Miss Wasilla Applies for a Job

Miss Wasilla, 1984They should move up the election; I swear to God. First came the reports that the Republican National Committee spent $150,000 in September alone on Sarah Palin’s wardrobe and accessories. A blogger for Slate named Dahlia Lithwick noted that “spending $150,000 on incredibly high-end designer duds not only looks bad to Joe the Plumber, but also turns Palin from Joe Sixpack into Empress Josephine.”

Lithwick makes a more interesting point that points the blame (rightly) at American culture:

It is really, really different to be a woman in the public eye. The standards for looking “good” are completely unfair, and the stakes are vastly higher for failing to do so. We obsessed about John Edwards’ haircut because a bad haircut truly wouldn’t have mattered. We obsessed over Hillary Clinton’s cleavage, or her pantsuits, or her highlights because they matter so much.

Then this morning, reports started coming out that the highest paid individual in the McCain campaign is “[Not] Randy Scheunemann, Mr. McCain’s chief foreign policy adviser; not Nicolle Wallace, his senior communications staffer. It was Amy Strozzi, who was identified by the Washington Post this week as Gov. Sarah Palin’s traveling makeup artist.”

Clothes, make-up … but what about hair? It’s covered. “In addition, Angela Lew, who is apparently Ms. Palin’s traveling hair stylist, got $10,000 for “Communications Consulting” in the first half of October.”

But the biggest difference between Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin is that Hillary Clinton’s appearance was a weird issue because she was being held to a double standard, wanting to be taken seriously as a senator and a viable presidential candidate, while also having to keep up appearances as a woman.

But Palin wants it a different way. She wants to be girly-pretty, and She’s using her looks, because there’s little substance to her actual qualifications or platform.

If we were electing a celebrity, makeup, hair, clothes, and fawning celebrity profiles would be pluses. But we’re choosing someone who’s supposed to be better than we are at governing, and her actual track record indicates she’s neither qualified nor ethical.

Christopher Hitchins made a great suggestion: Stop covering Palin until she gives a press conference. Not that she ever would. A press conference would be too much like a job interview, with tough, unfair, surprising questions that would test your qualifications and ability to think on your feet. And all the hair and makeup in the world can’t cover for you there.

Jon Taplin has an interesting lead in a blog post today:

As Merrill Lynch brokers arrived at their desks this morning they were greeted with an urgent memo as to how to deal with the possibility that the stock exchange might not open this morning. Europe and Asia had crashed over night and the futures were showing a possible 1000 point fall at the open, which would trigger curbs that would keep the market from opening.

Instead the market fell only 500 points, and has since recovered. A little. But the ongoing outlook is dismal, if not downright frightening.

And what has Miss Wasilla been doing? She’s been giving personality profile interviews to People Magazine, where she says she’s an intellectual (despite not naming a single newspaper or magazine she reads when talking to Couric) and mentioning how she always wanted to name a baby boy “Zamboni.”

Memo to Joe the Plumber: Work on Pipes, Not Policy

After being mentioned 23 times in last night’s debate, Joe the Plumber had his 15 minutes of fame extended when Dianne Sawyer interviewed him. His beef with Barack Obama’s proposed tax policy was that if he were lucky enough to make $250,000 a year, he didn’t want to have the government tax it more. (The difference would be from a 36% tax rate to a 39% tax rate.)

Joe said, “Just because you work a little bit harder to have a little bit more money taken from you, that’s scary. I work hard for it, why should I be taxed more than other people?”

Sawyer: “What about people who make a million dollars, or five million dollars?”

Joe: “Why should they be penalized for being successful? … It’s a basic right. And Obama wants to take that basic right and penalize it. It’s a very socialist view and it’s incredibly wrong.”

Actually, it’s not socialist. Obama’s not advocating state ownership, merely an adjustment in what we already have: a progressive tax, which has a rate that increases as the amount subject to taxation increases. And it’s common in most advanced economies.

Joe’s opposition seems to come from working a little bit harder to having a little bit more money taken from him. In strictly personal terms, that makes sense. But even in the situation he’s describing, it doesn’t. Here’s why.

First, according to the US census, only 1.5% of all US households (not individuals, households) earn more than $250,000 a year. (As an aside, if you’re making even half of that, you’re doing pretty damned well, since 80% of people on earth live on less than $10 a day — that’s $3,650 a year.)

Second, if Joe is concerned that he’s going to get penalized on “working a little harder,” we have to question what his motivation is. If he’s lucky enough to make $100 an hour as a plumber, and he works 2,000 hours in a year, he’d make $200,000. Why isn’t that enough? What is the compelling reason to work another hour a week (or another week a year) to go from $200,000 to $250,000? It can’t be meeting basic needs. It has to be something else — like greed. Greed isn’t a basic right, it’s one of the seven deadly sins.

