Cogito, Ergo Sumana

Categories: sumana | Taxes


: NYC Comptroller Town Hall, And Reflections on Constraint: Last night I suited up and went to a local town hall held by the office of New York City's Comptroller, Scott Stringer. (I am in the fuzzy foreground of the second photo.) After very short introductions from the venue host (CUNY Law School), Stringer and his staff, we went straight to questions!

I appreciated a lot of things about the event. There was an ASL translator on the stage, and when residents wanted to ask questions in Spanish, a staffer translated between Spanish and English for them. Stringer kept the lines moving by answering folks' questions but also limiting them to one question each (or they could head to the back of the line to get another turn), and interrupted rambly rants by asking for a question he could answer. And if people spoke up with complaints, he promised: fill out a constituent intake form and give it to one of my staffers, and we will call you by noon tomorrow. And free bottled water, next to the paper copies of audit reports and outreach flyers, was a nice touch.

a filled-out constituent intake form with the question I had asked orallyI asked the first question: how can we save money in IT procurement? Perhaps by banding together in consortia with other municipalities to have better leverage with vendors, or making or using open source software? I fear I was not very clear and was misunderstood. Stringer replied by talking about the need to modernize the procurement process itself, which is evidently still paper-based and slow, and about how this depends on revising the City Charter. Wendy Garcia (the office's Chief Diversity Officer) followed up by suggesting that I myself might want to come to their office so they could help my business figure out where our services matched up with the city's contracting needs. [I spoke with her after the town hall to clarify: no, I'm not trying to get business for Changeset here, I'm just interested in the issue! (Maybe I misguided them by introducing myself as a consultant and wearing a suit. The suit was just to respect the occasion! Next time maybe I will wear a stylish dress and cardigan, which seems to be what middle-class women activists wear to these things??)]

I filled out a constituent intake form, and, sure enough, just before 10:30am today, I got a call from their office asking me to email a specific staffer with more details! Well done.

Other questions and answers included a wide variety of concerns: older guy who doesn't like streets getting named after politicians, frequent meeting questioner guy whose stuff was taken (and never returned) when he was arrested in 2015, the Major Capital Improvement rule landlords use to get around rent control, Department of Education buildings that perhaps ought to be reused instead of sold, divesting NYC's pension fund of fossil fuel, Stringer's political ambitions, an idea for stop sign speed sensors (like traffic light speed sensors), the closure of the jail on Rikers Island, helping immigrants pay the costs of applying for citizenship, sewer problems, the placements of homeless shelters, and helping residents use their on-time rent payments to count towards credit scores. My neighbors care about a lot of different things. I took a few notes and mostly sketched. There was this one power outlet mechanism embedded in the desk right in front of me and I drew it like five times and never got the angles to look right.

One interesting thing I learned: when the Comptroller's office audits a city department, it usually takes about 18 months, so they only go in and do an audit if they think it's likely they'll find something.

signs on the wall at CUNY Law School about 'Why I'm Here': 'Bend The Arc', 'Learn The Law, Use The Law, Change The Law'I went home and commented on the proposed National Park Service rule change "Special Regulations, Areas of the National Park System, National Capital Region, Special Events and Demonstrations". I commented on 4 things: making the swimming/wading rules more consistent, removing the "duplicative" criterion, the "atmosphere of contemplation" expansion, and the proposed permit application fees. And then I wrote a thing to prepare for a meeting today, while texting with a friend who's going through a rough time.

I don't know anyone who's not going through some kind of rough time. Or at least I can't think of any. If nothing else we have the awful "well, MY life is great, but the world is horrifying" awareness; it feels like we're betraying our neighbors when we enjoy our personal successes. I never know whether I'm doing enough; I have to define "enough" for myself, which feels audacious. Willow Brugh wrote about how she's implementing a concept I first heard about from Abi Sutherland in December 2016:

While I am pushing to find ways to gain (and deserve) greater influence in the world, those things which fall outside of my influence cannot be that which concerns me most. To do otherwise is a path to madness. I must trust that other capable people exist in the world, and that they are taking up their share just as I am taking up mine. As you are taking up yours.
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: Younger Sumana As Media Consumer: A few memories.

First.

One morning in May 2001, I looked through my apartment, gathered together a bunch of items into plastic bags, and walked a few blocks to a man's apartment. I broke up with him and gave him back his stuff -- all the stuff of his that he'd left at my place over time (although of course I missed a few things and had to arrange a handoff or two over the next several months). As he processed that I was dumping him, I looked around his room for my stuff so I could take it back. A few things caused me hesitation. I specifically remember thinking that I had given him Waiting by Ha Jin, which I'd already read, and that he would never read it. I took it back, I think.

Today I bought a book of short stories by Ha Jin. I hope I like it.


Second.

In the fall of 1998 I took a history class with Robin Einhorn. Her use of economic data fascinated me. I learned that she specialized in tax law. I started getting interested in it too (see my blog posts filed under "Taxes") and, after I got my bachelor's, asked her to coffee so I could learn more about whether I should pursue a graduate degree in tax history. She gave me a short reading list. I started it, and enjoyed what I was learning, but didn't feel the "I want to pursue this as a career" itch. I could tell that it was only going to be a hobby for me, not something I wanted to spend several years researching full-time.

It still fascinates me. Approximately everyone pays taxes, approximately every government collects taxes, and the creation of every tax statute -- even in non-democratic societies -- causes and/or is caused by a special interest group. There's a lens that sees every government as, at its core, a taxation structure, and I still see every clause in a tax code as a fossil hinting at immense struggles.


Third.

One birthday, I was on an airplane on my way to a bee (I am trying to remember whether it was a vocabulary bee or a spelling bee). My mother flew with me. She got out my birthday gift from under the seat: the Star Trek Encyclopedia. Oh how I pored over that thing.

