politics

The Only Good Muslim

By now, I’m sure you’ve heard about the horrific events in Paris and elsewhere this weekend and the terrible crimes perpetrated by DAESH [1]. Coordinated attacks across the City of Light, coupled with other attacks in Baghdad and Lebanon show that the radical Muslim sect championed by DAESH will do anything to get their way. They are the epitome of evil.

And their evil has led many to declare that the only good Muslim is a dead Muslim. So I’d like to introduce you to a few Muslims that fit that definition. Let’s start with Adel Termos who was out walking with his daughter; when he saw a suicide bomber, he pushed his daughter away and tackled the bomber, setting off the bomb prematurely and saving dozens of lives. By any account, he was a good Muslim. There’s Ahmed Merabet who died stopping two attackers that were fleeing the scene of their massacre. He was another good Muslim. There’s Mohammad Salman Hamdani, who was killed when he rushed into the Twin Towers to help rescue victims before being caught in the tower collapse. He was yet another good Muslim.

And of course, there are many who don’t fit the definition by virtue of saving lives without sacrificing their own. There is Zouheir, who stopped a suicide bomber from entering the stadium in France; thanks to him, the suicide bomber and his two compatriots set their bombs off early and only killed one other person instead of the hundreds they had hoped for. There is the aptly-named Safer, who rescued two women after a suicide bombing attack outside the restaurant where he worked; he took the women to a safe area and tended their wounds while attack continued above [2]. There’s Lassana Bathily, who protected customers in a Jewish grocery store when a gunman came in and started taking hostages. Good Muslims, all of them.

The truth is that most Muslims are good Muslims; more importantly, they are good people, just as most Christians are good people and good Christians. There are only a few people that are vile enough to think that killing people at random is a valid way to change the world. Some of those vile people are Muslim. Some are Christian. Some are atheist. In truth, it doesn’t matter which church a person goes to [3]. What matters is how they want to change the world. If they want to do it by making the world a better place, by feeding the hungry and clothing the poor and aiding the afflicted and defending the defenseless, then they are a good person. But if they want to do it by killing others simply because they are the wrong color or wrong religion or wrong anything – then they are DAESH.

John

[1] Please don’t refer to them as ISIS. Why? Because their name in Arabic is DAESH and because daesh is apparently a slang term for “jackass” in Arabic and because they hate it. Calling them ISIS gives them legitimacy; calling them jackass takes it away. Let’s take away every shred of legitimacy these jackasses have. Call them DAESH.

[2] It is worth noting that DAESH didn’t attack a rich neighborhood; they attacked one where Muslims and Christians and others work and play together. From DAESH’s viewpoint, coexistence is a greater threat than any other, as it shows how futile DAESH and its aims truly are. For that reason, I fully expect DAESH to attack Thailand, Indonesia [a], or Malaysia because those are also places where Muslims and non-Muslims interact peacefully.

[3] Matthew 25:40 seems appropriate here.

[a] The largest Muslim nation in the world and one with a strong space program. You remember Bolden’s off-hand comment about outreach? Yeah – this is the country he meant.

politics

Wheel In The Sky Keep On Turning

WARNING This post contains strong language and stronger ideas. Do not read if you are easily offended or lack the intellectual ability to understand what “in context” means.

This is not the America that I grew up in. Society has changed in ways both simple and profound [1]. And those changes have had effects on scales from national to personal.

When I grew up, the national minimum wage was $1.15; today, that would be the equivalent of $9.06. The work week was 40 hours and the typical white collar worker worked from 9 AM to 5 PM five days a week with two weeks of paid vacation each year and one week of sick leave. Women didn’t work, or if they did they were typically relegated to subservient roles [2]. Unions were strong (too strong, some might argue) and jobs were for life; you’d start with a company and work for it until you retired. Three martini lunches were common as were deadly car wrecks.

Today, the national minimum wage is $7.25; when I grew up, that would be the equivalent of $0.92 (80% of what they had then). Workweeks have become anything from 4-40 (four “ten hour days” [3] a week and three days off) to 9-80 (a week of “nine hour days” then two days off then a week with three “nine hour days” and one “eight hour day” and three days off) to “flex time” (you work when they call you in for as long as they need you). Instead of vacation and sick leave, you get Paid Time Off (PTO) and get to decide which is more important – going to the in-laws for a week or having the flu? [4] Women now make up 47% of the workforce and fill roles ranging from fry cook to CEO (though the majority are still in less powerful positions than men). Thanks to a series of “right to work” laws [5] passed in the 70s and 80s, unions are now mostly irrelevant and thanks to a wave of mergers in the 1980s, millennials can expect to work at up to fifteen different jobs during their career. That’s assuming that they aren’t branded as “independent contractors” by their bosses in a legal dodge that usually saves the company money as many benefits don’t accrue to contractors [6]. And drug and alcohol testing are now the norm, with “random” testing happening in most states [7].

What else has changed? When I was growing up, my hometown had a “Sundown Law“; if you don’t know what the phrase means, let my grandfather explain it to you: “It means that you’d better get out of town before sundown, nigger” [8]. Thanks to restrictive welfare laws and social restrictions, African American households led the nation in unwed mothers (which was a scandal back then) and poverty. Many neighborhoods had covenants against selling to “niggers, kykes, or other undesirables”. Homosexuals were called fags in polite society when they weren’t being told that their custom was no longer required. They couldn’t even think about joining any branch of the military; if they got caught in the military, they were typically given a choice between going to Vietnam to fight or Fort Leavenworth as a prisoner. Homosexuals were automatically assumed to be security risks and child rapists; African Americans were assumed to be rapists and thieves; raped women and children were assumed to have been “asking for it”.

Today, Sundown Laws are a matter of history [9] and people of any race, color or creed are welcome almost anywhere – as long as they have money to spend. Welfare reform has allowed for more people to get off of the public dole [10], both by pulling themselves up and, unfortunately, by being disqualified after an extended period of need. African Americans have become wealthier as a group and more firmly integrated into society. During the same period, women’s rights have waxed (ERA, Roe v Wade) and waned (ERA failure, Roe v Wade) but they are generally better off than they were.

But the most significant change has been in the realm of gay rights. Where they were once marginalized and hounded, today they are considered by many to be as normal as rain in the spring and by most to be “none of my damn business” [11]. And most of that change has happened only recently. Starting with Lawrence v Texas in 2003, which basically said that what two (or more) consensual adults do in their bedroom is none of the government’s business, and capping it with today’s Obergefell v Hodges, which ruled that homosexuals have the same right to marry each other that heterosexuals do, homosexuals have become a strongly integrated part of society.

So what does this mean? This is not the America that I grew up in. It has become, in the immortal words of our Founding Fathers, a more perfect union. But it will never be perfect. We don’t, we can’t do perfect. But overall it is better than it was. Sure, for every victory Americans see in one arena, we’ll see a loss in another. Some years it will be more victories than defeats; other years, it will be the other way around. But the wheels of justice will keep turning, Proud Mary will keep burning, and eventually we will be better than we are. Not perfect, just better. And that is good enough for me.

