Jul. 27th, 2017 10:23 am
walkitout: (Default)
My sister posted a Bloomberg article about how the US is quite behind in terms of phasing out checks. In the comments thread, her friends said over and over again that the sticking point for many of them in terms of never writing checks again involved government agencies. I agreed, and then I thought, hmmm. Is it _really_ true that there isn't any kind of direct pay to the IRS? Massachusetts DOR has had a direct pay set up for ages. And I hadn't checked recently at the IRS.

They have a couple features I was not familiar with. One is an / my account with the IRS where I could, in theory, look at payment history and so forth. That would be handy! Another feature is a Direct Pay feature. I haven't really dug into that, but it looks like it is a fee-free transfer from a checking account. And it looks like you can do that as a payment associated with paper filing, and including for estimated taxes. Pretty neat! If I find out more, I may update this.
walkitout: (Default)
There are a variety of ways to divvy up the political parties in our system. Here are a few that are directly relevant to the tax code, its complexity and any chance it has of being simplified.

Democrats want to do some redistribution (have the rich pay more, and then send it off to those with less income/more demands on their resources to even out the inevitable unfairness of our political system). Republicans have a horror of redistribution.

Democrats kind of like the idea of having government being all orderly and with the structure matching the function: an agency for each category of activity, regulations on a per agency basis, etc. This is complicated, so on balance, they try to simplify by moving more up to the federal level instead of doing it at the state level. But life is full of unpleasant compromises, and they'd rather make their own state(s) have the right kind of rules than wait until the feds can be convinced to do it right.

Republicans kind of like the idea of government being small, and running as much of government functionality through a common system as possible. On balance, they would prefer the federal government to do as little as possible, and anything complicated that needs to be done, they'd like to push down to the smallest unit of social organization that it possibly can. In practice, that means to the state level. The more ideological members would just as soon everything was handled at some nuclear family level. But life is full of unpleasant compromises, so if we are going to have to distribute money to people -- people with kids, people who need health insurance, etc. -- and it is going to be done at the federal level, they'd like it done as cheaply as possible, which means, tax credits. They also like it when the feds do the redistribution _FROM_ the general tax revenue _TO_ states, to do what they like with (block grants). They'd rather make their own states have the right kind of rules than wait until the feds can be convinced to do it right.

In practice, this means things like: even when everyone agrees that we should implement some kind of program, we probably can't agree or by happy with how we decide to implement that program. Democrats want the feds to send money or money-equivalents to individuals around the country who meet rule defined criteria. Republicans want states to get that money to make their own rules for who should benefit from federal largesse. You can be cynical about either or both perspectives -- the phenomenon, however, is real.

Everyone agrees, periodically, that the tax code has become unfair somehow and that it has become onerously complex and difficult to comply with. Republicans tend to focus on how this makes it hard to do business, hire employees, compete with other countries. Democrats tend to focus on how the tax code contributes to increasing inequality and that it should be made more progressive to reduce inequality. Republicans want a simple code that gets a bunch of its simplicity by having a "flat" tax -- the same percentage taken from everyone regardless of income. Democrats want a simple tax code with a steep curve after some point taking more and more of greater and greater amounts of income. Occasionally, you'll get some oddball come along and suggest a wealth tax (Piketty); in practice, outside of things like property taxes, we don't do wealth taxes in the US, and for very good reasons (administering wealth taxes is _hard_ and honestly somewhat expensive).

The two parties are unlikely to ever happily agree to the basic structure of the tax code (ignoring a true flat tax, even the number of brackets and the rates for each bracket tends to be controversial). But it is difficult to make progress towards simplification. For example, getting rid of AMT would simplify the tax code -- it would also make it a lot less progressive. Getting rid of the AMT is a pure-play Republican thing. What about the mortgage interest rate deduction? It's pretty simple to show that the mortgage interest rate deduction increases wealth inequality over time and is probably regressive. It is also one of the few items that pushes households over the line into claiming itemized deductions vs. claiming the standard deduction. With Democrats liking getting rid of a regressive and/or wealth inequality increasing thing, and Republicans wanting a simpler tax code, you would _think_ this would be a thing they could agree to change.

But only if you forget that while people vote Republican or Democrat -- quite consistently -- people who own homes and have mortgages vote at much higher rates than people who don't. And that interest deduction is kind of a big deal.

I'm not saying it will never go away. Things happen. The world changes. But the tax code retains its complexity for very good reasons.

Here is why it is likely to get worse. With Republicans in charge, with their preference for helping people via the tax code vs. creating/increasing the scope of agencies and "entitlements", if the current administration is going to make good on its various campaign promises to help people caring for children, disabled family members or aging family members (remember -- Republicans want to push that kind of task as far down the social structure as they can), it will be via tax credits. That's exactly what was promised in the last campaign season. And that will NOT lead to a simpler tax code.

I vote Democratic. That's not likely to change, at least, not until we live in a world where both parties are really, really, really clear on the right of women to decide what happens to their own bodies. Which is a world which keeps receding further, and further into the future. But I can see the appeal of delivering money through the tax code -- even while I can clearly envision a number of problems with doing so. But whatever I might think of the _merits_, I think it is fairly safe to say that the tax code does not look like it is going to get a lot simpler any time soon. Unless by simpler, you mean, even more complicated.

