First Drafts, Conversations, Stories in Progress

The West Virginia state capitol building, in Charleston. This picture was taken in 2010, at ceremonies for the death of the state's enormously influential long-time senator, Robert Byrd.
The West Virginia state capitol building, in Charleston. This picture was taken in 2010, at ceremonies for the death of the state's enormously influential long-time senator, Robert Byrd. Larry Downing / Reuters

Last week I mentioned how fresh and valuable I thought the new documentary Moundsville was, for presenting the hard-luck story of a West Virginia town that had lost its big factories and was trying to find a way ahead.

The setup of the story might seem familiar, from countless “lost hopes in the heartland” reports over the past few years. But its tone was quite distinct—and, as I argued in that piece, familiar to Deb and me from our reporting in similar towns in recent years. That is: The residents were clear-eyed about where the town now stood, and what its prospects were. But they spent little time on “Who did this to us?!?!” rage—which is worth noting mainly because reports of resentment, rage, and lashing out have been such a staple of recent political reporting from economically struggling areas. The difference in the Moundsville movie was the sense of humor, and of reality—and of agency, of people not carrying themselves as objects of trends starting somewhere else, though objectively big trends had displaced them, but instead as individuals with their own choices to make.

This is a setup for an endorsement of the op-ed this weekend by the novelist Robert Gipe, which The New York Times presented with the headline “Appalachia Is More Diverse Than You Think.” I read it as saying not that West Virginians and other Appalachians were “worse off” or “better off” or “angrier” or more or less “racist” than you thought. But rather that they were complex human beings, not markers on the simplified grid of pro-Trump/anti-Trump national politics.

For instance:

Many of my pro-Trump neighbors are frustrated and angry, but they are not naïve. They bear a hard-earned sophistication regarding the reliability of political promises …

What pains me and many of my neighbors in the mountains the most are divisive political posturing and partisan wrangling divorced from the realities of our economic struggles … We in Appalachia join our fellow Americans in asking: Who will encourage our best selves? Who will enable our joy? Who will release the energy hiding in our hearts?

The whole essay is worth reading, and I mention it for that reason and because it so strongly resembles what we have heard in many other places. In one form or another, people have been asking, “Who will encourage our best selves?” Thanks to Robert Gipe for highlighting the universality of this question, beyond all “red state”/“blue state” simplifications.

All notes on "Our Towns" >
This is not a Boeing 737 Max. It is the Air Force's workhorse B-52 bomber, landing at a UK airfield during the Iraq War. A B-52 pilot and instructor argues that training issues are similar, across different models of airplanes.
This is not a Boeing 737 Max. It is the Air Force's workhorse B-52 bomber, landing at a UK airfield during the Iraq War. A B-52 pilot and instructor argues that training issues are similar, across different models of airplanes. Peter MacDiarmid / Reuters

Previously on this topic: “Is It Time to Worry About the Boeing 737 Max?”, “A Shorter Guide to the Ethiopian Tragedy and the 737 Max,” “What Was On the Record About Problems With the 737 Max,” “‘Don’t Ground the Planes, Ground the Pilots,’” and “The Implications of the 737 Max Crashes.”

As the investigation goes on, additions for today:

1) The Seattle Times. Over the decades The Seattle Times has been a leader in aerospace reporting, no doubt in part because of Boeing’s huge presence in the area. In the 1980s, our friend Peter Rinearson won a Pulitzer prize for his Times coverage of the Boeing 757. In recent years our friend Dominic Gates has broken a number of important aerospace stories for the Times.

His latest one, today, is about the 737 Max and is very much worth reading in detail. Here is its summary of Boeing’s internal assessment of MCAS—the automated pitch-control system that is known to have been involved in the Lion Air crash in Indonesia last fall, and may or may not have played a part in this month’s Ethiopian Airlines crash.  

Gates writes of the Boeing internal analysis, which he has seen and discusses with industry experts:

The safety analysis:

  • Understated the power of the new flight control system, which was designed to swivel the horizontal tail to push the nose of the plane down to avert a stall. When the planes later entered service, MCAS was capable of moving the tail more than four times farther than was stated in the initial safety analysis document.
  • Failed to account for how the system could reset itself each time a pilot responded, thereby missing the potential impact of the system repeatedly pushing the airplane’s nose downward.
  • Assessed a failure of the system as one level below “catastrophic.” But even that “hazardous” danger level should have precluded activation of the system based on input from a single sensor—and yet that’s how it was designed.

