Voice of Sanity – April 2017
Membership: adults $24/year
Editor: Joyce Bates
All correspondence to:
3620 Pelham Rd., Suite 5, #135
Greenville, SC. 29615
The Voice of Sanity
THE NEWSLETTER OF THE PIEDMONT HUMANISTS
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The Sunday meeting: There is a meet and greet 10:00AM to 10:45AM
At 11:00AM there is usually a talk, video, or general discussion from 11:00AM to 1:00PM
Location: the Earth Fare 3620 Pelham Road, Greenville.
A review of business done in the board meeting is presented at the 11:00 time on the first Sunday of every month.
Dates for the Sunday meetings are: April 2nd, 9th, 16th, 23rd, and 30th.
For those new to Humanism a discussion group will meet 10:00AM Sunday April 23rd
Location: the Earth Fare 3620 Pelham Road, Greenville
The Free-Thought group will meet at 7:00PM April 6th and 20th. (Thursday) for a meal at California Dreaming restaurant; 40 Beacon Drive; near the Pelham Road exit off I85.
The Freethought trivia and pool group will meet at Friar’s Tavern,
1178 Woodruff Road, Greenville, SC 29607.
Meetings will be held 7:00 to 10:00PM on April 13th and 27th.
April 8th: Second Saturday Brunch will be at10:00AM at the Golden Corral, 3240 North Pleasantburg Dr. Greenville, SC 29609.
April 22nd: Piedmont Humanists is supporting the March for Science Rally that will take place on Saturday between 12 noon and 2PM at 1 City Plaza in downtown Greenville. There will be speakers, and science demonstrations.
SOME PROBLEMS OF ECONOMIC INEQUALITY IN THE US
Although the economy in the US has recovered since 2008 and unemployment fell to about 4.6 percent in November inequality of income still remains an issue for many Americans. The question of how the former two can be positive while the last is an enduring problem puzzles a great many experts. The intent of the following paragraphs will be to focus on certain aspects of income and capital that appear to reinforce the situation rather than improve it.
The US ratio of income of the top ten percent to the bottom ten percent is about 5.5 to 1. This does not seem so unfair until one looks at the average yearly income of the top one percent averaging about $863,000 recently. Some of this top payroll is from wages and some is from capital. Those who receive income from wages have done work to earn them. Those who receive income from capital have not. Additionally the top ten percent holds about 75 percent of the country’s wealth, the top one percent holds 43 percent.
Historically the 5.5 to 1 ratio has not been seen since the Great Depression. This does not mean that there hasn’t been an overall improvement in the inequality of income since the 19th century because the ratio was higher then. It is just that equality was much greater in the mid-20th century and has since deteriorated.
Between 1970 and 1990 US low skilled jobs decreased by a large margin. Many industrial facilities either closed or relocated abroad. As a result there was an increase in unemployment in the industrial sector of the population. During the same time advances in technology were accelerating and for those companies that did remain here automation filled the gap of unskilled jobs. It was this writer’s experience to periodically visit one such facility in South Carolina between 1985 and 2000. Its workers shrank from many employees to only a few due to automation. It is ironic that robots and other forms of technology have replaced dangerous, unhealthy, and tedious jobs done by humans in the past, but alternative forms of work for those displaced have also decreased.
It was predicted in “trickle-down theory” that high interest rates and lower taxes in the 1980s and 1990s would stimulate savings and this in turn would stimulate growth in the economy. Instead savings went down. Credit expanded during this time affording many consumers an option to defer payment on purchases for a fee. In this way credit gradually replaced savings. Additionally, profits of many companies during this time were used to invest globally rather than nationally and much capital that would have decreased the unemployment of unskilled workers evaporated.
