The Gray Lady’s Downward Spiral

The New York Times is known as the Gray Lady. Today the Gray Lady ran a sad, sick story on its front page. Titled “U.S. Report Says Humans Cause Climate Change, Contradicting Top Trump Officials.

This is really your fault. Instead of subscribing to the NYT, you just read it online for free, which means the Gray Lady can’t afford fact checkers anymore. So they’re just making shit up.

How do I know this? Because in the middle of this morning’s run, as I climbed up out of Woodard Bay, a blizzard began. Now that’s hyperbole, but PressingPause can’t afford fact checkers either, so I exaggerate at times. In truth, it was a very steady snow, huge wet flakes, that I swallowed to quench my thirst.

Obvi, if it dumps snow in Olympia, WA on November 3rd, there’s no global warming. Also, how dare the Gray Lady contradict “top Trump officials”! Who does she think she is? We know. A sad, sick lady in decline.

 

I Just Bought a Drone

Tuesday night, while the Good Wife and I slept, our checking account was ransacked by the Internal Revenue Service. This is where our (personal) record amount of federal taxes will eventually end up.

BF-AH180_12taxr_G_20140411180904

The Internal Revenue Service needs reinventing. Could there be a worse name? It sounds like something from an Eastern Bloc dystopian novel. How about the Public Commons or the Public Commons Service? Now the most dreaded sentence in the English language will be, “Hi, I’m from the Public Commons Service.”

Granted, that’s barely scratching the surface of what’s wrong with the PCS. The main problem with our tax system is once our checking account is raided, we have next to no say over where our federal tax dollars go (apart from voting for two senators and a congressional representative). For example, despite being anti-war educators, 27.7% of our federal taxes go to the military (defense and military benefits + veteran benefits) while 1.32% goes to education. We’re forced to help purchase drones, when we’d much rather help purchase improved teacher salaries.

At the same time, our hawkish neighbors might compensate for our military stinginess by designating far more than their 27.7% for the Pentagon. And of course, our other neighbor, Dan, Dan, The Transportation Man, would significantly increase his 2.65% transportation contribution.

A few significant improvements would result from this experiment in direct financial democracy. 1) Complaining about tax rates would decline. 2A) Government departments and programs would have to explain to the public why they’re deserving of a greater percentage of the total revenue available. And 2B) The more they could demonstrate fiscal responsibility, the more support they’d gain.

Admittedly, these ideas won’t slow the accelerating gap between the Haves and Have Nots. On April 15th, I listened to a panel of tax experts discuss tax reform on the Diane Rehm Show. I was much more intrigued by the tone of the discussion than the details of their ideas. The tone was, “Our tax system is so complex that improving it by simplifying it is impossible, but I’m happy to play along with your national audience anyways.”

As anyone who has tried to improve K-12 schooling, reduce global warming, reduce money’s influence in politics, or eradicate drugs and crime from their community will tell you, those who have a vested interest in the status quo benefit greatly from a sense of overwhelming complexity. Reformers, whether tax or otherwise, can’t wrap their arms around the whole problem, and therefore, don’t know where to begin making changes. Eventually they try piecemeal reforms. Before those reforms take hold, people’s patience runs out. Gradually, everyone and everything reverts back to “normal”. With each passing year or decade, what’s viewed as “normal” becomes more deeply entrenched, making significant change even more difficult.

Tax reformers have lots of good ideas including deductions they’d tweak or eliminate altogether. But they can’t see the forest because of the trees. Their ultimate challenge is to convince the public that simplifying and improving our tax system is possible.

 

 

 

 

What Dave Ramsey Gets Wrong

Whenever personal debt counselor/media giant Dave Ramsey is criticized, he says something to the effect of “I help more people in an hour than they’ll help in their lifetime.” Ego aside, he’s right. When he sticks to what he does best, inspire people to reign in their spending and eliminate their personal debt, he’s golden. But when he uses his media pulpit to preach his conservative politics and personal theology, he’s completely full of shit.

Last Thursday night, on the commute home, I caught the second half of a call from a wealthy person who wanted Dave to tell him it was alright to buy a $65,000 sport car. Dave said of course it was because $65,000 was a small proportion of his total net worth. Then he launched into a ten minute long harangue about the one problem that may “very likely be the downfall of the United States.” Not health care inflation, not a disappearing middle class or reduced food stamps for those living in poverty, not the achievement gap in public schooling, and not global warming. Our greatest threat is too many people are envious of the rich.

“What’s too wealthy?” he kept asking, only to add, “YOU DON’T GET TO DECIDE! YOU DON’T GET TO DECIDE! YOU DON’T GET TO DECIDE!” Obviously, Dave needs his own counselor. I’ve listened to him long enough to know his schtick. He reads the Old Testament book of Proverbs selectively, always highlighting the specific ones that seemingly endorse wealth. Meanwhile, I’ve never heard him mention Matthew 19:24, “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

As a multimillionaire Christian, Dave appears utterly unwilling to grapple with Jesus’s words or example in the New Testament. I’m certain he could explain Matthew 19:24 in ways you and I don’t understand. The same with Luke 6:20, “Looking at his disciples, Jesus said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” Dave would probably tell me I’m taking those verses far too literally.

