NYU Professor Philip Alston on inequality in the United States

Originally from Australia, New York University School of Law Professor Philip Alston specializes in international law and heads the law school's Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, and since 2014 he has been the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights. In mid-December he released a report on poverty and human rights here in the United States prepared at the invitation of the Trump administration and with the assistance of state and federal officials, independent experts, and people dealing personally with poverty. It's worth a read.

Alston prepared the report over a two-week trip to California, Alabama, Georgia, Puerto Rico, West Virginia, and Washington DC, though of course he's already very familiar with the country. He started his academic career at Tufts and Harvard in the 1980s and having lived and worked in the U.S. since 2001.

He expresses concern about the present direction of the country, which he sees as likely leading to increased inequality, already high, thanks to tax cuts for the rich and cuts to the social safety nets favored by the administration and its congressional allies, but he also notes that many states, municipalities, and private organizations are trying to help the very poor. He also notes a number of paradoxes.

For example, "US health care expenditures per capita are double the US infant mortality rates in 2013 were the highest in the developed world." (OECD refers to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, a group of 37 wealthy countries.) In addition,

  • Americans can expect to live shorter and sicker lives, compared to people living in any other rich democracy, and the 'health gap' between the U.S. and its peer countries continues to grow
  • U.S. inequality levels are far higher than those in most European countries.
  • Neglected tropical diseases, including Zika, are increasingly common in the USA. It has been estimated that 12 million Americans live with a neglected parasitic infection. A 2017 report documents the prevalence of hookworm in Lowndes County, Alabama.
  • The US has the highest prevalence of obesity in the developed world.
  • In terms of access to water and sanitation the US ranks 36th in the world.
  • America has the highest incarceration rate in the world, ahead of Turkmenistan, El Salvador, Cuba, Thailand and the Russian Federation. Its rate is nearly 5 times the OECD average.
  • The youth poverty rate in the United States is the highest across the OECD with one quarter of youth living in poverty compared to less than 14% across the OECD.
  • The Stanford Center on Inequality and Poverty ranks the most well-off countries in terms of labor markets, poverty, safety net, wealth inequality, and economic mobility. The US comes in last of the top 10 most well-off countries, and 18th amongst the top 21.
  • In the OECD the US ranks 35th out of 37 in terms of poverty and inequality.
  • The Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality characterizes the US as “a clear and constant outlier in the child poverty league.” US child poverty rates are the highest amongst the six richest countries – Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Sweden and Norway.
  • About 55.7% of the U.S. voting-age population cast ballots in the 2016 presidential election. In the OECD, the U.S. placed 28th in voter turnout, compared with an OECD average of 75%. Registered voters represent a much smaller share of potential voters in the U.S. than just about any other OECD country. Only about 64% of the U.S. voting-age population (and 70% of voting-age citizens) was registered in 2016, compared with 91% in Canada (2015) and the UK (2016), 96% in Sweden (2014), and nearly 99% in Japan (2014).

Alston writes,

I have been struck by the extent to which caricatured narratives about the purported innate differences between rich and poor have been sold to the electorate by some politicians and media, and have been allowed to define the debate. The rich are industrious, entrepreneurial, patriotic, and the drivers of economic success. The poor are wasters, losers, and scammers. As a result, money spent on welfare is money down the drain. To complete the picture we are also told that the poor who want to make it in America can easily do so: they really can achieve the American dream if only they work hard enough.

