Current Affairs

September 09, 2011

Capital punishment and the mentally disabled

Harold Pollack

America has moved very far in embacing citizens who live with intellectual disabilities or with psychiatric disorders. One sign of progress has been the quiet change in our capital punishment system. The Supreme Court and most states have altered policies that have produced many unjust executions of individuals who committed serious crimes, but who were not fully responsible for their actions due to their disability.Pic2

Texas's appalling capital punishment system has been a real exception to this humane trend. My piece in the Nation provides more information. The first few paragraphs appear before the fold:

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September 06, 2011

Taking Note is Now: Blog of the Century

The Century Foundation

We've changed our name and address. However we are leaving our content accessable here at Taking Note.  As of Tuesday, September 6th, 2011 All new content is at our re-named, newly addressed:

Blog of the Century and can be found at

August 25, 2011

Graph of the Day: Is the "Great Recession" Really a Household Debt Crisis?

Benjamin Landy

“Why is everyone still referring to the recent financial crisis as the ‘Great Recession’?” asks Harvard economist and former IMF chief Kenneth Rogoff, in a recent article for Project Syndicate. “The phrase 'Great Recession' creates the impression that the economy is following the contours of a typical recession, only more severe – something like a really bad cold,” he adds. “But the real problem is that the global economy is badly overleveraged.”

Unfortunately, the American household is no exception. While political discourse has been dominated in recent months by arguments over our enormous national debt, climaxing with the tense mid-summer negotiations over the debt ceiling in Washington, the problem of household debt has gone largely unmentioned in the media. Now that is beginning to change, as a consensus develops among economists, pundits, and policymakers that Americans’ paralyzing mortgage and credit card debt is the main factor holding the economy back from recovery.

Household debt

The facts are these: although household debt peaked at $116,457 per household in 2008—nearly 100 percent of GDP at the time the financial markets collapsed—mortgage and credit debt has decreased merely seven percent as of 2010. The average American household would have to deleverage an additional 97 percent to return to 1976 levels. And while no one is arguing that household debt needs to be at those levels to restart the economy, it is generally understood that consumption will not increase adequately until Americans’ debts are significantly lower.

When we last experienced a deep recession in 1982, the household debt-to-GDP ratio was about 45 percent, or $17,286. So when the government adjusted its monetary policy, the economy was able to recover quickly. Today, with the average household still holding over $100,000 of debt, a more ambitious program will be required to return demand—and thus unemployment—to pre-recession levels.

Thankfully, a recent New York Times report indicates that the Obama administration may be planning just that. According to the article's sources, who would not be named, White House officials are currently weighing a variety of proposals to allow millions of homeowners to refinance their homes with government-backed mortgages at current low interest rates of about 4 percent, saving those homeowners $85 billion a year and creating a strong stimulus to the economy.

The Washington Post's Ezra Klein, for one, is not optimistic that this kind of government-backed refinancing program could work in the current political climate, but at least it proves that the administration is paying attention to the household debt problem and trying to come up with creative solutions to stimulate demand. Until we find a way to do that, millions of Americans will remain jobless, and the economic recovery will continue at its anemic pace. At the very least, the administration's recognition that the "Great Recession" is really a household-debt crisis sends the positive message that Obama's "pivot" to job creation is more than just hot air.


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August 22, 2011

Graph of the Day: In Defense of Warren Buffett

Benjamin Landy

Billionaire investor Warren Buffett became a controversial figure last week when his provocative op-ed, “Stop Coddling the Super-Rich,” landed prominently on the New York Times editorial page. “My friends and I have been coddled long enough by a billionaire-friendly Congress,” Buffett wrote. “It’s time for our government to get serious about shared sacrifice.” His suggestion, that the government immediately raise taxes on Americans making more than $1 million—and even more so on those making in excess of $10 million—set off a firestorm of criticism from conservatives.  

Among the more misguided attacks was a opinion piece by Jeffrey Miron, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and director of undergraduate studies at Harvard University, who outright dismissed the significance of increased government revenues. “The first problem with Buffett’s view,” Miron writes, “is that the number of super-rich is too small for higher rates to make much difference to our budget problems. . . . Imposing a 10% surcharge on this income would generate at most $73 billion in new revenue—only about 2% of federal spending.”

Miron is right that $73 billion won’t solve our “budget problems,” which I take to mean our $14.4 trillion national debt. Nobody is arguing that. But that hardly means $73 billion is inconsequential. In order to illustrate just how much money $73 billion is, I did some research to discover some of the things you could buy with that kind of money. The graphic below shows just a few examples.

73 billion final

If you were more militarily inclined, $73 billion could also buy you sixteen Nimitz-class nuclear-powered aircraft carriers—the largest and most powerful capital ship in the world—or 1,327 brand new F/A-18 Super Hornets from Boeing. And $73 billion could quintuple NASA’s operating budget, providing enough funds to develop and maintain an international lunar base for the next five years, according to CSIS cost analysis. Less than half that amount would provide safe drinking water for the entire planet, helping save the nearly 6,000 children who die every day from diseases associated with contaminated water supplies.

