Archive for September, 2011

All the Fuss About Taxes

With the Presidential nomination sweepstakes and popularity contest already opening up, we’re all going to be treated to another year of claims and counterclaims, and, if the President’s recent remarks and the Republican candidates’ counter-claims are any indication, a good proportion of the rhetoric is likely to center around taxes.

As I understand the respective positions, the Democrats feel that, because wealth has become more and more concentrated, particularly in the last decade, the “wealthy” [however they’re defined] should pay a greater share in taxes, and that would be determined by closing various “loopholes” and creating a higher tax rate for the top income categories, roughly above $250,000.  The Republicans counter by saying that higher rates are counterproductive economically and that those who are above the “middle class” already pay a disproportionate amount of federal income tax.

While statistics need to be viewed with care, and I know, having spent many years as an economist, I decided to take yet another look at the IRS statistics in light of the present and likely the coming campaign charges, even though I know that few are likely to change their minds based on mere statistics.

According to IRS statistics, during the period from 1951 to 1980, the percentage of Americans who paid no federal income taxes essentially remained stable at between 21-22%.  Beginning in the 1980s, the percentage of taxpayers who paid no federal income tax began to rise, hitting 32% in 2004, 47% in 2009, and an estimated 53% in 2010.

At the same time, the percentage of tax revenues paid by the “middle class” also declined, with the percentage of total income taxes paid by the “middle class’ [defined as those taxpayers comprising those making more than the median wage, but less than the top 10%] declining from almost 40% of all income tax revenues to about one quarter of all tax revenues.  At the same time, the top ten percent of taxpayers went from paying roughly 45% of all income taxes to paying 70% of all income taxes.

Put another way, 53% of all taxpayers, largely those in the bottom fifty percent of taxpayers in income terms, paid no taxes.  The next third [37%, if we’re being more precise] paid 30% of all income tax revenue, and the top 10% [those with taxable incomes above $115,000] paid 70% of all federal income tax revenues.

At present, the current federal deficit is running close to one and a half trillion dollars annually, and federal income tax revenues are bringing in around $850 billon. The most obvious, and most bandied about, solution is to increase taxes on the rich, but there are a number of problems with this solution.

First, the reformers on the left confuse is “wealth” with “income,” and unless the Congress changes the tax law, the IRS and the Congress can only tax income, not wealth.  According to the latest IRS statistics, the eight thousand wealthiest Americans earned a combined total of $239 billion in 2009.  Assuming that Congress sees fit [which they won’t] to increase the marginal tax rate on millionaires and billionaires to 90%, and also assuming that they’re smart enough to get rid of all the deductions for these individuals, the total federal income tax revenues would total a little over $215 billion.  Given that this year’s federal deficit will be roughly $1.4 trillion, taxing those less wealthy would also be necessary to get rid of the deficit by taxing the “rich.” The 14,000 odd taxpayers who earned between five and ten million dollars a year had a total income of $95 billion, and a 90% cut of their income would raise $85 billion.  But since these taxpayers already pay close to $100 billion, the additional tax revenues would only be $200 billion. That’s still not enough.  In fact, if a 90% rate were applied to all taxpayers with an income above 1 million dollars, the total additional revenue raised would amount to $300 billion.  That leaves a short-fall of well over a trillion dollars… and the only people left to tax are those who are complaining the most about being overtaxed.  For the 81 million people who aren’t millionaires, to cover the remaining deficit through income taxes would require an average tax increase of over $12,000 a tax return.

Again, if one only wishes to tax the remaining “rich,” i.e., those making over $200,000 a year, that won’t work either, because taking all their taxable income would just barely cover that remaining trillion dollar deficit.

So… in essence, even a 90% tax rate on everyone earning over $200,000 won’t cover the current federal deficit. And, of course that would raise other problems, because, since most state income taxes run around 6% for those making over $200,000, a 90% federal income tax would bankrupt all but those millionaires making more than $5 million annually.

Given a $1.4 trillion annual deficit, and the lowest tax rates in more than 70 years, the Republican alternative of continuing lower taxes and slashing federal programs doesn’t seem terribly workable, either, since to balance the federal budget would require cutting roughly 30% of all federal programs…which would translate into cutting more than a million jobs at a time of high unemployment… and given the fact that many of those programs can’t be cut without a massive overhaul in government, either way, neither side makes much sense.


