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Let’s Tax Regressively

Everyone’s talking about taxes, so here is my take.

Like a lot of generally liberal people, I am generally in favor of progressive taxation. However, Monica Prasad’s excellent The Politics of Free Markets – which is also about the politics of taxation – has made me rethink that commitment.

Progressive taxation is a means, not an end: I have no commitment to progressive taxation in and of itself. My ideal taxation scheme would lessen inequality and improve the living standards of the poorest Americans, in what ever manner you can accomplish that.

Progressive taxes are highly visibile: Income taxes are paid in one big lump (unlike sales taxes). People hate this, and so income taxes are very salient. People are likely to know exactly which income bracket they fall in and exactly how much they give to the government.

Progressive taxation organizes voters into interest groups: A minority of voters fall in the lowest two income brackets. A plurality (majority?) of voters fall in the middle two brackets, and a majority of wealth (i.e. political contributions) fall in the upper two brackets.

The natural coalition is the rich and the middle class against the poor: In cartoon version, the very wealthy people remind the middle class that the government is stealing 25% of their income despite the fact that they still have trouble paying off their mortgage and their kid’s tuition. The middle-class votes and upper-class money combine into a powerful anti-tax, anti-redistributionist coalition. Corporate welfare thrives, welfare-welfare is slashed.

My Relatively More Regressive Proposal

Why not collapse the bottom four tax brackets into one big bracket at, say, 15%? The majority of voters will receive what looks like a 10-13% tax cut. Taxes will be raised on the poorest, but the difference between 10% and 15% of $16,000 a year can easily be made up through increased services.

Then let’s add a few brackets on the top. My heart doesn’t go out to those making $400,000 a year, but I don’t get why they are taxed at the same rate (and accounting for loopholes and tax sheleters, probably a lower rate) than those who make a million plus.

Whatever revenue is lost through the income tax cuts can be made up (and then some) through relatively invisible taxes like sales taxes, value-added taxes, and a carbon tax. These taxes may be especially regressive, but they are also less visible and so allow the government to increase its revenues without voter backlash. If these increased revenues are then put toward universal social programs – medical care, public nurseries and child care, public transit, public schools and universities, community colleges, job training, unemployment benefits, etc. etc. – once again lower and middle class Americans benefit and are not placed in opposing interest groups.

In short, something like the above could improve the living standards of the poorest American Americans while making new electoral coalitions possible.

Update: Dylan Matthews just posted a breakdown of income groups by share of the electorate, which is pretty useful to look at alongside what I just wrote.

I’ll show you the life of the mind!

From Carlin Romano comes this tale of two translations of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. For 50 years the only English translation of The Second Sex was that of H.M. Parshley, a zoologist with no background in philosophy and a tenuous grip on the French language. This fact rankled Beauvoir experts, in part because of Parshley’s questionable editorial decisions:

Parshley tended to cut Beauvoir’s examples of women’s anger and oppression while preserving references to men’s feelings.

But just as galling was the symbolism inherent in knowing that the foundational text of modern feminism had been translated by a man whose academic speciality was non-human organisms.

So scholars rejoiced when Knopf Publishing commissioned a modern translation of Beauvoir’s masterwork: this time by two women, native speakers of French. Yet this new translation has provoked more ire than the last. A leading Beauvoir scholar – and Norwegian – publicly upbraided the Parisian translators for, mirabile dictu, failing to appreciate the subtleties of the French language. Romano offers a sample:

‘Feminine refusal’ is also wrong: We are not dealing with a specific kind of refusal (the feminine as opposed to the masculine kind), but with the woman’s refusal or resistance. (Beauvoir is not trying to tell us how the woman resists, just that she does.) The sentence structure and the punctuation are awkward. There are several translation errors: s’assouvir doesn’t mean to ‘relieve oneself’ but to ‘satisfy’ or ‘gratify’; in this context profonde means ‘underlying’ or ‘deep-seated,’ not ‘profound.’ The phrase ‘reduce to his mercy’ piles up errors: à merci is not the same thing as à sa merciréduire in this context doesn’t mean ‘reduce’ but rather ‘dominate’ or ‘subdue’; thus réduire à merci actually means ‘subdue at will.’ And force musculaire means ‘muscular strength,’ not ‘muscular force,’ which is a phrase mostly used by scientists trying to explain the physics of muscle contractions; permettre here means ‘enable’ or ‘allow’, not ‘permit’ . . .

