Category: Politics


Women’s History Month, Day 14

By special request, today’s historic woman is Emma Goldman. Goldman was a Russian Jewish immigrant who was moved by the injustice of the Haymarket affair to become an anarchist. She would become perhaps the most influential voice of anarchism in the United States. Goldman believed that violence was an acceptable means to achieve political ends and helped plan the attempted assassination of Henry Clay Frick, a manager at Carnegie Steel responsible for violent attacks on striking workers. She expressed support for Leon Czolgosz, who had killed President McKinley, but she had nothing to do with his crime. Nevertheless, she was arrested and held in jail until a lack of evidence forced her release.

Goldman’s main focus was education, and she strove especially to educate workers and women to fight against their repression. She was a strong supporter of women’s freedom, particularly reproductive freedom, but her anarchist politics led her to oppose women’s suffrage.

Women’s History Month, Day 13

How far in the past does a person have to be to qualify as a historical figure? I’ve already talked about Margaret Thatcher, who is still living, so the alive or dead threshold has been crossed. Today I’m going to talk about someone who is still actively making history. Hilary Clinton made history as perhaps the First Lady most involved in substantive policy issues during her husband’s term as president; as a senator, making her one of only 39 women to have served in the U.S. Senate; as the first serious contender for a major party’s nomination for president, and as the third woman to serve as Secretary of State. All of this has subjected her to some of the vilest sexist attacks of any modern women in the public eye. She has not defined herself as a victim though, she has instead stepped up and taken a strong role as Secretary of State, negotiating head to head with international leaders male and female and has made strong calls for women’s rights to be respected around the world. One can disagree with Ms. Clinton’s politics on any number of issues, but I don’t think anyone could reasonably deny that she is a strong and influential leader and a fierce advocate for the rights of women (see the video below) who has already earned her place in the history books.

To a modern American Margaret Sanger’s courage and importance can be hard to understand. She lived at a time when condoms and diaphragms were the only forms of birth control in existence and they were illegal in the United States. Birth control was considered immoral and advocating for it made you look like some kind of a sex fiend to many people. In fact, the view of birth control in the early twentieth century is instructive to the current fight over contraception. Then most people were perfectly willing to say that they opposed it because it let women enjoy sex without the burden of childbirth. Fewer people will admit that today, but I suspect it still underlies modern opposition to birth control.

Today, however, something like 98% of women use some form of birth control. In Sanger’s day that number would have been tiny. Sanger saw the effects of this first hand. Her mother had 11 children and 7 miscarriages, which took a terrible toll on her health and Sanger blamed all those pregnancies (and her father) for her death. Later Sanger became a nurse and saw many poor women patients in trauma due to illegal and unsafe abortions. Eventually she quit nursing and dedicated her life to making birth control available and effective. She started a number of clinics that would become Planned Parenthood with the purpose of providing birth control and was arrested for distributing diaphragms.

Eventually, largely due to Sanger’s work, the Comstock laws that made birth control illegal were repealed. Sanger was still unsatisfied because the only method of birth control that was controlled by women, the diaphragm, was awkward and difficult to use. She spurred and helped finance the research that led to the creation of the birth control pill. So if you’ve ever used a birth control of any kind, you owe Margaret Sanger a debt of gratitude for fighting to make it legal and easily acceptable. If you’ve used the pill you also should be grateful to her that it exists at all. And if you or anyone you care about has ever taken advantage of the wide range of health care services Planned Parenthood has made available to people who otherwise could not afford them, thank Margaret Sanger.

