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“The Millionaire’s Club Expands”: The Wealthiest 10 Percent Of Americans Own 75 Percent Of The Personal Wealth

The millionaire’s club isn’t what it used to be.

Time was that “being a millionaire” was a mark of unimaginable success. You’d joined the financial elite. People didn’t much discuss whether you arrived by wealth or income, because it didn’t matter much. The millionaire’s club was so small that the path to membership wasn’t worth discussing.

No more.

Millionaires aren’t as common as water, but there are plenty of them. A new study puts the worldwide total at 35 million in 2014, with about 40 percent (14 million) of them American. That’s about 5 percent of the U.S. adult population (241 million in 2014), or one in 20. Rarefied, yes; exclusive, no. After the United States, Japan has the largest concentration of millionaires with 8 percent of the world total, followed by France (7 percent), Germany (6 percent) and the United Kingdom (6 percent). At 3 percent, China ranks eighth.

The figures come from a study by Credit Suisse Research, which has been estimating worldwide personal wealth since 2010. The numbers reflect net worth, not annual income. The wealth totals add the value of people’s homes, businesses and financial assets (stocks, bonds) and subtract their loans. Doubtlessly, the number of millionaires would be much smaller if the calculations were based on income. In the study, an American with a $300,000 mortgage-free home and $700,000 in retirement accounts and financial investments qualifies as a millionaire.

On this basis, the study put global personal wealth in mid-2014 at $263 trillion, up from $117 trillion in 2000. Wealth in the United States reached $84 trillion, almost a third of the total. All of Europe, with a larger population, was virtually the same. Median wealth in the United States — meaning half of Americans were above the cutoff and half below — was $53,000, dominated by homes for many middle-class families. Japan’s total wealth was $23 trillion, but with a more equal distribution and a smaller population, its median was more than twice the American at $113,000. China’s wealth was $21 trillion and its median $7,000.

Credit Suisse did a special analysis of wealth inequality and, not surprisingly, found plenty of it. For starters, the analysis reminded readers that wealth inequality (basically, the ownership of stocks and bonds) is typically much greater than income inequality (basically, wages, salaries, dividends and interest).

In the United States, the wealthiest 10 percent of Americans own about 75 percent of the personal wealth, a share that’s unchanged since 2000; the income share of the top 10 percent is slightly less than 50 percent. But the study also found that wealth inequality is high in virtually all societies. Although the United States is at the upper end of the range, the low end is still stratospheric.

Consider.

In 2014, the wealthiest 10 percent owned 62 percent of the personal wealth in Germany; 69 percent in Sweden; 49 percent in Japan; 64 percent in China; 51 percent in Australia; 54 percent in the United Kingdom; 53 percent in France; 72 percent in Switzerland; and 68 percent in Denmark. These steep levels, the report noted, defied large cross-country differences in tax and inheritance policies.

There is, however, one country where wealth inequality is “so far above the others that it deserves to be placed in a separate category.” This is Russia. In 2014, the wealthiest 10 percent owned 85 percent of personal wealth. They aren’t oligarchs for nothing.

 

By: Robert Samuelson, The Washington Post, October 22, 2014

October 27, 2014 Posted by | Economic Inequality, Plutocrats, Wealthy | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Undoing The Extremism”: Will The GOP Get The Message In Kansas?

For many political observers, the question about Kansas these days is no longer, “What’s the matter?” so much as, “What the fuck?”

There was the unexpectedly close GOP Senate primary—three-term incumbent Pat Roberts wound up winning by 7 points—and the forced retirement of the Democratic Senate candidate; there’s the fact that Gov. Sam Brownback, whose average margin of victory in state-wide races is 23 points, is now fighting for his political life. Tom Frank made the state famous for illustrating how its citizens elected conservative candidates whose actual policies went against the voters’ economic self-interest; after one term of Brownback’s “Tea Party experiment,” Kansas voters seem to have enlightened their self-interest and want to undo the extremism that Brownback both promised and delivered. The question remains as to whether their Republican candidates will ever wise up to the same conclusion.

There’s no doubt that Brownback’s radically conservative economic policies failed. Schools closed, the deficit ballooned, highways crumbled, jobs disappeared—I imagine ruby slippers were hocked. That failure has the reddest state in the nation blushing blue.

