Bits of information that have recently entered my brain and remain lodged there for the time being:
- Working-class Americans pay taxes at a higher average rate than billionaires.
- Turkey has the second biggest army in NATO. By far.
- Almost half the land on earth is devoted to feeding humans.
- When did money replace barter? Never.
- 7000 lobbyists worked on the Republican tax-cut bill.
- Police officers typically make young black makes out to be four years older than they are.
- Urban squirrels didn’t travel downtown on their own four feet.
- North Dakota doesn’t allow chain pharmacies. It has some of the country’s lowest prescription drug prices.
- Maybe we can’t blame Citizens United on Corporate Personhood...
- and so on…
Billionaires’ taxes. In their new book “The Triumph of Injustice,” UC Berkeley economists Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman calculate that the average effective tax rate paid by the richest 400 American families last year was 23 percent, a full percentage point lower than the 24.2 percent rate paid by the bottom half of American households.
NATO’s biggest army. The United States leads the back, with 1.4 million military personnel. But Turkey, at 435,000, has more than twice as many soldiers as France (208,000) or Germany (184,000), and three times as many as the United Kingdom (144,000).
Fortune-telling is a crime in New York. It is a misdemeanor, according to the Sept. 25 New York Times, “to claim to use “occult powers to answer questions or give advice on personal matters or to exorcise, influence or affect evil spirits or curses,” unless done purely “for the purpose of entertainment or amusement.”
How much land is farmland? Humans use almost half the “unfrozen” part of the earth’s surface to grow food. So says Alan Weisman, citing The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming by David Wallace-Wells. Food production also generates at least a third of all greenhouse gas emissions, even without counting those linked to food shipping and refrigeration and the agrochemical industry.
The age of barter is a myth. The anthropological record reveals no period in history when human commerce meant the direct exchange of goods, according to Bill Maurer, who heads the Institute for Money, Technology, and Financial Inclusion at the Irvine campus of the University of California. The barter story appeals to modern economists and capitalists, says Maurer, because it depicts the rise of currency as a simple answer to the problem of the double coincidence of wants – when “I’ve got fish and you’ve got apples and you don’t want my fish and I don’t want your apples.” That makes money as we know it today seem “natural, normal, inevitable,” Maurer explains, and “helps us justify its continued existence.”
But the weight of evidence, he adds, suggests that money grew out of recordkeeping and the advent of states, markets, and courts of law. “In the beginning was not the coin… In the beginning was the receipt,” says Maurer.
Impeccable Intelligence. Hitler “starts with the assumption that man is a fighting animal; therefore the nation is a fighting unit,” Britain’s Ambassador to Germany, Sir Horace Rumbold, wrote to his superiors just three months after Hitler took power. “A country or race which ceases to fight is doomed… Only brute force can ensure survival of the race. The new Reich must gather within its fold all the scattered German elements in Europe… What Germany needs is an increase in territory… It is the duty of the government to implant in the people feeling of manly courage and passionate hatred… [I]t would be misleading to base any hopes on a return to sanity…”
Rumbold’s 5,000-word letter is quoted in Tim Bouverie’s Appeasement: Chamberlain, Hitler, Churchill, and the Road to War. “[L]ittle escaped him, and his warnings were clearer than anything that we got later,” a colleague said of Rumbold after his death in May 1941,
Carnegie the smooth operator. In the pre-Civil War years, when Andrew Carnegie was a boy, the term meant someone who could tap out Morse code quickly and accurately. Carnegie taught himself to do that at age 14 while working as a messenger for a Pittsburgh telegraph company, according to the PBS American Experience documentary The Gilded Age.
How many lobbyists does it take to make a Republican tax-cut bill? Roughly 7,000. That’s how many lobbyists worked on the 2017 tax bill. “That figure equals more than 60 percent of the 11,444 lobbyists who reported working on any issue in 2017,” Public Citizen points out. “It also works out to 13 lobbyists for every member of Congress. Put another way, it’s as if roughly the entire undergraduate enrollment of Georgetown University emptied out of school and poured onto Capitol Hill to influence elected officials and their staffs day in and day out.
