Category: World


Julian Assange (The News Update)

Terrorist, really?

Few people in the past year have sparked debate in the manner that Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, has. His organization has become well-known for publishing material that is leaked by anonymous whistleblowers that often show wrongdoing on the parts of governments and corporations around the world, though a good deal of its notoriety stems from the publication of the Iraq War Logs and its bringing to light actual U.S. military footage of a helicopter crew shooting reporters and civilians in Baghdad, a video that the group entitled “Collateral Murder”.

The release of documents pertaining to the U.S. military and the U.S. Department of State resulted in an outcry by conservatives across the country who claimed that Assange had hurt the national security of the United States and that he had exposed a number of U.S. military informants in Afghanistan, claims that Assange strongly denies. Fox News Correspondents and familiar Republican faces such as Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin called Julian Assange a traitor, though he is actually Australian and therefore can not commit treason against the U.S., and they even went so far as to call for his assassination within days of the shooting of Gabriel Giffords in Arizona.

While calls for assassination rang out at Fox News, the rest of the American media played up the angle that WikiLeaks had damaged American national interests because it had published diplomatic cables that contained confidential and embarrassing information about foreign dignitaries and diplomats. The cables did certainly create a good deal of awkwardness at the State Department, but rather than focus on any specifics, the general treatment among the major networks was downright tabloid. For example, in this piece, ABC News focused on non-substantive comments in the cables that essentially resort to the level of name calling. And far from being hard hitting, ABC did not make a terribly strong case. From the piece, we find out that Libya’s Ghadafi is considered “wierd”. This could hardly be of any surprise, but we learn nothing of the real nuggets of information found in the documents from the ABC piece – a trend that you will see is quite prominent in American media.

The Administration’s Response – and from Corporate America

The reaction from the Obama Administration was rather strong. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton condemned the release of the diplomatic cables. Their release certainly made her job difficult. But did the release of the cables truly affect the relations between the U.S. and other countries to the degree that she has claimed? For her part, Julian Assange did suggest that Secretarty Clinton should resign, “if it can be shown that she was responsible ordering U.S. diplomatic figures to engage in espionage in the United Nations.” (Go to 2:20 in the video for the quote.) Unfortunately, most of the American press reported that with the headline to the effect: Assange: Clinton Should Resign, ignoring a rather important subjunctive clause, but also skillfully avoiding the reasoning behind Assange’s statement. Mr. Assange made that statement with the revelation from his group that the U.S. State Department had begun a program to try to gain information about foreign dignitaries by the use of biometrics and espionage. If the State Department is trying to spy on other leaders, suddenly the peaceful and “candid discussions” that Secretary Clinton mentioned in the ABC News video would certainly take a very different tone, but once again, there is no information in the ABC report about these potentially unethical clandestine actions by the State Department.

Presidential Candidate Obama discusses open government in 2008 (Glass Booth.org, via YouTube)

President Obama campaigned in part on the notion of openness in the Federal Government. Obama had also signed whistleblower protections early during his presidency. One bill strengthened whistleblower protections for the employees of companies contracting with the Federal Government and he strengthened whistleblower rights in the recently-passed Food Safety Act. Yet, despite this early support for openness in government, President Obama was now in the rather uncomfortable position that he was in charge of the organization losing leaked information.

Despite the discomfort, the White House Press Secretary, Robert Gibbs, challenged Fox News by saying that the White House is not afraid of one guy with a laptop. He also went on to say that those who leaked information are subject to a Department of Justice criminal investigation as well. But while president Obama claimed to be in support of an open, censorship-free internet after the Diplomatic Cables release, it was quite clear that his Justice Department was in fact strongly pursuing an investigation into the the potential for ties between Julian Assange and the alleged leaker, Private Bradley Manning.

President Obama discusses open internet in December, 2010 (Stop the War Coalitino, via YouTube)

It was around that time in early December, 2010, that Swedish allegations of “sex by surprise”, not rape as reported by the American media, forced Assange to remain in place in Britain, even serving some time in solitary confinement until his bond was secured. He remains without charge from Sweden, though he has been fighting his extradition to Sweden out of concern that he would be extradited again to the United States. It was also made public that one of the women who had accused Assange of rape was actually tied to the CIA. WikiLeaks also found it difficult to receive donations because companies like PayPal, Visa and Mastercard cut off services to WikiLeaks, though the latter two do allow donations to the KKK! It is strongly suspected that the Obama Administration was partially responsible for convincing those companies to cut their financial ties to WikiLeaks.

One company, VISA, did hire a firm to investigate WikiLeaks to determine whether it could find any wrongdoing by the group and found none. VISA has yet to allow donations to flow back to WikiLeaks, despite the findings having come out roughly three months ago.

Assange in his own words

So who is this Julian Assange? Is he the terrorist described by Fox News? The guy who is hurting American national security like the U.S. mainstream press argues? Is he a supporter of free speech and open government?

To this point we have heard from virtually everyone but Julian Assange himself. But to fully understand his comments, we can not confine ourselves to the American mass media. First, let us take a look at a speech that he gave to the Oslo Freedom Forum in 2010.

Julian Assange speaks at the Oslo Freedom Forum, April 2010 (Oslo Freedom Forum, via YouTube)

In that speech, Assange describes how his organization tries not to know the names of the whistleblowers in order to protect itself as well as the whistleblowers. WikiLeaks tries to protect whistleblowers as much as possible, while using freedom of speech laws around the world to their maximum extent to ensure that the leaked information remains public and protected from attempts to shut websites down.

The stakes are quite high. After minute 5:15 in the Oslo Speech, Assange mentions the salient point that with today’s electronic media, the information repositories of the West are becoming concentrated in fewer hands. While it was once true that people could see missing pages in book in Soviet Libraries, it is now possible to remove websites without a trace. This is a very well-thought out position on transparency of information in the electronic era. There have already been examples, as Assange continues, in which stories of scandals have slipped into the Orwellian “memory hole”. The protection of information against consolidated control is to make it public and to ensure that thousands of copies of that information can be found across the internet. By making information public, WikiLeaks says that it provides the tools that the public needs in order to hold its leaders accountable for their actions.

Julian Assange speaks at TED, July 2010 (TED, via YouTube)

In another speech at TED, Assange discusses some of the types of documents that WikiLeaks has released to the public, including the release of Collateral Murder (around 5:30). At one point, Assange makes a very intriguing statement, “Capable and generous men do not create victims, they nurture people.” This is hardly a statement by the vindictive radical of Fox News’ imaginings.

Listen to Assange discuss his own reaction to the video in the following video from an interview conducted by Al Jazeera. At not point does Assange attempt to hyperbolize what can be seen on the video screen.

Julian Assange discusses 'Collateral Murder' (Al Jazeera, via YouTube)

The Al Jazeera interview also includes commentary by Ivan Eland, a national security analyst from the Cato Institute (hardly an anti-military institution). Eland describes the actions from the lens of the military while Assange describes the situation from the perspective of the victims. Al Jazeera does a great job of showing similarities and dissonances between the two perspectives to give the viewer a rather impressive perspective of the incident in which American helicopter pilots gunned down a number of innocent bystanders. This is not the type of portrayal of the U.S. military that one sees in the United States. Rather, a better example of American portayal can be seen here:

Wolf Blitzer reports on 'Collateral Murder' (CNN, via YouTube)

CNN did not show the entire video. They did not mention that the “weapons” described by the helicopter pilots were actually cameras, but they did stop just before the helicopter opened fire and just after the letters “RPG” appear on the screen. The net effect of this editing is to give the viewer the impression that the helicopter pilots were in the right by defending themselves against a potential rocket propelled grenade attack. Wolf then cuts to Barbara Starr, CNN’s Pentagon correspondent, who touts the Pentagon’s line without question: That the people had been investigated and that no fault was found. Yet Starr never describes the extent of the investigation, nor does she comment on the rest of the video. She also propagates the lie that other troops were attacked nearby that day. Finally, the journalist Starr rather callously mentions that the deaths of these journalists can simply be added to the death toll of 129 to that point in the Iraq War.

So CNN all but asks the viewer not to worry, nothing to see here people… just journalists dying despite the fact that journalists are given legal protections even in war zones – protections that are never mentioned despite the large number of deaths of journalists by the U.S. military. That is the American mainstream media in a nutshell. When the need for information and transparency is palpable, CNN obscured the facts in order to provide the Pentagon a blanket of plausible deniability. Later, CNN posted an article online entitled “Secretive website WikiLeaks may be posting more U.S. military video”, a clear effort to discredit WikiLeaks without bringing any new information to the fore.

This is not to say that high-ranking officials should necessarily be charged with corruption because of the actions of much lower-ranking pilots. Nor does Assange make that case. However, the incident may certainly warrant a review of the specific ways in which loose rules of engagement may have resulted in the deaths of a number of innocent people that way. Perhaps there is a way to address civilian deaths that will heighten the safety for troops and civilians alike – neither we nor the Pentagon will know unless the matter is investigated and that will not happen unless there is public pressure to do so.

The added benefit for political leaders may be that after having encountered a number of incidents in which mistakes were made, the public may develop a more nuanced view regarding the myriad ways in which such unfortunate instances could happen. That may mean that the public could better differentiate between instances in which an undesirable outcome resulted from good-faith efforts, versus cases of corruption. The public would likely be more forgiving in the former cases, which could give politicians more latitude in their efforts to improve conditions at home as well. That is why there is a need to bring details about events like these to light.

More on the media perception of Assange

After the release of Collateral Murder and the release of Iraq and Afghanistan War documents, the line in the media became the accusation that Julian Assange and WIkiLeaks were attempting to attack U.S. national security. That is a charge that Julian Assange deftly handles here in an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper.

Anderson Cooper interviews Julian Assange (CNN, via YouTube)

After the release of the American diplomatic cables, Julian Assange was of course charged with sex crimes in Sweden and the timing is clearly suspicious. The American press wasted no time in ensuring that future interviews with Assange were about him rather than the information that he was attempting to present.

