What To Make Of The Secret IRS Files

A week ago, ProPublica, an independent, non-profit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest showed how the wealthiest Americans pay little in income tax compared to their wealth in “The Secret IRS Files: Trove of Never-Before-Seen Records Reveal How the Wealthiest Avoid Income Tax”.

Pro big business libertarians were outraged at ProPublica’s decision to release private tax information of people who, in their view, have contributed disproportionately to the public good.

The extremely well written report left many others shocked by the findings and gleeful that the billionaire class was exposed.

Long story short, most Americans pay 14% of their income in taxes, billionaires pay 3+% on average. That’s because we tax income and not wealth and billionaire’s wealth grows much, much faster than their income.

Everyone concedes that the highlighted billionaires haven’t done anything illegal, which leaves many wanting to make our tax system much more progressive.

A few thoughts:

  1. As long as we tax income and let wealth slide, the Great Tax Divide will only widen. At some point, billionaires’ physical safety may very well be threatened. It is in their self-interest that we have a more egalitarian society. Therefore, it is in their interest to pay more in taxes.
  2. We need to invest a whole lot more in the Internal Revenue Service. Specifically, we need more, better trained agents who understand of how the ultra-wealthy avoid taxes sometimes illegally. Right now the ultra-wealthy are emboldened by the ridiculously low rate at which they are audited.
  3. Conservatives often defend things like video surveillance by asking, “Well, what do you have to hide?” In that same spirit, when it comes to personal income taxes, maybe we should go the way of Norway.
  4. Debates about the ethics of ProPublica’s decision-making will continue especially since they’ve said this is just the first of several related reports. As will debates about the implications of the data and related policy questions.

socialism-socialism-socialism

Best And Worst Countries To Raise A Family

Top 35 according to a Los Angeles based travel website.

Two stories, one related to #5, and the other, #34. A year or so ago, one of my favorite PLU students from the early years reconnected with me via Zuck’s monopoly.* Her family had recently moved from London to Luxembourg. She posted this little Lux missive yesterday.

“Since the late 1300s they (Luxembourgers) have held a Fun Fair called Schuberfour down the road from us, in light of Covid it was cancelled. Instead they put up small carnival rides all over the city for the kids to enjoy for free. The bumper cars happen to be a 7 minute walk from our house. They also set up a drive in movie theatre where we were able to enjoy Back to the Future with the kids.”

Seven hundred year old fair, LOL. And walkable bumper cars is very tough to compete with.

Shifting gears to #34. Our church’s brand new pastor, who is in his early 30’s is leaving after one year. One of the primary reasons. . . his family can’t afford housing on his pastor’s salary. And Olympia is less expensive than Tacoma which is less expensive than Seattle. Reminds me of the personal finance retirement advice I often read when the topic is pre-medicare medical insurance, consider moving to another country.

* Teachers often have fav students. The statue of limitations of admitting SF was one of mine has long passed.

What Can We Do To Improve Young Adult Mental Health?

My first year writing students are 18-19 years-old. Here’s the prompt for their first paper:

     Irvine argues that people often lack a “grand goal of living” and a coherent philosophy of life because our culture doesn’t encourage thinking about specific reasons for living; instead it provides them with an endless stream of distractions. He contends you’ll most likely squander your life without a guiding philosophy. He adds that even if you have a “grand goal in living” and can explain its importance, it’s unlikely you will attain those things in life you take to be of greatest value if you lack an effective strategy that specifies what you must do as you go about your daily activities. Explain why you agree or disagree with Irvine’s assertions. Also, explain a few things you want out of life and why.

Irvine proposes an updated version of Stoicism as a guiding philosophy. Most of my writers find meaning in some stoic concepts, like the trichotomy of control, but generally aren’t down with Irvine’s thesis that they need a “grand goal of living”. Most argue they’re too young to have formulated very specific life goals, let alone one “grand” one. Often, they thoughtfully point out that a highly detailed roadmap doesn’t make sense given life’s unpredictability.

When it comes to what they want out of life, an increasing number want improved mental health. It’s difficult to overstate the extent of young adults’ anxiety today. When I listen to them describe their anxiety and depression in class and read about it in their papers I have two reactions. Overwhelming empathy and curiosity as to what the hell is going on.

The third episode of the Happiness Lab podcast with Laurie Santos, “The Silver Lining”, might provide a clue. It’s about our tendency to compare ourselves to others who we perceive to be the most well liked, the most social, the most wealthy, the most together, the seemingly most happy. The episode’s title comes from research into Olympic athletes that suggests bronze medal winners are much happier with their medals than silver medal winners because silver medal winners are focused on not having won gold while bronze medal winners are focused on everyone that didn’t medal at all. This concept, “point of reference”, partially explains why happiness can be so illusive.