Oh, and I argued all that without even getting into the weeds of the costs of implementing a program with an agency vs. through the tax code.
walkitout: (Default)
I got the first quarter estimateds and extension form prepped to go. I'm not mailing them yet; I figure I would like to have a second set of eyes on them first. This may be the quickest in terms of when I first logged into TurboTax to when I was done for the April dance. I had spent some time earlier in the year as various pieces of paperwork arrived (property taxes, excise taxes, etc.), collecting them into the right place. Turns out that assembling the paperwork really is the big part of the job. I may post a few more comments on things I thought of while engaged in the process. Because there wasn't anything particularly new to figure out this year, I had more time to ruminate on how we do taxes in this country and why.

It was T.'s half day. So after doing a little vacation planning, watching NCIS and TRMS, it was time to go pick him up. I completely forgot everything for this: his outfit for gymnastics, his phone -- all of it. So we took our Starbucks beverages with us for a quick return home to retrieve the necessary items. Then off to the bank and then gymnastics. After that, we went to Whole Foods (I _HAD_ remembered my bags. Go figure.).

A. will be arriving home shortly and T. will be heading out with his sitter. I'm trying to decide whether I want to convince A. to go around the block with me, or if we should just vegetate. I feel like vegetating.
walkitout: (Default)
Look, I get that Nixon was a horrible President. I understand that. However, we've had more than one horrible President, and honestly, the older I get, the more confused I am regarding precisely _why_ it was that people who were adults in the Nixon years hated him so very much.

Okay, then. Yeah, I get it now. Wow.

Someone could have mentioned this to me _sooner_.

I went looking because the almost certain nominee for one of the parties has been quite slow to release his returns, and TRMS was contextualizing Why Candidates Release Their Returns.

Fave sentence in the above linked article: "Ironically, Nixon may have been the first AMT taxpayer."
walkitout: (Default)
I was supposed to go walking with my friend D., however, her daughter was not feeling well so that did not happen. I was then supposed to have my Dutch lesson, but my instructor is still digging out from under a huge project, so that did not happen. I watched Castle, then went for a walk with M. And then I was forced to accept that I really could not avoid taxes any longer.

So I went upstairs and started downloading crap into TurboTax. One of the accounts is on its third credentialing system in as many years, IIRC. They want "document IDs" and they involve a long string of letters and numbers (had to go log into that accounts website, find the PDF version of the tax forms and pull the document IDs off it). Unfortunately, I couldn't copy and paste the document ID. Well, I could copy it, but not paste it into TurboTax. And the zeros and letter O's were difficult to tell apart. After several fails, I resorted to copying the ID onto a sticky, where the default font made telling the two apart very easy. Voila.

I also had to confront the unwieldy mass of papers stacked up waiting to be massaged into a tax return. Usually, in October, the supporting documents get filed with a copy of the return, but for whatever reason, that didn't happen last year, and the resulting piles included intermingled documents for tax years 2013 (no, I don't know why either), 2014, 2015 and even a few for 2016 (I've taken to paying property tax early, ever since that year I completely forgot to pay, and didn't notice until I went to claim the deduction. Ooops).

Once the documents were separated out into appropriate files and/or stacks, I became demoralized, realized it was 12:30, and took myself down the street (in the car, no less, which I justified by bringing some items for the Middle Class Guilt Reduction Station that didn't quite make it on the Savers run last weekend) for a burger, fries and desultory conversation with other people at the bar and, of course, the ever lovely and entertaining B. Around 2, I forced myself away from the group (because more coffee was only going to make me jittery), and returned to the taxes, which at this point started going deceptively smoothly. In went charitable donations and excise and the pile moved from one side to the other, until I was down to one conspicuously missing document. I looked _everywhere_. It was _nowhere_. And honestly, I couldn't remember seeing it show up.

Kids arrived home and T. said he wanted a short day with the sitter and to have dinner out with us. I hadn't realized I was going to have a second sitter until after I'd already had lunch out, so, oops, two meals out in one day. Oh well. We went to Papa Razzi for dinner. I got an email back about the missing document. I had not lost it -- it hadn't gone out yet (today is 5 April!). "Any day now!" Yeah, sure. It's gonna be an estimated anyway, so like I even care.

So the last of it was printing extensions and writing checks and entering stuff on the Mass DOR site. Also, the bizarre realization that I've now run through this enough times that what once took me days, if not a week or more of start, get stuck, wait for R., continue, get stuck again, wait for R., etc. has turned into a single day of concerted effort. (Of course, he still has to do his part: installing and updating the software and entering all his information.) I got so much done around the house, avoiding doing the taxes, and now that need to procrastinate has been All Used Up for the next six months.

Oh well.
walkitout: (Default)
Yeah, I know. Everyone reading this is going, but I filed mine in January. Well, good for you! You are a wonderful, hard working person and I'm glad you will have gotten all the way through the process in such an expeditious manner (<-- completely serious).

I am not asking for any sympathy when I note the following.

I did finally start entering data from pieces of paper and downloading electronic data into TurboTax today (my husband got around to this last Friday). Today, _after_ I got mostly through what I am able to do (my husband has the health insurance info, for example, and I am a little unclear on whether all the paperwork for the house property tax is in the folder), I received another envelope in the mail marked Important Tax Information Inside. It had a paper version of one of several incorrect forms I've received for a thing that ordinarily is quite well behaved and generates exactly one form that never needs to be changed, and gets it to me well before April 15. Fortunately, I _think_ I found the right number in one of the messages I received electronically. OTOH, I also got yet another electronic message from those good people this afternoon.