John

[1] There is, of course, nothing new in that. As Karr once wrote, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (“the more things change, the more they stay the same”).
[2] With a few notable, delightful exceptions.
[3] Why the quotes around “ten hour days”? Because today a ten hour day is actually eleven hours (7 AM to 6 PM) as lunch is no longer considered to be work time; as a result, in order to “work” ten hours, you have to work eleven.
[4] You’d be surprised by how many prefer the in-laws.
[5] How do you know what a law does? Just read what it says – and assume the opposite. Right to work really means that you can be fired at any time with no explanation from your boss [a] just as “Clear Skies” weakened the EPA’s ability to limit air pollution and “No Child Left Behind” forced more children out of proven programs and into sub-standard education.
[6] Which benefits? Mainly restrictions on time (another favorite dodge for this is making everyone, from the janitor to the CEO, a “manager”) and requirements for overtime and Social Security and Medicare tax payments.
[7] “Random” in the sense of “you aren’t a vital employee so we’ll test you”.
[8] An actual statement that he made.
[9] Though it took my hometown until 1995 to strike the law from the books, they were legally unenforceable after 1968.
[10] Though most of them weren’t actually on the dole for that long, even back in the day; a typical family would be on welfare for five years before pulling out of poverty (though, sadly, many would fall back in at a later time).
[11] A quote from my other grandfather.
[a] And, under current work laws, it is better if they don’t give you an explanation. If they just fire you, you have no legal basis for appeal unless you can show that they disproportionately fired members of a protected class that you happen to be in (people of a certain race, ethnicity, religious background, or age, typically). But if they say why they fired you, you can always appeal it to the labor board and sometimes you even win.

politics

Ain’t Nobody’s Business If You Do

I’ve been watching a lot of internet arguments [1] lately over the whole pizza place and cake place and flower place incidents. It seems to me that people are getting confused over a couple of simple points [2]. In the interests of attempting to sort them out, I’ve put together the following [3].

Enjoy. Comment. In that order, please.

John

[1] Which have had a surprisingly high ratio of light to heat for a change. Perhaps things do get better.

[2] Which surprises me because these points were mostly decided back in the 1950s, if not earlier.

[3] With clip art from clkr.com and inspiration from the old “I’m a Mac” commercials.

Bob1 Bob2 Bob3

politics

This little piggy went to marketing

If you ever wanted proof that the folks in Marketing just don’t get it, here it is! I signed up for season(ish) tickets to the local ball team. Because the folks in marketing want to sell you extra crap, they required that you tell them your email, phone number, address, and birthdate (!) in order to buy the tickets online [1]. Ordinarily, I would have schlepped down to the local office to buy the tickets in person, but the ball team doesn’t allow that. So I bought the tickets but included a note in the comments that my email was not to be used for any purpose other than the one-time purchase of the tickets [2].

The next day, I get this email (italics mark bits that have been changed for anonymity’s sake):

Good Afternoon Mr. D.,

Hope this week is treating you well. I just wanted to reach out to you to let you know we got your online order and introduce myself as your new account rep. I noticed that the number you listed on your account is a 800 number so if I could grab a good number to get in contact with you about your account that would be great. If there is anything that you need please do not hesitate to either email me or call me at my direct line listed below.

Can’t wait to see you at the ball park!

Lauren C. l Inside Sales Representative
Local Baseball Team

So I replied:

Dear Ms. C.,

I do not want to talk with you about my account. I do not want to hear about the “many wonderful opportunities” to spend more money. To be honest, all I want is my tickets. If I had had a choice, I would not have created an account nor given you my email address. Speaking for quite a few people, the insistence of organizations like yours on getting details that you have no need for (e.g., my birthdate – have you never heard of identity theft?) is more than a little annoying.

Do us both a favor. Don’t send any more emails. Don’t try to call me. If you really must get in contact with me, then send me a letter (surely you remember letters). That way you’ll still have my patronage and I’ll still get to see the ball games I want to.

Sincerely yours,

John

All was well until yesterday when they decided to ignore what I thought were pretty clear instructions:

Dear John,We are excited to announce that the local baseball team are hosting renowned Christian rock band Hawk Nelson as part of Faith Night on Sunday, July 19th!

Your special status as an local baseball team Season Ticket Holder allows you the opportunity to purchase tickets for this concert before they go on sale to the general public!

The concert will take place at the ball park before the game on July 19th. Hawk Nelson will play at 4:00 p.m. and first pitch of the game will be at 6:05 p.m.

The concert will be general admission and standing room only. Another email will be sent prior to the event with additional details regarding parking, entrance, and the concert itself.

Tickets for Faith Night are just $15 and include admission to the concert as well as the baseball game that evening. We’ll also throw in a limited edition OKC Dodgers hat as a thank you for joining us for this special night!

To reserve your seats for Faith Night, simply contact your account representative, Lauren C. at phone number or email or click here to order online and enter promo code NELSON.

We’ll see you on July 19th for Hawk Nelson and the game!

Sincerely,

Michael B.

Michael B. | President/General Manager
local baseball team

So I replied, cc’ing the GM [3]:

What part of “No email” is unclear?

To which I got the following reply:

Mr. D,
My name is Ben B and I am Lauren’s manager with the local ball team. She had brought your email from last week to my attention in addition to today’s so I wanted to reach out and touch base with you.The reason why we keep the email addresses of our Season Ticket Holders on file is because we communicate to our customers frequently through email. Season ticket delivery, special events, and any game-night news regarding weather, etc. is disseminated in this manner, and we strongly encourage our Season Ticket Holders to have their email on file with us.

It is not Lauren’s decision, and by reaching out to you she was simply doing her job.

The only way to guarantee that you do not receive emails from our organization is to remove your address from the system. I can do this, but it will cause you to miss important announcements pertaining to your account and the team.

Would you like me to remove your email address from our system?

Thank you,

Ben B.
Manager of Inside Sales & Service
local baseball team

Now telling someone something once is OK. Telling them twice is annoying. But telling them three times? That just pisses me off. So I let Ben have it, again cc’ing the GM:

Ben,Yes, I do want you to stop sending me spam. That’s why I told Lauren not to send me any promotional emails the last time she ignored my “do not email” statement and why I refused to give you my phone number. That’s also why I lied on my birth date – honestly, don’/t (sic) you people know anything about identity theft? You’re going to have one heck of a liability problem when (not if) your database gets hacked!