The preference to invest in low skilled labor abroad rather than new technological advances in the US probably was a cost efficient move on the part of many companies. Such innovation would have required not only a new expenditure for sophisticated machinery in this country but a significant and expensive change in education for workers. At any rate companies that did stay invested in the technology but were unsupported by the educational system. Now, there is a strong need for but shortage of skilled workers. High skill jobs in the US are presently at a premium and companies must pay high wages or lose workers to competitors. These skilled workers wind up working much longer hours than their counterparts in other industrialized countries because of the skilled labor shortage.
Many believe that taxing higher incomes and capital can be an answer to the problem of economic inequality. It’s true that since the 1970s the top income tax rate fell from 70 percent to 28 percent in 1986 and then rebounded to the 39 percent we see today. For those who don’t work and live on capital gains alone the tax is still about 28 percent. A 39 percent tax on an upper one percent income of $863,000 mentioned earlier would leave a net yearly income for that individual of $526,430 an amount over ten times the average American income of $52,000 gross. A tax although applied to only ten percent of the population still should affect a more reasonable portion of the 75 percent share of national wealth it controls.
Taxation of inheritance is an attractive way to fairly redistribute income especially since it directly taxes capital and not labor. The tax on inheritance has been referred to as the “death tax” in recent years, but actually there is an estate limit below which no tax is levied. This is called the exclusion amount. In 2001 the exclusion amount was $675,000 with a maximum top tax rate of 55 percent. As of 2016 the exclusion amount was $5,450,000 with a maximum top tax of 40 percent.
Some would say that a progressive taxation would be unfair to those who have been successful and have worked hard for what they have. No doubt this is true and it is also unfair to support some who are perpetually disinclined to work even though they are quite capable. However, those unskilled laborers and their families who have lost jobs to foreign manufacturing and domestic new technologies in the past were not disinclined to work. Every society has a certain percentage of poor who are there either by their own volition or by tragic circumstances but it is bad for a society to let that percentage grow as it has recently done without looking into the past to see all of the factors leading up to the problem.
Education is another of those factors. Even though improvements in technology have demanded skilled labor since the 1970s, education has done little to close the gap between the skilled and unskilled fast enough. The emphasis in many institutions of higher learning has been on vocations limited to a small percentage of the population who already comprise the upper ten percent such as lawyers, managers, and doctors. The rich can afford to send their children to private schools. However, a lack of support for public education denies a large portion of unskilled workers and their families the tools to make an adequate living and provide education in adequate skills for their children. The recent introduction of STEM programs is welcome but only a small part of the solution.
The educational lag behind technology is also due to subtle forms of discrimination against minorities and pockets of poor communities in rural areas. Funding for public schools is done mainly on a local basis. Because of this poor communities cannot afford an equal educational infrastructure that will allow training for technological jobs. As a result the children in these communities have little opportunity to improve their standard of living. To make matters worse the communities themselves, because of isolation, tend to negatively feed-back into their own problems. That is why the Colman study in Chicago as early as 1966 showed that improvements in such schools did little to improve the economic levels in their communities. The study initially implied that the students themselves did not have the natural capacity to learn, but this was later disproved because adoptees in families with better education and/or better economic opportunity showed equal improvement to their adopted siblings.
The US might do well to look to other countries for solutions to education. In Germany firms invest in training and apprenticeship centers. Students are generally not required to pay for the training or even commit themselves to working for the sponsor. The training is of a general nature and the student is free to go elsewhere for employment.
All in all America has been successful in keeping unemployment low in the past 45 years. In the years between 1983 and 1996 the US increased the number of jobs by 25 percent. The percentage of growth for the GDP was a healthy 30 percent. If we look at these statistics closely, though, we find that the actual population of the US increased by about 38 percent and that the increase in jobs to keep up with it was in the unskilled category. The low employment figures we see do not expose the trend away from unskilled labor or the loss of unskilled jobs to other countries.
Many suggest a universal basic income to solve the job loss due to increased technology and foreign manufacturing. This could be done through redistribution of income so that those unskilled in the lowest economic rungs could be guaranteed minimum necessities. Implementing this idea would take a lot of practical social engineering. First, one would have to make decisions as to what parts and to what degree the financially successful economy would be able to contribute to such a venture. Second, even if taxation of or automatic transfer from both capital and labor could accumulate government funds to accomplish this there is no insurance that all of those receiving the basic income would automatically put it to the use for which it is intended.
