But it’s still true

The rich getting richer, that is. Are you sitting down?

According to the work of Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty, 93 percent of all of the income gained in 2010 went to the top one percent, those making over $350,000 a year. But the average income of this narrow group is just above a million dollars.

NEW statistics show an ever-more-startling divergence between the fortunes of the wealthy and everybody else — and the desperate need to address this wrenching problem. Even in a country that sometimes seems inured to income inequality, these takeaways are truly stunning.

That’s from this morning’s New York Times.

As a result, the top 1 percent has done progressively better in each economic recovery of the past two decades. In the Clinton era expansion, 45 percent of the total income gains went to the top 1 percent; in the Bush recovery, the figure was 65 percent; now it is 93 percent.

As for the Rest of Us? We saw our incomes increase by an average of $80. But don’t spend it all in one place.

Back to trains for a moment

But to look for efficiency, in Judt’s view, is to miss the point, or at least the most important point. Too much concern with economic efficiency, at the expense of all else, is precisely what is wrong with intellectuals today. Intellectuals, he claims, stopped asking around the 1970s “if something is right or wrong.” Instead they care far too much “whether or not it improves productivity.” Even, he says, if the kind of privatization demanded by neoliberals since the Reagan-Thatcher era “were the economic success claimed for it (and it most decidedly is not), it remains a moral catastrophe in the making”(my italics).

— Ian Baruma, New York Review of Books

Tony Judt mourned the loss of public-supported transportation systems, but especially the privatization of UK railroads under Thatcher. He believed that trains were the “creator of sociability.”

I wonder. Could it not be the other way round, that we people have to be social or communal or collectivist-thinking in order to establish and maintain good publicly supported transportation?

It seems to me that we have two circles with respect to trains. One is vicious. The other is virtuous. We are the former. Europe, mostly, is the latter. Historical conditions are likely responsible for determining whether or not a country has high or low population density. Europe, certainly, is far more dense than the U.S. Higher density is more conducive to public transport; lower density not so much.

The U.S.’s relatively low population density lends itself to a stronger sense of individualism. This is certainly true in the Midwest. Yet, in our major cities, mostly along the coasts, the clustered populations are more liberal and collectivist. Manhattan has a vast subway system, which is heavily subsidized by taxes. Same with Chicago and its overhead train network. San Francisco has its cable cars and BART terminus, though the Bay Area used to be home to splendid train systems before the tire, oil, and car companies conspired to rip them out. Ditto Los Angeles.

Let’s look at a map showing population densities across the globe (from Wikipedia).

Almost all of Europe has higher densities than the U.S., which is also geographically larger.

The Economist magazine has a nice little iPad app, “World in Figures.” (It’s still a bit buggy, however. Frequent crashes.) I discovered this information about train ridership.

You’ll notice that the U.S. is nowhere to be found on this chart. It’s no surprise that most of the countries on this list are European, although Asian countries, notably Japan, make the list.

Also, with the exception of China, all of these countries above have lower Gini indexes than the U.S.’s. Coincidence? I doubt it.

Americans, by and large, have swallowed the efficiency test, as Judt suggests. Decisions should be made on the basis of maximum bang for the buck. But since we are more individualistic in the U.S. than Europeans, we are unable to appreciate the immense waste that we produce in the aggregate. Thus, we have freeways clogged with cars, while Europeans climb aboard ubiquitous trains, unimpeded by traffic jams. Our “system” of cars-cum-roads is a very expensive way to transport our body from here to there and back again. We don’t see this, because we’re focused exclusively on ourselves. What’s the most efficient way for me to go from A to B?

Yet, what alternatives do we have? We are spread so thin that a vast rail network would be prohibitively expensive. We’d have to focus on major cities first, and there aren’t that many. Connecting them by rail, then perhaps building parking lots near train stations to accommodate Seattle-bound commuters driving their cars from outlying towns.

I get ahead of myself. There is no “we” in the conversation, and that’s my point. It’s all about ‘I” or “me.” Therefore, the vicious circle.

Or perhaps we’re finally moving in the right direction, as this link suggests. I neglected to include the gas-price factor. As gasoline prices rise so do public transportation trips. I paid over $12 for three gallons of gas over the weekend (we drive a Prius). I saw one guy with a big truck paying $80 for 20 gallons. I won’t be taking a train any time soon, since I mostly walk to wherever I need to go. Will that truck driver be found on a bus in the near future as gas prices continue soaring through the summer? I’m guessing no.

Europeans have always paid higher gas prices than Americans. That surely contributes to better and more heavily used public transport.

Therefore, I say, reduce the supply of oil, thus driving up the price of gas, thus spurring more trains and busses. A different virtuous circle that could work.

Stop the drilling! The planet will thank us for it.


The “common cold”

So innocuous-sounding, the “common cold.” Experience teaches otherwise.

Last Thursday I was feeling fine, fine enough for someone about to measure his life at 65 years. Upon awaking Friday morning, though, I might have preferred death.

How could a cold be associated with so much pain and torture? Head ache. Muscle ache. Fever. Chills. And the coughing. Please let me die.

But it’s only a cold, you say? Balderdash.

It’s now Monday morning, and I think the worst is behind me. Still, I ambulate slowly, tired, and aching. Coughing is less frequent now, which gives my diaphragm a break.

