Category Archives: Taxes

Magic with Numbers!

SONY DSC

Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawkins were rank amateurs because they were handicapped by their pathetic math skills.

The real math pros are accountants.

As the old joke goes:
A businessman needed to hire someone who knew math. For the interview, he had written on a white board “2 + 2 =.” The mathemetician wrote “4,” as did the physicist. When an acountant arrived, he looked at the whiteboard, locked the door, checked to make sure the window was locked, and pulled the curtains. He leaned close to the businessman and whispered,
“What do you want it to be?”

Creative accounting requires more mental gymnastics than figuring out how the universe began or will end. Here’s a great example:

Forestt Gump, the movie, cost $55 million dollars to produce. It earned nearly $680 BILLION, but according to the accountants, it lost money. Some of the contributors (like author Winston Groom) had agreed to a percentage of the net profits. However, since it never made a dime, their share was zero.

Let’s review the math:

$679,850,637,000
–        $55,000,000
             ZERO*
* After depreciation, marketing, amortization, title, and dealer preparation charges–and other “Generally Accepted Accounting Principles”.

I didn’t include taxes, because if it “lost money,” I’m not sure whether or not they had to pay any.

Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking, eat your hearts out!

 

 

Teenagers Are Cheap?

As a newly acclaimed Philosopher-without-portfolio, I have taken my responsibilities seriously, to think about whatever needs to be thought about–without restrictions. I recently completed and submitted my income taxes. Naturally, that involves a great deal of thought, usually such things as, “I need something for my headache,” or “I don’t usually drink hard liquor, but it’s beginning to sound better and better.”

I use TurboTax, which is causes mixed feelings. Yes, it is helpful and yes, it’s about 1/10 the cost of having someone prepare it for me; however, it’s parent company, and all the companies that have anything to do with tax preparation, were the ones who lobbied (a polite term for hiring and unleashing high paid but unscrupulous experts) to prevent the simplification of the tax code. After all, if taxes were simple enough to submit on a post card, these people might have to get honest jobs.

But I digress (it’s a philosophical thing).

One of the many oddities in the tax code is the child tax credit. This is means you can reduce your federal tax by up to $1000 per child. The criteria include that the child lived with you, is your dependent, you paid for their support (food, clothing, etc.). It also requires that the child be younger than seventeen.

Now, I’ll reserve my opinion about politicians, the Internal Revenue Service, lobbyists, etc., but do they have any idea as to how costs change as a child gets older. I could clothe both my kids for a year for the same amount of money as I now spend on their shoes. Once they hit that magic age to get a driver’s license, auto insurance increases.

With two teenagers with drivers licenses I spend as much on car insurance in two years as what my first house cost. One of them is away at college, can’t have his car on campus, but since it’s less than 100 miles, the price stays the same. Add in the class photos, yearbooks, formal dances, etc., and those incidentals for college, like books, tuition, room and board, and you get the picture.

But someone has decided that kids must be cheaper after they turn 17 and included it in the tax code. They must be in one of those states where recreational marijuana is not only legal, but can be written off as a business expense.

Fixing Healthcare in America

First in a series

To correct healthcare and get costs under control, we must first acknowledge, then change the healthcare industry’s unique and outrageously dysfunctional business model.

  1. Physicians and other practitioners who decide which resources will be used in a hospital are often neither the direct provider, the one who pays, nor the beneficiary of the service. Basic economic rules, therefore do not apply. Medical tests, which are intended to provide information that will in some way impact the patient’s course of treatment, don’t. Many test and other procedures are ordered even when the outcome of the test will in no way affect the treatment of the patient or its results.
  2. Medical products and services are priced without any rationale. Often, prices are set artificially high in order to allow large discounts to insurance companies. This means that patients without insurance can be charged list price; eighty dollars for an aspirin or $100 for a BandAid®. Hospitals, which were once a ministry, stewardship, or public service have changed their priority to the bottom line. Some hospitals now own and operate their own collection agencies augmented by a small army of lawyers to guarantee that they collect what they have billed. This is why it is not uncommon for a small-town hospital to have millions of dollars in the bank—and still retain their not-for-profit status.
  3. And the insurance companies that get those big discounts? The hospital needs a staff of trained bureaucrats to generate the paperwork that is sent to the insurance company in order to receive payment. Payments may not be received for several months (for the MBAs out there—remember the first rule of finance—a bird [dollar] in the hand is worth two in the bush [accounts receivable]). When payment does arrive, administrative staff must reconcile the payments and file additional paperwork as necessary. All this adds to the hospital’s costs without adding any value. The insurance companies, on the other hand, are usually quite profitable, even after spending a lot of money on lobbyists. But just like Don Corleone said, “It’s nothing personal, it’s strictly business.”

