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The Ideology of Superman: Morning in America

This is Part 4 of 7-part series of posts discussing Superman comics and how they reflect American society and culture.

Read the Introduction here.
Read Part 1: The New Deal Democrat here.
Read Part 2: Defender of the Status Quo here.
Read Part 3: Breaking Down the Old Order here.
Read Part 5: Big Business and Brinksmanship here.
Read Part 6: America in the Post-Soviet World (when the post is ready).
Read Part 7: Reconnecting with Humanity here (when the post is ready).

–MORNING IN AMERICA–

The blockbuster comic event Crisis on Infinite Earths wiped the DC Universe’s slate clean in 1986-1987, allowing writer John Byrne to rebuild the character from the ground up. Byrne stripped Superman down to his core elements, while simultaneously building up a large and strong supporting cast. For the first time since Denny O’Neil’s attempt in the 1970s, Superman’s power levels were reigned in. The Man of Steel was still strong, but he no longer boasted every conceivable power.

Byrne also shifted the Clark Kent-Superman dynamic, writing Superman as the alter ego for Clark Kent. Many previous interpretations had portrayed the bumbling Clark Kent as the mask and the strong, confident Superman as the true identity. Byrne reversed this, making Kent confident and successful, and emphasizing Superman as the “mask.”

Clark Kent was re-imagined as a more confident character.

Confidence was returning not only to Kent, but to America as well. Fed Chairman Paul Volker determinedly wrung inflation out of the U.S. economy, while large, simultaneous tax cuts and ramped-up government spending stimulated the stagnant economy (creating huge deficits in the process). Unemployment was dropping and the economy was picking up steam. It was, as Ronald Reagan proclaimed, “morning in America.”

Both Superman and the United States had weathered the turbulence of the 197os and emerged more self-assured, in a more stable environment. John Byrne’s new Superman universe would persist until the late 2000s, when DC’s latest blockbuster event, Flashpoint, would re-launch the character’s books. Tellingly, this same general period parallels the prolonged economic stabilization that followed the U.S.’s defeat of high inflation, and the ascendancy of Washington’s neoliberal consensus. (The neoliberal consensus, broadly, refers to general agreement during this period over issues like deregulation and the lowering trade barriers.) Both periods began in the 1980s and lasted until the Great Recession of the late 2000s.

Of course, this period also saw its share of changes. New creative teams would introduce or remove characters, and take the Superman books in different directions. Retcons (or “retroactive continuity” — essentially when a later comic book retroactively changes something about past continuity) were many and frequent. Likewise, American society would experience the AIDS crisis, the end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Monica Lewinsky scandal, the contentious 2000 presidential election, the September 11 terrorist attacks, Hurricane Katrina, and much, much more. But all of these various events took place in the broader context of a political period ushered in by the Reagan presidency, and thrown into disarray by the War on Terror and the Great Recession (or, in Superman’s case, ushered in by Crisis on Infinite Earths and re-launched by Flashpoint).

In addition to restoring America’s confidence in itself, President Reagan also brought about a revival of nationalism. America in the 1960s and 70s confronted the uncomfortable truth that various social groups were excluded from mainstream society. This, along with the traumas of Watergate and the Vietnam War, fractured a sense of national identity. Reagan restored this vision of an average American identity — the hard-working, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps American, who is able to achieve the American Dream via an honest job. There was great pride in being an American.

At the same time, Mexican immigration was beginning to increase dramatically, leading to an immigration policy overhaul in 1986. As with other periods of high immigration, certain nativist, anti-immigration sentiments began to spread.

John Byrne turned Superman into a full-fledged American citizen.

And so, for the first time, Superman — whose story was always that of the assimilated immigrant — was made a native-born American citizen. To be sure, this new origin still retained immigrant underpinnings. Superman’s biological parents were still Kryptonian. But now, instead of an infant Kal-El (Superman’s Kryptonian name) being rocketed to Earth, a developing fetus was sent in a “birthing matrix” (a futuristic baby incubator, of sorts). When the “birthing matrix” opened on Earth, Superman was born into the world, making him a full-fledged American citizen (thanks to the 14th Amendment).

Now, instead of being a story about an immigrant assimilating into American society, it became a story about the American boy discovering and studying his Kryptonian heritage, but still reaffirming his American identity. As Superman says in Man of Steel #6:

Krypton bred me, but it was Earth that gave me all I am. All that matters. It was Krypton that made me Superman, but it is the Earth that makes me human!

This new origin was later retconned in subsequent stories, reverting Superman back to his immigrant roots, but it nevertheless stands as a testament to the strong sense of a revived American identity.

Continue on to Part 5: Big Business and Brinksmanship here.


The Ideology of Superman: Breaking Down the Old Order

This is Part 3 of 7-part series of posts discussing Superman comics and how they reflect American society and culture.

Read the Introduction here.
Read Part 1: The New Deal Democrat here.
Read Part 2: Defender of the Status Quo here.
Read Part 4: Morning in America here.
Read Part 5: Big Business and Brinksmanship here.
Read Part 6: America in the Post-Soviet World here (when the post is ready).
Read Part 6: Reconnecting with Humanity here (when the post is ready).

–BREAKING DOWN THE OLD ORDER–

Many factors shook American society through the late 1960s and the 1970s: the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, oil shocks, the feminist movement, a new environmentalist movement, rampant inflation coupled with high unemployment, the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., the Watergate scandal and President Nixon’s subsequent resignation, and so on. The first of the baby boom generation (born in the late 1940s) were reaching maturity and causing shockwaves throughout society. Many rejected the traditional outlooks of their parent’s generation, endorsing the counterculture of the hippie movement.

Comics began to leave behind the outdated and outmoded Comics Code Authority. The Amazing Spider-Man #96-98 featured a story arc in which the webslinging hero’s friend, Harry Osborn, is shown to be addicted to pills. The Comics Code Authority refused to give the issues its approving stamp, but Marvel ran it anyway. It sold tremendously well, condemning the Comics Code Authority to increasing irrelevancy.

DC dealt with various issues, including cocaine addiction, in its "Green Lantern" title.

DC also dealt with tough issues, most notably in its Green Lantern title, written by Denny O’Neil. That book constantly pitted Green Lantern (Hal Jordan) in a battle of ideologies against his friend and sometime partner, Green Arrow (Oliver Queen). The series addressed issues such as environmental protection, race relations, and, famously, drug addiction as Green Arrow discovered his ward, Speedy, was addicted to cocaine. And yes, countless others have noted the irony of a character named Speedy eventually being addicted to cocaine, so I don’t need to do so. But really, Green Arrow should have seen the writing on the wall with that one.

Superman’s world changed as well. The late 1960s saw new creative teams and a new art style mark a departure from the Mort Weisinger era (Weisinger edited the Superman comics during the 50s and 60s. He retired from DC Comics in 1970.).

