Laughter

the human race has one really effective weapon


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Why I Am Opposed to the War (Everywhere)

photo by Marvin Koner

photo by Marvin Koner

As Martin Luther King Jr. Day and the presidential inauguration coincide for just the second time in history, many people will sit down to hear or see clips from King’s legendary “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on 28 August 1963.

Due in part to its composition, King received the Nobel Peace Prize and Time magazine named him “Man of the Year.” It was so powerful and influential that it prompted the FBI to describe King as “the most dangerous Negro of the future in this Nation from the standpoint of communism, the Negro and national security.” Attended by over 200,000 civil rights protesters, it is rightly called “one of the defining moments of the American Civil Rights Movement” and regarded as one of the greatest speeches in American and world history.

But King wrote numerous sermons and delivered many more powerful speeches calling for justice and equality among men and nations, some of them even more revolutionary than “I Have a Dream.” Among these is “Why I Am Opposed to the War in Vietnam.” Delivered as a sermon to the Ebenezer Baptist Church on 30 April 1967, it continues a line of thought King began with “Beyond Vietnam/A Time to Break Silence,” a speech he gave just a few weeks earlier in New York City, on 4 April 1967. That speech, which calls the United States “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today,” did not meet with the universal applause that “I Have a Dream” enjoyed. According to Wikipedia:

King’s opposition [to Vietnam] cost him significant support among white allies, including President Johnson, union leaders and powerful publishers.”The press is being stacked against me”, King said, complaining of a double standard that applauded his non-violence at home, but deplored it when applied “toward little brown Vietnamese children.” Life magazine called the speech ‘demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi‘ and The Washington Post declared that King had ‘diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country, his people.’

King recognized a connection between capitalism, war, and inequality that was too radical for the public to consider, much less accept. In “Why I Am Opposed” he reminds us of the economic dimensions of the war: “it is estimated that we spend $500,000 to kill each enemy soldier [in Vietnam], while we spend only fifty-three dollars for each person classified as poor, and much of that fifty-three dollars goes for salaries to people that are not poor. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor, and attack it as such.” Accusations of communist sympathy were subsequently leveled against him.

Nearly 46 years later, this problem still runs rampant. The connections between capitalism, war, and poverty are perhaps stronger than ever. We could easily replace the word “Vietnam” in his speech with “Afghanistan” or “Iraq” and all meaning would be preserved. And so his speech remains a challenge to this country.

An edited version of “Why I Am Opposed to the War in Vietnam” was eventually released on album by Black Forum Records. At 22 minutes long, it is approximately half the length of the original sermon, but it preserves most—if not all—of King’s strongest points and most damning accusations. It also contains one of my favorite King quotes, which reminds us not to despair and that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

I’ve posted the edited and full-length versions of this speech below, via Youtube. You can read along by visiting Berkeley’s Library website, which contains a complete transcript. And since today is Inauguration Day, I’ve also posted a clip of Princeton professor Cornel West taken from C-SPAN’s coverage of the “Future without Poverty” panel at George Washington University. In it, West questions Obama’s use of King’s bible during his inauguration and reminds us of the revolutionary spirit King wielded. The same one that made him a target of the FBI and eventually cost him his life.

Edited Version:

Full Version:

Cornel West:

Happy Martin Luther King Jr. day.

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Land of the Rich

image taken from Wall Street Journal

image taken from Wall Street Journal

The Wall Street Journal continues to cover the American Taxpayer Relief Act by focusing on how it will affect the most affluent Americans. Earlier this month, I linked to a WSJ article that claimed “most of the changes in the [Relief Act] affect high earners.” They made almost no effort to explain how the bill will affect tax payers making less than $113,700 and only briefly mentioned the expiration of the payroll tax credit.

In another article written by Laura Saunders and published by the WSJ on the 4th of January, the above graphic is provided to help contextualize the data. Notice that nobody makes less than $180,000 a year, and that the married couple with four kids makes over half a million dollars a year.

As one blogger noted, the median income in the United States right now is $50,000 a year. Last July, NPR reported that only 4.2% of American households make between $150,000 and $200,000—and roughly 4.5 million Americans make $200,000 or more. That adds up to just 3.9% of households. Nevertheless, Saunders leads her article with the claim that “the top 1% of taxpayers will bear the biggest burden.” She acknowledges that the poor will pay more as well, but then spends most of her article detailing how the rich will be affected, and how they might cope.