Increasingly, the theme in American media was about Julian Assange himself. For example, an October, 2010 interview with CNN avoided the contents of WikiLeaks releases, but rather focussed on Julian Assange’s personality and the early reports of allegations of rape. This led to Assange walking out of the interview while he was attempting to steer the interview back toward the contents of WikiLeaks’ latest document release.

A short time later, Assange related to Larry King why he had walked out of the interview, namely to ensure that media attention remains on the deaths of innocent victims during a time of war. When Daniel Ellsberg (the leaker of the Pentagon Papers) calls for an investigation over the matters that WikiLeaks released, Larry King called an end to the segment:

Larry King interviews Julian Assange and Daniel Ellsberg (CNN, via YouTube)

In January, CBS’ 60 Minutes did an interview with Assange in Britain at the location of his house arrest. You will find the entire interview is chock full of references to the “mysterious” “strange” or “enigmatic” Assange – but you will hear very few details regarding the actual contents of WikiLeaks releases. Interviewer Steve Kroft asks questions that essentially carry water for the Pentagon throughout the interview. Assange actually instructs Kroft on a number of points regarding the practice of journalism in Part I, as well as reminding Kroft of the importance of America’s First Amendment in his own work. Part II of the interview covers Assange’s past, with descriptions of his “frequently uprooted” childhood and his hacking activities. There are a number of great exchanges where Assange is able to directly respond to Pentagon and State Department accusations and he does it quite well.

60 Part I: Minutes interviews Julian Assange (CBS News)

Part II: 60 Minutes interviews Julian Assange (CBS News)

Unfortunately, 60 Minutes played the “enigmatic” angle heavily during its normal showtime, but Steve Kroft and the production staff do discuss (in rather surprising contrast) how they perceived Assange to be rather genuine in his beliefs and actions during their own reflections on 60 Minutes Overtime. And the disappointing dearth of information regarding WikiLeaks’ revelations is described in detail in an article by David Swanson.

How stark is the American media portrayal of Julian Assange? Thanks to the wonderful world of the internet, it is possible to directly compare American interviews such as those by CBS and CNN with interviews by reporters from the Netherlands and Australia. Viewing the last two sample videos and the Al Jazeera interview earlier shows American just what they have been missing: A press that seeks to inform the public rather than to cover up excesses by the U.S. Government.

Without such transparency as that displayed by international news sources, it is unlikely that citizens of the United states will be able to ensure the safety of their own family members who are sent into harm’s way from the excesses of a national security state that creates an environment in which otherwise well-intentioned soldiers can become excited for the next kill. How much less violence might there have been in Iraq and how many fewer people – Iraqis and Americans alike – if the people in Iraq were not subject to such unfair rules of operation that ‘shoot first and ask questions later’ should be the rule of the day? That is, after all, what WikiLeaks claims to do: To provide the transparency required for citizens to make informed decisions on their own.

Now that you have finally seen the major players give their cases in their own words, you can finally decide for yourself: Is Julian Assange truly an ideological terrorist acting to destroy the United States, or is he facing attacks by the same people who profit from unceasing wars whose current estates are now jeopardized by WikiLeaks, or is there some other combination of factors taking place? How would one even be able to consider all of the possibilities, given American mainstream reporting alone? Now that you have seen actual details and reporting, you have the ability to decide for yourself.

Richard Nixon (The National Archives, via Wikipedia)

“But when the President does it, that means that it is not illegal.” That line from the Frost-Nixon interview famously showed the state of American democracy after Richard NIxon.

Elected the 37th President of the United States in 1969, he was re-elected to a second term. His presidency was not without accomplishment, as he signed the Clean Water Act and enhanced the Clean Air Act. He founded the EPA, negotiated a détente with the Soviet Union, ended the Vietnam War and connected with China. And he was a Republican!

Unfortunately, that was not the only lasting impact to Nixon’s presidential legacy. Machtpolitik played a primate role during his administration. Nixon’s soon to be Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was sent to the Paris negotiations to scuttle a peace treaty by suggesting to the South Vietnamese that they would get a better deal under the Republicans. The peace talks failed on the eve of the 1968 election. Kissinger also played a lead role in the CIA-assisted overthrow of democratically elected leader of Chile, plunging that nation into decades of dictatorship under Augusto Pinochet. (He was also involved in other similar activities during the Ford Administration.) Nixon authorized illegal military bombing campaigns and other incursions in Cambodia and Laos as well. His first Vice President, Spiro Agnew, resigned from office after it wsa clear that he had accepted bribes and evaded taxes while he was the governor of Maryland.

Despite all of that, what Richard Nixon is undoubtedly most famous for, however, is the Watergate Scandal, where his cronies bugged the Democratic National Committee Headquarters at the Watergate Hotel. The event lead to Nixon’s resignation and also lead to every subsequent presidential scandal, real or imagined, to end with the syllable “-gate”.

The role of the US president became imperial under Nixon and his neo-conservative acolytes, including Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle and Dick Cheney carried his torch through the Reagan and Bush administrations. For everyone who wishes the American government would focus on the livelihoods of its citizens, Richard Nixon began the rolling snowball of “Unitary Executive Power” that impinges on democracy today.

Wikipedia: Richard Nixon

The USS Constellation (via Wikipedia)

Relations between the United States and France soured after the French Revolution. Royal France had been a vital ally during the American Revolution, but when the King was toppled, the U.S. stopped repaying its debt to France, claiming that it had owed the debt to the Kingdom of France, not the French Republic. The U.S. angered France even more when it signed a treaty with Britain that included trade items at a time that Britain and France were hostile with one another. By the end of 1796, France began seizing American ships in retribution and thus began one of America’s first undeclared (though still authorized by Congress) wars. Not listed in all history books, the war itself was largely fought at sea and is given any one of several names: the Half-War, the Pirate Wars, the Undeclared War (as if it were the only one), the Undeclared War with France, the Franco-American War, or the Quasi-War.

Wikipedia: The Quasi-War

Benghazi Cathedral (Libyan Tourism Directory)

Founded as the Greek colony of Ευεσπεριδεσ, or Euesperides, around 525 B.C.E., the city has been under the control of a number of empires since, including the Romans and the Ottomans. At one point, the greek colony was saved by chance while under attack by Libyan tribes in 414 B.C.E. A fleet from Sparta had been en route to Sicily to fight a battle against an Athenian colony there during the Peloponnesian War, but it was blown off course by strong winds. The Spartans helped to drive back the Libyan tribes, rescuing the city.

Today, the city is known as Benghazi is a stronghold for a democratic uprising against Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi and it is now under attack by the dictator. The UN Security Council has agreed to the institution of a no-fly zone over the country, primarily led by France. Will it be too little, too late? Good luck to everyone fighting for democracy everywhere.

More details here. I will report on this later, once more is known.

Sunlight enters the main entrance of New Grange once per year on the Winter Solstice (Cyril Byrnes, via The Irish Times)

Happy St. Patrick’s Day! As people all over celebrate all things Irish today, let’s take a look at a place as old as Ireland itself. New Grange is a huge passage mound in County Meath that dates to 3100 – 2900 BCE, during the Neolithic Period (the New Stone Age). It is part of the Brú na Bóinne archaeological complex, an expansive site that predates the Pyramids at Giza. Roughly 150 passage graves survive today in Ireland and 40 of them are locate at Brú na Bóinne.

The site is huge. Some 550 giant slabs, weighing a total of 200,000 tonnes were quarried from the riverside nearby in order to construct it and transported to the site, all under the power of humans and animals. Its use is uncertain, though most people believe it was a tomb. It does have some astronomical significance as well: Each winter solstice, the sun shines directly into the main passage of the monument, illuminating the far wall.

Wikipedia: New Grange

Radiation symbol (Cary Bass, via Wikipedia)

Why this Article?

The terrible tragedy in Japan has sparked a huge discussion about nuclear power, radioactivity and nuclear meltdown. Unfortunately, major media in the United States continually report about “high doses” and “low doses” without quoting any actual measurements of radiation radiation levels. This is probably due to the fact that most reporters do not understand nuclear power and radiation themselves. It is a huge problem because it does not provide the public with the detailed information that it would need in order to fully understand the measurements and how it would affect their own health and livelihood.

One unfortunate result of this nebulous reporting, whether it is intentional or not, is that it is rather easy to scare people with the mere mention of the word “radiation” simply because it is very easy to scare people with things that they do not understand. On the other hand, people with a better understanding of radiation will recognize that the level of risk arising from radiation is dependent on the type, the length and the amount of exposure to it. They will be able to compare the measurements of reported radiation doses with background levels. Except in certain tragic circumstances, this generally means that people can be less fearful and more conscientious about their radiation risk.

In this article, I will describe where radiation comes from, a number of ways in which it is measured and what the likely risks are for various levels of exposure. This piece is not really a news article in and of itself, but it is intended to be a guide to help interpret news in those rare cases where the press actually reports the numbers that you need to know.

First, let’s look at the different types of particles that make up the atom and the forces that make them stick together. The complicated part of quantum physics is in making calculations and in deriving physical laws to explain them. Understanding how they work is not so bad, give it a try. : )

Subatomic Particles

One aim of physics is to try to understand the Universe by looking at how its constituents interact. By the 1970s, physicists had put together a detailed model, called the Standard Model, (we physicists sometimes have problems with creativity when it comes to naming things) that describes all of the known fundamental particles and their interactions.

Fundamental particles are simply particles that we believe can not be divided into smaller parts. They are broken down into two major categories, depending on a property called spin: Fermions and Bosons. Spin is a measure of the intrinsic angular momentum of a particle. According quantum mechanics, subatomic particles can only have certain values of spin. Fermions are particles with spins of 1/2, 3/2, 5/2 and so on, while Bosons are particles with spins of 0, 1, 2, and so on, and particles from either of these two families have very different properties.

Fermions can broken into a couple of subgroups, called Leptons and Quarks. These groups are determined by the amount of electric charge that they carry. The Leptons include the electron and its cousins, the muon and the tauon (usually the tau). Each lepton is associated with another particle called a neutrino. Neutrinos are particles that rarely interact with matter. In fact to be sure that you would capture a neutrino about 60% of the time, you would need a lead wall roughly 8 light-years thick! That is 47 trillion miles.

