Our Tax Code - continued

I had a follow up conversation with a friend who may be my most dedicated blog reader. He may in fact be my only blog reader, I'm not sure. Even my sister won't bother with it, which I figure is a bad sign. Anyway, he had some excellent insight into my tax code ideas so I thought I would provide an update. And sorry ladies, as sexy as a guy who sits around Honduras reading my blog and commenting on my tax law ideas may be, he is spoken for. Don't ask me how...

Anyway, if you look at my original idea you might notice I missed the fact that this could heavily favor the rich, who would have more power given their ability to distribute their excessive money. That's a problem. It seems to me corporations and the wealthy already have to much power. The point of a democracy is that we all have our vote, and I would like our government to get to the point where our leaders care annually instead of only during the elongated election season. I would need to run the numbers to truly balance the rich/poor input issue, but I am considering the following list of options as preliminary ideas:
  1. Limit the amount of taxes a person can distribute: You can distribute up to 40% of your tax dollars up to a maximum of $20,000 for example
  2. Make the amount of the distribution percentage vary by tax bracket. For example, people who make above $100,000 may pay 38% in taxes, but can only distribute 20% to specific programs.
  3. Allow people to donate to specific programs within a program. For example, people could assign their tax dollars to HIV treatment instead of the larger drug research fund.

The more I think about this general idea, the more I like it. I think it could provide great benefit to more socially focused programs, the environment, alternative energy, education, and other ideas I think people would donate to that are, in my opinion, underfunded. It would also engage us in the political process. It could also lead to yearly reviews of programs by both the elected/appointed political leader and hopefully the media. By opening up the communication, we would assumingly create a better, more open government. I do try to vote for the best candidate to represent me, but what people say in their campaigns and what they do in congress are not always aligned. It may also lead to each governmental department releasing annual reports that people would care about. Given the amount of time we spend reviewing annual reports for corporations, shouldn't we spend at least an equal amount of time reviewing the same information for the government?

I also think you could convince our free market leaders that this is the most open way to work our government. This policy opens the government up to market influences, effectively saying the most important programs and the most effective leaders will receive the largest budgets to do their work. GW tried to do this with social security, I'm trying to do it with his budget. My way has limited risk because the government still has 60% for the necessities, wars, bridges, pork barrel projects, etc. This may also mean we get a state of the union that actually says something besides party propaganda and generic generalities. That's not an indictment of our current administration because Clinton really was not much better.

Let's take an example of how this could improve the process. A majority of people would say education is important. As an example, assume our education budget is $1 billion (I made that number up, I'm an idea man not a researcher). If enough people devoted 25% of their taxes to education, we may actually have enough money to fix our schools, pay our teachers, and develop credible ways to measure our students education. For one year, the Secretary of Education has $1.5 billion based on our taxes. He comes out and says, "I am going to give every student a voucher and every teacher will lose their pension so I can buy a jet as big as a million school buses to fly around and push my voucher program." The next year, his budget is $.4 billion. We, the collective we of American tax payers, essentially just voted.

While I am on the subject of politics, it appalls me I cannot get a very concrete list of what a lobbying group has given to a politician in an effort to secure a vote (or educate them on issues, depending on your point of view). Oh hell, it's vote buying and both parties do it that is why nothing will happen. Anyway, I work as a consultant and one of my projects tracks all payments made to brokers who sell insurance, including dinners, tickets, trips, etc. Reporting this back to the company that bought insurance through the broker is a legal requirement. I could be audited, and have created reports for clients that are being audited. This includes creating documents that state the insurance provider took the broker to Hawaii because he sold a lot of insurance for this company. The cost was $2,000 for the trip, the food, the "nightlife", and "surfing lessons" with the Maui Laui twins. I could be audited. Health insurance is probably a bit of a mess in our fair country, I do not deny that. However, the fact that the insurance company has stricter requirements than our government, than people who lead us, define our laws, and supposedly represent us ethically, morally, and righteously, is disgraceful. Look into, it's an ugly system. I believe in corporate oversight, but I believe more strongly in governmental oversight. My little compliance could be audited but the biggest lobbying firm on K street can't, or won't be. That should be a cause for action. Maybe I'll donate all my 40% to the auditing committee. Oh, I can't because we don't even have that committee (not in a powerful way, and democrats talk about it but I don't have high hopes).

I think my next hobby will be this, to really begin documenting these issues and pushing for change.


Our tax code

This is from an email I wrote where somebody who obviously didn't know what they were getting themselves into asked me what I thought of the tax code. I figured I would share, tell me what you think:

I don't mind paying taxes as long as I support where the money is being used. Right now,in many ways, I don't. Therefore, I suggest we allow every taxpayer to set aside up to some percentage of their taxes for certain programs. For example, I might set aside 10% for education, 10% for the environment, 10% for NASA and science research, and 10% for developing world aid. Everybody could do this at their will with their 40% (or some other logical percent). With the other 60%, the government can do with it what they will, or rather, need to. They could use this for supporting our highways, paying governmental employees, supporting our defense budget (way overboard in my mind),and other issues. I can imagine other people devoting their full 40%to the military, and that is their right. People say they value education? Prove it. And for elected officials, their allocation decisions become public record.