The whole story is worth reading carefully, as is all of Gates’s coverage.

(By the way, looking for a reminder of why local- and regional-based news operations matter? Look again at The Seattle Times on this topic.)

The central canal in Indianapolis, Indiana
The central canal in Indianapolis, Indiana Zohra Bensemra / Reuters

Indiana Humanities has launched a two-year major program called INseparable, designed to improve connections and understanding between people in the state’s big cities and those in its smaller cities and rural areas.

This coming week, my wife, Deb, and I will be in four different Indiana cities as part of their INconversation series (in conjunction with New America’s Indianapolis program), to discuss what we’ve learned in other parts of the country and to hear about what is happening in their communities.

Details of these events are on the Indiana Humanities Calendar site, here. In short, we will be in:

Hope to see you in one of these places.

All notes on "Our Towns" >
Constructive use of a battery-powered leaf blower, to remove feathers after a big pillow fight, in New York.
Jessica Rinaldi / Reuters

Back in the fall of 2015, in the first installment in this series, I mentioned that a group of community activists in our hometown of Washington, D.C., had begun an effort to get noisy, hyper-polluting, gas-powered leaf blowers banned in the capital, as has already happened in more than 100 cities across the country.

The reasons for the ban are: the obsolescence of the technology, which is orders of magnitude more polluting than other machines and engines now in common use; the public-health danger, above all to hired work crews, of both the emissions and the damagingly loud noise from the gas blowers; and the rapid advent of battery-powered alternatives, which are quieter and dramatically less polluting.

The purpose of this post is to record how the story turned out:

  • From 2015 to early 2018, more than one-third of all the Advisory Neighborhood Commissions in the District, elected bodies covering seven of the eight wards in the District, voted to endorse this mandatory shift.
  • In July 2018, the council had hearings on a phaseout measure, sponsored by the council member Mary Cheh.
  • Late in the year, the 13-member council passed Mary Cheh’s bill, unanimously.
  • D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser then signed the bill, and it will take effect as of January 1, 2022.

By Kati Lacker, from the April 2019 issue of The Atlantic

The print issue of The Atlantic for April 2019 has an article by me about why this move was in the interest of householders, workers, and the community as a whole. It’s called “Get Off My Lawn.” Here are several additional references:

  • To see the testimony that 22 witnesses presented to the D.C. council, go here.
  • To see other news dispatches from the group Quiet Clean DC, which was a central part of the move for the D.C. law, go here.
  • For reports from a long-established group working on these issues, check out the Quiet Communities site.

You don’t often hear this sentiment, but: Let Washington, D.C., be an example to the nation!

All notes on "Civic Engagement in Washington DC" >
An Air Canada Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft on the ground on March 13, 2019
An Air Canada Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft on the ground on March 13, 2019 Chris Helgren / Reuters

Previously on this topic: “Is It Time to Worry About the Boeing 737 Max?”, “A Shorter Guide to the Ethiopian Tragedy and the 737 Max,” “What Was On the Record About Problems With the 737 Max,” and “‘Don’t Ground the Planes, Ground the Pilots.’” Despite the nightmare and tragedy of the situation I am grateful to many informed readers who have written in.

The  dispatches below contain no “news,” in the strict sense—information that would give us new certainty about what has happened in the Indonesian or Ethiopian crashes. But these three samples illustrate themes that have come through a lot of the response I have seen. I’ll quote samples:

1) An asset of the air-travel culture: its striking safety-consciousness, compared even with the medical realm. A reader in the Northeast writes:

There is a larger issue that you brought up that I think bears looking at.

I don’t like to harp on it, but the latest estimates are that large numbers of Americans die each year from medical errors. [JF note: assessments of how many people die from outright error or “iaotrogenic causes”—maladies that come from simply being in a hospital—vary widely, but some estimates are very large. An article that quotes a John Hopkins study saying it could be 250,000 fatalities per year, or more, is here. If that were true, it would be equivalent to several fully-loaded airliners crashing every day. For the moment, details of these estimates aren’t the point. The reader’s purpose is the contrast between the hoped-for safety standards of the aerospace system and most other realms of life.]