In the analysis of any historical figure one can find ideas they held that we clearly consider odious today. I’m a firm believer that history should be taken warts and all, but I also tend to think we shouldn’t judge past figures on present standards and that we shouldn’t throw out the positive legacy of a person because they were the product of a less enlightened time. Margaret Sanger actually fairs pretty well on this on any considered analysis of historical scholarship. Unfortunately, she is also the victim of a concerted effort to smear her legacy by a group of people who don’t like Planned Parenthood. To advance this agenda they take her statements out of context and in some cases, like Herman Cain, outright lie about her record. I’m not going to go into great detail on this, but what you need to know is that Margaret Sanger was associated to some extent to the eugenics movement, as were an extraordinary number of other progressive reformers of the time. They suffered from a gross misunderstanding of science and an excess of zeal to improve human life. Sanger’s involvement had nothing whatsoever to do with racism and, while she might have spoken in the language of a more racially insensitive time, her views on race were quite advanced for that time. The historical evidence absolutely shows that there is no evidence of her ever harboring any desire or plan to eliminate African Americans. Here is a good, brief debunking of such claims and here are three more sources on the subject.

There is a tendency when doing a project like this to focus on women who share the author’s politics, or who are mostly apolitical. But there have certainly been women who were significant in history and who improved opportunities for women by their achievements whose politics I disagree with.

Margaret Thatcher is the only woman ever to have held the post of Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Known as the “Iron Lady” she was an influential force in the Cold War. She also made drastic cuts to many government social programs in the U.K. Some might argue that these cuts were necessary and that in spite of them the U.K. maintained a much stronger social safety net than the U.S.

Interestingly, unlike most politicians, especially in the U.S., Thatcher had a science background, having studied X-ray crystallography under Dorothy Hodgkin.

Ohio allows voters to choose which party’s primary they will vote in at the poll, and I’m considering pulling a Republican ballot tomorrow.  The Democratic primary does have two candidates vying for the nomination for Ohio’s 1st district in the U.S. Congress and the chance to go up against Steve Chabot in the November, but I don’t’ think either one of them can beat Chabot and I don’t really want to vote for either of them anyway. One is anti-choice, the other explains every issue position in terms of his own bizarre, strict constructionist view of the constitution and doesn’t seem to understand separation of church and state.

The question then is whether to vote for the candidate least likely to be a terrible president (Romney, assuming he governs closer to his record than to his campaign rhetoric), to cast a spoiler vote for the Republican who stands the least chance of beating Obama in November (Santorum), or to vote for Ron Paul to avoid voting for Romney while hoping to put Paul delegates at the convention to vote on the Party platform. The problem with the spoiler approach is that it assumes you’re right about who can beat Obama. Santorum seems much less likely to win a general election than Romney, but maybe he’s not. Maybe I’m wrong that there’s no way someone who is so virulently anti-gay, anti-woman, and such a religious extremist could swing enough middle of the road voters to win. Maybe his ability to fire up the GOP’s religious right base he could be a real threat. In 2000 I thought there was no way the American people would elect someone as obviously stupid and unqualified as George W. Bush. In 2004 I thought there was no way they would make the same mistake again.

I was wrong about these things because, like most people, I live in a bubble. I know the Republican positions, certainly well enough to reject them, but I don’t have a real handle on how the American public feels about them. Polls are one way to gauge how people outside our bubble feel and polls tend to show that the majority of Americans actually tend to disagree with the most conservative Republicans on social issues and especially on birth control. What the polls don’t show is how willing people are to get out to the polls and vote based on those issues and I think that many middle of the road voters just aren’t focused on social issues and will largely ignore them in November. On the other hand, when you have a candidate like Santorum who is making those issues so central and sounds so far out of the mainstream, maybe he’s gone past the tipping point with middle of the road voters and really is unelectable.

Which option will I choose? I don’t know yet. I probably won’t know until I get the ballot in my hand tomorrow. That is assuming that I can bring myself to select a Republican ballot at the poll.

Kill the Dollar Bill

I had intended my next blog post to be about bubbles and the Presidential election, but when I learned that Senators McCain and Harkin had recently introduced a bill to switch from using dollar bills to using dollar coins I had to let people know about it. Eliminating dollar bills in favor of dollar coins will result in substantial savings to the Federal budget, and could potentially also have a stimulative effect on the economy. You should all write to your Senators and urge them to cosponsor Senate Bill 2049, the Currency Optimization, Innovation, and National Savings Act.

