Friday, February 18, 2005

Stuff and nonsense

I'm enjoying the lively debate over Larry Summers's public descent into idiocy at Chez Bitch, but have too much of what a friend calls "professor head" (which I take to mean woolly with exhaustion and intellectually depleted) to participate in anything resembling coherent form. In a past life, I blogged pretty lucidly (or so memory serves) about the egregious slippage in the notion of "choice" and how often it serves to obscure the power and privilege inequities of our society. Dr. B says it better, of late. But I find my female students, especially, are disturbingly comfortable with the idea that as women, they can't "have it all" but that their opting out of competitive fields or careers is merely a "personal choice" that reflects a personal pragmatism. They scorn the quaint idea that social inequality can or should be fixed, or that humans might not, in fact, be intended merely to support the corporate profit motive.

Lately I feel as though most of what comes out of my mouth in class could be paraphrased as follows: "Wake up! Your whole 'I'm an individual operating my free will to choose to shop at big box stores, promote family values, and protect freedom' is just a bulls*&t cover for your exploitation by a cynical governmental machine! When will you realize that you have more to gain from looking at the systemic similarities among you than insisting that you are all unique in your conformity because you 'freely chose it'?" But, of course, that would be propaganda of the kind that confirms conservatives' worst fears about the powerful academic liberal elite with their 40K salaries and 17-year-old Volvos corrupting the minds of America's youth with their suspiciously French-sounding ideas...

Also enjoying Cheeky Prof's February 18th visual scare tactic for her students [not sure how to link directly to the entry, but I'm referring to her "Ashes of Problem Students" jar]. It's approaching midterm, and, like all faculty, I'm finding it increasingly annoying that I am doing more work both for and in class than my students are. This does not breed sympathy and understanding for the undergraduate being. I offered to send my students the link to these Valentines Day Rules for Papers, but very few of them apparently know what "blogging is"—and they care even less.

An interesting financial spin on the tiresome Red State-Blue State dichotomy that's being trotted out to explain everything but the kitchen sink. I've excerpted a chunk of it here:
Follow the money, in this as in all touchy issues. Regional inequities -- who pays and who gets -- go back far and deep in U.S. history. One-way taxation without representation made the colonies rebel against Britain; the fight over whether the slave-holding South or anti-slavery North would prevail in the Western territories led to the Civil War. Discontent has bubbled up since then, whenever this state or that region lands in disfavor for federal spending, taxes and tariffs. But it's reaching a new boil now, thanks to two trends.

One is the way that the newest federal pie, Homeland Security funding, has been divvied. The likeliest terror targets are blue coastal cities -- New York, Seattle, Los Angeles (where al-Qaida was stopped from striking in 1999) and underprotected seaports generally. But that's not where the money's gone. A stock formula allocates 40 percent of funding equally to each state. So Wyoming, Dick Cheney's off-and-on home state and about as tempting a target as Baffin Island, gets seven times as much funding per capita as New York. When Homeland Security responded to criticism by trying to place a little more money where it's actually needed, Republican lawmakers snarled about favoring "Democratic cities."

Homeland Security is just a small slice of federal spending. But the big picture looks the same. Each year the National Tax Foundation, a flat-tax society that could hardly be accused of liberal bias, tallies the federal taxes coming from each state and the federal expenditures going to each. Harvard's Taubman Center for State and Local Government does firmer tallies, from confirmed data, periodically; its last report goes back to 1999 data, but it jibes generally with the Tax Foundation's findings. And these findings are not what a lot of people expect.

"There's a general perception out there that the blue states are big net recipients of federal subsidies," says Harvard business professor Herman "Dutch" Leonard. And there's a corollary perception that, in contrast to these welfare-queen states, the inland and Southern states are a heartland of self-reliance and private initiative, less dependent on federal spending. As Leonard says, "That historically hasn't been the case." And it's becoming less and less so.

In 2003, the top subsidy-sucking state, in percentage terms, was red-lite New Mexico, which received $1.99 in federal money for every dollar it sent to Washington, D.C. All the next eight net recipients of federal spending were redder yet: Kentucky, Virginia, Montana, Alabama, North Dakota, West Virginia, Mississippi and Alaska, which received $1.60 to $1.89 back for each tax dollar.

The list of net losers in the state-federal exchange, by contrast, reads like a Who's Who of Blue. Two of the top 14 were traditionally red Western states that are starting to turn purple, Colorado and Nevada. The other 12 are all blue: California, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York, Washington, Wisconsin and the biggest chump of all, New Jersey, where the federal government spends just $.57 for every dollar it collects. Clearly Tony Soprano did not negotiate this deal.

Only five blue states were net recipients of federal subsidies. Only two red states were net payers of federal taxes. Washington, despite its large military presence and big defense contractor The Boeing Co., received just 90 cents on its federal tax dollar. Oregon and swinging Florida are perfect washes: They received one federal dollar for every dollar they paid in taxes.

The reasons for those disparities are many. Military spending favors base-rich states such as Hawaii, by far the biggest per-capita net recipient among the blues. Crop subsidies favor Plains and Midwestern states (as well as California, which is nevertheless a big net payer to the federal government). Medicare and Social Security payments flow disproportionately to Florida, Arizona and other Sun Belt retirement meccas. Maryland, Virginia and New Mexico are big net recipients because of their outsized federal work forces (as is Washington, D.C., a special case that's off the charts).

But according to the Tax Foundation, the main reason so many blue states pay so much more than they get back is that their residents tend to earn more money and pay more income tax. William Ahern, the editor of the foundation's reports, argues that if blue-staters voted their self-interest, they'd join his group in supporting Bush's efforts to undo the United States' progressive tax structure and eliminate the Alternative Minimum Tax, a backstop designed to catch upper-income tax avoiders. And red-staters, who are less well off, would stop supporting Bush and instead defend the progressive taxation that favors them. Not likely, Ahern concedes: "It appears they'll follow President Bush wherever he leads them" while Democrats will "obey their instinct" and battle Bush.

But you can look at this topsy-turvy lineup another way. Blue-staters earn more on average and pay more in taxes, because they are better educated, more productive, less likely to be retired or disabled and generally healthier; rates of obesity, smoking and alcoholism (not to mention divorce and suicide) all peak in the South or West. The highly educated have always been healthier and earned more but more of them used to vote Republican; as the two parties have switched identities, these voters have gone Democratic.

What is not a factor, Ahern declares, is the greater political clout of the Republicans, who now control every branch of federal government for the first time since Reconstruction. But the numbers suggest that pork may play a part. The biggest recent losers in this sweepstakes, those whose balance of payments has improved most, tend to be red: Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Kentucky, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee and Virginia. The biggest losers, those that are paying more and getting less, are blue: California, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey and New York.

Hmmmm. So much for that 'self-reliance' and those good ol' American values. Sounds like a Republican version of Robin Hood to me.


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