Archive for August, 2008

Inequality in America

August 24, 2008

We keep hearing about rising inequality. But it isn’t that the rich are getting richer while the poor get poorer—it’s just the rich getting richer. Some who vent about this sound as though the very existence of wealthy people is, per se, a bad thing. Is this at bottom just plain envy?
But here’s one key point: even if the rich are racing ahead faster, it’s with diminishing returns, because there’s only so much added quality of life you can buy. A Mercedes is a better car, but a Hyundai gets you there all the same; a wide screen plasma TV is nice, but on a plain old set the pleasure of watching a football game is not greatly less. A $5,000,000 income doesn’t make your life a hundred times as good as with a $50,000 income. The benefits of technology, innovation, entrepreneurialism, and competition have been improving things more strongly for Joe Sixpack than for Joe Megabucks, because the mass market is far the larger, and that’s where the real money is to be made. Thus you no longer need be “rich” to have a car, TV, refrigerator, gourmet food, and even a nifty vacation trip.
Different income groups do still spend money differently, with the rich spending a higher share of income on services, as against “non-durables” like food and clothing. And a recent study (Christian Broda and John Romalis, “Inequality and Prices: Does China Benefit the Poor in America?” University of Chicago Business School) found that, for most of the past three decades, prices for services have risen faster than for non-durables. In particular, Chinese imports helped to lower prices and widen variety for the less affluent more than for the rich. The study’s authors calculate that this canceled out any seeming rise in inequality that might appear from looking at incomes in isolation.
All of the foregoing suggests that bottom line quality of life has actually been converging, with today’s non-rich enjoying far more of life’s amenities than in past epochs. There is no longer such a vast gulf between the rich and the rest. Once you achieve a decent living standard, additional toys don’t much affect your basic happiness. That’s why, in surveys, self-reported “life satisfaction” is similar across income groups. In America, and other advanced nations, the dream of equality is truly being realized in the ways that really count.

We are all Georgians

August 13, 2008

Georgia became independent during the break-up of the USSR in 1991. Ever since, Russia, regretting this, has been making mischief. Russia — even while violently opposing the concept of secessionism with respect to Chechnya — instigated and supported the secession of two provinces of Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russia says it has a lot of its citizens in South Ossetia. It does only because it has connived at South Ossetia’s secession, put its troops in South Ossetia as so-called “peacekeepers” and given Russian passports to the inhabitants. All of this is utterly disgraceful on Russia’s part.
Recently Georgia’s democratically elected President Saakashvili — whom Putin loathes because Saakashvili is in fact legitimately elected — tried to reassert Georgian sovereignty in South Ossetia which, again, is within its borders. Russia has used this as a pretext to not only invade South Ossetia, but to go much farther, bombing and destroying way beyond South Ossetia, its clear aim being to just give Georgia and Saakashvili a bloody nose, to destabilize the country, to get rid of Saakashvili, and teach the lesson that it’s a bully who’d better be accommodated in whatever it wants.
This is totally unacceptable. And the response of the West has been pathetically limp. Barack Obama talks about diplomacy, and going to the UN Security Council. Perhaps he has forgotten that Russia has a veto in the Security Council. In cases like this, the UN is simply not available to provide any remedy. John McCain had previously proposed creating a league of democratic nations, outside the UN system, to provide a kind of legitimacy for the good guys to take needed action without having to get the permission of the bad guys. It’s a pity this proposal had not been adopted earlier; it might have been quite good to have such an organization in this Georgia crisis.
In any case, it is urgent that we get our act together and make clear to Russia that there is a price to be paid for this kind of bloody behavior. We must make Russia pay a price even if that entails accepting costs to ourselves in doing so. It’s worth the cost.