A few years later, I was like 14 or 15, and still an intense Star Trek fan, and my parents -- and I don't know how they did this -- found out that Naren Shankar, a Trek screenwriter, would be at some Indian-related event, and arranged for him to have a meal with us. I am pretty sure I asked just the most pedantic fannish questions, like "so I heard in this new Voyager Kes is from a species that only lives for seven years, how can that even work?!" and was generally an ass. I'm sorry, Naren Shankar! I'm really glad I got to meet you and feel that connection every time I saw your name in the credits! It was so cool to know that an Indian like me was working on the show!

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(1) : Longbows & Longboxes: Read some Amar Chitra Katha comic books today.

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(3) : Slapdash Thoughts On Real Estate: I need to read about property.

Specifically, I need to read philosophy of property. What does it mean when we say, or feel, that we own something? In the free software crowd, this is a perfectly normal thing to want to learn and does not make me any nerdier than I already am.

[This is in contrast to how people reacted to me at Thursday night's Tor.com meetup. To make it easier to make conversation, I wore a reusable whiteboard-ish nametag upon which I'd written my name, my Tor.com handle, and a bunch of topics I'm interested in: Le Guin, Battlestar, Stephenson, Trek, open source, feminism, stand-up comedy, and tax history. (Write on it with a Sharpie, erase with any sort of alcohol. I used perfume.) People invariably looked at it, nodded along, and then asked incredulously, "Tax history?" to which I responded, "That's what makes me a nerd here." Laughter & bonding achieved!]

I need to understand theory of property because I've been trying to understand my own feelings about ownership. For example, I have some inchoate thoughts on analogies among our property intuitions regarding homes, romantic and filial relationships, and intellectual property, especially regarding homesteading/squatter's rights/Lockean "mixing your labor with the land." But right now I want to talk about buying versus renting.

In personal terms, investing 300% of your wealth in one asset seems like dubious personal finance.

So why, in the US in the later twentieth century, did it make economic sense to buy a home to live in? Well, these days, the cost of rent or mortgage is now like half or more of income, on average. The government made interest on home mortgages tax-deductible, so it's like you don't have to pay taxes on the income that you used to pay that mortgage. And on a 30-year (standard) mortgage, interest is like 80 or 90% of the monthly payment.

But.

Sure, renting makes you feel like you're throwing away money every month instead of investing in your own wealth, and your rent goes into the pockets of the rentier class. But given the huge proportion of interest to principal in a mortgage payment, a mortage builds equity pretty slowly, and all that interest goes to the rentier class too. And it decreases the homeowner's mobility, of course, which hits knowledge workers especially hard. (I'm assuming that if you're reading this knowledge work is your lot.) Being able to move to a new city to command higher wages or consulting fees is an economic benefit too.

And house prices are not guaranteed to go up! Like Franklin Mint collectibles, they are not guaranteed to increase in value. And past performance really is no guarantee of future results. Buying a house is making a big, big bet.

But this is where we get to the intangible benefits of permanence, and all those other benefits of "owning" "your" "own" "home." (Heck, even our language is biased. We say "I just bought a house" or "she owns her home" as shorthand for "I just signed a mortgage and intend on owning this house outright eventually" or "she is slow-mo buying her home on the installment plan.")

If I own my house and live in it for a long time, it's a lot easier to raise kids, to run for office, to customize my living space, to feel neighborly, and so on. But what comes from what? What parts of those benefits are coming from choosing a city and staying there, from staying in one particular home, or from having a deed to a piece of land?

When I sleep overnight in my parents' house, or my sister's condo, what is that strange comfortable feeling I get? Do you get that feeling too?

So, just as I want to interrogate my emotional attachment to intellectual property, I want to make sense of my relationships with other forms of property. For example, I am used to living in a house that my family "owns". But what are other options? I could rent a house on a longish lease, to make that commitment that leads to the other benefits of long residency. I could buy a house with a mortgage of shorter duration so more of my money would go towards principal (and thus equity) rather than wasteful interest. I could join co-ops, communes, what have you.

The real shock, the one I have to overcome, is realizing that my reflexes when it comes to home ownership are based on certain historical contingencies about my childhood, the interest tax deduction for homeowners' mortgages, the existing financial and banking institutions, etc. I'm like the RIAA -- mistaking a common business model for What's Owed Me. But the universe does not owe me the deed to a piece of land and a four-bedroom two-bath. Nor does it owe me happy fleet-footed technomad ease in spatial (or social) mobility.

Buying a house to live in makes sense for some people. Will it ever make sense for me? I need to read about property.

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: Bad Relationship: Established doctors' offices face new competition from quick clinics at drugstores & big-box stores that dispense flu shots, etc. Unlike the RIAA, physicians don't try to legislate new competition out of existence, but argue on the merits and try to adapt.

I have never been to a quick-care clinic, retail clinic, convenient care clinic, what have you, but I am already a huge fan of the concept. Any innovation in health care that makes it more convenient to do the quick and easy stuff is one I can applaud.

Rockville parent Meredith Salamon is inclined to agree. Dropping into a MinuteClinic in a nearby CVS pharmacy last month to get flu shots for four of her five children, she says she was in and out in 15 minutes. "The cost was good, and the location was good, so it was easy and quick," she said. By contrast, she says, the family's more expensive traditional doctor "kept running out" of flu vaccine and keeps inconvenient hours.

....

"Many patients would like to get in to see their primary care physician, but when they call, there is no appointment available," [Anne Pohnert, MinuteClinic's manager of operations for the Washington area] says. Choosing an urgent care center or emergency facility may involve "a long wait and considerably more cost," she adds. "We believe that a visit to MinuteClinic instead of an ER on a Friday evening for a five-minute strep test is a win-win for patients and insurers trying to save time and health-care costs."