Here’s a Proverb I haven’t heard Dave cite, Chapter 14, verse 31, “Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God.” In his diatribe, Dave discounted the entire Operation Wall Street movement as just another example of class envy run amok.

Hey Dave, don’t take democratic critiques of free market capitalism so personally. What the Operation Wall Streeters wanted is what most Americans want, for us to keep closing the gap between the stated egalitarian ideals in our founding documents and our day-to-day economics and politics. Simply put, people want a more level playing field. Right now Dave, whether you’re willing to acknowledge it or not, the field tilts towards Wall Street bankers, you, me, and other people driving $65,000 sports cars.

It’s not that Dave thinks differently than me, extreme wealth and Christian faith is a topic that reasonable people can and do disagree about, it’s that he doesn’t think at all. He refuses to consider whether great wealth complicates faith. He is utterly unwilling to consider questions that might lead to insights into the relationship between faith and wealth. Questions like, how much is too much? Why is it easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God? Or why is there a tendency to oppress the poor? Or why did Jesus identify with the poor?

I suspect he’s unwilling to ask those types of questions because he doesn’t want to consider lifestyle changes. Dave digs his luxury cars, his boats, his lake home, all the trappings of his considerable success. 

While unlikely, imagine Dave were to read this. “If Jesus of Nazareth doesn’t get to decide what’s too wealthy,” he’d roar, “Ron of Olympia definitely doesn’t!”

This Is Our Only Home

I’m currently reading True Wealth by Juliet B. Schor. Subtitle: How and Why Millions of Americans Are Creating a Time-Rich, Ecologically Light, Small-Scale, High-Satisfaction Economy. Halfway through I’m depressed by the extent of our environmental problems, especially global warming, and our lack of resolve to reduce emissions. Here’s a December 2010, twenty-minute long global warming TED Talk by the always excellent Naomi Klein.

A War on Oil Dependence

Photo credit: Ray Maker, DCRainmaker blog

We’ve had “wars” on poverty, drugs, and terrorism, why not oil dependence? Imagine a bold president challenging and inspiring us to reduce our use of oil by 20% in ten years. Why wait for that type of leadership? Let’s just commit to driving two percent fewer miles, per year, for ten years.

Dare we learn some things from other people in other places, like this Amsterdam family? Note the obvious: the fenders and racks; the large kid/cargo holder; the simplicity of the bikes and bike riders; no lycra, helmets, or cleated shoes; the utter normalness of it. With dedicated lanes and slowish bikes, helmets aren’t as critical. And the less obvious: the slower pace, the reduction in greenhouse gasses, the health benefits and reduced health care costs, the vitality of the sights, sounds, and elements.

City planners need to incentive bicycle commuting by integrating dedicated bike lanes, and safe, well-lit bicycle parking lots into their designs. Cities need to provide employers with incentives for bike lockers, air compressors, showers.

Car insurance should be based upon mileage traveled. Find the national average and set rates so that people who drive the national average pay existing rates. Make people self-report and audit a small percentage each year. People that drive 10% more than the national average, pay 10% more; 10% fewer miles, pay 10% less.

A nod to Friedman, raise the gas tax to $1/gallon.

I would love for someone to point me to counter examples, but our public bus systems are painfully inconvenient and slow. And unless you’re fortunate enough to live in a handful of our largest cities, subways and trains are rarely a viable option.

In the U.S. we like to pat ourselves on our collective back for being creative and hardworking, but we’ve shown no imagination or gumption when it comes to developing genuine alternatives to car travel.

Time to change that.

Three Changes

Life in the U.S. will be considerably different in twenty years as result of three changes that few people think about much at all. While we watch “reality television,” obsess about celebrities, follow sports as if which team wins really matters in the grand scheme of things, and shop til’ we drop, these changes will remake the United States in profound, yet unknowable ways.

1) Young women are running circles around young men in secondary schools and in colleges and universities. I’ve written about the implications of this before.

2) The world’s economic power is shifting to the east.

3) The earth is warming much more rapidly than anticipated.

What specific, symbolic, yet tangible changes might wake people up to these fundamental shifts? This example is far too subtle, but still worth noting. With respect to the first change, last year, for the first time ever, women earned more Ph.Ds than men. Another more dramatic example I anticipate happening sometime in the next twenty years, the first female President of the United States.

The second change isn’t as worrisome to me as to citizens whose identities are primarily national in orientation. I reject the zero sum assumptions of the global economic race metaphor. I celebrate the fact that hundreds of million impoverished, rural Chinese and east-Indians, fellow human beings, are experiencing markedly improved qualities of life.

Number three is the most vexing because reducing C02 emissions will require international cooperation on a level never before demonstrated by the world’s governments.

Like waking from a collective slumber, twenty years from now many will wonder when and how women became so much more influential than men, when and how three billion Chinese and east-Indians became so much more influential than 400-500 million Americans, and when and how we made such a mess of the natural world.