My intention is not to say how pilots are so existentially “good” and doctors are so  existentially “bad,” but to look at the functional reasons for the discrepancy between medicine and aviation. Although I already understood what those functional differences were, it was driven home quite forcefully last year when I took a friend for an appointment at a major hospital …

When I took my friend to the hospital appointment it was a non-stop
parade of procedural errors from start to finish. Thankfully no medical
procedures, so it was more of a comedy than a tragedy.

The point, though is that looking at it from an aerospace perspective,
what was essentially 100% absent was the entire “flight operations” layer of organization. Lots of doctors and nurses, and lots of people in the billing department, but it was like sending a rocket up, or taking a flight, when the only people involved were the pilots and the booking agents.

I have always been fascinated by the Apollo program. There,  it wasn’t just the actual flight control level, but there was also an entire operational management layer. [People were in charge of] “what do you do with a Saturn V rocket from the time it shows up on a barge on the Banana River to the time it takes off?” At NASA Kennedy there was an entire organization devoted to addressing that exact question.

At the hospital there was a similar question as to what do you when a patient shows up. The problem being, at the hospital absolutely no one was in charge of that question. My friend was shuttled around from desk to desk, no one knowing what she was doing there or what she had already done or where she was to go next … This was at a very prestigious college teaching hospital, which had a new building which looked more like Disneyland than a hospital, but there was total absence of that entire operational management level.

When the doctor finally showed up almost by accident, she knew absolutely nothing of what my friend had already done or how she was to be managed throughout her stay. I am sure the doctor knew a lot about medicine, and I am sure the billing department would be quick to get their money, but no one involved knew what was happening to the patient.

Not only did they not know what has happening to the patient, they didn't even know they didn’t know. They simply assumed that all of their agents were existentially infallible, and that that alone would ensure the patient's successful outcome.

Your discussion in your latest article about the NASA run ASRS is
important. The point being that there is nothing even remotely like that
in the medical system. For that matter, there is nothing even remotely
like that in the political system (except for very rare instances of
good reporting). The Founding Fathers set up a specific mechanism of
checks and balances, but that is more “honored in its breach” these
days than not, as the courts get packed with ideological toadies, and
the legislature is abandons its inherent power for hiding in the shadows.

I believe it does come down to a basic philosophical approach to life.
If one assumes that we are all imperfect actors, yet we are tasked to
not fail, then there are ways of addressing that. That is how the entire
aerospace industry is organized. It is just assumed that everyone
involved has a 5% error rate, yet the operation as a whole requires a
0.0001% error rate. You do that with an enormous and professional flight operations layer to the organization. Interestingly enough, the body does the same thing. A good 10% of the energy you spend every day is just in maintenance and repair …

Doctors and politicians, however, think they are gods who are never wrong. So the medical industry kills 1,000 Americans every day through errors, and the country as a whole invades the wrong country and kills 3,000 of the best American kids they can find at the tune of a trillion dollars down the hole and the destabilization of a major part of the world.

If you believe you are always right you are headed for a fall. If you believe that you and everyone else are imperfect actors, then you can get to the moon, and fly over 700 million passengers a year with only a handful of fatalities….

An American Airlines Boeing 737 MAX 8 flight
An American Airlines Boeing 737 MAX 8 flight Joshua Roberts / Reuters

In the days since the horrific Ethiopian Airlines crash, I have received a lot of email from pilots, aircraft engineers, and others with experience in aviation. These have been in response to three previous posts: first here, then here, then most recently here (with quotes from pilots’ observations about the Boeing 737 Max via NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System).

While I sift through the other messages, let me start with one from a highly experienced pilot and flight instructor. His name is Wally Magathan, and he has worked as an airline pilot, an Air Force pilot and C-5 Galaxy flight instructor, and an instructor in airline L-1011 flight-simulators. I know him through COPA, the organization of pilots and owners of Cirrus’s small single-engine airplanes.

With Magathan’s permission, I quote a post from him, offering a professional’s view of risk-management after these two Boeing 737 Max tragedies.