The familiar elements of a Superman story changed drastically. An all-new supporting cast was introduced, new villains challenged the Man of Steel, new situations arose. As CBR’s Robot6 blog notes:

Before long, readers got to know his neighbors in 344 Clinton Street’s apartments, as well as various Kryptonians (like Supergirl, Krypto and the other Super-Pets, the Phantom Zone criminals, and residents of the Bottle City of Kandor).

Indeed, the revamped Superman titles added new characters of their own almost from the very beginning. Cat Grant, Jose “Gangbuster” Delgado, Maggie Sawyer, Colin Thornton, Ron Troupe, Jerry White, and Emil Hamilton all interacted with the existing supporting cast, and with each other, in various combinations.

Print journalist Clark Kent got a promotion when Galaxy Broadcasting System president, Morgan Edge, bought the Daily Planet and made Kent a TV news anchor. Big business was back in action, and deregulation was gaining steam. A Republican governor named Ronald Reagan was gearing up for a presidential bid to unseat incumbent Gerald Ford.

The 12-issue maxi-series "Crisis on Infinite Earths" rebooted the entire DC Universe.

The structure of a Superman story changed as well. Gone were the normality-interrupting gimmicks that defined the previous period. Now, stories were more character-driven. Writers were disassembling the status quo of Clark Kent’s world, albeit less violently than many of the social and economic forces challenging America in the real world.

American confidence was sinking, and with it Superman’s powers. Denny O’Neil’s brief stint on the comic saw Superman’s powers diminished by a third in a story arc entitled “Kryptonite Nevermore!” The description for the collected edition even says that “this story turned Superman’s status quo on its head.” The depowering would not last for long, however, as subsequent writers soon took to re-powering the Man of Steel for their own purposes, but Superman was no longer a static character replaying the same tired formula over and over again. His world was in flux.

Superman’s world would shift hugely one last time in the 1980s, and then settle into a new norm. The huge, company-wide crossover blockbuster event of 1985-86, Crisis on Infinite Earths hit the re-start button on all of DC’s properties, including Superman. The Man of Steel was de-powered yet again, his cast culled and revised, and his convoluted history streamlined, all marking a new normal.

It was morning in America.

 

Continue to Part 4: Morning in America here.


The Ideology of Superman: The New Deal Democrat

This is Part 1 of 7-part series of posts discussing Superman comics and how they reflect American society and culture.

Read the Introduction here.
Read Part 2: Defender of the Status Quo here.
Read Part 3: Breaking Down the Old Order here.
Read Part 4: Morning in America here.
Read Part 5: Big Business and Brinksmanship here.
Read Part 6: America in the Post-Soviet World (when the post is ready).
Read Part 7: Reconnecting with Humanity here (when the post is ready).

–THE NEW DEAL DEMOCRAT–

Superman, "Champion of the Oppressed."

When Action Comics #1 hit newsstands, America was mired in the depths of the Great Depression. Although still nursing an isolationist foreign policy, U.S. domestic policy had shifted radically. An ascendant Democratic Party brandished the full force of the federal government. Without passing any judgment (positive or negative), it is safe to say that during this time unions were strengthened, social safety nets fortified, big business strictly regulated. This was FDR’s New Deal.

New Dealers were self-proclaimed champions of the common man, and Superman was no different. In fact, Action Comics #1 describes him as a “champion of the oppressed.”

This image may seem foreign to many people today who see Superman as the embodiment of the status quo, but Superman of the 1930s and 40s was a social crusader, in both identities. Muckraking journalist Clark Kent spoke truth to power in his job at the Daily Star (later, Daily Planet), while pining after Lois Lane. In another indicator of the times, Lois Lane was introduced as a gossip columnist who wrote “sob stories,” but desperately wanted to a real reporting beat. The ironic twist of the comic was that Lois Lane was “manlier” than bumbling, impotent Clark Kent, though Lane’s pursuit of true news pieces would inevitably lead to some sort of danger from which the masculine ideal (Superman) would need to rescue her.

Superman destroys slums so that the government will be forced to improve living conditions.

Not much escaped the super-crusader’s youthful eyes in those days. Though he could only jump an eighth of mile (a far cry from his later ability to fly), Superman had no trouble taking on wealthy mine owners for the lax safety standards they subjected their workers to, or slick businessmen who tried to co-opt the Superman image for profit. In fact, in Action Comics #8, Superman destroys a city’s dilapidated slums in order to force the government to rebuild better housing. Just before he does so, he tells a group of delinquent children: “It’s not entirely your fault that you’re delinquent– it’s these slums– your poor living conditions.”

As a product of the times, Superman was also something of an isolationist at first. A story spanning Action Comics #1 and 2 saw Superman taking on the fiendish military-industrial complex about 23 years before Dwight D. Eisenhower made the term famous in his farewell address. The complaints sound incredibly familiar: corrupt politicians, influential lobbyists, deceitful arms producers and manufactured wars. Who says Superman isn’t in touch with today’s issues?

Luckily for the fictional Americans of the late 1930s, Superman was around to prevent the United States from being needlessly embroiled in a conflict between two fictional (though perhaps European) countries.

Superman joins the war effort.

All for naught. America’s isolationist tendencies would crumble before the full force of the Pearl Harbor attacks. And even before that, President Roosevelt angled to help the Allied cause in any way possible, through programs such as “Lend-Lease.” And as America mobilized for war, so too did Superman. The July after Pearl Harbor, for instance, Superman was seen on the cover of Superman #17 holding a shocked Adolf Hitler and grotesque Prime Minister Tojo, the much-despised leaders of the Axis Powers.

Families across the United States bought war bonds, rationed goods, planted victory gardens, and build weapons to help the war effort. Superman assaulted Axis leaders on the covers of his comics.

American had entered the second World War.

Continue on to Part 2: Defender of the Status Quo here.


Why the DREAM Act Should Pass

A recent Gallop poll shows a slight majority of Americans favor passing the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act (or DREAM Act). The DREAM Act was first sponsored in 2001 by Republican Senator Orrin Hatch (UT). It passed in the House this year and even had a majority of support in the Senate (55-41), where it failed to overcome a filibuster.

Basically, the bill would provide a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants brought to the United States as children if they join the military or pursue higher education. Read the text of the Senate bill here, and the House bill here.

The consideration of the DREAM Act by this Congress stands as perhaps the most meaningful attempt at immigration reform since the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007. That bipartisan bill (brought down by bipartisan opposition) actually contained the DREAM Act as one of its provisions. While the DREAM Act is only a small step on the longer road to comprehensive reform, it is nevertheless worth passing. Here’s why:

  • It is a step toward resolving the status of illegal immigrants currently living in America
  • It will provide the military with ample recruits
  • It will yield economic benefits for the entire country and raise government revenue

Let’s examine these points one by one.