Obviously the WSJ knows its audience, and I understand wanting to cater to them. But Americans not represented by the above graphic may want to get their information from other sources, because the WSJ is apparently too distracted and disconnected to report on all aspects of the tax bill.


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White House Rejects Proposal for Death Star Construction

death_star_explodesUnder Barack Obama, an online petitioning platform has been added to the White House’s website allowing anyone with a computer the opportunity to petition Obama’s administration to take any action they wish. After drafting a petition, you’re given 30 days to obtain 25,000 signatures from other individuals who think you’ve got a good idea. Should you get that much support, your petition will receive an official response from the White House.

One such petition asked that a Death Star be constructed for the purpose of spurring job creation and strengthening our national defense. And by the miracle of social networking it received the 25,000 signatures required for a response. Someone using this kind of tool to play a practical joke or make a stupid proposal isn’t all that newsworthy or surprising, but the White House response is hilarious:

This Isn’t the Petition Response You’re Looking For

By Paul Shawcross

The Administration shares your desire for job creation and a strong national defense, but a Death Star isn’t on the horizon. Here are a few reasons:

  • The construction of the Death Star has been estimated to cost more than $850,000,000,000,000,000. We’re working hard to reduce the deficit, not expand it.
  • The Administration does not support blowing up planets.
  • Why would we spend countless taxpayer dollars on a Death Star with a fundamental flaw that can be exploited by a one-man starship?

However, look carefully (here’s how) and you’ll notice something already floating in the sky — that’s no Moon, it’s a Space Station! Yes, we already have a giant, football field-sized International Space Station in orbit around the Earth that’s helping us learn how humans can live and thrive in space for long durations. The Space Station has six astronauts — American, Russian, and Canadian — living in it right now, conducting research, learning how to live and work in space over long periods of time, routinely welcoming visiting spacecraft and repairing onboard garbage mashers, etc. We’ve also got two robot science labs — one wielding a laser — roving around Mars, looking at whether life ever existed on the Red Planet.

You can read the original petition and the full response by clicking this link.

Thanks to Reason and Politics for the heads up. It’s good to find a political story you can laugh about.


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Coloring the Tax Hike

american_dollarThe American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012 is the first big political story of 2013. Reactions have been mixed, but I’ve noticed that many news reports have focused on how the bill will affect the wealthiest Americans. This despite the fact that 77 percent of the nation will see a tax hike this year. Think Progress has published a helpful “by the numbers” article that explains how the bill affects payers at different levels:

The first major tax increase for the wealthy in 20 years. Allowing the expiration of some of the Bush tax cuts amounts to the first major tax increase for the wealthiest Americans since the 1990s.

The Bush tax cuts expire for just 0.7 percent of taxpayers. The expiration will occur on income in excess of $400,000 (or $450,000 for a couple). This translates into “a little over 1 million Americans” according to the Tax Policy Center. The capital gains and dividend tax will also increase to 20 percent for wealthy earners.

The top 1 percent will pay an average of $73,633 more in taxes. Bloomberg News noted that, “among households with incomes between $500,000 and $1 million, taxes would go up by an average of $14,812.”

77 percent of households will see a tax hike. Due to the expiration of a cut in the payroll tax, most workers will see their taxes increase slightly in 2013. The expiration of the payroll tax cut will deal a significant blow to the economy.

Beside the news that this is the first significant tax increase for the rich in 20 years, that last bit of information is probably the biggest story to emerge from the bill. As the article says, the richest 0.7 percent of taxpayers amounts to only 1 million Americans or so.  Bloomberg notes that the majority of Americans will see a tax increase “because of the expiration of a payroll tax cut.” While they claim that the heaviest “burden” will fall on the richest tax payers, they also admit that the so-called burden “is concentrated at the very top of the income scale.”

The Wallstreet Journal paints a similar picture, but their report emphasizes the purported effect on the rich to an even greater degree:

But most of the changes in the bill affect high earners. All told, more than 90% of the tax increases in the bill would fall on households with income of $1 million or more, said economist Roberton Williams of the Tax Policy Center, a nonpartisan group in Washington.

For a couple with one child and $1 million of income, including $250,000 of itemized deductions, the tax increase from higher rates and other provisions taking effect next year would run almost $37,000 over what they paid in 2012, according to estimates made by Dave Kautter, an official with the Kogod Tax Center at American University.