It doesn't really matter. I'm not gonna get final data from two other sources until late September (<-- wild optimism here) anyway, so I'll be filing for an extension with the rest of us schmucks. And it looks like the WAG (<-- wild ass guess) I put together a while back so I could make payments has largely turned out to be accurate. Hoodathunk?
walkitout: (Default)
More from Lincoln. This is a terrible explanation.

"A notch in a tax schedule exists if a small change in behavior—such as the addition of a window—leads to a large change in tax liability. Notches are rare (Slemrod 2010) and not to be confused with kinks, which are far more common even today. A kink in a tax schedule exists if a small change in behavior leads to a large change in the marginal tax rate but just a small change in tax liability. The income tax in the United States, for example, has several kinks. Married couples with taxable income from $17,850 to $72,500 are in the 15 percent marginal tax bracket; couples with taxable income from $72,500 to $146,400 are in the 25 percent marginal tax bracket. If a couple with income of $72,500 were to earn an extra dollar, its marginal tax rate would jump to 25 percent, but its tax liability would increase
by just $.25."

I've never heard of notches or kinks in this context before. They seem like a useful concept and assuming these are plausible definitions, yay. But I don't know whether I can trust them, because of the example given. The hypothetical couple would pay a quarter on that last dollar, true. However, the _increase_ over what they would have paid if they had stayed in the 15% bracket is a dime. I would think that the "kink" of moving from one bracket to the other, in this case, should be characterized as ten cents over what they would have paid without that kink -- not 25c.

It's a somewhat interesting article. I knew about the window tax. I did _not_ know how it differentially impacted multi family vs single family dwellings. The English tax code was truly evil.

Wow. The conclusion of that article is just about the silliest thing imaginable:

"The ideal, in principle, is a neutral tax that raises the desired revenues but doesn’t distort taxpayer behavior so as to create additional burdens. Such a tax is a pure land-value tax levied on the site value of the land—that is, its value with no improvements. Thus, the assessed value of the land (and hence the tax liability of the owner) is completely independent of any decisions made by the owner of the land parcel. Unlike the window tax, which provides a compelling example of the additional costs that arise when property tax liabilities depend on the behavior of the property owner, a land-value tax creates no incentives for tax-avoiding behavior."

Let's think about this. If the tax is purely based on the value of the land -- not on whatever the hell you do with it, that would appear to encourage people to reduce the amount of land they own to an absolute minimum. The argument is that land + improvement taxes _discourage_ improvements leading to very low intensity/low density use of land. But a land-only tax would have the opposite effect: leading to hyper intensity/super high density use of land, far beyond what the taxed population might or might not actually want absent the tax.

I'm now sitting here thinking, for the first time ever, whether I want to keep pretending that I like reading Lincoln Institute articles. I _used_ to. But I'm not sure I do any more.
walkitout: (Default)
In the course of going through my inbox, I'm reading some of the Lincoln Institute newsletters that built up over time.

Mark Skidmore wrote on of these articles and after describing the severity of the property tax delinquency problem in Detroit, said this:

"delinquency will abate when tax
payers perceive that they receive commensurate
returns for their money. Thus, improving the tax-
service package by upgrading core services such as
public safety will reduce evasion and lateness (Alm
et al. 2014)."

I have to say, I sort of wonder about this, especially since the appraisal value and tax value of properties in Detroit is apparently quite lunatic when compared to market value. On the one hand, it sort of doesn't matter what the basis is that you tax on, as long as everyone's property is inflated or deflated by the same amount. On the other hand, while people are generally pretty okay with tax value that is _lower_ than market value, they can often get tetchy about tax value that is remarkably _higher_ than market value (there's a sort of stickiness involved, basically, psychologically).

Analysis of the problem focuses on all the revenue the city is failing to collect. I think that is misguided.

"Property owners increasingly are re-buying their land in tax-foreclosure auctions and legally erasing their debts. Last year, 600 properties were re-purchased by their owners, triple the number in 2010. That cost the city nearly $6 million in unpaid taxes."

Furthermore, banks and landlords are both allowing properties to go into foreclosure rather than pay the taxes. This suggests that in every conceivable way, taxes are too high. Skidmore is arguing, well, improve services and people will pay for them. But where are they going to get the money to improve services?

Either enforcement has to get a lot more serious (which is probably not viable, because it is expensive and likely to generate enormous pushback internally and externally) or taxes need to be charged at a level commensurate with the market value of the property. If letting a property go into foreclosure and buying it back is a no-brainer financially, then your taxes are way too fucking high.

And yet, apparently reducing taxes (either by correcting the appraisal and/or tax valuation, or by reducing the millage) isn't under discussion. Skidmore acknowledges that doing either of these would _also_ reduce delinquency (and wouldn't require additional service cost, imo -- might even save money if people started paying the lower rate -- better the $5 in reality than the fictional $50? Maybe?).

"Lowering tax rates would modestly reduce delinquency as well (Alm et al. 2014). Roughly double the regional average, Detroit tax rates are at the state’s maximum of 67 mills and 85 mills [DEITY ON A POGO STICK WTF!!!] per assessed value for homestead and non-homestead properties, respectively. While a reduction would improve the competitive position of the city relative to other communities in the region, currently there is no discussion of reducing property tax rates."

"Aligning assessed values more closely with actual market conditions will also reduce delinquency. Mayor Duggan recently promised to lower assessments by 5 to 20 percent across the city to reconcile them with state guidelines. However, Duggan’s promised reductions are just a small fraction of the 80 percent cut needed to bring assesment to market levels, according to Hodge et al. (2014a)."

