The national debate about income equality and low-wage labor ramped up this week as fast-food workers across the country rallied for better pay and President Obama assailed the nation's growing income gap as the "defining challenge of our time."
Meanwhile, an $11.50 minimum wage bill was approved in the nation's capital, and giant discount retailer Wal-Mart opened its first Washington stores — accompanied by a flurry of ads defending the company's often-criticized pay and benefits practices.
(Protesters showed up outside the new Wal-Marts, but inside there were bargain hunters and busy cash registers.)
To paraphrase a well-worn weather aphorism, everybody's talking about poor pay and the perils of a growing gap between rich and poor — even Pope Francis weighed in — but no one can agree on what to do about them.
Raise the federally mandated minimum wage of $7.25 to $10.10 ($404 a week), as Democrats and the president have advocated?
Impose stricter rules on Wall Street, which critics say is riding government largesse and bailouts to high-flying profits that benefit a tiny percentage of Americans?
Close tax loopholes? Rethink interest deductions? Tax financial transactions? Just leave wages, banks and money movers alone and let the market decide the path forward?
There are arguments for and against all of the above, some more persuasive than others, others not.
We turned this week to economists and financial analysts for perspective on what brought us to this point, and whether and how it should be addressed. Not surprisingly, their disparate takes mirrored the conflicted national discussion on minimum wages and the wealth gap.
Here's who we heard from, who we've been reading, and what they had to say.
Dean Baker, Center for Economic and Policy Research
Baker, an economist at the liberal-leaning research center, pointed to Wall Street as a driver of the wealth gap.
"We have done almost nothing to rein in Wall Street, which means great fortunes will be made scamming the productive economy in various ways," he said.
Baker pointed to the government's recurrent "too-big-to fail" subsidies to the nation's 10 largest banks, an annual payout that Bloomberg View has estimated at $83 billion — and that has shielded investors from losses.
"This is effectively payment from the government to the big banks," Baker says. "The government is providing enormously valuable insurance for which it is not charging."
That, and tax code loopholes "just invite gaming," he says.
His top proposals to address problems he's identified: impose a modest tax on financial transactions including trades of stocks, bonds, and derivatives to raise money and discourage "flipping" or the quick reselling of assets for profits; break up the big banks so they aren't too big to fail; and limit interest deductions to prevent private equity companies "from showing big profits by loading companies with debt."
Says Baker, "These are all reasonably straightforward, and would go a very long way."
Scott Frew, Rockingham Capital Partners
Frew, general partner of the Connecticut-based hedge fund, says he views the phenomenon of the growing income inequality as arising out of globalization and the nation's response to it.
"Globalization and the various free trade agreements that have accompanied it [including NAFTA] were sold as win-win arrangements, but have proved to be a lot closer to zero-sum," he said. "The rising standard of living in the developing world has its mirror image in the falling ones here."
Policymakers who have attempted to stanch the flow of wealth from the U.S. to the developing world — encouraging easy credit, for example — have ended up instead exacerbating the problem, Frew says.
Their actions, he says, "most certainly widened the gap [in the U.S.] between the extremely prosperous upper echelons and everybody else."
The wealthy have profited from the migration of American jobs overseas — from Wall Streeters selling IOU's to the developing world, to company owners outsourcing overseas. It's a practice Frew characterized as a "highly profitable form of labor cost arbitrage."
He also notes that U.S. businesses additionally benefit from their reliance on the government to provide welfare benefits to working Americans being paid poverty-level wages.
Since taxes aren't levied on businesses to specifically offset the costs of those government benefits, which help boost their profits, "these corporations and their owners benefit twice over."
The Financial Times' FTAlphaville, financial markets blog
In a post this week, the blog's Cardiff Garcia laid out the arguments for raising the federal minimum wage (job stability, less reliance on government benefits, workers spending more, etc) and those against (potential to depress employment, not clear if lower turnover a good thing, not as cost-effective as other ideas), and came up with this:
"So what's the right stand to take on the minimum wage in the absence of a better idea that's politically feasible? Honestly, we don't know."
The post prompted a spirited conversation in the blog's comments section.
The conservative Heritage Foundation also weighed in this week with an analysis bolstering its opposition to minimum-wage increases; and the Brookings Institution's Gary Burtless laid out the minimum wage's depleted purchasing power over time.
Income inequality. Minimum wages. Corporate welfare. The future of the middle class. We end the week with myriad questions, elusive solutions, politics beyond complicated, but a real national conversation begun.
It's always chic to make fun of holiday letters. People can't win, whether they earnestly recount their fellowship missions to poor countries (self-important), brag about European vacations (must be nice) or simply bore with accounts of school plays or travails in their gardens.
The habit of knocking holiday letters is now not just snark shared between friends, but has become an annual journalistic tradition.
Holiday letters can be "insufferable" and "deadly boring," Laura Vanderkam complains in Fast Company. "There's often a subtext of social competition," according to Peggy Drexler in The Wall Street Journal. And those are in articles that defend the tradition.
"There's little point to writing a Christmas update now," Nina Burleigh wrote last year for Time. "The urge to share has already been well sated."
The holiday card has indeed, like so much else, been forever altered and perhaps endangered by the Internet. What I don't understand is the urge to dance on its grave.
Hoover's complaint is that too many photo cards look like they've been torn from some mythic catalog of My Great and Clever Self and are wholly impersonal. He's put off not just by the preening he sees in the perfectly arranged family photographs, but the fact that he's receiving pre-printed messages that have nothing to do with him.
"Even the font seems smug," Hoover writes.
Oh, smug font. How upsetting.
There's no question that people have mixed motives when they send out their cards. No doubt they want to put the best face on their own lives, offering an annual report marked more by pride, perhaps, than honesty.