Hello Bolsonaro, Goodbye Rainforest. Under the rightwing demagogue Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil is destroying the Amazon Rainforest at the rate of 1-1/2 soccer fields a minute. That’s a 60 percent increase over the pace of deforestation a year ago, according to satellite monitoring by Brazil’s National Institute of Space Research.
Gandhi and generics. In the 1930s, the Indian revolutionary urged a chemist-friend, Khwaja Abdul Hamied, to start a company dedicated to copying Western drugs in order to bring them within financial reach of India’s masses. That company, Cipla, now has factories and offices in 100 countries and a market capitalization of more than $7 billion. While Cipla has a reputation for dependable products, however, its success spurred the rise of an industry — heavily based in India and China — with huge quality-control problems. In her muckraking book “Bottle of Lies,” Katherine Eban notes that many of the FDA inspectors charged with monitoring production practices around the world will spend almost any amount of extra money to avoid buying medicine made overseas.
Koum’s Kastle. Whats App founder Jan Koum has spent $80 million to buy five Silicon Valley homes and build a personal compound in their place. His home have a 10,000-square-foot garage, giving Koum four times as much parking space as most Americans have living space.
Getting kids’ ages wrong. Police officers typically over-estimate the age of young black felony suspects by about four-and-a-half years. They tend to do the opposite with young white felony suspects, under-estimating their age by roughly one year. Those misperceptions, say the four co-authors of a research paper entitled The Essence of Innocence: Consequences of Dehumanizing Black Children help explain why “black boys are more likely to be treated as adults much earlier than other youth, more likely to be arrested, harassed and assaulted for normal adolescent behavior, and more likely to be perceived as culpable and deserving of punishment or even death.”
African v. European migration. From the early 15th through the mid-19th century, more Africans than Europeans came to the Americas, the great majority of them bound for the Caribbean and Latin America. About 10 million people survived a transatlantic journey in which an estimated 1.5 million perished. In the mid-1600s, Africans outnumbered Europeans in Mexico City, Havana and Lima, among other budding metropolises of the New World.
Coal miners v. Arby’s workers. US employment in coal mining peaked in 1923, when there were 863,000 coal miners, accoding to the Washington Post. By the end of 2016, that number had fallen to about 50,000 miners. Meanwhile, nearly 80,000 people worked for Arby’s.
Urban squirrels. Until the late-1800s, they were almost unheard of. Even in rural areas, most squirrels lived deep in the woods. They were “considered so elusive that the very wealthy liked to keep them as exotic pets,” according to a recent episode of the 99% Invisible podcast. In 1856, a pet squirrel escaped its owner’s home in Manhattan. “When it was discovered in a tree, a crowd of people gathered in amazement, trying to lure it down.”
Philadelphia was the first city to import squirrels – three of them. They were “given shelter and a fence so they could stay safe from predators in their little squirrel home.” Civic leaders in New Haven, Boston, New York City and elsewhere eventually followed suit, hoping to “create pockets of rural peace and calm,” as historian Etienne Benson explains it.
Squirrels, according to a theory in vogue at the time, could help “teach young boys the value of compassion and kindness in the public sphere, just as domestic pets did in the home.” One of the founding members of the Boy Scouts of America proposed sending “missionary squirrels” around the world “to cure boys of their tendency toward cruelty.”
Shoes from China. Roughly three-quarters of America’s shoes come from China, and 98 percent are imported from somewhere or other, according to the American Apparel & Footwear Association.
People v. undomesticated mammals. We weigh eight times as much as they do, according to Elizabeth Kolbert (“Louisiana’s Disappearing Coast”) in the April 1 New Yorker. If that fact isn’t ghastly enough for you, give humanity extra credit for the weight of our cows, pigs and other livestock, and the ratio climbs to 23:1!
