Tina K. Russell

December 20, 2008

Footwear and its trajectory

Letters – When a President Is Treated With Disrespect – NYTimes.com
I’m appalled that Arabs are celebrating the act of a disrespectful Iraqi journalist directed at a president of the United States. If an Arab leader were treated with such disdain in the United States, the Arab world would react violently against all Americans.

That’s an amazingly dumb statement! Let me unpack it.

  1. Wait a second, we’re required to look at all leaders the same? The difference with President Bush is that they hate him. I don’t condone throwing footwear at world leaders, but you have to admit he’s a man after many people’s own hearts. (This journalist—and yes, journalists should not be inserting themselves, or their shoes, into their stories this way—reminds me of the old woman who took a hammer to a Comcast call center. I don’t condone what she did, but man, she did something many of us wish we could have done ourselves. They’re both proxies for our very real frustrations.)
  2. Um, you do realize that Lee Bollinger, president of Columbia University, was an outright jerk to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad when he visited in 2007? There wasn’t a violent uprising, then (of course, part of that might have to do with the fact that Moodly-Bob isn’t very popular back home, either).  Ahmadinejad is a nutcase and a horrible man, to be sure, but Bollinger was both being a jerk to a visiting head of state and possessed none of the underdog status or the truth-to-power element of the shoe-tossing journalist. (He also endangered any future opportunities for students to get to see visiting heads of state, a valuable opportunity even—or perhaps especially—when these leaders are reprehensible.) You should really check these things, sometimes.

I think this argument boils down to “if things were different, wouldn’t they be different?”, which is not an argument I’m fond of. It’s like saying, why are you cheering that your home football team won? You’d be angry if the other team won. Stupid, stupid.

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November 21, 2008

Bygones

Early Test for Obama on Domestic Spying Views – NYTimes.com
Some Democratic lawmakers have said they would like to conduct a more thorough investigation than was possible during Mr. Bush’s tenure, but other Democratic advisers say they see little gain from trying to investigate past abuses and that an investigation risks harming the bipartisan spirit of cooperation that Mr. Obama has promised.

“We cannot be facile and say bygones will be bygones, because they will not be bygones and will return to haunt us. True reconciliation is never cheap, for it is based on forgiveness, which is costly. Forgiveness in turn depends on repentance, which has to be based on an acknowledgement of what was done wrong, and therefore on disclosure of the truth. You cannot forgive what you do not know.”

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, as chair of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1995

October 24, 2008

Economics is applied common sense

Letters – Twists and Turns, Finish Line in Sight – NYTimes.com
Re “The Real Plumbers of Ohio,” by Paul Krugman (column, Oct. 20):

I know a real Joe the Plumber, and yes, his name is Joe. He’s married to my cousin and lives in Massachusetts. He even has a real plumbing license.

A few years ago, he was doing well, but with this growing recession, people have stopped calling him. The thing is, when people don’t have money, calling the plumber drops way down on their list of priorities.

Joe has four kids, and his second child is entering a local college. He thought he could afford her tuition, but with these bad times he’s not so sure anymore. Since his business has shrunk, he needs to cut back, too.

So my question to people who still feel that giving tax breaks to the wealthy will ultimately benefit the economy is this: I get the trickle-down effect, I get what you say by giving corporations power and freedom to really do business. But if we give the middle class a little bit more money, too — not the lines of credit and risky mortgages that have been handed out like Halloween candy and that have made us feel rich even though we’re not, but real money in the form of tax cuts and pay raises — doesn’t that allow us to hire people like my cousin Joe and keep his business going?

Doesn’t the trickle-down effect also have to trickle back up for capitalism to really work?

Susan Porretta
Westport, Conn., Oct. 20, 2008

The poor, the humble, the workers of modest means are what you might call a “growth industry.” In them is the biggest disparity between potential and actual output, which is the disparity that causes and maintains recessions. (Economic downturns are natural, but recessions are when they overstay their welcome, and depressions are when they’ve laid down roots.)

Money, like any commodity, has a diminishing marginal value. That is, the more money you give to someone, the less each dollar is worth. It’s obvious that $20 in the hands of a humble plumber means more than $20 in the hands of a CEO. Nevertheless, there’s a constant drumbeat that more money to the rich will help improve the living conditions of the poor. (I’ve always found that funny; if you’re admitting that money to the poor is the goal, why not bypass the middleman? I’m glad, of course, that Americans have recognized the folly of “trickle-down,” and its true meaning: diverting wealth to the rich will turn a torrent of hard-earned revenue into a trickle.)

Rich people, bless their hearts, hoard their money. They buy yachts and mansions. They invest in start-ups with catchy names and no business plan. That may benefit the manufacturers of yachts and mansions, and you never know, maybe the recently-graduated engineering student who helped design the yacht, or the construction worker who helped build the mansion, might make a little bit of solid cash. Poor people, however, spend that cash right quick. They pay rent on their house or apartment, helping the landowners, janitors, construction workers, material suppliers, and everyone else involved. They buy food, helping farmers, grocers, truckers, everyone.

Instead of buying one big mansion, giving good work to people who need it, they buy lots of more modest housing, giving the same work to far more people at a lower price. (Price of labor is price of labor; you don’t get paid more for working on a more expensive house, unless for some reason the construction company needs more specialized workers. Anything above that, management will pocket.) They’ll buy tons of food at the local farmers market rather than a serving of caviar from a far-off land for the same price. I don’t blame rich people for what they do with their money—if I had lots of money, I’d get started on my dream house right away—but it goes without saying that a little money means more to you if you’re poor. It also means more for the economy.

(There are some idealistic rich people—Bill Gates, George Soros, Mark Shuttleworth—who spend their personal fortunes making the world a better place. They’re wonderful, but we cannot become dependent on them, or expect every rich person to be like them. They’re only human.)

Money spent on the poor, of course, is even better when it’s a tax credit to supplement earned income, a (good, fair, transparent) loan to build their business, or help with going to school to learn new skills. These are investments that not only encourage good behavior, but come back many times over in the form of tax revenue that can then be spent on helping even more people. It’s true to a large extent what conservatives say about the numbing effect of welfare; it encourages dependency and lessens the incentive to work. That isn’t to say people on welfare are happy that way, though; it’s to say we need solutions that help poor people be able to do what they want most and do it better: to work, to take care of their families, and to achieve their dreams.

The central pillar of Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” in 2000 was that people who are already trying hard should get help from the government so that they may achieve their goals. It’s a sentiment I strongly believe in, and it’s a shame Bush abandoned it the very second he was appointed President. Barack Obama, meanwhile, is the quintessential compassionate pragmatist, willing to do whatever it takes, whether the idea comes from the left or the right, to help those who are struggling and those of modest means and big ambitions. After all, these are all conservative as well as liberal values: you work hard, you serve the country, and you don’t let hardship get you down. Investing in the poor is something everyone can get behind, and not just in election season.

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