–RESOLVING THE STATUS OF ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS–

Illegal immigration is tough to measure, but a Department of Homeland Security report places the number of illegal immigrants in America in 2009 at approximately 10.75 million. For context, that’s about 3.5% of the entire U.S. population that same year (which, according to Census Bureau estimates was about 307,006,550 people). That’s bigger than the population of Native Americans (1%) and only a little bit less than the Asian American population (4.6%).

The question that has been plaguing Congress is: what do you do about this sizable segment of the population?

Although many conservatives advocate mass deportation, this is a costly and utterly unrealistic solution. Prominent Republicans like President Bush and George Will have recognized this fact. Immigration and Customs Enforcement head Julie Myers has placed the cost of mass deportation at around $94 billion. From CNN.com:

“An ICE spokesman later said the $94 billion did not include the cost of finding illegal immigrants, nor court costs — dollar amounts that are largely unknowable.

He said the amount was calculated by multiplying the estimated 12 million people by the average cost of detaining people for a day: $97. That was multiplied by the average length of detention: 32 days… Finally, the department looked at personnel costs, bringing the total to roughly $94 billion.”

What is notable about these rough calculations is that they also fail to take into account the economic impacts of mass deportation. Illegal immigrants both work and consume — two basic tenets of any human existence. In fact, many illegal immigrants came to America because of the job availability. In 2009, Mexicans were about 62% of all illegal immigrants. Part of the reason for the influx of undocumented immigrants from Mexico is due to the fact that Mexico’s labor market cannot currently sustain the number of workers it has at its disposal (though this may change in the near future). Put another way, there’s too many people and not enough jobs. Combine this with American companies’ willingness to hire low wage workers in order to keep prices down, and you have a recipe for mass migration, though the poor economy has actually decreased the number of illegal immigrants in America in the last few years.

The result is that illegal immigrants are firmly implanted in the American labor market. In fact, immigrants often produce jobs where they live, mainly due to the basic economic laws of supply and demand. Immigrants, like every else, have to consume in order to survive. They must rent a home, buy food, clothes, etc… This increased economic activity gets money circulating and creates jobs. Removing this large segment of low wage workers would shock the American job market by removing a huge segment of the population that contribute to both supply and demand.

And that’s only if the government had the stomach for taking such drastic measures. For one thing, mass deportation is a political nonstarter. It would be a difficult issue for American businesses to support. The reasons for this are simple: companies always want to have the advantage over their competition, and immigrants provide companies with that advantage. A 2009 paper published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta concluded that “firms employing undocumented workers enjoy a competitive advantage over firms that do not employ undocumented workers.”

Illegal immigrants are too frightened of deportation to complain about poor working conditions or low wages, and so accept these conditions, which drives prices lower for the consumer and provides the company with an advantage. Rising prices would be bad for business, as would be losing thousands of workers, so its easy to see why large businesses would likely oppose a mass deportation plan. The Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, predicts that mass deportation would reduce United States’ GDP by 1.46%. Also, mass deportation could take years to fully implement (and that’s only if it turned out to be possible), and companies would not wish to see their advantage erode if rivals were able to maintain their advantage for a bit longer.

So, that is the state of the debate. To be sure, there are issues I have not touched on, like whether illegal immigrants cause violent crime (studies show they do not, and they may even make some areas safer) or depress wages (maybe for a smallest, lowest paid segment of the population, though it is also linked to wage increases for many others), but this blog post is to focus mainly on the DREAM Act, so I don’t want to get too sidetracked.

With mass deportation untenable, the only other plausible way of solving this issue is some form of legalization. Critics like to use the term ‘amnesty’ to describe any legalization of illegal immigrants currently in the country, despite the variety of ways it could be handled. For historical context, one should remember that President Reagan signed a bill that both tightened border security and provided amnesty for about 3 million illegal immigrants living in the country.

The lack of real alternatives to some sort of path to citizenship and the partisan attacks on ‘amnesty’ has led to an atmosphere where Congress refuses to pass any immigration reform, and states end up taking matters into their own hands. The DREAM Act, however, stands as a politically viable bill that could partially alleviate some of the problem (though not all).

The Migration Policy Institute reports that around 2.1 million illegal immigrants could become citizens under the DREAM Act’s provisions. That same study estimates “that roughly 38 percent of potential beneficiaries — 825,000 people — would likely obtain permanent legal status” under the DREAM Act. Under the Senate version of the bill, illegal immigrants who entered the country as children (younger than 16) and have lived continuously in the United States for longer than 5 years are eligible. Even though it still leaves some illegal immigrants in America without a path to citizenship, it nonetheless provides a sizable segment of the illegal population with the opportunity to become American citizens. This will have economic benefits for the country (as described in the final section) and brings the entire country a step closer to resolving the status of illegal immigrants already living in America.

–MILITARY BENEFITS–

The DREAM Act would provide the American military, currently fighting two wars, with additional, much-needed recruits. A key provision of the bill dictates that one of the ways an illegal immigrant child could become a citizen is through military service.

This would be a boon to the military, which saw a dearth of recruits in the 2000s and failed to meet many of its recruiting standards. In those years, according to a 2005 Guardian article, the military “stopped battalion commanders from dismissing new recruits for drug abuse, alcohol, poor fitness and pregnancy in an attempt to halt the rising attrition rate in an army” and “recruiters, who were under pressure to meet their monthly quotas,” let their standards slip.

The recession has largely reversed this trend, as more people are unemployed and attracted by the pay and benefits of the military as opposed to the uncertain American labor market. In 2005, the unemployment rate was around 5%. Now (December 2010), it stands at almost double that (9.8%). Still, this is no reason to discount the benefit of added recruits that the DREAM Act would provide. For one, the enhanced recruitment numbers of the recession may continue into the recovery, or they may not. This likely depends on the state of the job market, which is lagging behind most other recovery indicators with high unemployment. Either way, the DREAM Act would be beneficial for the purposes of recruitment levels.

Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institute noted in “Staying Power” in Foreign Affairs that counter-insurgency doctrine “implies that security in Afghanistan could be maintained by a competent force of roughly 400,000 troops.” He adds that by the end of 2010, “there will be roughly 300,000 competent security personnel in place, half foreign and half indigenous,” which is far short of 400,000. Theoretically, 100,000 Afghan or coalition forces should make up this gap. Now, it is extremely unlikely that President Obama will send an additional 100,000 troops to Afghanistan. O’Hanlon notes that already, “Obama has more than doubled the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan.” This, along with the administration’s decision to provide 30,000 additional troops instead of the higher requests made by then-Gen. Stanley McChrystal in 2009 and the hope for a drawdown makes it unlikely that Obama will consent to doubling the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan yet again. Still, the commander-in-chief cannot command troops that do not exist. The DREAM Act provides the ways and means, though the ultimate choices of command lies with our leaders.

The main point is that the DREAM Act would provide a needed supply of soldiers in return for granting them citizenship. And, really, would we want to deprive American citizenship of men and women who are willing to defend America with their lives?

