Monday, December 31, 2012

Michael Medved’s Big Lies: A Review of "The 5 Big Lies About American Business" by Michael Medved

During my winter break from seminary I thought I would try to read some books from a different perspective for the sake of intellectual honesty. One of my selections was Michael Medved’s The 5 Big Lies About American BusinessMedved’s book is predictable faire of libertarian economic ideology (errr, policy) that’s light on data and long on anecdotal “evidence.”  Yet that’s absolutely the point, to throw in just enough numbers to convince the average, un-educated, non-critical Medved loyalist that his assertions are legit while also lacing apropos stories throughout to appeal to their emotion. Conveniently, conservatives of his ilk have a disdain for academics because of their “haughty intellectualism” and “liberalism.” Translation, academia can generally see through the B.S. so many conservatives put out under the guise of “fact.” Since these conservatives can’t dispute these critiques their only option is to disparage the source.

Medved’s “Five Lies” are “The current downturn means the death of Capitalism,” “When the rich get richer, the poor get poorer,” “Business executives are overpaid and corrupt,” “Big business is bad, small business is good,” and “Government is more fair and reliable than business.”  His usage of moral vocabulary helps his cause, because words like “good,” “corrupt,” “fair,” and so on are all relative depending on the context and therefore difficult to critique.  I decided to take a closer look at the one “lie” that lends itself to actual data analysis; specifically “When the rich get richer, the poor get poorer.”  

Medved proudly asserts “the claim that progress for the rich causes pain for the poor is logically impossible, historically unsupportable, and culturally (and psychologically) unforgivable” (69-70).  Despite strong words, his supporting evidence is actually quite sparse. I kept flipping to the back of the book looking for the bibliography, but was disappointed every time; too often Medved depends on broad generalizations or “studies” from obviously biased sources like the Heritage Foundation or Cato Institute.  Medved’s biggest error is his interpretation of growth amongst low and middle incomes. No one would disagree that families make more now than they did years ago, what actually needs to be analyzed is whether that growth has been enough to keep pace with the rising costs of everything else (exemplified in line graph below). Not intended to be exact, the graph illustrates that while median incomes have increased, incomes aren’t growing in relation to costs, and when compared to the income growth amongst the top-earning Americans the rich are actually getting richer while the poor get poorer.

Here’s some statistics in response to Medved. In the 30 years I’ve been alive, the median home price has gone up over 200%, the cost of a new car has gone up 275%, and gas has gone up over 220% while median income has only gone up about 81%.  No one would argue that median income hasn’t increased. The real question is whether income is keeping pace with the increases everywhere else.  Data shows that isn’t the case, in fact income has flat-lined, barely keeping up with inflation while the top income brackets have increased exponentially in the same time frame.  Further, the non-partisan Economic Policy Institute asserts that median income households actually lost wealth the last 30 years, which makes absolute sense considering households are spending a bigger chunk of their income for the basics of life.  Consider also that most spending by the “middle class” during the 00’s was on credit.

In another attempt to make his point, Medved uses a “study” by the Heritage Foundation  which asserts households are better off today because of the prevalence of TV’s and microwave’s in the average home (85-86).  A microwave cost $200 in 1984 but I can get one for $50 today.  Additionally, my father-in-law paid a couple thousand for a large flat screen a few years ago; I paid a few hundred last year. Technology almost always gets cheaper, so more families having a TV or microwave doesn’t really represent an increase in overall “wealth.”  Another head-scratcher is the assertion that “eighty-nine percent of the poor report their families have ‘enough’ food to eat, while only 2 percent say they ‘often’ don’t get enough to eat” (86).  The statistics from Feeding America tell a completely different story in which 1 out of 6 Americans lived in “food insecure households.”

Economic inequality is a serious problem in our country, and data clearly shows its only getting worse. It’s time we support fiscal policy as a nation that reduces the gap between rich and poor. And no, I’m not talking about “wealth redistribution” or “socialism,” I’m talking about paying Americans what they deserve.  The wages of the average American worker have been stagnating for the last decade.  Federal minimum wage is $7.25/hour which equates to $15,080/year, below the poverty line for a family of two! Sure, not a lot of folks make just minimum wage, but since much job growth has been in retail and home health care, folks are making $8 or $9/hour, a whopping $18,700/year.  Businesses are making money hand over fist and US workers are the most productive in the world, the problem is that earnings aren’t “trickling down.” We’ve tried lower taxes for top earners for about 10 years and inequality has only increased.  Lower taxes only incentivize top-earners to keep earnings for themselves. A higher marginal tax rate would encourage those same earners to reinvest the money in their business instead of pocketing the money for themselves, which would translate to higher wages and more jobs.

