Author Archives: jtellerelsberg

Where’s your anger? Psychological balm for inequality

A recent article in Psychological Science describes experiments aimed at understanding the psychology of accepting, or not, social inequalities. (If the abstract seems a bit abstract, try this slightly more reader-friendly summary from Science.)

The gist: people who accept justifications for inequality experience less emotional stress when confronted by evidence of the inequality. The more a person believes that there are good reasons for inequality, the less emotional stress they’ll have. (Stress in the form of moral outrage, existential guilt, and support for changing things to help out the disadvantaged.) So acceptance looks to be a self-protection mechanism. Also, showing people stories, propaganda, what-have-you, that feeds ideas of justification (for example, “rags-to-riches” stories) increases their acceptance of the justifications, and so decreases their emotional reaction to evidence of inequality.

As the authors abstract, “system-justifying ideology appears to undercut the [urge to bring about] redistribution of social and economic resources by alleviating moral outrage.”

I guess this helps explain why people are likely to accept that “this is the best of all possible worlds.” Giving a rat’s ass that the world ain’t so great is hard to do. It’s stressful. That’s why those of us who think otherwise have got to help each other keep our spirits up. More potlucks!

Bran scans show economy is unfair

Scientific American is reporting on a an article in the journal Neuron that describes brain scanning experiments intended to see if poorer people react differently than richer people to opportunities to gain a little extra money.

The microeconomic law of diminishing marginal utility states that while accumulating a good—pretzels, pencils, nickels, whatever—each successive unit of that good will be less satisfying to acquire than the one before it. Finding a shiny quarter on the street is a real thrill. But, if you are carrying around a bag of coins, acquiring another one does not seem nearly as exciting. In fact, would you even bother to pick it up?

That hesitation is what researchers at the University of Cambridge in England were banking on when they designed a study to see if the haves catch on more slowly than the have-nots when it comes to reward-based learning. Reporting in the current issue of Neuron, the scientists reveal that when a small sum of money is on the line, poorer people learn quickly how to maximize their profits, leaving their wealthier counterparts in the dust.
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Wow. Supreme Court: “EPA can regulate carbon emissions”

What will happen? Maybe not much. What could happen? Something big.

Top Court: EPA Can Control Emissions

By MARK SHERMAN Associated Press Writer
© 2007 The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ordered the federal government on Monday to take a fresh look at regulating carbon dioxide emissions from cars, a rebuke to Bush administration policy on global warming.

In a 5-4 decision, the court said the Clean Air Act gives the Environmental Protection Agency the authority to regulate emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from cars.

Greenhouse gases are air pollutants under the landmark environmental law, Justice John Paul Stevens said in his majority opinion.


And in quick response, words to the wise from the auto industry:

Automakers urge economy-wide approach to global warming
POSTED: 12:56 p.m. EDT, April 2, 2007

WASHINGTON (AP) — Automakers called for an economy-wide approach to global warming in reaction to a Supreme Court decision Monday that could give the government the authority to regulate the emissions of carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases from cars.

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, an industry trade group representing General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co., DaimlerChrysler AG, Toyota Motor Corp. and five others, said in a statement that “there needs to be a national, federal, economy-wide approach to addressing greenhouse gases.”

Of course, don’t expect things to work out all rosy…. The auto industry plans to be the first among equals at the negotiating table:

Dave McCurdy, the alliance’s president and chief executive, said automakers would work with lawmakers and federal agencies to help develop a national approach.


But even still, the idea is right. Cap and trade? A carbon tax? Good old fashioned rationing? Banning the worst offenders (as in, no new fossil fuel powered electricity plants, followed by a phase-out of existing plants; mandatory efficient building materials and techniques; minimal acceptable auto fuel efficiency; etc)? There are lots of options for economy wide approaches to dealing with carbon pollution, and no time like the present to start trying them out.

Having said that, what the Supreme Court has ruled looks to be restricted to auto emissions (thus the auto industry’s insistence on economy-wide action, so they aren’t made the only ones to deal with the greenhouse gas problem). This is based on

§202(a)(1) of the Clean Air Act, which requires that the EPA”shall by regulation prescribe . . . standards applicable to the emission of any air pollutant from any class . . . of new motor vehicles . . . which in [the EPA Administrator’s] judgment cause[s], or contrib-ute[s] to, air pollution . . . reasonably . . . anticipated to endangerpublic health or welfare,” 42 U. S. C. §7521(a)(1).