Third, there is an optimistic idea that those receiving such income would then be free to pursue their own special interests. To be sure many would be able to contribute their unique talents to the economy and culture, but not all. For those without any special interest there is no reason why they should not work, even though they would not be paid directly by an employer.
Nor should anyone be excluded from the opportunity to get back into paid employment if they so wish. Presently, the US has programs such as Aid to Families with Dependent Children, Medicaid, Supplemental Security Income, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to support unemployed people. Many times when those people find a job the wage is not enough to support the needs that were supplied previously by the assistance programs. As a result, those seeking employment have to forfeit the opportunity to work because of an economic “cliff” that puts the financial help of the programs well above the financial resources the of the prospective wage. Rather than take a plunge into a worse circumstance the individual chooses to remain without work.
There is little doubt that technology as long as it is cost effective will continue to replace unskilled jobs and that unskilled lower cost foreign labor will be attractive for global corporations. It follows that money accrued from choosing cheaper technology and foreign labor over more expensive domestic unskilled labor will continue to increase the gap between capital and labor and consequently the gap between rich and poor in this country. The difficulties listed in the previous paragraphs simply describe the depth of the problem in American society.
The Economics of Inequality, Thomas Piketty, 1997, 2014, Editions La Decouverte, Paris, France
A FEW OF MANY PROBLEMS WITH US PRISONS
The United States presently incarcerates 25 percent of the world’s prisoners but contains only five percent of the world’s population. Racism is featured in many news headlines as the reason for the high rate of arrests, but the reasons for going to prison are many and subtle at times.
Statistically there is no color barrier when it comes to the use of marijuana. Both white and black people use it at similar rates but blacks are ten times as likely to be arrested for it. Also, one in three black men can expect to be in prison at least once during their lives. For whites it is one in seventeen.
Latin Americans fair somewhat better with a ratio of one to six for prison but face other problems in metropolitan poor areas where gang activity occurs. Salt Lake City in 2016 was one such place where police marshaled a group of high school students to the local station during a “gang sweep”. Students were questioned, searched, and then made to pose with signs denoting they had gang connections. The outcome was a federal lawsuit brought against the city by the students of West High School. The settlement required police to destroy the records labeling plaintiffs of gang affiliation, destroy the photos, and make no further “gang sweeps”. In addition, school administrators were ordered only to involve police if a situation was a matter of physical safety. An oversight committee was appointed to monitor school intervention every six months.
Prison can also become a trap for poor people who get into trouble for minor offenses but cannot afford to pay fees or bail to alleviate their predicament. As a result they wind up in jail. Last year in Maine two thirds of the prison population consisted of pretrial detainees for this reason. In 2005 the legislature there had made it illegal to waiver many fines for criminal offense, regardless whether a person could pay. In the following years thousands were locked up because of not having adequate funds. This caused extra burdens for taxpayers. Arkansas had better laws but a class action had to be taken against the city of Sherwood because four people were put in jail for inability to pay despite well-established laws already there forbidding such police action.
Louisiana jails more people per capita than any other place in the world. Many of the detentions are because of parole violation but a good number are simply because of antiquated laws imposing long sentences that no longer fit the crime.
In Rhode Island one such out of date law was found unconstitutional when a disabled individual was arrested for standing on a street corner holding a sign that said “disabled, need help, God bless”. The man was exonerated and the fine was waived for two reasons. First, the ordinance was found unconstitutional because it violated freedom of speech. Second the police were found to be selective in its enforcement because they routinely ignored those who displayed signs along the same roadway for fund raising activities.