Let me be as blunt as possible; perhaps then you will understand. We (the general public) don’t like spam. We don’t like getting email after email from your company trying to sell us yet one more thing. The only reason most people put up with it is because they aren’t willing to argue with the idiots in marketing who think that annoying people translates into more sales in the long run. (It really doesn’t.) If I had been able to order the tickets without giving you my email, I would have done so but you wouldn’t permit that. So I included a note on my order that you were not to use my email for any purpose other than completing the order – a notice which makes you liable under CAN-SPAM for any unsolicited emails (like the last one you sent).

Now you may think that what you send out isn’t spam. But the decision isn’t yours; it is the customer’s. And we *do* think it is spam. And since you won’t stop spamming me, I want to take your ability to spam me away by getting my email out of your system. If you told more people about that option, you’d be amazed at how many people would use it. (Or perhaps that is why you don’t tell people about that option.)

So please remove my email. Now. I really don’t want to have this conversation again; once was too often and twice was just rude on your part.

Sincerely yours,

John D.

I must have gotten under Ben’s skin because he immediately tried to defend himself:

John,I can honestly say that this is the first time I have had this complaint and therefore find it difficult to see that you speak for “we”, the general public. We have thousands of season ticket holders that enjoy receiving updates and interacting positively with our messaging.

I do not appreciate the condescending tone that you are using with Lauren or myself. Simply asking us to remove your email from the system would have taken care of everything and not led to long, time-consuming emails. I am quite sure that it is not fair to be calling Lauren and myself rude in this instance.

I have removed your email address from the ticketing system.

Ben B.

Manager of Inside Sales & Service
local baseball team

Not being one to let barking dogs lie, I replied once more cc’ing the GM:

Ben,
You contradict yourself. If you honestly believed that people are fine with your constant emails, then you would offer the option of buying the tickets without using an email address. As you do not allow that, you know that what you are doing is wrong and choose to do it anyways. (There is also the matter of Lauren ignoring my first and second calls to be removed. You obviously don’t understand simple English over there.)

As for the “condescending tone”, when a stranger interrupts your day there is no call to be polite – especially if you had already posted a “no trespassing sign”. Lauren’s choice to ignore my statement that I do not want to be pestered was simply rude; doing it twice was obnoxious. So you should not complain when I return rudeness for rudeness.

Now go away and never email me again.

Sincerely yours,

John D.

And that’s where the matter lies. If I don’t hear back from them, then I’ll know it worked. If I do, then I’ll just get ruder [4] until they do stop emailing me.

So why do I tilt at this particular windmill? Because it matters to me [5]. It always has mattered. During my marketing courses getting the MBA, I annoyed quite a few fellow students (and some professors) by pointing out that the customer has choices and trying to take them away never ends well for the business. When I was at the other science museum, I seriously piqued both the exhibit designer and the chief educator by pointing out that tracking our patrons [6] without their knowledge or consent was a violation of privacy, probably against state law, and definitely against NSF rules for human experimentation [7].

It matters to me because we are watching our privacy erode at an ever-increasing rate. And that erosion is almost entirely one-sided: companies and governments are learning more about you than you can ever learn about them, simply because they have more money which equals more ability. Unless we fight against this rising tide, eventually we will be unable to do anything that is not “public”, from buying bread to walking down the street to how often we go to the bathroom. Once that information is “public” (which really means “the property of some company”) it becomes a product that they can sell to others. And suddenly you start getting emails from Tibet inviting you to try their yak tea to cure your constipation.

I don’t know about you, but I’m not a product. I’m a private person who owns (or should own) the data I generate. And that’s why I toss sand into the gears of email spammers and others – because they are trying to steal what is mine.

John

[1] When I buy in person and they ask for that information, I tell them that I don’t have one. If they persist, then I call for the manager and tell them that they can either have the sale or insist on getting my information. If they insist, I leave after reminding them that under state laws, they cannot require that information.

[2] Under the CAN-SPAM Act, the statement limits this to a one-time purchase and voids the “ongoing business relationship” exclusion.

[3] Why CC the GM? Two reasons. First, it is entirely possible that he is unaware of what they are sending out under his signature; this lets him know. And two, it alerts him to problems with his management team and reminds him that without the support of the public there would be no baseball team.

[4] Why get ruder? Because they are being rude and don’t want to acknowledge it [a, b]. By being rude right back (and pointing out that I am only responding to their rudeness), I might eventually drive the point home that the customer’s choices are the only ones that matter; if you ignore this, then eventually you won’t have any customers.

[5] As a wise man once said, there is no such thing as altruism, just enlightened self-interest.

[6] And it still amazes me that the chief educator, who claimed to be fluent in Spanish” didn’t know what the word “patron” meant.

[7] That last mattered because the museum gets a significant fraction of its funding from the NSF.

[a] Why won’t they acknowledge it? Because they are unwilling to put themselves in the customer’s shoes. (Which is why they have to resort to rude measures in the first place.) Their very job depends on ignoring my choice to not have my email in their system.

[b] As Heinlein once wrote, “certain feet were made for stepping on, in order to improve the breed, promote the general welfare, and minimize the ancient insolence of office”.

politics

May 20th: Everybody Draw Mohammed Day

I first published this post five years ago. Sadly, thanks to recent events in Paris, it is once more relevant. So here it is again.

OK, I’m not the most political of folks, but this movement just makes sense. On May 20th, take some time and draw a picture of Mohammed. Why?

Because we can. We are Americans and we have the right to free speech, even if that offends someone else. If we can see Piss Christ, Dung Madonna, and Glenn Beck, then we can damn well see a picture of Mohammed.

Because it will show that we are not afraid. When we give into the demands of others because they threaten violence, then we become cowards and they become winners. When we stand up to them, then we become winners and they are exposed for the bullies that they are.

Because it needs to be done. Someone has to draw a line. Comedy Central ain’t gonna do it. The various governments aren’t going to do it. So we must do it. And if it annoys the terrorists, well that’s just too bad.

Because it will remind Muslims that they get the same rights as everyone else – not more. Muslims have protested that their “rights” are under assault. They can’t wear the veil while driving. They can’t have more than one wife. They can’t keep folks from showing things that offend them. Guess what? Neither can the rest of us. If we have to put up with Fred Phelps, then you have to put up with cartoons. It really is that simple.

So draw a picture of Mohammed tomorrow. Just to remind yourself and your friends that you still can.

John

PS – Here’s mine, a day early. I never was a very good artist…

UPDATE THE FIRST –

Here is Over the Hedge’s take on the controversy:

UPDATE THE SECOND –
It appears that the artist who started the idea is having second thoughts:

I did NOT ‘declare’ May 20 to be “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day.” I made a cartoon about the television show South Park being censored. My cartoon-poster, with a fake ‘group’ behind it (Citizens Against Citizens Against Humor)went viral and was taken seriously.

I never started a facebook page (I see that the two men and one women who started the different fb pages names have now been made public).

My one-off cartoon does not work well as a long-term plan. The vitriol this ‘day’ has brought out, of people who only want to draw obscene images, is offensive to Muslims who did nothing to endanger our right to expression in the first place. Only Viacom and Revolution Muslim are to blame, so…draw them instead!