Why don’t they call the cold “a near-death experience.” That’s far more accurate.

A follow up on the new iPad

I purchased the Verizon version so that I could take advantage of LTE; AT&T doesn’t offer it where I live, buy Verizon has completely blanketed downtown Everett. It’s amazingly fast, that LTE, nearly as fast as my wi-fi results at home. (I get 61 Mbps on my Mac Pro, and about 30 on my iPad.)

When using the iPad 2 I left 3G on. I don’t know why, because the speeds sucked. But here’s the thing. The battery would give me a good 10 hours of constant use, perhaps because 3G didn’t hog juice.

With the new iPad I’ve discovered that if I leave the 4G on, the battery drains much faster. So I’ve turned it off; using wi-fi exclusively.

The other day, however, I was at a local restaurant, which had just installed free wi-fi. But speediest.com gave me only 5 Mbps. I turned off wi-fi and switched to LTE. Wow! Speedtest quickly shot past 20 Mbps, giving me nearly 25.

The trick, of course, is to limit LTE time, as you’ll go through both the battery and data usage limits in a hurry.

By the way, my new iPad hasn’t gotten “hot,” as some have found. Does it have something to do with turning off LTE?

You’re asking me?

(Here’s my previous post.)

Visualizing the political spectrum

While there are pockets of liberalism and progressivism that compare with entire majorities elsewhere (e.g., the Nordic countries), the U.S. as a whole is center-right, and always has been. Our conservatives are much further to the right and beyond the center than our liberals are to the left.

A sociology professor described the political spectrum as a rubber band. I think she liked this metaphor because it provided a justification for being far to the left, pulling the center in that direction and away from the right.

Today, however, the conservatives have stretched our center further right than at any time in my lifetime, which goes back to Eisenhower. (I didn’t remember Truman, since I was just seven when he left office.) The Republican Party of my youth was moderate, for the most part, although the John Birch Society counted many adherents. Eisenhower wouldn’t recognize his party of the 21st century. Nor would Ronald Reagan, for that matter.

The problem for the GOP lies in its rigidity and feral intensity. Has the party gone too far to the right to win electoral victories? Have its litmus tests crowded out more moderate positions?

We can be sure that whoever wins the Republican primary race—and it’s most likely that it will be Romney—will tone down the rhetoric to appeal to the “independents” in the general election in November. Romney, it is said, changes positions like a “greased weathervane.”

But will the whacko right stick with him against Obama? Or will they simply sit this one out?

We’ll have to wait and see.

Trayvon died because of a hoodie

We’ve got a lot of bizarre people out there, especially those who work for Fox News. Trayvon Martin, 14 years old and unarmed, was shot and killed by a self-professed neighborhood watchman. Here’s Geraldo Rivera:

“I am urging the parents of black and Latino youngsters particularly not to let their children go out wearing hoodies. I think the hoodie is as much responsible for Trayvon Martin’s death as much as George Zimmerman was,” the Fox News host said Friday on Fox and Friends.

Florida passed a ridiculous law in 2005 that not only affirmed the right to protect yourself and your home, with any means necessary, but also added a “stand your ground” provision.

Miami’s chief of police at the time of the legislation warned politicians not to pass the second provision, as it would result in such incidences as the killing of Trayvon Martin. In a New York Times op-ed, he writes:

But I pointed out at the time that even a police officer is held to account for every single bullet he or she discharges, so why should a private citizen be given more rights when it came to using deadly physical force?

To their credit, the Miami Heat donned hoodies before last night’s game to protest the murder and certainly call attention to Rivera’s racist remark. But Fox must love him and the other weirdos that populate the network’s airways.

Is it possible that the single most important factor in the rise of political wackiness is Murdoch’s network? There is no corporate conscience, and no sense of decency.

Facts are only for liberals.

Why eat meat?

The New York Times as assembled its “murderer’s row” of judges who will consider entries on the topic: Why eat meat? The paper is interested only in serious essays, and will summarily reject offerings from those who say, “I like meat.” No, you must don your philosopher’s hat or poke a pipe into your mouth to provide an ethical basis for being a carnivore.

On the panel is Peter Singer, who came to veganism via a moral argument. He presumable liked the taste of meat, but then banished it from his diet, succumbing to utilitarian logic, I suppose. He’s been studying and writing about ethics for most of his adult life, and has authored several books, much of them dealing with why we should be moral beings. He, alone, presents a formidable challenge for those who submit their reasoned opinions.

Also anxious to review entries is Michel Pollan, who is not a vegetarian but pushes for organic food. He teaches at Berkeley and wrote the popular book The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

Rounding out the panel is another philosopher, a New York Times columnist, and a novelist who also wrote a non-fiction piece Eating Animals (he’s now a vegetarian, according to Wikipedia).

By the way, I have struggled with the issue of eating meat. My mother always served mostly red meat at nearly every meal, except for Fridays. My dad insisted on hamburger or bacon or beef roasts. I can’t say that it’s in my DNA to eat beef, but it’s definitely part of my upbringing.

At any rate, I shall not be submitting an essay. I have no good reasons for eating meat. The best I could say was that I like it, which immediately gets me disqualified. On the other hand, my entry would be far below the 600-word limit. Just three words, really.