How does this help? It means if I think the president appoints a leader of the EPA who, in my opinion, leans toward helping big business instead of the environment I can drop my percentage to 0%.It basically gives me the ability to vote each year on the government and the budget based on who is leading the program. I have written to my congressmen, it doesn't work. This could also help keep us engaged in our political process, which I think most Americans are not including myself. I can already do my taxes online with my SSN and an IRS code, this could be done. There are probably a lot of privacy issues here, but nothing that we couldn't figure out.

I like the concept of taxing everything that is a luxury, and I define luxury very broadly. Tax TVs, computers, video games, cable (cable is a luxury not a right or a need, regardless of what people say),cigarrettes, alcohol (and I like a drink so I'm not pushingprohibition), etc. very highly . Do not tax food, clothing under a certain price, and housing because as you mention this effects the poor. Everyone has to eat, have shelter, and wear clothes. Leave these free of taxes. I think we generally don't always make the correct distinction between our needs and our wants. Personally, I like the graduated income tax and believe the wealthier should pay more.

Also I saw one interesting thing last year that would at least simplify the current system. Over 50% of the population does a basic tax filing using a W2 and the 1040. The government already has all the information you need to fill out this form in the W2 and through the taxes you have already paid. Most people do not itemize deductions because they do not have enough. Why not send out completed W2 forms to everyone and, for the minority of people who need more analysis, they can buy a computer program (heavily taxed,see above...) or go to an H&R Block around the corner. This would save people hours.

America - are we winning?

Is America winning? What's the first thing that pops into your head when I say that? Do you think about the war in Iraq, the war against drugs, the war against immigration, the war against poverty, the war against terrorism, no child left behind, or any other haphazard political slogan crafted to gain votes and pit us against each other.

I think it would be interesting to ask a hundred or a thousand or a million people in the streets across the world that one question: Is America winning? and see what they say. I think the results would be outstandingly interesting, even if outstandingly isn't a word. I would ask them the question only, and after they responded yes or no or even with a poetic perhaps, I would ask them to define their criteria. That would be an interesting thesis for someone to do.

Personally, I don't know if America is winning. I would answer No if you randomly asked me that. I would base my criteria on the people I know, the news I see, the general malaise I feel walking the streets of Philadelphia searching for that hidden glimmer of happiness. I would answer no because we are building a country of victimization, a country where we don't have to accept responsibility, where we don't value ideas or freedoms or even each other. I would answer no because our government is lead by followers, and we are following the followers and all the leaders seem to have disappeared into the realm of hollywood myth. Maybe they never existed, maybe we have always been following followers, and the leaders only come every few hundred years and when they do, we relegate them to the dusty bins of sadness for they realize they can't change anything.

I would answer no because if we don't realize who we are, we can't move beyond our own weaknesses. I would answer no because I can't make myself happy, and if I can't be happy here then maybe I can't be happy anywhere. I would not be answering for America, I would be answering for myself. The America of the old west looks beautiful when filmed correctly, and now the only beautiful pictures of America are romantic comedies that fizzle reality like a bad kiss. Most of our pictures of ourselves involve lost families in the suburbs, gangsters, idiots, and superheroes. Can we be winning when these are our comfort foods?

America has the power to lead. We do not. We have the power to change the world for the good. Instead, we change the world for our good. That's not the same thing. Sometimes, maybe, but not in general. If I were to be drafted, which won't happen I'm to old now, I would rather die trying to stop a genocide than for a meaningless war. I am not a martyr, but at least then maybe there would be meaning.

Which isn't to say I'm hopeless. I think America is a great country, as I think I can become a great man. I think all things take time, patience, energy. I am not America. I don't seem to identify with many of the overriding feelings of the day, I don't identify with the hate. I'm angry, but I'm not hateful. I suppose I could argue that alone means I am not losing entirely. I suppose that alone means I could change. I suppose that alone means I am not America.


The religion of happiness?

After my last blog, I got one email from someone saying this is the type of conversation he always tried to have with me when I was drunk (why you don't become friends with psych majors) and another note agreeing with me. Two responses! That is much higher than the normal 0. Anyway, today I speak only of happiness. I have decided to start a faith based on happiness alone. My happiness. I'm my own god now, screw everyone else.