–ECONOMIC BENEFITS AND GOVERNMENT REVENUE–

Some opposition to the DREAM Act is coming from people who do not want federal dollars extended to these immigrants to help pay for their schooling. Participating illegal immigrants would be able make use of various loan programs (Federal Direct Loans, Perkins Loans) and work study programs, although they would not be extended grants (like the Pell Grant).

The key difference here is that loans are repaid, unless they default (but, of course, default has its own consequences). Recent figures suggest a 7% default rate of college loan borrowers (legal) in the United States — an increase over earlier years, likely due to the recession.

In general, criticism of this facet of the bill (providing college loans to illegal immigrants) seems to come from people who do not want federal dollars to go to illegal immigrants for a couple general reasons:

  • They think that this would reward breaking the law and incentivize people to come to America illegally, and
  • That illegal immigrants (because they are not citizens) should not benefit from tax dollars.

These are legitimate concerns, but (in my estimation) the long-term benefits outweigh any short term costs.

The first concern is easy to address. The law specifically identifies young children (younger than 16 years old when the entered the United States) who have been in the U.S. “for a continuous period of not less than 5 years” before law passes. In other words, it will only be available to illegal immigrants who were not the decision-makers in their families, and who have already been in America for several years. It (unfortunately) does not address the underlying needs for more comprehensive immigration reform, and thus would not reduce the rate of illegal immigration, but neither would it prove to be an opportunity for new illegal immigrants. It would only apply to those already here.

The second concern takes a bit more explaining to address. For one, illegal immigrants do pay taxes — various studies say that between 50% and 75% of illegal immigrants pay state, local, and federal taxes. Certain taxes are inescapable, like sales and property taxes. Corporate taxes can be included as well, since those are generally passed on to the consumer in the form of higher prices. Illegal immigrants also pay payroll and income taxes through withholding (and “about 6 million unauthorized immigrants file individual tax returns each year” according to the IRS).

This latter point about withholding and entitlement taxes is especially important. Because of withholding, many people qualify for refunds come tax season. Illegal immigrants often do not file for refunds because they do not want to attract any federal attention. Likewise, illegal immigrants still pay Social Security and Medicare taxes even though they will not be able to use either program unless they become legal.

Still, illegal immigrants seem to be a drag on state and local budgets. Whereas federal tax money goes to programs illegal immigrants will never utilize (Social Security and Medicare, for example), state and local dollars are spent on things like education and welfare services, which illegal immigrants families will use. In general, the amount of state and local tax dollars spent on illegal immigrant families is a small part of the total, but it is still more than they contribute to state and local taxes.

The obvious solution (since mass deportation is unrealistic and expensive) is to remove all the boundaries to their attaining higher paying jobs, and paying taxes on those higher wages. A Center for American Progress study noted some of the effects of the 1986 immigration reform. For instance, barriers to illegal immigrants’ upward mobility are removed, and their newfound citizenship “encourages them to invest more in their own education, open bank accounts, buy homes, and start businesses.” Additionally, it notes that legalization is correlated with higher wages (which translates into increased tax revenue)

Yet, the DREAM Act does simple legalization one better. It encourages higher education. In 2008, the median income for male high school graduates was $32,000, while that of those with a bachelor’s degree or higher was 71.88% larger ($55,000). The jobs these college graduates will be going into will not only be higher-earning, but also more highly skilled, which should help the United States stay competitive in a global marketplace. Legalization will also have the benefit of making these higher incomes fully taxable.

Providing student loans is crucial to this goal, despite opposition to the parts of the bill that allow the government to extend them to illegal immigrants. First of all, it is incredibly difficult (if not nearly impossible) for students from low-wage earning families (as most illegal immigrants are) to make their way through college without some kind of student loan. American students of many different socio-economic backgrounds take out student loans. If a middle class American must borrow in order to feasibly pursue a higher education, how much more difficult will it be for a lower class illegal immigrant to fund higher education?

If the aim is to encourage higher education (and thus higher paying jobs) and citizenship, it would seem counterproductive to deprive these children of the means to invest in their (and our) future.

–CONCLUSION–

The DREAM Act is not a comprehensive immigration reform that will provide a needed overhaul of the current system. Yet, it deserves passage because its provisions would greatly benefit the country — it would take a step toward solving the issue of illegal immigrants currently residing in America in return for a service. That service (either military or educational) would yield future benefits for American security and prosperity. The DREAM Act may have recently failed passage in the Senate, but it is a proposal that has been around for almost a decade. Here’s to hoping it stays around, and becomes law in the near future.


A Stimulus By Any Other Name…

This opinion column was published in the Main Line Times and the Delco Times on December 16, 2010.

*Correction — In my column, I mistakenly referred to the stimulus package passed in February 2009 as the “2008 stimulus bill.” This has been corrected in this blog post. Sorry.

On Dec. 6 President Obama gave a speech on the temporary, bipartisan agreement reached over the Bush tax cuts and unemployment benefits. He described the compromise as one that “will spur our private sector to create millions of new jobs and add momentum that our economy badly needs.” Read: stimulus. Make no mistake, the compromise package is just that. ’s “Free Exchange” blog notes that it contains a one-year cut in the Social Security payroll tax ($120 billion) and allows businesses to write off all investment expenses ($200 billion).

This is in addition to extending unemployment benefits, which is a politically easy way to provide stimulus funds. Such benefits are generally pumped right back into the economy as the unemployed spend on necessities. Extending them could also, somewhat paradoxically, be cheaper than not. Many people apply for Social Security Disability Insurance when unemployment runs out, and people on SSDI are less likely to return to the work force.

And then there’s the most famous part of the package – the Bush tax cuts. While there was some debate over whether the wealthiest Americans would keep their cuts or not, the safest decision was eventually made. Although it worsens the immediate deficit, temporarily sustaining all the cuts avoids the mistake FDR made in 1937 when fiscal tightening (that is, tax increases and spending decreases) plunged a recovering economy back into recession. Of course, tightening will be needed in the medium run (hence the temporary nature of the extension), but for now legislators have been able to shunt aside that argument.

In light of these facts, it is interesting that nowhere in President Obama’s speech is specific mention of the term “stimulus.” Of course this is understandable given the much-maligned reputation the word has (wrongly) earned over the past two years. Many Americans feel as if the 2009* stimulus bill was an exercise in wasted money despite the fact that a full third of it went to tax cuts and credits. Let us then begin the re-education process. Stimulus by any other name is still stimulus.


Sestak vs. Toomey for PA Senator

Now that the primaries are behind us, the brawl for the Pennsylvania Senate seat is heating up. This blog post will be one in a series of posts I hope to write in which I lay out the stances of various candidates that will be on the ballots this year.

I hope that reading about those issues that matter to you will get you to the ballot box, and that this blog has helped you make an informed decision.