Does this surprise anyone? Would it somehow be more festive to recount the slings and arrows, the illnesses and petty failures that may have marked or even dominated the year just ending? In sending out a mass mailing, even to family and friends, there's a thin line between heartfelt and TMI.
It's Just A Joke
I started sending out holiday cards maybe about 25 years ago. My photos have always been jokes, admittedly inspired at first by the idea of mocking the type of wholesome photo — often showing the family, with the dog, gathered by the tree — that was the style at the time.
Like Halloween costumers, I usually make fun of some moment in the news. Some of the images have been in poor enough taste that I ended up breaking down and including a letter as well, to soften the tone.
In recent years, I've come to enjoy writing and sending letters on their own merit. It's a way of lending greater coherence to my own life's story — and connecting with people I'm often otherwise barely in touch with — that maybe works better than a 10-second tweet or series of status updates.
Some people, in some years, like the letter a lot better than the gag photo.
Thinking Of You
But what's the harm if they don't? It's a friendly gesture, not a writing contest. And, as Drexler points out in her Wall Street Journal article, it's not as if many people are in any great danger of having friends send them more than one letter per year.
Whether driven by the desire to boast or amuse or simply good, old-fashioned guilt, holiday cards and letters are almost certainly well-intentioned. Like any gift, they are a sign that a person thought of you when you were absent, demonstrating that you have been in her thoughts, if only for a moment, and thus have some meaning in her life.
That's true even if the attempt was lame. If you wouldn't send back a letter stamped "Return to Sender: Insufficiently Moving," why would you complain about it in print?
Good will to men, you know?
So — even if we are a bit late to this one — we wanted to share video of a flash mob that's making the rounds on the Internet. It features the United States Air Force Band surprising visitors of the National Air and Space Museum in Washington with a joyous performance of holiday classics.
There's not much more to say, other than, enjoy:
Anti-government protesters in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev have toppled a statue of Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin.
Instagram user Arthur_potachik posted this video of the moment:
NPR's Corey Flintoff, who is in Kiev, told our Newscast unit earlier today that opposition groups in the country are calling for a million people to rally against government plans to forge stronger ties with Russia.
"Thousands of protestors have been camping out here in Kiev's central square, but organizers are calling on people from around the country to join them," Corey said. "The protest started as a response to President Viktor Yanukovych's decision to reject a trade and political deal with the European Union."
The EU deal would require Ukraine to make democratic reforms.
The AP reports that protesters today dragged the Lenin statue off its pedestal, decapitated it and then took turns beating it with a sledge hammer, while the crowd chanted, "Glory to Ukraine."
Lenin, of course, is the Russian communist revolutionary whose embalmed body is still on display in Moscow's Red Square.
Sky News reports that the 11-foot statue was erected in 1946 just after the end of World War II. The network adds that the leading opposition politician said the toppling was not planned by the main demonstrators who have taken over Independence Square in Kiev.
"We can say that people organized themselves," Andriy Shevchenko told Sky.
As we've reported, Ukraine has seen daily protests for more than two weeks now.
Update at 12:33 p.m. ET. More Video:
Russia Today has posted a higher-quality video of the moment:
Some women are notoriously sensitive about their age. Not Diana Nyad.
At 64, the inspirational long-distance swimmer says she's in her prime. At the TEDWomen conference in San Francisco Thursday, she recounted her successful fifth attempt to swim from Cuba to Florida. Through her harrowing trip, there was a lot of singing Beatles tunes to herself, hallucinating and determination. Since first reaching for Florida in her 20s, Nyad said her motivations had changed.
"When I turned 60, it wasn't about the athletic accomplishment or the ego of 'I want to be the first,' it was deeper," she said in her talk. "It was how much life is left."
As Nyad — an epitome of resilience in her 60s — talked of seizing her remaining days, precocious 13-year-old entrepreneur Maya Penn seemed unaware of all the time she had ahead. At both ends of the speaker age spectrum, the ladies emphasized how age-appropriateness didn't matter for risk-taking and invention.
Empowerment At Any Age
An animator, fashion designer and businesswoman (-girl?), Penn says she doesn't really think about her own age — except when others point it out to her. She tells NPR that people often say, "'Wow, you do all of this and you're so young!' And you just kind of remember that you're young." During her presentation, her references to "younger" years were met with amazed laughter — how could a 13-year-old have so much to reflect on? — but her intentions are no joke.
Penn says, going forward, she hopes to be "reaching out to other women and girls, empowering them, letting them know, you know, whatever they want to do, they can accomplish — doesn't matter how young or old you are, what your background is. Whatever you want to do, you can do it if you just set your mind to it and don't let anyone stop you."
Look To Young Self
Social entrepreneur Jessica Matthews says we should be looking toward our younger, joyous selves for queues on how to live more fulfilling lives. Her company, Uncharted Play, creates toys that generate electricity — like the Soccket, a soccer ball that could light your lamp with a little play time.
"While our products are very much kind of aimed at children in the developing world, it's almost really a gimmick," she says. "Because the reality is, we know when we put the Soccket in a room — and it happens each time — the teachers kick it first."
When Age Matters
Northeastern University computer science professor Rupal Patel has discovered a niche in which age really does make a difference, though. If you have to rely on a computerized voice to speak, there aren't many options. The automated voice of Stephen Hawking doesn't quite match a teenage girl's.
Patel has found a way to create customized electronic voices. Here's how it works: A donor of a similar age and size of the person who cannot speak records a number of phrases that cover the range of sounds a person could make. The person who cannot form full words is recorded saying basic vowels. She mixes the two sets of sounds to make a new voice.
"What I'm trying to find is a voice that would have sounded like them, if they were able to talk," she says.
Voice, she says, is wrapped up in our identities. And in that case, age is an important factor in finding a certain kind of self-expression.