The reality that I have seen, however, is very different. It is a fact that many of the wealthiest citizens do not pay taxes at the rates that others do, hoard much of their wealth off-shore, and often make their profits purely from speculation rather than contributing to the overall wealth of the American community. Who then are the poor? Racist stereotypes are usually not far beneath the surface. The poor are overwhelmingly assumed to be people of color, whether African Americans or Hispanic ‘immigrants’. The reality is that there are 8 million more poor Whites than there are Blacks. Similarly, large numbers of welfare recipients are assumed to be living high on the hog. Some politicians and political appointees with whom I spoke were completely sold on the narrative of such scammers sitting on comfortable sofas, watching color TVs, while surfing on their smart phones, all paid for by welfare. I wonder how many of these politicians have ever visited poor areas, let alone spoken to those who dwell there. There are anecdotes aplenty, but evidence is nowhere to be seen. In every society, there are those who abuse the system, as much in the upper income levels, as in the lower. But the poor people I met from among the 40 million living in poverty were overwhelmingly either persons who had been born into poverty, or those who had been thrust there by circumstances largely beyond their control such as physical or mental disabilities, divorce, family breakdown, illness, old age, unlivable wages, or discrimination in the job market.

Based on figures from the Census Bureau, Alston writes, "In September 2017, more than one in every eight Americans were living in poverty (40 million, equal to 12.7% of the population). And almost half of those (18.5 million) were living in deep poverty, with reported family income below one-half of the poverty threshold."

The report touches on a wide range of subjects, including race, gender, disability, job availability, the opioid epidemic, obstacles to voting, welfare reform, difficulties in securing medical and especially dental care, and government policies, such as those in some areas that pile interest and penalties on those with too little money to pay minor traffic fines and the like immediately, which means that the poor end up paying much bigger fines than the rich for the same offenses.

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New York cut stop-and-frisk and crime continued to fall

New York crime rates have fallen a lot in recent years, something some had attributed at least in part to a practice known as "stop-and-frisk." This involved police officers stopping large number of people on the street based on what they contended was reasonable suspicion. The idea was that this wouldn't just get illegal weapons off the street, it would discourage potential criminals from carrying them in the first place.

The practice had a lot of opponents as well as supporters and was constitutionally questionable, a possible violation of the Fourth Amendment's prohibition of unreasonable searches, though the police claimed that they were careful to stop someone only on the basis of legitimate suspicion that met constitutional requirements based on a 1968 Supreme Court decision. But in 2013 a federal judge held stop-and-frisk to be racially discriminatory in practice and hence a violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. (For a summary of the legal details, see this article from FactCheck.org.)

When the Bill de Blasio became mayor in 2014 he kept one of his campaign promised by ordering a drastic cut in stop-and-frisk, in keeping with the federal judge's order and his own progressive views. There were widespread predictions that this would lead to a violent crime wave, but in reality crime continued to drop, quite a lot in fact. Last month conservative author Kyle Smith wrote in The National Review:

... Mayor Bill de Blasio, who made ending stop-and-frisk the centerpiece of his successful 2013 campaign for mayor, struck me as a man who was cynically willing to tolerate an increase in crime if he thought it to his political advantage to amplify leftist voters’ core belief that policing was out of control.

Today in New York City, use of stop-and-frisk, which the department justified via the 1968 Terry v. Ohio Supreme Court ruling, has crashed. Yet the statistics are clear: Crime is lower than ever. It’s possible that crime would be even lower had stop-and-frisk been retained, but that’s moving the goalposts. I and others argued that crime would rise. Instead, it fell. We were wrong.

Major crime in New York City has continued to decline almost across the board in the four years of the de Blasio administration, to the lowest rates since New York City began keeping extensive records on crime in the early 1960s. Crime is literally off the charts — the low end of the charts. To compare today’s crime rate to even that of ten years ago is to observe a breathtaking decline.

Former New York Times metro editor Joe Sexton wrote a brief article for ProPublica that's also worth reading about the history of stop-and-frisk and different views of its relationship to the drop in crime in New York.

Crime in the U.S. overall has declined a lot since about 1990. The national murder rate rose in 2015 and 2016, but was largely the result of an upsurge in a few large cities such as Chicago, and while the final data are not yet available, it's likely murders will turn out to have fallen again in 2017. Here are some posts on the subject from last year with links to additional data:

New York City's historically low crime rate
The latest on U.S. crime rates
Sanctuary cities have lower crime, better economies

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Why are projected budget deficits so huge?