The other subgroup, the Quarks, are a group of particles with electrical charges of either +2/3 or -1/3. They make up subatomic particles like protons and neutrons.

Fermions (Spin = 1/2, 3/2, 5/2, etc.)

Leptons (Spin = 1/2)
Flavor Symbol Mass (GeV/c2) Electric Charge
Electron e 0.000511 -1
Electron Neutrino νe <1×10-8 0
Muon μ 0.106 -1
Muon Neutrino νμ <0.0002 0
Tau τ 1.7771 -1
Tau Neutrino ντ <0.02 0
Quarks (Spin = 1/2)
Flavor Symbol Mass (GeV/c2) Electric Charge
Up u 0.003 +2/3
Down d 0.006 -1/3
Charm c 1.3 +2/3
Strange s 0.1 -1/3
Top t 175 +2/3
Bottom b 4.3 -1/3

All of the matter that you deal with every day, whether it is atoms inside you, the air you breathe, or even those in the Earth itself, are all made of Fermions. How all of those particles interact is determined by force-carrying particles, the Bosons. There are four fundamental forces that we know of right now. Two are likely fairly familiar from everyday experience and two are not so familiar: Gravity, Electromagnetism, the Weak Nuclear Force and the Strong Nuclear Force. Most people deal with gravity and electromagnetism every day, but few people worry about the weak and strong forces, but the weak and strong forces govern radioactive decay.

Each Boson carries a separate force. Here is a summary:

Bosons (Spin = 0, 1, 2, etc.)

Name Symbol Mass (GeV/c2) Electric Charge Spin Forces carried
Photon γ 0 0 1 Electromagnetic Force
W-minus W 80.4 -1 1 Weak Nuclear
W-plus W+ 80.4 +1 1 Weak Nuclear
Z-nought Z0 91.187 0 1 Weak Nuclear
Gluon g 0 0 1 Strong Nuclear
Graviton G 0 0 2 Gravity (not yet detected)

A particle such as an electron would not experience the electromagnetic force, for example, if it did not interact with photons. A person feels the pull of gravity from the Earth because we think that Earth is continuously emitting a very large number of gravitons that interact with the particles that make up a person. Without those graviton interactions, there would be no gravity. Physicists believe that the particles in the two tables above can fully explain all of the interactions between all of the objects in the Universe (possibly excluding Dark Energy and Dark Matter, but that is another story). It is only a matter of working out the details to try to understand how the Universe works, though there are complications because – well – it turns out that the interactions can be complicated. It is still good to have goals!

E = mc2

Einstein proposed his most famous equation during his annus mirabilis (miracle year) when he wrote four papers that set the groundwork for 20th century physics. Inertia is the resistance of an object to changes in motion. We measure this resistance with the quantity mass. E = mc2 says that any object with a mass, m, has a certain amount of energy, E, locked up in that mass. It is a lot of energy per unit mass, because c is the speed of light and light happens to be quite fast: c = 3.0×108 m/s = 186,000 mile/sec!

It happens one gram of sugar has 2.4 Calories (kcal) of chemical energy in it and when we eat sugar, that is roughly how much energy we gain from it. If we measure that in Joules (J, the SI unit for energy), we have 10,000 J of chemical energy in a gram of sugar. But one gram of any substance has (0.001kg)*(3.0×108 m/s)2 = 9×1013 J of energy locked up in its mass! That is roughly enough energy to supply the United States with power for three days!

The tables above give the masses of each particle in units of GeV/c2 (giga-electron volts). The prefix giga- means billion, so 1 GeV = 109eV. And one electron volt is defined as the amount of kinetic energy that a single electron gains from a voltage drop of 1 Volt. So you can see that this definition of mass came after E=mc2. It is possible to use these conversions:

1 eV = 1.6×10-19 J – a really small unit!
1 GeV/c2 = 1.783×10-27 kg – roughly the mass of a proton

These are reallly small units, but remember that a cubic centimeter has something like 1023 = 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 atoms!

All of the above particles have an anti-matter equivalent that has the same mass but opposite electric charge. When a particle collides with an anti-particle, both particles annihilate, giving off photons with total energy E=mc2. Photons are their own anti-particles, too.

Nuclear power allows us to tap a little bit of that energy that is stored in mass, but first let us take a look at atoms to see how.

Baryons

Now that we have covered the subatomic particles, let’s make atoms. Most people learn in middle school that atoms are composed of protons, neutrons and electrons. The Protons and neutrons reside in the nucleus at the center of the atom and the electrons move around in the electron cloud that surrounds it. Protons and neutrons are (very) roughly 2000 times heavier than an electron so they carry most of the mass of of the atom, considering that an electrically neutral atom has the same number of protons and electrons.

When we talk about nuclear power, we are primarily concerned about the nucleus of the atom. So we are going to ignore the electrons in the electron clouds for now, however we will occasionally encounter electrons that are created by nuclear reactions.

Protons and Neutrons are particles called Baryons. Baryons are composed of three quarks (Mesons are particles made with two quarks). Here is how it works: A proton is made from two up quarks and one down quark. Up quarks have charges of +2/3 and a down quark has a charge of -1/3, so if you add up the charges, you get: 2/3 + 2/3 – 1/3 = +1. Neutrons are made of two downs and one up, so they are electrically neutral.

But wait a second! If you have 2 ups and 1 down, that only adds up to (2*(0.003) + 0.006) GeV/c2 = 0.012 GeV/c2 of mass, but a proton has a mass of about 1 GeV/c2! It does not add up, and here is why. Experiments have confirmed that the quarks in a proton and a neutron are held together by the strong nuclear force, carried by gluons. It is a complex set of interactions, but simply put, the interactions keeping the quarks together are very high energy, so high in energy that they account for the rest of the mass!

Atomic Nuclei and Radioactive Decay

β-decay (Wikipedia)

It also happens that a neutron is about 0.14% more massive than a proton. This corresponds to a mass of about 15 MeV/c2 (1000 MeV = 1 GeV), so if we could convert a neutron into a proton, we should get some energy out (1n -> 1p + 1e + 1νe). In fact, this happens with free neutrons because they are unstable because of interactions governed by the weak nuclear force. A free neutron will decay into a proton, an electron, and an anti-electron neutrino with a half-life of around 8 minutes. (The half-life is the time over which half a collection of one type of particles will convert into other types of particles.) This is the iconic reaction in one form of β-decay (beta-decay), known as β-decay. Another form of β-decay is β+-decay: Energy + 1p -> 1n + 1e + νe, where a proton absorbs energy that causes it to break into a neutron, an anti-election (also called a positron) and an electron neutrino. β+-decays can not occur in isolation. You will often see electrons referred to by the term “β-particles”.

The simplest atomic nucleus is that of Hydrogen, just a single proton. We do not usually see single neutrons around unless we are near a radioactive source because neutrons are unstable as we have mentioned. Protons are stable, however, so we do see Hydrogen, the most abundant element in the Universe.

Atomic nuclei are held together by the “residual strong nuclear force”, which is a manifestation of the strong nuclear force itself. Nuclei are held together by virtual mesons that carry gluons between protons and neutrons inside. There is a lot of activity taking place inside a nucleus all of the time!

It is possible to create an atom with the same chemical properties as single-proton Hydrogen if we add neutrons to the nucleus. These are isotopes, nuclei with the same total charge (which governs the chemistry) but differing numbers of neutrons. For example, Deuterium, another isotope of Hydrogen, has one proton and one neutron. It is nearly identical to Hydrogen chemically, but it is much more rare than plain, old Hydrogen because at some point, a free neutron would only have about 8 minutes to latch onto a proton to form it. Another isotope, Tritium, has one proton and two neutrons, and that is even more rare.

α-decay (Wikipedia)

Helium normally has a pair of protons and a pair of neutrons. It has other isotopes, but it happens that the normal Helium nucleus is very stable and when bigger atoms break apart, they often do so by giving off Helium nuclei, or α-particles (alpha-particles). That process is known as α-decay.

Heavy elements such as Uranium (U) have a very large number of protons (92) and often even more neutrons. 235U, for example has 143 neutrons! Nuclei with either too many or too few neutrons relative to the number of protons are unstable. In addition, large nuclei are often unstable simply because the strong nuclear force is a very short range interaction. If a nucleus is too large, the strong force can not hold it together effectively. This means that there is a “Band of Stability” for atomic nuclei, shown here by plotting the number of neutrons against the number of protons in known isotopes. The colors indicate whether each isotope is stable (black squares) or if not, their primary modes of decay.

The Band of Stability of Nuclear Isotopes, showing observed isotopes (Wikipedia)

Other atoms may split into components that are larger than α-particles. For example, 235U can break into a Krypton-92 (92Kr) nucleus, a Barium-141 (141Ba) nucleus. This is known as fission. The inverse process if known as fusion.

During most of these different types of radioactive decays, high-energy photons are released that are known as γ-radiation or γ-rays. Each one of these decay modes results in different energetics, so when we are concerned about how radioactive decay effects the human body, we need to worry about the specific consequences of human exposure to α-, β- and γ-radiation.

Effects of radiation on Humans

So suppose you are walking along a path in a forest far from any radiation source. You just happen to be carrying your trusty Geiger Counter and decide to turn it on just for fun. You will hear the Geiger Counter click sporadically and you may be shocked to find that the clicks increase when you move the Geiger Counter closer to your body. There are radioactive isotopes everywhere! Background levels of radiation are generally due to trace isotopes found in rocks, cosmic rays that reach earth from space, and any life form will have some 13C (Carbon-13). In fact the process of live itself bioaccumulates 13C. Well, a quick check of the Band of Stability graph shows that an isotope of Carbon-13 (with 6 protons and 7 neutrons), will β-decay to form stable 12C. The half-life of Carbon is about 5730 years. About 1.1% of all Carbon on Earth is in the form of Carbon-13 and by comparing the abundance of carbon in biological material with that of the world at large, it is possible to date the material through Carbon Dating. The electrons that are released in the β-decay can be picked up by the Geiger Counter.

The Geiger Counter will essentially count the number of decays it detects per unit time, measured with the SI unit of the Becquerel (Bq). 1 Bq = one decay per second. While this unit gives the number of radioactive decays taking place per unit time, it does not indicate anything about their effect. In order to do that, we need to take into account how much energy the decay products are carrying and how much of that energy is absorbed by the human body.