If you live in Seattle proper, your rate is about 10 mill, IIRC. Also, Seattle tax valuation numbers run _lower_ than current market comps; even when they were briefly a little high during the bust, they were never as far off as Detroit's. (Ripped from King County's website: "Levy Code: 0010 Total Levy Rate: $10.29168" -- that's on a condo on Cap Hill, for example.) 1-2 years ago, the mirror image unit in my building on the same floor sold. The price paid was 25% higher than my last year's assessment (I have no idea whether that unit had any renovation done and, if so, when it was done. I've redone both bathrooms and the kitchen but the renos are 9-15 years old at this point; if they had more recent renos done, that might be reflected in the price. Our views are the same -- trees -- and we have comparable parking.).

The next time someone tells you how Detroit has so much trouble collecting your taxes, look at your $300-400K property in the city limits, and contemplate paying $25K a year in property taxes, instead of the 3-4K you are currently paying.
walkitout: (Default)
Subtitled: One Man's Quest to Turn Around the Most Unpopular Organization in America
Published by Harvard Business School Press, part of the "Leadership for the Common Good Series", of which I have previously read Bazerman and Watkins _Predictable Surprises_, however, which I do not appear to have reviewed in this blog. I got rid of Bazerman and Watkins' book in the Really Big Purge within the last year, because I felt like it was yet another too-superficial and often misleading treatment of some of Kahneman and Tversky's work, unless I have confused it with another book, but never mind that now.

Recently, the IRS has been attacked for allegedly politically motivated differential treatment of certain non-profits applying for 501(C)4 status. As a fan of Colbert, I was a little confused why any of them applied anyway, as it was not clear they had a filing requirement. Also, given that the groups in question oppose taxation/more taxation/modification of taxation other than net reduction overall AND reduction of their own and so on and so forth, I perceived any targeted attacks by the IRS as not partisan in motivation but rather what one hopes for in a competent tax collection authority (that is, if you're going to have tax collectors, you would like them to be making sure people pay, and groups which are in opposition to payment are rationally their enemies, and costing honest taxpayers as well).

While I have been filing tax returns since, um, either 1985 or 1986 (I forget), but only filing complex tax returns comparatively recently (post 1996, call it), my experiences with the IRS have been primarily _after_ the most recent previous set of scandals touching upon the IRS and which are the subject of Rossotti's book. And my experiences with the IRS, while not extensive, weren't trivial either and were incredibly positive. Did I wind up paying more money? Yup: due to error, omission and bad judgment on my part, generally speaking if the IRS and I have not agreed on something, it involved me writing them another check. Which I really don't have a problem with, as long as I'm told how much the check should be for and it is applied to my account and so forth and so on and that is the end of that. Which is has been. I watched a little of the scandalation, but with incomprehension, because I actually kinda like the IRS and I don't much care for the people doing the complaining. But I figured I should do a little research to make sure I wasn't blowing off something important.

Alas! There are very few books written for a general audience about the IRS. This one seems to be the most recent, a memoir written about being IRS Commissioner from 1997-2002. Rossotti was about to retire from a consulting business that was accustomed to making sure monster projects stayed on/got back on track for Very Large Companies, so he was a logical pick for Rubin and Summers to install at the IRS in the wake of those 1996-7 scandals. Rossotti delayed the second Really Big Contract (15 years, design build, little clarity on who was responsible for failures/delays -- no wonder he was appalled!), brought in A Few Good Men and Women, promoted many more, re-orged the whole shebang and made sure the IRS survived Y2K. Then he started the requirements phase of the Really Big Contract (oh, and the Bush stimulus checks and 9/11 occurred during his tenure). He also redirected audit focus.

About the Reorg: according to Rossotti, the last big reorganization occurred in 1952 and was intended to professionalize the agency and put an end to political influence (they used to appoint people, top to bottom! Jeepers! Er ...). That worked, but the world in 1952 was a very different world. He mentions jet airplanes and long-distance phone calls being expensive; equally relevant, everything was paper based in 1952 and no one in their right mind moves paper a foot further than they have to. The IRS was organized _locally_, with loose policy direction at the national level. With the exception of the 1960s era creation of the master file, fed by the local organizations, all IT and other innovation occurred within these geographic fiefdoms. Rossotti reorganized it into 1990s era business units, with tight national control and nationally controlled procurement of IT, management of facilities and personnel and so forth. This reorganization also enabled him to dramatically flatten the hierarchy, reduce silo-ing and make it possible to develop technical expertise on various elements of tax law. It also let them set up real call management, thus reducing busy signals, reducing wait time on hold and dramatically reducing wrong answers and repeat phone calls that result from wrong (or no) answers.

Predictably, because the IRS is So Big and because their IT was So Old and because the tax code is So Complex, the requirements phase of the Really Big Contract was a *insert your preferred swears here*. Despite a delay being inserted because of known problems with the requirements, the first deliverable on replacing the master file was delayed because of inaccuracies in the requirements phase; the master file would not be replaced until 2004 or thereabouts. [ETA: Still working on this, apparently. Also, batching has finally gotten down to daily! Woot!] If you were hoping for a book about bring the IRS up to our adult lifetime technology, this isn't it. I'm currently thinking about just going back and reading the IRS Data Books for the last, oh, 100 years because I suspect that's the best way to understand what happened and I can safely skim all the tables and stick to the explanatory sections. Also, all online! Woot! I am not, however, optimistic about how detailed the explanation of the upgrades will be. Still, I sampled 1960 and it was interesting. YMMV.

