Americans Continue to Value Libraries — Despite Looming Cuts

Libraries are at the forefront of the America’s post-recession trend of austerity and public service cuts. But a recent Pew poll reported in Smithsonian Magazine found an overwhelming consensus that libraries are not only valuable, but should supported and expanded: Continue reading

The Kids Are Alright

Contrary to popular belief, this generation of Americans is among the most well behaved and law abiding in decades, according to Bureau of Justice Statistics cited by the Washington Post:

In absolute terms, arrests (like crime) are as expected consistently concentrated among the young at each historical time point. But surprisingly, the drop in the arrest rate over time is entirely accounted for by the current generation of young adults, who are busted 23 percent less frequently than prior generations were at their age. Remarkably, despite the national drop in overall crime and arrest rates, the arrest rate among older Americans is higher than it was 20 years ago. This holds for adults ages 40 to 54 (a 9 percent increase) and even more so for adults age 55 and older (a 12 percent increase). The baby boomers, who drove the American crime explosion in their youth, are apparently continuing to outdo prior generations in their late-life criminality.


…Presuming that like prior generations millennials carry their crime-related habits forward as they age, the country could soon see an acceleration of the recent trend toward reduced incarceration as millennials replace their more crime-prone elders in the population.

Meanwhile, the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey, conducted biannually by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) since 1991, has found a marked decline in various other social ills that were once prevalent among past generations generations of youth  — including the often Millennial-bashing boomers. sums up the data thusly: “today’s teens smoke less, drink less, and have sex less than the previous generation. They are, comparatively, a mild-mannered bunch…”

Indeed, only 10.8 percent of teens smoke cigarettes, compared to nearly a third in the 1990; they are 46 percent less likely to binge drink alcohol compared to teens twenty years ago, and 21 percent less likely to have even tried alcohol; and only 2.3 percent of teenage girls become pregnant, compared to more than double the percentage ten years ago. They are also less likely to bring weapons to class, get into a physical fight, contemplate suicide, to forget to put on their seatbelt.

Yet despite such relative timidity and good behavior, today’s youth are commonly perceived to be among the most rambunctious, self indulgent and ill disciplined of any generation in American history. For example, teen pregnancy is widely perceived to be on the rise when it has in fact declined to historic lows. And I imagine most readers are familiar with the regular barrage of articles, opinion pieces, memes, and social media rants about the various alleged improprieties of teens and college students.

To be sure, it is not as if young people are without faults — no generation, young or old, past or present, has been perfect. But by and large the kids are alright, and whatever real or imagined moral or social failings they display must be looked at in the larger historical context: younger generations have always been overly scrutinized by their elders, and have always developed or embraced new ideas, habits, and lifestyles that cause some measure of anxiety and apprehension among the older folks who are unfamiliar with them. I think social media has gone a long way towards amplifying the extent to which isolated but ultimately mundane instances of misbehavior are occurring.

What are your thoughts?



Map: Lynchings in the Southern U.S. (1877-1950)

One of the most insidious and terrorizing elements of racism and white supremacy in the United States was lynching, broadly defined as an extrajudicial public execution carried out by a mob against an alleged criminal or transgressor. In most cases, the intention was not simply to mete out supposed justice in place of a court of law — not that the legal system in much of the South was any fairer or more impartial — but to enforce social control against particular groups, especially African Americans.

Montgomery, Alabama, which was the center of some of the worst racist atrocities and policies, will soon host one of the nation’s first and largest memorials to lynching, immortalizing the thousands of victims of racially motivated lynchings. (Appropriately, it will sit on the highest spot in the city, which was once the first capital of the Confederacy.)

The organization behind this effort, Equal Justice Initiative, has also put together a map of all the racial lynchings that took place across a  73-year period spanning the end of the post-Civil War Reconstruction Era to the beginning of the Civil Rights movement.  Continue reading

Liberty v. Security?

It has become something of a cliche that liberty and security are at inherent odds with each other, and that strengthening one necessarily requires weakening the other. Most citizens of a democracy would ostensibly prefer less security in favor of more liberty — better to die free than to live as a slave, etc. But it is more complicated than that, because clearly one needs security — be it from war, civil unrest, or even natural disasters — to allow the conditions for democracy to emerge and function.