Traditional practitioners complain/worry that the new clinics have poor follow-up with patients' primary care physicians, and that long-term stuff won't get done:

"Parents may say, 'It's just a sore throat,' " explains Corwin, a practicing pediatrician in Rochester, N.Y. But those sore throat visits, he says, are a pediatrician's "vehicle to continue developing the relationship with the family."

Van Vleck agrees: "When I see a kid for a sore throat, I get to go through their chart. If they have a little bit of scoliosis I might check their spine. I will check their immunization record. We go over the record, and we try to go over what's going on besides the sore throat, or besides the ear infection."

So it sounds like the worry is, if people keep going to the 15-minute convenient clinics and never spend the time to go to their doctors for physicals, they won't get long-term preventive care, or form the long-term trust bonds with their doctors that doctors need. But I get something like 15 minutes of my doctor's time twice a year anyway, with maybe a minute (if I specifically ask!) on preventive care. And what with insurance changes and moving, it's been a different doctor every year. You want a relationship with me? How about answering the phone if I call, day or night? How about seeing me when I need it, day or night, within a day? How about locating yourself near public transit so it doesn't take half a day to get to your office and back? And if the traditional medical establishment wants this "relationship" too, how about single-payer healthcare so I can keep my doctor if I change my job, and so I can see you regularly, instead of making the health/copay tradeoff?

We used to make jokes about the horrible usability at the Department of Motor Vehicles. US health care has the worst usability of any major industry or agency. If you think government agencies are bureaucratic and inefficient, look at health care insurers, who make money every time they can force you to pay for something you thought they covered in their labyrinthine policy. There's an answer. Gladwellian goodness here.

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: Study Notes: I'm studying for my Corporate Finance class. Every so often I have to remind myself that I am studying not the world as it is, but an internally consistent subset, a continent or a country where profit is the primary motive, taxes are to be avoided, debt has no moral status, and every business is a corporation responsible to shareholders. Even the constant references to "building a new plant" or "excess inventory" require imagination and translation for me. Almost all of my work has been in offices providing intangible services, not goods.

And then there's the everyday hubris of planning and executing a project.

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: How To Make Me Steamed: Take some US citizens, don't charge them with any crime, but keep them from returning to their home in Northern California, and deny them their constitutional rights. Especially when one is a teenager, and they're South Asian.

Federal authorities said Friday that the men, both Lodi residents [and citizens! -ed.], would not be allowed back into the country unless they agreed to FBI interrogations in Pakistan.....

"We haven't heard about this happening -- U.S. citizens being refused the right to return from abroad without any charges or any basis," said [Julia Harumi] Mass [their attorney with the ACLU].

McGregor Scott, the U.S. attorney for California's eastern district, confirmed Friday that the men were on the no-fly list and were being kept out of the country until they agreed to talk to federal authorities.

"They've been given the opportunity to meet with the FBI over there and answer a few questions, and they've declined to do that," Scott said.

Mass said Jaber Ismail had answered questions during an FBI interrogation at the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad soon after he was forced back to Pakistan. She said the teenager had run afoul of the FBI when he declined to be interviewed again without a lawyer and refused to take a lie-detector test.

By the way, anyone with brains would refuse a polygraph, since they don't work and are often not admissible in court (Wikipedia link, National Academies Press smackdown).

So if some random Berkeley classmate of mine, or one of my twenty or thirty cousins whom I've met once, makes up a bunch of names to placate his interrogators, and I happen to be visiting my parents in India when the government collates that list and finds me on it, they'd stop me from coming home to my husband and job and home until I submit to unconstitutional treatment? My response is unprintable.

If you have any kind of probable cause, any kind of tip to follow up on, then do the kind of police work that the Brits did that led to the arrests a few weeks ago. Legal, thorough, warranted in every sense of the word. But when the US government has a network of secret prisons and interrogation facilities specifically set up in countries where the law on torture is unclear or nonexistent, why in the world should a US citizen like me submit to overseas interrogation, especially in Pakistan?

Fly these folks to a jail in the US with air marshals handcuffed to them, if you're so afraid. They live in the US, they're citizens of the US, and the only plausible reason you want to interrogate them abroad is so it'll be less visible if you violate the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Eighth Amendments to our Constitution. (Not to mention at least Article 9 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.)

I haven't even touched on the problems with the no-fly list. This administration's folly is fractal.

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: Means of Production: The Poor Man says funny things about Mel Gibson and Daniel Davies causes me to enter this post in three of my four blog categories (Comedy, Religion, and Taxes).

If Leonard leaves the house, I find it easier to clean. Why is this? Other people who live with spouses or significant others: can you comment?

Anyway, that means that I had a spasm of cleaning today. Also, today I wrote and almost finished a new column on a funny problem with a naturalization exam study sheet. Well, that's where it starts, anyway.

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: Go Robin Einhorn!: Yay yay yay! Professor Robin L. Einhorn, who jumpstarted my interest in taxes and economic history in the first place, has published her big new book on the effect of slaveowners' tax avoidance on the structure of the US Constitution and government. American Taxation, American Slavery is going to be awesome! This follows her earlier work Property Rules.

E-dawg, Einhorn's latest is the book I've been meaning to recommend to you. Everyone else: for more tax geekitude and hilarity, read my thoughts from three years ago, and for the tasting menu for U of Chicago Press, read assorted excerpts.

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(4) : Someone Should Start This Business: I do not have an army of rights and permissions lawyers. I didn't when I was devising a curriculum and teaching a class, and I don't now that I'm writing a column. I bet lots of writers, artists, teachers, musicians, small businesses, and so on wish they could pay someone else to take care of the crazyquilt intellectual property compliance so they can get on with their work.

There should be some sort of clearinghouse service so I could pay them -- monthly, yearly, per cleared work of art, per permission plus commission, whatever -- to do the messy legal work and give me peace of mind. Maybe it would even count as due diligence to hire them, and hiring them would protect me against negligence charges. And maybe it could just be online, or maybe it could be a national brick-and-mortar chain like H&R Block.