Audits until 1960 didn't really focus on lower income tax payers, but around that time, the agents who were capable of auditing more complex returns of higher income payers were re-deployed internally to more qualitative analysis (possibly in support of the requirements phase of the then new automation initiative that would create the master file?), and the IRS started doing more lower income audits. I'm not sure that bus was ever turned again, until Rossotti showed up and fixed the audit-focus to go after tax shelters. Which is scary and sad.

Rossotti concludes the book with some suggestions for simplifying the tax code. Given that the last big simplification we had (1986) resulted in a dramatic increase in inequality and a tax code which mushroomed back to Even More Complex in about a decade, I'm not convinced that simplification is such a brilliant idea. I do agree that the specific simplifications he advocates (making the definition of a child for tax purposes more consistent, reducing the complexity of tax/retirement account incentives) are probably worth doing. He notes that the IRS was distributing more program dollars than the SSA -- and at a lower _cost_ than the SSA, which led me to a very different set of conclusions than he came to (if it's really that cheap to administer benefits through the IRS, why bother to have any other program at all? Seriously!).

Rossotti is a real classic of the aging 1990s era business critter: he's a technocrat who finds lawyers infuriating and politicians (who make announcements with no basis in reality) misguided or worse. Of course I'm going to basically like him. But at the same time, I see a lot of limitations in that world view. If anyone knows of a more recent book about the IRS, I'd love to know about it. If anyone out there is thinking of writing one, I look forward to the results of your labours.

ETA: I bought this used on Amazon. I plan on keeping it, at least for a while.

all right

Dec. 10th, 2010 09:23 pm
walkitout: (Default)
I hate to be on the wrong side of Bernie Sanders. Wow. That was a long speech.
walkitout: (Default)
But apparently, someone gave them each a shot of Teh Crazy and they are acting like, I don't know what they are acting like, but it isn't reality based.

Here's a summary of the tax deal that I think might be somewhat accurate:

It isn't _just_ unemployment for 13 months and tax breaks for everyone + extra tax breaks on estate and upper brackets. There's other stuff in there too, not just things the Republicans wanted, either. The annual AMT adjustment is included. Looks like the Making Work Pay thing didn't get extended, which is a little sad.

But wait! This is an even better source:

Looks like not getting Making Work Pay is just fine: instead there's a reduction in the amount of payroll taxes paid by employees (working out to more money in worker pockets and thus more money circulating in the economy, generating more demand and more jobs).

Klein is not an overly optimistic person in Washington, and he tends to be fairly accurate in
his reporting. Anyone out there looking for bipartisanship in Washington ought to be feeling pretty happy, and in general, I think a lot of us should be breathing a huge sigh of relief. For many people in the US, this could have been much, much worse.


This is also excellent:

I find myself in an odd position. I really wanted Clinton to win the primary (and obviously the general), altho obviously I voted for Obama in the general. Part of my rationale was that I didn't really think Obama would fight, and I didn't think he'd recognize just how hard it was going to be to deal with Republicans in Washington. I figured him for a deal maker, and a centrist, and I expected him to get completely screwed. In practice, he's been unbelievably adept at getting stuff accomplished, and while his positioning in public is consistently centrist, the actual legislation and programs happening are far better for my set of ideals than I would have anticipated. Simultaneously, a lot of people that I perceived as wrong in how they understood Obama during the campaign have become really disillusioned with him as President. I thought they were expecting too much (and I think I was right about that still) -- but they also got way more than I expected them to.

I think that anyone who is particularly concerned about how the base feels about a President immediately _after_ a midterm election is sort of missing the point about how the political cycle in this country works, especially when run through any kind of reasonable filter for high-information/low-information voting patterns. It'll be interesting to watch us run through this tax debate again in the context of a presidential election. That's a fight that everyone seems to really want to have, at a time that everyone wants to have it. Could be fun. :-)
walkitout: (Default)
I had a long conversation today with one of my brokers. It turns out we actually agree on some things that are believed to be wildly controversial (means testing on social security benefits, removing the income cap on contributions to social security), that heartens me about the possibility of making sure important safety net programs are preserved to be around for future generations.

But along the way, we went down a little rat hole about whether or not people making $250,000 a year can be considered rich. One of T.'s arguments was that people who make that amount of money, but who live in an expensive place -- like, say, New York -- can't be considered to be rich because their cost of living is so high.

Let's think about that with a little bit of readily accessible data.

I pulled this out of a note in a wikipedia entry about New York City, subhead Demographics.

That's someone's copy of a New York Times article from September 4, 2005, titled "In Manhattan, Poor Make 2 cents for Each Dollar to the Rich".

Here are the relevant bits of information:

"The lowest-income census tract in the city is a triangular patch of East Harlem east of First Avenue and north of East 119th Street, where, despite a hint of gentrification in a renovated brownstone or two, the neighborhood is dominated by the mammoth though generally well-tended public housing project called the Wagner Houses. The median household income there is $9,320, most of the residents are black or Hispanic and do not have high school degrees, 56 percent live below the poverty level and about one in 10 are foreign born."


"Manhattan's highest-income census tract is a six-square-block rectangle bounded by Fifth and Park Avenues and East 56th and 59th Streets. The median household income in this mostly commercial section of East Midtown is $188,697 (average family income is $875,267); none of the residents identified themselves as black; nearly one-third have advanced degrees and more than one in three are foreign born. Even there, though, the poverty rate is 16 percent."