A typical human body produces about 4,000 Bq of activity, due to 40K (Potassium-40) beta decays alone.

The SI units for the dose of radiation that are absorbed by the human body are Grays (Gy). 1 Gy = 1 J/kg. It is strictly a measure of the total energy deposited in the body and does not quantify the net effect of the radiation. In order to understand the effects, we will need to look at the differences in how each type of radiation interacts with the body.

A high-energy photon (γ-radiation) that is absorbed by body tissues generally breaks apart the molecules it strikes. The radicals (essentially the electrically charged pieces of broken molecules) that are created when this happen can then react chemically with other molecules around them. The overall effect is limited relative to other forms of radiation, however, because a single ion gives rise to a small number of radicals so there is little overall damage from a single γ-ray relative to other forms of radiation. γ-rays can also scatter off molecules through the Compton Scattering, which frees lower energy recoil electrons that can interact with molecules in tissue.

Gamma radiation is usually not completely absorbed by the human body. That is how it is possible for medical X-rays to work, because only a fraction of the X-rays are absorbed by the body while the rest pass through. Some of those that do pass through expose a piece of film or a detector to create an image.

A β-ray (an electron) does similar damage to a photon, but for different reasons. They do not usually penetrate as deeply, though electrons carry some momentum, and they carry electric charge that can ionize some molecules as they pass near them. In other cases, the electron can be absorbed by a molecule or scatter other electrons to create radicals.

A high-energy neutron that is released by radioactive decay has a lot of momentum. When it smashes into tissue, a game of molecular bumper cars ensues. If the neutron has enough energy, then it is possible to break molecular bonds and to release reactive radicals into the body. Given the fact that neutrons can have a good deal of momentum, they generally produce more radicals than a single γ-ray. Neutrons can deposit their energy deep in tissue and are readily absorbed by some isotopes found in the body. This can cause further radioactive decays.

Protons do carry roughly the same momentum as a neutron, they also carry electric charge that results in ionization. They do more damage than electrons but do not penetrate as deeply as neutrons due to their electric charge.

α-particles and heavy nuclei cause the worst damage because they have the most momentum, but they penetrate the least. These particles carry a ton of momentum and they break up molecules and create radicals until they are stopped. They are highly likely to interact with the tissue rather than pass through it.

When determining the net effect on the body, one also has to consider that the different types of tissue in the body each react differently to radiation at different energies. Studies have been done in an attempt to average the effects over the body and these have led to a standards regarding the Relative Biological Effectiveness (RBE) of the various types of radiation. These are used to determine the equivalent absorbed does, given in Sieverts (Sv). 1 Sv = 1 J/kg just like Grays, only now the dose in Grays is multiplied by a weighting factor, WR, to account for the relative impact of various sorts of radiation on the body. (Sieverts can be related to the outdated unit, the rem with 1 mSv = 0.1 rem.) These weights are determined by experimentation under ideal circumstances compared to the relatively complex circumstances found inside a nuclear reactor, but they do offer insight to the impact on people nonetheless.

Typical background doses vary from place to place, depending on which specific isotopes can be found in the local environment, but Wikipedia gives some general levels that can be used as guidelines if you read dosage numbers in the press. These can be found in the table here, where doses are given in mSv/yr unless otherwise noted for one-time total doses.

Wikipedia has an excellent table that describes the types of symptoms, timescales and fatality rates of radiation sickness. Radiation doses above ~1000 mSv can cause radiation sickness. The higher the dose, the worse the symptoms. Doses up to about 2000 mSv can cause nausea, dizziness, fatigue and a reduced white blood cell count. 5% of people die within a month of receiving 2000 mSv of radiation. Doses between 2000 and 6000 mSv can cause cognitive impairment, purpura, hemorrhage and skin loss and above 5000 mSv, fatality becomes nearly certain, though the period of suffering can last up to a month. Higher doses lead to increasingly severe symptoms. Doses above ~30,000 mSv can cause seizures and death within 48 hours.

The geometry of a nuclear power plant such as the Fukushima-I plant can lend to dramatic variations in radiation levels on site. This is due to the fact that concrete, metal and water shield their surroundings from radiation to different degrees. Given the complicated geometry of a nuclear power plant, there could be low-radiation regions very near high-radiation areas. It is very difficult to calculate the dosage that any worker would have received because one would need to know the radiation level at every single point along that worker’s path through the course of the day. Radiation detecting badges are helpful, but the relative dose that an individual receives can vary from one side of his or her body to the other.

The situation in Fukushima-I is especially complicated because there has been a good deal of damage to the plant. Several large Hydrogen gas explosions have spread trace radioactive material far from the plant, but it typically becomes less concentrated if it is spread over a large area – unless an explosion launches a chunk of radioactive material skyward.

The situation further from the plant is generally a bit easier to estimate because the distribution should typically be a bit smoother than the conditions inside the plant. I must include the caveat that I said estimate, not predict. If a measurement is made far away from the plant, material will be dispersed relatively uniformly around a field, for example, so radiation measurements will be more indicative of nearby surrounding areas. There can still be large-scale variations in dispersal patters. Wind currents could blow radioactive material in either one general direction, or it could be widely dispersed, carried aloft at high altitudes as it was in the case of Chernobyl.

Dispersal of Radioactive Material after Chernobyl. The human body has a natural radioactivity of ~4kBq. (UNEP)

The primary variable in long-range dispersal is how high the radioactive material is sent by explosions at the plant. Chernobyl experienced a large explosion that sent radioactive material high aloft, where it could be dispersed over a wide area for a long period of time. The explosions in Japan have not been nearly as large, though some radioactivity has been detected within ~100km or so from the site that has led to some precautionary measures. Clearly, the fewer explosions that take place in the reactors, the better off everyone will be because there will be less dispersal of radioactive material.

Protecting yourself

Unless otherwise necessary, it is generally best to avoid radioactive material and to avoid areas that have high levels of radiation. In an emergency, however, it is generally best to find a way to shield yourself from the radiation and this means placing material in between you and the radiation source. All material absorbs some radiation, but it is best to use dense materials because they tend to be more effective. How much radiation is absorbed by a material is measured by its “Halving Thickness”, or the thickness of that material to reduce gamma radiation by a factor of 2. If a material can stop a gamma ray, it can generally stop everything else. An effective fallout shelter using 1 m of dirt accounts for ten halving thicknesses, decreasing the effective radiation fluence by a factor of ~1000.

I hope that this is useful to people who are interested in learning a bit more about radiation and radioactivity. I believe that if people know its effects and how one can treat it properly and protect one’s self, that it tends to alleviate unnecessary fear. The world will not end if the Japanese plants were to go into meltdown. A meltdown would imply significant environmental impacts, and it may also mean that there would be a portion of Japan that will be unlivable. People living outside of Japan are not likely to be significantly affected, except in the absolute worst case scenario. Good luck to everyone working to prevent a meltdown, and please be safe.

The Earthquake and Tsunami

The magnitude 8.9-9.0 Sendai earthquake was one of a handful of such powerful megathrust earthquakes to occur in recorded history. Its epicenter was 130 km (81mi) off the east coast of Miyagi Prefecture and it took place at a depth of 24.4 km (15.2 mi). The huge earthquake shook buildings on land while sending a 6.9-10 m (23-33 ft) tsunami toward the northeastern coast of Japan. It swept inland as far as 10 km (6 mi), causing immense destruction to the area, which can be see through satellite photos from the New York Times.

British Channel 4 Footage from the tsunami in Japan (Channel 4 News, via Real News)

The waves excavated homes and factories and have dealt a second blow as two nuclear power plants were so heavily damaged by the earthquake that they may be in partial meltdown. More than 10,000 people are dead, hundreds of thousands are homeless, 4.4 million have been left without electricity and 1.4 million do not have water. If you would like to help, click here for a list of organizations that are assisting with the recovery efforts.

Nuclear Power

Fission of Uranium 235 (theblogprof)

All current nuclear power plants are fission plants, involving the splitting of atomic nuclei. In most powerplants, this occurs when a neutron collides with a Uranium-235 (235U) nucleus and is absorbed by it. The 235U was relatively stable, but 236U is unstable and it will break into five pieces, a Krypton-92 (92Kr) nucleus, a Barium-141 (141Ba) nucleus, and three free neutrons. In a bar of Uranium, these free neutrons can collide with other Uranium atoms, which in turn give off more neutrons, and so on. This is what we call a chain reaction.

In addition to the neutrons, heat is given off as well side-reaction chains that generate a few electrons and some radiation. The heat is used to create steam, which drives a turbine that creates electricity. Electrons that escape the reactor core into a surrounding water tank can create a bluish glow, called Cherenkov Radiation, as they pass through water.

Cherenkov radiation creates the blue glow in a water-cooled nuclear fission reactor (WP Clip Art)

Despite the fact that an Uranium is a very heavy element, its nucleus is still rather small compared to the size of the atom itself (including the electron shells). That means that even a heavy rod of Uranium contains mostly empty space at the atomic level. As a result, the free neutrons do not necessarily hit the Uranium nuclei sitting right next door. They can rather travel a good distance through the material before the are absorbed by another nucleus. If the bar of Uranium is too small, then too many neutrons will escape before they can collide with other atoms and in that case, there will be very few nuclear reactions.

This can be remedied by putting a enough of fissile Uranium together to ensure that neutrons will be absorbed by the 235U, but one must be rather careful about it. If too much Uranium is placed together in a small, confined place, there could be a runaway reaction that releases a good deal of all of the energy that is stored in the atomic nuclei in a very short time (read: boom). This video gives a good demonstration of the chain reaction process.

A simulated nuclear reaction using mousetraps and pingpong balls (paulnord, YouTube)

Editor’s note: I once put together a similar demonstration with 1,000 mousetraps. At one point, we reached 500 only to have a ping pong ball go off. Not good. I also remember being a bit gun shy around snapping sounds after that. My fingers were very sore at the end of the setup.