At Vox, Dylan Matthews interviews former White House chief economist Jason Furman about the Trump budget proposal, which Furman finds alarming because while he has no problems with using large deficits to escape a serious recession, he doesn't like President Trump's proposal to explode the national debt when emergency measures aren't needed. Says Furman:

We have a large budget deficit over the indefinite future. I think a lot of the problem we have is that revenue is just exceedingly low, especially for this part of the business cycle. We won’t be able to have the type of government I think we should have — or the type of budget balance that everyone, in theory, thinks we should have — if we don’t have more revenue.

To put some numbers on that, revenue is projected to be only 16.3 percent of GDP in fiscal year 2019. The only times in the past 50 years that has happened were in the aftermath of the past two recessions. Even in the 1980s, you had tax cuts and a deep recession and we were collecting more than that in revenue as a share of GDP.

The deterioration in the budget forecast relative to what was projected a year ago is largely because revenue has come down, both because the tax cut passed and because revenue collections are lower.

Finally, you can look at the spending side of the budget, and you don’t see the type of out-of-control spending growth people talk about. The amazing thing is that Medicare in 2019 will be 3 percent of GDP. In 2009, it was 3 percent of GDP. That’s despite the fact that the number of Medicare beneficiaries has gone up from 45 million to 60 million. You’ve had a 33 percent increase in Medicare beneficiaries and no increase in Medicare as a share of GDP.

Furman goes on to note that Social Security spending is up only a couple of tenths of a percent of GDP over the past ten years despite the aging population, cash welfare has gone down relative to the population and the economy, overall aid to the poor is virtually unchanged as a percentage of GDP, and even the growth of healthcare costs has slowed.

Furman isn't entirely negative in his assessment, offering some positive comments on some of Trump's budget proposals, but he's clearly not happy about the long-term deficit, saying, "Now that it looks like the deficit is going to be 5 percent of GDP starting next year, which is the highest it’s ever been as a share of the economy outside of a major war or recession, I think that starts to have some costs. I don’t think the costs are huge and catastrophic. But they chip away at capital formation and increase foreign borrowing, which reduces our future national income."

When Democrats are in office, Republicans complain about deficits and the national debt, but it's conservative Republicans who tend to explode them. Ronald Reagan, for example, criticized Jimmy Carter for running a deficit, but then he and George H W Bush got into office and quadrupled the national debt. The debt-to-GDP ratio had gone down (or in the case of Ford held roughly steady) under every previous president since World War 2. When Clinton left office the U.S. was running a budget surplus large enough to pay off the national debt in ten years. The previous president to sign a budget bill that produced a surplus was Lyndon Johnson at the peak of the War on Poverty, and the Vietnam War, and the Apollo program.

See also this post on the causes of the previous decade's deficit explosion.

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How have President Trump's job announcements fared?

Since the election (even before his inauguration) President Trump has made a number of announcements about jobs created or retained in the United States thanks to his policies, actions, and influence. The nonprofit investigative journalism group ProPublica has followed up on all 31 of these announcements through late January, and you can read their detailed report here. The upper section of the page is an interactive graphic and below that is a table summarizing the jobs created (or saved, in the case of those businesses had previously planned to cut).

For example right after the election President Trump announced that he and his vice presidential running mate Mike Pence had saved 11,000 jobs that were otherwise going to be moved from Indiana to Mexico. At the time Mr Pence was still governor of Indiana, and he had helped arrange for $7 million in grants and tax breaks to convince Carrier to keep jobs in the state. It turns out, however, that Carrier had never intended to move 300 of the jobs in question, and after the announcement the company ended up laying off more than 500 employees anyway, leaving fewer than 300 jobs actually retained. That was still good news for the people who were able to keep their jobs, of course.