It is no coincidence that democracy historically, and to this day, takes roots in places that are stable and mostly free from existential threats. The United Kingdom, whose liberal and constrained parliamentary monarchy formed the basis of the United States’ owns democratic ideals, was an island nation that had not been successfully threatened or invaded since the early 12th century. The U.S. enjoyed, and continues to enjoy, an entire hemisphere without any remotely hostile, let alone viable, competitor, and has two big oceans to buffer it from the rest of the world. Both countries had the fortune of being able to experiment with freer forms of government without needing to rely on iron rule to protect them. Continue reading

The Symbolic Passivity of the Term President

When the Founding Fathers of the United States set about forming a new nation, for obvious reasons they wanted to ensure that the executive could have neither the potential nor the pretensions of tyranny. So in addition to setting in place all of the checks and balances we learn are integral to the U.S. political system, they made a conscious effort to devise a new and unusual term for their head of government: President, derived from the Latin prae- “before” plus sedere “to sit”.

Up until that point, a president was someone originally tasked with presiding over (e.g., sitting before) a gathering or ceremony to ensure that everything runs smoothly. It was largely limited to academia, and was hardly an authoritarian position — which of course was precisely the point. The executive of the United States was not vested with anything more than the power to help enforce the laws of Congress, and to essentially preside over a system of power wherein the people, via their representatives, governed themselves.

(Interestingly, several countries, such as Germany and India, have offices of the president that are truer to the original etymology of the term: their presidents are mostly figureheads with few actual powers in paper and in practice.)

Granted, all this was pretty idealistic and aspirational, and as we all know, the office of the president has not always been true to its original spirit; indeed, even back then there was debate as to how much authority or power the president should have, and it was not long before presidents of all political stripes started pushing the boundaries of executive power. But it is interesting to see how even semantics could be an important consideration in formulating a political system.


Who, or What, is to Blame for Inequality?

Over at the Washington Post, columnist Matt O’Brian reveals how inequality has less to do with a small class of super wealthy elites, and more to do with the structure and culture of many big U.S. companies

The easiest way to think about this is to think about the different types of inequality. There isn’t just inequality between everyone, but also between everyone at a single company. Why does this matter? Well, if CEOs really are gobbling up a bigger and bigger slice of the profit pie, then inequality within society at large should have increased because inequality within companies increased. But that’s not what happened. The research team of Jae Song of the Social Security Administration, Fatih Guvenen of the University of Minnesota, and David Price and Nicholas Bloom of Stanford were able to look at what had previously between private earnings data for every company between 1978 and 2012—the best data we have so far—and found that the pay gap between executives and their own workers had barely changed during this time. What had changed, though, was the pay gap between every worker at the highest-paid firms and everyone else. In other words, inequality exploded because the top 1 percent of companies were making more and paying all their employees more. This was true across the country and across industries.

It is not entirely clear why this is the case, but one hypothesis is that technological innovation has made every industry “winner-take-all”, meaning it is easier than ever for the most ruthless and resourceful companies to dominate a particular market. This explains the rise of global behemoths like Google, Amazon, Apple, and Facebook, all of which lack any true competitors in their respective industries.  Continue reading

How Cicero’s Political Campaign is Still Relevant Today

What does it say about the nature of human political life that analyses and advice dating from the first century B.C.E. is still applicable today? Stripped of its cultural and historical context, the Commentariolum Petitionis, or “Little Handbook on Electioneering”, which was ostensibly written to the great Roman orator and statesman Cicero by his younger brother, Quintus, can just as well describe contemporary American politics.

For example, it starts by outlining the importance of connections and patronage networks — especially among the wealthy and elites of society — for political advancement. Continue reading

U.S. Taxes in Charts

Few things animate Americans more than taxes. As it is now cliche to point out, it was matters of taxation that in large part precipitated the revolutionary war that birthed the United States. Taxes are indicative of a society’s relationship with its government, as well as its priorities, policies, and even social views — and yet for all the passion and debate they entail, they are among the least well-understood aspects of our country.