Never in Any Real Danger

The other day I engaged in an activity that my wife deplores – I read another review of one my books, of Arms-Commander – and came across yet another common mistake made by both professional and amateur reviewers all too often.  The reviewer in question made the statement that, because of her abilities, Saryn was never in any real danger.  Outside of the fact that she gets rather banged up and almost dies upon several occasions, this reviewer and others – and not just in reviewing my books, by the way – fail to understand that great ability does not guarantee surviving inherently dangerous combat and occupational situations.

Since I do happen to know a bit about flying, I’ll begin with an example from that field.

The greatest combat pilot in the world is still partly at the mercy of mechanical failure, the elements, his/her own failures in judgment, unforeseen circumstances, and luck on the part of an opposing pilot.  As a matter of fact, in World War II, roughly half of all aircraft fatalities occurred in non-combat situations.  The same sets of factors occur anytime anyone of ability is involved in a dangerous situation.  Even the best mountain climbers get killed, and that’s without anyone shooting at them.  In a sword fight, blades can shatter, get caught on something for a moment at an inappropriate time, or the superior fighter can slip on sand or oil – or be distracted in some fashion or another.

Those who are best will also attempt to set up situations where their exposure to the unpredictable is minimized… as does Saryn, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not in danger every time they go into a battle or combat.  Then think about the fact that, as a matter of fact, even everyday life in the good old USA has a significant element of danger, when you consider that over 40,000 people die annually in auto-related accidents, and that there are something like 15,000 homicides a year.

In the case of someone like Saryn, whose forces are outnumbered, the best strategy is always to divide and conquer, to attack in ways and with methods that maximize her strengths and neutralize the enemy’s.  She does so… but that doesn’t mean she’s not in danger, as her various injuries and wounds prove… as do the deaths of hundreds of her supporters and allies also prove.

Well… perhaps the reviewer didn’t get the sense that she could be killed. If injuries, wounds, near-death, the deaths of those closer to her, and lots of close calls won’t convince a reader, then the only thing that will is her own death.  But that creates a bit of a problem, because most readers want the hero or heroine to prevail against great odds.  Like it or not, that means that most protagonists will survive, especially in, frankly, commercially successful books, and, as an author, I really can’t afford to write commercially unsuccessful books.  The only question is how badly the protagonists are injured and under what circumstances.  As one of my offspring once observed, “You need to abuse your characters a lot.”  But abuse doesn’t mean that an author has to slaughter 90% of the characters to prove danger.  Even 5-10% death rates suggest dangerous situations.

So… any reviewer who claims that a protagonist who survives trials and tribulations and almost dies along the way is never really in danger is not only an idiot, but hasn’t had much real world experience… because, for any character, death can be just around the corner, just as it is in real life.

Brighter At What?

Recently, in an ABC television interview with Christiane Amanpour, Eric Schmidt, the former CEO of Google and its current executive chairman, made the observation that the young people graduating from colleges and university today were brighter than their predecessors and noted that he’d worked with some of the brightest minds of his generation.  Given Schmidt’s background in electronics and communications technology, I have no doubts that he has indeed worked with some of the brightest minds in his field.

But what exactly have these brilliant minds, especially at organizations like Google and Facebook, given to society and civilization?  They’ve certainly perfected the technological aspects of introspection, fame-seeking, ego-satisfaction, and instant communications over subjects largely meaningless in the larger scope of the problems facing society. They created a massive search engine that’s most useful for finding the general and trivial… and possibly one of their endeavors, through the Google book settlement, may have undermined the entire literary copyright process. Oh…and they’ve created some jobs and a form of bubble wealth.

I don’t see that these brilliant [and exceedingly well compensated] minds have been terribly successful at stabilizing our financial system.  In fact, in the quest for wealth, their algorithms and quant models have been highly destabilizing and have likely destroyed more companies and wealth than they’ve created.  Nor have the younger generations of bright minds made significant contributions, from what I can tell, to environmental improvement [those were made largely by pre-baby-boomers and early baby-boomers].  And that brilliance has been incredibly successful in revolutionizing the political system, in that the application of technology, money, and data to campaigns has made the results of most elections a foregone conclusion – and resulted in the greatest polarization in American history and potentially the most disastrous political deadlock since the Civil War.