The best I can say about the new translation of The Second Sex is that it is unabridged, that some of the philosophical vocabulary is more consistent than in Parshley’s version, and that some sections (parts of ‘Myths,’ for example), are better than others . . .

Whenever I try to read Borde and Malovany-Chevallier’s translation like an ordinary reader, without constantly checking against the French, I feel as if I were reading underwater.

I admit, a part of me thrills to academic blood sports. But more of me doubts that this scene from Barton Fink is a worthwhile model for academe:

One might think that scholars, believing in the life-changing potential of their work, would act like ecumenical priests spreading their gospel far and wide. But a lot choose to act like petty warlords, carving out fiefdoms through raids on weaker neighbors, then surrounding their conquered lands with linguistic minefields through which the semi-barbarous fear to tread. Still others go on scorched-earth campaigns and generally act like John Goodman with a shotgun.

Which is to say, I don’t see how the Norwegian scholar has done anything but drive potential readers away from Beauvoir – and that’s a shame, because The Second Sex is a powerful enough work no matter which translation you read.

(African) American Exceptionalism

At TAPPED, Jamelle Bouie writes:

In my experience, the “acting white” charge was reserved for black kids, academically successful or otherwise, who didn’t fit in with the main crowd. In other words, this wasn’t some unique black pathology against academic achievement; it was your standard bullying and exclusion, but with a racial tinge . . .

My problem with these discussions is that they seek — inadvertently or otherwise — to pathologize the experience of some African Americans, blind to the fact that these are problems common to a whole host of socially and economically isolated groups. In this at least, poor African Americans aren’t exceptional, popular opinion notwithstanding.

This reminded me of a 19th century report issued by the Parisian Police Prefecture, as quoted in a footnote of Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age of Revolution:

The circumstances which oblige the workers to move out of the centre of Paris have generally, it is pointed out, had deplorable effects on their behaviour and morality. In the old days they used to live on the higher floors of buildings whose lower floors were occupied by businessmen and other members of the relatively comfortable classes. A sort of solidarity grew up between the tenants of a single building. Neighbours helped each other in little ways. When sick or unemployed the workers might find much assistance within the house, while on the other hand a sort of feeling of human respect imbued working-class habits with a certain regularity. (203)

It’s been about six years since I last read The Truly Disadvantaged, but this sounds a lot to me like William Julius Wilson’s argument about the detrimental effects of the exodus of the black middle class on the lower class blacks left behind in the inner city.

Wilson’s book was important because it challenged two simplistic explanations of black poverty – white racism and a black “culture of poverty” – by positing that the declining fortunes of urban African American communities was a result of class segregation. Class segregation has nothing to do with race. Its effects should be universal. Yet, as far as I can tell, Wilson’s work is much more likely to be framed as a contribution to the study of race in America rather than to the study of class structures in modern industrial democracies.

In Jamelle’s words, some people mistake that “racial tinge” as evidence that we are dealing with a wholly novel phenomenon – blackness – instead of a variation on the theme of human experience. At its mildest, blindness “to the fact that these are problems common to a whole host of socially and economically isolated groups” leads well-meaning intellectuals to close-read hip hop lyrics in hopes of discovering why some black kids are mean to other black kids. Plenty of other people, however, are willing to take the logic of African American exceptionalism beyond its mildest implications.


Also, check out Gomorrah. With the exception of skin color, Italian urban poverty looks a lot like American urban poverty. Of course, northern Italian stereotypes about southern Italians bear a certain resemblance to American racial stereotypes.