The Atlantic clears up this complex and often dicey issue  with over a dozen charts detailing how taxes work in the U.S. While the source material is from 2010 to 2013, much of the data and fundamentals remain relevant as of this post. (Note that I am sharing most, but not all, the charts from the cited piece.) Continue reading

The U.S. Civil War Was Always About Slavery

It is hard to believe that so many Americans doubt that slavery was the central cause of the U.S.’ deadliest conflict, considering that the Confederacy and its members said as much explicitly and clearly.

First up is the state that started the Civil War, South Carolina:

…A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that that “Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free,” and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction. This sectional combination for the submersion of the Constitution, has been aided in some of the States by elevating to citizenship, persons who, by the supreme law of the land, are incapable of becoming citizens; and their votes have been used to inaugurate a new policy, hostile to the South, and destructive of its beliefs and safety.

Other states followed suit, often in much clearer terms. Consider Mississippi:

Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery—the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin…


As a separate republic, Louisiana remembers too well the whisperings of European diplomacy for the abolition of slavery in the times of an­nexation not to be apprehensive of bolder demonstrations from the same quarter and the North in this country. The people of the slave holding States are bound together by the same necessity and determination to preserve African slavery.


Upon the principles then announced by Mr. Lincoln and his leading friends, we are bound to expect his administration to be conducted. Hence it is, that in high places, among the Republi­can party, the election of Mr. Lincoln is hailed, not simply as it change of Administration, but as the inauguration of new princi­ples, and a new theory of Government, and even as the downfall of slavery. Therefore it is that the election of Mr. Lincoln cannot be regarded otherwise than a solemn declaration, on the part of a great majority of the Northern people, of hostility to the South, her property and her institutions—nothing less than an open declaration of war—for the triumph of this new theory of Government destroys the property of the South, lays waste her fields, and inaugurates all the horrors of a San Domingo servile insurrection, consigning her citizens to assassinations, and. her wives and daughters to pollution and violation, to gratify the lust of half-civilized Africans.

And Texas:

…in this free government all white men are and of right ought to be entitled to equal civil and political rights; that the servitude of the African race, as existing in these States, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator, as recognized by all Christian nations; while the destruction of the existing relations between the two races, as advocated by our sectional enemies, would bring inevitable calamities upon both and desolation upon the fifteen slave-holding states….

As early as 1858, then-Mississippi Senator — and future President of the Confederacy — Jefferson Davis threatened secession if the institution of slavery were to be threatened:

I say to you here as I have said to the Democracy of New York, if it should ever come to pass that the Constitution shall be perverted to the destruction of our rights so that we shall have the mere right as a feeble minority unprotected by the barrier of the Constitution to give an ineffectual negative vote in the Halls of Congress, we shall then bear to the federal government the relation our colonial fathers did to the British crown, and if we are worthy of our lineage we will in that event redeem our rights even if it be through the process of revolution.

As The Atlantic points out, slavery was not just a $3.5 billion-asset to the South — its most valuable by far — but considered the bedrock of the region’s culture, society, and war of life.

If the policy of the Republicans is carried out, according to the programme indicated by the leaders of the party, and the South submits, degradation and ruin must overwhelm alike all classes of citizens in the Southern States. The slaveholder and non-­slaveholder must ultimately share the same fate—all be degraded to a position of equality with free negroes, stand side by side with them at the polls, and fraternize in all the social relations of life; or else there will be an eternal war of races, desolating the land with blood, and utterly wasting and destroying all the resources of the country.

Many Southern elites even fantasized about extending a slave-based empire across the Americas, especially Cuba, Mexico, and Central America. Numerous Southern publications echoed these sentiments as well, both leading up to and throughout the course of the conflict. Slavery was not a fringe position in the South — it was part and parcel of its cultural identity, social order, and economic power. And many Southerners felt aggressive enough about it to want to expand the institution well beyond U.S. borders, let alone allow it to be contained or threatened.

In short, the U.S. Civil War was an inevitable, even logical, outcome of having one-half of the country steadfast in its commitment to a barbaric and increasingly polarizing ideology. Slavery was incompatible with America’s ostensible values of liberty and the consent of the governed, and it formed the crux of the country’s debate about what sort of place it was going to be. One way or the other, it was going to be challenged, and given the aforementioned attitudes towards the practice, it was always going to be violent.