In August of 2016 the Department of Justice announced plans to gradually phase out the use of private federal prisons. Reasons given were that they do not save on government costs and do not maintain the same degree of safety that the government run prisons do. This decision will only affect thirteen federal facilities that house 22,000 out of a total of 193,000 federal prisoners. Presently two-thirds of contracts with private prisons in this country both state and federal have occupancy guarantees and provisions for taxpayers to cover the cost of empty beds in these facilities. This implies a motivation to incarcerate rather rehabilitate because the goal of private penal institutions is to make a profit and filling beds is the only way to improve the profit margin. Additionally, black males between the ages of 17 and 19 are ten times more likely to go to private prisons than older black males. The selection occurs in order that government run prisons absorb and take the financial burden of a less healthy and older population.
The Correction Corporation of America has stated publicly that changes to US laws on drugs, controlled substances, or illegal immigration would reduce the demand for private correctional houses. As for state run prisons, Harry Lappin chief corrections officer of the CCA and former director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons has offered arrangements in the past whereby CCA would buy state prisons in exchange for 20 year contracts guaranteeing 90 percent occupancy to increase business.
Perhaps it is time to change our laws on drugs, on illegal immigration, and on imprisonment of poor people simply because they cannot pay. It is well past time for us to focus both on the desperation of poverty and the condition of race when it comes to breaking the law.
DEMOGRAPHICS OF THE 115TH CONGRESS
Surprisingly the percentage of non-white representatives in the new 115th Congress has jumped from 15 to 19 percent.. Minority representation has been gradually increasing over the years. In 1980 approximately 90 percent of Congress was white. Now that number has dropped to 81 percent. There is a caveat, however. The percentage of racial minorities in the US population in 1980 was about 20 percent. In the last census that number grew to 39 percent. So while minority numbers have increased in Congress their ratio of representation remains less when compared to their numbers in the general population.
Women have not fared as well in the political makeup. Their numbers fell slightly from 109 in the last Congress to 104. Notables among then are House representative Mazie Hirono ( House D-Hawaii) who also has a Jamaican and Indian background and Cortez Masto (D-Nevada) who is also the first Latina to serve in the Senate.
Black lawmakers have increased from 46 to 49 since the last election. Republicans are among those who won. They are Senator Tim Scott (S.C.) and Representatives Mia Love (Utah) and Will Hurd (Texas). Also of interest is former Orlando Police Chief Val Demings (D-Fla.) who will be the first woman and African American to represent her district in the House.
The number of gay and lesbian members of Congress remains the same at seven. Tammy Baldwin is the only openly LGBT in the Senate. The remaining six are serving in the House.
The number of non-Christian representatives in Congress has also improved. There are two Muslims and four Hindus all of whom are in the House. Jews have increased in number from 28 to 30 two of which are in the Senate. Buddhists have four representatives this time, one in the Senate and three in the House. Overall, non-Christians compose about seven percent of Congress.
As with representation of racial minorities and women the religiously non-affiliated are ignored congressionally. No representative appears non-affiliated even though population statistics for the US show something very different. A recent Pew Forum religious survey has been made in the US from the years 2007 to 2014. It shows that the percentage of Christians fell from 78.4 percent to 70.6 percent. Non-Christian believers rose from 4.7 percent to 5.9 percent. Lastly, recent Pew surveys of the religiously unaffiliated in the US population rose from 16.1 percent to 22.8 percent but there is no one in Congress reflecting this demographic.
The lighter side of poverty:
“Three years ago I came to Florida without a nickel in my pocket. How I’ve got a nickel in my pocket.” Groucho Marx comedian, actor
“He who hesitates is poor.” Mel Brooks comedian, director
“When I was born I owed twelve dollars.” George S. Kaufman playwright and producer
“It was all the wolf could do to keep us away from his door.”
Charles Murray Scottish comedian, actor
“Our rabbi is so poor that if he didn’t fast every Monday and Thursday, he’d starve to death.”
“Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor.”
James Baldwin novelist, civil rights activist
“I used to sell furniture for a living… the trouble was it was my own.”
Les Dawson English comedian