Frankly, I just don’t get it. I may be just plain stupid (and I’ve admitted such before) but to me Medved’s book represents just more justification of self-serving economic policy that I’ve already critiqued (in an oddly popular blog).  Medved may make a reasonable point here or there in his book (like obviously not all business execs are horrible people), but it assumes Capitalism to be a quasi-divine system. Which brings me to a related point, Medved’s usage of Scripture throughout the book is reprehensible.  The Bible has LOTS to say about money and the rich, almost entirely all negative, which he somehow ignores. I’ve criticized Christians for their blind acceptance of conservative economic policy as a way to ease their conscience and I think this is more of the same.  Leaders in Washington are talking right this minute about what to do with the looming “fiscal cliff.”  We can either stick it to the little guy again by cutting needed benefits like food stamps or ask high earners to contribute a little more to society. It’s time to do the right thing America.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Why it’s Time to Reinstate the Assault weapons ban—my proposal after the Sandy Hook tragedy

Yet again a community in America is dealing with the deaths of innocent adults and children due to senseless gun violence after the horrific tragedy in Newtown. Lest we forget the movie theater shooting in Aurora,  the Sikh temple shooting in Wisconsin, the mall shooting in Oregon, or the seemingly innumerable shootings that have taken place in recent memory there seems to be a never ending cycle of mourning the victims then shortly thereafter forgetting about whatever happened—and the same  thing will happen again this time—or maybe it won’t.  

Folks across America are beginning to try to end this pattern by demanding change to our nation’s gun laws. I wrote after the Aurora shooting of my feelings on guns and gun related tragedies, but I think that far too often general thoughts are buried amongst the avalanche of emotion surrounding gun control/gun rights topic (for  thoughts on gun culture, try here and here).   So, I’d like to propose something very specific—that America must reinstate the assault weapons ban. The Federal Assault Weapons Ban (AWB) was passed in 1994, banning certain types of semi-automatic firearms or “assault weapons.”  The law was limited to a ten year period and expired in 2004.  There have been multiple attempts to reinstate the law, all being unsuccessful so far.

I know, I know, “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” But people are using guns to kill those people—and that’s my problem (When steak knives become the leading instrument used in violent deaths, I’ll be the first one to propose new regulations on steak knives).  But to be honest, guns do kill people—there are over 500 accidental gun deaths a year. There’s also the argument that more guns would make people safe. There are roughly 300 million guns in America, what will make us safer? 400 hundred million, 500 hundred million? Gun rights activists correlate the lack of gun deaths in Switzerland to the prevalence of guns among the populace.  Yet nations such as Britain, Australia, and Japan with very strict gun control laws and very low gun related deaths  defy the argument that taking away the guns will make law-abiding citizens less safe.  Britain and Australia both enacted tough laws after similar gun massacres so those now calling for more gun control in the wake of this tragedy are not without precedence.

All the young victims in CT were shot with an “assault weapon,” and similar weapons were also used in Aurora and Oregon.  The shooter in Wisconsin used extra-capacity magazines for his handgun. Yes, handguns are used to kill people every day, but these assault  weapons increase the death toll exponentially. Oddly, the weapons used in Aurora, Oregon, Wisconsin, and CT were all purchased legally yet were not used illegally until they were used in accordance with their designation as “assault weapons.”  There is no reason for the public to have access to these dangerous weapons; they represent a serious public health risk.  Gun advocates will counter that guns are for protection, sporting, or hunting.  OK, let’s go with that.  I have no problems with hunting rifles, and I’ll even concede handguns for protection, but it’s the assault weapons that need to go.  So, I’d like to propose reinstating the AWB with some modifications. 

First, I propose banning so-called assault weapons. As evidenced by the fact that the CT shooter’s gun was “grandfathered” in despite stricter gun laws being enacted, simply restricting future manufacturing or purchasing of these weapons is not enough, rather all of these weapons must be taken out of the public.  For such I propose something like the following, returning the gun to the manufacturer in exchange for another gun or allowing these weapons to be permanently stored at gun ranges.  The latter would solve the fear of the “government taking all our guns” and still allow them to be used for “sporting.”  If such weapons really are just for “sporting,” there should be no complaints about them only being available at a gun range.  Privately owned businesses could store the individual’s weapons for them and make them available for use at the range only.
Second, I would propose limiting the sale of high-capacity magazines.  As evidenced in Wisconsin and Aurora, such magazines allow an individual to do a large amount of damage without even having to reload.   Again, gun advocates claim these are used at firing ranges, fine—then these same folks shouldn’t have any problem keeping them at the range only.
Finally, for those who fear the “slippery slope” that limiting some guns will lead to the eventual illegality of all guns, I propose the law also have an expiration date, such as the initial AWB did in 2004.  For the period of time the law would be in enactment, I propose independent studies be implemented to examine the effectiveness of the law. For example, did the ban on assault weapons lead to a decrease in death by assault weapons?  At the end of the period, the law would be re-examined, utilizing the studies to determine if the law was effective. Such could be done repeatedly.

