Regression to the Mean

August 18, 2015

Social scientists have a phrase, “regression to the mean.” What they mean is that the law of averages eventually fells families, companies or countries that are doing better than average, and eventually lift those doing much worse than the average. Now for all of us who like to say the United States is the best in the world, there is a prospect to consider.

We could just get fatalistic; it’s going to happen so what can we do about it. But of course we didn’t succeed by fatalism. Americans escaped, trekked, traveled, by rickety sailboats and steerage and every other way imaginable to get here and then they cleared the wilderness and conquered the continent and then took on the world. No fatalism about that.

They didn’t stare at each other saying we can’t do or build this or that; they joined together or got the government to help. Until the fatalists took over. Reagan said government is the problem. Strange remark, from a man who either should have known better or did, because when he took over the U.S. Government was actually remaking the world, our world. Perhaps you didn’t know that the internet was developed by DARPA as a national security project to make up for a strategic weakness of the old fashioned telephone system. Or that the transistors that run everything you use were developed as part of a government war effort. There isn’t much that you and I touch that weren’t connected in some way to the government space effort.

I could tell that story for every American generation. Government that is devoted to the welfare of the people, began here. The banking system, the transportation system repeatedly rebuilt as new technology developed, schools and the university system, the list of government projects for us is endless – until we stopped trusting each other and our own government.

So how do we stay strong, healthy, and successful? Some think we do it by fighting everyone. They must have grown up in a very tough neighborhood. Those who crunch the numbers figured out a long time ago that arms are what economists call a deadweight loss. Sometimes you really need them but they contribute zero to the economy except for the research. And like the barroom brawler, everyone’s gunning for the top gun.

We got where we are because of our economy. You can look at the economic numbers and see when Germany got ahead of England and France and then when the U.S. surpassed Germany. It’s all in the numbers. Ever since that other fatalist, George Bush said “read my lips; no new taxes,” Americans have imagined that progress was free. But we got where we are because government did the things needed to facilitate what the rest of us could do, travel, save, study, communicate, ship, research and on and on.

But now America feels so poor that it can’t repair its infrastructure, can’t fix the cables, the water and sanitary systems, can’t fund its university system except on the backs of students who haven’t yet had a chance to earn a living. If America is truly that poor, it will regress to the mean.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, August 18, 2015.

Yipes – taxes for the New Year??? !!!

December 30, 2014

Some years ago I called Phil Shrag whom I knew from law school. He’d run the National Organization for the Rights of the Indigent for the NAACP and worked for the New York City Commissioner of Consumer Affairs. Phil was and is a very public spirited person. At the time he was teaching at Columbia. I don’t remember what I called him about but at some point in the conversation we made small talk. I asked him what he was teaching. Tax. That was a surprising answer since none of the things Phil had done suggested significant involvement with the tax code. But he pointed out that every public policy runs through the tax code. So it made a lot of sense.

Phil of course was right. Global warming? The tax code determines how cheap it is to buy carbon based fuels that warm the globe. And it determines whether the producers or somebody else has to pay for the cleanups, the environmental damage, dealing with the warming planet. And it determines what the carbon hawkers have to pay for threatening to obliterate our descendants and end human life on this planet. No tax – go ahead and choke the globe.

Antibiotic resistant disease? The tax code determines what cheap methods are OK to raise and sell animals and animal products. Jam animals together for “efficient” processing and they need antibiotics. The tax is on the land, not the antibiotics. Voila, it’s cheap to feed antibiotics to animals and ship them to us with resistant diseases. Of course we’ll pay the price with illness, doctors, and grieving for our dear ones – but, hey, the milk was cheap.

Landfills? Who pays for those? Do you get a break for composting, sorting, recycling or not buying so much? Nope – we all pay for garbage. But the tax could be shifted to producers and off our shoulders. Things would instantly get less wasteful.

Ever since the elder George said “Read my lips; no new taxes,” taxes have become the third rail of politics – instant suicide for any politician even to bring it up. But health, wealth and survival are right there in the tax code. We need smart taxes, that shape us the way we ought to be. The freedom to corrupt our country and our world with garbage, poison and heat isn’t legitimate freedom – that’s one person’s “freedom” to mess with another’s life, or the lives of many. That’s not freedom, not what our forefathers’ fought for, not patriotic, sensible or constructive. We need smart taxes. Now. Taxes that will make our world a better place.

So last week I wished for peace, health and good government – figuring I was on mostly safe ground. So now I’m blowing it – wishing for new, I’d rather say better, taxes. TAXES for the New Year! That Gottlieb character must be crazy.  Like a fox? Naahhh. Just nuts.  Republicans won’t allow it anyway.

Oh, devilishly inspired by Paul and Anne Ehrlich, how about a tax on more than two children per family – NO, don’t throw tomatoes, they stain. I’m out o’ here! Happy New Year everyone.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, December 30, 2014.

Race & Economic Justice, for Martin Luther King

January 17, 2012

Yesterday was Martin Luther King day. That actually led me to think some more about the Occupy Movement and their slogan, the 99%.

Movements for economic justice have repeatedly had their backs broken over the race issue. In the 19th century, the surging Populist Movement tried to ignore race and bring poor whites and blacks together. But it was destroyed in the South over race. We limped into the 20th century without major reforms although the Progressive Movement that brought Woodrow Wilson to the White House enacted pieces of the Populist creed and the Roosevelt Administration enacted more.

But the Roosevelt Administration also steered clear of race in ways that would have an enormous impact on America. Read the rest of this entry »


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