I figure it would work like this: I show up at their office (I already have an account with them) and I give them my unpublished piece. I tell them every allusion, borrowing, quote, etc. that I think I've used, and what information I already have about the sources. ("This is from the Ben Folds song Blah, this is from the Thomas Hardy novel Pier to Bavaria, this is a quote from Gavin Gunhold's poem Registration Day, this is a quote from the Starr Report.") And I tell them what sort of venue it would be published or displayed in, so they could get the right permissions. Then they track down the owners and get the permissions and bill me.

As you can see, I don't really know what's involved in the "getting the permissions" but I'm sure it's messy. So I don't have the expertise to start this business. Does it already exist? Should someone start it? H&R Block makes money by outsourcing compliance with the baroque tax code, so why shouldn't someone make money by outsourcing compliance with the baroque intellectual property system? Until Creative Commons wins and we get something sensible, of course.

You can comment on this entry.

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: How And Why The USA Messed Up Healthcare: Malcolm Gladwell investigates.

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: Eminem Domain: More John on Kelo!

I'm glad y'all got a good price for the land. (I thought "arable" meant "good for farming.") But maybe your uncles were, you know, attached to the land. Pearl S. Buck's The Good Earth taught me a little about that. The investments people make in land are not just monetary, just as a job is not just an exchange of time for money. We're humans and we make social and emotional attachments to pets, careers, neighbors, possessions, co-workers, and land. Cemeteries, places of worship, and awe-inspiring natural beauties are sacred land publicly, but each man's home is just as sacred to him.

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: SCOTUS Jokes, Lapsing Into Seriousness: On Kelo v. New London: I keep accidentally calling it Keno v. New London, maybe since it's now a gamble whether you get to keep your land.

Every Native American now gets to say, "How does it feel, beeyotch?"

Out of life, liberty, and property, you'd think this administration would have at least protected property.

On MGM v. Grokster: Fred von Lohmann's pre-decision guide claimed, "No matter what, we've won." Leonard shook his head and said, "Whenever you say that, you've lost." He further clarified that trying to take your supporters' eyes off whether you win is a clear sign you're losing. Remember, he has software development AND Clark campaign experience!

On FCC v. Brand X (FAQ): if DSL is a common carrier and cable internet isn't, does that mean that cable internet providers can (and have to!) monitor usage for illegal activity but DSL providers don't? OK, not so much a joke as a bewildered hypothetical.

More seriously, on Kelo and on Frances's post and the ensuing discussion: I am trying to articulate why this decision seems so wrong, and reading SCOTUSblog's discussion on it to help me. Frances gets at it when she says, "But in this case, it's not the government building a necessary road, it's the government getting in bed with the private sector to construct an office complex on the land."

The whole point of laissez-faire capitalism is that people are free to make their own decisions in the open market. But why should real estate developers be forced to bargain with sellers when they can make noises about tax revenue (foofaraw promises that will disappear as soon as another municipality gives them a better tax break) and get the government to help them force citizens to sell their rightful property?

What is a public works project? It's kind of like Karl Popper said - I can't say what it is, but I can say what it isn't. Maybe a dam. Maybe a road. Maybe a hospital. Maybe a subway. But it has to be something that will end up owned by the people, through their elected government. Not a privately owned mall. Not a privately owned office park. "Our smoke-and-mirrors projections say it'll bring in tax revenues" is not enough.

John: I understand that you were talking about eminent domain in general, not Kelo. And yeah, the building of roads, highways, railroads, and in general the infrastructure of our civilization involved a lot of eminent domain (and a lot of fraud!).

But just compensation at or above fair market value is a given in eminent domain cases. Maybe I'm confused, but I can't figure out how "fair market value" is ever generous. Is "they'll get FMV money for it that they can use to buy something nicer" really generosity when the recipient doesn't have a choice in the matter? If the government gave you a million dollars and forced you to give up your religion, would you consider that a fair trade? Would you be glad it had happened? What happens when the neighborhood containing the Newport Beach temple comes under the lustful, scheming gaze of some city planner or some developer?

I'm not even certain I agree with Frances in calling the San Jose landowners recipients of a windfall. I'd want victims of eminent domain to receive substantially more than FMV to compensate them for the coercion involved.

Unlike Frances, I'm not up on local abuse-of-ED cases. But power corrupts, and some people within government will try to abuse their powers, and grab after expansions of those powers, and work to dismantle the ability of victims to fight back. And after getting all that power, they'll have to give it up and be mad when the next officeholders come into office and use it.

It's like Jefferson said - if men were angels, we wouldn't need a government in the first place. The limitation of the government's power protects the citizenry. And if you're a Republican who has lost interest in that sort of thing, ask yourself - would you be okay with a Democratic Congress and a Democratic President exercising that power?

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: I Don't Miss Econ - Maybe I Took It Wrong: I haven't been reading enough history. Brad DeLong reminds me why I love history - the whys!

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: Requires Flash, But Isn't Flashy: The Morning News pointed me to this great explanation of the Social Security reform issue.

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: I'm Not Dead(line) Yet: On the minds of some US residents: the not-so-automatic four-month extension for filing federal taxes. California residents can get state-specific information.

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: Declaring The Pennies On And The Planks In My Eyes: I see that you can e-file for free but I find paper reassuring. My 2004 taxes are complicated enough that I'd prefer the extra reassurance of an accountant. Anyone know a California CPA who'd like my custom?

The Beatles' Taxman has some kinship with, and a mashup with, the theme from Batman.

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: Pineapple Whatever: Dahlia Lithwick, a Slate writer, covers the interstate wine-shipping case with panache.

