Tuesday, November 25, 2014

religion as a competitive sport

Yesterday, my older son was pleased to be named track coach at the local high school. As I understand it, that makes him some sort of honcho over events like running, hurdles, javelin, shot put, discus etc. Besides being flattered for him, I also wonder to what extent the position is one of those jobs where people get snookered -- nice title camouflaging bureaucratic drudgery.

It also made me bite off and munch the idea of religion as a competitive sport.

I don't mean this in some sort of snarky, critical sense, though heaven knows there's plenty of my-pecker's-longer-than-yours, one-true-faith posturing. What I mean is the inability or unwillingness to see my spiritual persuasion as other than goal-oriented ... get to heaven, get enlightened, become a martyr, etc. Sometimes the approach is crass; sometimes it's subtle and corrupt as a nobleman.

Competing with others is fairly easy to see and address. Competing with myself -- shooting for some brass-ring improvement and the like -- is more confounding. It rests on a lack of faith that whatever spiritual persuasion I have espoused really has any meat on the bone -- that I must keep propping it up and praising it and meeting its demands in order for it to have a real worth.

And perhaps that's the bottom line of religion as a competitive sport: Worth. As long as my persuasion needs to be somehow worthy, to that extent I will be mired in a world in which religion will deserve every snarky criticism it receives.

Competitive sport may be a place to start -- the books, the words, the adoration, the practices -- but it hardly seems capable of crossing any experiential finish line.

Monday, November 24, 2014

rewriting the tax code

Passed along in email (from Huffington Post)

Economists Say We Should Tax The Rich At 90 Percent

 America has been doing income taxes wrong for more than 50 years.
All Americans, including the rich, would be better off if top tax rates went back to Eisenhower-era levels when the top federal income tax rate was 91 percent, according to a new working paper by Fabian Kindermann from the University of Bonn and Dirk Krueger from the University of Pennsylvania.

The top tax rate that makes all citizens, including the highest 1 percent of earners, the best off is “somewhere between 85 and 90 percent,” Krueger told The Huffington Post. Currently, the top rate of 39.6 percent is paid on income above $406,750 for individuals and $457,600 for couples.
Fewer than 1 percent of Americans, or about 1.3 million people, reach that top bracket.
Here is the conclusion from the report, charted:
marginal tax rates

What you’re seeing is decades of a more or less strict adherence to the gospel that tax cuts for the highest income earners are good. The trend began with President Kennedy, but his cuts were hardly radical. He lowered rates when the American economy was humming along, no longer paying for World War II and, relative to today, an egalitarian dreamland. To put things in perspective, Kennedy cut rates to around 70 percent, a level we can hardly imagine raising them to today. The huge drops -- from 70 percent to 50 percent to less than 30 percent -- came with the Reagan presidency.

In comparison to decades of cuts, Presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama each raised taxes at the top by a historically insignificant amount. Obama also proposed modest tax increases, raising taxes on families making more than $250,000 from 33 to 36 percent, and on individuals making more than $200,000 from 36 to 39.6 percent. These increases failed in the House.

A 90 percent top marginal tax rate doesn’t mean that if you make $450,000, you are going to pay $405,000 in federal income taxes. Americans have a well-documented trouble understanding the notion of marginal tax rates. The marginal tax rate is the amount you pay on your income above a certain amount. Right now, you pay the top marginal tax rate on every dollar you earn over $406,750. So if you make $450,000, you only pay the top rate on your final $43,250 in income. (emphasis added)

A very high marginal tax rate isn’t effective if it’s riddled with loopholes, of course. Kindermann and Krueger's paper is also focused solely on income, not wealth, and returns on wealth are how the truly superrich make a living.

Despite these limitations, Kindermann and Krueger say that a top marginal tax rate in the range of 90 percent would decrease both income and wealth inequality, bring in more money for the government and increase everyone’s well-being -- even those subject to the new, much higher income tax rate.
“High marginal tax rates provide social insurance against not making it into the 1 percent,” Krueger told The Huffington Post. Here’s what he means: There’s a small chance of moving up to the top rung of the income ladder, Krueger said. If rates are high for the top earners and low for everyone else, there’s a big chance you will pay a low rate and a small chance you will pay a high rate. Given these odds, it is rational to accept high income tax rates on top earners and low rates for the rest as a form of insurance.

This insurance takes the form of low-income people paying dramatically less in taxes. “Everyone who is below four times median income” -- that’s about $210,000 for households -- “pays less,” Kruger said.

The paper assumes that tax rates won’t stop a future Bill Gates from wanting to start Microsoft. Instead, what it finds is that labor supply among the 1 percent would decline -- translation, they would work a little less -- but it “does not collapse.” That’s because of who the authors assume makes up the top income bracket: celebrities, sports stars, and entrepreneurs -- people with innate talents that are hugely rewarding, but only for a short period of time. They only have a few years to use their skills to make most of the money they will ever make. High tax rates don’t lessen their degree of desire to be productive, the authors said.

Krueger described the phenomenon like this: “How much less hard would LeBron James play basketball if he were taxed at a much higher rate? The answer is not much. “James knows he only has five years,” or so of peak earning potential, Krueger said, and so he will work to make as much as he can during that time. If high income tax rates robbed the would-be 1 percent of their stick-to-itiveness, the paper’s conclusions would change.

And so whether you agree with this paper’s conclusion comes down, to a certain extent, to what you think of the 1 percent of income earners: who they are and why they make so much money. Over the last few decades, a huge portion of the rapid growth of the very highest incomes relative to the rest of us has been driven by rising executive and financial sector pay. The question, then, is if confronted with a vastly higher tax rate, would Jamie Dimon still behave like LeBron James.

