Elizabeth Warren, Rephrased

Posted Friday, 23 September 2011, 8:46 pm

It’s been forever and five minutes since I last posted here. Since my readership including myself is almost certainly just one, I figure this is a good place to write something that’s really bugging me, that would be exceedingly unpopular with most people I know – so this way I avoid losing friends, whee!

Elizabeth Warren, who is apparently running for senate in Massachusetts, was videotaped making some statements about ‘the social contract’ which are really resonating with a lot of people, apparently – the quote below is being posted all over the net, with people saying ‘Yeah!’, ‘Right on!’. Her comments were in regard to taxes and the federal debt. Here’s what she said:

“You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear: you moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for; you hired workers the rest of us paid to educate; you were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did.

“Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea? God bless. Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”

This all sounds just delicious. Most people hate the rich, the rich themselves notwithstanding (for the most part). It speaks precisely to all those who feel like the rich bastards are just rich freeloaders, that they’re just bloody rich and don’t contribute to society.  The problem is, it’s completely wrong, disingenuous, and pandering to the very basic human greed response that if someone has more than me, it’s not fair.

Let’s examine a few of the glaring inaccuracies designed to inflame that greedy glow, but are in fact completely off the mark: 

‘the roads the rest of us paid for’

Well, the problem here is that our federal highways are paid for via the federal excise tax on gasoline, about twenty cents per gallon, not via income taxes. Likewise, states grab their own share of highway taxes on gasoline, here in California, we wind up paying 64.5 cents per gallon in taxes, when you include the state gasoline tax, sales tax, and local taxes on top of the federal tax. Those taxes are used to pay for state highways. Cities and counties pay for roads via property taxes. Again, none of these are federal income taxes. As well, it can be argued that the rich are the least likely to drive fuel efficient cars, and thus pay an even larger share of these taxes due to their higher gas consumption. And those goods they use the roads to deliver? Every gallon those semi-trucks consume generate more highway taxes. So, suggesting ‘the rich’ aren’t paying for our roads is really just ridiculous.

‘you hired workers the rest of us paid to educate’

Another disingenuous claim. Our public school system is paid for via local property taxes. True, state colleges and universities are paid from state income taxes. But again, none of this is paid via federal income taxes. The federal government does subsidize education via student loans; but again, those are loans, a teeny tiny fraction of the federal budget – and they’re expected to be paid back!

‘you were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for.’

And again! The exact same disingenuous argument. Police and Fire are funded locally. They are not funded via federal income taxes!

But – let’s say, just for the sake of argument, that all of the above actually are true. That our roads and education and police and fire are all paid via federal income taxes. She’s suggesting that the rich profit from all these government provided services without giving back. In fact, she explicitly says ‘the roads the rest of us paid for’, ‘the workers the rest of us paid to educate’. So quite baldly, she’s saying that ‘the rest of us paid for all these things, but the rich just profit off it without paying for any of it – that they’re just freeloading off of what ‘we’ built and provided.

But, to put it as delicately as i can, that’s a load of horseshit.

Here’s the reality: the rich pay the lion’s share of the money the federal government takes in. The vast majority of it. As of 2008 (but it’s been pretty steady for a good long while, even since before the ‘Bush tax cuts’) the top 10% of earners in this country – those who make $113,800 or more – pay 69.94% of personal federal income taxes that the government takes in. Think about that. ‘The rest of us’ contribute only 30% of the taxes the government uses to pay for all its programs. Sure – basic math, if someone has a ton of money, they’ll wind up paying a wheelbarrow of money in taxes. But that’s the reality nobody wants to really admit to. You simply cannot say that the rich don’t contribute, or that ‘the rest of us’ paid for all these services that the rich got rich using.

The argument I hear back tends to be that the rich dodge their taxes, they pay as little tax as they can, they sometimes don’t pay any taxes at all!! Well, nobody wants to pay more taxes than they have to. For all those who say ‘tax me more’, I see none of them making voluntary contributions to reduce the federal debt, which the Treasury will happily accept. Don’t feel you’re taxed enough? Then why aren’t you making up the difference, eh?