I think that if you make substantially (honestly? Don't _you_ think that over $60,000 is substantially?) more than the median income in the _richest_ census tract in New York City (particularly since we may well be comparing apples to oranges, in that median income in these statistics may or may not be the same as AGI, which is what the $250K thing is all about), you might qualify as rich. Don't you?

Sure. _Average_ family income in that tract is much, much, much higher, because even in that richest census tract, there are a small number of families who have fantastically more money than the rest of the rich people. But that doesn't change things. If you've got -- call it 30% more money -- than half of the other families in the _richest census tract in NYC_, you are probably rich.

I am _so_ going to write that Memo to Rich People.
walkitout: (Default)
I've been surfing around reading coverage of the Todd Henderson disaster, partly because I've been curious to see if there is any appetite for soak-the-rich. There are some fantastic arguments (some of which are even being made) that high income folk in the 250K-millionish range are getting soaked already compared to the truly high earners (hedgies who don't pay income tax; they pay capital gains and those rates are obscene. And I say that as a person who has benefited from those rates). Of course, that means nothing in the current debate, which is the relative tax burden of median folk and people who are making meaningfully more than $250K taxable.

I've been a little puzzled by the number of lawyers willing to jump in on the Henderson side of the $250K/yr does not make you rich. This strikes me as a dumb argument: your audience will either hate you, or already agree with you. It isn't going to convince anyone, so why even bring it up? Adding details that include as much spent in "other household expenses" as median folk see in take home pay really stings, too. There was a time when this sort of thing got beaten out of people, either by their parents when they were kids, by other children when they were kids, or by family/friends who were median folk and didn't like richy-rich getting all uppity, at any age. Perhaps we've gotten a little too good at segregating by income.

Also, take a look at this:

If that career doesn't scream, I HAVE ASPERGER'S, well, the photo does. Come on. An engineering degree to law professor at University of Chicago? This is not a man with social skills. I recognize the type. You know, because I _am_ the type.

Moving on to a news link on the site:

The Federalist Society gave him an award. If you aren't familiar with the Federalist Society, google might take you here:

Or here:

This ought to catch your eye:

"The society was begun by a group including Edwin Meese, Robert Bork, Theodore Olson, David M. McIntosh, and Steven Calabresi, and its members have included Supreme Court justices Antonin Scalia, John G. Roberts and Samuel Alito."

Mind you, Ted Olson has done some things lately to really give conservatives pause (joining up with Boies on the Prop 8 case:

Let's pretend, for a moment, that you're a political organizer or strategist or just someone who is pissed as hell about what the last couple years have been like: Democrats controlling both houses and the Presidency, and the Republicans running an amazing circus in the media and implementing Gregg's playbook of Just Say No to Everything in the Senate. You're thinking, a little monkey wrench, that'd be a good thing. Change the debate. Hmmm. Well, the tax cuts are about to expire, and rhetoric is mired in whether it is the Democrats raising taxes and if so on who, or the Republicans demanding tax cuts for the rich before they'll sign off on tax cuts for the middle class. And this young idiot blogs something fairly incendiary and unbelievably out of touch. You might decide that it was worth e-mailing some bloggers and some friends of yours a link to that post, and, for good measure, some critiques of that post. Very low cost intervention. Potentially a huge win -- not because you pick on some nerd who managed to evade every single piece of information anyone gave him about how to behave in public. No. What you're _really_ hoping is that all his buddies, who usually nod and cheer when he rants about the liberal wtf, will experience a moment of group hysteria, or temporary insanity, or camaraderie, or whatever. Maybe _they'll_ post something completely out of touch and incendiary. Maybe this ball could be kept rolling, and as long as it's rolling, it's really hard to scare the masses about Marxian anything or socialist whatever. They're too distracted by the idea that someone who makes hundreds of thousands of dollars _every single year_ is saying he's not rich. And all his lawyer and political friends are agreeing with him.

The initial bloggers pushing this ball downhill (Delong, etc.) were quite cautious to acknowledge that perhaps the Todd Henderson doing the blogging was not _really_ the Todd Henderson, Professor at University of Chicago Law School. After all, we've seen what happened when some right wing blogger offered up red meat and Fox News took it. A little too much embarrassment all around to want to be a party to that. And while I haven't checked in with Rachel Maddow tonight, this hasn't turned up on MSNBC that I've seen so far. But I would be feeling a whole lot of respect for Democratic chances in this midterm if we could get some video of relevant people saying $250K/year isn't rich. And play it over and over and over again. Honestly? That would be better than masturbation is wrong because you can't do it without lust in your heart. It might even be better than misspent campaign funds.

But even if it all piddles down in the next 24 hours and never makes it out of the blogs, even if the only guy to get truly hammered is a guy used to nothing but adulation from academia and complete oblivion outside it, well, at least he'll be an object lesson to young guns in the Federalist Society: someone is reading your blog and waiting for you to really and truly be a jackass.
walkitout: (Default)
Mind you, it's really only the editorial page at the WSJ that is batshit crazy screamingly right wing (yes, I'm questioning the grammar there, too). Still, here's what one blogger had to say to the professor who complained about how he couldn't afford to pay more taxes because he was barely making it as it was.

First, a financial advisor was invoked: "Too many people have "unrealistic expectations," says Mr. Kalscheur. They figure they should be vacationing in Italy, driving expensive cars, the whole deal. "We need to knock him upside the head. He's got to stop spending money." Every financial planner will tell you the same thing: The real challenge is tackling the psychology."