So, what do we do?

First, it would be valuable to have the physicians evaluate how tests really affect the outcome for their patients and develop appropriate protocols. Malcolm Gladwell relates an excellent example in his book, Blink. The cardiology staff at Cook County Hospital was able to reduce tests while simultaneously improving patient outcomes.

[Gladwell, Malcolm (2005). Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. New York: Little, Brown.  ISBN 0-316-17232-4 (Especially the chapter on Cook County Hospital Cardiologists)]

Second, revise medical pricing so that it reflects reality—and that must include adequate margin to offset costs for necessary but expensive services. Emergency rooms are expensive to operate while an intensive care unit for patients suffering from burns is actually cost prohibitive. However, hospitals have an obligation to the community to provide necessary services—either directly or by affiliation—to the community. The community, in turn, must ensure the hospital is resourced to provide a wide range of services. If hospital prices reflected cost plus a reasonable margin to offset other costs, and everyone paid the same price—patient or insurance company, it might lead to more rational decisions—outcomes first, but economics as a consideration. If Grandpa—God love him—is a 96-year-old heavy smoker with high cholesterol and other morbidity factors who was hospitalized because of a stroke, a battery of tests that will not affect his quality of life or his longevity are not appropriate, and the insurer should not be expected to provide carte blanche payments. However, if the prices are realistic, the family may decide that they would be willing to pay for those additional procedures on their own.

Third, emphasize cooperation over competition. Is there any other business, other than hospitals, that would allow someone to work in their facility AND directly compete with it? Radiologists have their competing imaging centers, surgeons may have their private surgery centers, etc. Should specialty practitioners be entitled to benefit from the hospital’s patients and compete with the hospital for those same patients? It should be the practitioners’ choice—one or the other, but not both.

Two excellent resources for these issues are:

Brill, Steven (2015), America’s Bitter Pill: Money, Politics, Back-Room Deals, and the Fight to Fix Our Broken Healthcare System. New York. Random House. ISBN 978-0812996951

Rosenthal, Dr. Elisabeth (2017). An American Sickness, New York: Penguin Press. ISBN 9781594206757

If you want to fix American healthcare, pass this along to your friends, neighbors, doctor, etc. I’ll get a lot of hate mail, but we need to have the discussion.

More to follow.

THE Interview

Today, an interview with a man who needs no introduction. Good evening sir.

Good evening. It’s a pleasure to be here.

The world today is chaotic, yet in other ways, not so much. It was not that long ago—less than a century—when a number of nations were either at war or threatening war.

It has calmed down a bit, but one never knows when some radical leader will appear, appeal to those who have nothing to lose, and create all kinds of mayhem.

As the leader of the world’s only superpower, you have, in many ways, a responsibility to keep some semblance of order in the world.

That’s much easier to say from the chair you’re sitting in than from my chair. It’s a lot of responsibility to commit our blood and treasure to some fracas in a far-off land. Maintaining a military that can accomplish that is expensive and complex. When we station troops in some trouble spot, we still have to keep them supplied with everything from food to weapons. That supply train itself is expensive. People forget that our troops are stationed around the world—Europe, Asia, Africa.

Not to mention the fact that your primary duty is keeping the people back home happy.

The economy is always a major issue with the citizens. Everyone wants protection, good roads, and plenty of fresh water, but no one likes paying for those services through their taxes.

And then there’s politics—a truly demanding and dangerous game.

Dealing with politicians is different than dealing with any other group—they’re all trying to hang onto their power, and line their purse. I swear, there are senators that would stab me in the back, if given half a chance.

Well, let’s hope that they never get such a chance. I know your time is precious and your schedule full, but I do wish to thank you for taking time today.

The pleasure is mine.

Ladies and gentlemen, let’s have a round of applause for the most powerful man in the world—Julius Caesar.

Air Travel – A Business Model to Behold

Airplane! Need I say more?

Airplane!
Need I say more?

You’ve got to hand it to the airline industry. Their business model must be the envy of every other industry.