Become an expert: read the Court’s actual decision in “Massachusetts et al v. Environmental Protection Agency et al.” [pdf]

P.S.–Don’t confuse this decision with the other environmental decision also released today, “Environmental Defense v. Duke Energy Corp.” That one rules that the EPA should be more rigorous in enforcing the Clean Air Act when power companies alter existing plants to ensure that no more pollution is released than before the alteration.

Report from CBPP on taxing below-poverty-line families

This just came out a couple days ago. It even crossed the desk of Rush Limbaugh, who used it as an opportunity to recommend increasing taxes on those below the poverty line. Rush, egalitarian that he is, feels it is unfair for people with low-incomes to avoid sharing equally in the funding of the state. Har!

By Jason Levitis


Poor families in many states face substantial state income tax liability for the 2006 tax year. In 19 of the 42 states that levy income taxes, two-parent families of four with incomes below the federal poverty line are liable for income tax. In 15 of the 42 states, poor single-parent families of three pay income tax. And 29 of these states collect taxes from families of four with incomes just above the poverty line.

Some states levy income tax on working families in severe poverty. Six states — Alabama, Hawaii, Indiana, Michigan, Montana, and West Virginia — tax the income of two-parent families of four earning less than three-quarters of the poverty line such families. All of these states except Indiana also tax the income of one-parent families of three earning less than three-quarters of the poverty line.

In some states, families living in poverty face income tax bills of several hundred dollars. A two-parent family of four in Alabama with income at the poverty line owes $573 in income tax, while such a family in Hawaii owes $546, in Arkansas $427, and in West Virginia $406. Such amounts can make a big difference to a family struggling to escape poverty. Other states levying tax of more than $200 on families with poverty-level incomes include Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Montana, New Jersey, and Oregon. In 2006, the federal poverty line for a family of four was $20,615, and the line for a family of three was $16,079.

States’ tax treatment of low-income families for 2006 has improved in some states since 2005 but gotten worse in others. Between 2005 and 2006, Oklahoma and Oregon reduced the income tax liability of poor families, Delaware entirely stopped taxing the incomes of poor families of three, and Virginia entirely stopped taxing the income of poor families of four. But four other states increased their taxes on poor families by 25 percent or more, and New Jersey began taxing poor families of four for the first time since 1998. The reason for these tax increases is that provisions designed to protect low-income families from taxation — including standard deductions, personal exemptions and low-income credits — were not increased to keep up with inflation. Overall, there was virtually no change this year in the number of states levying income taxes on families with incomes below the poverty line.

The outlook for the future is somewhat better. A number of states have recently enacted significant reforms that will reduce taxes on low-income families. Between 2007 and 2010, Alabama, Arkansas, Hawaii, Michigan, Oklahoma, Oregon, and West Virginia each will improve their income tax treatment of the poor. In Arkansas, Michigan, Oklahoma, and West Virginia, the changes will wipe out or dramatically reduce tax liability that now costs poor families hundreds of dollars. Overall, the number of states taxing poor families of four could decline from 19 to 16. And quite a few other states are currently considering similar measures.

Taxing the incomes of working-poor families runs counter to the efforts of policymakers across the political spectrum to help families work their way out of poverty. The federal government has exempted such families from the income tax since the mid-1980s, and a majority of states now do so as well.

Eliminating state income taxes on working families with poverty-level incomes gives a boost in take-home pay that helps offset higher child care and transportation costs that families incur as they strive to become economically self-sufficient. In other words, relieving state income taxes on poor families can make a meaningful contribution toward “making work pay.”

States seeking to reduce or eliminate income taxes on low-income families can choose from an array of mechanisms to do so. These mechanisms include state Earned Income Tax Credits (EITCs) and other low-income tax credits, no-tax floors, and personal exemptions and standard deductions that are adequate to shield poverty-level income from taxation. Some states go beyond exempting poor families from income tax by making their EITCs or other low-income credits refundable. These policies provide a substantial income supplement to families struggling to escape poverty, but they are relatively inexpensive to states, since these families have little income to tax.

Despite some progress, there remains much to do before state income taxes adequately protect and assist families working to escape poverty.