From these observations, I have to ask at just what are these younger college graduates so brilliant?  Developing technologies and systems that make billions of dollars out of the trivial?  Or improving the economic and political and technology infrastructure of the nation?  Or finding new approaches to our health care and energy problems?  Or… [fill in scores of different questions dealing with fundamental improvements to society and the world]?

To my way of thinking, antiquated as it may be, brilliant is as brilliant does, and brilliance in pursuit of the trivial, no matter how remunerative, is merely brilliance in pursuit of mediocrity… and yet, no one seems to point this out.




Rugged Individualist or Cooperative Village?

The other day one of the blog comments cited a preference for even a “fake rugged individualist over some ‘it takes a village’ idiot,” and while I initially appreciated the sentiment, the comment got me to thinking, and the more I thought, the more I decided that the choice represented by the two alternatives was a false representation… and another example of the “either/or” polarization that infects our society today.

Why? By way of a slight digression, I’ll explain.

The recent history and culture of the United States as a European outshoot, short as it is, is strongly colored by the myth of the rugged individualist, the pioneer, the superiority of the individual entrepreneur, and a number of other idealized depictions of individual superiority over the group or the masses or the village.

But let’s look at a few aspects of those myths.  First of which, the majority of the conquest of the “new world” wasn’t accomplished by Europeans and their culture and tools, but by disease.  Second, individuals didn’t create all those superior weapons and tools that led to an industrial and military power by themselves.  The frontiersman with his trusty rifle, his saddle, etc., all the equipment that allowed the “conquest” of the Americas was in fact the product of the village, if you will, and the crafts and skills of those villages.  And many of the great inventions attributed to single individuals, such as the steamboat to Fulton, the steam engine to Watt, the airplane to the Wright brothers, electricity to Edison, and so forth, all could have been – and were in fact – accomplished by others at close to the same time.

The fact is that such developments are an outgrowth of the existing culture, and while it may take a bright individualist to make an advance, first, there must always be more than one such individual for the advance to be successful [more about this in a moment], and the culture must need and/or accept that advance.  Progress and success, if you will, require both the individualists and the culture or village.

In Ptolemaic Egypt, Hero [Heron] built what appears to haven been the first steam engine, as well as employed magnetism in a technical way and built a jet-like pump for fighting fires.  Yet the steam engine vanished from history and did not reappear for more than 1600 years. Similar advances occurred in early China, and, effectively, the culture turned its back on them. Being a genius with proven products wasn’t enough, and it never has been.

The term “rugged individualist” conjures the idea of the man or woman living apart from and independent of society, yet human beings cannot survive above the most primitive level without the support of and the products of society.  Likewise societies tend to languish, stagnate, and eventually collapse if they crush individuality and creativity.

A vital culture needs to support both genius and individuality and cooperative effort.  Without both, it has no future… and yet, today, all too many on the left denigrate the contribution of the outstanding individuals and all too many on the right denigrate the role of a productive and cooperative society.

Post-Idea America

Early in August, the author Neal Gabler wrote an article in The New York Times, in which he observed that “we are living in an increasingly post-idea world – a world in which big, thought-provoking ideas that can’t be instantly monetized are of so little intrinsic value that fewer people are generating them and fewer outlets are disseminating them, the Internet notwithstanding.”  He contends that this is largely so because we are drowning in information and that the informational version of Gresham’s Law is at work, in that the mass of trivial information pushes out significant information, and because, within that mass of trivia, there is so much that confirms what we think is so that most people do not look or quest beyond their conformational biases, each of us is actually living in a smaller universe than did previous generations, even though the amount of information is infinitely larger.  He concludes by pointing out that society has historically been changed by “big ideas,” such as those of Einstein, Keynes, Freud, and Darwin, and that while there are currently thinkers who offer equally “large” and provocative ideas, those ideas are being lost in the ocean of trivia… and that society is already suffering and will continue to do so.

I don’t dispute any of Gabler’s points, and, in fact, find his observations and assessments, if anything, far too moderate, but I also believe that he minimizes two other aspects of the problem – the fact that the total mass of information acts as insulation to keep people from having to come to grips with ideas and facts at variance with their beliefs and the equation of “profitable ideas” with great ones.