There’s no mention of the payroll tax cuts until more than halfway through the article:

For millions of wage earners, the most immediate effect of the bill would be the payroll-tax increase, which would reduce their take-home pay. For an individual earning the maximum 2013 cap of $113,700 or more, the increase would amount to nearly $200 per month.

There aren’t any numbers provided for people making less than $113,700, but at the end of the article they do they mention the American Opportunity Tax Credit, the Child Tax Credit, and the Earned Income Tax Credit. Apparently the rich get taxed and the poor get tax credits.

For someone making $1 million a year, $37,000 is less than four percent of their income. I’ve seen different numbers from different sources, but the middle class is seeing a roughly proportional—though not equal—increase in taxes because the payroll tax cut is expiring. The Associated Press reports that someone making $50,000 a year will pay approximately $1,000 more in taxes in 2013, or roughly two percent of their income. That same Associated Press report, which was used on numerous websites from NPR to Fox News, ends with the following quote from Robertson Williams: “If you’re rich, you’re almost certain to get a big tax increase.” That’s the idea these stories want to leave you with.

And it’s true, the rich are going to pay more in taxes. But the way these stories are reported clearly emphasizes—even exaggerates—this fact. They color the story so as to suggest that the wealthiest citizens will feel the effects of this tax hike the most. But neither the Associated Press nor the WSJ mention effective tax rates or the history of tax cuts for the country’s highest earners. And only Politifact noticed that President Obama broke his promise to close loopholes in corporate tax deductions for CEOs:

Section 162(m) of the Internal Revenue Code, enacted in 1993, limits how much executive compensation can be deducted at publicly traded corporations to $1 million per executive. But the provision has an exception — corporations may deduct “performance-based” compensation. Critics say this amounts to a major loophole, because while shareholders must approve the compensation, they are not required to receive detailed accountings of the compensation plan.

report released in August 2012 by the liberal Economic Policy Institute estimates that tax-deductible executive compensation cost the federal treasury $30.4 billion between 2007 and 2010.

However, no legislation or administration rule revisions addressed the deductibility of CEO pay

In fact, I’ve not read a single comprehensive source that mentions any of this, and I have to believe readers would react differently to the WSJ’s numbers if they had this kind of information at hand.

Conducting a quick Google search or two, I found only one report that emphasized how middle and lower income families might be affected. Brief as it is, NPR published an interesting report by Tamara Keith that focuses on the benefits Bush’s tax breaks for such families:

“I remember when [Bush era tax cuts] went into place and being pleasantly surprised by how much more money we got back,” she says.

In part, that’s because the tax cuts doubled the tax credit for each child from $500 to $1,000. The cuts also created a new tax bracket for the lowest levels of income, which gives most families an $875 break. If these cuts were to expire, the Cartmill-Walling family’s after-tax income would drop by about $2,500.

“That’s a substantial amount of money,” says Cartmill. “Generally … what we do with our tax refund is we use that as kind of our savings in the bank for [if] the car breaks down or the water heater goes or whatever and we have a big expense all at once.”

Among middle income families, does paying more taxes generally mean less money for transportation, savings, paying bills, medicine, and food? That doesn’t seem like an unreasonable assumption. And what about the rich? Do more taxes mean they have to tighten their food budget? Or will they tighten their budgets in other places?

Whether or not this tax hike is a “burden” depends on how people are affected. Cutting back on food expenditures and cutting back on luxury expenditures are two different things. So as usual, the numbers don’t tell the whole story. Worse than that, focusing on the numbers means omitting more important information, like how different groups were benefiting from lower tax rates. If anyone knows of an analysis that takes how people spend their tax money into account, please leave it in the comments. But until I see a credible report that shows the rich suffer from tax hikes the same way lower income families do, I refuse to believe that the rich are suffering an economic burden at all.


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A Sobering Reminder

I can’t pretend I’m unhappy with the results from this year’s presidential election. Of the two candidates who were mostly likely to win, Barack Obama was the one I most wanted in the White House. His opinion on gay marriage alone, as late changing as it was, was nearly enough to sway me to his side. Obamacare, the auto industry bailout, and his tax proposals also won my sympathies.

But there’s plenty about his first four years I’m unhappy with, and William Saletan at Slate has written an excellent article explaining why. In his address to republicans bemoaning the election results, Saletan offers this consolation: “Dear Republicans… Cheer up. The guy we just re-elected is a moderate Republican.”