Source: The Atlantic 

Seven Things the U.S. Can Learn From Switzerland

The United States could learn a thing or two from other countries; pragmatism, an American philosophy, dictates that we try ideas or policies that are demonstrated to work. Where better to learn new things from than Switzerland, a country with a surprising number of similarities to the U.S. — a long, robust, and proud history of constitutional democracy; strong values of civil liberty and rule of law; and a positive attitude towards capitalism, entrepreneurship, and economic freedom.

Over at Vox, Chantal Panozzo recounts her experience working and living in the Alpine country for almost a decade, making, at most, minimum wage — yet finding herself (and most others around her) enjoying considerable quality of life. Utilizing both years’ of anecdotes and quite a bit of data, Panozzo outlines seven characteristics of Swiss society, culture, and government policy that the U.S. would do well to considered.

Below is a summarized version, so I recommend you read the entire article to get the full breadth of what Switzerland — consistently ranked as one of the world’s most developed and prosperous nations — has to offer.

1. Work-life balance is crucial.

According to the OECD, a grouping of the world’s most developed nations, the typical Swiss worker enjoyed an annual income of around $91,500 in 2013 — compared to about $55,700 for the average American worker — despite working 219 hours less. The Swiss take free time and recreation more seriously.

Lunchtime is sacred time in Switzerland. When I was on maternity leave, my husband came home for lunch to help me care for our daughter. This strengthened our marriage. Many families still reunite during weekdays over the lunch hour.

Weekends in Switzerland encourage leisure time, too. On Sundays, you can’t even shop — most stores are closed. You are semi-required to hike in the Alps with your family. It’s just what you do.

All this leads to another crucial point…

2. All kinds of work should be valued.

The Swiss have a culture of professional part-time work, and as a result, part-time jobs include every benefit of a full-time job, including vacation time and payment into two Swiss pension systems. Salaries for part-time work are set as a percentage of a professional full-time salary­ because unlike in the United States, part-time jobs are not viewed as necessarily unskilled jobs with their attendant lower pay.


One married couple I knew each worked 80 percent, which meant they each spent one day a week at home with their child, limiting the child’s time in day care to three days a week while continuing full professional lives for both of them. According to a recent article in the New York Times, “Why U.S. Women Are Leaving Jobs Behind,” 81 percent of women in Switzerland are in the workforce, versus 69 percent in the US. I believe attitudes toward professional part-time work — for both men and women — have a lot to do with this.

3. Unemployment benefits should (and can) be generous yet sustainable.

…In Switzerland, being on unemployment meant you received 70 to 80 percent of your prior salary for 18 months. The Swiss government also paid for me to take German classes, and when I wasn’t looking for jobs, I could afford to write a book.

In the United States, on the other hand, unemployment benefits generally pay workers between 40 and 50 percent of their previous salary, and these benefits only last for six months on average. However, thanks to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in 2009, some unemployed people now receive up to 99 weeks of benefits.

Moreover, the Swiss government pulls this off while managing to spend the least amount of public funds proportional to GDP of any country in Europe — 33.6 percent. This also compares favorably to the U.S. rate of 41.6 percent.

4. Taxes can be both fair and cost effective.

A big reason why the Swiss can get away with a generous welfare system without racking up debt is their highly efficient way of raising revenue.

Compared with taxes in the United States, Swiss taxes are easy on the average worker. For example, a worker earning the average wage of $91,574 would pay only about 5 percent of that in Swiss federal income tax. Instead of taxing salaries at high percentages — a practice that puts most of the tax burden on the middle class, where most income comes from wages and not from capital gains — Switzerland immediately taxes dividends at a maximum of 35 percent and also has a wealth-based tax.


The Swiss taxation method leaves money in the pocket of the average worker — and allows them to save accordingly. The average adult in Switzerland has a net worth worth of $513,000 according to the 2013 Credit Suisse Wealth Report. Average net worth among adults in the US is half that.