(For brief background, and as a reminder: the Boeing 737 Max has different handling characteristics from previous 737 models, because its engines are in a different place on the wings. This new engine placement increased the tendency of the plane to “pitch up”—that is, to point its nose upward, in a way that could increase the risk of aerodynamic stall. The MCAS system was added to offset this tendency, when detected and when the plane was being hand-flown, by automatically pointing the nose back down. The main hypothesis about last fall’s Lion Air crash, in Indonesia, is that this MCAS system went out of control, because of a failed sensor reading, and pushed the nose down, down, down, until the plane plunged into the sea. The main question after that crash was whether the Lion Air pilots had been appropriately informed about how MCAS worked, and trained on how to turn it off. No one yet is sure whether the same problem was part of the recent Ethiopian Airlines crash.)

Magathan says this about training, design flaws, and who should be grounded, when:

-Boeing’s design deficiency [JF note: having the MCAS rely on a single data source, the “angle of attack” indicator, without backup or comparative sensors] sets up the need for pilot training on how to overcome it.

-Boeing’s failure to highlight the change resulted in no specific MCAS pilot training.

Those two big mistakes, it now appears, likely caused two tragic major catastrophes.  Shame on Boeing if the final analysis bears these points out.

The corrective action is simple and within the capabilities of any competent airline captain to execute. Certainly easier than dealing with an engine fire or loss of multiple hydraulic systems.

There is a broad spectrum of abilities in any group of pilots, and without an emphasis training, some of them will be unable to overcome the design deficiency, even if the emergency procedure is simple to carry out.  All the lights and buzzers going off will freeze the less capable pilot who has not been trained to drill down to what is going on, and to flip the switch. Training has to be to the lowest level of ability, if you’re operating an airline with any significant number of pilots.  They all can't be Sully Sullenbergers.

To me, from the standpoint of an airline pilot, there was no need to ground the fleet.  Just ground each and every 737MAX pilot until he or she has been trained on the MCAS.

After two accidents, require a week in the simulator—for overkill to make sure it penetrates even the dimmest bulbs. But nobody flies again until they have it. In effect that grounds the fleet, but only so long as the training takes. At the same time, regulatory bodies can require Boeing to eliminate the design deficiency so that the training on the MCAS need not be so intense, a process that could take months if not years.

But if I were speaking as a non-flying member of the public, and as a politician who must answer to them, I would say: ground the fleet now.  As far as the public is concerned, the industry had its chance and blew it. I would have no confidence in the plane nor the industry until an explanation is found and the design changed. Nor would I buy a ticket on such a plane.

Once the public pressure became too great, the grounding of the fleet was inevitable—but not because the plane is unsafe when flown by a properly trained crew.  Boeing will pay a price for this, if the final analysis holds these accidents would not have occurred in a 737 model that had no MCAS.

Obviously (as I know from the inbox) other pilots and engineers have a range of views. But I thought this was a particularly lucid description of the relationship between technology and training, and about the difference between views from inside the industry and reactions from outside.

Please read on for another message from another airline pilot, which has just come in.

Willy Kurniawan / Reuters

As mentioned in two previous reports—a long one, and a short one—some things are known, and many are not, about the horrific crash this past weekend outside Addis Ababa, in which all 157 people aboard a new-model Ethiopian Airlines 737 Max were killed.

  • One thing that’s known: This is the second crash of this kind of plane within the past five months, following the Lion Air crash in Indonesia last year.
  • One thing that’s not known: whether the two crashes are related, which would suggest a disastrous system flaw with the 737 Max and its software.

Just this afternoon—minutes ago as I type, four days after the Ethiopian crash— aviation authorities in the United States and Canada joined their counterparts in Europe and Asia in grounding the 737 Max fleet. This is until more is known about whether the crashes are connected and whether there is something systematically wrong with the plane.

The FAA has grounded airliners before: for instance, the 787 Dreamliner soon after its introduction, in 2013, because of onboard lithium-battery fires, and the DC-10 in 1979, after a crash that killed 273 people and that remains the deadliest aviation accident in U.S. history. Both types of airliners were cleared relatively soon to fly again. (In the 787’s case, with a redesigned battery compartment, and for the DC-10, after an investigation found that the crash was not caused by any basic design flaws. The 787 is an ongoing commercial success, and the DC-10 remained in production until the late 1980s.)  

What will happen with the 737 Max? At this point, again, no one knows—or has said publicly. As a practical matter, grounding all Boeing 737s would have an enormous effect on world air travel, since they’re the most popular airliners on Earth, with a production run of well over 10,000. Although more than 5,000 orders have been placed for the 737 Max series, only a few hundred of them have gone into service, fewer than 100 with U.S. carriers. Most airlines can cancel those Max flights without fundamentally disrupting their service.