Every piece about these consolidated cases starts with the reporter going off to some exotic mom-and-pop winery in some state that isn't Michigan and proceeding to get loaded with the mom-or-pop vintner, who is desolate about their inability to sell $4,000 Shiraz over the Internet. Stupidly, I completely forgot to write that story.
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: Worldview Correspondence: Yesterday I engaged a Christian evangelist (I'm assuming Protestant) on Market Street in conversation. He said that the Bible is literally true, that theories of evolution cannot explain the complexity of the human body, that people who were born and died before Jesus but didn't have a chance to hear about the Gospel went to hell, and that all the good works in the world won't save a nonbeliever. I didn't get a chance to ask for his theodicy. Also recently Susie, Kristen, Joe, Frances, and John have been very helpful in explaining bits of LDS theology and practice to me. Thank you all!

Evidently I am also obsessed with Catholicism. First I read all of James Morrow, now this: The Archbishop of Denver (which to Leonard sounds like the title of a novel) shows us the entire transcript of his interview with a New York Times reporter. Interesting bits:

In Dogma, Kevin Smith's mouthpieces say many funny things about religion, specifically Catholicism. If I recall correctly, one says the doctrine of papal infallibility is what got them all into the current mess. Certainly I find it hard to believe that something supernatural happens to a guy once he becomes Pope and everything he says and does from then on is unquestionably right.

[Update: Thank you, Seth and Zed, for pointing out to me that this is an exaggeration. More information on Wikipedia and at a Catholic Encyclopedia - you pick your authority! More accurately,

...the Roman pontiff when he speaks ex cathedra, that is when in discharge of the office of pastor and doctor of all Christians, by virtue of his supreme Apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine regarding faith or morals to be held by the universal Church, by the Divine assistance promised to him in Blessed Peter, is possessed of that infallibility...

As Leonard put it, the Pope can put on an infallibility hat. Still hard to swallow. ]

But then again, I find many bits in Christian theology as a whole hard to believe, which is why that preacher on Market isn't having much luck with me.

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: This Will Hurt: If you are healthy, and you aren't the caretaker for a baby or a sickly older person (etc.), then please don't get the flu shot, because there is a shortage this year. Or unless you are selfish! Argh. Is that harsh? The article profiles healthy youngish people who know there's a shortage, who know that healthy people need the vaccine less than children and the elderly (a healthy person who catches the flu might fall ill for a week; kids and old people die). And they take it anyway. How can that not be recklessly selfish?

I am pretty mad at Chiron, and at the market failure in general. There are some commodities that we can leave to the market, which gets supplies to demanders in the aggregate and in the long run. It is all right if there is a short-term shortage of Beanie Babies; I don't care if a five-year-old loses out one Christmas in the name of efficiency or profit. And then there are services that the government distributes to make sure they get distributed systematically and fairly. Some people believe that the only legitimate role of government is to protect its citizens from each other and from invaders. But our government has taken on a larger role. ( "... in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity...") The police and military defend us, yes, and public schools teach us, parks provide space for recreation, the FCC licenses the privilege of using public airwaves, and so on.

Should health care in general be one of those services? If not, what about this specific commodity of vaccination against deadly diseases? Several biotech companies used to provide the shot for the US market; this year it was two, now one. Should we diversify our vendor list? Should we keep closer tabs on contamination in vaccine factories through government regulation and inspection? Should we make sure our vaccine providers make the vaccines in the US, where we can watch them better? (The offending Chiron plant is in England.) Should we specifically tailor tort reform to encourage vaccine manufacturers?

Should we be leaving this to private companies at all? Epidemics are national emergencies; if feasible, should the CDC make the vaccine itself instead of depending on businesses? (Analogy: sending the National Guard to fill sandbags, preventing a flood.) "[W]e haven't yet discovered a better form of social organisation than private property for solving several important classes of optimisation problem"; is this one of them?

Last year's shortage and this year's debacle-in-progress have me joining lawmakers in pondering what we need to do for next winter and all the winters thereafter. Epidemics affect everyone; shouldn't we avoid them like the plague?

A healthy 30-year-old refuses to talk to the Chronicle about why she's standing in line for the flu shot at Walgreens. I want to tax more or divert taxes from other projects to make sure Claire, Ada, Joel, Frances, Shweta, Rosalie, and my other friends and relations get a fair shot against the flu. Who's being selfish?

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: Tasteless Sudan Joke Inside!: Sepoy shows his students the truth about colonial administration - with a role-playing game! "Several came up to me afterwards and said that British rule in India came alive as the behemoth bureaucracy I had been describing all semester (SO MANY TAXES!, she said)."

The game-aversion of years dating a gamer is beginning to fade. Just the other night, during a Nathaniel/Shweta work party, I played and enjoyed Apples To Apples and Once Upon A Time (which I keep calling "Once Upon a Story"). During one round, I added a bit of color by referring to an "Upstairs/Downstairs" dichotomy inherent in all hierarchies, which of course let someone else interrupt my turn by playing the "Stairs" card. Also, after one horrifying plot development in which the women on an island killed off all the men, I nicknamed the genocidal females "the Gyneweed."

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: Also Includes "Really quick, is God on America's side?": Sharpton, with whom I often disagree: "...George Bush has so let down what conservative -- I remember when conservatives were respectable."

In the same debate, Kerry: "...is this president a legitimate Republican or conservative? Because there's nothing conservative about driving deficits up as far as the eye can see.

There's nothing conservative about trampling on the line of division between church and state in America.

There is nothing conservative about letting your attorney general trample on civil liberties and civil rights, and be twice cited by his own inspector general for doing so...."

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: "The government should pay for goods and services in wishes and fairy dust.": We should try not to spend much more than we earn, as people, as businesses, as governments. Note to Leonard: mentions agriculture subsidies!

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: How Could I Have Missed This?: Josh Kornbluth interviews Richard Yancey (Love And Taxes monologuist and Confessions ex-tax-collector, respectively).

