are homeless on any given night?

Answer: Over 100,000 veterans are homeless on any given night. About 18 percent of the adult homeless population is veterans. Page 32, 2007 HUD Homeless Report. This is about the same population as Green Bay Wisconsin.

16. The military budget of the United States in 2008 is the largest in the world at $623 billion per year. How much larger is the US military budget than that of China, the second largest in the world?

Answer: Ten times. China’s military budget is $65 billion. The US military budget is nearly 10 times larger than the second leading military spender.

17. The US military budget is larger than how many of the countries of the rest of the world combined?

Answer: The US military budget of $623 billion is larger than the budgets of all the countries in the rest of the world put together. The total global military budget of the rest of the world is $500 billion. Russia’s military budget is $50 billion, South Korea’s is $21 billion, and Iran’s is $4.3 billion.

18. Over the 28 year history of the Berlin Wall, 287 people perished trying to cross it. How many people have died in the last 4 years trying to cross the border between Arizona and Mexico?

Answer: 1268. At least 1268 people have died along the border of Arizona and Mexico since 2004. The Arizona Daily Star keeps track of the reported deaths along the state border and reports 214 died in 2004, 241 in 2005, 216 in 2006, 237 in 2007, and 116 as of July 31, 2008. These numbers do not include the deaths along the California or Texas border. The Border Patrol reported that 400 people died in fiscal 2206-2007, 453 died in 2004-2005, and 494 died in 2004-2005. Source Associated Press, November 8, 2007.

19. India is ranked second in the world in gun ownership with 4 guns per 100 people. China is third with 3 firearms per 100 people. Which country is first and how many guns do they own?

Answer: The US is first in gun ownership world-wide with 90 guns for every 100 citizens. Laura MacInnis, “US most armed country with 90 guns per 100 people.” Reuters, August 28, 2007.

20. What country leads the world in the incarceration of its citizens?

Answer: The US jails 751 inmates per 100,000 people, the highest rate in the world. Russia is second with 627 per 100,000. England’s rate is 151, Germany is 88, and Japan is 63. The US has 2.3 million people behind bars, more than any country in the world. Adam Liptak, “Inmate Count in US Dwarfs Other Nations,” NYT, April 23, 2008.

How many did you get?

Tuesday, September 9, 2008


Among people whose weight is considered "normal," only 1 in 4 people have unhealthy levels of cholesterol, blood pressure, blood glucose, and other risks for heart disease. While possible in anyone, these risk factors are correlated with older age, low levels of physical activity, and proportionately larger waist circumference.

Among those considered "overweight," the incidence of cardiovascular risk factors doubles to 1 in 2. Among those considered "obese," the risk factor increases even more dramatically to 7 in 10.

These are the results of a study hailed by the fat acceptance movement, which traditionally dismisses such research. The reason? Unlike similar papers, the study's results were worded the opposite way, emphasizing the number of "normal" people who are unhealthy, and the number of "overweight" and "obese" people who are healthy. But if the fat acceptance advocates who praise this study do the math, the numbers are clear: being "overweight" makes you twice as likely to be unhealthy, and being "obese" makes you almost three times as likely to be unhealthy. In fact, the study clearly shows that an "obese" person is very likely to have risk factors for heart disease.

Fat acceptance is a difficult subject to deal with, because it is truly one of those situations where both sides are right in some sense. The fat advocates are absolutely correct when they say that the often-used body mass index (BMI) is a rather ridiculous measure of whether or not one is "overweight" or "obese." BMI tells people virtually nothing about their actual physical health. People have different proportions of fat and muscle, which weigh different amounts, and so to use a simple formula to calculate any sort of consistent "weight class" is absurd, except in the extremes. Kate Harding's BMI Project makes this abundantly clear.

Fat advocates (and feminists more broadly) are also absolutely correct in their critique of body image as it is promoted in Western culture, and through mass media. As the ongoing Human Variation Project shows, average people almost never resemble the ideals thrust upon them through advertising and celebrity culture. The size and shape considered "normal" varies throughout time and across cultures, with very few universals. Fat advocates certainly take the right course in their suggestion that people love their bodies, regardless of any perceived flaws. Size, shape, and even health do not make one who one is, they are simply attributes that are as positive or negative as we make them. There are a wide-range of aspects outside one's volitional control (from heredity to opportunity) that influence one's size.

Finally, as we can see from the study cited above, fat advocates are also absolutely correct that it is possible to be classified as overweight and even obese without suffering from cardiovascular risk factors and other health problems.

But the most important thing the fat acceptance movement has correct is that one's size ought never be cause for discrimination or hatred. Fat people, regardless of why they are fat and regardless of whether or not they are healthy, are still people. Even if being fat were the direct result of people's choices and made them extremely ill, it would be no cause for discrimination or hatred. It would be (again, at worst) a medical condition like any other. That being fat is often not entirely in one's control, and it does not mean that one is automatically unhealthy, is even more reason not to engage in fat-shaming and discrimination.

On the other hand, the fat acceptance movement is like any other movement in that it resists holding its ideology up to scrutiny. From the valid premise that we should love the bodies we have combined with the accurate evidence that one can be "fat but fit," the fat acceptance movement has unfortunately built an uncritical belief that there is a vast diet-industry conspiracy controlling scientific research to promote an obesity epidemic. Some books written by people outside medicine, such as The Obesity Myth, go so far as to say there is little or no evidence that obesity is associated with health risks at all by cherry-picking a handful out of the tens of thousands of studies carried out on the topic, or, as exemplified in the beginning of this post, rephrasing others to accentuate the positive while ignoring the negative. The overwhelming tide of evidence points to obesity indeed being associated with many health problems.

The line that must be tread is clear enough: variation in size is a part of the human condition, and should be celebrated rather than suppressed. Nevertheless, all people should be aware of the factual information regarding weight and health, for better or worse, and should be empowered to make their own choices regarding diet, exercise, or medical treatment, choices that ought to be respected. Size is not a character flaw.