Third, if he’s complaining that he shouldn’t be taxed “more than other people,” what he’s actually advocating for is a proportional tax (i.e., a fixed tax rate for everyone), but it’s not very common, because the ability to pay that tax is disproportionately harder for people with lower incomes, so much so that such tax proposals usually exempt household income below a certain minimum threshold — in which case Joe’s same selfish argument would apply slightly differently: “Why should I work just to get taxed?”

Fourth, one of the way a progressive tax operates is to exempt some basic necessities from taxation (such as food), and taxing luxury items (such as yachts) instead. Many people, people like Joe, actually favor that.

As personal income grows, people tend to spend less and less of it (as a percentage) to meet their basic needs (food, clothing, shelter). In economics, there’s also a concept called the marginal utility of money, which is the “change in the total satisfaction derived from money that results from one unit of change in the quantity of money.” Put another way, one dollar is worth a whole lot more to someone living on a dollar a day than it is to Warren Buffett. So for high-income earners, they pay more taxes, but parting with it causes proportionately less pain (because they can still easily meet their needs).

Also, as income grows, some people derive income from their investments (property, stock, etc.),  so they’re not actually working harder for more income at all.

No one likes taxes, but if you’re lucky enough to be making more than 98.5 percent of everyone in the US (and 99.9% of everyone on earth), and you spend proportionally more income on things like luxury goods, you’d have to be awfully selfish indeed to believe you’re somehow entitled to keep every last penny when other people can’t afford to eat. Or build a school.

That’s why thinkers from Karl Marx to Adam Smith supported such progressive taxation, and 81 percent of economists support it now. Here’s Smith’s rationale: “It is not very unreasonable that the rich should contribute to the public expense, not only in proportion to their revenue, but something more than in that proportion.”

Smith is talking about something Joe is omitting to mention. In a society, you ought to have rights, including the right to be successful. But you also have obligations. And one of your obligations ought to be to contribute to everyone else’s benefit. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes had a really good quote about this. “I like paying taxes. With them I buy civilization.”

Last point: if a 3% increase for the highest incomes seems unfair, it’s worth noting that Bush tax cuts were hugely regressive: According to one set of data, “the top one percent of households (whose incomes average nearly $1.2 million) will receive an average tax cut of approximately $40,990 in 2004. This is more than 40 times the average tax break for those in the middle fifth of the income distribution.”

So why not turn Joe’s question on its head: why does someone in the middle income get a tax break that’s 40 times less?

By the Numbers: Democrats are Better for the Economy

Not long before Wall Street cratered, economist Alan Blinder published a piece in the New York Times’ business section that compared McCain’s and Obama’s economic plans. In the piece, Blinder argues that “the United States economy has grown faster, on average, under Democratic presidents than under Republicans.”

… his conclusion is based on data from 1948 to 2007, in case you were wondering. The data comes from a new book, “Unequal Democracy,” by Princeton professor Larry Bartels, which calculates a 1.14-point difference in gross national product per year between Democratic and Republican administrations.

“That 1.14-point difference, if maintained for eight years, would yield 9.33 percent more income per person, which is a lot more than almost anyone can expect from a tax cut,” Blinder says.

About two weeks later, Slate.com picked up the exact same theme, only they used the annual Economic Report of the President, and concluded, “what these numbers show almost beyond doubt is that Democrats are better at virtually every economic task that is important to Republicans.”

What numbers are those? Percent change in GDP, inflation, unemployment, federal spending (yes, Demos are lower!), and surplus vs. deficit. The only place the Repubs are better? Taxes, by a paltry 17.97 to 18.4.

If you’re going to vote with your pocketbook, you might start by having a look at these two articles.

Republicans Call Walking “Wacky,” Will Soon Have SUVs for Legs

Kathy Dahlkemper is a Democrat running for Congress in Pennsylvania. Republicans ran this ad about her recently, saying she has “wacky” ideas.

Rethuglicans say she has “wacky” ideas like opposing suspending the gas tax.

Why the gas tax is a bad idea: in addition to stimulating demand for gas, it would have been an “administrative nightmare” for the IRS and taxpayers themselves, and it would have crippled the highway trust fund used for infrastructure improvements. Oh, and it was a paltry amount of savings to begin with, only 18.4 cents per gallon … I’m sorry, what was the wacky idea again?

Her next “wacky” idea is to oppose domestic oil drilling. How wacky is it? Let’s have a look:

Hmm. That’s a just a drop in the gas tank, isn’t it? It would be a real industrial blight on the environment, though. And that’s worth something, isn’t it? What about non-offshore drilling? But you might suggest that oil companies start with the 30 million acres of leased land they already have and ignore.