  1. No one likes to travel by airline. It is an trial to be endured. You may want to get to Vail or Orlando but the getting there via airline is not any part of the fun. Whenever there is an alternative, most people choose to avoid commercial flight. Unfortunately busses take forever, trains are unreliable and expensive and there’s a limit to how far the average person will drive.
  2. You can’t get there from here—not directly anyway. You have to stop at one or more additional airports, each of which gets landing fees, gate fees, profit and taxes from fuel sales, etc.
  3. Customer service is so abysmal that one might well consider it customer abuse. No leg room—let’s pack seats closer together. Boarding, which according to queuing theory could be handled significantly better, continues to be handled in a manner markedly worse than animals entering a slaughter house. During the flight, cabin attendants hawk the benefits of signing up for the airline’s very own Visa or MasterCard to a captive audience. “Get more points so we can abuse you more often!”
  4. Customers have been trained to accept additional charges for anything and everything. Check a bag? Twenty dollars. Check a second bag? Thirty-five dollars. Want to sit with your spouse and kids? Better dig out the gold credit card.
  5. Of course, the airports and the shops in the airports have jumped on THIS bandwagon. Parking fees are such that buying a beat up car and abandoning it at the airport is cheaper than paying for parking. Then, of course, there is the magnitude increase of prices for sodas, and food prices that Manhattan restaurants can only dream about. (In the Charlotte airport—a major connection hub—there is even an attendant in the men’s restroom with not one, but TWO Plexiglas tip receptacles [complete with padlocks]. I confess, he was entertaining enough, but aren’t airport restrooms supposed to be seedy places where members of congress seek out casual sex?)
  6. Fuel prices have been dropping, but ticket prices haven’t budged, even though they went up when fuel cost more. Why? The planes are full, so there’s no incentive to lower prices. (More customers? We don’t need no more stinking customers!)

Airlines have complained of being unprofitable for many years, but there’s unprofitable as in “Ohmigod we can’t pay our bills,” and then there’s unprofitable as in, “The accountants have figured out how to juggle the numbers even better. (Those of you who live near airline corporate headquarters—have you ever seen a rusted-out five year old compact car routinely parked in the CEO’s reserved parking spot? Didn’t think so.)

“Please remain seated until the aircraft has come to a complete stop—at which time we’ll sit here for a few more minutes before opening the aircraft door—Why? BECAUSE WE CAN! We know you have a choice in airlines, but we’re buying each other as fast as possible to eliminate choice as the last tiny vestige of human dignity. You can attempt to retrieve your baggage, or what’s left of it after we’ve kicked, dropped, crushed and perused the contents of it on the lower level. (We get some really neat stuff this way—as well as finding out some of your more embarrassing secrets). Some of you may be lucky, while the rest of you will have to make the 120 mile drive back to the airport tomorrow because after standing in line for three hours it made your luggage check in late. In any case, just like your luggage, your dignity has been shredded beyond recognition.

Maybe their motto should be, “We love to abuse, and it shows.”

 

Okay, Okay, So It’s a New Year

ballAs one granted a special ability to see into the future – at least the next few months, here are my predictions:

  • (10) Three million pounds of paper and the equivalent of two hundred thousand ball point pens will be wasted because people wrote “2014” instead of “2015.”
  • (9) Within ninety-six hours of 12:01 AM this morning, exactly 73.2 percent of all resolutions will have been broken.
  • (8) The National Hurricane Prediction Center will advise us to prepare for a banner year for storm activity; in the meantime, a conservative spokesman will announce from the National Hurricane Center (now thirty feet underwater) that global warming is just hype.
  • (7) Major financial institutions will lobby for federal assistance because the fluctuations in North Korean currency are having a major impact on the national economy.
  • (6) Why fluctuations in North Korean Currency? Because Kim Jong Un will be assassinated by his barber who refused to take responsibility for such a ridiculous haircut.
  • (5) The NSA will miss the events in North Korea because they’re busy monitoring a rather racy phone call between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and a Chippendale Dancer named “Hans.”
  • (4) Vladimir Putin will take decisive action to rescue the economy, and strike a macho pose sans shirt, all for “Mother Russia.”
  • (3) The International Space Station will make a surprise announcement that it is now under the control of the Cayman Islands Space Agency to shelter not only the astronauts but also all support personnel from taxes.
  • (2) Hollywood will specialize in the remake of the sequel of the sequel of the remake of the sequel.
  • (1) With social media, smartphones, tablets, etc. future historians will mark 2015 as the year in which spoken communication became a dying art.

Since I know these things, what are my plans? I’m hoping to sleep until at least 2016.

Thinking Out Loud

balloon

Sometimes ideas in my mind sound totally different when I say them out loud.

Often, I’ll have a great idea when in the shower, and after getting to work I excitedly share it with someone.

But once I say it out loud, it sounds like the stupidest thing I could have ever said.

That’s why I like working as part of a team. Bad ideas can be dispensed with quickly, or better yet, someone will respond with something like, “That’s stupid, but if we turn it sideways and paint it blue, it just might work.” That’s how ideas grow.

Yesterday on my way home from work, I was talking with my father on the telephone. Like everyone else who works for the government, I’m less than enthralled with Congress. As we were talking, I blurted out that even though it was disruptive to be furloughed again, I’m still blessed to have a job when many of my chronological peers are not so blessed.

It’s easy to forget the good stuff.

My advice – Don’t.

The Government is Shutting Down!

