Monday, October 17, 2011

The Wall Street Protests and the 53%

These are two sides to the economic crisis. First you have the protesters who appear to have a vague understanding that something is wrong. They’re calling themselves the 99% and are trying to call attention to the ongoing wealth disparity in this country.

I agree with them whole heartedly that the disparity is approaching crisis proportions. Unfortunately the message is getting garbled.

On the other side is the conservative counter which labels itself the 53%. The name comes from the fact that some 47% of the population pays no income taxes. Conservatives have been posting their stories on a web site. The stories, typically, portray what I’ll call good old perseverance and hard work. Stories of people that have succeeded despite hardships and disadvantages without asking anything from anyone.

I’m not going to take anything away from these people. They have a right to be proud of what they view as their success in the face of adversity. They view the protesters as whining and looking for handouts rather than putting in the necessary effort to succeed.

To some extent they are correct. But they overlook a number of things. First of all, if they look a little deeper into their success they will find that even though they didn’t overtly ask for help, it was most likely there in the form of government regulations and subsidies.

Second, they don’t realize that it shouldn’t have been as hard as it was. It’s the disparity of wealth and the pure greed that seems to be endemic in society today that has made it such a struggle for so many people including themselves.

Third, and most important, to a lesser or greater extent they’ve been lucky, but there is no guarantee that luck is going to hold. Again, I do not want to disparage their accomplishments, but, in many cases, it’s a lot more fragile than it looks. Overnight their success can change to failure through no fault of their own and that’s the problem.

Now let’s talk about the 47%. According to a Brookings Institute and Urban Institute report, about half of these people pay no tax simply because their liability is eliminated due to the standard provisions of the tax system. These are the same rules we all adhere to. The overwhelming majority of the other half end up with no liability due to tax expenditures for the elderly and the working poor many of which were part of the Bush Tax Cuts.

In other words we’re not talking about people given special privileges here. These are either retired folks who worked their whole lives and the working poor who are doing the best they can. The conservative idea that these people are freeloaders is horseshit.

Let’s also remember that they do pay payroll taxes and state and local taxes. In fact, as shown in the graph, there isn’t a big difference between the percentage of total income and the percentage of total tax liability for the various income groups.

However this graph points out two problems. The first is that 1% of the population should not have 21% of the income. The second is the tax liability should be more progressive with the tax burden increasing faster than it does compared to the income percentage. These are the two primary things the Wall Street protesters need to focus on.

So, as usual, the conservatives have a distorted view of reality. So what else is new?

Missing Baby Lisa

I hate these stories because they never seem to have a happy ending.

An 11-month old baby girl is missing from a home in Kansas City. She’s been missing for about 2 weeks now and we all know that the longer it goes the smaller the chase for finding the child unharmed.

The latest twist (and these sort of stories always have twists and turns) involved the mom admitting she was drunk the night Lisa disappeared and that she lied about the last time she saw her. Originally she said she saw her around 10:30 PM when she checked on her. Now she’s saying it was closer to 6:40 PM. Four hours is a long time in these situations.

The Kansas City police, FBI and officers from neighboring communities have been taking the neighborhood apart house by house, tree by tree and blade of grass by blade of grass. Military Police from the Missouri National Guard joined the search Monday. So far, nothing. An “anonymous benefactor,” supposedly close to the family, has put up a $100,000 reward. I’m sure there’s a story there as well since these people don’t strike as having many friends with that kind of money.

So what the hell? Where is this kid?

Suspicion immediately falls on the parents in these cases. The father was working the night shift the night the child disappeared. Coincidentally this was his first night shift. I’m married, so I can sort of guess how the wife didn’t care for the change in schedule. Women rarely sit well with anything you do that upsets the routine. Perhaps that’s the reason why she got plastered that night.

This is not sounding terribly encouraging. People don’t break into houses and steal sleeping children. It’s not impossible, but It’s seems unlikely. The alternative is utterly horrible so one can only hope that’s what did happen and a good resolution is right around the corner.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Tim Tebow to Start for Denver

And this matters why?

It matters because as much as I disagree with Tebow’s religious views, I don’t think they should a factor in whether or not he plays for the Broncos, or any other team, and I can’t help but believe they have been.

Even the story announcing that Tebow would start against the Miami Dolphins included a “Hail Mary Pass” reference saying how appropriate it was that Tim had flung one.

Well I hope the writer’s fooball knowledge exceeds his theological knowledge because I doubt Tim would be saying any "Hail Marys." As a fundamentalist Christian that would be roughly equivalent to him praying to Zeus.

Now let's talk football because that's how Tebow needs to be judged. I say he deserves a chance and John Fox is right to give him one. The man clearly has the kind of passion for the game that makes everyone else around him play better. He’s the kind of player that is capable of producing results way beyond his level of talent and I think the guy’s pretty talented as well. The big questions are how well does he fit into Denver’s offensive scheme and what’s going to happen when teams start preparing for him rather than Kyle Orton.

I don't care for his religious beliefs but that has nothing to do with football. Besides, he's free to believe whatever he wants.

I think some folks are letting their agreement, or disagreement, with his religious outlook color their football judgment. If there is a God (which I doubt), he doesn't play football and he doesn't participate in a fantasy league or weekly pool either.

Cain’s 9-9-9 Plan

Everyone else seems to be talking about it so I suppose I should too. For those who don’t know what 9-9-9 stands for, it’s a proposal to replace the current federal tax code with a 9% flat income tax, a 9% corporate tax and a 9% federal sales tax. I’m not sure where Social Security taxes fit but I believe they would still be separate under the plan.