But again, the fuzzy math just doesn’t add up. ‘Those filthy rich get away with not paying taxes’ does not match up with the reality that ‘Those filthy rich pay nearly three fourths of the dollars the government has available to spend’ (ignoring that unpleasant problem we have of deficit spending, which is why we have a $14 trillion dollar debt – not that we aren’t taxed enough). Either we admit that without ‘the rich’ our federal government would be paralyzed and bankrupt (hold the jokes on that!), or we pretend that the rich are freeloaders on the system, scooping up all the moneys! and leaving nothing for anybody else. It’s a load of nonsense.

Now, the question is, why is everyone now clamoring that we need to tax the rich more? Is it because suddenly they’ve stopped paying what they should, and the government is now paralyzed? Nope. As far back and 1999, during the last years of the economic boom, the top 10% – those with a then adjusted gross income of $87,862 or higher – contributed 66.45% of the federal taxes collected. That’s right. back during the boom – when the government was flush with money and “Bill Clinton had a surplus”, the rich were contributing a smaller proportion to the federal government than they are now!

So again – why now, this clamor to tax the rich more? It’s not because we don’t tax them enough. It’s because our government spends without limit. Our elected representatives do not have any constraints on their spending, unlike ‘the rest of us’. Our government cares not a bit whether it’s ‘earning’ enough to pay for what it wants to spend on – it merely accumulates debt. A staggering debt. A debt that is at near catastrophic proportions. A $14 trillion dollar debt, the interest upon which well exceeds a billion dollars a day. Can you even fathom that? I can’t. I looked up what you can buy with a billion dollars. Just a couple of examples –

  • Two years’ worth of AIDS research at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, or a year’s worth of the drug AZT for 333,000 HIV-infected people.
  • Just a little more than one day’s Social Security benefits paid by the federal government (that’s a nice neat symmetry right there).

 Nice! Every single day we throw away more than we spend on Social Security benefits.

So. What we really have is that our government servants have dug a hole of debt so deep that now they want ‘the rich’ to bail them out of it. To be perfectly honest – I could actually go along with that. Tack on a few percent higher taxes on the super rich, and it could make a serious, meaningful dent in that debt.

Except for one problem. The government wants the rich to bail them out, but refuses to stop spending like a drunken sailor on shore leave. No cuts! We can’t cut critical services! It’ll hurt people!

The problem with that line of thinking is that it’s completely out of whack with what we – the rest of us – are expected to do when the economy takes a downturn. When I’m hurting for money, yeah, I may rack of some credit card debt. But for the most part, the average individual will cut back on their spending. Hell, it’s exactly why the economy continues in these doldrums – poor economy, people are reluctant to spend, that keeps the economy down, it feeds on itself. 

Here’s another way to visualize just how staggeringly screwed up our federal government is.

  • U.S. Tax revenue: $2,170,000,000,000
  • Federal budget: $3,820,000,000,000
  • New debt: $1,650,000,000,000
  • National debt: $14,271,000,000,000
  • Recent budget cut: $ 38,500,000,000

Now, just remove eight zeros and pretend it’s a household budget:

  • Annual family income: $21,700
  • Money the family actually spent: $38,200
  • New debt on the credit card: $16,500
  • Outstanding balance on credit card: $142,710
  • Total budget cuts made: $385 !

The government doesn’t play by that same social contract that the rich are being hectored about. If the government doesn’t have enough money, it should cut back on spending just like ‘the rest of us’ are expected to do. And at the very least for crying out loud – if you want to dump a tax hike on the rich, then make the good faith gesture of freezing spending at whatever the current rates are and applying all of those new tax revenues to the debt. So that they can actually make a dent in the debt.

Otherwise? Well, we know what that means, and what the reality almost certainly will be. Taxes on the rich will be increased. The government will spend those ‘extra’ revenues without restraint. The debt will increase. And there will be yet more calls to increase taxes on those evil filthy rich who ‘won’t feel anything’ if we take more of their money. 

Without spending restraint, taxing the rich will be nothing but an exercise in…cue Jaws theme…class warfare. Because those higher taxes won’t solve the debt problem, people will just agitate further. Raise the taxes on the rich to 40%! 50%! 80%! Take it all, that’ll solve the problem!