No matter how you choose to look at it, $73 billion is a lot of money. With all of the problems our country is facing today, can we afford to turn it down?


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August 18, 2011

Israel's Settlement Enterprise

Sarah Aoun

With a United Nations vote on Palestinian statehood looming in September, international pressure has been building on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In recent weeks however, a new and internal threat has emerged to challenge the Israeli PM. Since July, thousands of Israelis have been protesting against the rising cost of housing in Tel Aviv and its outskirts, putting an unaccustomed domestic spotlight on the settlement enterprise in occupied territories that has so drained Israeli resources.

While protestors -- in what has been considered Israel’s largest demonstrations on any issue in over a decade -- criticize what they consider to be the government’s indifference to the incredibly high cost of living, this does not seem to be the case in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. There, government subsidies of Israeli settlements offer economic incentives difficult to refuse.

Indeed, over the past several decades, the Israeli government has adopted an encouraging policy towards population shift and settlement building – globally considered to be a violation of international law. This investment across the Green Line has been intended to, and undoubtedly succeeded in, leading to an exponential settlement growth.


Settlements have been one of the most urgent and worrying elements of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since 1967.  Over the past 35 years, more than 500,000 Israelis have made their homes in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, with leaders of the settler movement aiming to dash hopes of making these territories the core of a future Palestinian state.

The continuing building of these homes has also spurred a number of violent clashes over the years between Israeli settlers and the Palestinians living in these areas for centuries. According to statistics collected by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs occupied Palestinian territory (OCHAoPt), the majority of these attacks have been undertaken by the settlers.  They have left mostly Palestinian children, women, and elderly severely injured, and some even dead.


According to the Fourth Geneva Convention, the Israeli government is supposed to provide protection to the people whose land it is occupying. However, it is evident that no serious measures have been taken by the government to address this issue, as is shown by the stagnant and even at times increasing number of attacks against Palestinian civilians.

The never-ending settlement growth has repeatedly exacerbated the Palestinians, and has reaffirmed their determination to take their plea to the UN and request a compliance with the pre-1967 borders. On the other side, it keeps fueling protestors’ dissatisfaction with the policies East of the Green Line, where the government spends twice as much on a settler as on another Israeli according to a recent study by the Adva Center.

It does not come as surprise then that over 15 percent of the public construction budget is used to expanding West Bank settlement, which are home to only 4 percent of Israeli citizens, according to a report published by the activist group Peace Now.

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the settlement enterprise undertaken by the Israeli government has become a fundamental driver of both the Palestinian’s UN call for statehood and the recent protests in Israel. This has not, however, deterred Netanyahu from recently approving the construction of an additional 4,300 homes in East Jerusalem.

However, as seen by the internal and external pressure he faces, it is not only the Israeli PM, but Israel itself, that will continue to deal the repercussions of decades-long policies that have favored maintaining the occupation and developing settlements over the interests of the broader population – until the demands of the protestors are met and priorities are re-evaluated.

August 16, 2011

Graph of the Day: For the Long-Term Unemployed, Finding a Job is Only Getting Harder

Benjamin Landy

For the long-term unemployed in America, life is only getting harder. While national unemployment remains high at 9.2 percent, near where the rate has been stuck for the last two years, the average number of weeks an unemployed worker has been jobless is still growing. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, if you are one of the 14 million unemployed today, you have been out of work, on average, for over nine months.

Avg weeks unemployedSource: Bureau of Labor Statistics                   

Unfortunately, more and more businesses are using current employment as a proxy for employability, meaning the long-term unemployed face mounting discrimination and ever diminishing prospects compared to their recently laid-off peers. And, unlike discrimination based on race, ethnicity, disability, religion, sex and age, employers are entirely within their legal rights to use unemployment –especially long-term unemployment – as grounds for rejection. So while the number of people unemployed for less than 5 weeks declined by 387,000 in July, the number of people unemployed for over 27 weeks barely changed, holding steady at 6.2 million.

Only New Jersey has outlawed this kind of discrimination, and although several other states are considering similar legislation, the 6 million Americans who have been without work for over six months are still in serious trouble. According to a new report by the National Employment Law Project - an advocacy group for the employment rights of low wage workers - the half-year mark is a watershed moment in the eyes of many employers. Many companies are far less likely, even unwilling, to hire people who have been unemployed for over six months.

Until the unemployed are able to find work, we should extend their jobless benefits for another six months, which studies show generates two dollars of economic growth for every one dollar the federal government spends. Without bipartisan support to extend these expiring benefits, many millions of Americans may find themselves in poverty when their unemployment insurance checks stop coming at the end of this year.