You can see the argument for killing the dollar bill in this brief and entertaining video, or scroll down to read my version in boring old text.

The Government Accounting Office has analyzed this issue a number of times and always comes to a similar conclusion: the government could save 5.5 billion dollars over the next 30 years by eliminating the dollar bill and replacing it with dollar coins. Admittedly, that’s not actually a lot of money when compared with the total Federal budget and the current size of the deficit. Stopping the minting of pennies and nickels would save more. But we’d be foolish to ignore the fact that there’s money to be saved by a simple technical change that doesn’t involve raising taxes or cutting vital programs. The savings come from the fact that printing dollar bills is relatively expensive, and that dollar bills simply don’t last long. They are handled so much that they wear out quickly and have to be replaced. That is the point at which a coin is preferable to a bill. Coins can be handled much more without wearing out, so we wouldn’t have to mint nearly as many coins as we currently print dollar bills. Not only that, but we currently have a rather large stockpile of dollar coins, so there’s not a lot of start up or switch over cost involved, all we have to do is get those coins into circulation. Most attempts to do that have failed because people are resistant to change, but this bill contains one key provision that will guarantee that coins get used and not bills: it stops the circulation of dollar bills after a certain number of coins are circulated or after four years, whichever comes first.

The other advantage to replacing dollar bills with dollar coins is the potential stimulative effect on the economy. This is due to something called the denomination effect. It basically says that people tend to spend more money in small denominations than large ones. A dollar coin effectively feels like a smaller denomination than a dollar bill and is more likely to be spent. So replacing dollar bills with coins should result in more spending, which will stimulate the economy without the tax cuts or spending increases that either side of the political aisle will oppose. Again, the effect may be relatively small, but it’s something. Right now we’re leaving both these cost savings and economic stimulus sitting on the table because of inertia, emotional attachment to the bill, and probably some lobbying from paper and ink companies (just think how much paper and ink we’re buying to print all those bills).

Resistance to change and emotional attachment will produce arguments that people don’t want to carry around that much change and will therefore empty it from their pockets and take it out of circulation. But the experience of say every other developed economy in the world shows that a coins work.

This is a nonpartisan bill that will save money and stimulate the economy. There’s simply no good reason not to do it. So take the time to go to www.senate.gov and send an email to your senators asking them to support Senate Bill 2049, the Currency Optimization, Innovation, and National Savings Act. Feel free to use anything from this blog post to make your case.

President Obama has proposed reducing corporate income tax rates from 35% to 28% while eliminating some loopholes to make up the lost revenue. I think it would be interesting to consider a more controversial change:

What would happen if we eliminated corporate income taxes?

This kind of suggestion would be greeted with elation from libertarians and some Republicans, and generally derided by liberal Democrats like me, but if done correctly, it might actually turn out to be a pretty good idea.

We have to recognize first that any tax levied will result in some amount of tax avoidance behavior.  Some of this we want, like charitable contributions and reinvesting in the. But the behavior we don’t want, like off-shoring and spending millions on accountants and lobbyists to create and exploit loopholes, can be really costly to economic efficiency. What you get is really huge companies that pay no income taxes, and due to various tax credits, actually get money back from the government after making billions in profits.

Corporate income taxes, in spite of the fact that many large corporations pay little or no income taxes, are also used as an excuse for having a regressive 15% tax rate on capital gains, the notion being that dividends are being taxed twice, once as corporate profit and once again as capital gains to share holders.

I think we would potentially capture more revenue if we eliminate corporate income taxes altogether, but tax all capital gains as ordinary income.  This would eliminate the “double taxation” argument, and eliminate a lot of inefficiency involved in off-shoring.