In total, some 2.4 million new or saved jobs were announced, but only about 206,000 of those existed as of January 29, and of them, around 70,000 had actually already been planned before the election. Of the remaining 136,000 jobs, the companies doing the hiring credited around 63,000 partly or entirely to President Trump's actions.

Some additional information not in the ProPublica support:

The U.S. economy needs to create an average of over 100,000 new jobs per month just to keep up with population growth. (See the Federal Reserve Banks of Atlanta's Job Calculator page for more on how this is computed.)

The U.S. economy added 2.17 million jobs in 2017, which isn't bad. It is, however, the smallest number since 2012 (which was tied with 2017). For comparison, the last four years of the Obama administration saw job growth of 2.3 million in 2013, 2.99 million in 2014, 2.71 million in 2015, and 2.24 million in 2016. These figures come from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Blogger Steve Benen provides a monthly summary of the Bureau's jobs reports, the latest of which is here, and from which I have extracted this graph of monthly increases and decreases in jobs numbers going back to the Great Recession. The different bar colors mark different presidential administrations.

U.S. job growth 2008-2017

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Jimmy Kimmel on face matches from Google's Arts and Culture app

I haven't tried Google's Art and Culture app, but apparently one of the things it can do is search historical portraits to find people you look like. (Well, not just you. That would be an awfully narrowly focused product.)

I thought this minute-long segment about it from Jimmy Kimmel was reasonably amusing:


Link: https://youtu.be/a-IYOrY8ePA

Update 2018 February 22: I've no idea what happened here. The video has vanished from YouTube without a trace or explanation, possibly over some copyright claim, though that's just my own wild guess. Basically, the app matched Guillermo to a painting of British composer Sir Arthur Sullivan (of Gilbert & Sullivan fame), which was actually a pretty good match, and Jimmy Kimmel himself to a figure in another classic painting. Donald Trump was allegedly matched to Garfield the Cat, if not by the Google app itself by Jimmy Kimmel's staff. It's a shame the clip was taken down.

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Well, that kinda is what they look like, part 6

When Stephen Colbert shows a photo of someone in the news, he routinely gives an alternative description based on how they look in the picture, as in "White House spokesperson and angry woman behind you at Target Sarah Huckabee Sanders." Here's another collection of them running two minutes:


Link: https://youtu.be/ivCYitolMGY

You can find the previous collection at this link.

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Privately funded launch to orbit of Mars planned tomorrow

Update 2018 February 7: The launch was successful in every respect but one: The middle of the three booster rockets failed to land on the floating platform as intended because one of the required engine firings didn't happen. Interestingly, the two side boosters, which landed perfectly back in Florida, were recycled. The central booster was new and had some design modifications required to deal with having boosters on either side, though I don't think that's directly relevant to the landing failure. The final second stage burn put itself and its Testla Roadster payload into an orbit around the Sun that will take it not just to the orbit of Mars but a good deal beyond, into the asteroid belt. Original post follows:

Tomorrow a private company is planning to launch the world's largest rocket on its maiden test flight, and if all goes as planned, its payload will travel as far as the orbit of Mars.

Meanwhile the same folks are working on a replacement rocket system capable of sending large passenger spaceships to Mars and beyond in the next decade. As a bonus, those spaceships will also be able to transport people between any two points on Earth -- any two points with launch facilities anyway -- in an hour or less. And they plan to make the launch lower than any space-capable rocket now flying.

The company doing this is SpaceX, founded and headed by Elon Musk, a Heinlein character come to life who helped create PayPal and later started the electric car company Tesla. The payload for tomorrow's launch is Musk's personal Tesla Roadster, which will be playing David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” in a loop on the car's sound system.

Since its beginnings in 2002 SpaceX has been wildly ambitious, sometimes failing on its first several tries but more often than not ultimately succeeding. In 2008 their single-engine Falcon 1 rocket became the first privately-funded liquid fueled launch vehicle to put a satellite into orbit. The Falcon 1 was succeeded by the nine-engine Falcon 9, and in 2012 SpaceX used the Falcon 9 and its Dragon space capsule to deliver a load of cargo to the International Space Station, another first for a privately developed launch system. Other deliveries followed, and SpaceX hopes to carry astronauts to the ISS in a new model Dragon as soon as this year.