To avoid a runaway reaction, most nuclear power plants use a combination of Uranium and Carbon rods to moderate the reactions rate. The Carbon rods essentially absorb the neutrons before they can reach a Uranium atom. With fewer neutrons reaching the Uranium, the reaction rate slows. If higher rates are required, the power plant simply removes some of the carbon rods to increase the number of neutrons that generate new reactions.

The Fukushima-I (Daiichi) plant runs on a variant of this process, which incorporates Uranium and Plutonium Oxide fuels. The same general principles apply, though the specific isotopes involved in the reactions are somewhat different.

In any case, the heat generated by the reactor core is used to boil water. Each of the plants have variations on this theme, but the general idea is depicted here. Water can be heated to very high temperatures if it is kept under pressure, these plants carry superheated water into a seperate chamber to create steam. As the steam is generated, the formerly superheated water cools, and is recirculated to the reactor core. This has the effect of carrying heat away from the reactor core and regulating the reaction rate (which increases as it heats up, causing more heating). If the temperatures of the reactor were to rise to high, the Uranium rods could melt and create a molten puddle of Uranium at the bottom of the chamber. This is a meltdown and carbon rods would no longer be able to regulate the reactions if a meltdown were to take place. In a sense, there is no “off switch” for a nuclear reactor, especially one that has melted down.

Status of the Power Plants

The events in Japan are taking place quite rapidly, and from what I can see, no one is completely certain regarding whether the plants have melted down.

    Fukushima-I (Daiichi):

Three of six reactors (1,2 and 3) at Daiichi were operating and went into automatic shutdown prior to the tsunami. However, the emergency generators used to cool the plant stopped in unit 1 after the tsunami. Units 2 and 3 were still alright by this point. Temperatures began to rise and steam was vented to release pressure on the containment structure. A hydrogen explosion, caused by a buildup of the gas, occurred and damaged the exterior of the building, though the reactor core containment structure seems alright. Seawater was pumped in to cool the cores.

Fukushima-I before and after the Hydrogen explosion (NHK, via Wikipedia)

By March 13, reactor 3 began having trouble and venting was necessary. The core was not completely covered by water, and there may have been some damage to the core. Nearly 200,000 people were evacuated from the area, and 22 residents have shown signs of radiation sickness. On March 14, the Unit 3 building was destroyed by a hydrogen explosion.

    Fukushima-II (Daini):

All four units of this plant were shut down automatically, but Units 1,2 and 4 were damaged by the tsunami and an evacuation was ordered due to possible radioactive contamination. By March 12, the temperature of the reactors had reached 100oC. No pressure release has yet occurred, however. Residence have been evacuated to a distance of 20 km from the plant.

    Onagawa:

A fire began in the turbine section of the plant after the earthquake. On March 13, radiation levels reached 21μSv/hour, causing a state of emergency to be declared – the International Atomic Energy Agency’s lowest emergency level. After a few minutes, the radiation levels dropped by half and have now returned to background levels.

Japanese authorities believe that the elevated radiation levels at Onagawa were due to the Fukushima I (some 60 km away) accident rather than from Onagawa itself. The radiation levels at Onagawa were not incredibly high, but their increase was cause for alarm. It is not known, however, how high a dose of radiation that the 22 people near Fukushima I had received. Only time will tell. 1,500 others are being tested for radiation exposure as a precaution.

So far, radiation levels are not expected to rise very much in Alaska and Hawaii.

Officials are saying that there is a 70% chance of a magnitude 7 aftershock by Monday. The situation is already a long way from being finished. A large earthquake could make things worse. At the moment, there are still reactors threatening to require venting. Venting is fairly safe, provided that the fuel rods are intact, however it seems there has been at least one partial meltdown. That means that vented gas may become more radioactive as time goes on. In addition, the sea water that is being used in desperation to keep the reactors cool will eventually corrode the metal containment chamber. The stakes are incredibly high – whether a significant fraction of the northern part of the densely populated country will be inhabitable.

Hopefully the earthquake will not arrive. The last thing anyone needs is another challenge at the moment. Good luck to everyone involved in bringing the reactors under control. Stay safe.

Here is that link again if you would like to help out.

I have found a few websites that you can donate to if you would like to help out with the situation in Japan. Here is a list of a few organizations that are currently involved with the efforts to assist people who have been affected by the earthquakes and tsunami from this weekend.

Tzu Chi: A Buddhist volunteer organization with 10 million volunteers in 50 countries (about 120,000 in the U.S.) and only a small support staff. All of your donations go to victims without proselytization.

Doctors Without Borders: A humanitarian organization in which doctors provide impartial medical assistance in places stricken by war or natural disasters.

The Red Cross: A famous emergency response organization. It provides neutral humanitarian care to victims of wars and natural disasters.

Global Giving: An organization designed to help people give toward charities they care about to make positive change in the world.

More info can also be found at the Huffington Post.

Republican Congressman Peter King (Manuel Balce Ceneta, AP)

Cracks in the Façade

Since President George W. Bush (not Congress!) declared America’s Global War on Terror during the tragic fall of 2001, its armed forces have been engaged in conflicts around the world. American engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan have received the lion’s share of the press coverage, owing as much to the intensity of the action as well as to the falsity of the claims that led to the Iraqi action, though the U.S. is still active in both countries, along with Yemen and now Pakistan. Support for all of these wars has been spurred by the meme: The threat of violent Islam.

Louie Gohmert (R-TX) even decried terror babies that were being born and bred to infiltrate the United States. That is right, terrorists are born that way even if gays are not! Regardless of the “financial advantage that terrorists gain” Gohmert claims by living in the United States, do we not have confidence that terrorists might come to peace with their new standard of living?

Louie Gohmert and Anderson Cooper on 'terror babies'

We are told that everything that one need concern themselves about the wars are encapsulated in that phrase. The threat of violent Islam. It tells us Islam is violent by nature. We are threatened by it. In our fear, we react (ironically, violently) in order to protect ourselves – because they do not know peace. Presidents Bush and Obama both promised to attack this extremism wherever it can be found, lest the threat ever reach our shores.

But worldwide conflicts require military equipment and the fighting have been incredibly lucrative for American defense contractors. The profit-driven media conglomerates that derive their revenue by selling ad spots for these defense companies have found a honey pot in hard times. Hence there should be no surprise that the main stream media have been complicit in beginning wars under false pretenses as well as promoting the meme: The threat of violent Islam. “They hate us because of who we are!” “They want to destroy America!” They must be stopped!

The attacks on reason and the coercions are broadly based. All while we hear the slogans and calls for action on TV, salon monkeys such as David Brooks – a politically active commentator for the New York Times – goes on the writers circuit touting his book while encouraging people to make spontaneous and emotionally charged decisions, as if he were working in a vacuum.

Yet the spreading peaceful demonstrations against dictatorships that had been supported by the American military industrial complex (remember Made in the U.S.A. in Tahrir Square?) has placed a crimp in both the popularity in supporting puppet dictators as well as a realization that there is another route to peace: Peace itself. Peace, solidarity and human rights are now the considerations of Americans when they look to the Middle East as the labor and democracy movements there inspire the growing labor and democracy movement at home. Many Americans no longer see Islam as violent by nature, but they do see Muslims, Christians and Secular Arabs working together in order to ensure a better life for themselves. They are beginning to realize that democratically-elected leaders who prop up dictators have no respect for the democracy that they protect.

The defense industry and the media have an advertising problem because people are now becoming aware of the misinformation that they have spread for the sake of corporate profits and lowering wages at home. Most of all, when Americans look to the Middle East, they are increasingly seeing themselves.

As a result, people who see an alternative have been flocking away from the mainstream media and toward NPR and PBS, whose coverage of international affairs has been very good in stark contrast to the corporate media. Listeners to NPR routinely rank higher than Fox, CNN and Network news in terms of their knowledge about current events. And the situation is even more stark in radio: Right wing radio is being eviscerated at a time when NPR ratings are on the rise. People can now tell the difference between information and propaganda.

That NPR, a non-profit organization, is now directly competing with profit-driven organizations like Fox and CNN makes NPR very dangerous indeed. It means that the profit-driven news model, already teetering on collapse, faces new pressures from an organization that does not need to pay dividends to stockholders. For the political class, the quality of NPR’s reporting it means that listeners are increasingly hearing dissenting points of view and that makes them less likely to listen to the propaganda – including the propaganda that capitalism is the best economic model always. (Just ignore that NPR is a non-profit. Look over here! A muslim radical! And he is a SOCIALIST!) People will be less likely to support wars in distant places, now understanding the true costs involved. That will affect profit margins in defense, the news and politics alike.

In the world of American politics as infected with aggressive mendacity as it is, whither the news organization at the head of the class?

Coordinated attack?

Last Thursday was yet another highly ironic day in Washington D.C. Two days after the major media widely promoted the sting operation on NPR by James O’Keefe that supposedly led to NPR CEO Vivian Schiller and executive Ron Schiller (no relation) to step down. NPR denies it, though many corporate news organizations argued it was because of their biased views of the Tea Party being a racist and xenophobic organization, Tea Party Republican Congressman Peter King opened his hearings on Muslim Extremism in the United States.

The recent activity revolving around Islam seems to be a coordinated distract, divide and confuse operation by the right. It would be a way to divide the NPR audience, to place the attention of the news cycle on militant Islam once again, to distract from the pro-democracy movements and to cause people to think emotionally again – going against the grain of NPR programming.

The plan to hold hearings on Muslim extremists had been known long in advance. Here is a link to a Talking Points Memo article regarding the hearings, dated 17 December, 2011. There would have been plenty of time for James O’Keefe to coordinate the February 22nd meeting with Ron Schiller of NPR, and there would have been time to release the hidden video tape prior to the hearings on March 9th – just in time to distract attention from Peter King’s hearings, which in addition to a more complete conversation regarding violent extremism in the U.S. as a whole, had already received well-balanced treatment by NPR in January.

The January NPR piece discussed violent extremism in its widest sense, primarily in the wake of Gabriel Giffords shooting earlier that month. In addition to discussing radical Islam, its conversation included comments about right-wing extremists such as Timothy McVeigh and other individuals such as Ted Kaczynski and Jared Loughner. The piece brought in voices as various as the heads of the Tea Party Express and the Southern Poverty Law Center, but this was not the type of attention that Peter King was seeking for his high-profile hearings.