If we just say that all corporate income is tax free there would be new kinds of tax avoidance behavior. If it is all business profit, then I can just quit my job and work as an independent contractor and suddenly I pay no taxes.  So I think the first rule is that for this to apply you must pay dividends at a certain level relative to profits.  We would also need protections against CEOs simply living off the company bank account. Some other rules would be needed to get back the behavior we do want that corporate taxes drive. For example, for a corporation to be tax free it must also give no money to lobbyists or political campaigns. Violations of regulatory rules, instead of resulting in one time fines that large corporations are more than willing to pay, result in revocation of tax free status until the company passes a review demonstrating that they have cleaned up their act and paid restitution. There would be no tax loopholes for corporations outside of this policy, so if you get caught and are forced to pay taxes, you pay the full amount, no exceptions. There should also be some level of profit as a percentage of revenue above which you go back to paying income tax, to continue to encourage reinvestment and hiring.

I would love to have real economists look at this idea and run the numbers to see how it would affect income tax receipts. Perhaps they have, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen it addressed in quite this way. Part of the reason for that is likely that conservatives would only look at eliminating corporate taxes and not doing any of the other mitigating things I’ve mentioned, while liberals scorn the very notion without considering that it could be a more practical means of attaining very liberal goals. My personal guess is that we would not see much decrease in tax receipts, and maybe even an increase. All dividends would be taxed as normal income, and hedge fund managers who currently pay 15% would suddenly be paying 38% on their millions in annual income. That’s a lot of money.

At the same time, businesses should save money by not having to work as hard at avoiding taxes. Not to mention we would move at least some jobs back to America. We’ll never be able to compete with offshore locations in terms of labor costs, lax environmental regulation, and cheap transportation, but some kinds of businesses are less affected by these costs and would move back. Financial services companies would be delighted to move back to the U.S. so there would be plenty of money and jobs coming back to America. States like Florida and Texas that have no state income tax could become new centers of finance.

Nevertheless, I’m not foolish enough to think that I’ve just solved a huge problem with a simple solution that no one ever thought of before. I expect there are holes in my idea, but I just can’t think of any that would be insurmountable, except for the political ones.

Imagine you work for a large corporation, and it provide you with health insurance. Let’s also say that, like Facebook, the corporation has no board of directors and its CEO also holds a controlling interest in the company. Now imagine that the CEO one day became a Jehovah’s Witness. Jehovah’s Witnesses do not believe in blood transfusions, so the CEO goes out and changes the company health insurance to a special JW plan that doesn’t provide coverage for transfusions. Now if you need a blood transfusion to save your life you’re going to have to pay out of pocket for it. I don’t know what that costs, probably a lot.
Absurd? Yes. Ridiculous? Yes. Your employer is forcing you to live by his religious views. That’s fundamentally wrong and essentially discriminatory.

So why is coverage for birth control different? It’s not. Birth control has medical uses far beyond contraception, but even if it didn’t, it’s still basic preventative health care that saves a lot of money down the line. And employers shouldn’t come between patients and their doctors, even if the employer is associated with the Catholic Church. So as long as we’re mandating that plans cover certain items, birth control should be one of them, and all plans should cover it, even if that means that at some multi-layered distance, a Catholic is paying for something he doesn’t like. Because you wouldn’t let a Jehovah’s Witness get away with not covering a blood transfusion he didn’t like.

In the Cincinnati area Catholic affiliated hospitals and health care groups employ over 17,000 people. Now I don’t know the complexities of those groups, how strongly they are affiliated, and how many employees would be affected by Catholic hospitals being exempted from covering birth control, but it would absolutely be thousands of doctors, nurses, orderlies, technicians, cafeteria workers, and janitors of varying beliefs and needs. And most of the women in that group use some form of birth control. Not only that, the Catholic bishops want every employer who happens to be Catholic (or any other religion) exempted from covering birth control, not just Catholic hospitals and universities.

Requiring employers to cover birth control is not religious discrimination. Employers forcing their employees to pay for coverage based on some religious belief of the employer is discrimination. It is discrimination against employees with different beliefs and it is discrimination against women.

Now, if you can handle some NSFW language and a lot of righteously angry feminism, there’s a lot more about this topic starting here, and she’s dead on.