Citing the state’s fiscal woes, moderate and not-so-moderate Republicans have flocked to Brownback’s opponent, Paul Davis, who trails by just 0.6 points. On the Senate front, independent candidate Greg Orman, who may be forced to caucus with the Democrats by default (RNC chair Reince Preibus has said his caucusing with the GOP would be “impossible”), is reaping the benefits of that Tea Party-weighted primary. “Traditional Republicans for Common Sense,” made up of 70 Republican moderates who served in the Kansas legislature, endorsed Orman and he is favored by independent voters by a margin of 30 points.

In the face of this, both Brownback and Roberts have chosen not to battle for the wide swath of Kansas voters who identify as moderate Republicans (47 percent, versus 38 percent “conservative Republicans”), but to move further to the right. In a just world, Roberts’ violation of Godin’s Law (warning that “our country is heading toward national socialism”) would mean that we could simply ignore him from here on out. But his lumbering lurch toward the Ted Cruz tin-foil-hat convention should instead be an object lesson for Republicans to come. (Brownback can’t really be said to have shifted right but rather has celebrated already being there.)

It’s true both races have tightened, with Roberts eking out a lead: 5 points in an average of the latest polls. Their still-slim chances of victory, however, hardly validate the GOP’s decision to double-down on the hard-right voters who have yet to make the connection between the false populism of tax cuts and their own dire straits. For those seeking to figure out a long-term strategy for Republican victories in Kansas, shouldn’t who supports him matter less than the masses of voters who have left both him and Brownback?

Think about it: If a ruinous adventure into Laffer-land has already alienated many Republican voters, won’t a further march into the barren fields of zero-tax-revenue put off even more? Combine this possibility with the inevitable demographic erosion of the GOP’s base and one has to wonder not just if the Republican leadership is shooting itself in the foot, but why it is. Is it misplaced, or at least short-sighted, cynicism, which might have them believe that their old white guy coalition (if you can call it that) will sustain them a few more cycles? (At least long enough to pass voting restrictions?) Or is it a form of psychosomatic blindness, a function of such deeply held, incorrect perceptions, that the party leaders literally cannot imagine the need to change their tactics, much less their policies?

The motivations matter mostly because understanding them can help progressives sharpen their arguments, or maybe let us know if the argument is even worth having. In other words, are we dealing with cynics or zealots?

Obviously, one hopes for the former. Cynics respond to defeat, for one thing. Cynics and opportunists look at polls. Cynics are the lifeblood of representative democracy. Cynics will do anything to save their own skin, even change their minds.

 

By: Ana Marie Cox, The Daily Beast, October 24, 2014

October 27, 2014 Posted by | GOP, Kansas, Sam Brownback | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Courts’ Baffling New Math”: By What Logic Do Hundreds Of Thousands Of People Simply Stop Counting?

The Supreme Court of the John Roberts era gets one thing very right: It’s one of the most free-speech-protective courts in modern history. There is no purveyor of semi-pornographic crush videos, no maker of rape-aspiring violent video games, no homophobic funeral protester, no anti-abortion clinic counselor, and no filthy-rich campaign contribution–seeker whose rights and privileges will not be treated by the court with the utmost reverence and solicitude.

This is important and vital, and one doesn’t want to slag the court for the boundless attention and care it lavishes upon the most obnoxious speakers in America. After all, the First Amendment is kind of the constitutional gateway drug, the portal to the rest of the Bill of Rights. And without securing meaningful protection for the rights to speak, assemble, worship, and publish, so many of our other rights might be illusory. Great. Stipulated.

That makes it extra weird whenever the assorted (lets call them largely “conservative”) justices of the Roberts court, and judges on lower courts across the land, turn their attention to the protection of other rights—equally crucial but perhaps less sexy—like, say, the right to vote or to obtain an abortion. That’s when the nameless, faceless rights seekers all blur into oblivion, a great unwashed mass of undifferentiated shadow people. And that is when some judges find it all too simple to bat these rights away with a stroke of the pen.

In the past few weeks, it’s been astonishing to contrast the regard afforded to individual speech rights with the cavalier dismissal of other, equally precious hallmarks of democracy.

There was no better reminder of this phenomenon than watching the justices simply write off the voting rights of what may well amount to 600,000 Texas voters, many black and Latino, last weekend, in the wee hours of the morning, without stated reasons or written opinion. As Richard Hasen has explained, after a nine-day trial, a district court determined that there were “hundreds of thousands of voters potentially unable to get IDs because they were hours away from the government offices issuing IDs.” The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals was not much bothered by the fact that hundreds of thousands of Texans would be forced to travel for hours to obtain proper ID for the midterms, and the Supreme Court agreed. Meh, what’s a few hundred thousand disenfranchised voters when you have “electoral integrity” to protect?