I apologize to people of Muslim faith and ask that this ‘day’ be called off.

Please update your article for correct information. Thank you, Molly

While I understand her position (especially about the vitriol), I disagree with her request to call the day off. She inadvertently hit on a real need, as described in the main body of my post. And it is that need that we address through art.

Read and post comments | Send to a friend

politics, science

Getting Settled

As you are undoubtedly aware, there is something of a holy war going on in science today. On the one side, we have the folks who have dedicated their lives to learning more about climate and who have spent decades collecting data and testing hypotheses [1]. And on the other hand, there are the hordes of those who don’t like the political implications of the science and so attack the science (and scientists) instead of the politics (and politicians). Sadly, this isn’t the first time that we’ve been here [2] and it is unlikely to be the last.

I’ve touched on some of the more egregious errors in denialist [3] statements before and won’t rehash that here. Instead, I’d like to rant at some length about a particularly pernicious denialist meme that’s been making the rounds: “real science is never settled”. The folks using this meme hope to imply that there is still a (unspecified but presumed large) chance that all of the climatologists since Tyndall have been wrong and the science will actually say something completely different. But they are relying on a very slender reed – their misunderstanding of how science works. They think that because every scientist questions things that everything is up for question [4] and that because scientists argue of the details that the fundamental hypothesis can be wrong. Nothing is further from the truth. They think that “science never settles anything”. But they are wrong. Science does settle questions, decisively. For example:

The world is round

There is a common misperception that people told Columbus that his proposed voyage was doomed because the Earth was flat; in fact, that wasn’t the case. Science had already settled the fact that the Earth was round back around 350 BC or some 1850 years before old Chris took the long way home. Aristotle gave the most concise version of the proofs and the science was settled – the Earth was round.

Of course, we still argue over the shape of the Earth today [5]. Today we argue of how flat the oblate spheroid is and how quickly it changes shape and how the Earth’s mass distribution changes its shape. But just because we argue about those things doesn’t mean that the Earth isn’t round.

Flies come from maggots

Believe it or not, it wasn’t too long ago that people didn’t know how adult flies made baby flies. They thought that if you left meat out then maggots would spontaneously erupt from it; that they were literally born from the dead meat. Similarly, barnacle geese were supposed to arise from goose barnacles and to return to being barnacles every winter, and mice were thought to spontaneously generate from burlap. But when Jean Baptist van Helmont showed that a linen screen could prevent maggots from forming and when Louis Pasteur later showed that boiled broth wouldn’t rot, science settled the question; if you wanted baby flies, you had to have adult flies.

Of course, we still argue about how species reproduce. We still argue over how a boy octopus recognizes a girl one and over what makes a boy fly smell good to a girl fly and over what benefits homosexuality provides. But just because we argue over those things doesn’t mean that flies spontaneously generate.

Mountains don’t pop up from oceans

If you had asked geologists in the 1950s how mountains formed, the honest ones would say that we didn’t know. We had a theory of orogeny called “geosynclinal theory” [6] that posited mountains form from ocean beds spontaneously popping up. One wag called geosynclinal theory “a theory of mountain building with the mountain building left out” and it was notoriously unhelpful in terms of determining both how and why mountains form. There had been a few attempts to create an alternate hypothesis, most notably with Wegner’s idea of continental drift but they were generally ignored [7]. But once we developed detailed maps of the ocean floors and (more importantly) their magnetization [8], we realized that the ocean bottoms were moving like a conveyor and that they could move the continents around; plate tectonics was born. The science was settled. We were able to explain mountain formation by the motion of plates on the outer skin of the Earth.

Of course, we still argue about how mountains form. Though some 80% of mountains are formed by plate tectonics, there are still a lot that are formed by other effects such as mantle plumes. And so we argue over how many plumes there are and over how they interact with plates and over what happens to plates as they sink into the mantle. But just because we argue over those things doesn’t mean that mountains pop up from ocean beds.

So what do those examples prove? That science does indeed settle things, decisively. And that even after the basics are settled, we’ll spend decades (at a minimum) arguing over the details. For climatology, the basics are settled. CO2 is a greenhouse gas (settled in 1859) that can change the temperature of the Earth (settled in 1896) based on a known physical principle (settled in 1905). Right now, all we are doing is arguing over the details. Where will the water vapor go? Will clouds enhance or reduce the warming effect [9]? What effect will this have on the weather? But just because we argue over these things doesn’t mean that the current rise in temperature isn’t due to CO2.

John

[1] You know – like a real scientist would do.

[2] Other than the obvious example, there was the whole Galileo affair, the strange case of the irrational rationalists, and the Sun that was too big to be true. That’s science for you – wrecking religious dogma for 2300 years!

[3] What is the difference between a denialist and a skeptic? A skeptic can tell you what piece of evidence would change his mind; he is a scientist who just isn’t convinced by the data thus far. But a denialist will tell you that there is no evidence that will convince him [a]; he isn’t a scientist at all.

[4] And, in one sense, it is. All you have to do is provide an alternate explanation that is simpler or provides better predictions and that explains all of the existing data at least as well as the hypothesis [b] that you are questioning. Easy-peasy.

[5] Though usually not with members of the Flat Earth Society.

[6] The geologists got a little ahead of themselves with this one. At best it was a hypothesis, and not a very good one at that.

[7] Why was Wegner ignored? Three reasons, only two of which are good. First, he wasn’t an American (he was German) or a trained geologist (he was a climatologist). Second, he proposed that the continents moved under the influence of the Earth’s rotation – but that would have meant that they should move fastest near the equator, which they don’t. Third, he proposed that the continents, which are made of weak granite, ploughed through the ocean basins, which are made of strong basalt – that would have been like butter cutting a knife.

[8] Both of which we can thank World War II for. In order for submarines to move safely underwater, they needed highly detailed maps of the bathymetry (so they wouldn’t run into mountains) and magnetic field (so they could use their compasses to navigate). And that information then told the geophysicists what they needed to know to create the theory of plate tectonics.

[9] That is the basis of Lindzen’s skepticism. He’s on record as saying that his data agrees that the world is getting warmer; he just thinks that the clouds will come in to rescue us. Thus far, the evidence suggests that he is wrong but it isn’t conclusive yet.

[a] What would convince me that there is no such thing as global warming? You’d need to come up with an alternate explanation for why the Earth isn’t 0°F; right now, we think that is because of the greenhouse gas effects of CO2 (and other gasses) in the atmosphere. The explanation would have to include the fact that CO2 is opaque in the IR (which is what drives the effect).

