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Mar 24 2014

Punting the Pundits

“Punting the Pundits” is an Open Thread. It is a selection of editorials and opinions from around the news medium and the internet blogs. The intent is to provide a forum for your reactions and opinions, not just to the opinions presented, but to what ever you find important.

Thanks to ek hornbeck, click on the link and you can access all the past “Punting the Pundits”.

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Paul Krugman: Wealth Over Work

It seems safe to say that “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” the magnum opus of the French economist Thomas Piketty, will be the most important economics book of the year – and maybe of the decade. Mr. Piketty, arguably the world’s leading expert on income and wealth inequality, does more than document the growing concentration of income in the hands of a small economic elite. He also makes a powerful case that we’re on the way back to “patrimonial capitalism,” in which the commanding heights of the economy are dominated not just by wealth, but also by inherited wealth, in which birth matters more than effort and talent.

To be sure, Mr. Piketty concedes that we aren’t there yet. So far, the rise of America’s 1 percent has mainly been driven by executive salaries and bonuses rather than income from investments, let alone inherited wealth. But six of the 10 wealthiest Americans are already heirs rather than self-made entrepreneurs, and the children of today’s economic elite start from a position of immense privilege. As Mr. Piketty notes, “the risk of a drift toward oligarchy is real and gives little reason for optimism.”

Indeed. And if you want to feel even less optimistic, consider what many U.S. politicians are up to. America’s nascent oligarchy may not yet be fully formed – but one of our two main political parties already seems committed to defending the oligarchy’s interests.

David Cay Johnston: Trickle Up Economics

Coming out of the Great Recession in 2009, inequality increased dramatically, the opposite of what happened when the Great Depression ended nearly eight decades earlier. Why?

The short answer: When investment returns exceed economic growth, the rich get richer, increasing inequality. So argues Thomas Piketty, a French economist renowned for analyzing incomes reported on tax returns over the last century, in his excellent new book “Capital in the Twenty-First Century.”

The future will be vastly more unequal, Piketty predicts, thanks to tax laws that allow virtually unlimited inheritances to pass from generation to generation. This sort of out-of-control inequality recalls similar class divides in 18th and 19th century France that were reversed only by sharp-edged popular responses.

The good news is that such increasing inequality is not inevitable. Piketty shows that the degree of inequality results not from natural forces or individual choices but from government policy. This is comforting to those of us who been making this argument for years, especially since even The Economist, that staid British magazine devoted to the interests of the investor class, has embraced Piketty’s theory.

Barry Eisler: If Dianne Feinstein is Michael Corleone in the CIA-Senate war, will she shoot?

Or will she and Harry Reid, the Tony Soprano of Washington, give in to the system that feeds their power and play nice?

If you want to understand the real nature of the current tussle between the Senate and the CIA, with Dianne Feinstein and now Harry Reid denouncing John Brennan and Langley for essentially spying on the Senate’s intelligence oversight committee, all you really need to do is watch a few reruns of The Sopranos. [..]

If you want to understand a fight, it’s as important to understand what’s not happening as what is. So, yes, Feinstein, Brennan and Reid are throwing punches, and cursing, and scratching and biting. But is anyone trying to gauge out an eye? Has anyone pulled a weapon? Are the combatants trying to kill – or merely to wound?

Why does Feinstein, whose oversight committee has reviewed a reported six million documents and produced a 6,300-page report on CIA practices Feinstein calls “brutal” and “horrible” and “un-American”, insist on referring merely to a CIA “interrogation” program rather than calling it a torture program, which is what the program actually was? Why doesn’t she declassify the report simply by introducing it into Senate proceedings pursuant to the Constitution’s Speech or Debate clause?

Richard (RJ) Eskow: The Moral Power of Free Universal Higher Education

The costs are startling-but it’s important not to focus on numbers alone.

Social progress is never a straightforward, linear process. Sometimes society struggles to recognize moral questions that in retrospect should have seemed obvious. Then, in a historical moment, something crystallizes. Slavery, civil rights, women’s rights, marriage equality: each of these moral challenges arose in the national conscience before becoming the subject of a fight for justice (some of which have yet to be won).

I believe the moment will come, perhaps very soon, when we as a society will ask ourselves: How can we deny a higher education to any young person in this country just because she or he can’t afford it?

The numbers show that barriers to higher education are an economic burden for both students and society. They also show that the solution — free higher education for all those who would benefit from it — is a practical goal.

But, in the end, the fundamental argument isn’t economic. It’s moral.

Paul Buchheit: Overwhelming Evidence that Half of America is In or Near Poverty

And it’s much worse for black families.

The Charles Koch Foundation recently released a commercial that ranked a near-poverty-level $34,000 family among the Top 1% of poor people in the world. Bud Konheim, CEO and co-founder of fashion company Nicole Miller, concurred: “The guy that’s making, oh my God, he’s making $35,000 a year, why don’t we try that out in India or some countries we can’t even name. China, anyplace, the guy is wealthy.”

Comments like these are condescending and self-righteous. They display an ignorance of the needs of lower-income and middle-income families in America. The costs of food and housing and education and health care and transportation and child care and taxes have been well-defined by organizations such as the Economic Policy Institute, which calculated that a U.S. family of three would require an average of about $48,000 a year to meet basic needs; and by the Working Poor Families Project (pdf), which estimates the income required for basic needs for a family of four at about $45,000. The median household income is $51,000.

The following discussion pertains to the half of America that is in or near poverty, the people rarely seen by Congress.

Robert Naiman: With International Law in the News, Could We Make the U.S. Comply?

I didn’t join the chorus ridiculing the U.S. for the hypocrisy of its new romance with international law following the Russian occupation of Crimea. Even prominent Democratic activist Markos Moulitsas mocked Secretary of State Kerry for lecturing Russia on international law after voting for the illegal Iraq war. The hypocrisy charge has gotten good play.

But we shouldn’t be completely content with the hypocrisy charge. There’s something too easy about the charge of hypocrisy, a reason the charge is so popular. You can denounce someone for being hypocritical without taking a stand on the underlying issue.

If Russia is allowed to violate international law the way that the U.S. and Israel routinely do, it will not make the world more just. Russia may have legitimate grievances and legitimate interests in Ukraine, but as Secretary of State Kerry rightly argued – even if he was a hypocrite while doing so – that doesn’t justify violating international law. We don’t want to live in the world in which Russia is allowed to join the U.S.-Israel club of international law violators. We want to live in the world in which the U.S. and Israel are held to the same standards of compliance with international law to which the U.S. and Europe are now ostensibly trying to hold Russia.