Dixie in Palermo

The "General Lee" parked on Via Roma, Palermo, Sicily

If I spoke any Italian, I would have asked the owner if he supports the doctrine of nullification or just likes the Dukes of Hazzard.

This is actually one of three Confederate flags I spotted during two days in Palermo. Why would some Sicilians identify with the Confederacy? On the one hand, Sicily sometimes resents its richer, culturally dominant northern compatriots. On the other hand, Sicily has never gone to war in defense of chattel slavery, and has even fought against it on occasion. But seeing as how the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery, I guess it makes sense that supporters of Sicilian independence would choose to associate their cause with the Confederacy.

Anyway, please send me all photos of vehicles christened Salvatore Giuliano that you find on the streets of Richmond.

European Caesura

I have just completed my final final of the year, which means that I am out of here. A week in Sicily, and then a week in Bavaria – Ja, in Bavaria, where the trees are made of wood . . .

Anyway,  I look forward to the 10,000 Google Reader stories that will await my return.

Probability is Counterintuitive: Immigrant Solidarity Edition

I am going to let you all in on a simple statistical trick.

The Trick

First, randomly generate three vectors of 100,000 observations each.

A <- rnorm(10^6,100,15)
B <- rnorm(10^6,25,3)
C <- rnorm(10^6,10^5,10^4)
Because these vectors have all been randomly generated, their correlations are basically zero.
cor(A,B) = 0.0002
cor(B,C) = -0.0017
cor(A,C) = -0.0003
Interpret these correlations as saying, “Knowing the value of A tells us nothing about the value of B or C.”
But here’s the magic. Create ratios of A to C and B to C and then take their correlation:
I got a correlation of 0.37 – not bad in the social sciences. But remember, these correlated ratios were created by manipulating three random, independently generated vectors of observations.

Fill in the Blanks

Okay, let’s rename our randomly generated variables.

  1. Let’s call “A” the number of Hispanic immigrants in a city.
  2. Call “B” the number of violent crimes in a city.
  3. Call “C” the population of a city.
So A/C is the percentage of Hispanic immigrants in a city, and B/C is the violent crime rate for that city. And what do you know – they’re strongly and positively correlated.
What’s more: call “C – A” the number of non-immigrants in your city. Then the correlation of Real Americans with violent crime is strong and negative. Incredible!
Arm Yourself

In the wake of Arizona’s immigration law, I’ve seen a fair bit of discussion of the relationship between immigrants and violent crime. And while I’ve yet to see any of these bloggers as much as link to a simple correlation with real data, I know that somewhere out there is an amateur social scientist with a single-user license to SPSS, and he’s going to show you a scatterplot just like this:
and claim that it means something. But if you’re correlating two ratios with the same denominator, it means nothing.
Studies in epidemiology and criminology are especially prone to this problem because they are often reliant on aggregate-level rates. I don’t know if this problem has a name, but I’d like to propose “The Nativist’s Fallacy.” Just use your imagination and think of all the ethnic groups we could put in “A” and all of the events we could stick in “B”. For some, the opportunity is irresistible.
This plot was generated by drawing only 1,000 observations for A, B, and C.  cor(A/C,B/C) was 0.99 here.

Max Weber in the News: Stephanie Grace edition

In conclusion, I think it is bad science to disagree with a conclusion in your heart, and then try (unsuccessfully, so far at least) to find data that will confirm what you want to be true.

I fully agree with Stephanie Grace on the above point, as does the eminent German sociologist Max Weber. However, in a famous essay on the problem of objectivity in the social sciences, Weber discusses why science and values can never be entirely separated. The scientific method, after all, only tells us how to arrive at conclusions objectively. But the choice of which questions are worth asking will always be subjective – to be determined by funding agencies, by society, by the individual researcher.

So for all you brave seekers of objective truth, you stubborn crusaders against the blinkered bien pensants, here is a question worth wrestling with: Why do so many Americans think it important that scientists finally, once and for all, establish whether or not blacks are genetically inferior to whites?

