Monday, April 18, 2011

Why is Standard & Poor’s still in business?

Standard & Poor's jolted the world markets today by warning that the United States was taking on too much debt.

Duh. U.S. debt stands at $14.3 trillion.

Standard & Poor's changed its outlook on the United States from “stable” to “negative” and said the federal government could lose its AAA rating if officials fail to bring spending in line with revenue.

Great point, but where was such caution when S&P was giving glowing ratings to junk mortgage securities that caused the collapse of banks and threw our nation into a recession?

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Message to IRS: Please lock me up

When are tax returns due? Monday. (I wrote that for SEO purposes)

My copy of the New York Times today has two essays on David Foster Wallace, who taught creative writing at Pomona College before his death. Wallace had become intrigued with the culture around the IRS and tax accountants.

This will only take a minute.
Turns out, literary critic Edmund Wilson did not do a return for nine consecutive years. I'm sure Wilson had much more money than me to report, but it hits me year after year how much time all of us spend doing tax returns -- keep receipts, digging up receipts for license tabs (why are they deductible), mortgage statements showing deductible interest (unfair to renters as a social policy). Too many of us just go to accountants because its all so confusing, but if you do it yourself you can be staggered by the needless complexity, the deductibles the exist only for the rich or the beneficiaries of lobbyists (cosmetic surgery, digging for oil, etc.) At state and federal levels, there is talk of closing tax loopholes -- when pigs fly -- while also talking about raising the retirement age for Medicare (far more likely).

Personally, I would gladly pay more taxes, much more taxes, if I could be freed to spend my capitalist productive entrepreneurial time creating jobs, or to be honest,  watching "American Idol," or reading a book. Oddly, one guy -- and he was odd, Steve Forbes -- ran for president years ago on a flat tax. (Not completely flat, he allowed some deductions.) He was trashed for pushing an idea that would have negative consequences to this or that group. No doubt true because deductions for charities and the arts would go away, but so too would loopholes that allowed GE to pay less in taxes than me.

For starters, I would gladly pay what I would otherwise pay for TuboTax straight to a national debt reduction account or improvements for college financial aid.

Among the outrages of our present system are the millions of  20-somethngs who make modest salaries, with taxes taken out of their checks. The vast majority of these young people never file a return to get back at least a portion of what the government has pocketed.

Our tax code is so complex at 14,000 pages, counting the code and regulations, that 60 percent of Americans hire somebody to do it. Not even the Commissioner of the IRS, Douglas Shulman, does his own taxes. And this is a guy who's gotta be better at math than me.
Commissioner Shulman holds a B.A. from Williams College, an M.P.A. from Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government and a J.D. from Georgetown University Law Center... and still needs somebody else to do his taxes.

President Obama has promised to simplify the tax code,  a promise nearly every president has made since the IRS was created. Obama called the press code "monstrous." That's one promise I don't expect to be kept, but think of America's collective waste of time and energy doing all this. So Mr. President, put me down as willing to pay more but make it easier. Till then, how about adding one more regulation to the tax code. By law, the IRS Commissioner must do his own tax return live on CSPAN.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

The lure and learning of dangerous places--a comment on Paul Theroux in the New York Times

Another day of life in Derry, Northern Ireland, in 1971.  Photographed by Don McCullin

I have mixed relationship with the Travel section of the Sunday New York Times.

I love how I can sit in my bathrobe on a lazy morning and go to fascinating, interesting or even seductive destinations, how it adds places to my bucket list and gives me perspectives on what I saw or missed on my own journeys to places in Asia, the Middle East and north Africa.

Then I come to what the editors of the New York Times must regard as an afterthought. That eco-tourist resort in Indonesia? $550 a night. Yank that one from the bucket. Though the Times does run some articles on "affordable" trips, even those are pricey, not to mention that the mere publication of an unknown spot has now been ruined by disclosure to one million households. I've seen the effect firsthand. Years ago, one of my favorite bars, the Two Bells tavern, became crowded with hipsters soon after a favorable column ran in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. After that, it was hard to get a table for lunch. The P-I died and the Two Bells thrives; do your own reflection on that.

Today came a reminder of what's best about the NYT on Sunday: an essay by one of the world's best travel writers, Paul Theroux, on reasons why it's often good or even for some essential to go where it's chaotic or even dangerous because of tensions, civil unrest or outright war.

Click on the link I've provided to read the entire piece, but here's the nut graph:
“Don’t go there,” the know-it-all, stay-at-home finger wagger says of many a distant place. I have heard it my whole traveling life, and in almost every case it was bad advice. In my experience these maligned countries are often the most fulfilling.