You’ve reached the United States Government. We’re closed right now.  If you receive this message during regular working hours, it means that we were not funded. Please try your call later. Thank you.

It’s the lead story on the news, it’s the end of life as we know it! (Details at eleven) And, of course, it’s someone else’s fault.

What will we do? What will we do?

Unless God wills otherwise, tomorrow, the sun will come up.

Most of those with a job will go to work. Children will go to school.

People will eat and sleep. Children will play at recess. Babies will be born. And yes, someone’s grandpa may die.

So what will be different?

If you were planning a luxurious trip to some exotic island, your passport may be delayed.

Your government grant for studying the nocturnal feeding habits of black footed ferrets in the high plains won’t be funded just yet.

Our lives will go on.

And maybe some people will realize that the politicians are neither as important nor as powerful as they’d have us believe.

On the other hand, God is.

Congressional Update

visitingdc.com (And it is a great place to visit)

visitingdc.com
(And it is a great place to visit)

Sources who declined to be identified have provided the following information.

In the hallway of the Capitol Building, several Tea Partiers demanded Harry Reid’s lunch money. This was their 42nd unsuccessful attempt.

Meanwhile, Senator Ted Cruz threatened to hold his breath until he passed out, if they didn’t promise to keep trying.

Speaker John Boehner when asked about the incident, replied, “The devil, I mean Ted Cruz, made me do it. I didn’t want to but he made me!”

Meanwhile, Nancy Pelosi yelled, “Will you all be quiet! I’m still trying to read this Affordable Healthcare Act to see what’s in it!”

Other sources have indicated that President Obama responded with, “As the highest elected official, and the spiffiest dresser since Harry Truman, if I do say so myself, I’d like to say nyaa nyaa nya nyaa nyaa!”

Unfortunately, when Ted Cruz passed out, no one seemed to care.

Economy Turns!

school

In spite of the Federal Reserve, the US Department of the Treasury, the World Monetary Fund, Bernie Madoff, Congress and even Donald Trump, indications are that the last few weeks have shown an incredible turnaround in the economy.

However, based on in depth analysis, most of this is due to buying back-to-school supplies and clothes, and can be expected to be a relatively short term phenomenon.

Several parents were interviewed outside various retail stores. Most had the deer-in-the-headlight look, and several were staring in disbelief at empty wallets. One father suffered second degree burns after putting his credit card directly back into his pocket immediately after outfitting his six kids.

Although politicians have claimed credit, economists have pointed instead to the American school teacher as the cause. Although the back to school season will soon be over, any good news is – well – good news.

Let’s Fix the Post Office

It's Mr. Zip! He'll fix it!

It’s Mr. Zip! He’ll fix it!

 

We really need to do something about the United States Postal Service (USPS).

1. Their business plan has been to focus on junk mail because it is more profitable in the short run. Never mind that the junk mail goes immediately from the mailbox to the trash or recycling 99% of the time, and eliminating it might be the single largest contribution to solving global warming. Think of all the carbon released making paper, delivering paper to the printer, printing the junk mail, delivering it to the post office, forwarding it from there to the receiving post office and delivering it. Oh, and don’t forget the exhaust from garbage or recycling truck that then takes it away.

How many big businesses went under because to focusing on the short term?

2. The Postal Service is closing facilities in the name of efficiency while sacrificing effectiveness. A birthday card from my house to a neighbor no longer goes 6 miles to downtown Norfolk and back in one day. All that mail now goes 105 miles to Richmond and back in two days. Did I mention how all this transportation by the USPS contributes to global warming?

Plus it takes longer to deliver.

3. The latest brainstorm for the USPS is to compete with FedEx, UPS, and the other successful package delivery systems. So how’s that going?

  • I ordered an item from Mumbai, India on August 15. The Indian postal system showed the item dropped off at the Mumbai Airport Sorting Office on August 17 and arrived in New York (7809 miles) on August 18, at which point it:
    • was handed off to the USPS
    • status on its progress is no longer available
  • I ordered another item from Ames, Iowa, USA on August 13. This item was put into the mail on August 14 and sent to the USPS sorting facility in Des Moines, IA the same day (distance, 34 miles). This morning (August 21) it departed the Des Moines, IA sorting facility after a fun-filled, all expense paid week there.

Mind you, when I ship something, I use the USPS whenever possible. If I sell something on eBay, I send it Priority Mail (2-3 days) in a “if it fits, it ships” box. I purchase the postage on-line and print out an official USPS barcoded label. I’m trying to do my part.

So, c’mon guys. Dump the junk mail and compete like you want to win.

HOWEVER

 

Federal Furlough Friday

Federal Furlough Friday

I get a three day weekend every week for the next eleven weeks, HOWEVER, the extra day will be without pay.

In the meantime, here are a few HOWEVERs I learned from the mainstream media.