Because the mass of information is so great, its very volume encompasses a range of correct data, generalizations, beliefs, anecdotes, examples, falsehoods, misrepresentations, and inaccuracies, the sum total of which creates the impression that all points of view and all ideas on a subject have equal value… or that the individual has every right to pick that information with which he or she is comfortable.  In the past, when information channels and sources were much narrower, there was a far higher percentage of “new” ideas and information that challenged existing beliefs reaching the average person.  While, in many cases, even “correct” new information or ideas were initially rejected, out of those challenges and questions emerged new perspectives and often new ways of looking and society and even the universe. Now… the new ideas are still out there… more often than not, adrift in a sea of trivia and indifference.

And… there is indeed one new “great” idea in American society, although it’s actually anything but new, but has rather undergone a re-birth, and that is the thought that no idea is of great worth unless it can be monetized profitably.  This is a central theme of the right wing of American politics today, that the profitability of government and business are paramount. Unhappily, it’s also an idea that is at the core of the left wing as well, even as the liberal left denies it.  But when the liberals make the argument that the wars in the Middle East should be stopped on monetary grounds, they’re essentially agreeing with the conservatives, in that they’re stating that social programs should be monetized, and that their worth lies in the amount of money applied to such programs.  In underlying principles, that’s no different from saying that no product is good unless it’s profitable.

Yet Galileo certainly wasn’t wealthy, nor Copernicus, nor Socrates, nor Freud, nor Einstein, nor Darwin… nor the majority of great thinkers in history.  Very, very few of the great artists were wealthy, either.  Few of the founding fathers of the United States died wealthy, either, for all their great ideas… So why do we spend so much time today idolizing the rich and famous?

Have we forgotten what greatness and great ideas are?  Or have we just reached the point where we as a society either fear them or can comfortably ignore them?


The More Things Change…

In 1768, the composer Franz Joseph Haydn wrote Lo speziale, an opera that depicted a Jewish apothecary, a work that was later revived by Mahler and Hirschfeld at the end of the nineteenth century as Der Apotheker [The Apothecary].

In the opera, non-Jews rail against the immigrant Jews for taking the jobs of the locals, and blaming them for all the misery that befalls them. Of course, in the 1930s in Germany, Hitler used the same theme, and that led to the Holocaust. Today, in the United States, a similar chorus is once more rising, as it did in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, first against the Germans, then the Irish, and finally the Italians, citing each immigrant group as the source of crime and social woe – just as many people and politicians are doing today with the U.S. Latino population. Of course, the Jews are scarcely blameless, either, historically regarding the Moabites and the Samaritans rather disfavorably

It appears to be an all-too-human trait to blame the “outsider” when matters aren’t going well in a society, and because the United States is facing the highest unemployment since the Great Depression, everyone is looking to blame someone or something else. Despite this chorus against immigrants, recent studies indicate that manufacturing employment in the U.S., the economic area where the job loss over the past two generations has been the greatest, is now and has been relatively stable for the past several years.  Because the U.S. population is growing, of course, the percentage of manufacturing jobs compared to total employment continues to decline, and because jobs have been cut in all areas of the economy manufacturing jobs have been cut as well, but such cuts are different from those resulting from basic structural changes.

The structural reasons for the losses in manufacturing employment are various, ranging from the ability to produce goods more cheaply overseas to a growing reliance on automation and robotics.  Regardless of the reasons, however, those seeking to immigrate to the U.S., either legally or illegally, did not cause the problems.  They were caused by U.S. citizens operating in response to those great American ideals – the profit motive and the bargain.  Those job losses were caused because Americans want the best good at the cheapest price, and all too many goods can be manufactured more cheaply – and more profitably — either through automation or through overseas outsourcing.

Yet all over the country, more and more blame is laid upon the immigrants, both for crimes and lack of jobs.  More than a few studies have shown that crime rates are far more related to poverty than ethnic origin and that crime rates in poor white communities are little different from crime rates in poor areas of other ethnicities. Poverty and crime go together. Yet blaming immigrants continues, despite the fact that in many areas, non-immigrants won’t take the lower-paid and often physically more demanding jobs that immigrants will and the even more important factor that the U.S. economy requires fewer and fewer unskilled and semi-skilled jobs and more and more jobs requiring education or additional training.  The days when a semi-skilled auto worker could make more than $100,000 are vanishing… if not gone, but, rather than recognizing these facts, once again, we have politicians and demagogues seeking to blame those who aren’t the cause, but who only want what everyone else wants.