Sigh. I haven’t yet gotten around to actually rephrasing Elizabeth Warren! So, here goes, I’ll end it with this.

“There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there — good for you. You, as a wealthy person, are responsible for 70% of the revenue the federal government takes in, even though you amount to only about 18% of americans.

So i want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads that you largely paid for yourself. You hired workers that you largely paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that you largely paid for yourself.

Now look. You built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea — god bless! Keep a big hunk of it. And the rest of us thank you for paying for most of the government services that we use, for paying the lion’s share for our entitlements, our defense, our security, our education. Part of the social contract is that when someone pays most of what it costs for the roads and education and police that you also use – you thank them for it, you don’t start class warfare over it.”

Addendum: Having mulled over some of the less finely tuned ideas above, I realize I also left out a bunch of others. Chief among them the disturbing problem (for those agitating about the rich, mind you) of the rich – you know, the ones that Liz is talking about who build factories, create great ideas, hire those people we all educated – all those people they hire, what do they do? They pay taxes. Taxes they wouldn’t pay if they weren’t working. Do we factor that into this formula that the rich don’t pay their fair share? No. It’s an inconvenient epiphenomenon.

Sure – there are rich people out there who do nothing for society. There are middle-class and poor people who do the same. We focus on the extremes to the exclusion of the mean. Demonizing the wealthy is demonization first – it doesn’t illuminate, it only divides. Likewise demonization of the homeless, the Republicans, the Democrats, the religious and the areligious.

Hopefully the one thing we can agree upon is that $14 trillion dollars of debt is beyond the pale. That’s a $44,000 debt on the head of every one of the approximately 310 million men, women, and children in this country. Since small children rarely file a 1040, it’s actually a $97,000 debt on the head of each of the approximately 144 million US taxpayers.  Even if we dump massive taxes on the super rich, it will take decades to bring it under control – even if we stop all new spending today. 

The Continuum Of Faith

Posted Sunday, 11 February 2007, 6:32 pm

All generalizations are faulty – including this one.

That said, we seem to be highly attuned to generalizations – making them, and accepting them. ‘Whatever line you’re waiting in, the other lines will move faster’. ‘Republicans tend to be pro-business and anti-social-welfare’. ‘Blondes have more fun’. And so on. Likewise, there are some areas where the only way one can discuss something is by the use of generalities. “Fundamentalists”. “Atheists”. (“Fundamentalist” is really not the most accurate term. As I am not a theologian, nor all that well studied in matters of faith, I hope the use can be excused. Perhaps “Orthodox” would be a better word…?). Present me with two religious fundamentalists, and chances are each will have some very different opinions and beliefs from the other, even if they’re of the same faith. The same with atheists. There’s no such thing as a ‘pure’ fundamentalist or atheist. The descriptor may be helpful, but underneath it all, you have to accept that both the fundamentalist and atheist must sometimes have to stand naked (with apologies to Bob Dylan). What defines a man or woman cannot be boiled down to a simplistic term like ‘fundamentalist’ or ‘atheist’.

Nevertheless, in order to discuss the differences, you have to use the generalizations. And so, I shall.

Yesterday, I viewed a thought-provoking video on youtube. I’ve seen a number of this fellow’s videos, and he’s definitely a smart cookie. He has a knack for highlighting the ‘grey’ that fills the expanse between the extremes of any particular two points of view. Heck, a man after my own heart.

This particular video was about fundamentalists, agnostics, and atheists. As my legions of fans know, I’m interested in matters of and about faith. A bone I pick regularly has to do with the ‘extreme’ atheists who should more accurately refer to themselves as antitheists – atheist is too gentle a term for them. The extreme atheists/antitheists exhibit many of the tendencies of the extreme Fundamentalists – they can be shrill, hectoring, annoying, self-absorbed, exceedingly judgemental, and downright nasty towards their fellow humans. If you don’t share their views, you are seen as ignorant, deluded, and dangerous.

Again, note that I refer to extreme fundamentalists and extreme atheists. There are legions of fundamentalists and atheists who do their own thing, and really don’t have any interest in getting in other people’s faces about whether or not they should share their beliefs.

