April 12, 2004

Mid-April Reflections; or, Variations on Themes from Krugman

Spring has finally come to Ann Arbor: the river is free of ice, a few buds have appeared on the trees, there are tentative lilacs, a woodchuck climbed up our back fence to stare in our kitchen window the other morning. All of which means one thing: taxes are almost due. We did ours this weekend. This prompts some reflections; writing them down, I realized I was stealing the ideas from Paul Krugman, but I'll post this anyway, since they need to be hammered home over and over. Later this week I hope to descend into full raving nutter mode, explaining the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy, "the triangular trade", and what they have to do with our friends at the Discovery Institute, but that's contingent on my making sufficient progress on my papers for NIPS. In the meanwhile, let's talk about taxes.

I don't normally register just how much we make, but this weekend there was the number on line 7. While we don't feel well-off, we actually make a lot more than the median household income, which is only \$42k. (No, I won't say how much we do make.) Part of the reason for that we don't feel that rich is that we come from parts of the country where the median income is considerably above the national median (the D.C.-area median is \$57k, and the San Francisco Bay area median \$62k), so we're both mis-calibrated. But the big reason, of course, is class: we're college-educated professionals, and so are most of the people we know. Households headed by someone with a bachelor's degree have a median income of \$78k; doctorates or professional degrees get you up to \$100k, an astonishing two and a half times the over-all national average. Put another way, the typical professional household is already in the top eighth of the country. It's not completely true that if you've got a degree at that level, you've got it made --- there are 59,000 households headed by someone with a professional degree or doctorate which had an income of less than \$15k in 2001 --- but damn if it doesn't help. (Some of those 59,000 are presumably people who had earned their degrees but not yet started jobs at the time the Census surveyed them, so they show up as having professional credentials and student incomes.) This economy rewards educational credentials to a really remarkable degree, but it's easy for people in our class to forget this, because everyone we know (almost) is also in this class, and so our collective good fortune is invisible to us. All of these numbers are from the Statistical Abstract of the United States; as Krugman once said, "If more people would get into the habit of checking it, our politics would be utterly transformed."

As it is, our politics are driven by college-educated professionals for most of whom these effects are, as I said, all but invisible. Thus we get silliness about how political candidates can appeal to never-married women voters, conceived of as the "Sex and the City voters", which manages to miss the fact that these people typically earn less than the characters in that show spend on shoes. (Guess which on-line magazine presented this a serious piece of political analysis? Hint: its name begins with S. Bonus hint: it's not owned by Microsoft.) Closer to today's theme, this is a large part of what has brought us to the point where sympathetic foreign friends worry that our political culture can't handle any idea more complicated than "Cut taxes". I dare say you're going to feel more over-taxed if an income that is in fact several times larger than most people's feels nonethless like an ordinary working stiff's, because, among your friends and family, it is. If, in addition, you have never been taught that taxes are the price we pay to secure our rights and liberties, the idea that cutting taxes is the cure of all your problems will seem, if not irresistible, then very tempting. Much of the discussion of economic policy in this country for the last two or three decades is the result of really rich people paying skillful propagandists to encourage these illusions in those who are merely well-off, like me. Since the truly rich are almost as rich, proportionately, as they were before the New Deal, they can buy an awful lot of propaganda, not to say politicians. Thus our mess, in which the government fails to collect something like a quarter of a trillion dollars annually.

I am almost tempted to wish these people success, if only to see how they enjoy real class warfare. Unfortunately my family and I would have to live through that too, and really I don't want my children to risk being clubbed or shot by strike-breaking goons from Pinkerton (or Blackwater); for that matter I don't want them to risk having to hire strike-breaking goons. But the fullness of that rant can wait for the post about the VRWC.

The Dismal Science ; The Running-Dogs of Reaction

Posted at April 12, 2004 21:21 | permanent link

Three-Toed Sloth