Over the past few years, especially among book lovers, there’s been a continual undercurrent of dissatisfaction with chain bookstores, and I’d be the first to admit that I have my problems with the big box bookstores.  Certainly, those who’ve followed this site for several years know that I felt from way back that Borders was badly managed, but what I find interesting is that I’ve seen very little on what led to the rise of the mega-bookstore… and it wasn’t just corporate greed. Because I’m an author and because I’ve been to well over a thousand bookstores of all sizes and shapes in almost every state in the United States [excepting five], however, I may have a slightly different perspective from others.

Over the last thirty years especially, the book business has changed dramatically, the most significant factors, in my opinion, being the collapse/centralization of the wholesale distribution network and the closure of more than 2,000 smaller mall stores. The closure of the mall stores resulted from a failure of Borders, in particular, to realize exactly what those stores did, which was to increase the reader base while providing a very modest profit.  That modest profit wasn’t enough for the corporate types, unfortunately, and they thought large destination stores would provide higher margins, which they do [if run well, which Borders was not], but almost everyone who goes to a big chain store is a dedicated buyer… and the closure of the mall stores left entire areas of major cities with no convenient bookstore. With the centralization of the wholesale distribution networks, most of the bookracks in drugstores and elsewhere vanished, as did the local expertise on what sold where. These factors have reduced the number of readers and buyers, as well as led to the growth of the large book chains, including WalMart’s book sections, and, in turn, to aggressive price discounting on best-sellers. That aggressive pricing made the economics unworkable for many small independent booksellers.

Yet for all the woe and hand-wringing by some authors and others, I have very mixed feelings about smaller bookstores.  I love their passion and their love of books, and their dedication to literacy and reading, but… having visited scores of them, one thing stands out in my mind.  Except for a comparative few specialty F&SF stores [less than thirty nationwide in 1990, and less than a handful today], very few of the small independents carried much fantasy and science fiction.  I’m fortunate if I see more than three or four of my titles in any small independent bookstore, and generally there is only one copy of each. This is true of even F&SF top best-sellers as well, if with a few more copies of each title. Now… there are exceptions, such as the small store in my home town, but they’re rare.  On the other hand, the big box chains carry almost all my fantasy titles, and if they didn’t, I’d be looking for a day job or eking it out on what I’ve saved over the years.  The plain fact is that big-box stores have supported genre fiction far more than have the small independents, and that’s especially true for fantasy and science fiction.  What’s also true is that the old dispersed wholesale rack system also supported genre fiction more than the independents did.  So now, the only real outlet for a broad range of genre fiction, especially F&SF, appears to be the big box stores.

Some authors in the field are optimistic that the internet will provide another outlet, besides Amazon and B&, but I have my doubts, simply because most readers don’t want to search author sites and the like – at least not until they know the author and his or her works.

So… like it or not, for now those of us in the F&SF field are pretty much tied to the big box boys and Amazon… because for all of the concern about the independents, much as I like them and their devoted people, the independents alone can’t come close to supporting the field… although that’s something that far too many authors won’t admit publicly.


Simplistic Solutions – Again

The other day, my brother sent me a copy of the final column of a retiring columnist [Charlie Reese of the Orlando Sentinal].  If the column is representative of Mr. Reese’s views, I’m glad to see him no longer in print and wish him a very happy retirement.  His view was that all of our ills as a society can be laid to 545 people – the Congress, the President, and the Supreme Court, because not one of the taxes, not one of the federal budgets, not one of the federal regulations, not one of the deficits, and not one of the federal court decisions that have led to the mess we’re in could have taken place without the acts of those individuals… and that each and every one of them could have said “no.”

And, in the strictest and most simplistic sense of the word, he’s absolutely right.  But in the larger sense, he’s absolutely wrong… because we live in a representative democratic republic, and we, as voters or non-voters, decide who represents us every two years. As some of you may know, I spent some 18 years in Washington, D.C., first as the legislative director for a congressman, then as the staff director for his successor, then as the head of legislation and congressional relations for the U.S. EPA, and finally as a consultant, i.e., beltway bandit, representing corporations before the Congress and the Executive Branch.  Given that I’ve also worked in private industry and as a small businessman, not to mention as a Navy pilot, I’ve seen how government works and doesn’t work pretty much from all sides.  And it’s anything but simple.