So how do I start? Well first I tune out the world because everything is bathed in evil. Look through your closet. Find your wall map (you do have a world map on your walls, right?) and put a pin or a sticker on every country where a piece of your clothing was made. Does it feel exploitative? Don't even think about finding out about coffee picking, fruit production, or human trafficking, they all have dark sides. So I'm giving up on reality. My religion is going to be bathed in a vat of denial so deep even a dolphin couldn't swim out. And I'm not saving the dolphins anymore, I'm eating evil tuna. And if I find out gin is made from bones and kidneys stolen from war orphans, I am still drinking it. I like gin. I'm trying to keep it simple, it's that kind of religion my children. This is the big one, if I can't do this I might be forever bound to the realm of mortals, no deification for me.

What are the other tenants?
2nd: no bad music or boring parties. Really, do I even need to explain.
3rd: move every few years. I want to see the world.
4th: be mean. I have been nice to people my whole life and I'm tired of it. Most of the people I am nice to are terrible people and don't deserve it. The rest of the people are nice and will forgive me. Maybe that is why I have been such a little ball of anger for so long.
6th: ignore my cell phone. OK, I already do that.
7th: stop being so outgoing. Isn't my laptop and itunes enough really?
8th: Trade Allen Iverson. Apparently the 76ers need my help.
9th: develop this list of ideas until even L. Ron Hubbard is jealous.
10th: keep blogging until it bores me.

All money can be sent to me in an effort to spread my religion. I, and everyone in my mission, appreciate your support.

I guess the only remaining question is if this religion kicks off, do I need to buy trendier clothing? I think the robe and sandals thing is cliche...


If this isn't nice

For many years, I have been trying to find a point to my life. I have this stupid naive feeling somewhere deep inside that life is supposed to mean something. I spent a few years looking, and it doesn't. Or at least I haven't found it. I tried to convince myself that life is only about being happy, and as logical as that sounds, I just can't truly buy into that belief.

My favorite book is 100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I won't bore you in this blog with why, but I always find myself returning to the sections on Colonel Aureliano Buendia. If you don't know the book, he has a solitary childhood and spends much of in a laboratory making little fish out of gold. At some point, he falls in love with a young girl and they get married. Shortly after, she dies while pregnant. Almost on a whim, he begins a series of wars (32 civil wars and he loses them all) against the conservative regime. That's the short story. The part that is relevant to this blog is that as he is condemned to death, he talks of laying in his cot waiting for the execution with nothing on his mind except a blind rage. He is never executed and begins another war. At some point, just as quickly as he decided to begin the fight, he ends it. He resigns, surrenders, and returns to his workshop and makes little fish of gold until he dies. In this solitary world, he finds solace against the world and against his rage. To me, it's as powerful a story as the last page of Camus' The Stranger, after the narrator chokes the priest and says something like "... and I woke up in that morning full of stars. As if that blind rage had washed me clean, rid me of hope, I opened myself up to the gentle indifference of the world and finding it so like myself, so like a brother really, I realized I had been happy and was happy again..." He is executed the next day.

The first time I read that, I realized that was how I felt, that blind rage, that gentle worldly indifference. What is the point? Is there a point? I don't know why, I don't what I'm angry at. I have had a perfectly easy life, much better than almost everyone actually. My family is great, I have means to make a living, I can buy most things I want to buy. Somehow, it's not enough. I wish I could just sit home, watch tv, ignore the problems of the world, and be happy. I can't. I don't know what to do. I need to find my little workshop and my little goldfish.

This weekend, in a way, maybe I did. A friend was in town, someone I have known for many years although we don't keep in touch that much. We ended up sitting around waiting to go to a party, reading The Economist. She's a fiery little pistol and although we both agreed The Economist is very intelligent, I didn't actually realize what her reading it would be like. She ranted against everything! It got to the point where she would read a line, then with little puffs of smoke exhaling from her brain, yell at me about them. Arguing with the written word, she found a way to avoid her indifference. We discussed the articles for some time, she is one of the few people who not only yells at me about developing world issues, she actually kicks my ass and I hate it. It was fun, the kind of thing I don't do often and I don't always appreciate until later.

Another of my favorite authors is Kurt Vonnegut. In his book Timequake, he begins by just telling stories from his life. One of them involves his uncle and a point he made that we need to make a point of enjoying our life. At a time when everything was nice and quiet and life was good, his uncle would say, "If this isn't nice, what is?" And maybe life really isn't so bad, and maybe I will ultimately find something to soothe me. Maybe I won't. But for me, as long as I focus on the good times and keep seeking these small pleasures, I am not so angry. I am not so unhappy. Amazingly, almost without realizing it, I am happy. "...I realized I had been happy, and I was happy again..." Maybe life doesn't have a point, or maybe I will never find it. But I suppose it's not so bad. I'm sitting in my apartment listening to Billie Holiday and writing, doing something I love surrounded by books and drinking a beer. Hell, if this isn't nice what is? Maybe I should even smile.