The Players

Last year, Andrew Breitbart attacked the US Department of Agriculture for its handling of legal settlements for African American farmers who have faced discrimination from the USDA. Breitbart alleged fraud and discrimination against whites in claims that continued from an earlier scandal during the case of Shirley Sherrod during the spring of 2010. Sherrod has since sued Breitbart for defamation of the case, and she is certain to win it due to the fact that Andrew Breitbart publicized a snippet of her comments in the exact opposite context in which they were intended. (Here is the Breitbart video. And here is the whole thing.) The entire issue had been reported heavily by NPR.

Andrew Breitbart is the same person who brought James O’Keefe to fame in the now infamous case where O’Keefe dressed as a (rather unconvincing) pimp and spliced video together to falsely claim that the community action group Acorn was supporting prostitution for public funds. Acorn won a lawsuit over defamation, but still lost public funding due to the wild political connotations that were now associated with its reputation. Breitbart was instrumental in having the segment aired on Fox and Friends.

Since that time, O’Keefe’s other “journalistic” adventures include trying to lure CNN’s Abbie Boudreau into a “den of sin”. He had planned to essentially sexually harass her while she was supposed to interview him in an effort to discredit CNN, but she found out and exposed the plot.

In another incident, O’Keefe was arrested for infiltrating Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu’s office in New Orleans to wiretap her office – a felony. O’Keefe mentioned that he was trying to expose Landrieu’s support for the health care reform bill. O’Keefe plead guilty but was only sentenced to 75 hours of community service and $1,500 in fines.

As early as October, 2010, Representative King had called to defund NPR. On the 22nd of that month, Politico quoted him after NPR’s firing of Juan Williams over his racist statement regarding how he felt nervous when Muslims boarded his flights:

“NPR has disgraced itself by caving into CAIR [Council on American-Islamic Relations] and by firing Juan Williams for exercising his right of free speech. This is political correctness carried to its extreme form. Congress should move to defund NPR because of its indefensible bias.”

This led to a row between Fox News and NPR regarding the supposedly “politically-motivated” firing of a conservative journalist. Actually, Juan Williams was fired for his bigoted comments on the O’Reilly Factor. With Fox losing viewership to NPR, there could be a concern that Fox was merely working with leftovers from NPR. So what does one do? What Fox was designed to do: Make relentlessly repeated petty political attacks until people begin to memorize the slogans. In fact, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. is giving millions of dollars to Fox News to support its war on NPR. And most ironically of all, Fox News is complaining about bias!

It has not worked – NPR is still growing – and Peter King is a very frequent guest on Fox News – especially in segments regarding race. Peter King also receives a good deal of political contributions from defense contractors, communications companies and lobbying groups – Koch Industries, too, like any good Tea Partier.

King rather infamously took part in a television show just prior to the hearings. The show was produced for a group called Act! for America, a conservative group that is against the spread of radical Islam. The tactics of this group, however, leave much to be desired. In her book, Because They Hate: A Survivor of Islamic Terror Warns America, founder Brigitte Gabriel claims that she says “what many in America are thinking but afraid to say out loud, for fear of being labeled a racist, bigot, Islamophobic, or intolerant.” Yet Representative King decided to participate in a rather one-sided show for the group anyway. See for yourself:

The ACT for America Show (Act! for America, via Youtube)

Remember, those were Muslim rockets! This group clearly has an axe to grind, yet Peter King resisted complaints that suggested that he was enacting the hearings for political gamesmanship and he refused to discuss the notion of violent extremism on the whole.

Act! for America has cooperated with the Chino Tea Party (the branch of the Tea Party based in Chino, CA) to support demonstrations against Muslims and Muslim groups. A screenshot of an announcement for a February Act! America/Tea Party demonstration against a fundraising event for the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA) is shown here:

Chino Tea Party/Act! America Announcement of anti-muslim protest (Chino Tea Party)

Given the tone of the rhetoric in such an announcement, one may be curious about the nature of that protest. Here is video of the protest:

Chino Tea Party/Act! America anti-muslim protest, Yorba Linda, CA, 2/13/2011 (George M. Collins, via RealityDictates on YouTube)

The cheers after the death threats in the above video are typically reserved in mainstream media for “Islamic militants”, though you clearly heard that from caucasian citizens of Orange County, CA. The demonstrated ignorance with the assumption of a difference between “God” and “Allah” was an added bonus around 4:17. Why would Peter King associate himself with this group just prior to holding hearings in which to inform himself on the issue of violent extremism?

The Hearings

There is also irony that Peter King would hold a hearing on violent extremism to say the least. As it happens, Representative King has a long history of support for another violent and extreme group, the Irish Republican Army. At one point in 1985, he told a pro-I.R.A. rally:

“If civilians are killed in an attack on a military installation, it is certainly regrettable, but I will not morally blame the I.R.A. for it.”

Representative King’s hearings did not include the vast majority of the thousand or so violent or hate-driven groups that are organized around the country. Still, they led to an interesting view both into the mindset of the Congressman and his influence on people around him. Here are King’s opening statements:

Rep. King opening comments to Homeland Security Committee Hearing on radical Islam (House Committee on Homeland Security, via YouTube)

Not only is radical Islam a problem, but so too are the forces of political correctness! But Neo-nazis are apparently not a problem for Rep. King.

“There is no equivalency of threat between al Qaeda and Neo-Nazis, environmental extremists, or other isolated mad men. Only al-Qaeda and Islamist affiliates in this country are a part of an international threat to our nation.”

With a start like that, how did the hearings go? As Talking Points Memo states it: Peter King Hearing Focuses On Whether Peter King Hearing Was A Good Idea. Rep. Charlie Dingell (D-MI) cautioned against the McCarthyite atmosphere around the hearings. But some of the most emphatic testimony from the hearings was from Representative Keith Ellison (D-MN), the lone Muslim in Congress, shown here.

Rep. Ellison comments to Homeland Security Committee Hearing on radical Islam (House C-Span 3, via YouTube)

One interesting comment by Ellison: The best protection against violent extremism is social and economic inclusion. That is not the type of statement that supports the militarization of the planet.

But what of the threat of violent Islam? It is certainly true there are violent Islamic extremists. One, supported by the U.S. since the end of the Bush Administration, is currently attacking his own citizens in Libya. They had the temerity to stand up and demand democracy. Another extremist is a dictator in Yemen, who is currently supported by the U.S. military as it enacts drone strikes on Al Qaeda cells in that country – acts that have led to the uprising for democracy that are taking place there. Osama bin Laden is still at large, likely in the mountains of western Pakistan, and he himself was supported by the U.S. while he and the Taliban were part of the Mujahadeen during the war between the Soviet Union and Afghanistan. Everywhere that one finds violent Islamic organizations, one finds dealings the U.S. military and the dictator de jour who is supported to keep the oil spigots running. Perhaps we should listen to Keith Ellison. Unfortunately, each of the major cable news networks, Fox New, MSNBC and CNN, showed Rep. King’s statements, but they cut away before the Democrats Bennie Thompson and Keith Ellison spoke! There is a reason why the Keith Ellison clip above was from C-Span 3.

Schiller’s comments

Let us consider who is right in the argument regarding NPR. Here is what Schiller said:

Ron Schiller discusses the Tea Party with a fake muslim group (AP, via Youtube)

While it might be disconcerting to hear a news executive give his own personal opinions on politics, what part of what he said was wrong? It would be incorrect to claim that all Tea Partiers are racist and that all of them are fundamentalist Christians, but Schiller does not specifically make that claim. It is certainly true that the Tea Party is connected to racist groups. That case has been made in this article, and in addition, a white supremacist played an important role in writing the Arizona immigration law last year. Which group is currently supporting elimination of restrictions on firearms? Which one is enacting anti-immigration laws all over the country? It is the Tea Party in each case. NPR should not have repudiated Schiller’s statements.

As for the liberal bias of NPR, here is a piece that it aired regarding the entire James O’Keefe affair. Listen to it and ask the question, “Would Fox News ever be so complete and self-critical in any of the stories it airs?”

NPR also refused the false $5 million donation prior to the release of the O’Keefe video.

Postscript

Despite all of the posturing over radical Muslims, the fact remains that the dominant form of extremism in the United States is right-wing extremism. One case of right-wing extremism came to light Friday when Francis “Schaeffer” Cox and four accomplices, all “sovereign citizens” who believe they are subject to no governmental authority, were arrested for plotting to kill a federal judge and a number of Alaska State Troopers.

UPDATE

The Atlantic is now reporting that NPR has released a couple of internal emails. They show that NPR was not duped by the fake muslim organization and they also demonstrate strict adherence to the law when it regards donations. In short, James O’Keefe’s dishonesty managed to show just how great a public organization NPR truly is. On the other hand, aren’t there laws against entrapment?

Wisconsin Protests

Protests in Madison continued through the weekend. 30-50,000 people showed up Saturday to protest against Governor Walker’s attacks on working families. Mail carriers had their day on Sunday. But the Tea Party had a pro-Walker rally on Sunday as well at Alliant Energy Center. Despite having access to the Kochs’ billions, they could only muster 600 people to support Scott Walker. A new poll came out, albeit with a very small sample (603 respondents, corresponding to errors greater than +/- 4%), showing very negative reactions to Governor Walker, a strong majority against stripping unions of collective bargaining rights, and 72% of Wisconsinites want to solve the Walker-created budgetary problems by raising taxes on people earning more than $150,000 per year. HUGE protests are expected across the nation next Saturday, with more events also planned throughout the week. And the bottom may be dropping out on Governor Walker as thousands of dairy farmers plan to drive their tractors to the Capitol to show support for unions next Saturday. In Wisconsin, when dairy farmers protest Republicans, it generally means the end of the careers of those Republicans. Some are predicting that the protests in Madison are just the beginning, as the debate to cut Social Security begins in Washington.