Update — WHYY’s Marty Moss-Coane interviewed with each of these candidates on her radio show, “Radio Times.” Follow the links below to listen, or find them for free in the iTunes store under “Radio Times”:

(Note — I’ve culled most of the information on the candidates’ stances from their own campaign sites (links: Toomey, Sestak), from OnTheIssues.com (links: Toomey, Sestak), and from ProjectVoteSmart.com (links: Toomey, Sestak). )

Economy and Business

  • Toomey
    • Tax cuts (for both individuals and businesses) and deregulation to spur economic growth
    • Opposes the Jobs Bill
    • Opposed the Stimulus Package
    • Make the Bush tax cuts permanent
    • Decrease government spending
    • Voted to end offshore tax havens
  • Sestak
    • Supported the Stimulus Package to stabilize the economy
    • Tax cuts for the middle class
    • Allow Bush tax cuts to expire
    • Federal investment in new industries
    • Supported the TARP Program (bailouts) to stabilize the financial sector
    • Close tax loopholes
    • Supported “Employee Free Choice Act,” which would end the need for a ‘secret ballot’ to vote on unionization after a majority of worker signatures have been collected
    • Increase the minimum wage
    • Discretionary spending caps
    • Voted to extend unemployment benefits during the recession
    • Invest in small business
    • Supported HOPE for Homeowners to help people refinance their mortgages
    • Supported government purchase of ‘toxic assets’ to help keep credit flowing
    • Supported Credit Card Holders’ Bill of Rights
    • Supports Pay-As-You-Go, which requires increases in spending to be accounted for

Health Care

  • Toomey
    • Opposes the recent Health Insurance reform
    • “Giving individuals who buy their own health insurance the same tax benefits that employers enjoy when they buy health insurance for their employees”
    • Allow health insurance companies to compete across state lines
    • Tort reform
    • “Allow small businesses and groups to join together to form association health plans to lower the cost of providing health care”
    • “Encourage a market for renewable health plans to help people with preexisting conditions keep their health insurance”
    • Increase awareness of health care cost
    • Voted to help establish tax-exempt Medical Savings Accounts
  • Sestak
    • Supported the recent Health Insurance reform
    • Opposes single-payer, but supported public option
    • Stop insurers from discriminating against people with pre-existing conditions
    • Health Insurance Exchanges
    • Support of stimulus package that provided funding for states so they could avoid cutting Medicare/Medicaid.
    • Invest in preventive care
    • Voted to regulate tobacco as a drug
    • Voted to expand the Children’s Health Insurance Program

Immigration

  • Toomey
    • Opposes amnesty for illegal immigrants in America
    • Secure America’s borders
  • Sestak (I cannot find Sestak’s position on this issue)

Energy and the Environment

  • Toomey
    • Offshore drilling for oil
    • Nuclear power
    • Utilize the Marcellus Shale
    • Opposes Cap and Trade
  • Sestak
    • Favors alternative energy sources
    • Supports Cap and Trade
    • “Reduce the human impact on climate change”
    • Reduce carbon emissions
    • Tax credits for renewable energy
    • Fund research and development of alternative energy
    • “Increase investment in water infrastructure development.”

National Security

  • Toomey
    • Supports SDI (“Star Wars”)
    • Supports War in Afghanistan
    • Supports War in Iraq
    • Sanctions on Iran
  • Sestak
    • Improve care for returning soldiers
    • Supported employing additional troops to Afghanistan
    • Voted to provide “additional equipment to protect our troops in harm’s way”
    • Ensure civil liberties while providing for National Security
    • Reassess the Patriot Act
    • Support G.I. Bill
    • “Economic instability around the world [is] the primary danger to our nation’s security”
    • Close Guantanamo Bay
    • Treat veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome
    • Withdraw from Iraq
    • Restore habeas corpus for detainees

Abortion

  • Toomey
    • Pro-life
    • Encourage adoption over abortion
    • Opposes using tax dollars on abortion
  • Sestak
    • Pro-choice
    • Voted to support stem cell research
    • Ensure access to contraception

Education

  • Toomey
    • Supports charter schools
  • Sestak
    • Increase Pell Grants
    • Support early education
    • Increase funding for Head Start
    • “Reauthorize the Teach For America program, which recruits and trains recent college graduates seeking to enter into the teaching profession.”
    • “Establish tuition repayment program for individuals with degrees in Mathematics and Science who commit to serve as a teacher.”

Gay and Lesbian

  • Toomey
    • Constitutional amendment banning gay marriage
    • Banning gay and lesbian people from adopting children in Washington, D.C.
  • Sestak
    • Supports civil unions
    • Provide “federal civilian LGBT employees with the same partnership benefits that are currently offered to all spouses of federal employees”
    • Repeal the “Defense of Marriage Act”
    • End discrimination in the workplace
    • End discrimination in the military

Gun Rights

  • Toomey
    • Few limitations on gun rights
  • Sestak
    • Regulations on gun ownership
    • Federal ban on assault weapons

Internet

  • Toomey (I cannot find Toomey’s position on this issue)
  • Sestak


Beck Check: Coolidge and Harding

Glenn Beck spent a portion of his February 9 show discussing the presidencies of Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge. I was interested in his talking points, so I decided to run some fact-checking. Here’s the results.

“Coolidge and Harding decreased the real per capita federal expenditures – the size of the government – from $170 per year in 1920 to $70 in 1924. These policies, along with fostering the mentality of self-reliance – the opposite of what the progressives had been preaching in the previous 20 years and the opposite of what progressives teach now. They’re not saying ‘be self-reliant’, they’re saying ‘too big to fail, you can’t make it without the government’s safety nets.’ Stand on your own two feet, America!”

This statement, like many Beck make, is a bit misleading. In the interest of time, we will limit our discussion to his comments regarding Harding, Coolidge, and their economic policies. Were they really the antithesis of the preceding years’ progressivism?

President Calvin Coolidge

We’ll start with the value of this statement ‘on its face’. Did Coolidge and Harding decrease the real per capita federal expenditures from $170 per year in 1920 to $70 in 1924? Yes and no.

Now, I’m not entirely sure what source Beck used, but one of my main sources in researching his claim was a Cato Institute publication by Randall Holcombe titled: “The Growth of the Federal Government in the 1920s.” The Cato Institute is a libertarian think-thank that describes its mission as “to increase the understanding of public policies based on the principles of limited government, free markets, individual liberty, and peace.“ I assumed that because of Cato’s reputation (UPenn gave it excellent rankings in its 2010 ranking of think-tanks, including a #2 spot in the area of Domestic Economic Policy) and its advocation of limited government (a position with which Mr. Beck would likely concur), that the research of the Cato Institute would be a fairly noncontroversial in fact-checking Beck.