[b] Please remember the vast differences between a hypothesis (a formally stated prediction of an outcome based on an observed phenomenon) and a theory (a formally stated description of an organizational principle that describes the existing data and makes testable new predictions) and a law (a mathematical description of a phenomenon).

politics

Optimism

I may be the only person in the USA who is optimistic about this year’s mid-term elections [1]. It is clear that the Republicans are going to gain control of the Senate [2] and will strengthen their control of the House. What little progress we’ve made in the past six years is likely to come to a standstill as the Republican-controlled Congress fights the White House on everything from minimum wage [3] to same-sex marriage to adding yet more tax cuts in order to “stimulate” the economy [4]. So why am I optimistic?

Because as Santayana wrote, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to hear the rest of us bitch about it constantly” (or words to that effect). We’ve been here before. We’ve had an over-confident Congress in the control of an ambitious cadre of politicians opposed by a beleaguered president. And what came out of it was something amazing: compromise and progress.

Sure, it didn’t start that way. When Newt and his cronies took the House in 1994, they thought that they had enough of a mandate (and a big enough majority) to do whatever they wanted. So they started pushing specific agenda items that the President promptly vetoed; that led to the government shutdowns of 1995 and 1996. And the backlash from that led both parties to move more toward the center. And that led to some historic compromises that were beneficial to us all.

For example, there was actual welfare reform that took the form of providing job training and placement services for people on welfare [5]. There was an abortive attempt to create a line-item veto [6]. There was an agreement to fund the ISS, NASA’s first major project in twenty years [7]; ironically, the next administration would propose “deorbiting” the ISS just a few years after it was finished in order to pay for its pet NASA project.And there was an agreement on the budget that for the first time in sixty years led to a budget surplus [8]. And all of those things happened thanks to compromise.

And that’s why I am (cautiously) optimistic. I fully expect the new Republican-led Congress to overstep its bounds in the first six months. And then I expect that they will realize that true leadership and true governance comes not from rigid ideological purity but from an ability to realize that good ideas come from both sides of the aisle and that working together to find the “yes” will take this nation a lot further than simply being the party of “no”.

John

[1] The Republicans aren’t optimistic; around here, they are darn close to feral.

[2] Exactly which group of Republicans gains control is a more interesting question that won’t be answered by the election; only the first six months or so of legislation will tell us. If there is an impeachment motion [a] early on, then the more rightwing branch has control. If there is no motion (or it is quashed), then the less rightwing group holds the reins. (Please note that the choice is between more and less rightwing; centrist Republicans now only exist in history books and fairy tales.)

[3] Which should definitely be raised.

[4] Which should definitely not happen (the tax cuts that is, not the stimulation). Every time we’ve had tax cuts, we’ve not only failed to stimulate the economy, we’ve also managed to go deeper into debt. As a long-time fiscal conservative, I’m against increasing the national debt (even if “deficits don’t matter“). We need to pay off the national debt so we can use the money we’re wasting on interest on more interesting things. In FY2014, we spent more than $223 billion on interest; for comparison, we spent some $600 billion on defense and less than $18 billion on NASA. If we stopped wasting money, we could have the equivalent of the “Peace Dividend” from the end of the Cold War or we could fund NASA twelve times over.

[5] There had been some scattered instances of both of those things, but they were on a local level and fairly ineffective. The results from the reform have been decidedly mixed, but generally positive.

[6] Which went all the way to the Supreme Court when the President used it on something that a Congressman wanted preserved [b]; unfortunately, the act was found to be unconstitutional as it gave the president powers that had been reserved for the House.

[7] There was also an attempt to replace the Space Shuttle with a commercial spacecraft known as Venturestar. Unfortunately, it died a quiet death just after the next administration took its seat at the helm and we’d have to wait another fifteen years for a true successor to the Space Shuttle [c].

[8] Some folks have argued that it was the dot-com bubble that was actually behind the budget surplus. However, if that were true, then we should have had an even larger surplus when the housing bubble hit; instead, we had historic deficits. No, the rush to “rebate” taxes instead of paying off our debts is what changed us from surplus to deficit and turned America into the world’s largest deadbeat nation.

[a] If there is an impeachment motion, then I fully expect the trial to find Obama innocent. The House can impeach a president on flimsy evidence (heck, they’ve done it three times already) but the Senate is extremely unlikely to find the president guilty without overwhelming evidence (and sometimes not even then – look at how they let Reagan off the hook).

[b] Thereby proving the old adage of “be careful what you wish for”…

[c] The Constellation Program was never intended to be a replacement for the Shuttle. Instead, it was (as more than one wag noted) “Apollo On Steroids” and a replacement for the Saturn V.

politics

Doing The Minimum

When I was younger, I worked at a minimum-wage job [1, 2]. And, as is true for many other teens, for me the job was a way to earn some spending money and assert my independence. But teens aren’t the only folks working minimum-wage jobs. As a matter of fact, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 50% of the people who earn minimum wage are at least 25 years old. And more than half of them actually get paid less than the minimum wage! That’s a total of 1,638,000 adult workers who get paid very little to do some very demanding jobs [3].

Rather than go into the various arguments for [4] and against [5] raising the minimum wage or delving into the quagmire of if it should be a living wage or not [6], I’d rather use this as an opportunity to talk about the reality of money. As I’ve noted before the real problem with money is that people think of it as a thing instead of as a concept. They think that a dollar or a dime has some ding an sich of “moniness” when all it has is convenience; it makes it easier to exchange your time turning widgets at Megacorp into loaves of bread to feed your family [7]. But, as the plot below shows, that convenience changes with time.

minVminAs inflation moves things along, the value of that dollar drops [8] so that the $7.25 that a minimum-wage person got in 2009 is now the equivalent of $6.53; in effect, by keeping minimum wage constant, we’ve given employers a 10% break on their wages. And that’s part of why the owner of the oldest operating McDonald’s was naïve when he said that he started at a dollar an hour and kids these days just don’t appreciate getting seven times what he did – they aren’t. In reality, he was actually earning the equivalent of $9.16 or 26% more than minimum wage workers do today.

Now that wouldn’t be much of a problem if the cost of everything else had also changed by the same amount; that is, if the relative cost of stuff were the same now as it was five years ago. But it isn’t. And the US Bureau of Labor and Statistics actually provides a handy-dandy way of keeping track of how much prices have changed over time. They call it the Consumer Price Index and base it on the costs of several essentials, such as food, energy, transportation, and housing. When we compare the CPI against the minimum wage (see below), it becomes clear that the two haven’t moved together.

minVcpiUntil about 1978, the minimum wage tracked the CPI fairly closely. As prices went up, so did the minimum wage [9]. But starting in the 1980s, wages went up more slowly than prices did. This led to a gap between what folks earned and what they needed to spend. In effect, living became much more expensive. Of course, you have to be a real economics geek to get that from the plot above. And most folks aren’t economics geeks. So I’ve taken the prices for three basic items (a gallon of gas, a loaf of bread, and a hamburger) and turned them into the essence of money – how many hours you would have to work at minimum wage to earn each of them [10] – and created the chart below.

hoursofworkWhat does this tell us? Let’s start with the obvious: the period between World War II and 1970 was an economic miracle. Prices declined in real terms (i.e., you could buy more with less work) and stayed low for nearly two decades. That gave us an entire generation of folks who grew up with the idea that things would always get better, economically speaking. But then OPEC happened and trade deficits happened. Things, most notably gasoline [11], started to get more expensive in America. Though meat was an exception to this [12], the exception was short-lived; within a decade the price for meat had begun to climb as well. Today, the minimum wage is four and a half times what it was in 1968 but hamburger costs seven times what it did in 1968, bread costs eight times what it did in 1968, gas costs eleven times what it did in 1968, and housing costs nearly fourteen times what it did in 1968.