This is of course the same 5th Circuit Court of Appeals that, only weeks earlier, was not much bothered by the prospect that 900,000 women in Texas will soon live more than a 150 miles away from the nearest clinic offering a safe and legal abortion, or that 750,000 would live more than 250 miles away, if Texas’ draconian new abortion restrictions are allowed to stand and a majority of reproductive health clinics must shut down. For now, at least, the Supreme Court has blocked the law, in another unsigned order. But the staggering lack of concern for not just hundreds, not just thousands, but tens or hundreds of thousands of women was all over the 5th Circuit’s opinion.

The 5th Circuit evinced a kind of Marie Antoinette approach to individual justice in these cases. When it shut down access to both voting and abortion in Texas, it indicated without precisely saying so that as long as citizens have fast cars and flexible work schedules, they are not burdened by Texas’ regulations. And seemingly there are no Texans without fast cars and vacation time in their view. At oral argument in the case about the shutdown of 20 Texas clinics, Judge Edith Brown of the 5th Circuit heard that abortion clinic closures would leave the Rio Grande area without any providers, forcing women who live there to drive 300 miles round trip to Corpus Christi. The judge sniffed, “Do you know how long that takes in Texas at 75 miles an hour? … This is a peculiarly flat and not congested highway.”

Looking at the 5th Circuit’s screwy fractions earlier this month, Amy Davidson noted that it’s astonishing on its face that the judges who agreed to shut down Texas reproductive health clinics would deny one-sixth of Texas women reasonable access to a clinic. More astonishing still is the fact that the judges were perfectly aware that this burden would fall most heavily on women without cars, who couldn’t afford to take several days off work to travel to distant clinics. And that was OK. These facts of life affected their conclusions not at all.

The idea that judges would simply vaporize the interests of hundreds of thousands of poor and minority voters is perhaps just as amazing. By what logic do thousands of abortion-seekers and would-be voters simply stop counting?

A panel of judges on the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals was similarly unfazed by the possibility that 300,000, or 9 percent, of Wisconsin voters would be disenfranchised by that state’s new voter ID law. Whether it’s 500,000 voters or 300,000 voters or almost a million women, these numbers are just not capable of moving the judicial heartstrings.

Perhaps these hundreds of thousands of people—a seeming multitude to you and me—are dismissible because they are poor or minorities or just women, or in any event people who don’t drive really fast cars. As Judge Richard Posner painstakingly explained in his dissent in the Wisconsin voter ID case, the cost of obtaining the appropriate documentation to vote under the new Wisconsin law is somewhere in the range of $75 to $175. Adjusted for inflation, he noted, that is higher than “the $1.50 poll tax outlawed by the 24th amendment in 1964.”

There’s an equally obvious and far more troubling problem with the math on the other side of the ledger, as Michael Hiltzik points out, where people are worried about infinitesimal percentages of potential fraud. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker defended his state’s voter ID law by claiming it is worthwhile whether it stops “one, 100, or 1,000” illegal votes. Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, another big fan of voter ID, similarly argued recently that a glitch that would result in the disenfranchising of 12,000 people wouldn’t be a “major problem” because they represent a “tiny percentage” of Kansas’ voters. Walker and Kobach pooh-pooh the disenfranchisement of tens or hundreds of thousands of state voters in order to fight the scourge of vote fraud, of which there were seven incidents in Kansas in the past 13 years, and two documented in Texas. It’s not just bad that real votes and real abortions are blocked to deter an imaginary problem (vote fraud and botched abortions). It’s that even if the problems were genuine, the math still wouldn’t work.

It’s utterly baffling, this new math. Math that holds that seven incidents of vote fraud should push hundreds and thousands of voters off the rolls. Or that hundreds of thousands of women can be denied access to safe abortion clinics, supposedly to prevent vanishingly small rates of complications. I don’t know how we have arrived at the point where members of the judicial branch—the branch trusted to vindicate the rights of the poorest and most powerless—don’t even see the poor and powerless, much less count them as fully realized humans.

This brings us back to the First Amendment, seemingly the only right that truly counts anymore in America. Why has the constitutional right to be heard all but overmastered the right to vote or legally terminate a pregnancy? Maybe the court is still capable of hearing even as it loses the ability to see? Or maybe the powerful voices of Fred Phelps, Shaun McCutcheon, and Anthony Elonis—the creatures who rightly are allowed to say and do horrible things in the name of free speech—count for more than the hundreds and thousands of voiceless voters and abortion-seekers who are seemingly not even important enough to name?