Minimum wage v. Wall Street bonuses. The Inequality.org team at the Institute for Policy Studies has done the math: “The total bonus pool for 181,300 New York City-based Wall Street employees was $27.5 billion — more than 3 times the combined annual earnings of all 640,000 U.S. workers employed full-time (at least 35 hours) at the federal minimum wage. Since 1985, the average Wall Street bonus has increased 1,000 percent, from $13,970 to $153,700. If the minimum wage had increased at that rate, it would be worth $33.51 today, instead of $7.25.”
Prescription drug prices in North Dakota. Mom and Pop stores may be nice, but that kind of niceness is going to cost you, right? Not necessarily. Alone among U.S. states, North Dakota has a law against chain-owned pharmacies. The idea, according to Stacy Mitchell of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, was “to ensure that the state’s pharmacies are run by people whose first allegiance is to the provision of healthcare in their communities, rather than to the bottom line of a distant retail corporation.” And whadya know? It seems to have worked. “Over the last five years, North Dakota has ranked 13th in lowest prescription prices among the 50 states.” North Dakotans also “enjoy an unparalleled level of pharmacy access, with more pharmacies per capita than any neighboring state and the national average. Pharmacies in North Dakota are not only more plentiful, they’re also more broadly distributed. North Dakota’s rural census tracts have 51 percent more pharmacies than South Dakota’s do.”
The Tea Partyers of 1773. As we learned in school, Sam Adams and the Sons of Liberty were trying to uphold a boycott over a tea tax. But the 92,000 pounds of tea they dumped into Boston harbor on a December night were set to be sold at a sharp discount. The boycott had taken a heavy toll on the cargo’s owner, the East India Company, which had responded by seeking and winning the Crown’s permission to slash its prices and market directly to the colonists. The dumpers (according to Adam Winkler’s We the Corporations: How American Businesses Won Their Civil Rights) feared that their compatriots would leap at the chance to buy tea on the cheap, thereby conferring legitimacy on the tax. Sam and his boys were at the same time looking out for American merchants, who, like British wholesalers, did not fancy the idea of being cut out of the distribution chain.
Napoleon in 1812. “General Winter” was definitely not kind to the Emperor and his Grande Armée in the miserable later stages of their Russian adventure. Even before the first snows fell in early October, however, Napoleon had lost hundreds of thousands of soldiers and horses, and his situation was dire. A key problem, according to Ferdinand Mount in the April 4th New York Review of Books, was Napoleon’s commitment to an opportunistic brand of warfare that involved “living off the land rather than relying on supply depots in walled cities.” That formula, picked up from the Comte de Guibert’s General Essay on Tactics, “simply didn’t work in [this] poor and thinly populated terrain,” Mount argues – especially not after the Russians started torching fields, villages and cities up to and including Moscow along their path of retreat. The Russian debacle, Mount points out, was by no means the only instance of Napoleon’s failure to pay proper attention to supply issues: “In Italy his troops had no boots, in Syria no water.”
Citizens United and Corporate Personhood in 2010. The doctrine of Corporate Personhood originated as a power grab by corporate America. But that was way back in the 1880s, when, to fend off a tax levied by California’s San Mateo County, the attorney representing the Southern Pacific Rail Road, former Senator Roscoe Conkling, convinced the Supreme Court that the 14th Amendment and its “equal protection of the laws” language had been meant to secure the rights of corporations as well as emancipated slaves.
Conkling’s bogus claim fueled a series of Gilded Age decisions endowing corporations with citizen-style rights and liberties. Over the decades, however, corporate personhood took on a less pernicious meaning, reflecting a view of corporations as legal beasts unto themselves with some but not all the rights of humans. Citizens United (as I learned from Adam Winkler’s book, mentioned above) belongs to a more recent run of pro-business rulings that depict the corporation as a mere association of people; it is their collective human rights, not the rights of the corporation as such, that today’s courts profess to be concerned about. This, too, is terrible thinking, but it is a new form of terrible thinking, based on its own set of dumb assumptions. These, for instance :(1) corporations should be allowed to exist for the sole purpose of fattening the wallets of their shareholders, and (2) shareholders actually have some say over the political activities of corporations. Ciara Torres-Spellicscy of the Brennan Center for Justice, has written a very nice account of this history.