New Home Gallon Of Gas Loaf of Bread 1lb Hamburger
Year Minimum wage Cost Hours of work Cost Hours of work Cost Hours of work Cost Hours of work
1968 $1.60 $21,300 13,313 $0.34 0.21 $0.24 0.15 $0.65 0.41
2014 $7.25 $289,500 39,931 $3.80 0.52 $1.98 0.27 $4.60 0.63
Implied minimum wage: $21.75 $17.99 $12.98 $11.32

So what does this mean? Put as simply as possible, the cost of living is higher now than it has been at any time since 1948. It takes more hours of work to earn the money necessary to buy the basics than it did a decade ago and much more than it did in the 1960s. If we are serious about minimum wage being a living wage – or even being an honest wage – then it is time and past to increase the minimum wage. Though the call for a $15 minimum seems a bit extreme to me, it isn’t that far off if we run the numbers. If we wanted to be able to buy the same amount of goods with the same amount of labor today that we did in 1968, then hamburger suggests that the minimum wage should be $11.32, bread makes it $12.98, gasoline would take $17.99, and to keep up with housing would require a minimum wage of $21.75!

The answer is clear. If we want our children to have the same opportunities that our parents did, then it is time to raise the minimum wage.

John

[1] Actually, like most teens I worked several minimum-wage jobs. I worked at Wendy’s, at Del Rancho, at McDonald’s, and I even delivered weekly readers (free newspapers) at a penny a copy.

[2] Actually, at one point, I was working at three. The first to pay for my living expenses, the second to pay for my college education, and the third to pay the taxes on the first two.

[3] What jobs pay at or below minimum wage? Though the first thing that most people think of is fast food worker, there are quite a few professional jobs that pay at or below minimum wage. There are 157,000 managers earning minimum wage or less, along with 675,000 sales people and 276,000 folks in transportation.

[4] Why should minimum wage be raised? Because the minimum wage has not kept up with inflation; as a result, it is worth about 10% less than it was when the last raise was instituted [a]. In addition, increasing minimum wage will exert an upward pressure on all wages; this will then spur spending [b] which will then help improve the economy which will then lead to more hiring in the long-term (though in the short term it may lead to job losses).

[5] Why shouldn’t minimum wage be raised? Because it will increase costs to business owners [c] which then leads to higher prices for consumers [d] which then leads to less buying, slowing the economy in the short term. In addition, a low minimum wage exerts a downward pressure on wages which helps to keep inflation in check. Though this has not been a problem lately (inflation has been running about 2%; most economists like it about 4%), it has been in the past. The complexity of the problem can be seen in a plot of minimum wage vs unemployment rate for all fifty states (below) ; the lack of a strong relationship shows that just increasing minimum wage won’t increase unemployment.

minimumVunemployment[6] It is clear that sixty million folks are attempting to live on it. What is less clear is whether or not it was intended to be a living wage when the law was passed. At the time of the first federal minimum wage law (which was later struck down as unconstitutional), most folks thought that it wasn’t supposed to be a living wage. But at the time of the second federal minimum wage law, many folks (including, famously, Roosevelt) thought that it was.

[7] And that is why almost all economists prefer fiat money to hard currencies. Fiat money supplies can be expanded as needed, which then allows for more convenient and more frequent exchanges which then creates a larger economy. But the supply of hard currency is semi-fixed and can only expand so fast without crashing; a hard currency is inherently less able to grow than a fiat money one.

[8] Most economists think that this is a good thing. Inflation spurs spending (because your dollar will buy less stuff tomorrow), which means that it helps the economy. The trick is to keep inflation from getting out of hand the way it did in the 1970s.

[9] There are, of course, economists who will argue that I’ve got that in reverse. They would say that “as the minimum wage increased, so did prices”. Their argument is that when demand increased (thanks to more wages) the prices increased to match via the law of supply and demand.

[10] Please note that I do not include the effect of taxes. The various tax rates across the several states and municipalities make that an exercise in frustration second only to getting an honest answer out of a politician. If you want to include the effect of taxes, a good rule of thumb is that they eat up about a third of your income, so just increase the amount of time needed to work by 1/3.

[11] There was also a soupçon of supply and demand in that equation. The 1970s was the first time that the US saw a marked decrease in domestic oil production. As the US was the largest producer (and consumer) of oil at the time, that meant that Smith’s blind hand would soon reach in and tweak things.

[12] Mainly due to the growth of California as a dairy producing state, which in turn was due to the government’s propping up dairy prices in 1976.

[a] This is why some in Congress want an annual automatic increase in minimum wage to track the COLA (which doesn’t fully account for inflation but does a better job than just leaving it static).

[b] Especially since most of that increase in money will come at the lower end where they pretty much have no choice but to spend their money as quickly as it comes in. Thanks to my absurdly high income, any extra money that I make can be put into a bank account to be spent at a later time. But back when I was working minimum-wage, any money that came in was already claimed by three different bills.

[c] Although the federal government and most states include exemptions for small (under 50 employees) businesses to this and many other laws. That exemption actually helps make them more competitive with the big guys when something like this happens as the Goliath’s cost goes up and David’s stay the same.

[d] Though not as much higher as most people think. If the cost of wages at McDondald’s were to double, the price of a Big Mac wouldn’t double; it would increase by about 20%. That’s because you aren’t just paying for labor when you pay for a burger. You are also paying the rent on the restaurant (typically the single largest cost) and the cost of the meat, buns, and special sauce, along with the costs of advertising and other overhead. In general, the cost of labor is about 15% of the total expenses for a fast food place, so if labor costs were to double, you’d add that percentage to the price of the stuff you sell. (The total costs go up by 20% instead of 15% because the hidden cost of labor for the materials would also go up.)

education, politics

Driving the conversation

There’s recently been a lot of fuss about a young college student [1] and his essay on privilege. Besides the usual suspects jumping on both sides of the story [2], there have been a few nice rejoinders. Sadly, most of them will probably either be ignored or misunderstood [3] by the folks who read them. In the vain hope of avoiding that, I’ve come up with an analogy for the situation [4]. I propose that privilege is the difference between being a motorist and being a pedestrian.