 

By: Dahlia Lithwick, Slate, October 24, 2014

October 27, 2014 Posted by | Democracy, U. S. Supreme Court, Voting Rights | , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

“The Scene Of The Crime”: Autopsy Results Aren’t Going To Answer The Essential Question: Why Did Michael Brown Have To Die?

In his account to investigators, Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson said Michael Brown charged him. Specifically, Wilson said Brown struggled for his gun during a scuffle in his police SUV and almost reached the trigger. After blocking his grab for the gun, Wilson fired two shots—hitting Brown in the hand—and fired again when, he says, Brown stopped running, turned around, and took another lunge.

On Wednesday, a new analysis of the official autopsy report—released by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch—seemed to support this account. The newspaper asked two independent experts who aren’t involved in the investigation to review the evidence. The first, St. Louis County Medical Examiner Dr. Michael Graham, says that the report “does support that there was a significant altercation at the car.” And while the report notes the lack of short-range gunpowder burns or stipple around Brown’s hands, Graham says, “Sometimes, when it’s really close, such as within an inch or so, there is no stipple, just smoke.”

One of the experts—Dr. Judy Melinek, a forensic pathologist in San Francisco—was even more certain on the autopsy’s implications. It “supports the fact that this guy is reaching for the gun, if he has gunpowder particulate material in the wound,” she said. “If he had his hand near the gun when it goes off, he’s going for the officer’s gun.” What’s more, she said that the autopsy didn’t support witnesses who claimed Brown was running away. “The wound to the top of Brown’s head would indicate he was falling forward or in a lunging position toward the shooter,” writes the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in a summary of her remarks.

But there’s a problem here. Melinek says she was misconstrued. “I’m not saying that Brown going for the gun is the only explanation. I’m saying the officer said he was going for the gun, and the right thumb wound supports that,” she later told MSNBC. “I have limited information. It could also be consistent with other scenarios. That’s the important thing. That’s why the witnesses need to speak to the grand jury and the grand jury needs to hear all the unbiased testimony and compare those statements to the physical evidence.”

That the autopsy is consistent with Wilson’s account is a godsend for the police officer. And to that end, there’s speculation that the autopsy was leaked as a prelude to news that Wilson would escape an indictment from the grand jury.

At the same time, it’s important to note the extent to which this autopsy agrees with one conducted in August by Dr. Michael Baden, former chief medical examiner for New York City. According to his autopsy, Brown was shot six times, including twice in the head. “This one here looks like his head was bent downward,” he said, referring to the wound at the top of Brown’s head. “It can be because he’s giving up, or because he’s charging forward at the officer.”

And both autopsies fit the opposing accounts from other witnesses. “[Wilson] reached out the window and tried to choke my friend. We were trying to get away, and he tried to pull my friend into the car,” said Dorian Johnson, who was with Brown, saw the whole encounter, and never claimed there wasn’t a fight at the police vehicle. The question, rather, is what precisely happened. Later, we learned of two witnesses who saw the shooting and filmed their near-instant reaction. “He had his f-ckin’ hands up,” said one of the men, echoing other reports.

The Justice Department is conducting its own autopsy, and it’s likely to fit the results of the previous ones. (It has also condemned this leak, calling it “irresponsible and highly troubling.”) Which is to say that—barring new evidence—we’re stuck with the facts we’ve had since August, none of which gives a conclusive answer to the key question in the case: Who started it? And even if it did—and even if Brown was at fault for the whole encounter—we’re still left with the other important question: Why did Wilson keep firing after Brown moved away?

At this point, any answer is tied tightly to your sympathies. Side with Michael Brown and the Ferguson protesters, and you’re likely to think Wilson overreacted or—at worst—actively abused his power. And if you support Darren Wilson, you’re just as likely to see an honest cop just defending himself from a dangerous aggressor.

Put another way, Ferguson is still thick with tension from Brown’s shooting, and if Wilson isn’t indicted, it could explode into a new round of protests. Indeed, it’s possible this is why Gov. Jay Nixon—who received low marks for his initial response—has announced a Ferguson Commission devoted to studying the social and economic conditions that led to the initial August protests. “The commission will be empowered to call on experts to address topics ranging from governance, poverty, education, and law enforcement,” said Nixon. “The commission will also recommend changes to make the region a ‘fairer place for everyone to live.’ ”

It’s a fine goal. But given the anger on the ground, it’s hard to believe that any commission—however well-meaning—could bring normalcy to Ferguson. For that, the people of Ferguson need accountability from the police, and on that score, all signs point to disappointment.