Was the FAA right to act now? Was it right to wait as long as it did? The minute-by-minute choices that organizations and their leaders are making in real time—Boeing itself, the crash investigators from the U.S. and Europe, the FAA and other civil-aviation authorities, the airlines, and others—will be studied for a very long time, and will have enormous reputational (in addition to safety-related) consequences.

By which I mean: The astonishingly good safety record of the world’s commercial air-travel system over the past generation has earned most of the system’s members the benefit of the doubt on safety judgments. Between 2010 and 2019, exactly one person died in a crash on a U.S. passenger airline. (That was the person killed on a Southwest flight in 2018, when an engine exploded and the debris hit her window.) Three other people died in a crash at San Francisco International Airport in 2013, when a captain flying for the Korean carrier Asiana badly misjudged a landing.

By comparison: About 100 Americans die every day in car crashes, and a similar number from gunshots, and a larger number from opioids and other drugs. The culture of safety within commercial air travel is a real thing, and it is a credit to all components of the system: the aircraft companies, the airlines (yes, despite our grumblings as passengers), the dispatchers and air-traffic controllers, the weather forecasters, the flight crews and ground-maintenance operators, and even the regulators.

Thus I have presumptively given the FAA the benefit of the doubt on its calls. But when this is over, we’ll know what factors the FAA was weighing these past few days. Was it right in resisting a panicky instant reaction? Or was it being politically, nationalistically, or commercially swayed? (That is, was it trying to go improperly soft on America’s leading exporter, which also happens to be a major player in all Washington, D.C., lobbying wars?) No one knows this at the moment. We will know, at some point.

Every choice made by Boeing, the FAA, and others involved in this tragedy and drama will eventually become known. Awareness that any harmful incident will be painstakingly reconstructed is itself an important part of the aviation-safety culture. (Before considering a flight in dicey conditions in our little single-engine propeller plane, my wife, Deb, and I would ask ourselves: “How would this look in the NTSB report?” That is, if something went wrong, what would they say about “the danger signs the pilot ignored,” etc.?)

Boeing, like Airbus, has earned trust for decades’ worth of safe decisions. The FAA, like most of its counterparts, has earned similar trust for its safety-mindedness—despite endless grievances from pilots, airlines, and aircraft companies about aspects of FAA bureaucracy. If either Boeing or the FAA is making the wrong choices now, the airline-safety culture will certainly recover—but their reputation and credibility might not, for a very long time.

While the fundamentals remain unknown, here are some relevant primary documents. They come from an underpublicized but extremely valuable part of the aviation-safety culture. This is a program called ASRS, or Aviation Safety Reporting System, which has been run by NASA since the 1970s. That it is run by NASA—and not the regulator-bosses at the FAA—is a fundamental virtue of this system. Its motto is “Confidential. Voluntary. Nonpunitive.”

The ASRS system is based on the idea that anyone involved in aviation—pilots, controllers, ground staff, anyone—can file a report of situations that seemed worrisome, in confidence that the information will not be used against them. Pilots are conditioned to treat the FAA warily, and to make no admissions against interest that might be used again them. What if I confess that I violated an altitude clearance or busted a no-fly zone, and they take away my certificate? But they’ve learned to trust NASA in handling this information and using it to point out emerging safety problems. I’ve filed half a dozen ASRS reports over the years, when I’ve made a mistake or seen someone else doing so.

David Ryder / Reuters

Today I posted a very long and detailed account of what is known and (mainly) unknown about this past weekend’s Ethiopian Airlines tragedy.

Here is a much shorter Q and A guide.