A Cornell psychologist in the episode contends social media compounds this problem because everyone carefully curates their online image to appear artificially happy. Among other remedies, Stoics advocate for internal goals to counter our self-sabotaging “point of reference” tendencies.

The gravity of the situation has me convinced that there’s no one explanation to “what’s going on”. Another factor could be the pressure my (admittedly selective) students feel to have their adult lives figured out just as they’re beginning them—whether to go to college, how selective a one, how to pay for it, what to study, what internships and other resume building activities to pursue, whether to go to graduate school, which career path, which grand goal for shits sake.

Parents, intensely worried about the vagaries of the economy, and desperate for a return on their considerable college investment, think that if their young adult children just pick the right thing to study—nursing, engineering, and other pre-professional fields—and develop a detailed plan, their college graduate sons and daughters won’t end up living in their basements.

This was what I was thinking about when struck by a related idea during a recent run. This time of the year, in North Olympia, Washington, it’s pitch black when running before work. Most of the streets are not lit, sometimes there’s fog. My uber-headlamp provides about 20-25 yards of visibility.

North Oly roads roll with a constantly changing mix of gentle ups and downs. Picture ocean swells, the Palouse in Eastern Washington, or the Norwegian countryside. Normally, I realized during the run, seeing roads ahead tilt upwards plays with my mind. At least a little. “Here it comes,” I think, “this is gonna take a little more effort.” And then, “Okay, almost topping out, hang in.”

But on this pitch black, foggy, autumn run, there was no such internal dialogue because I COULDN’T SEE AHEAD. The only way I knew I was starting a climb was my breathing became more labored. “Oh, okay, climbing now.” Because I couldn’t see the road tilting upwards ahead of time, my mind was free of that small, subtle nagging dread of having to work harder. As someone whose prone to look too far down the road of life, I was digging running in the moment. Don’t tell me what’s ahead, let me just be present.

Freed of anticipatory dread, my mind turned to my students. They lament how their teachers, beginning in middle school, ask about their life plans. And how it continues through high school. And how their parents too often pressure them to have a plan.

Some of them end up crafting faux-plans just to stop the insanity. As a placeholder of sorts. Some, like a previous writing student, declare nursing upon entering college only to realize in the middle of our first semester seminar that they didn’t really like science.

Maybe we should give our high school graduates headlamps and encourage them to focus at most on the year ahead especially since life is fragile and no one is guaranteed a long life.

What if our message was this.

In the next year, while working, traveling, or going to college; focus on improving your health; nourishing your spirit; investing in new friendships; finding one way to make others’ lives better. Don’t worry unnecessarily about the mountains and valleys that lie ahead in the distant future. You’ll be okay. And if not, let me know how I can help.

Young adults’ mental health might improve.

 

 

 

 

Thursday Assorted Links

1. Toni Morrison’s global impact.

“History can be manipulated, whitewashed and rewritten, but people who have lived in history all have their stories, which no single dictator or censor can rob. Memories, kept in stories, keep history alive. And who, among American writers, is a fiercer and braver keeper of the memories that have made America the country it is today, in the most beautiful and powerful language?”

2. Scenes From the 2019 Pan American Games. Quants increasingly slice and dice sports in ever greater detail, but athletes’ passion and emotions will always resonate most.

3. The Dream of Open Borders is Real—in the High Arctic.

“In a place with open borders, crafting incentives is complex: If you make life on Svalbard appealing—with good schools, for instance, or better housing—there’s no way to guarantee that it will be Norwegians who come. At the same time, Svalbard cannot turn away anyone on account of nationality. The result, which can be easily justified with the treaty’s mandate of low taxes, is that the Norwegian government provides as little as possible: Unlike the mainland, the islands have minimal health care, child care, and housing benefits.”

4. What happens as opioid abusers hit middle age?  Where the most people die of drug overdoses—Scotland, USA, Estonia.

5. Inside the ten days, two hours it took Fiona Kolbinger to ride across Europe. Only 400k a day. Twenty four year-old cancer researcher who plays the piano and cycles a bit on the side.

6. Consumer Report Indicates Slushies Lose 35% of Their Value Within First Year of Purchase. Eldest daughters second appearance in The Onion, a satirical newspaper. Making me semi-famous.

Assorted Links—Winter Olympics Edition

1. Do ice dancers get better scores if they’re sex partners? A very odd mix of science and tabloid journalism with references to “knocking boots”, “boning”, and “the dirty deed”.

2. The 10 most memorable figure skating routines at the 2018 Olympics, ranked by song.

The Good Wife and I have picked this song for our 2022 ice dancing debut. Thanks to our sub-freezing temps, practice has already begun. Look for us in Beijing.