First, let’s define “Real Per Capita Federal Expenditures.” Federal expenditure per capita is how much money the federal government is spending per person. That is, it is the total federal government spending divided by the population. When we define this as “Real,” it simply means we’re adjusting for inflation. Because of inflation, comparing the dollar amounts of one year to another is an unequal comparison. Thus, the amounts need to be converted in order to nullify the effects of inflation and see how much the amount really increased or decreased.

As the following chart from the Holcombe paper shows, total real per capita federal expenditures in 1920 was $390.98. In 1924, that total was $194.85.

Quite a decrease.

Much of this decrease had to do with World War I. Federal expenditures increase largely during wartime in order to fund the war, and then subside once the war is over, because the military is no longer in need of large funding to sustain the war effort. In order to try to account for this, there is a second column in the table above. This one tries to subtract defense expenditures from the total. This is where Beck, it appears, is getting his numbers. According to this table, the 1920 federal expenditures per capita, minus defense, were $170.15, and those in 1924 were $70.36. Again, a nice decrease.

It would seem, then, that Beck’s statement is somewhat true. Of course, he is discounting a large part of the federal budget, but (and this is purely conjecture based on what I have seen of Beck’s opinions), he may feel that this discounting is justified as national defense is a necessary expenditure, and he would possibly want to limit his discussion to the federal government’s expenditures of which he disapproves.

Either way you look at the numbers, however, there is a nice decrease in federal expenditures. So Beck seems justified either way.

Holcombe, though, contends that the table suggests “there are war-related expenditures in the government budget even after subtracting defense, veterans, and interest expenditures. This makes it apparent that one cannot accept nonwar expenditures as unrelated to the war.” Although the table attempts to extricate total expenditures from military spending, there is still at least somewhat of a relationship between the two.

But let us overlook this for a moment and continue on with Beck’s statement. Let us assume that Coolidge and Harding were largely responsible for the decrease in real per capita federal expenditures, and not the end of World War I (a large leap). Even if this were true, Coolidge and Harding still did not reach the pre-war levels of real per capita federal expenditures — levels that occurred during the Progressive Era. In 1916, before the war began, the total was $83.60, as compared to Coolidge and Harding’s $194.85 in 1924.

Also, Beck comments only on 1920 to 1924, which should seem odd considering the Harding-Coolidge years actually stretched to 1929. Beck fails to mention that real per capita federal expenditures minus defense (the numbers from the second column that he cites during his show) actually rose after 1924. In 1929, at the end of the Harding-Coolidge run, the total expenditures minus defense had risen to  $89.30. Not a large increase, but much bigger than the total minus defense for 1916, which was $22.75. The total expenditures until 1929 actually continued to decline until 1927, as the table shows, and then increased, reaching $195.41 in 1929.

Holcombe says that:

“From 1924 to 1929, before Depression-related expenditures would have found their way into the budget, nonmilitary expenditures increased by 27 percent, all during the Coolidge administration. If we take the decline in expenditures up through 1924 as a winding down of the war effort, there appears to be a considerable underlying growth in federal expenditures through the 1920s–growth worth examining more closely. What at first appears to be a relatively stable level of federal expenditures in the 1920s actually is substantial underlying growth, masked by a decline in war-related expenditures.”

Yet, Holcombe says, “It would be misleading to try to judge the growth of the federal government in the 1920s only by looking at aggregate expenditures.” With this, we go beyond Beck, who leaves the discussion simply at expenditures. Holcombe notes several areas in which the government grew under Coolidge and Harding –

  • the creation of government-owned corporations (which began prior to Coolidge and Harding, but did not stop during their terms)
  • the expansion of federal aid to states
  • expansion in the role of the post office and the salaries of its workers (“postal deficits in the 1920s were caused by the expansion of postal services and the provision of many services without charge or considerably below cost.”)
  • expanding the enforcement of prohibition (for instance, Coolidge created the Bureau of Prohibition)
  • aid to the agriculture industry (“Whether evaluated financially or with regard to programs, the 1920s saw considerable government growth in the agricultural industry, and laid the foundation for more federal involvement that was to follow in the New Deal.”)
  • antitrust action

Below is an excerpt regarding antitrust action during the Harding-Coolidge years:

Expenditures are the easiest measure of the size of government, but tell only a part of the story of government growth. Government regulation also has a substantial impact, but is harder to measure.[23] Starting with the Sherman Act in 1890, the federal government began its antitrust activity to try to limit the economic power of businesses. Only 22 cases were brought before 1905, but the pace started picking up later in that decade, which saw 39 cases brought between 1905 and 1909. From 1910 to 1919, a total of 134 cases were brought, showing increasing antitrust enforcement. But there was little slowdown in the 1920s, which saw a total of 125 cases. [24] As Thomas McCraw (1984: 145) notes, “By the 1920s antitrust had become a permanent part of American economic and political life.” One might anticipate, after an increase in cases, that firms would be more cautious in their activities to avoid antitrust cases being brought against them. But McCraw (1984: 146) further notes that in the 1920s a large proportion of antitrust cases were brought against firms that were not normally regarded as being highly concentrated. Antitrust enforcement in the 1920s was vigorous and increasingly broad in scope.

I highly suggest you read the entire Holcombe paper, but those are essentially the points in the paper that I found related to Beck’s statement. I was also surprised by how well Holcombe seems to sum up the refutation of Beck’s claims. I’ll let Holcombe’s words speak for themselves:

Normalcy, in the Harding-Coolidge sense, meant peace and prosperity, but it also meant a continuation of the principles of Progressivism, which enabled the Republican party to retain the support of its Progressive element. Despite the popular view of the 1920s as a retreat from Progressivism, by any measure government was more firmly entrenched as a part of the American economy in 1925 than in 1915, and was continuing to grow. Harding and Coolidge were viewed as pro-business, [10] and there may be a tendency to equate this pro-business sentiment as anti-Progressivism. [11] The advance of Progressivism may have been slower than before the war or during the New Deal, but a slower advance is not a retreat. [12]

Late economist Herbert Stein (Former Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors under Presidents Nixon and Ford and a member of the board of contributors for the Wall Street Journal) also wrote of Coolidge’s economic policies in his excellent book “Presidential Economics: The Making of Economic Policy from Roosevelt to Clinton.” His conclusions regarding the Coolidge years (on page 28) also run contrary to Beck’s claims:

But if we use as a test of conservatism the degree of government intervention in the economy, the Coolidge administration was not conservative compared to its predecessors. Coolidge presided over a New Era, and the era was new not only in the height of the stock market; it was also new in the economic role of the government, and part of the confidence in the future of the American economy was so strong in the Coolidge days was confidence in the cooperative policy of government. When Coolidge said that the business of America is business he did not mean that the business of government is to leave business alone. He meant that it is the business of government to help business. That was even more positively the idea of his activist Secretary of Commerce, Herbert Hoover. Coolidge did not undo the interventionist measures of the Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson regimes. At the end of his term the federal budget was larger than in the time of, say, William Howard Taft. He reduced income tax rates, but we still had an income tax, which we hadn’t fifteen years earlier. Perhaps most important, his term was a period of increasing acceptance of the responsibility of the Federal Reserve to help stabilize the economy.