This is my proposal, some will think it goes way to far, some will think it doesn’t go far enough, but either way, something has to change.   Our nation cannot continue to suffer repeated tragedies and sit idly by—this can and must be a defining moment in the history of our nation.  Will we take steps to create a safer society? Or will we simply kick the can down the road and forget all about this horrible tragedy and whether anything could be done to prevent it…until the next tragedy strikes? 

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Let's make Affordable Education a reality for ALL.

This past semester I had the opportunity to travel down to the U.S.- Mexican border with a group from Phillips Theological Seminary to study border and immigration issues with an organization called Borderlinks.  It was an eye-opening experience; we traveled across the border for two days, staying at a local community center in Nogales, Senora Mexico.  For the other days, we were in Tucson, Arizona and the surrounding area exploring the many facets of this complex issue.  One of the last days of the trip we had the opportunity to sit and talk with a group called Scholarships A-Z.  This group was founded by young adults seeking to create a resource for themselves and their fellow students to find scholarships to help them pay for college.  These students are children of undocumented immigrants and their organization is to help similar students fund higher education since their current immigration status makes them ineligible for any kind of government aid or even “in-state” tuition.

My group and I sat in the basement of the Borderlinks facility in a clutter-filled office that had only been recently given to Scholarships A-Z for use, and listened to two of the leaders of the group (both children of undocumented immigrants, both full-time students at the local community college, both trying to fulfill their dreams of receiving an education) share their story with us. These young Americans shared the story of how their organization came to be, how they had struggled –and continue to struggle—finding ways to finance their education because of their legal status and how they and others like them decided to start this organization to meet those needs.  These were smart guys; both had excelled in high school and had bright futures ahead.  The only problem was that their immigration status made financing that education nearly impossible, so they had set out to organize a list of scholarships that were available to other young students in their situation.

As I sat listening to them that afternoon, I was less than sympathetic.  Already feeling uneasy from a stomach bug I had apparently caught while south of the border, I was dealing with the mental anxiety of having just found out my grandmother had been diagnosed with cancer when I was calling my mom to tell her that my baby daughter had been taken to the hospital the night before.  I already had a lot on my plate.  Sure, they had a sad story, but so do millions of other American kids from poor backgrounds trying to achieve a better life.  After all, I know firsthand how hard financing higher education can be.  My wife and I have taken out countless loans to pay for our education and probably will still be paying them off by time by own daughter is ready for college.  Oh, yeah, and I’ve got to somehow save up for her college. “We’ve all got problems,” I thought.

Then it hit me, the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., came sounding forth in my mind.   Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” Here I was, worried only about myself, forgetting that I will never have justice if these young men don’t have justice, I will never find affordable education if these young men can’t find affordable education.  I realized, then and there, that justice for them—affordable higher education for these young men—whether it be in the form of scholarships, government loans, pell grants, or instate tuition would be in turn justice—or affordable education for myself, my wife, and my young daughter.  Because we are all interconnected, when one suffers, we all suffer. When one is healed, we are all healed.  When one finds affordable education, we all find affordable education. 

I continue to be amazed how easy it is for me to take that same path, to worry only about myself and my own needs.  I see that same tendency so often in our society.  As we fight for resources, we grab them for ourselves, squeezing them ever so tightly in our fists. Yet, what happens, the tighter we squeeze, the more they slip out through the cracks between our fingers.  If we would rather open our hand, we would find that there is enough for me, enough for you, and enough for these young men in Tucson. 

One of the ways we can make affordable education a reality today is by supporting the passage of the DREAM act legislation in our own states and nationwide. In supporting the DREAM act, You support high-schoolers across the country dreaming of achieving an education for themselves, for their family, for their country, and for their world. Get more info about the DREAM act here. I encourage you to call your congressman, which you can find here, because affordable education must be a reality for ALL.