Beat Generation artifacts

Jack Kerouac, 1962 file photo
LOS ANGELES (AP) — It's been called the letter that launched a literary genre — 16,000 amphetamine-fueled, stream-of-consciousness words written by Neal Cassady to his friend Jack Kerouac in 1950.
Upon reading them, Kerouac scrapped an early draft of "On The Road" and, during a three-week writing binge, revised his novel into a style similar to Cassady's, one that would become known as Beat literature.
The letter, Kerouac said shortly before his death, would have transformed his counterculture muse Cassady into a towering literary figure, if only it hadn't been lost.
Turns out it wasn't, says Joe Maddalena, whose Southern California auction house Profiles in History is putting the letter up for sale Dec. 17. It was just misplaced, for 60-some years.

Like the ivy leaves that grow slowly over the once-new university buildings, the past shape-shifts with the passage of time. I forget how many times Jack Kerouac's "On the Road" was rejected by publishers before one of them took the plunge in 1957, but I can remember reading the book when it first came out and thinking that I could see both the energy and inspiration the book provided AND why the publishers had shied away from it.

In Greenwich Village where I hung out with friends, there was a lot of excitement over espresso and cigarettes: Kerouac had broken some conformist boundaries, we all agreed, and we were all of an age to be skeptical of, if not outraged by, boundaries. I don't specifically remember anyone describing the book as "good writing," but I suppose they did: If you like something, it's good, right? I liked the book but wasn't convinced it was all that good.

Now, of course, the ivy of time has grown and Kerouac et al have grown into an intellectual blob described as the "Beat Generation." Following on the heels of the safe and sane, white-picket-fence conformity that followed the gut-wrenching uncertainties and sorrow of  World War II, the beats helped to throw open the doors of imagination and possibility ... and paved the way for the flower power hippies who would follow in their wake ... as well as a school system and lifestyle that turns out dumber and dumber graduates.

As Cassady was an inspiration to Kerouac, so I count Kerouac as an inspiration of my own. But it was nothing literary, for me. His inspiration led me to hitchhike across America twice. Looking back through the ivy leaves, I am happy and a bit surprised I did such a thing. But at the time, and in the event, it was plain as salt: Hitchhiking, like doing a military tour, is only interesting and elevating in retrospect. Hitchhiking is predominantly a matter of patience -- waiting and patience, two pretty good exercises.

Kerouac climbed into a bottle and pointed to wider vistas. I packed a small, dime-store suitcase and stuck my thumb out. Both are now capable of growing some handsome and overblown ivy, for my money.

Funny how the ordinary becomes noteworthy as time passes. Just look at the artifacts up for sale in auction houses.

where the rubber hits the road

Anyone interested in the intersection of American business with bloodbath-prone countries could do worse than watching "Firestone and the Warlord," a Frontline documentary that digs into the question of Firestone's complicity in various wars in Liberia. At one time, Firestone owned the largest rubber plantation in the world in Liberia and provided the bulk of America's tires at a time when motorized vehicles were becoming indispensable.

The company, bought out by the Japanese and rebranded as Bridgestone, saw little or nothing wrong with the financial and moral support it implicitly gave to the power-bent rebels. Their reasoning was based, it seems on A. profit and B. the argument that their organization benefited people who might otherwise be destitute.

I found the video interesting for the clash of templates ... the moral questions of 'using' those who are poor and less savvy vs. the profit questions that make the rich richer and the poor only marginally better off. Firestone did some good things (medical, schooling) for those it touched. But it also funded a philosophical and actual warlord with enormous amounts of blood on his hands.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Gordon Bok

There are a lot of his 12-string folk songs I like, but here are two:

Japan woos youthful recruits

Taking its cue from the United States, perhaps, or from historical trends that refuse to be silenced...
(Reuters) - Japan's military is wooing new recruits with images of smiling soldiers posing like pop stars in a series of photo books and DVDs that tap into youth culture.
Glory, adventure, heroism, patriotism, doing what under civilian law might incur a long prison sentence or the death penalty ... how sexy and grown-up and powerful is that?!

Was it ever different?

lie/cheat/steal in banking

You always knew, but a scientific study has confirmed ...
(Reuters) - - A banking culture that implicitly puts financial gain above all else fuels greed and dishonesty and makes bankers more likely to cheat, according to the findings of a scientific study.

"Peaky Blinders"

Watched the second season of "Peaky Blinders" yesterday. The Netflix/BBC TV serial is a wonderful turn-of-the-20th-century outlaw adventure in England. The characters are etched in ways that American TV serials seem hard-pressed to emulate. The filming is classy.

Worth a look for those inclined.

workers kill plantation owner

Asked about piracy off the Somali coast, a security official commented to an interviewer, "If you do not share your wealth with us, we will share our poverty with you." I always liked that line and wondered to what extent American capitalists might take note.

In India, the workers on a tea plantation killed the owner over unpaid back wages. Wages had not been paid for two to three months. I suppose western business executives are savvy enough not to let wages lag, but the expectations in this neck of the woods are higher and thus the provocations do not need to be so life-threatening before someone picks up a club.

a naked man fell through the ceiling...

BOSTON (AP) — A naked man fell through the ceiling of a women's bathroom at Logan Airport on Saturday, then ran out of the restroom and viciously assaulted an elderly man while he was still in the buff and bleeding, before being arrested, state police said.
You'll be relieved to know that the man has not yet be charged with terrorism, though having someone fall through your ceiling and go on a rampage must be pretty terrifying.