Tomorrow is the scheduled first try at launching the newest SpaceX rocket, the Falcon Heavy, whose first stage is three Falcon 9 first stages strapped together in a row. While in a sense only an incremental development in its well-established Falcon 9 system, the Falcon Heavy has a payload capacity double that of the biggest launch vehicle in current service, the similar-looking Delta IV Heavy from the United Launch Alliance (a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed-Martin).

The Falcon Heavy is powerful enough to launch 35,000 pounds to the Moon. Impressive as that it is, it still falls far short of the Saturn V, the biggest rocket ever built, with a lunar payload capacity of over 100,000 pounds.

But SpaceX is already working on a rocket as powerful as the Saturn V, one code-named BFR. (Some refer to it as the "Big Falcon Rocket," but everybody knows the middle word isn't really Falcon.) They're far enough along on the BFR project to have started test-firing its new engines in 2016. A test flight could occur as soon as 2020 or 2021.

One of the main goals of SpaceX is to lower the cost of getting into space. Estimates are that its prices are currently 80 percent cheaper than the competition, and last year they started re-using the Falcon 9 first stage, which after launch can land vertically back at its launch site of on an autonomous barge out at sea. This is expected to lower costs even more.

Everything about the BFR is intended to be reusable, and this is supposed to make the cost of a BRF rocket lower even than the original Falcon 1. At that point it makes sense to use the BFR as the only launch vehicle. They also hope to achieve reliability comparable to that of a modern airliner.

Not just the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy will be retired in favor of the BFT; the Dragon spacecraft will become obsolete as well, but it will not be replaced. Instead, the BFR’s second stage will be a passenger and cargo spaceship. There will also be BFR tanker rocket able to refuel the main BFR in orbit, allowing it to continue on to the Moon or Mars with full tanks.

So just how big a spaceship are we talking about? The BFR's pressurized volume is planned to be 825 cubic meters, or 29,100 cubic feet. SpaceX says that it can be configured with "up to 40 cabins, large common areas, central storage, galley, and a solar storm shelter in Mars transit configuration." If you find that hard to picture, take a look at this very short YouTube animation:


Link: https://youtu.be/SUb0qRoKhPw

For more on the BFR, including some skepticism about how practical all this might be, see this article from Popular Mechanics.

By the way, another component to the SpaceX Interplanetary Transport System, namely a modular, automated, solar-powered ground-based factory that would extract water from below the surface and carbon dioxide from the air in order to produce oxygen and methane to refuel the spaceship. Of course, oxygen and methane are cheap and readily available on Earth, but the plan is to launch the factory to Mars.

While SpaceX's plans are most ambitious, it has competitors. NASA is working with United Launch Alliance and other contractors on a new Space Launch System (SLS) with a rocket only a little smaller than the BFR that may start flying in 2020. It's likely to be very expensive (no components are planned to be reusable), but it may be more reliable. United Launch Alliance is working on a Vulcan rocket, also aimed for a 2020 test fight, that appears to be a scaled up version of the Delta IV series and somewhat less powerful than the Falcon Heavy.

There's also another private company in the game, Blue Origin, funded out-of-pocket by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. Its first rocket, which has already flown in several tests, is a suborbital vehicle suitable for space tourism. It's called the New Shepard, after Alan Shepard, the first American in space, whose short initial flight was similarly suborbital. Their next proposed rocket is the New Glenn, similarly named for the first American to orbit the Earth, John Glenn, which may be launched in 2020. Its payload is a little smaller than the Falcon Heavy. Blue Origin is also working on a New Armstrong, possibly comparable to the Saturn V, BFR, and SLS, but with no publicly announced time frame or payload capacity.

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