In praise of sick days

It’s extremely common for articles about different health issues to cite some statistic about the drain on the economy that the illness causes, both in terms of direct expenditures for healthcare to deal with it, as well as the indirect costs of missed work time. It was this quote in The Ecologist that got me thinking about this, “The indirect costs [of obesity in the UK] are estimated to be in the region of £2.5 billion per year, including costs to the NHS [National Health Service] and costs to industry through sickness and absence” and typing “economic cost disease” into Google’s Scholar search turns up a slew of examples from the bowels of academia figuring the same way.
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There’s no taste for accounting

The Washington Post reported a couple days ago on the dwindling and precarious situation among the big accounting firms. As the opening paragraph asks, “With only four major firms left in the business, are there too few to let any fail?” The article goes on to list numerous troubling and legally challenged activities by PricewaterhouseCoopers, Deloitte & Touche, KPMG, and Ernst & Young in recent years, all in the shadow of Arthur Anderson’s undoing as an enabler of Enron’s mishigas.
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CO2 – expensive stuff

The CBC reports

Alberta carbon dioxide pipeline could cost $5B
Last Updated: Thursday, March 15, 2007 | 12:19 PM MT
CBC News

A plan to pipe carbon dioxide from Alberta’s oilsands and store it underground could cost as much as $5 billion, says Alberta’s environment minister.

The province wants to capture carbon dioxide and send it through a 400-kilometre pipeline. Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Guy Boutilier said earlier this month that the pipeline would cost $1.5 billion and the carbon dioxide would be used to help get more oil out of low-producing wells.

He was pushing for the federal government and industry to split the cost of the project.

But Environment Minister Rob Renner suggested Wednesday it could cost much more.

“The number of $1.5 billion has been floated,” Renner said. “I suspect that the number — all costs included — will be significantly higher than that.

“I’ve seen estimates as high as $5 billion by the time it has taken into account the cost to industry to implement the [carbon] capture facilities.”


Wow. Just a thought here, and ignoring that the carbon dioxide would be sequestered (for how long and how securely?) in an effort to bring yet more fossil fuel to the surface so it can be burned and converted to carbon dioxide, most of which won’t be captured but will add to the greenhouse mix; so my thought is, just how much energy conservation technology could be implemented with $5 billion (even if it is Canadian dollars), or even the lower estimate of $1.5 billion? I’d definitely bet a dollar that it’d be enough to cancel out way more CO2 emissions than the pipeline would help sequester (and I repeat, for how long, and how securely?).
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Farm Bill and other rural affairs

The latest (March 2007) newsletter from the Center for Rural Affairs has several good articles, mostly in response to the proposed Farm Bill and the President’s proposed federal budget now before Congress. [Note: once the next newsletter comes out, the link to this one will change and you’ll be able to find it through their newsletter archives.] And as usual, the “Corporate Farming Notes” are worth following. Some examples:
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Friends in high places

Ex-chair of the Fed, Alan Greenspan, was frequently criticized for throwing his weight around in favor of those whose economic position is based on owning financial capital, at the expense of the vast majority of the public. Congress loved everything about Greenspan and would have made him chair-for-life if they could, so it shouldn’t be terribly surprising that his replacement, Ben Bernanke, tends towards the same bias. Dean Baker paints a “hypothetical” scenario that would lead to just that conclusion. How else to explain why Bernanke would be so eager to smooth the rough waters of the financial markets? Aren’t they just natural expressions of the rational free-market system? To paraphrase Marilynne Robinson from one of her essays in Mother Country, if the markets are natural systems, like rivers, what obligation is there to flatten out the waterfalls and smooth over the rapids? The answer seems to be the obligations of class.

What good is the CIA?

The fact that so much of what the “intelligence” community does is done in secret makes it a little hard to judge the worth of their efforts. But here are a few things to consider.

1) When they do accomplish things, it often turns out badly. Very, very badly.

2) When they don’t accomplish things, the bad results are avoided perhaps only by the grace of God (and the more cool-headed minds that stand between the U.S. intelligence community and whatever it is they are trying to accomplish). Case in point: intelligence on Iran’s nuclear programs turns out to be pretty much a bunch of junk.

Speaking of which, I liked Alexander Cockburn’s recent column on selling bridges to the New York Times. (Full column available to Nation subscribers only, but this intro is a nice taste.)

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