Then the standard array of budget tricks: track your spending, refinance your mortgage, rethink the private schools decision, pay down debt before saving/investing, hire fewer people, buy cheaper stuff. And think about moving your professor and doc gigs to a cheaper place.

Straightforward, obvious, useful advice to a wide array of people. What a nice public service this blogger is doing.

There are two zingers for the prof:

"contrary to what you seem to think, federal taxes are not extortionate by modern historical standards. According to the CBO, families in the top 20% pay average federal taxes of 25.1%. The figure in President Reagan's final year in office: 25.6%."

"Never, ever, ever again blog about how hard it is to live on $300,000 or $350,000 a year at a time when one middle-aged man in four can't find a full-time job, and one in five can't find any job at all."

Think of it as the memo for rich people. At least one version of it. Nice to see it in the WSJ, even if it's only in an online blog associated with the WSJ.
walkitout: (Default)
I have mixed feelings about the jurist, of course, he was complicated man in a difficult time.

However, on this issue, I agree with him: taxes _are_ the price we pay for civilized society, and I would go a little further and say you get what you pay for.

I like Krugman. But I often feel like he's sort of pussyfooting around some of the main issues, perhaps because everyone from slightly right of center all the way to whatever passes for "extreme" left wing in this country seems to be terrified of engaging in "class warfare". One of my grandfathers was a wobbly. And he was a conservative jackass, at least until a series of strokes shut him up and eventually killed him. I generally speaking just don't get political discourse. I don't know if it's because I'm spectrum-y, or because I was raised in a time warp or what. But I don't get it.

See, I think that if you're going to be accused of something anyway, and the thing is worth doing, you might as well quit stalling and just Go There. I feel like this is a baby step towards Going There. The rich are a minority in this country. We can take what they took from us since the Reagan rewrite of the tax code and redistribute it in a more equitable manner. We just have to be willing to do it. Even if we think we might some day be rich.

Even if we are rich. Right now.
walkitout: (Default)
I don't think I can finish this. I'll try to explain why. First, a quote:

p 124

"As I excavated history's mines -- archives -- in search of cookbooks, it was my hope that I would find just one instance in which a cookbook writer left behind another manuscript or cookbook in a collection with other documents, letters, or a journal. With one exception, though, they left nothing behind that I could find to supplement the meager evidence of their cookery writings." She then goes on to tell a complicated little story about "Jane Campbell, a Philadelphian who lived in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries". The only reason she figured out who Jane Campbell was was because she ran into a woman researching Jane Campbell for other reasons, and after a while, they realized they were researching the same woman. Given that this woman was the founder of the Woman Suffrage Society of Philadelphia in 1892, it _really_ would have been a crime not to have figured this out.

Obviously, she did not find Abiah Darby's diary. Or maybe she did, and it doesn't count because the only other thing she had in Darby's hand was an inscription in Bailey's book.

What is Ms. Theophano's research process, that she was totally unable to navigate the massively documented Quaker communities of Pennsylvania and Delaware, to find out a little more about Hannah Trimble, her husband James and their lack of children? James was a genealogy buff at the times, cited as a living source when he was still alive. James and Hannah show up as interesting sidelights in genealogies being assembled more recently. Ms. Theophano _lives_ in Pennsylvania. She _drives past_ the Trimble farm. But her idea of evidence that the Mendenhall name is still a big deal in Chester County is that there's a community called that.

That's a sorry excuse for research.

Maybe these things got trimmed in preparing the book for publication. But that does not explain failing to understand the front pages of Hopestill Brett's booke as a legal document of what she brought to her marriage to Francis Pellatt. It does not explain speculating that Hopestill was a Quaker. Just because every other book Theophano laid hands on seems to have been written by a Quaker (seems, I said, seems) is no excuse for assuming that any self-respecting Quaker would have named their daughter Hopestill (whereas a Puritan wouldn't so much as blink). That does not explain projecting mid 20th century household organization onto a nineteenth century Quaker marriage that gave every evidence of that communities economic arrangements.

I'm not a historian, or even a genealogist. But I do have a bit of an interest in a whole lot of things. When I was attempting to resolve a family puzzle (the origin of my maternal grandfather's surname), I tried a variety of things unsuccessfully. Then I read a book about Anabaptists through history, and decided to tackle the problem by learning more about the Russian Mennonites who moved to Canada. Along that path, I suddenly realized that I could just look that surname up in one of my New Favorite Sources (GAMEO), and voila! A complete explanation of that mysterious last name.

Genealogy is like that. The people being researched are, more often than not, not going to show up in a Britannica, nor, for that matter, will their personal documents and ephemera have remained together through the vicissitudes of time. You have to go to the small town, and dig through the history books that some local wrote and had published in small numbers of copies. You have to find someone else's genealogical work (who did the scut work first so you can mooch off it). But you go to the _place_ (physically or figuratively) and work your way from there. When Theophano is holding a volume with limited or no provenance and a common name (Jane anything, which makes it doubly ironic that was one of the few people she identified) or no name at all, I sympathize with her dilemma. But she couldn't even seem to figure out women with wildly improbable names (Abiah! Hopestill!) and absolutely clearly identified locations (I don't _care_ that she had trouble figuring out Horncroft; it really wasn't that difficult -- and she drove by Fairville almost every day) and month-day-year for a marriage. If you are holding a manuscript cookbook written by a woman, you are researching a woman who lived in well-documented times, and had enough resources to _not_ fall through the cracks the way so many of the poor always have, down to today.