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August 15, 2011

Rick Perry’s Book is Really Bad

Harold Pollack

(Cross-posted at the Reality Based Community)

Matt Yglesias and Ezra Klein both review Texas Governor Rick Perry’s book, Fed Up! Our fight to save America from Washington.

Matt notes what he calls “The ten weirdest ideas” in that book. Many of Perry’s ideas are, indeed, weird, such as the claim that Al Gore is part of a conspiracy to deny global cooling. Yet if I were grading Matt’s review, I would be forced to deduct points for redundancy. I’m just not convinced that Matt digested this complex work with the kind of detailed textual analysis that (say) Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz applied in several ancient and modern languages to the Talmud….

Continue reading "Rick Perry’s Book is Really Bad" »

August 12, 2011

Graph of the Day: Consumer Confidence Plummets

Benjamin Landy

With millions of Americans out of work, slow economic growth, and now Standard and Poor’s downgrade of U.S. debt, consumer confidence is plummeting to new lows. According to the latest Gallup poll, Americans’ economic confidence has fallen to a level last reached in the depths of the great recession in 2009.


Consumer confidence 1Source: Gallup                    
Consumer confidence 2Source: Gallup               

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July 21, 2011

Graph of the Day: A Nation at War, a Civilization in Decline

Benjamin Landy

In January 2009, as the American economy faltered and Congress struggled to agree on the size of an economic stimulus package, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) issued more disheartening news: according to their most recent assessment, the nation’s infrastructure was in its worst state in decades. “More than 26%, or one in four, of the nation's bridges are either structurally deficient or functionally obsolete,” stated the report. “The number of deficient dams has risen to more than 4,000, including 1,819 high hazard potential dams… Poor road conditions cost motorists $67 billion a year in repairs and operating costs, and cost 14,000 Americans their lives. One-third of America's major roads are in poor or mediocre condition and 36% of major urban highways are congested.” The ASCE gave America’s overall infrastructure a ‘D.’

For a moment, it seemed the ideal time to rebuild, putting millions of unemployed Americans to work in the spirit of FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps or the Public Works Administration. “We can put Americans to work today building the infrastructure of tomorrow,” Barack Obama declared in his 2010 State of the Union Address, to thunderous applause. “From the first railroads to the Interstate Highway System, our nation has always been built to compete. There's no reason Europe or China should have the fastest trains, or the new factories that manufacture clean energy products.”

And yet, since the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was signed into law, little more than $100 billion has been allocated and spent on renewing the nation’s crumbling infrastructure, far short of the $2.2 trillion the ASCE estimated would be required over a five year period to raise their grade from ‘poor’ to ‘acceptable.’

Spending abroad divesting at homeSource: Congressional Budget Office, US Government Printing Office                   

Unfortunately, this current state of neglect is actually part of a much longer historical trend of de-investment. While the amount of money lavished on defense continues to rise far above the Cold War average, the United States spends less and less of its GDP on roads, bridges, rail and waterways every year. Infrastructure spending has been steadily declining since it peaked at 5.6% of GDP in 1961, and has fallen to around 2.5% today.

As Henry Petroski of Duke University points out, "infrastructure is a fancy contemporary term for what used to be known as public works." Perhaps if Americans were more aware of the original terminology, they would once again recognize investing in their shared infrastructure as the civic responsibility that it truly is.


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July 19, 2011

Graph of the Day: America's Rigid Class Structure

Benjamin Landy

Social mobility in the United States has fallen as the country's income distribution has grown more unequal, meaning that it is now less likely that children of the lower and middle classes will grow up to live better lives than their parents did. According to the Center for American Progress, children from low-income families in the United States now have only a 1 percent chance of reaching the top 5 percent of the income distribution, while the children of the rich have about a 22 percent chance. Children born into families in the middle quintile of the income distribution (the 40th-60th percentile) actually have a higher chance of ending up in a lower income bracket (39.5 percent) than a higher one (36.5 percent), while their chance of reaching the top fifth percentile is under 2 percent.

International comparisons show that along with Italy and the United Kingdom, which also have relatively rigid class structures, the United States ranks among the least socially mobile countries in the OECD, and has the highest income inequality to boot. This graph looks at various countries based on a measurement of intergenerational income elasticity in which a level of one indiciates that the average child's eventual income will be the same as that of his or her parents, ranging to zero when there is no correlation between family background and adult earnings.

Intergenerational Income MobilitySource: OECD                   

Although the "American Dream" has long been a critical facet of our national identity, by international standards, the United States actually has an especially poor degree of intergenerational mobility - worse than France, Germany, Canada, and Australia, not to mention the "social" market economies of Sweden, Norway, and Finland.

The Center for American Progress also found that education, race, health and state of residence were the four key factors in determining to what degree economic status was transferred from parents to children, with race and education being particularly important. In the United States, African American children born into the bottom quartile are nearly twice as likely to remain in that position as their white peers, and four times less likely to advance into the top quartile.


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