“Dahlkemper’s wacky solution? She says we should make personal sacrifices, like walking places, and riding bikes.”

How wacky is walking?

  • walking slows aging
  • walking builds aerobic fitness
  • walking prevents diseases like colds
  • walking helps manage weight
  • walking walking controls blood pressure
  • walking boosts good cholesterol
  • walking decreases risk of heart attacks, strokes, breast cancer, type 2 diabetes, hip fracture, gallstone surgery, depression, colon, constipation, osteoporosis, and impotence
  • walking strengthens muscles and bones
  • walking improves sleep

… that’s why wacky organizations like the AARP recommend it.

And my personal favorite, that cycling is wacky. Since cycling is exercise, it also improves health and fitness in just about every way mentioned above. Here are some other fun tidbits:

“According to the Department of Transport, study people who do not exercise who start cycling move from the third of the population who are the least fit, to the fittest half of the population in just a few months.” Wacky.

“There can also be indirect benefits in terms of reducing injuries from falls, which can be seriously disabling, especially in older people. The strength and co-ordination that regular cycling brings make them less likely.”

And my personal favorite: “If you are worried about traffic fumes, there may be no need. Cyclists and pedestrians actually absorb lower levels of pollutants from traffic fumes than car drivers.

Lemme repeat: less fumes. Wacky indeed.

So tell me again: why is health a “sacrifice”? Oh yeah—because you can’t be healthy while driving your SUV? No, wait.

Phil English. Dude, get on your bike!

Phil English. Dude, get on your bike!

That’s Kathy Dahlkemper’s opponent, Phil English. Should I even mention how much walking and cycling would benefit him? No, better not. Too wacky.

PS – Right after I finished this post, I saw that Colin Beavan’s excellent post, “Do cars make us fat?” Check it out, especially the great graphic!

Putting the Sideshow into Perspective

The New York Times op-ed writers have been doing a good job of covering the Sarah Palin sideshow. Frank Rich did a perfect blog wrap-up of what’s wrong with her last week:

She didn’t say “no thanks” to the “Bridge to Nowhere” until after Congress had already abandoned it but given Alaska a blank check for $223 million in taxpayers’ money anyway. Far from rejecting federal pork, she hired lobbyists to secure her town a disproportionate share of earmarks ($1,000 per resident in 2002, 20 times the per capita average in other states). Though McCain claimed “she has had national security as one of her primary responsibilities,” she has never issued a single command as head of the Alaska National Guard. As for her “executive experience” as mayor, she told her hometown paper in Wasilla, Alaska, in 1996, the year of her election: “It’s not rocket science. It’s $6 million and 53 employees.” Her much-advertised crusade against officials abusing their office is now compromised by a bipartisan ethics investigation into charges that she did the same.

And that doesn’t even include Palin’s greedy little habit of billing the taxpayers of Alaska for the nights she spent — at home. Another Times columnist, Gail Collilns, had a different (and very funny) take on things. She took a question-and-answer approach to soothe Democrats’ ruffled feathers:

But the vice president isn’t supposed to get any attention, and all people can talk about is Palin, Palin, Palin!

True. I think that’s because she’s from Alaska. It’s got that frontier aura that we’ve missed since all the cowboy television series were canceled a generation ago. Plus, it gives us the opportunity to talk a lot about moose, which are a funny animal no matter how you slice it. If Palin had been a deer-hunting mom from New Jersey, John McCain would have gotten no post-convention bump whatsoever.

McCain, by the way, is the Republican nominee for president. You may remember him from the Sarah Palin convention in Minneapolis, where he gave a speech and was congratulated by Sarah Palin.

This isn’t an accident. Rick Davis, who is John McCain’s campaign manager, said in an interview with the Washington Post, “This election is not about issues. This election is about a composite view of what people take away from these candidates.”

It would be nice if the country and world were humming along so nicely that we could talk about moose and lipstick on pigs and whether or not Sarah Palin is hot.

But in case you thought Sarah Palin actually was newsworthy, the Huffington Post offers a handy summary of what’s actually happening, which includes the future of US global leadership (dwindling), the stock market (diving), another massive bank (in danger of collapse), problems with Iraq safety and its parliament, the economy (weakening), unemployment (rising), and US – Russia relations (deteriorating).

Oh, and that doesn’t even include climate change, which is melting the arctic ice, warming seas and strengthening hurricanes, and is now classified by the Center for Naval Analysis as a US national security threat.

Maybe if we paid more attention to that stuff, and less to the cult of personality, we’d see what the rest of the world sees (they prefer Obama to McCan by a margin of four to one).