  1. Q. Is this crash related to the Lion Air crash last year?
    A: No one knows. It was the same model of plane, in a similar phase of flight (soon after takeoff). The problem could have been a repeat of the runaway-automation cause of the Lion Air crash. It could be something else. No one knows right now.
  2. Q. What’s the most alarming possible reading of events?
    A: That would depend on an absolutely  crucial, but as yet unanswered (as far as I know), aspect of the Lion Air crash.
    There is little doubt that runaway automatic-control software was involved in that crash. For reasons detailed in my long post, the airplane’s software kept trying to push the plane’s nose down. The pilots kept fighting to pull it up. Eventually the pilots lost.
    So it’s evident that the pilots did not over-ride or turn off the aberrant system. Here’s the question that really  matters:
         Did the pilots not know how to turn it off? (Through lack of training or familiarity, etc.)
         Or were they not able to turn it off? (That is, had the override systems failed, so that there was no way to wrest control back?)
    The first explanation would mean a tragic training failure. The second would mean an uncontrollably self-destructive airplane. My assumption is that it’s the first—which would mean that this latest crash comes either from a similar training issue or involves something else. But if there’s even a possibility it’s the second, that is very serious indeed.

  3. Q. What next?
    A: I, purely personally, would not fear getting on a 737 Max 8 if I were scheduled to do so tomorrow. Statistically it’s riskier to get behind the wheel of a car. But that’s just me. (I also willingly fly small airplanes.) A lot of people need to work very hard right now to figure out what has gone on here.
An opening slide from the new documentary Moundsville, with the ancient Native American burial mound from which the town took its name in the background. John Miller / David Bernabo, from their film Moundsville

At the end of February, Deb Fallows and I were at an event in Pittsburgh at Alphabet City, a bookstore connected to the wonderful City of Asylum, which we wrote about several years ago. While there, we met John W. Miller, a former Wall Street Journal reporter turned filmmaker and local chronicler, who introduced us to a documentary film that takes a fresh and unusual look at a very familiar-seeming topic.

The movie is called Moundsville, produced by Miller and the Pittsburgh filmmaker David Bernabo, and it is about the travails of a West Virginia town that is coping with a usual-sounding range of Appalachian or declining-industrial-area woes:

Big, thriving factories had provided good, steady jobs—and then they closed, one by one, under pressure from automation or foreign competition. Downtown stores had held the town together—and then the big-box mall took the customers away. Young people who had the choice left town, and didn’t come back. The city’s population fell. Those who stayed got older, as the town’s hopes dwindled, and the remaining sources of work were the mall stores themselves, the fracking business, and a hoped-for tourist economy.

That sounds like a story you’ve heard many times. The Moundsville film, by Miller and Bernabo, presents the results in a way different from most other documentaries I’ve seen—but one strongly resonant with the experience Deb and I had in our “Our Towns” interviews across the country these past few years.

You can see the whole film (for $3.99) here, and a trailer is below. (A four-minute “Why Moundsvillle?” video with background on the project is here.)

Moundsville from David Bernabo on Vimeo.

The film is a little over an hour long, and it builds slowly from its economic-shock premise to an ending that is surprising on many levels. (The end involves the central role of a prison in the city’s economy and culture, but not in a way you would expect.)

What particularly struck Deb and me were three aspects of the film that were consistent with our experience in interviewing and traveling, but different from the standard declining-mill-town report:

All notes on "Our Towns" >
Congressional resolution proposing what became the 16th Amendment to the Constitution, authorizing a federal income tax. Library of Congress

Two previous posts—“When the Top U.S. Tax Rate was 70 Percent—or Higher” and “Who Is Paying Their ‘Fair Share’?”—went into the endlessly complex and newly politically relevant question of the “fairness” of the American tax system.

The question is complex for obvious reasons. It’s politically relevant as evidence comes in about the effects of the Trump-Republican tax cut of 2017, and as Democratic proposals come forth to raise top-bracket tax rates again—for instance, as high as 70 percent (which was their minimum level between 1932 and 1982).

A huge torrent of mail has arrived, of which I expect this will be the next-to-last sampling. Not the very last, because there’s a technical issue I want to understand better before posting information about it. But next-to-last, because there’s a limit on fresh perspectives.

Here we go, with numbered entries and a brief blurb on the perspective each one represents.

1) “Stop saying that high marginal tax rates ‘Made America Great’ in the first place.” Several previous reader-messages have stressed the high tax rates during America’s post-World War II growth decades, as a sign that higher top-bracket rates could be valuable once again. Here is a long, detailed response to that argument, from a reader on the West Coast:

The argument, if you can call it that, over the top marginal tax rate vs national economic well-being is—in my opinion—a correlation vs causation pissing match that takes as its subject an issue of secondary or tertiary importance at best.