Other Tea Party Fun

In Ohio, the Tea Party legislature is passing tougher anti-union legislation than the bill in Madison. It makes it a criminal offense for workers to go on strike. Some shenanigans were required in order to get the bill through committee, however. When a committee was deadlocked on the proposal with even some Republicans dissenting, the Republican Senate Majority Leader fired two Republican Senators from their committee assignments so that the bill could reach the floor. Still, even some Republicans are calling the bill unconstitutional and it likely violates existing labor laws. Unfortunately Ohio Dems can not prevent a quorum in the Republican-filled Ohio legislature. This week has seen the largest protests to date in Columbus.

Indiana Democratic House Members are still in Illinois, preventing a vote on anti-union legislation there. As protests in Indiana continue, Indiana’s newly elected Republican Secretary of State Charlie White is probably going to jail. He has ben indicted on three counts of felony voter fraud for registering to vote in places where he did not live. One would think that a State Secretary of State, who is in charge of elections within the state, would understand the rules here – that is unless that was the reason for his choice to run. Keep in mind that White has supported the voter ID requirement in Indiana, ostensibly to prevent people from voting illegally as he has done. There are a lot more interesting details in this article
from the Brad Blog.

The State Legislature of Arizona has passed an unconstitutional bill to nullify federal laws. Laws of this sort were the same type that precipitated the Civil War, when southern states attempted to nullify federal regulation of slavery. This comes on the heels of a vote by the Arizona Legislature to allow people to carry guns to public events, because, you know, guns at public events are a fantastic idea and it is not as if one of their own members of Congress was shot in the head by a lunatic carrying a gun or anything just two months ago. Oh, as it happens, Jared Loughner has just been hit with 49 additional criminal counts for his firing spree on a crowd at a Giffords event in January.

The Tea Party-led Montana State Legislature is still at it. Even Republicans are now claiming that the Tea Party is leading to the the Republicans to become such a national laughingstock that they are driving away young GOP voters. In addition to working to allow guns in schools, they are trying to, as MT Cowgirl puts it, “legislate the laws of nature” to deny climate change, eliminate stem cell research, to claim the earth is between 4,000 and 6,000 years old, and to criminalize homosexuality.

Florida Tea Party Governor Rick Scott may be subject to a criminal investigation over his firing of the state nursing home long-term care obmudsman. It is not generally considered a smart move to anger the nursing homes in the state with the nation’s most geriatric population.

Wikileaks

Julian Assange is appealing the expected British court ruling that he should be extradited to Sweden. His organization WikiLeaks has already uncovered a huge amount of corruption from countries accross the world. It was revelations of the excesses of the family of the Tunisian dictator that have led to pro-democracy rallies across Africa and Asia. Meanwhile, Bradley Manning, who the military claims gave WikiLeaks documents that it later published, is in detention under cruel and unusual conditions – including being kept in his cell naked, being refused sleep, etc. Does this sound familiar?

Corruption on the Supreme Court

Calls are coming out for the removal of Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Antonin Scalia for illegally participating in political fundraising, tax evasion and refusing to make public conflicts of interest.

War Room (Clay Bennett, Chattanooga Times Free Press)

This article is Part III in a series of articles regarding government spending. To read the other related pieces, go to my U.S. Federal Debt: Sources and Solutions page.

The Gripes and Wrath

Of all of the portions of the longstanding American dissonance over the U.S. Federal Budget, the king of all disagreements lies in taxation. It should not be a surprise then to understand that it is in taxation where the information regarding the Federal Budget is the most suspect due to all of the myriad political influences involved.

During the 2010 election cycle, the airwaves were filled with Tea Partiers railing against government spending and the need for lower taxes. We often heard of corporate taxes being too high and how they should be lowered. We heard of the economic benefits of reducing taxes. The Tea Party floated on a crimson tide of red ink into Washington D.C. and is now trying to drive the Republican agenda even further toward tax decreases, regardless of what happens with federal spending.

What is the current status of taxes in the United States? Who pays taxes in the U.S.? How do various taxes affect the population and job growth? We will investigate each of these questions in this article. These are rarely addressed in the news, despite the fact that the current budget battles are on the TV all of the time. We will address some of the political motivations of the Media that prevent them from accurately reporting issues of federal finance in a later article.

Tax Rates: The U.S. vs. the World

Considering the invective that can be overheard at any Tea Party rally, one would think that the people in the crowd are being taxed within an inch of their lives. The mere mention of the word ‘tax’ results in a bitter, emotional spew of slogans and booing – a visceral, angry reaction that is fueled by the rhetoric of Republican political candidates. It is one version of their five-minute hate. But is it realistic?

Figure 1 shows the 2006 rate of taxation in the U.S. relative to the world. This includes the total federal, state and local taxes or their equivalents in each case.

Fig. 1: Total Tax Burden by Country (OECD, via Get Rich Slowly)

As you can see, the total tax rate is much lower than that of most other developed countries, and it is roughly half that of nations like Denmark and Sweden.

“Ah, that’s SOCIALISM!”shouts the Tea Partier. Yes, Denmark and Sweden do have socialist economies. But given that information, we should at least see whether there is a benefit. Below are lists of the top 10 nations in terms of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Other lists can be found as well on Wikipedia.

Rank IMF (2010) GDP per capita ($)
1. Luxembourg 104,390
2. Norway 84,543
3. Qatar 74,422
4. Switzerland 67,074
5. Denmark 55,113
6. Australia 54,869
7. Sweden 47,667
8. United Arab Emirates 47,406
9. United States 47,132
10. Netherlands 46,418

Excepting Qatar and the United Arab Emirates which do not have income taxes due to the fact that those nations are run on revenues from their oil reserves, each of the countries with a higher GDP per capita has higher taxes than the United States.

In addition, as we will find, considering the higher tax rates, each of those countries has a lower Gini Coefficient, a measure of income inequality. World Gini Coeffficients are found in Figure 2.

Fig. 2: Income disparity (dark red =worst, dark blue = best) (Wikipedia)

Economies with higher Gini Coefficients can face instability and corruption in government as lower classes tend to be crowded out of the political process by wealthy and powerful individuals. Considering that the Gini Coefficient of the United States is actually worse than that of nations like Egypt, there should be no surprises that labor demonstrations are taking place in America.

The Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) index is a measure of the relative purchasing power of currencies around the world. This index is dependent on the development in an economy, the strength of the currency and also on the wages of the people. Nations with a higher Purchasing Power Parity are able to more easily afford a similar, pre-described “basket” of everyday goods (food, clothing, etc.) and services in countries with lower PPP indices. In essence, the PPP is one measure of the wealth of a country in slightly different way than GDP per capita. The GDP per capita describes how much money someone earns on average in a country where the PPP indicates how much one could do with that money.

Remember those countries whose citizens earn more than Americans? All of them – and even the Netherlands, which also has far higher tax rates than the U.S. – have higher PPP than the U.S. This can be seen in Figure 3. It essentially means that when someone travels from Norway to the U.S., they consider prices to be cheap in the way Americans find prices to be lower in Mexico.

Fig. 3: 2003 Adjusted Purchasing Power Parity (Wikipedia)

There are several great reasons for this. Well, taxes actually raise incomes. Progressive radio host Thom Hartmann explains:

When I was in Denmark in 2008 doing my radio show for a week from the Danish Radio studios and interviewing many of that nation’s leading politicians, economists, energy experts, and newspaper publishers, one of my guests made a comment that dropped the scales from my eyes.

We’d been discussing taxes on the air and the fact that Denmark has an average 52 percent income-tax rate. I asked him why people didn’t revolt at such high taxes, and he smiled and pointed out to me that the average Dane is very well paid, with a minimum wage that equals roughly $18 per hour. Moreover, what Danes get for their taxes (that we don’t) is a free college education and free health care, not to mention four weeks of paid vacation each year and notoriety as the happiest nation on earth, according to a major study done by the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom.

But it was once we were off the air that he made the comment that I found so enlightening.

“You Americans are such suckers,” he said. “You think that the rules for taxes that apply to rich people also apply to working people, but they don’t. When working peoples’ taxes go up, their pay goes up. When their taxes go down, their pay goes down. It may take a year or two or three to all even out, but it always works this way—look at any country in Europe. And that rule on taxes is the opposite of how it works for rich people!”

My Danish guest was right. So before we get into the larger consequences of tax increases or tax cuts for the nation’s economic health, let’s parse this business about what tax increases or cuts mean for the rich and for the not-so-rich.

Why is this so? It is a matter of an economic phenomenon called tax incidence that essentially describes how the laws of supply and demand work with taxes on wages. If a government introduces a tax on worker salaries, it happens that those workers will need a little more money in order to be able to purchase food and supplies necessary for daily life. In the very short term this can be a slight problem, though after about a year it means that a number of workers who are taking new jobs would have negotiated higher wages than they would have without the tax increase. The increased wages they receive mean a higher demand for jobs, and that increases wages even more. When all is said and done after a year or two, wages more than make up the amount of money lost to the tax increase!

Companies in the United States understand this quite well – why else do you think that the “business-friendly” party, the Republicans continually asks for tax cuts? Not only does this help Republicans pretend they are on the side of workers, but it is one way of forcing labor prices lower for the wealthy while being able to retain more money for themselves.

But taxes are not fun to pay, you say. Well, then one would expect that people who live in countries with high tax burdens would be unhappy. Yet in 2011, Forbes reported a survey conducted by the Legatum Institute in which they asked citizens around the world about their happiness and standards of living and compiled these into a “Prosperity Index”. Their results were interesting. The United States fared alright at #10. But it was beaten by strong social democracies that each have higher taxes! Here is the top ten, with total tax rates listed just for fun:

Rank Legatum Prosperity Index Rank (2011) Total Tax Rate (%)
1. Norway 43
2. Denmark 49
3. Finland 42
4. Australia 31
5. New Zealand 38
6. Sweden 49
7. Canada 32
8. Switzerland 30
9. Netherlands 39
10. United States 28

Sure, the United States did alright, but the odds are very low that every country ranked higher than the U.S. would have higher taxes by coincidence. In fact the U.S. is ranked more highly than it otherwise would be due to the fact that it holds the world’s reserve currency, which offers the U.S. a extra wealth that other countries do not have access to.