Justin Bieber, was videoed urinating in a mop bucket, HOWEVER, he did call Bill Clinton to apologize.

Fish oil is going to kill me through prostate cancer, HOWEVER, having cancer may save me from Alzheimers.

My cats are going to kill me through microbes in their litter box, HOWEVER, they make great companion animals for people who are dying.

Americans, are exercising more, HOWEVER, they’re still getting more obese.

To lose weight many people drink diet soda, HOWEVER, it may actually make you crave more calories.

I could write more, HOWEVER, I’m out of ideas.

You Should Be Fired

I intentionally try to avoid political topics – Lord knows our nation is divided enough. From time to time, though I feel I need to point out the obvious.

fired

If I contract with somebody to build a house for me, and after selling my existing home, I find that my new home is not only not complete, but barely started, what will I do? I don’t care if the electricians blame the plumbers. I don’t care if the plumbers all say it’s the carpenters’ fault. I hired a contractor to build me a house, and there’s no house.

If we send people to Congress, we likewise expect that they are going to do what we sent them to do. I don’t care if the Republicans blame the Democrats, the Democrats blame the Republicans. The Congress has not done their job.

People who don’t do their jobs should be fired.

Do we have a workable budget? No.

We’re sending money to countries that don’t even have a government while we’re making the employees of our government take time off without pay.

Except, of course, for Congress.

Therefore I suggest that we call Congress on the carpet and fire them. Every one of them.

Yes, I know your Congressman was able to get his/her district funding for [Insert your pet project here]. I don’t care, and neither should you if your project is at the expense of the nation as a whole.

We’re not a series of independent and competing congressional districts. We’re a nation. “One nation, under God, indivisible.”

Send an letter/e-mail/whatever to your senators and congressional representative and tell them that based on the performance of Congress as a whole, unless things change you’re going to vote against all incumbents at the federal level in hopes that the next Congress understands for whom they work, and what is expected.

Part Time Americans

flag

I got sucked in by one of those online “news stories” that actually was at least 6 months old. The article purported that wealthy Americans were giving up their citizenship to avoid paying taxes particularly on money earned, kept or hidden overseas.

I’ve read that with our progressive tax system about half don’t pay any income tax and/or may receive a credit from the government. Likewise, reports indicate that the top one percent pay 30% of the taxes to the federal government. (I’m not saying these are correct, as Mark Twain reportedly said, “There’s lies, damned lies and statistics.”)

At first I thought it might be worth our while to try to induce these folks to stay around in order to catch the tax revenue, but then I dug a little deeper.

It appears that most of them don’t actually live here. I’m guessing many have dual citizenship, so they’re more like part time Americans.

Since money is more important than their citizenship, I figure they’re at best fair-weather Americans; at worst, American in name only.

I prefer us normal, not wealthy, plain old every day Americans, anyway.

To the rich who are turning in their passports, “Don’t let the bank vault door hit you in ass on your way out!”

No Gridlock Here

npr

I’m not exactly a liberal, so sometimes NPR rubs me the wrong way. However, NPR does in-depth coverage of issues that only get sound-bite treatment from other sources, so I’m a regular listener.

(Yes, I’m a member, and have been donating for years.)

Occasionally NPR will cover some issues that no one else seems to want to cover.

Recently they investigated why the number of people receiving Social Security Supplemental Security Income (SSI – also known as disability payments) nearly doubled over the past 15 years. It turns out that there’s a whole industry dedicated to getting people disability payments. Who’s a big customer? State governments some of which pay thousands of dollars for each person moved from welfare (a state funded program) to disability (a federally funded program).

Thought provoking – the link is http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/490/trends-with-benefits?act=2#play

Today NPR had a piece describing how in a matter of 30 seconds Congress (the same Congress who can’t seem to agree on anything) passed a bill and got it signed by the President. Of course, this was a SPECIAL bill. A VERY SPECIAL BILL. This bill canceled many of the provisions of the law that made congressional financial trading more transparent. The original bill made it possible to see how lawmakers invest their largesse. Did Senator Whatsisname own stock in the pharmaceutical industry before voting on a bill that benefitted drug companies? The original law was intended to make it possible to find out. The thirty second bill fixed that.

If you’re interested in the details, here’s the link. http://www.npr.org/blogs/itsallpolitics/2013/04/16/177496734/how-congress-quietly-overhauled-its-insider-trading-law

In the recent past I wished Congress could get along and get things done. Now, I’m not so sure.

Be Practical!

Curiosity, the Mars Rover landed yesterday/early this morning depending on your time zone. The most advanced space robot ever placed on another planet; about the size of an SUV. However, already there are comments about what a waste of time and money it is. Definitely not very practical – perhaps, but only history will tell. Many things we consider successful today might have seemed less inspiring in the past. Here are a few comments that might have been made:

“Uggg, you Neanderthal! Stop drawing those pictures on the cave walls. No one else will ever notice!”

