We the Sheeple…

Junius Brutus Stearns' 1856 painting George Washington Addressing the Constitutional Convention.
Reconstituting the Constitution

I’ve been complaining and ranting about the current political climate and government. It’s nice to know that others out there are having intelligent discussions about our Constitution and what it means. I think this needs to be a LOT more widespread than it is today

Taxes & Whining

This morning I listened to my local NPR station (as usual).  There were two joint topics: Occupy Wall Street and tax reform.  They were interwoven to some extent.  The second topic mostly focused on whether the rich (>$ 250,000 and/or > $1,000,000) should pay a higher percentage of taxes than the middle class and working poor.

See, here’s the problem.

I’m taxed on what I work to earn.  My income tax is removed from my pay whether I like it or not, including FICA withholding.

I’m also taxed on what I spend: sales tax (local and state).  I get to pay additional taxes on other expenditure like tobacco (if I still smoked), gasoline (for my car, which I primarily use to get to and from my WORK), and other items with import tariffs.

If I choose to save money in a savings account, I am taxed on the interest I’ve earned (this is not an atrocious amount, given that right now my account is earning 0.05% interest).

I pay personal property tax on my car.

About 35% of my gross income disappears into a black hole that I’ll never see again.  I have NOT ONCE gotten any of these “tax cuts” that the government keeps talking about.  I’ve never been eligible.   Year to year, my tax rate (percentage) has increased. I don’t get this money back, and if I do get some tiny fraction of it back, I’m not paid any interest–despite the fact that it’s money the government takes from me to use for other purposes.  ‘Scuse me, isn’t that a loan?

If I owned physical land (property), I’d pay taxes on that.

When my parents die, I’ll have to pay taxes on their estate.

If I freelance tutor, I’m supposed to declare that income and pay taxes on it.

IF I RECEIVE A GIFT I’m supposed to pay taxes on it.

 

And… best of all… you have to declare your INCOME TAX REFUND on the next year’s taxes.  That’s right.  You’re taxed AGAIN on income you’ve already PAID taxes on.

 

So, should we increase the taxes on the rich?  I honestly can’t say that I think that’s fair.  Which is odd.  I don’t realistically think I’ll ever BE rich.  I don’t earn a million dollars a year and I don’t even earn a TENTH of that.  And, oh, yeah… I am a Ph.D.  But, no, seriously–it’s simply unfair.

I’m not an economist–and I don’ t want to be.  But it seems like the most fair option is a very simple one.  Close the loopholes.

I favor a simple, straightforward flat tax.  But it won’t work–because “it unfairly targets the poor.”

The logic there is that 10% (or 15%) of a poor person’s income represents a bigger burden to them than it does to someone who’s earning more money.

Simply put–if you earn $10,000 a year, that $1000 affects you more than the $5000 someone earning $50,000 a year would pay.  In reality, both hurt.  Would someone earning a million dollars notice $10,000 a year in taxes?  Maybe and maybe not.   But at least I could say that it’s FAIR, even if it sucks.

I try not to complain too much–I support NASA, and the NIH, and the NSF, and other government programs.  Some are crucially important (military).  I try to pretend my tax dollars are going to those programs I care about even though I know most of it doesn’t.  Some programs I’m against–but I have no options there; I’m forced to take the good with the bad.  To some extent, that’s okay.  It just bothers me that what, about half of my income vanishes into taxes? Didn’t we have a revolutionary war over this type of thing once upon a time?

The tax code is broken.  Start by fixing it.  CLOSE THE LOOPHOLES.

Entitlement, Politics, and Social Security

This is not going to be a popular post.  I don’t care.  I’m thinking about the upcoming 2012 Presidential election, without much hope for a candidate I can actually support and believe in.  I heard about Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 tax plan while listening to NPR.  I was intrigued. I think a flat tax, with no exemptions, clauses, or wiggle-room, makes a tremendous amount of sense.  Yeah—that also means no more April 15th Tax Days.  If we each paid 15% in taxes PERIOD, with no filing for refunds, I would see the impact. My effective tax rate would be halved.  The IRS would cease to be a name of terror.  I’d be clear on what I was paying each PAYCHECK.  I would understand why, when I work 20 hours of paid, time-and-a-half overtime on a paycheck, my take home pay is a whopping $20 more than usual (in other words, I net less than one hours’ income from the work I did).  Actually, that would entirely stop.  I know a lot of businesses would be unhappy-their loopholes would vanish.  The IRS would likely have to restructure and lay off a lot of personnel.