On that basis, I think what I’m driving at is – and reminding myself of the caveats regarding generalizations – that I think a broader continuum may be more informative regarding these measures of faith than ‘fundamentalist, agnostic, atheist’.

chart of beliefs

Generally, that’s an accurate representation of the range of opinions regarding faith/god. Acknowledging all the same that there are non-extreme fundamentalists, as well as non-extreme antitheists. Acknowledging also the weakness of labeling the moderate view as simply ‘religious’.

An ironic characteristic of generalizations is how they both shape, and are shaped by, the person making the generalization. You’ll often find that the most zealous, extreme fundamentalists are convinced that most of the world is filled with either godless communists or believers of other faiths who are on the wrong path – and that both pose a grave threat to their way of life. Likewise, the most zealous, extreme antitheists are convinced that  most of the world is filled with either religious fanatics or apathetically religious dupes – and both pose a grave threat to their way of life.

As a person with a fairly centrist mentality, my generalization tends to be that there are some zealous extremists in the world who are fundamentalists and some who are antitheists – but that neither poses a terribly great threat to my way of life.

Interestingly enough, most people – regardless of where they fall on the continuum – tend to believe that they have the superior view of the world. If anything, the most grave fault – and threat – may be that tendency in itself.  Perhaps the less conviction one has that their own views are infallible, the more balanced that person’s view of the world may be.

Then again, perhaps that’s merely my centrist superiority complex being expressed…

Now, the video I referred to touched on a number of other aspects of beliefs. I have quibbles with some of the ideas presented, but only because their imprecision is in some ways where all the problems arise. The commonly posed statement from atheists is “There is no proof of the existence of god”. The problem is that “existence” and “god” are antithetical concepts. The fact is, there is no proof of the “existence” of love, for that matter. You cannot objectively measure love. No quantity of microphones, seismic instrumentation, microscopes or telescopes, geiger counters, or calipers, can quantitatively measure love. According to the laws of science, love does not “exist”. But as any reasonably mature individual will assure you, from their own direct experience, love does indeed ‘exist’. The insistence that physical evidence must be presented for the existence of god indicates that one doesn’t have a clear grasp of the concepts.

Setting aside that conceptual issue, an important point still remains. Atheists, in general, state “God does not exist”, because there is a lack of evidence that god exists. The problem with that is that to state that something does not exist because there is no evidence for it is illogical

Here’s an example. In 1928, Paul Dirac postulated the existence of the positron, a nuclear antiparticle. In 1932, the existence of the positron was proven experimentally. In the interval between 1928 and 1932, there was no proof, no evidence, that the positron existed. Would it have been logical then, in 1930, to have stated unequivocally, that “The positron does not exist”? Of course not. The lack of evidence for the existence of the positron had no actual bearing on whether or not positrons really did exist – we were merely ignorant of their existence. Surely, some people in 1930 believed that the positron existed, and some people believed that it did not exist. On the basis of belief, both were right. Absent the evidence, all one had was belief.

And belief, as we know, most certainly and emphatically, is not fact.

Stating that god does not exist is irrational. The only rational statement is that god may or may not exist. And that, my friends, is where the middle of the chart above comes in to play.

Thankfully, we humans have no obligation to be rational in all things and at all times. It’s quite irrational for me to love my wife, and quite irrational to enjoy watching Wings of Desire. There is no logic involved – merely humanity.

I suppose my beef with atheists and antitheists is their insistence that science, logic, and rationality are the only acceptable modes of thought.  That if one isn’t scientific, one is ignorant or deluded.

I beg to differ.


           A mind all logic is like a knife all blade.
          It makes the hand bleed that uses it.

           —Rabindranath Tagore


The irony of the last post, juxtaposed against the "Love at first boot – OpenSolaris" logo to the right is not lost on me.

Windows, Mac, Linux: YAWN

Posted Friday, 09 February 2007, 9:16 pm

I’ve had it. I’m done. Can we please stop talking about computer operating systems as if they were Burger King versus McDonalds, the Dodgers versus the Giants, or Coke versus Pepsi? Never mind that there are three ostensible contenders to the crown. Never mind that there is no crown to wear. Never mind that what we are talking about is what amounts to utter, incomprehensible gibberish consisting of sequences of ones and zeroes that together are intended to do nothing more than make those ones and zeroes appear comprehensible to us humans.