3. No One Gets Redeemed at the Olympics.

“Even starry athletes have bad days or, in the case of high-pressure Olympic competition, bad milliseconds. When they get it together — the next day, or the next minute — it’s a reset, and it happens because the athlete is serious, committed,  has talent, and knows how to push through. In other words, they have resilience.

It’s not about sin or shame or failure, though implying that that’s the case makes for eye-catching headlines, especially when there’s a bright ending to the tale.”

4. As Medals Pile Up, Norway Worries: Are We Winning Too Much?

“To thrive, cross-country needs national heroes in places like Germany, which has a population of more than 82 million. And while the United States, Sweden and other countries have lately won some major titles, the Norwegians took gold at all five of the women’s events at the world championships in Finland last year, and won a total of 18 medals, more than any other country. Norway won 15 in cross-country. The next-closest country won four.

All of this presents a conundrum for Norwegians. They want their athletes to destroy everyone in their favorite sport, but the sport could be destroyed unless other countries win.”

I’m sure my Swedish friend, Anna Rappe, who has a special fondness for her neighbors, feels for the Norwegians.

“The love for nature and skiing has given rise to some 1,000 ski clubs. Informal and low budget, many of them are driven by volunteers and overseen by parents. But they give the sport a vast and fertile grass-roots base.”

I’ve been privileged to travel the world and swim, ride, and run in many awe-inspiring places, but one day I spent cross country skiing in Norway was the most memorable, insanely beautiful, and spiritual outdoor experience of my life.

Really Bad Writing

Or more accurately, thinking.

I do not know Shivani Vora, but I seriously question her sanity. In “How to Have a Luxury Vacation in Norway for Less”, she writes perhaps the most outlandish phrase I’ve ever read in the Paper of Record.

“Norway is a great choice for travelers on a limited budget. . . “

Trust me on this, there are about 194 better choices if you’re trying to stretch your travel dollar.

[Postscript: I’m receiving unrelenting pressure from one of the caption contest contestants. She really wants to know whether she won; however, upon meeting with my attorneys, I’ve been advised to limit the competition to non-family members. Consequently, congratulations to Lance for the victory.]

A Life Built on Service and Saving

If my ticket gets punched sometime soon, I’ll have lived a life filled to the brim. Almost disorientingly so. I’ve crouched in the final passageway of a West African slave fort, been drenched by Victoria Fall’s mist, walked on the Great Wall of China, ran around the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, hiked in Chiapas, and cross country skied in Norway. I’ve lived in the Midwest, the West, the Southeast, and as one six year old here says, “the Specific Northwest”. I’ve interacted with thousands of young people, the vast majority who appreciated my efforts on their behalf. I’ve cycled up and down mountains in the Western United States. I’ve taught guest lessons in my daughters’ elementary classrooms. I’ve been blessed to know lots of people more selfless than me, some who will read this today. I’ve been loved by caring, generous parents, and been privileged to know my wife and daughters and their friends.

My life has been so full that I tend to think about whatever my future holds as extra credit. Everything from here on out is a bonus.

Maybe I don’t look forward to too much anymore because my cup has been overflowing for some time. Apart from a story well told and nature, not a lot moves me these days.

So getting choked up in church yesterday, during the announcements of all things, was totally unexpected. A guest was invited to the front to make a surprise announcement. A tall, dapper man in his late 30’s began describing his relationship with ChuckB, a member who had passed away a few months ago. He had been Chuck’s financial planner for eight years.

I didn’t know Chuck until I attended a celebration of his life that was planned nine months ago after the church community learned of his terminal illness. He worked as a forester for the Department of Ecology for a few decades and kept a low profile at church, driving the van, tutoring after school, doing whatever was needed behind the scenes. At his celebration I was struck by how everyone described him as one of the most humble, caring, and giving people they had ever known. He lived a simple life in a modest neighborhood that revolved around participating in church activities.

The financial planner announced that Chuck and his wife, who had passed away previously, were leaving the church $925,000, divided four ways, the largest portion for international aide, another for local charities, another for Lutheran World Relief specifically, and about $220,000 in the church’s unrestricted fund to use as the Council sees fit. A Council that has been seeking about $35,000 to fund a half-time position dedicated to strengthening our ties to local people in need.

There was an audible gasp. Two people stood and began applauding and soon everyone followed. My favorite part, and probably what moved me so much, was that Chuck wasn’t there for his standing ovation. Shortly before he died, he confided to one member that he was leaving “the bulk of his estate to the church,” but that person said she had “no idea it was anywhere near that much money.” No one did.

The most beautiful and moving part to me is that Chuck intentionally passed on his standing ovation. He didn’t need it. A life filled with service and saving was more than enough. Blessed be his memory.