Original Sin

In a NYT piece entitled Ending the Slavery Blame Game, Skip Gates writes:

THANKS to an unlikely confluence of history and genetics — the fact that he is African-American and president — Barack Obama has a unique opportunity to reshape the debate over one of the most contentious issues of America’s racial legacy: reparations, the idea that the descendants of American slaves should receive compensation for their ancestors’ unpaid labor and bondage…. [T]here is very little discussion of the role Africans themselves played. And that role, it turns out, was a considerable one, especially for the slave-trading kingdoms of western and central Africa…. For centuries, Europeans in Africa kept close to their military and trading posts on the coast…. How did slaves make it to these coastal forts?… 90 percent of those shipped to the New World were enslaved by Africans and then sold to European traders… without complex business partnerships between African elites and European traders and commercial agents, the slave trade to the New World would have been impossible, at least on the scale it occurred. Advocates of reparations for the descendants of those slaves generally ignore this untidy problem of the significant role that Africans played in the trade….

For many African-Americans, these facts can be difficult to accept. Excuses run the gamut, from “Africans didn’t know how harsh slavery in America was” and “Slavery in Africa was, by comparison, humane,” or, in a bizarre version of “The devil made me do it,” “Africans were driven to this only by the unprecedented profits offered by greedy European countries.” But the sad truth is that the conquest and capture of Africans and their sale to Europeans was one of the main sources of foreign exchange for several African kingdoms for a very long time. Slaves were the main export of the kingdom of Kongo; the Asante Empire in Ghana exported slaves and used the profits to import gold. Queen Njinga, the brilliant 17th-century monarch of the Mbundu, waged wars of resistance against the Portuguese but also conquered polities as far as 500 miles inland and sold her captives to the Portuguese…. Did these Africans know how harsh slavery was in the New World? Actually, many elite Africans visited Europe in that era, and they did so on slave ships following the prevailing winds through the New World….

Brad DeLong responds:

Unfortunately for Gates:

  1. The first generations of African kings who began selling slaves to European traders for guns indeed did not know what slavery was like on the other side of the Middle Passage–they thought it was like slavery in Africa, where if you become a slave you then become part of a single household in which you have roughly the status of the very poor third cousin. But slavery in the Caribbean was a much harsher and more vicious institution–as capitalist slavery driven by production of staple cash crops so often is.

  2. Once the slave trade was started and once the kings of Africa knew what they were doing, no individual African kingdom along the coast can back off and stop. If it does, the guns and ammunition stop coming–and it gets conquered in short order by its coastal neighbors who are still engaged in the slave trade.

  3. Only when European consumer demand for Caribbean staple crops appears–only when the profits from slave agriculture and thus slave-raiding become really large–is it worth African kings’ while to start substantial slave-raiding in the interior (and is it worth the Europeans’ while to start shipping people across the Middle Passage).

That Henry Louis Gates makes fun of these arguments doesn’t make them untrue.

I think DeLong is more right than Gates. There is a bizarre anachronism to Gates’ argument. We shouldn’t be any more surprised that African kingdoms would sell other Africans into slavery than we should be that Romans enslaved Gauls or Venetians sold Slavs. Skin color didn’t count for as much back then, so I don’t see why the skin color of slave traders should matter to questions of justice now.

It’s anachronistic to project the color line into an era when the salient divisions were religious. Europeans wanted non-Christian slaves. For most of the middle ages, this meant Christians enslaved Slavs (from which we get the word slaves), whom the Ottomans would later favor for Mamluks. But after Prince Vladimir converted the Slavs to Christianity around 988, the Europeans looked elsewhere. The stateless regions of (often pagan) inner Africa were ideal, and the (often Muslim) African kingdoms on the coast were as happy to trade with Europeans as with Arabs or other African kingdoms.

DeLong is also right that no Africans in the old world could have known how harsh slavery was in the Caribbean. Conditions were actually much better on continental North America, until – for various reasons that I would look up if this weren’t an off the cuff  early morning post – the planting aristocracy left Barbados and resettled in South Carolina. These newcomers to the the colonies brought with them the hardened racial ideology of the Caribbean planters. It’s no accident that the likes of John C Calhoun and Strom Thurmond all came from South Carolina. This is the beginning of the truly persistant intertwining of exploitation and race in American history.