What a mundane term to begin with. Operating System. The System that Operates. It’s akin to being a fan of pushpins. An operating system is a bunch of digital code that is a buffer between humans and machines. Essentially, it’s a game of pretend, so that we mere mortals can put the power of the machine to use.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not belittling the incredible human effort that goes into creating an operating system. Hundreds of thousands of people have toiled millions of hours to build these operating systems. They are truly marvels in many respects. I’m able to sit here, banging my fingers against a panel of plastic with flexible points on it, and quite magically, tiny squiggles of black appear on an illuminated screen, corresponding to the flexible points I’ve selected to bang on. While I’m doing that, the mysterious whirring box to my left is assuring that the squiggles are going into the right place on this screen, and simultaneously playing music, showing me the time of day, and displaying a pretty picture in the background. Forty years ago, I’d be punching paper tape all day just to create what I have written so far.

Operating systems, like the computer hardware they run on, are extraordinary marvels of human ingenuity.

The problem is, we have these camps of followers. The Windows fanatics. The Mac fanatics. and the Linux fanatics. (There are other breeds of fanatics as well of course – I’ve been accused of being a Solaris fanatic, and I can’t say it’s wholey inaccurate).

The problem is, it should be utterly and totally immaterial what the operating system is. For the majority of people, there’s only a handful of activities they perform with their computers. They read email. They browse the web. They balance their checkbook. To a lesser extent, they listen to music, watch movies, play games, and view photos. Sure – there are myriad other activities one can do with a computer, but for the most part, it’s what I just listed. I think I could safely say that for at least 75% of people who own computers, all they need is a web browser, an email client, and Quicken. Add in some music software, DVD playback software, a few games, and Picasa, and you’ve covered 85% of people.

I suppose that one could say I’m arguing in favor of a computer appliance that has seven functions that it’s capable of performing. Yes and no. I’m not arguing in favor of it – it’s what we have, for 85% of the population! A computer, an operating system, and about seven applications that are all that are ever run. Why not cut out the middle-man? The fact that one can browse the web on a Windows PC, a Mac, and  a Linux machine rather suggests that the operating system is not so damned important.

Maybe there is a market for a dedicated appliance….

Small Town News

Posted Monday, 29 January 2007, 3:17 pm

I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, on the Peninsula – Redwood City. As a child, our family watched the local news broadcasts, coming over the air from transmitters on Mount San Bruno, just south of San Francisco. In glorious Black and White, we watched Terry Lowry in front of a whiteboard map of the U.S., placing little magnet-backed clouds over California, and a little magnet-backed sun over the midwest. We watched Van Amburg report on the latest apartment fire in the Tenderloin, and we watched Wayne Walker report on the latest San Francisco 49ers Superbowl Win.

In that long-ago time, there was still a bit of a "small town news" quality to the major Bay Area news broadcasts. There would be glitches, dead air, tape wouldn’t roll, a camera would be cued while it was panning to the other anchor – all pretty typical, and they still happen to this day, just far less frequently. The production values today, even on the struggling independent major KRON, are excellent.

Because the Bay Area is such a splendid place to live, there has been a blur of reporters and anchors over the years, from station to station. Anchor Pete Wilson began as a reporter at KGO, went on to anchor at KGO, then KRON, then many years later returned to KGO after KRON went independent. It’s rare for a reporter or anchor to leave the Bay Area, at least not willingly.

Aside from the six major stations in the Bay Area (KTVU, KRON, KPIX, KGO, KQED – and KNTV which took over as the NBC affiliate when KRON went independent), there has always been a presence of smaller independent stations throughout the Bay Area. There are dozens of them. Most have subsisted on syndicated sitcoms, old movies, infomercials, and some local-interest programming thrown in from time to time.