I’ve known personally dozens of representative and senators, and professionally dealt with hundreds of them… and well over 90% of them faithfully and diligently represented the views of the majority of the voters who elected them.  It’s all well and good to extol the “good old days” when the USA was the economic power of the world with balanced budgets and prosperity… but that often wasn’t the case.  Even before the Great Depression, there were other brutal depressions and financial collapses, and certainly in World War II, the budget was far from balanced.  By the time of the Great Depression, the majority of Americans were ready to move away from unrestrained laissez-faire capitalism, and they showed it in their support of Franklin Roosevelt and whom they elected to Congress.  With unemployment over 25%, and breadlines everywhere, with older people in poverty, who could blame them?  They voted for what they thought they wanted, as they did before, and as they have ever since.

Since I left Washington, have my representatives and senators represented my views?  Hell no!  But my views aren’t in the majority where I live.  And because only a little more than half the eligible voters actually vote, especially in off-year elections, it may well be that many senators and representatives do not represent the views of the majority of their constituents, but only the views of the majority of those who vote… but that’s not the fault of the Congress.  It’s the fault of those who fail to vote.

To blame the problems in Washington on a Congress and a President that reflect the views of the majority of voters is not only simplistic, but it’s also taking the easy way out.  Recent elections have shown, more than ever, that any representative or senator who goes against the wishes of the majority of voters in his or district or state usually gets tossed out.  The plain fact of the matter is that the majority of voters, for better or worse, really don’t want fiscal discipline.  They don’t want cuts in the federal programs that benefit them, only in those that benefit someone else, and they don’t want to pay more taxes, although it might be all right if someone else did.  And Congress has continued to listen to them and reflect their wishes.

Would any of us want a government that didn’t?  That would be even worse than what we have… and what we have isn’t all that wonderful at the moment, but it’s still better than the alternatives.  The problem isn’t the structure, and it isn’t the Congress.  As Pogo said many years ago, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”


Magic Thinking

Although most Americans would deny it, a great number are actual employ one aspect of fantasy in their day to day lives, at least when it comes to their relationship with politicians and government.  They employ “magic thinking” – the belief that one particular single “magic wand” will resolve the problems with government.  For those on the left, in general, their magic wand is more government programs and more comprehensive government programs.  For those on the right, their magic wand is lower taxes and less government.

Both sides, of course, are living in a fantasy world stranger than anything I’ve ever written, but any attempt to inject a strong dose of reality into their magic thinking results in violent rejection, and, with that sort of rejection, it shouldn’t be any surprise that those who represent them in Congress offer equally strong reactions to any legislative proposal that conflicts with their fantasy view of the world.

Those on the right continue to insist that all will be well if government just unleashes the power of “free enterprise,” but to which free enterprise are they referring?  The free enterprise of the banking system that accepted something like a trillion dollars in government funding while using it primarily to build reserves while also finding ways to invest in anything except rebuilding jobs in the United States?  Or the corporate free enterprise system that continues to automate and outsource jobs while reducing jobs to increase profits to record levels?  Or the government free enterprise system that has implemented massive cuts in education and modified our tax system so that corporate farmers get subsidized and hedge fund managers pay a smaller percentage of taxes than do police, firefighters, and teachers?

On the left, those “magic thinkers” continue to insist that greater and greater deficit spending will create jobs through massive income subsidies when a huge amount of that spending is used to buy imported goods and foreign oil.  They continue to insist that more spending on education will improve the system when they undermine it continually in a myriad of ways, ranging from blaming the teachers for everything to insisting that college-oriented education is the only way for every student.  At the same time, they drive all too many good teachers out of the field through low salaries and outrage at those who insist on high standards for students.  They want more government programs, but only if those programs are paid for by someone else, which has resulted in more than half the population paying no federal income taxes at all.

And all too many of them would believe [if they read my books, which most won’t] that my works, which shows costs for dreams and change, are just too fantastic to believe.  And, come to think of it, in today’s United States… maybe they’re right.