It’s fun to bash the tennis ball back and forth across our contemporary social and political divides about the rich and rates, but the absolute, fundamental fact about the United States after the Second World War (which seems to be the consensus Lost Golden Age) was that it had been dealt not only all the aces in the global economic poker hand, but most of the face cards as well. To recap:

  • The physical industrial capacity of the most advanced industrial economies of Europe and Asia ranged between meaningfully damaged and nearly destroyed. The United States by contrast had just invested tremendous amounts of human energy in the construction of productive infrastructure that no one ever attacked.
  • The United States suffered less than 3 percent of the war’s combatant deaths and less than 1 percent of the total global death toll. Considering combatant deaths only, the US suffered in absolute terms about one fifth of the deaths of Japanese soldiers, less than one tenth the deaths of German soldiers, and less than one twentieth the deaths of Soviet soldiers. US military deaths were fewer than those of Yugoslavia. These numbers of course skew even further in the U.S.’s favor when considering total deaths including civilians, and then again when considering total deaths as a percentage of prewar populations.
  • The United States was the refuge of choice for scientists and other intellectuals who fled Europe, i.e. there was a tremendous brain drain in the U.S.’s favor
  • The U.S. had the advantage of significant natural resources in energy and materials (oil, coal, metals).
  • Ethnic tensions were controlled e.g. via the violent subjugation of black Americans, to take only the most obvious and terrible example.
  • The U.S. had as ready markets all the degraded and destroyed industrial economies of the world to export its goods to, with unprecedented demand for capital goods to rebuild those economies.

Paying the income tax, c. 1920 Library of Congress

In a previous item, I included a table of U.S. “top bracket marginal income tax rates” over the past century. This is the tax rate you’d pay on the next dollar of taxable income, whenever you hit the highest tax bracket.

The reason for showing the chart was as a reminder of how significantly tax policy changed about 30 years ago, with the Tax Reform Act of 1986, which was under Ronald Reagan but had bipartisan support. For more than a half-century before that change, the top-bracket rate had always been at least 50 percent, had been as high as 94 percent, and was mostly above 70 percent. Since that change, it’s been in the 30s—now at 37 percent.

The reminder, in turn, was tied to a discussion at Davos this past week, in which a leading tech entrepreneur, Michael Dell, had scoffed at the idea of imposing a 70 percent top-bracket tax rate, asking a questioner to “name one!” country where such rates had coexisted with a strong economy. The “name one” country was the mid-20th-century United States.

Of course, there are a million caveats. In 1986, part of the argument for lowering rates was to reduce the appeal of tax shelters and other loopholes, and broaden the base of income subject to taxes. The fact that the U.S. had sky-high progressive taxes during its decades of post-World War II obviously does not prove that the same rates would make sense now. Correlation is not causation. And so on.

But the historical record is worth being aware of. Now, readers with additional info and reactions.

1) What people actually paid. A reader sends this chart, from a 2017 paper by the economists Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez, and Gabriel Zucman, showing who has borne the effective burden of taxation, over the decades. It’s worth looking at closely.

The chart shows average tax rates—the share of total income actually paid in taxes—rather than marginal rates. The steady increase in average taxes for the bottom 50% is driven mainly by rising payroll taxes.

From Piketty, Saez, and Zucman.
Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Republican majority leader of the Senate, with reporters after passage of the bill to reopen the government, on January 25. Joshua Roberts / Reuters

That the turmoil of the past five weeks was all for “nothing,” in policy terms, is what I argued in a post earlier today. After all the disruption to individual lives and collective services and well-being, Donald Trump accepted the same deal that had been available as of December 19.

Two readers write in to challenge the “nothing” assessment. First, from a former federal employee:

Your post suggesting that the shutdown accomplished nothing was true substantively; the legislation ending the shutdown could have been passed before it took place.  

But it missed the vital political point.  Donald Trump became accustomed to Congressional servility over the last two years; and he clearly expected to extort the same attitude going forward, as if the Republican defeat in the 2018 elections never happened….

It was necessary to demonstrate to Trump and his supporters that conditions have changed, and that the governing process is going to be different — including the futility of attacking government itself as a means of achieving political goals.  That lesson will be essential for future issues, including appropriations bills and the debt limit.  

The shutdown was the price of Trump's tuition; and the federal workers who suffered from it — and whose actions helped to end it — achieved something valuable for the country.

All notes on "Shutdown Notebook" >