One of those smaller stations is KFTY, based in the North Bay – way up in Santa Rosa, where the designation "Bay Area" begins to thin. Those of us up here generally consider ourselves Bay Area, and the rigid definition seems to be ‘any county with land meeting the Bay’, so in that regard, Sonoma County is indeed Bay Area, but only by a whisker.

The population up here is not significant, not when compared to the counties really bordering the Bay. There’s less than a half million people in Sonoma County, while Alameda County in the East Bay – a fraction of the size – has three times the population.

KFTY is just another small, independent station. Small operating budget, small viewership. They air the staple fare of syndicated sitcoms, infomercials, etc like all the others. But unlike any (to my knowledge) of the minor independents in the Bay Area, KFTY produced two full-fledged local evening news broadcasts.

You’ll note the past-tense there. Keep reading.

These were not – by comparison to the major stations – polished productions. The studio video tended to be somewhat washed out. Camera flubs and miscues were a regular occurrence. Tape would fail to roll, or begin rolling well after the anchor had begun to move to the next story. True, these happen at all stations, big and small, but they tended to be as much a staple on KFTY as the repeats of ‘Frasier’.

However, for a lonely little independent station, quite a throw from the major market, it was a damned fine news broadcast. Much of the news content was locally produced by their own reporters. The main anchor, Ed Beebout, has been with the station for twenty three years, and has anchored the news for more than a decade.  And he’s not bad – not bad at all. The smaller markets across the country tend to be a dumping ground for those not blessed with good onscreen personality, or poor teleprompter skills. But Ed – while certainly no Tom Brokaw – has held his own with aplomb, and could likely have worked at a major market station if he were inclined. Almost two years ago, Tricia Hua joined the newscast as co-anchor, and she has also shown remarkable poise and presence. Brent Allen served up a very snappy and accurate weather segment, and Bay Area veteran Curtis Kim produced ‘local flavor’ segments that – while often ranging well into corny territory – were nevertheless thoughfully and professionally produced bits of local interest.  The field reporters tended to have high turnover, and varied in quality from abysmal to excellent, but that’s to be expected at a small station. Recently, a new reporter named Cindy Chen appeared at KFTY, and showed real talent – I’d bet we see her reporting at KRON any day now.Considering the likely minuscule budget available, they produced an amazingly good broadcast.

I’ll be the first to admit: In the evenings, when my wife would tune to KFTY’s news, I would regularly ridicule it, albeit light-heartedly. I’d break into the refrain "Small Town Newwwws", which Paul Schaffer would sing before the Small Town News segment on Letterman – a collection of quirky, sometimes bizarre newspaper stories from backwaters across the country. I’d cringe at every miscue, and when a cub reporter, fresh from the local Junior College, would fall apart live and on-camera – well, it was as painful and entertaining as watching the early auditions on American Idol.

But that’s all gone now. Last thursday, the station pulled the plug on both evening news broadcasts. ‘Insufficient ad revenue’, which certainly isn’t a stretch to believe is true. There are rumors that ClearChannel – the owner of KFTY – intends to divest itself of small stations and markets such as these. That’s also no great stretch to believe true.

It’s a shame though. Having watched KRON’s long, drawn out decline after they lost NBC has been painful, almost more painful than having a longtime local newscast just disappear overnight. One wishes the broadcast could have been scaled back somehow rather than terminated – add another minute or two of commercials, use more syndicated feeds – who knows. As above, I’m no expert in these matters, just another armchair quarterback.

In the grander scheme of things, this is but a blip. Those who watched the KFTY news will have fond memories, but nothing more. We’ll just watch the major news stations, and in time the lack of local news will not be so strongly felt . Fifty years ago, the notion of a backwater like the North Bay even having a local television station would have been absurd. So we’re lucky in that respect. But without locally originated programming, an independent like KFTY just blends into the landscape. There’s simply no compelling reason to watch the station – unless you’re some sort of diehard fan of ‘Frasier’.

The internet has yet to fill the local gap. One can gather information in an instant from Byelarus, but accessing locally relevant information is still a hit-or-miss proposition. The local newspaper serves to some extent, but lacks the immediacy of a local news broadcast.

I suppose my only motivation for writing this is to express my appreciation for what was, and express my regret for what now is…


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