Evolution - from preservation to happiness

This is an idea that occurred to me the other day as I sat around thinking about a Nova special on dogs. The special itself was a little dry, and I'm not sure why scientific, intellectual shows need to be boring. Anyway, I was reading until they started talking about narcoleptic dogs and studies being done on narcoleptic dogs to try identify the gene to help people with narcolepsy.

I have never known a person who had narcolepsy, although in college my friend's professor used to fall asleep in lecture every week so we called him professor narcolepsy. I think that was more an indictment of the class though than a real medical condition. Anyway, they had a little wiener dog that got so excited when it received a "good" brand of dog food it would hop around, wag it's little tail, then take a bite and fall asleep. This was the same dog that they showed "escaping" down the hallway. You have to picture this little wiener dog running down a very generic hospital, doors on all sides and a swinging door at the end. The dogs isn't going to make it anywhere, but I could still hear the song "Freedom" echoing as they showed him running. He made it about 3 doors, sat down, and fell asleep. It was great drama.

So I got to thinking. Evolution is by all accounts a slow process. If you speak to something like 40% of Americans, it doesn't even exist. In my mind, I can see a future where a large number of the people in the world are so unhappy that narcolepsy becomes epidemic. Follow me here, and you may need to think about with a slightly negative cynical world view. I think most people would answer the question "what do you want from life" with some sort of response including money, love, family, a better car, whatever. I think if you break the answer down, we are associating these items with happiness, and whatever that person thinks will make them happy that is how they are responding. Fine. In my mind, given the events of the world, the hatred, the move toward ignorance rather than intelligence, avoiding realities, people are really just looking for a little corner of happiness in a tv show, or a movie, or love or drugs or booze. It just seems to make sense, that short term happiness.

I would argue that narcolepsy is the body shutting down. We sleep when we are tired, or when we are sad, or because of habit. Whatever the reason, our bodies should be recharging during that time. However, we are not only recharging but we are also dropping out of life for some number of hours. What if, like the dog in the NOVA special, when we became happy our body shut itself down and went to sleep. This could be the next step in the evolution of happiness, as opposed to what historically has been our evolution for self preservation. It will be slow, but I think it could happen. The next evolutionary step? Instead of slipping into a short narcoleptic sleep triggered by happiness, we would slip away forever. The best time to go is with a smile if you ask me.

Here's to my great-great-great-grandchildren having miserable lives but living forever.


Global Rich List

I didn't have anything to do at work today so I figured it would be a good day to start posting to this thing. Unfortunately, my situation today is exactly like the last few weeks and the foreseeable future. Although this might turn some of us into cynical, complaining, grumpy monkees, it won't do that to me because I'm already there. However, this blog isn't about me, or rather today's blog isn't about me. It's about other people. In my internet travels today I found a story that said the richest 2% of the world own 1/2 of the worlds wealth. Linked to this, there was a web site called www.globalrichlist.com, which allows you to input your salary and gives where you fall in the global scheme of the world. I'm not sure where the data comes from, and complaining about statistics is a whole other blog.

However, the interesting thing to me was the first item on the globalrichlist was an item from Honduras, which is a beautiful country I happened to live in for a few years. The text is quoted as follows:
"$8 could buy you 15 organic apples OR 25 fruit trees for farmers in Honduras to grow and sell fruit at their local market."

My problem is not the accuracy of that, but the entire point. What is a Honduran going to do with 25 fruit trees? If you give a random Honduran 25 fruit trees, in order to make money he has to have money to maintain them (think irrigation, Honduras gets HOT!), he has to harvest the fruit, and he has to somehow get the fruit to a market where people are going to buy it. During mango season, nobody in my small town bought mangoes because everyone knew someone who owned mango trees and they just gave them away (I loved mango season, a fresh mango in Honduras is the best fruit experience I have ever had, even better than that adventure with the tomato, which might be a vegetable anyway who can remember). Anyway, th irrigation/harvest/transport/selling process requires an entire business plan, which the average Honduran probably does not have the experience for. So what would happen? Our trusty fruit vendor would probably end up selling his fruit to a middle man who would make the most money onthe process, and the middle man is probably already significantly wealthier than the Honduran you were trying to help. He may not be top 2%, but he isn't starving. Meanwhile, the poor fruit farmer may not be that much better off.

The website is pushing an organization called CARE, which may be a great organization but I think the entire issue is significantly oversimplified. It's Christmas, and that is a time a lot of people try to give to organizations and charities. I guess one point is to research where your money is going and think about whether or not it is actually going to help. I have seen a lot of money thrown at bad projects that failed, and a little money thrown at problems that succeeded. There is no magic formula, but there are better methods. I'll assume you are a smart person, just think about it.

I'll probably come back to the topic of development at some point on this blog. I don't really know much about it, but I like to pretend I do.