All of which makes me think that the United States’ original sin was not slavery – an institution that pretty much every civilization in human history participated in until the 18th century without leaving scars on their national psyche  – but the color line. Slavery may have been abolished 150 years ago, but the color line certainly wasn’t.

Which is to say that ameliorative social policies should not be justified by discussions of blood guilt – this only leads to Italians, Irish, Jews, Scandinavians, Asians, Scotch-Irish, etc. pointing out that their ancestors had nothing to do with America’s past sins, and which leads Skip Gates to drag 16th century African princes into the equation. Blood guilt is beside the point when the New World’s original sin – making race central to the allocation of social rights and life chances – is anything but a matter of ancient history.


Some notes:

Further evidence that religion – and not race or nationality – were what mattered to early Europeans, consider the surprisingly persistant legend of Prester John. For centuries, European explorers searched for this mythical Christian emperor deep in the heart of Africa. Europeans assumed that a Christian ruler would naturally ally with them against the more powerful Arab states.

Also, for more on the role of race before the in-migration of Barbadian planters, I suggest Jack Rakove’s lectures on Colonial and Revolutionary America, available on Stanfords iTunes U page. I’m not suggesting that there wouldn’t have been racism if the Barbadian planters had never come to South Carolina, but without them it does seem to me that the color line would have been fuzzier and ultimately less robust to the passage of time.

Slouching toward Camorra

I just finished watching Gomorrah, a movie about the Camorra crime syndicate. I liked it a lot: think of it as the Italian Wire, rather than a 21st century Godfather.

I bother to mention Gomorrah because I have a number of friends interested in urban planning and public housing, and much of the movie takes place inside Vele di Scampia, the Neapolitan answer to Pruit-Igoe.

From the outside, this Le Corbusier-inspired pile of concrete reminds one of a ziggurat or a sailboat, but in this shot I think it looks like a post-apocalyptic carnival cruise. I chose this angle out of generosity to the architect, who I am sure thought the power of modern design would alleviate all the social ills of Scampia.

But you need to watch this movie to get a sense of the surreal environment inside these buildings. Stacked open-air corridors are linked by criss-crossing staircases. Instead of front yards, residents have a depressed concrete landing that opens onto the central corridors through steel gates. Enormous caverns are hidden in the bowels of the complex. From the inside, it’s the panopticon. From the outside, an impenetrable fortress. In short, the Vele di Scampia complex seems like every warm-climate crime syndicate’s fantasy.

I don’t have much more to say – I am not at my best writing about architecture. The movie is available on Netflix’s Instant Play. If you want an interesting contrast to American urban poverty, check it out.

The Company You Keep

In December 1948, the United Nations General Assembly passed its first legally binding multilateral treaty, The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

No treaty could be a clearer response to the treatment of Jews, Slavs, and other ethnic groups at the hands of the Nazis.

Sounds like the kind of convention that all Nazi-smashing Americans can get behind, right?

The debates over the Genocide Convention revealed for the first time the difficulty that some states might have in ratifying a legally binding international human rights treaty. In the United States, the debate over ratification led to one of the most acrimonious discussions surrounding postwar foreign policy of the period. The Genocide Convention was opposed by conservative southerners in the Senate, who were concerned that its provisions might be used to hold individuals accountable in American or international courts for lynching and other forms of racial “justice.” Opponents of the convention raised the specter of federal power overcoming the rights fo the American states in areas dealing with rights. . . [The American Bar Association] was largely responsible for making the arguments that converted a convention outlawing a heinous crime into a “subversive document undermining cherished constitutional rights.” (Beth Simmons 44)

Admittedly, I am not a member of the American Bar Association, but I was not aware that lynching and genocide were ‘cherished constitutional rights.’


Alternative title for this post: Plus ça change . . .