 

By: Jamelle Bouie, Slate, October 23, 2014

October 27, 2014 Posted by | Darren Wilson, Ferguson Missouri, Michael Brown | , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Bragging About Their Ignorance”: “I’m Not A Scientist” Is A Dangerous Cop-Out

The evidence for global climate change is overwhelming. Ninety-seven percent of climate scientists, along with the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and more than 30 professional scientific research societies, agree that climate change is happening because of human actions and that it will be an increasingly serious problem if we don’t stop it. It is reasonable for politicians to debate the best way to solve this problem, but whether it is a problem should not be up for discussion anymore. However, in response to questions about climate change, political candidates, including high-profile politicians such as Senate Minority (for now) Leader Mitch McConnell, Florida Gov. Rick Scott, and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio are frequently saying: “I’m not a scientist.”

When politicians say “I’m not a scientist,” it is an exasperating evasion. It’s a cowardly way to avoid answering basic and important policy questions. This response raises lots of other important questions about their decision-making processes. Do they have opinions on how to best maintain our nation’s highways, bridges, and tunnels—or do they not because they’re not civil engineers? Do they refuse to talk about agriculture policy on the grounds that they’re not farmers? How do they think we should be addressing the threat of ISIS? They wouldn’t know, of course; they’re not military generals.

No one would ever say these things, because they’re ridiculous. Being a policymaker in a country as large and complex as the United States requires making decisions on a variety of important subjects outside of your primary area of expertise. Voters wouldn’t tolerate this “I’m not a scientist” excuse if applied to any other discipline, yet politicians appear to be using this line successfully to distance themselves from experts crucial for solving many of our country’s most important problems.

American populist rhetoric has always had a dark side of anti-intellectualism, the belief that the common sense of the average man on the street is equal to or greater than the expert knowledge of people who spend years studying a particular question, and that has been on full display in recent years. Who can understand what those weird, other-worldly scientists are talking about, anyway? Somebody needs to “stand up to the experts.” Despite what any politician says, the overwhelming evidence supports the scientific consensus that climate change is happening because of human activity and that we should take action to stop it because it will be a significant threat—a position the U.S. military agrees with.

I actually am a scientist (a marine biologist), but you don’t need to be an expert on anything to pay attention when 97 percent of people who are experts in that subject agree that something is a problem and that we should do something about it. You don’t need to be a fully trained expert in the sciences to make decisions that involve science (which is good, because less than 4 percent of the representatives in Congress have any kind of scientific training, even broadly defined).

“ ‘I’m not a scientist’ is a cheap cop-out that is becoming all too common, not just on climate change but on issues like fracking and evolution, too. Politicians of both major political parties are trotting out the ‘I’m not a scientist’ remark to avoid stating where they stand on policy,” says Michael Halpern, the manager of strategy and innovation for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The chair of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, Lamar Smith (R-Texas), is also not a scientist, but that’s not stopping him from attacking National Science Foundation–funded scientific research. Smith has been publicly mocking grants to study topics that he doesn’t personally see the value in studying, proposing laws that would change peer review at the NSF to value studies with purported economic benefits, and attacking NSF officials in congressional hearings. Smith seems to be trying to look tough on government spending, and appealing to anti-intellectualism is an easy strategy. However, the total budget of the NSF is less than a quarter of 1 percent of the federal budget, and only the top 5 percent of proposals are funded. All research proposals submitted to NSF go through a rigorous system of peer review with experts in the field anonymously evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of each, often with suggestions for how to improve the research in the future. Peer review is a critical part of free scientific inquiry, and the fact that an anti-intellectual politician doesn’t personally see the value in a particular study should be irrelevant to whether that study is funded.

The ranking Democrat on the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee says she is baffled by Smith’s public attacks on the peer review process. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson has correctly pointed out that there is no evidence whatsoever of waste or fraud associated with the NSF grants that Smith is investigating, that Smith seems to be targeting NSF-funded projects that he thinks sound silly based on his limited understanding of their purposes, and that such unprecedented attacks from a high-ranking government official can have a chilling effect on the free scientific inquiry that has helped make the United States an economic powerhouse.

You don’t need to be a scientist to recognize that climate change is a problem, but you do need to be a scientist to appropriately participate in peer review. Politicians who get this backward, as well as those who disrupt the process of scientific research or willfully ignore the conclusions of that research, should be voted out of power.

 

By: David Shiffman, Ph.D. Student at The Abess Center for Ecosystem Science and Policy at the University of Miami; Slate, October 22, 2014

October 27, 2014 Posted by | Climate Change, Politics, Science | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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