The Coolidge and Harding years, it seems, were not the years of limited government and abandonment of progressivism that Beck says they were. He may have had a few numbers correct (though he failed to properly identify them), but his implications are not entirely borne out by the facts.

(Beck goes on to describe the “Roaring Twenties,” and describes them as “arguably the most prosperous 8 years this country has ever seen.” A discussion of Beck’s “Roaring Twenties” description and how that decade compares to other economic expansions in American history (post-WWII boom and the 80s/90s, for instance) is the topic for a blog entry found here.)


What You Need to Know About the House Health Care Bill

The House of Representatives passed their version of the health care reform bill last night. But what does it all mean? The media coverage on the issue has been decidedly mixed. I’ll try to boil down for you the most important points on the House bill.

The first thing I should probably spend some time on is clarification. With all this debate over the validity of so-called “Obamacare”, many people may not realize that there are various versions of health care reforms bills floating around, and that none of them were authored by Obama (hence the irony of the name “Obamacare”).

Here are the details of the House version of the bill: (a good source of information are the NYTimes, and an NPR podcast entitled Health Care Legislation Deconstructed)

How the House Bill Expands Coverage to Uninsured Americans

  • Projected to cover 96% of legal residents under age 65.
  • Provides subsidies for individuals up to 400% of the federal poverty level $88,000 for a family of 4)
  • Expands Medicaid to 150% of federal poverty level ($16,000 for an individual; $33,000 for a family of 4)
  • No denial of coverage or higher premiums due to pre-existing conditions

How the House Bill Effects Businesses

  • Most employers will be required to provide health care for employees or pay a penalty of up to 8% of payroll.
  • Businesses up to $500,000 in payroll a year are exempt.
  • Penalties are phased in for businesses from $500,000 to $750,000
  • Small businesses are provided with tax credits to help them purchase health care

The House Bill’s Public Option

  • No state opt-out
  • Negotiated Rates — the public plan will talk to hospitals, doctors, and health care providers to negotiate a state-level payment rate

Costs of the House Bill

  • Gross Cost $1.1 trillion over ten years.
  • However, the Net Cost is $894 billion because of revenue raisers.
  • Revenue will come from surcharge on high income earners (taxes on individuals that earn above $500,000, or on couples that earn above $1 million  – projected to raise $460 billion)
  • Penalties for businesses who don’t provide health care (up to 8% of payroll)
  • Penalties for individuals who don’t buy health care (2.5% of income — but can apply for hardship waivers if can’t afford)
  • Medicaid/Medicare cuts
  • Corporate taxes/ fees

Health Insurance Exchange

  • The Exchange is essentially a marketplace where people can go to shop for health insurance. Currently, with our employer-based system, you can only really choose from the plan(s) your employer offers. Going out and buying your own insurance is expensive and messy. The Exchange creates a market of insurances options and allows you to choose which plan you want, allowing market forces to take their toll — the better plans will thrive and the uncompetitive ones will die.
  • Would begin in 2013.

Lobbyists’ Role in the Bill

  • Why was there no large-scale campaign launched against this reform by insurance industries, drug companies, and the like? Because this time around, they were brought into the fold. Yet, with lobbyists winning, the biggest loser stands to be — in many instances — the consumer. The pharmaceutical industry has lobbied for amendments, like one that would grant 12-year exclusivity to biologics, instead of 5. Read the article in TIME for more on that, but basically, it means that instead of allowing generics onto the market after a shorter waiting period (say, 5 years), it will now take 12 years for this to happen, when concerning biologics, which is rapidly growing. The downside to this is that generics help control costs by offering similar solutions for much less money. Essentially, this monopolizes the market for 12 years for each new biologic.

There was a Republican alternative to the House Bill, which included:

  • No public option
  • Individual mandate
  • State high risk pools
  • Not having language barring pre-existing conditions
  • Businesses can combine resources and buy health insurance across state lines
  • Reforms to control costs


The 2009 Election Voter Guide

In this blog post, I’ll list all of the candidates on the Philadelphia ballot and which ones the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Daily News are endorsing, respectively.

Each candidate’s name (in this blog) will link to his or her website.

The Committee of Seventy has a lot of good information on the candidates, including links, and also good information on the seats for which they are vying.

Here are the candidates:

PA Supreme Court Justice (1 Seat)

District Attorney (1 Seat)

City Controller (1 Seat)

PA Superior Court (4 Seats)

Commonwealth Court Judge (2 Seats)

7 Seats are available for Court of Common Pleas Judge, and there are only 7 candidates, so I will not list them (follow the link if you want to know more)

4 Seats are available for Municipal Court Judge, and there are only 4 candidates, so I will not list them (follow the link if you want to know more)

PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER ENDORSEMENTS

  • PA Supreme Court – Joan Orie Melvin (R)
  • District Attorney — Seth Williams (D)
  • City Controller — Al Schmidt (R)
  • PA Superior Court – Judy Olson (R)
    Robert Colville (D)
    Anne Lazarus (D)
    Teresa Sarmina (D)
  • PA Commonwealth Court — Linda Judson (D)
    Kevin Brobson (R)

DAILY NEWS ENDORSEMENTS

  • District Attorney — Seth Williams (D)
  • City Controller – Alan Butkovitz (D)

Follow some links, read up, get out and vote! Polling places open 7am – 8pm.


Checking the Facts on Glenn Beck’s “Arguing With Idiots”

Glenn Beck’s recent “Arguing With Idiots” video (made to promote his book by the same title) promotes itself as “truth for those who care to look” (in its opening theme song). But how much ‘truth’ does it actually contain? First, give the video a view.

Done? Good. Let’s break down the all of the claims into individual chunks and see which hold water.

  • Claim: “In 2006, the top 1 percent paid almost 40% of the country’s income taxes.”
    Status: True, but misleading.

Why is it misleading? Let’s see. The same set of data Beck uses also lists the top 1 percent’s share of the entire country’s wealth at a whopping 22.06 percent, more than a fifth of the entire country’s income. The reason for the discrepancy between high income earners paying a higher percentage of all income taxes is the progressive nature of the income tax system (higher tax brackets are taxed at higher levels). This is the inequity that Beck is railing against.

But two things stand out. The first is simply an observation that Beck’s argument, stripped of the national income share numbers as context, distort how the numbers are viewed. Consider this: even had the numbers been more in line with percentage of national income earned, it still would have sounded lopsided. Imagine that the numbers for 2006 had been that “1 percent paid 20 percent of the country’s income taxes.” This would actually be less than fair, given that the top 1 percent earned 22.06 percent of national income — yet it sounds lopsided.

The other point that stands out is that these numbers distort perceptions of tax contributions by only including the income tax. There are various kinds of taxes that Americans face, at each level of government (local, state, and federal). By picking a particularly progressive tax, Beck is able to manipulate the data to say what he wants.