Theroux describes many places where he took risks and felt stirred and enriched by what he had experienced and learned. One example he cites I know well: Northern Ireland, the place of The Troubles. He went there in 1982. I went there in 1975 and saw a rural landscape marred by fortified encampments of British soldiers, roads marked by check points run by armed men (British soldiers at some, IRA Provos at a few) and cities, especially Belfast, full of British soldiers on patrol in combat gear, barbed wire lining sidewalks and searching stations in the shopping districts, signs warning to report any unclaimed bags, and armored vehicles rolling at speed to some disturbance, gun barrels poking from slits.

At the time, I was visiting relatives in Belfast who lived a half block from a fortified police station. One night, returning with a cousin from a pub, we rounded the corner of the police station and I heard a click. I looked right and saw just eight feet away the opened back end of a British Saracean armored personnel carrier. Inside were British commandos with their weapons pointed at us. That click was the safety switch being turned off on a machine gun pointed at my chest. A sudden move on my part would have justified my death. We moved on.

To my cousin, it was routine, which was part of the powerful lesson I took home. Photographer Don McCullin's 1971 image, shown here, gives you a sense of how one woman reacted with horror as combat played out in the street where her children would otherwise play. Most Americans had no idea what was happening in Northern Ireland. They might get a snippet on the evening news. Much of the New York Times coverage then often was datelined London, which meant the writer stayed at the office and most likely had a perspective colored by the British, who probably overlooked the irony that their personnel carriers were named after a term used by ancient Romans for people in the provinces of Arabia.

Much as I had done some reading and interviews to deepen my understanding of the roots of the violence in Northern Ireland and understand the British policy of sending soldiers to establish security for all, I left Northern Ireland convinced that the British policy was wrong and their presence protected a regime that suppressed a minority. It was only a coincidence that on the ferry ride back to the U.K., I would up having a long chat with a British soldier returning from duty. He spoke freely of his contempt for Catholics. After our two-hour talk, we shook hand and exchanged names; his face reddened as he realized that my last name suggested links that might have given me a different perspective.

Only much later did the British withdraw its forces during a lengthy process that ended practices that oppressed Catholics and reformed a police establishment that was corrupt and systematically anti-Catholic. (None of this should be read as sympathetic towards IRA or Protestant Ulster Defense Forces violence.) Though violence still flares up now and then, Northern Ireland today is much more at peace, with the IRA and UDF having sworn off violence and moved into democratic elections. My trip then, however, convinced me how little Americans know about the world and the basis of people's greivances and how U.S. policies support or ignore those issues.

I had a similar experience in the early 1980s when I traveled to Israel as a journalist hosted (that is, expenses paid) by AIPAC, the American lobbying organization that works to generate support for Israel's policies. On the bus with other journalists, we were taken to places and met people who made a convincing case of genuine risks faced by Israel and the need for a robust defense forces and firm security practices. But I made a point some days of getting off the organized tour to interview Palestinians, journeying into less secure places for visitors. In those unescorted visits, I learned things about the harshness of life for Palestinians, especially for those on the West Bank who often faced what they regarded as daily humiliations through security practices and whose access to jobs and, in some cases, basics such as water and sewer systems were limited. I came home from that trip with a love for Israel, especially Jerusalem, but also a sense that Israel's long-term posture towards Palestinans could not be sustained. As in Northern Ireland, you had to visit Israel and the West Bank to truly feel the daily tensions that for some give rise to militancy and violence.

To be an American is to be a citizen of the most powerful nation in the world. To be an American, for just about all of us, is to know virtually nothing about how people around the world view us or how deeply embedded we are in policies that affect the lives of people we do not know. The Egyptians, for example, knew well we were writing checks to assist the Hosni Mubarek regime. We had our reasons. They saw a dictator.

Going to troubled places certainly does not make us experts. My trips to Israel and Northern Ireland gave me foremost a sense of why conflicts can be so difficult to end and U.S. policy calculations may well be difficult but are certainly often at odds with the values we profess to embrace.

Theroux makes the point that the world is going through a period of dramatic upheavals, especially in the Middle East. It pays to go places, even the risky ones. He writes: "Travel, especially of the old laborious kind, has never seemed to me of greater importance, more essential, more enlightening."

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Settling the debate over Arianna Huffington. Just click it.

A hot issue for freelance writers who wish to market their talent. Arianna Huffington, who founded Huffington Post and now directs AOL's editorial programs, defends her no-pay policy at HuffPo as providing a platform for exposure for writers, and she certainly is proof that exposure establishes a valuable brand. The Newspaper Guild has called for a boycott by its 26,000 members. My solution: Ariana owns the ad revenue for eyeballs and writers get $1 for each clicked "like" button. Okay, 50 cents. Deal?