I guess the answer is that I missed it because I only bothered to register at the Washington Post two weeks ago.

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: "Scum-Sucking Bottom Feeders": The writer of a letter to the editor used this epithet, which doesn't quite work, in my view.

Jon Stewart has had the hilarious David Cross and the "Talking Points Memorized" Thomas Friedman on The Daily Show this week. Cross (who plays Tobias Funke on Arrested Development (Fox renewed it for another season! Yay!)) persuaded me to buy his CDs. Friedman whipped out his "more secular than Iran, more federal than Syria" message, leading Stewart to write down a recipe for "Thomas Friedman's Democracy Brownies". As Belle Waring said, "More federal than Syria? Frickiní awesome!"

Is Syria's government really that monolithic? I mean, when I think "Syria", I don't think federalism or lack thereof is really the main problem. But what do I know, I majored in political science.

Speaking of Crooked Timber: these eminently contrarian, geeky people skewer all sorts of conventional wisdoms!

...apples and oranges are both fruits, both about the same size, cost about the same and have similar nutritional value. They're about the most eminently comparable things I can think of....

I will accept "chalk and cheese" as a valid metaphor.... Readers of a literary bent might have a go with "lightning and a lightning bug", but I've never really got it to work....

In taxation news: I walked through a corridor at work. Two coworkers occupied it, leaning against the walls while conversing and forming a narrow meniscus for passers-by. As I negotiated my way, one joked that I would have to "pay the toll". Most of the time, someone telling me that is a boyfriend asking me to kiss him, so I blushed bright red.

Well, a brighter shade of brown.

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: Books: Reading The Greedy Hand by Amity Shlaes, a WSJ writer with whom I vastly disagree, which means John might like it.

Also reading James Morrow's Only Begotten Daughter, in which Jesus Christ's sister is born to a Jewish bachelor in Atlantic City in 1974. James Morrow loves probing ethical systems and religions in the context of fantasy.

I'm sure tonight I'll dream of a booming voice directing me to render unto Him what is Caesar's.

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: Death, Taxes, And Sumana Writing About Taxes: Reading Conversion and the Poll Tax in Early Islam. Dennett writes clearly and entertainingly, even though it's a university press book with a tiny audience. Good job! Also, he amuses me by saying, "Let us examine the Byzantine tax system of Syria" and actually meaning "Byzantine."

The Arab Empire experienced, of course, some of the same problems that the modern US and modern Israel have. If you use reduced taxes as an incentive for some behavior (such as conversion to Islam or investment in state and municipal bonds), then people will do that and your tax receipts will go down. If you reduce the incentive, then the interest group you have just created will grumble or rebel. If you tax everyone else more heavily to make up the difference, you're fomenting class war. If you try to make up the difference with deficit spending or spending cuts, you might lose credibility, or even the ability to govern effectively. (You can only cut police and military spending so much!)

Finally, from Waltman's Political Origins of the U.S. Income Tax:

If we accord the income tax a high place in the patheon of bequests from the Progressive era, we must sadly note it is a legacy bequeathed only by racism. Were it not for the Democratic leadership in Congress being in the hands of those who wanted to spare the common man much of the taxes he bore in 1913, we would not have had the progressive income tax. But who were these economic humanists Ratner and others have praised? Kitchin, Simmons, Underwood, Hull, Williams, Garner. Every one of them was from the South, and they were all guardians of white supremacy. In fact, even their homilies on taxes are laced with crude racist stories and jokes. When they turned to such issues as black soldiers being armed during World War I or antilynch laws, their venom knew few bounds. To be sure, some were worse racists than others, and to be sure it can be argued that had they deviated from the "party line", their replacements might have been worse. And it is almost certainly true that without their votes and leadership we would have had much more exploitative tax policies. Yet, it is a sad tradeoff. Progressive tax policies were bought with impediments to any progress along racial lines. Before we celebrate the virtues of our income tax therefore, a tear is in order for those to whom taxes were secondary.

Every action has an opportunity cost. If you are sleeping, you can't be writing, and if you are sleeping or writing the Great Customer Service Novel then you cannot be hyping your new one-woman show.

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: Media Revue: All three of these bits of media experience have something to do with the Middle East! And I didn't even intend it.

Last night's Enterprise provoked even more US/Middle East Allegory babble in me. The sphere-builders are... Ahmad Chalabi! No, the neocons! Ahmad Chalabi is the leader of the Reptilians. No, the reptilian is Prince Bandar! Tucker is Ted Olson! And the Council is... OPEC? a "Mirror, Mirror" UN?

The Council seems really legitimate as a government to everyone in it except the Reptilians, which I guess makes the Reptilians like the US. Are the Insectoids Britain?

Also, Enterprise pulled off a surprisingly assertive mix of heavy exposition, lighthearted banter, trippy sci-fi sets, and suspenseful plot. Good stuff.

West Wing broke my heart in "Gaza." The West Wing thesis on Israel/Palestine resembles Everything Is Ruined's:

"Forget it Jake, it's Jerusalem." Jerusalem is Chinatown. There's nothing you can do. It's a place where there is no right answer. You ask Jake what he did in Chinatown, and he says, "As little as possible." (That's also what he murmurs to himself at the very end of the movie.) "Chinatown" means basically what Heart of Darkness means for Conrad: it's the dark place where every action is a mistake.

The new NSC character, I like. Will Bailey's impatience with nuance discussions, not so much. The huge expository dialogue chunks, a crazed hive-mind talking to itself, I liked. How else to think about the Middle Eastern ourobouros?