On Tuesday August 19, at noon, at the Albany Public Library on Washington Avenue, I will be presenting a review of Robert Kagan’s book, The Return of History and the End of Dreams. Kagan’s book is obviously intended as a riposte to Francis Fukuyama’s 1992 book, The End Of History and the Last Man. Fukuyama had argued in essence not that historical events are over, but that the broad process of history, in terms of Man’s search for a societal model, had reached a conclusion: that liberal democracy and free market economics is the final model, that satisfies Man’s primordial hunger for what he called “thymos,” a word derived from Plato, roughly translated as “spiritedness,” and entailing the quest for recognition as beings of dignity and worth. Kagan, however, maintains that geopolitical competition among nations has not gone away, that the world is still divided between democracies and autocracies, and that the latter are behaving in accordance with the ancient model of power politics.
The other day Kagan commented on the radio that the Georgia situation confirms his thesis: history is back. However, Kagan’s book is not as pessimistic as you might think. In fact, his ultimate conclusion is merely that there was too much optimism at the end of the Cold War, and today there is actually too much pessimism. While democracy does not prevail by grace of some ineluctable force, it can prevail by our efforts on its behalf. We must not complacently shirk those efforts.
While it is true that we confront the same bad old Russia, operating in a Nineteenth Century manner, the terrain in which it operates has completely changed, with most of the rest of the world having moved on to the Twenty-first century. And even with the Western response as pusillanimous as it’s been, nevertheless Russia has been obliged to halt its Georgia invasion. In today’s world, Russia cannot simply annex Georgia — as it had in fact done in the past. It is indeed a different world now.

Potemkin Security

August 3, 2008

My daughter, Elizabeth Robinson, age 15, recently traveled to Europe and was stopped by Security at JFK Airport because her name matched one on a terrorist watch list. (She was ultimately allowed to board.)
The 7/31 USA Today has a story saying that the Transportation Security Administration is now threatening to fine airlines up to $25,000 when they erroneously tell passengers they are on a terrorist watch list.
A number of things struck me about this story. First, it mentioned that the list has four hundred thousand names. Four hundred thousand! And according to the story, if your name produces an apparent match, you can’t print a boarding pass at home or at a kiosk, and must go to a check-in counter — “with ID to show that [you] are not a suspected terrorist.”
I don’t know about you, but I do not possess an ID that says, “Frank S. Robinson is not a suspected terrorist.” How do you show that you are not a suspected terrorist?
But, in practice, what apparently happens is that you go to the counter, you show your ID, and they say “sorry about that,” and you fly. Unless you are wearing a turban and carrying a shotgun.
So my real question is: WHAT IS THE F—ING POINT?
What, a terrorist is not going to be able to get a driver’s license or a passport? Or, is he going to say, “That’s right. That’s me on that list, because I’ve been identified by the government as having been to a terrorist training camp in Afghanistan run by Al Qaeda. So you’d best keep me off that plane.”
I believe he might instead . . . lie.
I would like to know whether this whole watch-list foolishness has EVER ONCE been known to actually keep a a dangerous person off a plane.
If you are really a terrorist intending to do something bad, and you think it’s possible the government has somehow or other gotten your name onto this very well-publicized list, what would you do? Forget the plan? Or, perhaps — travel under a false name and get some phony ID. How hard can that be?
So, I repeat: WHAT IS THE F—KING POINT of the watch list?
And another thing that struck me: if a passenger is inconvenienced, the government will fine the airline. I thought the airlines were doing all this because it was the government that wanted them to. Isn’t it the government that is responsible for creating the watch list? What does the government expect the airlines to do, to avoid these kinds of situations? And — if a passenger is inconvenienced — shouldn’t the passenger get the penalty payment — not the government??

… And another thing

August 3, 2008

In the same 7/31 USA Today is a letter to the Editor:
“Commentary writer Marisa Trevino asked ‘Do we really want to waste the talent of these ambitious students?’ The question is irrelevant because the students she was referring to are illegal immigrants in the United States and should be deported. Besides, since when does talent make a country’s immigration laws invalid . . . ?”
Some of our minds have been truly warped by this immigrant issue, fixated on a horror of the idea of people coming into this country — so fixated on throwing people out of the country that we become blind to what these people can contribute to our country, and are in fact contributing. These people are here to do hard work that is by and large underpaid. If anything, it’s US exploiting THEM, not them taking advantage of us. Many of them even pay Social Security taxes, on which they will never collect benefits. Certainly, all in all, they add to our GDP, which makes every American richer, and strengthens our country. But — never mind all that. They’re illegal. Throw ’em out. Including those students mentioned by the letter writer. America doesn’t need more brainpower, thank you very much, we have quite enough.
I’d rather give citizenship to a bright, ambitious go-getting illegal immigrant, who had the spunk to brave the dangers and even risk his life to get here to work — and throw out some writers of letters to the editor instead.