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Monday, September 13, 2010

God Bless The Child

I'm still ruminating about this piece I saw Friday night on The Rachel Maddow Show.

While I think it's true that one picture is often worth a thousand words, in this case, it's worth about a gazillion words - or, at least, the cost of the next election.

The graph was actually put together from data collected by Princeton Economist Larry Bartels by a woman named Catherine Mulbrandon who is, she says, an "interactive designer" which, she says, "explores the areas of interaction design and data visualization."

In 2006, she created a website called Visualizing Economics. Of late, she's been working with economist Timothy Noah on a slide show for his article, The United States of Inequality.

Their slide show "The Great Divergence in Pictures" is on Slate.Com and it's a real eye-opener. I'm hardly an economist - I think it's a great day when my check book balances - but I think she clearly accomplishes her goal of "creating intuitive data displays."

She is able to take this old horse to water and actually makes me want to drink in all I can take. That's because she awakens my intuition as opposed to boring me to death with dry, dull statistics, which I learned enough about not to trust anyway.

So, back to this graph. You might want to scroll up to the top of the page and look at it again. As Rachel Maddow says, it's the prettiest picture the Democrats could hope for in this election year. It's especially important as the Bush Tax Cuts expire on December 31, 2010.

The first thing to know about this graph is that it represents actual observed performance - not just political promises - from 1948 - or just after WWII - through 2005.

You should also note that while the graph was put together by Catherine Mulbrandon, the information comes from Larry Bartels, who is the Donald E. Stokes Professor of Public and International Affairs, Professor of Politics and Public Affairs at Princeton, and Director, Center for the Study of Democratic Politics. He is also author of Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age.

Let's start at the side bar, which breaks the income status of Americans into five brackets, the 20th percentile being the poorest of the poor (the "Tom Joneses", 'have-nots'), and the 95 percentile being the richest of the rich (the "Daddy Warbucks", the 'them that's got').

The bottom side bar represents the income growth rate in the aggregate. The blue line represents the data collected when there has been a Democratic president. The red line represent the data collected under a Republican administration.

Now, just let your 'intuitive' process take in the information.

If you've finished gasping in horror, you can see that, under Democratic leadership, wealth is more evenly divided. Under Republican administrations, however, the bottom half of the economic food chain hardly get a 0.4% increase in income while the income of those in the 95th percentile increased five times faster.

So, now can we talk about taxes? Because, you know, this is the result of a political ideology about taxes. As Washington Post blogger and columnist for Newsweek, Ezra Klein points out in the Maddow interview, when George Steinbrenner died this year, his family paid absolutely no inheritance tax on the billions of dollars left in his estate.

I'm thinking that the tax revenues from that amount alone could have fed a small starving village in Ethiopia for a year - or, continued the war in Afghanistan for at least another six months, depending on the priorities of your point of view.

This is not just about political ideology or taxation. It's really about theology. I'd like to talk - and have you think - for just a little bit about what Jesus would have to say about this. I think there are some very serious implications for bible-believing, faithful Christians here.

I suppose it comes down to how you read Mark 4:24: "For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away."

When taken out of context, these words seem to support a Republican perspective on taxation. It's Billy Holliday singing, "God Bless the Child"
Them that's got shall get
Them that's not shall lose
So the Bible said and it still is news
Mama may have, Papa may have
But God bless the child
that's got his own
That's got his own
Except, of course, there's more to the story than one verse from scripture.

Jesus has been teaching his disciples in parables about the Realm of God. This verse comes in the "secret teaching" about the Parable of the Sower (Mark 4:3-9), which ends with "Let anyone with ears to hear listen!"

When he was alone with the disciples (Mark 4:10), Jesus said, "To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; in order that they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand; that they may not turn again and be forgiven." These last words are Jesus adapting the words of Isaiah 6:9-10.

After he explains the parable to them, he says (Mark 4:24), "Pay attention to what you hear; the measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given you."

And THEN he says, (v. 25),"For to those who have, more will be given; and from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away."

In other words - or, actually, the words of Eugene Peterson's translation in The Message:
"Be wary of the shrewd advice that tells you how to get ahead in the world on your own. Giving, not getting is the way. Generosity begets generosity. Stinginess impoverishes."

Get it?

I don't think many have - (see the words of Isiah (6:9-10) as adapted by Jesus in Mark 4:12) - but I think the work done by folks like Mulbrandon, Miller, Noah, Bartels, Klein and Maddow are beginning to have some effect.

This morning's headline in the New York Times included this article "House GOP Leader Signals He's Open to Obama Tax Cut" and this quote:
The House Republican leader, John A. Boehner, on Sunday opened the door to a compromise on the contentious issue of the Bush-era tax cuts, saying he would vote to maintain lower rates for families earning less than $250,000 even if President Obama and Democrats insisted on ending the cuts for wealthier Americans.

Oh, yes, sir. We insist, sir. Very insistently, sir.

I don't know if Boehner has been watching Rachel Maddow's show, or reading Catherine Mulbrandon's chart or the words of Jesus, but I think something has had an effect. Maybe he's been exploring "the areas of interaction design and data visualization" and his "intuitive process" has finally kicked in.

You know, it's okay if Boehner doesn't really get it. Jesus also said, "The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow and he does not know how." (Mark 4:26).

In other words, the way God's Realm grows in the world is really beyond human understanding or control. Even so, people may recognize its progress and have a part to play in it.

Bottom line: Generosity begets generosity. Stinginess impoverishes.

Or, in the words of the immortal Billie Holiday and Arthur Herzog:
Money, you've got lots of friends
Crowding round the door
When you're gone and spending ends
They don't come no more
Rich relations give
Crust of bread and such
You can help yourself
But don't take too much
Mama may have, Papa may have
But God bless the child
that's got his own
Let anyone with ears to hear listen!

And those who "explore the areas of interaction design and data visualization" intuit.


Anonymous said...

Why does the income grow among the lowest group under a democratic administration? Is it that wage rates increase? Do welfare supplements increase? Are higher paying jobs more abundant during a democratic admin? The chart is interesting but I would like to understand why the difference besides a blanket answer of its democratic policies? Did Rachel offer a thought on the reason for the difference?
thanks for the info.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Maria - You're right, it is more complicated than simply Democrats vs. Republicans. But, your questions point to some of the policies of those ideologies. I would encourage you to check out the links to Larry Bartel's work as well as Timothy Noah's work.

Mary Jo Campbell said...

Thanks, Elizabeth for a fine article.
I am about to look at the sources mentioned.
I do have a question beyond economics.
How do you define "bible believing"?
When I see that phrase I get a bit nervous. It has more than one meaning I suspect.
Again, thanks for a thoughtful piece.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I did that just to be provocative. Do you believe in the Bible? I do. Do you believe in Jesus and try to be faithful to his teachings? I do. Are you a baptized Christian? I am.

Yay! Then we are both "bible-believing, faithful Christians."

I'm sick unto death of that meaning something that makes us both nervous. Time to take back that meaning, don't you think?

Kirk said...

"The Great Divergence in Pictures" link busts...

Mike said...

Larry Bartel's metholody is interesting but doesn't stand up to closer scrutiny. Here is my critique, although I'll admit my charts aren't as pretty:

And I should also note that in an earlier segment of Noah's series, he points out that tax policy actually isn't a major driver of income inequality. Actually, if you look at effective tax rates, the tax code has actually become more progressive, not less, since 1980.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Well, Mike, I'm not an economist but I'm afraid I didn't find your charts persuasive. Sorry.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Elizabeth. I will purchase Bartel's book an Unequal Democracy. It sounds fascinating.