Reading Conversion and the Poll Tax in Early Islam by Daniel Dennett, Jr. From the Introduction:

...Nevertheless, all the contributions to the literature of Muslim taxation within the last forty years have been monographic in character and limited in area to particular provinces of the Arab Empire, with the result that there is no single work to which a student who might be interested in the general problem to turn; and if he attempts to master the secondary literature, he will discover so many conflicting data and opinions that his confusion will be increased rather than resolved. This book, therefore, attempts to present a broad view of the system of taxation as it existed in East and West throughout the lands once subject to the Persians and the Greeks, and it is based on all the evidence the writer has been able to discover. It is not, however, a synthesis of the latest opinion, for, as the reader will presently discover, I have views of my own and an axe to grind....

The Introduction's breezy style belies the density of the main text, well, to me. I don't know much about the Ottoman Empire or really a systematic world history at all. Perhaps Charles Adams's For Good And Evil: The Impact of Taxes on the Course of Civilization will provide me with a proper framework.
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: Compare And Contract: Currently reading Confessions of a Tax Collector: One Man's Tour of Duty Inside the IRS by Richard Yancey. I find it quite enjoyable, as I did Scott Turow's One-L (memoir of his first year at Harvard Law School) and Mike Daisey's 21 Dog Years: Doing Time @ Amazon.com.

Yancey got me with the premise and one of the first lines: "I had just turned twenty-eight, and was wearing a ten-year-old suit with a ten-day-old dark blue tie." Lots of close observations, complex cases nicely narrated, and a sense of suspense in the author's personal transformation. Like Daisey, Yancey uses dark humor and extended metaphors to persuade the reader that the demands of his job pressure him to act amorally and to become an amoral person. Yancey's story, though, is weightier; it tells more and covers a more formidable institution. And he doesn't paint his ethical dilemmas with the broad strokes that Daisey uses; I really won't know till the end of the book what he thinks of what he has done.

Just got to a section on clashes with tax protestors. Oh, the tax protestors. Leonard was kind enough to point me to a report on tax protestors from Reason that softened my heart:

Their attitude toward the Constitution and the statutes and legal decisions regarding the income tax are uniquely Protestant, relying on a layman's ability -- indeed, obligation -- to read and study and parse the original documents himself, to come to his own personal relationship with the law and the cases, and to prefer his understanding to that of the priesthood of lawyers, judges, and accountants.

...

Not merely Protestant, the tax honesty people are strangely reminiscent of fandom -- of the comic book, fantasy, science fiction, role-playing-game variety. They have the same obsession with continuity and coherence within a created fantasy world of words. It's just that, in this case, that world of words isn't a multivolume fantasy epic or a long-running TV series -- it's U.S. law. When these people try to reconcile the definition of income in this subsection of Title 26 of the U.S. Code with the definition in a 1918 Supreme Court case, it's like hearing an argument over the inconsistencies between a supervillain's origin as first presented in a 1965 issue of The Amazing Spider-Man and the explanation given in a 1981 edition of Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man.

The tax honesty movement's vision of the world is fantastical in another way. It is not merely obsessed with continuity; it is magical in a traditional sense. It's devoted to the belief that the secret forces of the universe can be bound by verbal formulas if delivered with the proper ritual. There are numerous formulae in the tax honesty spellbook, with rival mages defending them. Which spell is best: The summoning of the Sovereign Citizen? The incantation of the Constitutional Definition of Income? The banishing spell of No Proper Delegation?

The tax honesty folks similarly believe that their foe the IRS must also be bound by these grimoires of magic: that without the properly sanctified OMB number an IRS form holds no power, that without uttering the mystic word liable no authority to tax can truly exist.

And always, always, the ultimate incantation, The Question: Where does it say that I owe income taxes? Show me the law!

Related: "Reading Code is Like Reading the Talmud".

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: On The Night-Table:

  1. Science Fiction/Fantasy: Le Guin's The Word For World Is Forest (heavy-handed and unappealing) and Birthday of the World And Other Stories (nonbad ratio of good to boring stories). Kress, Beaker's Dozen (fun!). Chiang, Story Of Your Life And Others (many good stories, although the recursion theme gets predictable). Currently reading The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead. I like the pacing and characters; Whitehead slightly overdoes the elliptical, lyrical prose, but I don't especially mind.
  2. Tax History: Finished Taxes and People in Israel and am reading The Political Origins of the US Income Tax by Jerold L. Waltman. Did you know the Union imposed a temporary income tax during the Civil War? That's right, the idea didn't just suddenly appear during the Progressive movement.
  3. Children's Books: The sparkling and wonderful Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White - very much rewards rereading. Popcorn, a nice novel by Gary Provost and Gail Levine-Provost, chiefly memorable because I randomly picked it up when I was younger. The Toothpaste Millionaire by Jean Merrill, the author of The Pushcart War. I'd already read and loved Millionaire and had zoned out during a fourth-grade reading circle of The Pushcart War, which I'll read soon. I wonder whether she wrote the most of all children's authors on business and capitalism.

I could try to combine these trends by reading a sci-fi children's book about taxes, but I don't much care to reread Anthem.

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: Tax Tips: According to Taxes And People In Israel by Harold C. Wilkenfeld, not only does Israel have a Tax Museum, but that selfsame Tax Museum's exhibits go beyond famous people's tax returns. The museum also shows old smuggling devices! Also, it's good to have meetings with taxpayers in private offices, not large open areas where taxpayers can hear each others' cries of outrage.

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: Names, Fish, Taxes: Weekend: enjoyed driving with friends, concert was okay, lots of Bollywood music videos (Namaste America has the best commentary, India Waves has the weirdest choices and hands-down weirdest host), Zack lunch, changed aquarium water somewhat more successfully, Leonard time, "Arrested Development" (hilarious!) and "West Wing" (made my brain hurt with fiction/reality splicing), burritolike meal, cleaning, taxes, library, clock-changing.

Yes, I wince a bit at paying taxes, more because I don't trust these particular administrations to do the right thing with the money than because of some "they are stealing my money" sentiment. Yes, I am a tax-and-spend liberal. Because that is the function of government! Taxing and spending! What else should they do? Tax and NOT spend? Spend without taxing?