We’ve all been pedestrians at some point. And most of us have been (or will be) motorists. So we should all be able to understand the differences in the way that each sees the world that bear on the question of privilege. I’ll start by listing the ways that a motorist is privileged over a pedestrian [5] and then try to show how those relate to privilege in other situations.

The most obvious privilege is that a motorist can go farther in a shorter time than a pedestrian; the motorist has the privilege of range. While it would take a pedestrian an hour to walk the four miles from my house to the nearest park, a motorist can do it in ten minutes (fifteen if the lights are against him).

The next most obvious one is that a motorist can carry more things with him than a pedestrian can; the motorist has the privilege of capacity. When I walk, I can carry a small bag of groceries or a backpack of books but when I drive I can bring back a week’s worth of groceries and a small tree and still have room to bring along another person.

The next privilege that a motorist has is that his environment is under his direct control; the motorist has the privilege of comfort. No matter what the weather, the motorist is comfortable in his air-conditioned, rain-proof, sun-screened car; the pedestrian, on the other hand, must suffer through storms and heat and dust and wind.

That then leads to another privilege for the motorist who can arrive in clothes as nice as when he left; the privilege of presentation. The motorist’s clothes are not sullied by the environment unless he wants them to be, whereas the pedestrian practically has to bring along a second set of clothing if he wants to look good [6].

And then there is the biggest and least-noticed privilege that a motorist enjoys – the privilege of impunity. A motorist can treat everyone else on the road as his equal or even his inferior because very little of it can easily harm him [7]. As a result, motorists can (and frequently do) put less attention on their driving and more on what is playing on the radio or who is arguing with who in the back seat or what the latest text on their cell phone says. But pedestrians have to treat all motorists as if they were dangerous because all too many of them are; when either a motorist or a pedestrian fails to pay attention and causes an accident, it is always the pedestrian who ends up getting hurt the most.

Now please notice that in none of these cases does that privilege come about because the motorist is a better person than the pedestrian; it just is. The roads are the same for both motorists and pedestrians; it is a level playing field [8] but the pedestrian still falls behind because of the motorist’s privileges. The places that you want to go don’t change when you are a pedestrian; they just become harder to get to and you have less time to enjoy them because it takes so long and so much of your energy to reach them.

So that’s what privilege looks like. It makes your life easier and more pleasant and lets you do more with less simply because you are one thing instead of another. You get better schools which means that you get better jobs which means that you get better pay, just because you are privileged. You get lower prices which means that you can save or invest more of your money which means that you get richer, just because you are privileged. You get more opportunities which means that you can do more which means that you can get more which means that you get more opportunities, just because you are privileged. It isn’t bad (unless you make it so), it just is.

And privilege means that you don’t have the worries that the non-privileged person has. You do still have worries, of course. Just as a motorist has to worry about making sure that the gas tank is full and the insurance is paid and finding a parking spot, a socially privileged person has to worry about making sure that the mortgage is paid and the boss is happy and finding a place to live. But those without privilege have those worries too, and a whole lot more. Underprivileged people have to worry about being rejected for a job just because they are the wrong gender. Underprivileged people have to worry about being given lesser benefits just because their skin is the wrong color. Underprivileged people have to worry about paying higher prices for food and housing just because they live in the “wrong” neighborhood. These things don’t happen because they are bad people or because privileged people are better; it just happens. That’s the essence of privilege – it just happens with no extra effort on your part.

Of course, privilege alone isn’t enough [10]. Just as a motorist could choose to spend his whole life driving down dead ends or running into bridges, a person with social privilege could waste his life on drugs or getting an associate’s degree in underwater basket-weaving. Privilege means opportunity; it doesn’t mean that you use it wisely (or at all). But privilege is a large factor in how far you go. And that’s why it is important to understand it and recognize it – so that you’ll know what to do if you find yourself in a situation where you don’t have that privilege anymore [9]. And so that you don’t accidentally run over those who don’t have the same amount of privilege that you do.

John [11]

[1] No, that is not redundant. Some people are very young even when they are 90; others are old enough to know better before they are ten [a].
[2] Most notably, the Fox News crowd and their shouts of “Ayn Rand lives!” and the MSNBC crowd and their shouts of “Death to the patriarchy!”. Personally, I miss the days when we could listen to the news without having to turn down the volume.
[3] Usually as “They are trying to take away my rights!” What those folks miss is that granting other people rights doesn’t mean that you’ve lost yours. Rights are not a finite commodity (like oil or good books), to be hoarded against the day of the proletariat uprising. Rights are a renewable commodity (like seeds or good manners), to be spread around so that they grow stronger and more abundant every day.
[4] “What? Another analogy? Wasn’t Scalzi‘s good enough?” Yes, another one. And no, I don’t think that it was. (Indeed, I doubt that any analogy will be good enough short of getting everyone to replicate Griffin’s work.) The problem is that most of those who are granted the privilege intrinsic to our society don’t play video games and if they do, they don’t play them at the lowest difficulty setting. So they don’t get it. My hope is that they will get this one because, as I stated previously, we’ve all be there as motorists and pedestrians.
[5] And, of course, there are different levels of motorists with different levels of privilege. A semi tractor-trailer has a lot more privilege than a sedan which has more privilege than a guy on a Vespa. The analogy to our society is left as an exercise for the student.
[6] Especially in places like New Orleans and Houston where a four block walk during the summer is enough to soak you in sweat (I speak from experience). And don’t knock looking good; if you are seeking a job, a place to live, or just a new friend, looking good always improves your chances.
[7] Note the “easily” in that statement. I don’t mean that you can’t get hurt if you drive. I’m just saying that having a (literal) ton of metal and a (figurative) ton of safety devices around you make it much less likely that you will get hurt even if there is a collision. If you doubt that, run into a wall at five mph on foot and then do it while in a car and see which one causes you more damage.
[8] Except that it isn’t. All too often sidewalks and pedestrian overpasses are after-thoughts in urban planning, making things more difficult for you simply because you aren’t a motorist. This is another example of how privilege creates privilege just because that’s the way it is.
[9] For example, if you ever travel you can gain and lose privilege very quickly as you move from place to place. In most countries, I gain privilege thanks to being an older white male with a higher education [b] but there are some places where I lose privilege because I’m not old money or from the right region or speak the wrong language.
[10] I’d be the last person to say that privilege alone is enough. I grew up in a good neighborhood with good schools with a stable family (look – lots of privilege!) but I’ve also had lean years where I had to pull myself up by my bootstraps and eat ketchup soup. But thanks to my education, a little hard work, and lots of luck, plus that privilege, I’ve ended up in a pretty good place. Privilege is a factor in success, not the whole of it.
[11] Free bonus because I couldn’t find a good place to work it in – Buzzfeed’s Privilege Check. I scored a 35 (not privileged). Not sure if I believe that…