“Hey, Moses, why didn’t you just leave us in Egypt? At least there we had something to eat instead of starving out here in the desert!”

“Look, Jesus, we’ve known you since you were crawling on the floor of your daddy’s carpentry shop. We know your mother, brothers and sisters. You’re no prophet!”

“Da Vinci, don’t waste your time on these stupid inventions. You’re making a good living painting, so stick to the sure thing.”

“Listen, Columbus, give me one good reason why someone should pay for you to sail west in order to go to India. For all you know there might be a whole ‘nother continent between Europe and India. What would you do then?”

“Orville – you and your brother Wilbur need to go back up to Dayton and concentrate on your bicycle shop and stop fooling around down here at Kitty Hawk. Man wasn’t meant to fly!”

“Einstein? What kind of name is that? In any case, no one cares if anything can go faster than light. The fastest we’ve seen any plane or vehicle go is a few hundred miles an hour.”

“President Kennedy, why in the world would we ever want to send an American to the moon AND do so in less than ten years?”

“Cure smallpox? Man has never completely eradicated any disease before – EVER. Besides we’ve been trying for almost 200 years!”

 

I will close with one of my favorite quotes:

“Some people see things as they are and ask why. I see things as they can be and ask, why not?”

  • Robert F. (Bobby) Kennedy

I Hate Taxes

As the political circus continues, I am reminded of one of the assigned management readings back in college.  The premise was that we’re sometimes more successful when we say something different than what we mean.  Oddly most of the examples involved politicians.

A politician who announces that he or she is in favor of better education is going to receive positive marks from many voters.  On the other hand, a politician who honestly states that he or she is in favor of raising taxes to support better education is not going to be perceived as well.  Go figure. One of the examples the cited was when Richard Nixon stated that he has a “secret” plan for getting America out of Vietnam. Like making sausage, people want the end result without having to watch the process.

The big political brouhaha today is, of course, taxes. Now don’t get me wrong.  I dislike taxes as much as the next guy.  I know I dislike them more than people who pay less than I do. I don’t want to pay one more cent of taxes per gallon of gas! Unfortunately, I do want to have roads that are free of potholes and able to handle rush hour traffic.

Around here they’ve avoided raising the tax on gasoline for quite some time and the road system isn’t up to snuff.  Every election, some clown’s ads bemoan how the opponent was in favor of increasing a tax to pay for roads (or even worse – wait for it – schools!)

In these parts the biggest highway issues involve bridges over and tunnels under the various waterways. Roads are expensive, but bridges and tunnels far more so. Apparently we all like living by the water but we don’t like paying for bridges and tunnels.  Since the politicians cannot or will not raise the money to support the bridges and tunnels that are needed, there are two alternatives. 1) Do without or 2) To partner with private corporations who will build bridges and tunnels and charge a toll to recoup their investment.

You can imagine the hue and cry over imposing tolls; especially since the only logical way to pay for an additional tunnel from point “A” to point “B” is to charge tolls on the existing tunnel as well as the new one. People around here are very crafty when it comes to alternate routes without tolls.

Again, I dislike taxes.  However, it is the usual and customary requirement that if I want something, I have to pay for it.  I want a nice meal I have to pay for it whether I eat out or at home.  However, when it comes to roads, schools or whatever, people perceive it as something different.

It seems that culturally we now believe that if it is something for ME I’m willing to pay for it.  On the other hand, if it’s something we’re going to share, then I think someone else should provide it.

“It’s mine and you can’t have it!”

Sounds like the typical reaction of a two or three year old.

Some people have developed advanced weasel skill and try to figure out how to get what they want and stick someone else with the tab.  A great example is the various taxes that get tacked onto hotel bills.  Let those out-of-towners pay for my stuff.  Since the taxes are added on after the fact, we can still quote the room rate at the pre-tax level.  It must be okay, since everybody does it – hotels, airlines, cell phone companies…  No one says, “And if these big companies jumped off the Empire State Building, would you jump too?”

Of course these are the same people who gripe about the greedy S.O.B.s who put all those taxes on the hotel bill when they spend time out of town.

But back to roads.

My commute includes about 15 minutes in which I’m stuck in stop-and-go traffic.  I have to wonder if the amount of gas all of us in that traffic jam burn up while just sitting doesn’t cost a lot more than the amount of tax that would be needed to keep the transportation system working properly.  It costs me about $34 to fill my tank once a week. I probably waste a gallon of gas stuck in traffic each week. That’s the same as an additional 33 cents per gallon of gas. If I were paying 10 cents a gallon in additional tax to pay for roads, I’d save almost $20 per year, not to mention the fact that I would get home 15 minutes sooner every day.