Dave and Betty are fine, and the aquarium ecosystem is setting up nicely. Evidently goldfish enjoy eating freeze-dried mosquito larvae ("bloodworms," a Klingon term if ever there was), which look as though they are alive but (the shop owner assured me when I called) are very dead. I use tweezers.

Puritans used to give their kids names like Flee-From-Sin and Mercy, and now rappers call themselves C-Murder and Ol' Dirty Bastard.

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: I am a happy mutant rabbit. I saw Josh Kornbluth's Love and Taxes last night with Katharine, and we really enjoyed it. After the show, I met the performer and he remembered me from e-mail. He's even read my blog! Wheee! A wonderful autograph and a great evening.

Love and Taxes is smart and funny and then suddenly moving and insightful. I remember when I first read an excerpt from Kornbluth's Red Diaper Baby and buttonholed friends to read aloud from it. I need to read all his stuff.

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: Say Uncle Sam: I love reading government documents. The first book I remember reading is the Pennsylvania driver's manual, and for a week after I had nightmares about cars. (The one I remember: my mother is driving and has a heart attack. I have to take her place, but I'm too short to look, steer, and use the pedals at the same time. We hit a guardrail and are about to flip over it.) When I was about eight or twelve, I heard various instructions to adults encouraging the saving of receipts, but I completely missed the bit about large purchases and optional deductions. I just thought, "Okay, I'm supposed to save my receipts for taxes," and accumulated huge stacks of five-dollar receipts for candy and books and whatnot against some uncertain tax judgment day. I still haven't quite broken the habit.

This morning I relaxed while eating breakfast by flipping through the instructions for the more obscure deductions and forms. Did you know that, in certain circumstances, you can amortize "goodwill and other intangibles"? Leonard and I debated the possible reasoning behind California's tax credit for renters. (I eventually surmised that the credit makes up for the indirect property taxes a renter pays, which explains why it's nonrefundable.)

Tax history fascinates me. My first year in college, I had the excellent Robin Einhorn for US History (pre-Civil War) and she surprised me by making use of data about slave prices. Of course! The market for slaves gives us clues as to historical trends! Anyway, she hits my intellectual G-spot with her vigorous riffs on slavery, taxes, legislative maneuverings, and counterintuition. (Example: the early-republic mystery in which "a series of New Englanders proceeded to oppose taxing slaves, and a series of southerners spoke in vigorous support of taxing this 'species of property.'")

Perhaps best of all is that my search for Einhorn's articles online led me to Margaret Garb's Urban History Seminar on late nineteenth-century working-class homeownership in Chicago, in which people say such things as:

Great stuff! Neighborhood credit markets-where did you find this stuff? It's all these records in the building in the bottom-wow, unbelievable-did anybody know this was going on? Am I the only one who didn't know this was going on? All right.

The value of the property is the assessed value from the assessor.
Tax assessor?
Tax assessor. It's in the papers.

But I just love that secret laundry in the basement.

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: Death And Praxis: Michael points out that it's not that doing taxes is time-consuming, it's that doing them optimally is time-consuming. After all, in many cases you could just do the EZ or the A (abbreviated) form and take standard deductions and so on, but only if you follow many branching paths do you find the set of forms and numbers that give the least money to the government. (It occurs to me that a government-trusting liberal might enjoy knowing she was giving more money to the government than is its due, but I am not that government-trusting liberal.) Anyhow, following these branching paths is like Reading Code is Like Reading Talmud.

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: Trying to do my taxes. I'm relatively low-income, so I should be able to use the EZ (easy, simple, "I'm poor") forms instead of the scarier full-size forms. I want to go to the Mango Mic in Berkeley, and want to go to the Platypus Jones! improv show at Cafe Eclectica, but I should stay home and do taxes. Grocery shopping and getting lost in Emeryville (Trader Joe's) and Oakland (Piedmont Grocery) tired me out, and besides this midnight I'll see Office Space downtown. Tradeoffs are appropriate for an evening of applied economics.

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: A Roundabout Tale of Inadvertent Rage and Mollification: The other day, Leonard and I were doing some research on various US government web sites. I felt more rage than usual at whitehouse.gov, especially when I discovered that the White House dog's name is India. Leonard says I missed a flap about this that occurred a while back, and noted that I was creating the flap anew all by myself. I don't usually find such things personally insulting, but you don't name a dog after a less powerful country! (Note that dogs don't have the warm happy associations for me that they do for most US natives; my family considered dogs pests.)

Only now do I see that India is not a dog, but a cat. Now the "lapdog" metaphor doesn't relate and doesn't anger me, but still, the White House should not contain pets with the names of other countries. If Bush wanted to honor Mr. Sierra, he could have called the cat "Indio" -- less insulting and more directly relevant.

Leonard suggested that I try poking around some other government web sites that might reassure me. So I tried out FirstGov.Gov, which greeted me with the twin banner headlines: "National Threat Level Raised to High" and "Welcome from [honorific] Bush." That didn't help my blood pressure any.

However, I did eventually find a wonderful, awful, fascinating kids' guide to taxation, within the IRS for Kids section. I think. Now, any given US Cabinet-level department "For Kids!" site is, by definition, funny (examples: Department of Justice, Agriculture, Treasury (Mint)), but this one stands alone. The main attraction: Taxes in US History, concentrating on the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794, the protective tariff issue of the 1830s, and the income tax's introduction in the early 1900s. "Sherri was beginning to see the light. 'I guess taxes really are necessary to help pay for things the government provides that help us all!'"

And then Leonard and I ran across The Whiskey Rebellion Activity Zone. Leonard started dancing around and singing "The Whiskey Rebellion Activity Zone!" polka-style. He says he needs an accordion to make it sound right. Even writing it makes me smile. So I guess Leonard was right.

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