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…

Louisiana:

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.

Alabama:

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?

Violence and the American Dream

It is often argued that the United States is an inherently violent country, more so than most other wealthy, stable democracies. From its birth following a revolutionary war, to the enduring mythos of the Wild West and the uniquely enshrined (though much contested) right to individual gun ownership, the U.S. does seem to have bravado intricately weaved into its history and culture.

In response to the question posed on Aeon, an ideas forum and  magazine, “Does inability to attain American Dream make people violent?” psychiatrist and writer Jean Kim argues that hyper-individualism bordering on narcissism, combined with personal and often political grievances, exacerbate the problem of violence in American culture. The whole piece is a quick and easy read, but the crux of its point is thus: Continue reading

To Improve U.S. Education, Look at the States

In the 1932 U.S. Supreme Court case New State Ice Co. v. Liebmann, Justice Luis Brandeis made the point that a “state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country”. Thanks to the federal structure of the United States, all fifty subdivisions of the country have considerable leeway in how they manage all sorts of economic, political, and social policies and institutions (though the extent of this power is a matter of perennial debate and jurisprudence.)

A recent report by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) has validated this idea, arguing that the best way to improve America’s educational outcomes is to look not abroad, as is so often done, but within, at the many individual states, counties, and cities that have managed to attain high results.

It is a long read and dense read, I unfortunately have not the time to reproduce its most salient points with my commentary. Suffice it to say, it is well worth giving a look, especially as it raises many questions whether the international rankings that are relied upon by performers are truly as accurate, and thus informative, as many believe. Continue reading

The Great Expense of Being Poor

Over at The Atlantic, Barbara Ehrenreich reminds us of just how burdensome poverty can be. One would think this is obvious, but far too many Americans prescribe to the notion that poverty is a product of bad behavior and character, rather than the natural outcome of bad circumstances, such as a dearth of well-paying jobs.

What I discovered is that in many ways, these [low paying] jobs are a trap: They pay so little that you cannot accumulate even a couple of hundred dollars to help you make the transition to a better-paying job. They often give you no control over your work schedule, making it impossible to arrange for child care or take a second job. And in many of these jobs, even young women soon begin to experience the physical deterioration—especially knee and back problems—that can bring a painful end to their work life.

I was also dismayed to find that in some ways, it is actually more expensive to be poor than not poor. If you can’t afford the first month’s rent and security deposit you need in order to rent an apartment, you may get stuck in an overpriced residential motel. If you don’t have a kitchen or even a refrigerator and microwave, you will find yourself falling back on convenience store food, which—in addition to its nutritional deficits—is also alarmingly overpriced. If you need a loan, as most poor people eventually do, you will end up paying an interest rate many times more than what a more affluent borrower would be charged. To be poor—especially with children to support and care for—is a perpetual high-wire act.

Most private-sector employers offer no sick days, and many will fire a person who misses a day of work, even to stay home with a sick child. A nonfunctioning car can also mean lost pay and sudden expenses. A broken headlight invites a ticket, plus a fine greater than the cost of a new headlight, and possible court costs. If a creditor decides to get nasty, a court summons may be issued, often leading to an arrest warrant. No amount of training in financial literacy can prepare someone for such exigencies—or make up for an income that is impossibly low to start with. Instead of treating low-wage mothers as the struggling heroines they are, our political culture still tends to view them as miscreants and contributors to the “cycle of poverty”.

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100 CEOs Have Retirement Savings Greater Than 41 Percent of American Families

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Canada: The World’s Freest Country?

A recent article at Foreign Policy makes the provocative case that our neighbor to the north has overtaken us as the world’s leading beacon of liberty and prosperity (a claim that, to be sure, was always suspect in practice, yet has remained a bedrock of American identity, prestige, and soft power).

The claim is based on the results of the newly published 2015 Legatum Prosperity Index, an annual report issued by the Legatum Institute that measures countries’ performance in eight categories of human flourishing, such as personal freedom, safety and security, and governance.

While Canada did not reach the top spot — that honor went to Norway for the seventh consecutive time — it did rank a very respectable sixth place, compared to the United States’ 11th place. Aside from seventh-place Australia, Canada was the only medium sized country to make it to the top ten; the rest were small European (mostly Nordic) and Anglophone nations.

Canada shined mostly on account of its people’s attitude towards immigrants and the trajectory of their country. It is all the more impressive given the many woes and troubles attributed to the much-disliked Conservative administration of Stephen Harper, which over the last decade has been accused of making the country increasingly authoritarian, intolerant, and socially backwards (a development that some Canadians tellingly, only half-jokingly, called “Americanization“) . Continue reading

What Happens When You Give Employees a $70,000 Minimum Wage

In April 2015, Gravity Payments, a credit card payment processing firm based in Seattle, did something highly unorthodox: it unliterally gave all employees, from lowly clerks to customer services representatives, a minimum annual salary of $70,000 — well above the median rate of the average American worker.

Phased in over a period of three years, the plan will effectively double the salaries of 30 workers and give raises to 40 more making less than $70,000. All minimum salaries jumped to $50,000 right away, with $10,000 for each of the next two years. Anyone already earning $50,000 to $70,000 would still enjoy a nice raise of $5,000.

Moreover, CEO and founder Dan Price would accomplish this not by laying off staff, raising prices, or cutting the pay of certain highly paid workers; rather, he would make up the difference by slashing his own $1 million salary to $70,000 and investing 75 to 80 percent of the company’s anticipated $2.2 million for the year.

While plenty of companies could well afford to pay their workers well by going this route — allocating less profit and payroll to executives and shareholders — few would ever entertain the idea, let alone go through with it. Hence all the media attention that this exceptional pay raise warranted.

Unsurprisingly, this shockingly generous move was met with a lot of skepticism, both towards the motive (was it a publicity stunt?) and the practicality (could a company survive with so much profit going to workers)? Doubters and critics seemed quickly validated once the the firm became inundated by a series of misfortunes that related to the decision.  Continue reading