[a] Me? I’m old enough to know better but young enough to do it anyway. (Nobody ever said that I was bright.)
[b] In Asia and Africa, the PhD gets me a lot of social standing so I put it on my travel documents and introduce myself as “doctor”. In Europe, it is sometimes helpful, so I still introduce myself as “doctor”. But in the USA it actually hurts my social standing (except at professional events where it is taken for granted), so I leave it off. Similarly, my usual speech has a “newscaster’s accent” that isn’t from any particular place because in most instances this gives me more privilege. But when I was in Ireland, I laid my Okie accent on as thickly as I could because it gave me privilege there. Only an idiot assumes that privilege is the same in all societies and situations. And only a fool refuses to use privilege when they need it.

politics

Tax time

Here it is April, once more. And that means that it is time for our annual discussion of taxes. This year, I’d like to take a look at the question of “people who don’t pay any taxes” as that has become quite the hot topic over the past few years. Even though the moniker is incorrect [1] and leaves out what I believe is the most important group [2], we’ll run with the idea. Here is the data on non-taxayers from last year’s returns (as compiled by the Tax Policy Center):

People in this bracket People in this bracket who have no income tax
Income level Number As a percent of all taxpayers Number As a percent of all taxpayers As a percent of people in this bracket
<10,000 12,905,000 7.9% 12,829,000 19.0% 99.4%
10,000-20,000 23,207,000 14.3% 19,514,000 29.0% 84.1%
20,000-30,000 19,596,000 12.0% 13,052,000 19.4% 66.6%
30,000-40,000 15,908,000 9.8% 8,044,000 11.9% 50.6%
40,000-50,000 13,157,000 8.1% 5,268,000 7.8% 40.0%
50,000-75,000 25,227,000 15.5% 6,023,000 8.9% 23.9%
75,000-100,000 15,529,000 9.5% 1,767,000 2.6% 11.4%
100,000-200,000 28,045,000 17.2% 798,000 1.2% 2.8%
200,000-500,000 7,715,000 4.7% 48,000 0.1% 0.6%
500,000-1,000,000 959,000 0.6% 3,000 0.0% 0.3%
>$1,000,000 568,000 0.3% 1,000 0.0% 0.2%
 Total: 162,816,000 100.0% 67,347,000 100.0% 41.4%

Looking at the data, it is clear that the question is a lot more complicated than most pundits make it sound. It is true that 41% of the taxpayers in the USA last year actually didn’t pay any income tax. But looking at the details some important nuances appear. Nearly half (48%) of that 41% consists of folks who earn less than $20,000 per year; they are seniors supplementing a Social Security check with part-time work and teenagers with their first job. And those folks pay no income taxes not because they are using clever offshore accounts and other tax-avoidance schemes but because the standard deduction ($6,100) and personal exemption ($3,900) add up to be more than their income. Should we scold them for following the rules?

About 41% of all tax payers don't actually pay federal income tax
About 41% of all tax payers don’t actually pay federal income tax

In addition, there is the question of “how much would going after them get us?” If your house needs a new roof and a new coat of paint in the kitchen, you don’t place equal importance on the two tasks; instead, you work on the one that will save you the most money [3]. Similarly, we shouldn’t ask the IRS to go after a person who might owe $200 in taxes with the same vigor that they attack someone who owes $200,000; instead, we should prioritize the cases and reform the laws that will gain the US the most revenues [4]. But how can we decide that?

Again, we have to look at the data. If we use the standard tables (taken from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities) and assume standard deductions and that the average tax loss would be related to the average income for each group [5]. From those two assumptions and the data in the previous table, we can estimate the amount of missed revenues that closing loopholes and catching tax cheats would get from each group as shown in the table below:

Income level Total lost revenues (billions $) % lost revenues
<10,000 0 0%
10,000-20,000 10.0 6%
20,000-30,000 20.0 11%
30,000-40,000 23.0 13%
40,000-50,000 23.0 13%
50,000-75,000 42.1 24%
75,000-100,000 27.7 16%
100,000-200,000 25.0 14%
200,000-500,000 3.9 2%
500,000-1,000,000 0.5 0%
>$1,000,000 0.4 0%
Total: 174.0 100%

All told, that 41% is costing us $174 billion in lost revenues; given that last year’s total revenues were $3,002 billion, we are leaving about 5% of our revenues on the table. Looked at that way, “people who don’t pay taxes” changes from a burning problem full of outrage and partisan politics to an annoyance that probably should be fixed but not the most important thing on our national to do list.

The "missing" taxes add up to about 5% of our total revenue
The “missing” taxes add up to about 5% of our total revenue

But let us suppose that we want to fix it. Where do we start? Some would propose that we immediately head for the largest number of “tax cheats”. But, as we’ve seen, most of those folks don’t owe taxes simply because they don’t make enough money to owe them; in addition, even if we did find a way to move all 32 million of the folks who earn less than $20,000 per year onto the tax rolls, they’d add a whopping $10 million onto the revenues under our current tax laws even if they did mean that the percent of people who pay no income tax went down to just 22%. If we instead focus on the folks who earn more than $50,000 per year, we could add nearly $100 million in revenues even though the percent of people who don’t pay taxes would just decrease to 36%

So that’s my argument. Just as we have a progressive income tax, we should have a progressive income tax reform and enforcement. We should focus on the higher income brackets not because we wish to punish the rich or redistribute wealth but because, as Willie Sutton famously said, “that’s where the money is”.

John

[1] These supposed scofflaws actually do pay Medicare taxes and Social Security taxes and sales taxes and local taxes and federal excise taxes. What they don’t do is pay federal income tax, or (more correctly) they get a refund that is at least as large as their tax bill was. We’ll also skip over the “poverty shaming” that the usual argument implies.

[2] Corporations have been paying a smaller and smaller portion of the federal tab each year even as they assert more and more “rights” (e.g., the right to free speech, the right to freedom of religion). Last year, GE Corporation had a net income before taxes of $16,151 million and paid just $676 million in taxes [a]; that’s a marginal rate of 4%. And they aren’t alone. The Hartford actually made money from their taxes last year; they had a net income before taxes of $63 million and got a refund of $257 million!

[3] That’s fixing the roof, in case you were wondering.

[4] After all, that is one of the two main functions of a tax code: raising revenue. The other function is shaping society, which all tax codes do either explicitly (e.g., by giving tax breaks to families and people who install insulation) or implicitly (e.g., a flat tax implies that richer is better because it increases the “wealth gap”).

[5] Because of the way our progressive income tax works, that isn’t strictly true, but it is close enough for a first approximation.

[a] I’m using the annual financials for the companies because that tells us the total taxes that the company pays. For a multinational company, they may pay to taxes in the US but face a high tax burden elsewhere. For example, Apple is famous for paying little US tax, but paid about $13 billion in taxes world-wide.