I’m going to grade it based upon three qualities. First, Simplicity, I don’t think you should need four accountants to pay your taxes. Second, Revenue Adequacy, you have to take in enough revenue to keep the federal government operating. One can argue its gotten bloated over the years but it still performs a wide range of functions that we’re going to need. Lastly, Fairness, while a tax code doesn’t necessarily have to be fair, I think most people, including me, believe it should be.

As for quality importance, to my mind Revenue Adequacy and Fairness are 5 credit factors and Simplicity is a 3 credit factor. Simplicity is nice but it’s not essential and the other two are.

I wholeheartedly agree that something needs to be done about the federal tax code. It’s too complicated. Cain’s plan is simple and straight forward so, for Simplicity, it gets an “A.”

On the question of Revenue Adequacy I have two concerns. The first is I find it highly unlikely it’s going to bring in anywhere near as much revenue as the current code and, secondly, it’s unclear to me that we’re going to accrue any significant benefit from slicing the corporate tax rate so significantly other than enrich the CEOs, the major stockholders and the corporations themselves. More money means more power and influence and the big corporations have too much of those already. I give Cain’s plan a “D” here and that’s being generous.

Now we come to fairness. The plan clearly favors the rich. A 9% flat tax on income would cut my taxes dramatically and I’m not anywhere near the top income bracket. Pure Flat taxes, where everyone is taxed at the same rate, are regressive and further encourage greed. I believe the tax rate should increase with income and would much prefer a graduated flat tax that started at 0% and worked its way up by marginal income.

In other words, for example, for the first $X no one would pay any taxes. Then from $X+1 to $Y one would pay say 5%; then from $Y+1 to $Z dollars one would pay 10% and so on. For incomes in the millions I would have the marginal tax rate in the 75% range. There would be no deductions, no tax shelters, but the flat rate would increase with income.

A sales tax is also regressive. In fact it’s probably the most regressive type of tax because the poor pay a much larger proportion of their income than the rich. A sales tax is also too easy to get around by buying goods and services outside the country. I can see “duty free” zones springing up on dozens of Caribbean Islands selling foreign goods to rich Americans just to get around the 9% federal tax.

For Fairness, the plan gets a big whopping “F.” I’d give it an F- if there was such a grade.

So let’s do the old college index calculation. ( (3x4)+(1x5)+(0x5))/(3+5+5) = 17/13 = 1.3. That’s a D+ folks so Cain’s plan flunks out.

It’s an interesting idea but I think it needs work. Going with a graduated flat tax on income while reducing the sales tax might be enough to make it a plan I could support, but I can’t support it the way it is.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The “Real” Origins of Christianity

I took an online course entitled “The Real Origins of Christianity.” I put the real in quotes in the title because it was strikingly obvious to me that we’re dabbling more in opinion and speculation than historical fact.

I did learn a lot of things and did have a number of misconceptions corrected. However, I had some difficulty with the main hypothesis of the instructor.

The instructor was Dr. Richard Carrier who, it is safe to say, sits near the left outer extreme of the continuum associated with the reliability of the gospels. To the extreme right are the fundamentalists that insist that every word is literally true and the text, at least in the original autographs, is inerrant and wholly without contradiction or error. At the opposite end are the ultra-skeptics who don’t even concede that the gospels are based upon a real man. Carrier acknowledges there was a real Jesus, but seems to take the position that the gospels are fiction written to make a point rather than relate a true story.

I had always been of the impression that the gospel story, or at least the Synoptic gospel story, consisted of an accurate core to which had been added mythical elements and which had been massaged to make the message better fit the particular audience. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever consider the idea that the entire story was pure fiction.

Nor do I buy that conclusion now. Carrier is writing a book defending that idea and apparently Robert Price has addressed a similar hypothesis in the “Incredible Shrinking Son of Man: How Reliable is the Gospel Tradition?” So I decided to buy Price’s book while I’m waiting for Carrier to finish his.

Now all I need to do is find time to read it.

The Mormon Question

There have been some mumbles about Mitt Romney’s religion. A Baptist preacher, who introduced Rick Perry at a forum, told reporters that Romney was not a Christian. The same preacher in 2008 said that Mormonism was a “cult.”

Now, personally, I happen to agree with the preacher that it's a cult. Mormonism was created by a third rate con man and is demonstrably false. It is total and complete crap. Anyone who has actually read the Book of Mormon, and has more than half a brain, could figure that out. Of course it’s so boring that reading it is a feat in itself. Mark Twain called in “Chloroform in print” and I think he was being kind.

Of course the Baptist preacher’s religion is complete crap also, it’s just not as demonstrably so. To my mind anyone that actually believes the tenets of Mormonism is unfit to be allowed anywhere the nuclear codes.

On the Republican campaign trail they’re tiptoeing around the question a bit. Newt Gingrich called the preachers comment “unwise and inappropriate.” Notice however that he didn’t say he was wrong.

Michelle Bachmann mumbled something about religious tolerance but also didn’t say the preacher was wrong.

Hermann Cain acknowledged that Romney was a Mormon and then said “I am not going to do an analysis of Mormonism versus Christianity for the sake of answering that."

Which sort of implies that Cain thinks they’re different doesn’t it?

And then there is Rick Santorum. He simply said something to the effect of if Romney says he’s Christian, I believe him.

Not one of them actually addressed the question. Politicians, you have to love them.