These are teeny tiny little details. If Theophano had written a book that dryly summarized the primary materials she had in her hands and what was inscribed in them and what collections they were located in and left it at that, I would not have complained. But Theophano is explicitly trying to recreate women's lives, without doing the legwork that ordinary, non-historian, amateur genealogists do when recreating their ancestors lives. If Theophano had imaginatively reconstructed without reference to the facts, but done so in a way compatible with the easily findable facts, I would have been okay with that. But in numerous instances, Theophano makes shit up that makes absolutely _no sense whatsoever_: not in terms of the time period being discussed, not in terms of basic human nature, definitely not once you do the legwork to understand Abiah's and Hopestill's and Hannah's life trajectories.

I wanted to love this book. I'm a part of this community being described by Theophano. I had a handwritten recipe book that got so damaged I dismantled it and put it into a three ring binder with page protectors. I've taken the best of that binder -- the things I've made repeatedly and enjoyed -- and put them online with the kinds of stories that end up in published cookbooks. I know this process by living this process. I know my motivations, and I understand the motivations of cooks like me well enough that if I can get to talking about this kind of thing and trading recipes with someone, I don't have to worry about my more general social-skills disabilities getting me into trouble. It's exactly like gardeners and cuttings, or bulbs that have gone crazy and you need to cull them. As long as the recipient is excited about getting what you've got to give, you're going to turn it over. We're not restaurants that make a living off our cooking. We're people who cook.

But what Theophano describes doesn't sound like me and doesn't feel like this world which I know through the church of my childhood and early adulthood, my Mennonite relatives, my family in the Netherlands, my cousins-by-marriage-family from Mexico, the families of a series of men I used to be in relationships with, and countless friends and acquaintance over the thirty some odd years I have been cooking. When she's describing the books, it sounds right. When she's imaginatively reconstructing their lives, and their feelings, and their motives, it feels like someone taking a nail to a blackboard. I cringe. I complain. I go do research. I blog. Anything rather than read more of this idiocy that makes no sense to me at all.

Seriously, Theophano obsesses about the ideal transmission of these working documents to future generations. Really? This is _so_ unimaginable to me! Do _you_ obsess about leaving your quicken files to your children and grandchildren? Hand written cookbooks are the tools of the trade. You don't leave your kids your old worn out, obsolete crap (that, btw, you've replaced a half dozen times over the course of your life anyway, at least these days); you buy them a new kit of their own. Theophano had a ton of evidence that this is what was happening, but kept trying to find indications that women had a plan for who was going to "inherit" their cookbook. As if it were a Family Bible. She's weirded out that these things aren't in wills and death inventories. Well, _no_. Virtually everyone who had one that wanted to pass it along would have a lot of warning (old age, lingering illness) that she wasn't going to be needing it any more and would have made arrangements to hand it over personally. It would have required a surprise death due to trauma to prevent that from happening -- and we see in those instances that families often turned the book into a memorial and kept it in the family on that basis, no longer a working document having been touched by too great a tragedy.

It hurts, too, that Theophano doesn't seem to even understand the contemporary genre of published cookbooks, expressing surprise that recipes are just lists of ingredients. When an older recipe says "tea cup full" or "great spoon full", she calls that "whimsical", when it was just the normal way of cooking and describing cooking before the home economists tried to make it like chemistry. She calls something "just" a list of ingredients, when it has clear amounts in modern units specified and directions on beating the eggs and whites separately. To Theophano, cooking is _such_ a mystery, that she can't look at a cake recipe and figure out how it was put together -- altho, give her credit, she did realize that the author and others in her household could figure it out.

It also hurts that Theophano runs across little things that the women wrote or pasted into their books because they liked the sound of them, or wanted to remember them -- and then apparently can't figure out where they are from or what they might mean. I can't quite forgive her for not tracking down Samuel Dowse Robbins ear-worm of a poem, "Father, take my hand, for I am prone", altho I suspect I ought to. Can anyone expect me to forgive her for this, however? Upon encountering a fragment of William Jennings Bryant's first major speech to Congress on March 16, 1892, written out in Ms. Campbell's hand:

"to these inconsistencies for the purpose merely of showing the confusion into which those are led who attempt to prove that you can benefit one man by legislation without taking something from somebody else -- Here are two estranged products of one mental effort yearning for reconciliation"

Theophano says (in a note, no less):

"I am tempted to interpret the meaning of this fragment of speech as an argument for universal suffrage. It may represent the speaker's effort to reconcile those within the movement who advanced black male suffrage and those who continued to believe that 'black suffrage and woman suffrage should be equal and inseparable demands.' Ellen Carol DuBois, Feminism & Suffrage..."

No, dear. That quote is about _taxation_, specifically, about tariffs on wool, which Bryant was supporting a move to reduce. Certainly, Bryant favored women's suffrage, but that was hardly what he was discussing at the time, much less universal suffrage. After all, he defended Southern literacy tests that were designed to limit black suffrage. Even if you _didn't_ recognize that it was Bryant, it should have been apparent it was about taxation -- and given the time period, obviously Populist.

This book is _painful_ to read. It is published by Palgrave, which is Macmillan's academic imprint. And I have to say, more grist for the don't-buy-from-Macmillan theory I've been working on. If you are fascinated by the topic, it might be worthwhile to wade through it to extract her primary sources, but she sure doesn't make it easy on the reader in doing so. Good luck.

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