I still hate taxes, but I understand that we makes our choices and we pays our fees.

Of course I’d still grumble about taxes even if I was driving home at the speed limit, over a new bridge, without tolls – but my heart wouldn’t be in it.

Facing Problems

I had a co-worker who pointed out when he perceived that people were “stuck in awareness.”  I suspect that he may have written his doctoral dissertation on this and therefore it was near and dear to his heart. In my case he proclaimed that I was “stuck in the 60’s” meaning I remained committed to ideals that most had discarded due to their complete impracticality.

But let’s explore “stuck in awareness.”  In a nutshell there are several stages in solving problems with the first being that one becomes aware that a problem exists.  Next one determines possible solutions and decides on one to try.  The solution is attempted and results measured.  If the problem is solved, the process is complete.  If not, a different solution is tried until either the problem is solved or no more solutions are apparent and the problem is therefore considered unsolvable.

It’s easy finding problems.  Solving them is what separates effective people from ineffective ones.

Take the example of a sinking ship.  The preferred solution is to get the ship to a properly equipped shipyard and have the damaged segments of the hull removed and replaced.  However, if the ship is in the middle of the ocean, the only option may be to drive wooden plugs into the smaller holes and stuff mattresses backed up by bracing up against the larger ones. Then you run the pumps to remove the water coming in through the manageable but still present leaks.  This allows you to keep the ship afloat until it can make its way, be towed or be transported to the appropriate shipyard.

Occupy [fill in the blank] has pointed out many problems.

The Tea Party has pointed out many problems.

The Democrats have pointed out many problems.

The Republicans have pointed out many problems.

(Are you catching a trend here?)

The Executive Branch of the government has pointed out many problems.

The Legislative Branch of the government has pointed out many problems.

It’s time to come up with some solutions.  If the government needs money do you go to the poor people to get it?  Do you look to the unemployed or the retired? No.  You look to the rich.

As Willy Sutton said when asked why he robbed banks, “That’s where the money is!”

I don’t want to pay more taxes, but sometimes we must do what is right whether it pleases us or not.  I don’t like to watch my diet and I’m not particularly fond of getting up at 4:00 AM to get some exercise time in either.  Same principle.

As we used to say, “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem!”

I guess I am stuck in the 60’s after all!

A Conicidence of Biblical Proportions?

With the “Occupy Wall Street” movement and the “Tea Party” in the news this past week, a curious coincidence occurred this morning at Mass. 

The Catholic Church uses a three year cycle of scriptural readings, so at best this was a one-in-three shot, although it’s probably more accurate to call it a one-in-one hundred fifty-six; (three cycles of 52 Sundays.)  Rather than paraphrasing, I’ve copied the reading below.

Gospel, Mt 22:15-21

15 Then the Pharisees went away to work out between them how to trap him in what he said.

16 And they sent their disciples to him, together with some Herodians, to say, ‘Master, we know that you are an honest man and teach the way of God in all honesty, and that you are not afraid of anyone, because human rank means nothing to you.

17 Give us your opinion, then. Is it permissible to pay taxes to Caesar or not?’

18 But Jesus was aware of their malice and replied, ‘You hypocrites! Why are you putting me to the test?

19 Show me the money you pay the tax with.’ They handed him a denarius,

20 and he said, ‘Whose portrait is this? Whose title?’

21 They replied, ‘Caesar’s.’ Then he said to them, ‘Very well, pay Caesar what belongs to Caesar — and God what belongs to God.’

 http://www.catholic.org/bible/daily_reading/

The most obvious lesson from this is that the Pharisees sent their loyalists and representatives of the Jewish king, Herod to ask Jesus a no-win question.  If he said the Roman tax should be paid then he would be deemed to be apostate to their faith; if he said it should not be paid, then he could be turned over to the Romans for promoting insurrection.  Jesus answer negated both of these outcomes.

Father Brian’s homily pointed out that the more important message is that we are both citizens of heaven and citizens of the earth.  Our stewardship responsibilities include such matters as politics, from knowing the issues to voting consistent with our values.  We’re responsible to both worlds.

This got me thinking about the current political activities.  The Occupiers of Wall Street don’t have the answer – but then neither does Congress, the President, Economists, Social Scientists, Wall Street or anyone else.  However, when something is wrong, the first thing to do is to admit that there’s a problem. 

I don’t know how things are going to happen in the world of politics over the next 56 weeks (more or less) but it was interesting to have this gospel today.

On the other hand, maybe it wasn’t a coincidence after all.  Could be just one more sign that God is involved in our daily lives.  Now the question is, “How do we respond?”