Find that hard to believe? Keep reading:

Yes, Obama began his presidency with bailouts, stimulus, and borrowing. You know who started the bailouts? George W. Bush. Bush knew that under these exceptionally dire circumstances, bailouts had to be done. Stimulus had to be done, too, since the economy had frozen up. A third of the stimulus was tax cuts. Once the economy began to revive, Obama offered a $4-trillion debt reduction framework that would have cut $3 to $6 of spending for every $1 in tax hikes. That’s a higher ratio of cuts to hikes than Republican voters, in a Gallup poll, said they preferred. It’s way more conservative than the ratio George H. W. Bush accepted in 1990. In last year’s debt-ceiling talks, Obama offered cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid in exchange for revenue that didn’t even come from higher tax rates. Now he’s proposing to lower corporate tax rates, and Republicans are whining that he hacked $716 billion out of Medicare. Some socialist.

There’s much more to Obama’s republican streak than that. Saletan mentions a few, but what he doesn’t mention counts equally as much to this voter: his policies on whistleblowing.

This is a time to celebrate. But we re-elected the president because he represents an alternative to the republican path. We should expect him to fulfill the promise of that image. I’m excited for the next four years, but I will be watching them with a critical (and fair) eye.

photo outside American embassy in Libya


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“It’s not Iraq, but it’s not good, either.”

Glenn Greenwald commenting on the discovery of Chris Steven’s journal by CNN:

What is actually “disgusting” here is that the State Department is exploiting the grief of Chris Stevens’ family in an attempt to suppress and delegitimize reporting that reflects quite poorly on them. As Michael Hastings documented yesterday, the State Department views the revelations from Stevens’ journal as threatening to Hillary Clinton’s reputation, the legacy of the war in Libya, and possibly Obama’s political prospects in an election year.

But the more relevant impact is how this reflects on the war in Libya, flamboyantly celebrated as a grand success by Washington consensus and then all but forgotten. Stevens’ journal is but the latest in a long line of evidence demonstrating how much extreme instability, lawlessness and violence is plaguing that country in the aftermath of the intervention. Wrote Hastings: “As one senior U.S. government official who’d visited Libya told me earlier this summer: ‘It’s not Iraq, but it’s not good, either.'”

With so much media focused on Mitt Romney’s incompetence, stories like this get overlooked. It’s hard to feel enthusiastic about voting for Obama when stories like this one pop up, and it’s not even the scariest one. Most people probably won’t care about how bin Laden was killed, but the Obama administration lied about that to keep up appearances, and his “drone campaign” is much bloodier and  less precise than he wants anyone to believe. Innocent people are dying as a result. But, that’s not a narrative we frequently hear. Greenwald fills in some of the blanks:

…the people in the areas targeted by Obama’s drone campaign are being systematically terrorized. There’s just no other word for it. It is a campaign of terror – highly effective terror – regardless of what noble progressive sentiments one wishes to believe reside in the heart of the leader ordering it. And that’s precisely why the report, to its great credit, uses that term to describe the Obama policy: the drone campaign “terrorizes men, women, and children”.

Along the same lines, note that the report confirms what had already been previously documented: the Obama campaign’s despicable (and likely criminal) targeting of rescuers who arrive to provide aid to the victims of the original strike. Noting that even funerals of drone victims have been targeted under Obama, the report documents that the US has “made family members afraid to attend funerals”

On the home front, Obama’s position on whistle blowers, Wikileaks, and Bradley Manning exemplifies his policy of secrecy abroad, but with the added menace of being closer to home. Greenwald again:

More remarkable is that a Democratic presidential candidate is sticking his chest out and proudly touting that he has tried to imprison more whistleblowers on espionage charges than all previous presidents in history combined: more than the secrecy-loving Bush/Cheney White House, more than the paranoid, leak-hating Nixon administration, more than anyone in American history.

Persecuting and abusing whistleblowers. Indefinitely imprisoning peoplewith no charges. Due process-free assassinations of citizens, even teenagers. Continuous killings of innocent people in multiple Muslim countries.

This isn’t just what Democrats do. It’s what they now boast about, what they campaign on, what they celebrate. That, as much as anything, is the Obama legacy.

That last bit bites the hardest. I remember sitting on my couch and watching Obama win the 2008 elections, and I remember having some naive sense of hope; hope about intelligent foreign policy and transparency in the White House after eight years of dealing with George Bush and company. Now, I’m left wondering who to vote for, because Romney is an even worse choice. The quote I used in the header for this article is in reference to Libya, but it could as easily be about America.