A Tea Party person might interject here once again: But the U.S. has FREEDOM! Let us take a look at that idea a little bit more carefully. What does freedom mean? Of course it can mean things like freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, but it can also mean upward mobility. After all, failing other freedoms, being wealthy can often result in a very different perception of a person by the government. How likely is it for a person in the lower classes to rise up to the higher classes? Two Social scientists, Dorling & Henning have done a study on the relative (im)mobility of citizens in a variety of nations, especially the U.S. and other countries that are listed in the lists above. Their results are in Figure 4, where it can be seen that

Fig. 4: Upward immobility (higher numbers = lower mobility) (Views of the World)

the countries that pay higher taxes all have greater ease in moving from the lower classes to the higher ones in economic status and this may be correlated with income disparity. The U.S. does shine here in terms of educational mobility, though this amazing feature of American society is currently under attack.

At this point, the recalcitrant Tea Partier mutters, “Well, you still have not talked very much about taxation.” This is largely true, though so far we have discussed some of the possible results of taxation when it is done right. We will discuss taxation itself and some more of the side-effects in the next section, in which we specifically look at the history of taxation in the United States.

Taxes in the American Economy

Another farce about taxes, yet it is a commonly held belief that taxes in the United States are high right now even when compared to historical rates. In a recent article, Richard Wolff shows a plot that displays the historical income tax rates in the highest and lowest tax brackets in the U.S. (Figure 5).

Fig. 5: Highest and lowest bracket income tax rates in the U.S. (Richard Wolff)

Taxes on the wealthy had been at recent lows just prior to the Great Depression, but one of the policies that the Roosevelt Administration pursued was to raise income taxes on the wealthiest Americans to 90%. “How draconian!” you may say, “How could he do that?” Roosevelt was quite wealthy himself but his relationship with organized money was quite different from that of President Obama’s. For example, on the eve of the 1936 election FDR gave a speech at Madison Square Gardens. Here is a quote:

For twelve years this Nation was afflicted with hear-nothing, see-nothing, do-nothing Government. The Nation looked to Government but the Government looked away. Nine mocking years with the golden calf and three long years of the scourge! Nine crazy years at the ticker and three long years in the breadlines! Nine mad years of mirage and three long years of despair! Powerful influences strive today to restore that kind of government with its doctrine that that Government is best which is most indifferent.

For nearly four years you have had an Administration which instead of twirling its thumbs has rolled up its sleeves. We will keep our sleeves rolled up.

We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace—business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering.

They had begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob.

Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred.

I should like to have it said of my first Administration that in it the forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their match. I should like to have it said of my second Administration that in it these forces met their master.

(This speech is truly worth a listen as the mere words do not quite carry FDR’s oratory. He knew how to give a speech. Here is the link once again.)

Can you imagine President Obama saying something similar? During the week before an election?!! He had the perfect opportunity to do so when he was elected. Instead, he hired Timothy Geithner, one of the people who created the mess as his Secretary of Treasury and kept Ben Bernanke on at the Federal Reserve. The Tea Party may not believe so, but Obama is owned by Wall Street. Goldman-Sachs was one of his largest benefactors during his election.

The 90% tax rates on the wealthy by FDR were intended in part to break the political power of the most wealthy individuals in the country, whose unregulated financial speculation resulted in the Great Depression. (Sound familiar?) In part, the taxes were high in order to fund programs like Social Security and, yes, to redistribute wealth.

But wait a second! Redistributing wealth is bad for the economy, right? Well, let’s take a look. Figure 6 shows annual growth in U.S. GDP since 1929.

Fig. 6: Annual U.S. GDP growth rate, 1929-2009 (Wikipedia)

GDP growth rates in the United states were far higher during the times when the top income tax rates were REALLY high than they are today. In fact, the growth rates tend to be highest when top income tax rates are also highest. This is primarily due to two things.

First, the high tax rate created the Middle Class. With many more people able to purchase products that American companies produced, the economy boomed during the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s.

Second, it turns out that productivity increases during times when the top tax rate is highest. Higher taxes mean higher federal spending and higher spending boosts the economy.

Of course there is that caveat that one can not allow the federal debt to go too high, otherwise it is possible to create stagflation as I mentioned in Part II. Considering this, I was excited to see the correlation between National Debt and the income tax rate that Greg Hollingsworth put on his blog, shown in Figure 7.

Fig. 7: Income Tax Rates and National Debt (CBO data, via Greg Hollingsworth)

Did you notice how as the top income tax rate drops, the U.S. Federal Debt skyrockets? Well, the top tax rate on the wealthy seems rather high, but recall that wealthy people only earn a portion of their money in the form of income. They also earn a lot of money through capital gains. Those taxes are rather low, too. But as you can see lowering taxes has had a profound effect on the American economy. Not only is it running less efficiently than it once had, but the national debt is going through the roof, too.

There is also a growing problem of the income disparity that we mentioned earlier. One problem with having a billionaire is that the billionaire does not invest all of his or her money into the economy. Rather, there is always a sizable portion of those assets that is rather illiquid, meaning that it does not circulate through the economy. This effectively reduces the money supply for everyone else and a BILLION is a very large number, so it represents a rather large loss of capital in the economy. The more billionaires, the greater this problem becomes and this is a motivating factor for the high tax rates on the highest income brackets. The wealthy are, after all, most able to afford the taxes and they have certainly benefitted from having been born and raised in the American economy, so it is a way of paying back to society.

Still, the income disparity is continually growing. In fact, thanks to tax loopholes that are available to the wealthy (but not the Middle Class), the world’s third richest man, Warren Buffet, famously complained that he pays a lower tax rate than his middle-class secretary. He has class, so he asked the Bush Administration and the Obama Administration after that to raise his taxes. He even argued that it would be good for the economy. He is still waiting for that to happen. In fact, the disparity in incomes in the U.S. is at its greatest size ever – bigger than the disparity at the beginning of the Great Depression, as is seen in Figure 8.

Fig. 8: Share of pre-tax household income received by the top 1%, 0.1% and 0.01% incomes, 1917-2005 (Wikipedia)

Right now 1% of the population earns more than 20% of all of the income in the country. Much of that money sits idle when it could be re-invested into the economy.

Figure 9 shows just how bad the situation is. The three bars in the plot show the Real, Estimated and Ideal fractions of income held by each quintile of the population according to a survey of the U.S. population by Michael Norton of Harvard Business School.

Fig. 9: U.S. Income Distribution: Real, Estimated and Ideal (The Atlantic)

The results show that the actual income disparity is far worse than the perceived one, and very very far from the ideal held by the average American. In fact the American ideal has the top 20% of income earners only earning 30% of income! That is even more socialist than Denmark!!

People are beginning to realize this and they are beginning to wake up out of the hypnotized slumber they have felt since Ronald Reagan and they are getting angry about this. Especially when they take a look at the relative growth rates of each income bracket over time (Figure 10) But there is one more thing that REALLY makes people mad.

Fig. 10: Growth in US Wages by Tax Bracket (Discover Magazine)

Something is still missing, though… Hmm…

Corporate Taxes

…and that missing thing is the corporations. Now I know what a Tea Partier would say: “We can’t have high corporate taxes because companies will just move away.” Regulations could prevent that, and corporations should pay their share because they use and abuse our natural resources and national infrastructure all of the time.

If you were to ask the Heritage Foundation, they would show you this diagram (Figure 11):

Fig. 11: Corporate Tax Rates in OECD Countries (Heritage Foundation)

Oh no! America’s corporate tax rates are among the highest in the world! America is doomed!! All the companies will move away!

Not so much… Those are the official tax rates, not the actual ones. There are lots of tax loopholes for companies. Rachel Maddow did a great piece in October, 2010 in which she mentioned that GE, Bank of America and Citigroup (the latter two playing a significant role in starting the Great Recession) paid $0 in corporate taxes. Yes, companies that earn billions of dollars per year pay less than you do in taxes and that is closer to the rule than the exception, though most small businesses do not share in those benefits. And yet, the Republicans keep asking for tax breaks for the rich and for corporations – out of fear that tax loopholes might be closed. It is possible for them to make the argument for lower taxes because the current tax rate is ostensibly so high. That is why the difference between the official tax rate has not been lowered so that it reflects reality.

There is more.

The pre-New York Times FiveThirtyEight blog posted an entry with a plot, Figure 12, that is the coup de grace.

Fig. 12: Taxes as share of GDP by type, 1935-2014 (Tax Policy Center, via FiveThirtyEight)

Look at Figure 12. Look at the Corporate Tax Rate. Look at the Social Security Income & Retirement Tax Rate. The reason that corporations now pay very little in actual taxes now is that since the time of Eisenhower, the decrease in the corporate tax rate has been funded by the increase in taxes on entitlements as a direct result of Republican federal policy.

Corporations extract resources that are owned by the public. They make a profit for themselves from those resources and they do not repay the public. That is where tax policies are today. So when you see that the budget deficit has swelled and that the middle class is doing poorly, it is a direct result in the drop in high-income taxes and corporate taxes. The effect is so profound that wealthy industrialists like the Koch brothers will save money by spending hundreds of millions of dollars to corrupt the political process so that they can buy the policies that they would like. They get a free ride with billions of dollars in the bank, but you get to pay for their exploits with middle class wages. Isn’t it about time that we had a discussion with our Tea Party friends? I thought so.

References and Links

Views of the World: Income Mobility

Wikipedia: Income Disparity

Wikipedia: Legatum Prosperity Index

Wikipedia: GDP per capita

Wikipedia: Purchasing Power Parity

Wikipedia: Tax Incidence

Wikipedia: U.S. Recessions

This video, from RSA Animate, discusses the cognitive science behind empathy. There are some surprises in the video, including the fact that there are similarities between humans and animals in their empathic response.

Sure, the word ’empathy’ got a bad rap from the “greed is good” crowd, but never underestimate the power of politics for self-promotion to turn a noble virtue into something scorned. Hopefully this video will help restore it to the prominence it deserves:
RSA Animate: The Empathic Civilisation

With all of the recent Tea Party action taking place around the country, let us take a quick vacation – back to the FUTURE!

YouTube: PublicServiceAdmin