If I wanted to make the case that American taxes are regressive (that is, the lower your income, the higher a percentage of your income is paid to taxes), I could do so quite easily through Mr. Beck’s strategy. By focusing only on the payroll tax, I could demonstrate that, since this particular tax is capped above a certain amount, it affects low income earners more than high income earners. Indeed, the effective tax rate for Social Insurance Taxes (payroll taxes) is 8.5 percent for the lowest fifth of Americans, but only 1.6 percent for the top 1 percent. Those aren’t shares, they’re tax rates. See how easy that was to cherry-pick data to make a point?

This this New York Times blog blog post has a good breakdown of the payroll tax:

Officially known as a “contribution,” the Social Security tax brings in almost as much revenue as the individual income tax, and is catching up. By June 2009, annual revenues for the payroll tax collections had reached almost 90 percent of individual income tax collections.

The Social Security part of the payroll tax is about 12 percent of the first $106,800 of employee earnings in a year. The Medicare part is about 3 percent of all payroll earnings (regardless of whether and how much employees make over $106,800).

As a result, people earning over $106,800 pay a lesser percentage of their earnings in payroll taxes than do people earning less than $106,800.

The highest-earning third of United States households pay more individual income tax than payroll tax. But the other two-thirds are paying more payroll tax than income tax.

Higher earners are still responsible for a disproportionate fraction of total taxes, but their share becomes less disproportionate as payroll taxes grow and individual income taxes shrink

The only way to get an accurate picture of the distribution of tax burdens across American society is to consider national income share compared to total tax burden, not only the income tax. So how much of total tax burden do the richest Americans shoulder? Well, according to this New York Times blog, which cites the liberal organization “Citizens for Tax Justice“:

 in 2008 the share of total federal, state and local taxes paid by each income group was relatively close to the share of income that that group brings in, at least as compared to  comparable 2006 numbers for effective federal tax rates:

(Horizontal axis shows the income group. Taxes include all federal, state and local taxes (personal and corporate income, payroll, property, sales, excise, estate, etc.). Incomes include cash income, employer-paid FICA taxes and corporate profits net of taxable dividends.)

So, this chart attempts to balance all taxes (not just federal) that the various income groups paid against the share of the total income each group holds. Does the top 1% pay more, according to this chart? A bit, yes, but it is much more comparable to their income share than Beck’s focus on the income tax would have you believe. Why is this? Well, basically, because although federal taxes are mostly progressive (with some exceptions), state and local taxes are often regressive.

From a New York Times blog:

State and local taxes tend to be more regressive if they rely more heavily on sales and excise taxes, do not have a broad-based personal income tax, or have a personal income tax that is structured in a less progressive way (e.g., a flat-rate income tax).

So, when including state/local taxes (which vary according to area — some states do have progressive tax systems while others have a flat tax rate), total tax rates are generally in line with total tax burden.

And, as noted above, some federal taxes are still regressive, most notably the Social Security tax (payroll tax). Also, although high-earners pay less of their income in Social Security payroll taxes, they often make out better in Social Security than lower-income workers. From “Putting Our House In Order: A Guide to Social Security and Health Care Reform” by George Shultz (a former Secretary of State under Ronald Reagan, and a Secretary of the Treasury under Nixon) and John Shoven:

Social Security discourages long careers because its system, which is designed to help low-income Americans, winds up helping high-income workers who have short careers. An individual who earns just above the minimum wage over the span of a long career will be correctly identified by the Social Security system as having low lifetime earnings. However, an individual with relatively high earnings per year over a short career span would also qualify as a low average earner by Social Security calculations. This inconsistency occurs because Social Security figures out average earnings on the basis of the highest thirty-five years of earnings, which would include zeros for those years in which an individual had no earnings.

So high-income earners get to retire years ahead of low-income earners, and still receive the benefits, though since they are not working anymore, they’ve stopped contributing to the workforce. Whether or not this is fair or unfair, you’d expect to hear healthy debate about the issue. But you don’t. And why is that? Because it is easier to cherry-pick data about income tax distribution in order to rile people up about ‘unfair’ tax burdens.

  • Claim: “The top 50% of earners paid 97% of the entire income tax bill.”
     Status: True, but misleading, for the same reasons outlined above. Also, the same data Beck cites also states that the top 50%’s share of the income is 87.49%.
  • Claim: The middle class only paid 3% of the tax burden.
     Status: False.

First, we need to define what the middle class is. It’s kind of an amorphous term, so stick with me. FactCheck.org gives a lengthy discussion of what the middle class may be. Take a look:

 It’s possible to come up with a definition of what constitutes “middle income,” but it will depend on how large a slice of the middle one prefers. If we look at U.S. Census Bureau statistics, which divide household income into quintiles, we could say that the “middle” quintile, or 20 percent, might be the “middle” class. In 2006, the average income for households in that middle group was $48,561 and the upper limit was $60,224. But we could just as reasonably use another Census figure, median family income. In 2006, the median – or “middle” – income for a family of four was $70,354. Half of all four-person families made more; half made less…

But others could have different definitions. Baker interviewed a man who earned about $100,000 a year and a woman who made $35,000, both of whom said they were middle class.

Public opinion polls show how slippery the term can be. An Oct. 2007 poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation, Harvard School of Public Health and National Public Radio asked 1,527 adults what income level makes a family of four middle class. About 60 percent said a family earning $50,000 or $60,000 fit that description. But 42 percent answered an income of $40,000 and 48 percent said $80,000 were both middle class…

Republic candidate Mitt Romney…defines “middle class” as anyone with an adjusted gross income of under $200,000…

Here, you can see a thinker from the conservative Heritage Foundation arguing that people with $250,000 incomes aren’t wealthy. Does that make them middle class?

So there’s a lot of debate on who, exactly is middle class. The site notes that politicians often change the term to fit their needs. Because of this, and because $200,000 seems a bit high, let’s bypass Mr. Romney’s definition. In fact, let’s give Mr. Beck the benefit of the doubt. Let’s find the lowest number there, and we’ll use that to define the floor of middle class. $35,000 looks like the lowest number up there to me. We’ll use that as the floor. So, in our definition, you need to make above $35,000 to be middle class.

Well, according to the data Beck uses, the top 50% (that non-middle class portion he’s talking about that pays 97% of America’s taxes) begins at $31,987. Which is below one of the lower figures we used to define middle class. Needless to say its much below some of the other proposed figures up there (notably those of Mitt Romney and the Heritage Foundation).

Now let’s take a look at tax brackets. If you make $31,987 or up and are filing singly, you’re either in the 25%, 28%, 33%, or 35% tax bracket. That’s right, out of the 6 tax brackets, you could be in 4 of them, depending on how much you make.

Some of what Beck says is true. Some is not. But pretty much all of it is misleading.