So—back to politics—I went to http://www.hermancain.com/the-issues and did some reading.  This person does not represent my beliefs.  Which is not surprising.  One of the things that I find most appalling is this concept of “entitlement” in particular regard to Social Security.  Recently, another candidate referred to Social Security as a Ponzi scheme (http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2011/09/09/is-social-security-a-ponzi-scheme).  I’m not going to debate that point.  My problem is that I don’t honestly believe that social security either 1-represents a valid form of “retirement” or 2-will be around when I can “retire.”  I laugh when I get my statements from the Social Security Administration.  When I am 67 (since my retirement age has been “adjusted”), I can theoretically quit working and all the money I have paid into social security is theoretically “mine” (along with the employer-matching portions).  That’s how they sell FICA withholding on our incomes, isn’t it?  That’s how it was explained to me in school… except for one thing.  We, the current working generation, are paying for our parents’ social security retirements.  And let me tell you something—it ain’t no living wage.

So—I don’t have any kids.  Who’s paying for MY social security?

Your kids.  Someday.  You know, the ones you haven’t had yet???  Therein lies part of the rub.

Am I *entitled* to social security?  Well, I’ve been paying into it all my adult working life—though you’ll note that you cannot opt-out; that money is coming out of your pay either up front or later.  So haven’t I “earned” it?

AHHH the entitlement portion.  You see, entitlement is defined as follows:

: the state or condition of being entitled : right

: a right to benefits specified especially by law or contract;2

: a government program providing benefits to members of a specified group; also : funds supporting or distributed by such a program

: belief that one is deserving of or entitled to certain privileges

Source: Merriam-Webster Online, http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/entitlement, Last accessed 10:31 PM 05 October 2011.

Okay.  So—the first isn’t all that helpful.  The second—I signed no contract; this law was enacted before I was born (1935) and I had no representation in its drafting or enactment.  My participation is compulsory.  The third—ok, government benefits, and that’s exactly what we’re dealing with.  Except I have no reasonable expectation that those benefits apply to ME; based on current analyses, the social security system will be fiscally insolvent (read as: broke) by 2030 or 2036 (estimates vary).  My scheduled 67-year old retirement is 2045.  That’s 15 years after the system goes bust.  I’d say I’d better get crackin’ and have me some kids to support me and pay into social security!  Except… wait, does the math work?  It takes 18 years to achieve legal adulthood.  Tack on another year for pregnancy.  I’d need 19 years to raise a child that could potentially be productive towards social security (I know many teens work, too, okay?).  And… I have… oh wow—exactly 19 years.  I need to get pregnant IMMEDIATELY to SAVE SOCIAL SECURITY.

Um. I can’t afford a kid.

Actually, there’s a shockingly good history of the development of social security here: http://www.ssa.gov/history/briefhistory3.html

So… we did this to help protect the elderly and infirm, those who lost their jobs, and those who cannot support themselves (due to mental or physical disability).  These are noble and laudable purposes.  I do not deny that many need this help or support.  But—why should it pay to the SPOUSE of a worker, even if said spouse NEVER “paid in”?

And here’s where I have the problem.  I am not ENTITLED to anything.  I must earn what I receive.  I do not currently, nor have I ever, worked for the government or in any public service capacity (for a non-commercial entity).  Many people, Gen X-ers and Gen Y’s—we forgot, or never really understood, this “earn” concept.  I think I should have something because someone else has it?  Ooops.  Sorry, Charlie, but NO.  Just because your parents have it doesn’t mean you get it too.  Your parents have a house?  Cool!  Great for them!  Do you inherit it?  Maybe, and maybe not—it’s NOT YOURS.

I worry a lot about the current generation of students that I see in my classes.  I know most are socially aware—in ways that I (as an old fart) am not.  Society has changed.  I’m a dinosaur in that sense, I’ll freely admit.  But my bigger concern is that we’ve pushed group learning to such an extent that most are uncomfortable with INDEPENDENT work—leading me to wonder if they rely so heavily on group thinking/hive mind capacity that individual thought is lost.  Right along that comes the second important point: INDIVIDUAL RESPONSIBILITY.  I want something?  I’d best earn it myself.  I want to retire?  I’d better EARN it, PLAN for it, AND execute it.  Earning goes beyond “putting in the effort.”  (But I studied so hard, I should have an “A”!  I EARNED it!)  No.  Effort does not necessarily equal outcome.  I can try and try and try to make decent-tasting salmon and I still fail.  I can study recipes, follow them exactly, do what I’m told, practice, repeat, etc. and it still doesn’t mean I’m entitled to, or have earned, a restaurant.  Trying isn’t all there is to it.  Working isn’t all there is to retirement, either.  Planning and execution.  This is actually likely true of a lot of our lives.  And that’s where our concept has become twisted.  Somewhere along the way, “try” became all-but-synonymous with “earn.”

I am NOT entitled to squat from my government unless I work for said government.  So why should I have to pay in?  Well, that’s also unfortunately required—sucks to be us.  We all use services from the government whether we’re aware of it or not.  Provide for common defense (military)? FEMA? Search-and-rescue?  Regulate interstate commerce (foreign trade)? Check—I like bananas, thanks.  And mangoes and rambutan and a whole lot of other imported produce and electronic gadgets and… you get the point.  Government provides an architectural framework for society.  I just think ours is… overgrown, like a weedy garden.