Yet again, the Swiss get the best of both worlds: a sustainable tax rate that burdens as few of its citizens (and by extension the economy) as possible, while still managing to raise enough revenue for governance and public services.

5. Paid vacations should be politically and socially encouraged.

This pretty much follows from the first lesson: employees and employers alike benefit when workers can enjoy periodic time off — especially if it is paid, so as to ease the burden and increase the likelihood that one will actually use it. Time with loved ones or for one’s self is good for morale and productivity, and is thus as practically beneficial as it is socially responsible.

That is why the Swiss legally require businesses to provide at least four weeks paid vacation — not including various holidays, in which most businesses close. (Panozzo’s husband enjoyed a total of six weeks off a year, showing that many Swiss companies genuinely take this matter to hear, regardless of government directive.) Most importantly, neither employers nor workers shame anyone for wanting to enjoy to make the most of their hard earned time off — if anything, one is shamed for not using it in the first place!

Moreover, despite this “burdensome” requirement, Switzerland ranks fourth in the (conservative) Heritage Foundation’s 2016 Index of Economic Freedom.

6. Offer world-class public infrastructure.

By supporting an efficient, extensive, and accessible network of public transportation, Switzerland frees its citizens from the expense and environmental pollution of car ownership — hence why about one in five Swiss households do not bother to own a car, compared to a little over 9 percent of U.S. households.

The Swiss train connects to the bus that connects to the cable car to get you on the slopes in the middle of nowhere at the scheduled second. From Zurich, I could also take a high-speed train to Paris in three and a half hours. Now I can barely get from the western suburbs to the north side of Chicago in that amount of time — let alone have the option to do it carless. This means I’m turning down jobs instead of taking them. This isn’t good for the American economy or for me.

And let’s be clear: Living in a city suburb is no excuse for having bad transit options. I lived exactly the same distance from Zurich that I now live from Chicago (15 miles) but shared none of the public transport frustrations.

It is not that people should be discouraged from having a car, but rather that providing cheaper and more convenient alternatives can be beneficial to urban life (by easing congestion, noise, accidents, and pollution) as well as the environment. Reliable infrastructure is great for business, too, as Panozzo’s account shows.

7. Support universal healthcare, especially for mothers.

In Switzerland, healthcare is both humanely affordable and widely accessible, providing a boon to both society and the economy.

When I gave birth in Switzerland, I was encouraged to stay five days in the hospital. So I did. The $3,000 bill for the birth and hospital stay was paid in full by my Swiss insurance. As was the required midwife, who came to my apartment for five days after I came home from the hospital to check on both my health and my baby’s.

Had I been in the U.S. for my delivery, the cost would have been much higher — and the quality of care arguably lower. The average price for a vaginal birth in the U.S. is $30,000 and includes an average of less than a two-day hospital stay.

Swiss law also mandates a 14-week maternity leave at a minimum of 80 percent pay. I was lucky enough to receive 100 percent pay. Compare that with the US, where new mothers aren’t guaranteed any paid time off after giving birth. In Switzerland, it’s also common to choose how much work to return to after having a child. Since my Swiss job at the time had been full time, I chose to return at 60 percent.

Other American friends in Switzerland who gave birth also chose to return to their careers part time: My engineering manager friend chose 70 percent, and my lawyer friend chose 80 percent. We had great careers, we had balance, and we also had a Swiss government that paid a monthly child stipend whether we needed it or not. For Americans like me, Swiss Reality was privilege.

To be sure, while it is cheaper by American standards, the Swiss spend a lot more on healthcare than their European counterparts. Nevertheless, at least they get results, while companies enjoy healthier and more highly motivated and productive workers.

Now, it should go without saying that Switzerland is no paradise. Like every country, it has its problems, albeit far fewer and less severe than almost anywhere else in the world. And at least some of its success can be attributed to its small size both geographically and demographically.

But with its rugged mountainous terrain; considerable ethnic, linguistic, and religious diversity; strong regional and local identities; and a dearth of natural resources, the Swiss prove that it is possible to create social, political, and economic conditions that are conducive to human flourishing — especially a nation with as much ingenuity, wealth, and resource as the U.S. Do Americans have the will to implement such changes? Should they? What are your thoughts?