After These Brief Words

“This forum will come to order!” The noise in the assembly hall slowly diminished and heads began to turn to the podium. 

“Ladies and gentlemen, wlecome to the United States Economic Summit.  We have (POP) assembled (SQUEAK) some of the greatest minds in economics, finance and business from the world of academia, Fortune 500 businesses and (GROWLLLLLL). 

“I apologize for the PA system noise. We seem to be having a problem and we expect the technician to be arriving shortly to repair the system.  As a matter of fact I believe I see him now.”  The crowd briefly broke into a smattering of applause and laughter as a middle aged gentleman made his way from the back of the room to the table near the dais where all the sound equipment was located.  He smiled and waved good naturedly to the crowd. 

“If you don’t mind, we’ll try to continue as best we can while you fix whatever is making that awful racket.”  The repairman gave a smile and a thumbs up as he opened the case containing his tools.  

“And I thought my teenagers’ music was hard on the ears,” the speaker offered, which was once again met by laughter from the crowd.  

The meeting began with a panel of experts who each presented their view on why the country was in such terrible economic straits.  Several blamed the deficit.  Others blamed the housing bubble.  Naturally there was talk about the need to cut taxes so that businesses would create jobs.  Others proposed raising taxes and there was talk of the government’s role in creating “shovel ready” jobs.  Each speaker was politely listened to.  Those who agreed applauded enthusiastically while others were responded politely and professionally.  The feedback and crackling from the public address system steadily decreased. 

After an hour, no particular consensus had been reached and the discussion consisted of each camp rehashing its same argument in slightly different words.  It was obvious that no progress was going to be made.  It was almost merciful when the repairman walked over to the podium.

 “I hate to interrupt, but I think I’ve gotten everything fixed and we need to reset the levels.”   The speaker motioned him over.

 “I need to keep talking while Bob over their makes the adjustment.”  He looked out at the audience, most of whom had taken to carrying on conversations with their neighbors.

 “Now I’m not as smart as all you experts but I’m pretty good at what I do.  When something gets broken, I fix it.  I don’t talk about fixing it.  I don’t call a press conference and tell the newspaper or TV reporters that I’m going to fix it.  I just fix it.

“I’ve been listening to the discussion while I was working.  The economy is broke.  I say ‘broke’ rather than ‘broken’ to indicate that it’s broken AND it’s out of money.  Now I don’t think the way you do.  I can’t imagine a billion dollars, much less a trillion, and I’ve got a pretty good imagination.  I think on a much smaller scale, but I believe the principles are the same.

 “The country’s in debt.  We all understand that.  I’ve been in debt.  I went to college, so I started my working life with huge student loans hanging over my head.

 “I knew that I needed to pay for food, rent, and transportation and of course, my student loans.  Imagine if I had tried to solve my problem by cutting my expenses.  I was already living on Ramen noodles and peanut butter sandwiches so I couldn’t cut my food expenses.  I was living in the cheapest apartment I could find and taking the bus.  If I couldn’t cut expenses then it was obvious that I had to earn more.  Like today, it was a tough employment market so options were limited.

 “It might surprise you to learn that my college degree was in electrical engineering, and I had an entry level position with a large corporation.  My solution? After working my day job I began to do repair work in the evenings to earn extra money.  Some might think that repair work is beneath someone with a B.E.E. and I agree.  However, it is not beneath a B.E.E. who needs the money.  Four years of college and I was designing high tech equipment by day but I was also fixing toasters and stereos at night.  I put that money toward the debt and I was able to get my finances in order in two years rather than ten.

 “I know that our elected representatives have spent more money than we can imagine and I’m not excusing that.  If my kids caught me acting like that, they’d put me in a home where someone could keep an eye on me.  It’s illegal to shoot politicians and every election cycle it seems like we end up with a batch that’s even worse than the bastards we throw out. 

 I guarantee you that if Congress passes a bill to stop spending money there will be at least a half dozen provisions to fund pork projects back home buried in it somewhere.  You just might have to do what I had to do – earn more.

 “When I work, I pay taxes and when I earn more I pay more taxes.  It would seem that if more people were working, more of them would be paying taxes.  If they had good jobs, they’d pay more.  There’s a place to start.  Personally I don’t care who creates more jobs, just as long as there are enough to go around.

 “Speaking of taxes, maybe if people could understand our tax system it might be a little more tolerable.  Something like sales tax – it’s 5% for everybody.  Warren Buffet pays sales tax, Bill Gates pays sales tax and we all pay sales tax.  If everybody pays it, it might not have to be set so high.  Just a thought.”  He looked over at the young man at the table with all the sound equipment who gave him a thumbs up.

 “Levels all set?” he asked.  “Good!” and he began walking away from the microphone.

 “No!” replied the young man.  “The thumbs up was about what you said.”