Friday, January 20, 2017

What to call him?

Only once in the last eight years have I actually been directly in conversation with someone who made a point of not calling Barack Obama "the president." A fellow American in a foreign country, referred to "the occupant of the White House-" and I'd interjected, "You mean, the President?" He responded, "Oh, that's how it is."

I thought it was juvenile. Obviously you don't like him, but he is in fact legitimately the president.

I'm now stumped.

At some level, is it any different if I come up with some clever moniker for The Orange One?

Thursday, January 19, 2017

The IRS strikes back

In the early 1970's, my parents were war-tax resisters.

As I heard the story about 30 years ago, they along with others who objected to the war in Southeast Asia, reduced their federal income tax payments by an amount to roughly account for the portion of federal spending going to the war. After a couple of years, the IRS essentially said, Pay up, or you're going to jail. Others actually did go to jail, but my parents decided, with four kids at home, that wasn't the responsible path for them. They settled up their unpaid balance (with interest) and moved on.

Last week I was at my Mom's, going through things and papers in the wake of Dad's death last November. I found their tax filings from 1958 (the year they married) through 2013, and the folders starting with 1969 contain the documentation of their actions, as narrated here and here.

The 1973 folder contains a subfolder labeled "Case," and you can follow Mom and Dad's efforts to satisfy their consciences and the IRS at the same time.

It leads off with a form letter stamped with the date Jul 29 1974 (their big underpayment action would have been in April, 1974, for the 1973 tax year). The IRS sent them a report explaining the adjustments to their tax. "If you do not agree with the adjustments, you may do one of the following within 15 days from the date of this letter:"

The three options were:
  1. send in additional evidence or info;
  2. request a meeting with a tax auditor; or
  3. request a conference with a conferee.

The attached report says,

Amount Shown on Return or As Previously Adjusted: 13000.000
Corrected Amount of Income And Deduction: 0.000
Adjustments Increase or (Decrease): 13000.00

There's then an explanatory note:


The following numbers show their corrected tax owed as 10,445.10, while the tax shown on the return they'd filed in April was entered as 5,407.52. The result was a "statutory deficiency" of 5,0937.58.

Their prepayments, through employer tax withholding and estimated tax payments, were 5,686.90, so they owed 4,758.20.

The IRS also included Publication 5 (Rev. 10-73), "Appeal Rights and Preparation of Protests for Unagreed Cases".

Chronologically, the next item in the file is a letter from my parents, to Noam Chomsky, dated July 30, 1974. The letter seems to be a response to the report from the IRS, though the dating is confusing. The IRS report is dated July 29, 1974, a Monday. If it was sent by mail, how would they have had it before, say, Wednesday. Was it hand delivered? Was it sent by overnight mail?

Anyway, their letter from the 30th reads,

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Nature's Trump card

I'm in the process of going over page proofs for my book,  Macroeconomics in ecological context, which is finally just about done, due out next month with Springer, after far too long.

In my proofing I came across the passage below and thought it was a timely reminder as the Senate considers Scott Pruitt's nomination to head the Environmental Protection Agency.

Another kind of renewable resource is the biosphere’s capacity to absorb the waste we dump into it. This may not feel like an input, the way wood is an input to a house or petroleum is an input to flying. In fact, it’s related to an output, rather than an input, though that output is unintentional. Even so, the similarity to an input is there.

You can’t make a house without using some sort of material, like wood or stone or adobe. You can’t fly a plane without using petroleum. And you can’t burn coal without using up some of the biosphere’s ability to absorb the soot and CO2. So we can think of that absorptive capacity as an input. The biggest difference is in how its limits make themselves known to us.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Resistance coming to fruition

In an earlier post I presented a letter from 1970 from my parents to the IRS, explaining their reluctance to pay their taxes given the war in Vietnam they were helping to fund, and a memo from 1971, explaining that they weren't paying the surtax levied for tax year 1970, as it seemed to be a war  tax.

Then no sign of anything out of the ordinary for tax years 1971 and 1972.

The 1973 tax folder was the jackpot year. There's a "Schedule A: Itemized Deductions," most of which is routine stuff, written in pencil (it's their working copy, the one they kept for their own files, back in the days before electronic filing, and even before easy access to Xerox machines).

But under line 33, "Other (Itemize)" is written in pen, "Illegal gov't action ded, (see letter attached)" with 13,000 entered in the space for the amount.

The attached letter is a type-written document, undated (but presumably it's from about April 14, 1974, sent with their 1973 tax filing), that reads:

* Illegal Government Action deduction

Monday, January 16, 2017

Setting the stage

Two students of mine are doing an internship at Atlas Network, where they've been encouraged to read The morality of capitalism: what your professors won't tell you, a collection of essays by various authors. In order to be able to discuss the book with them, I've been making my way through it, and found myself jotting notes at such a rate that it seemed there was a short essay lurking in the margins of each chapter.

The title has some ambiguity: Will the argument be that capitalism is moral and your professors are unfairly blackening its name? Or that the morality of capitalism is bad, and your professors have been painting too rosy a picture?

Let me not keep you in suspense: the book's contributions are dedicated to showing that capitalism is good, despite what college may have tried to teach you to the contrary.

The introductory chapter by the editor, Tom G. Palmer, sets the stage by laying out pieces of the argument for how capitalism is moral. But based on the five essays I've read so far, it also prepares us for what's to come in other ways. The essay makes some valid points touching on facts that may be overlooked by critics of how markets work, things that are worth keeping in mind in your view of reality. But then it weakens itself with a black-and-white view of "capitalism" vs. anything that deviates from it, overly broad generalizations drawn from excessively simplified historical narratives, logical leaps, and use of words with strong emotive power while avoiding any specification of what is meant by them.

As an example of a point that may be ignored by critics of capitalism, consider the potential openness to people, regardless of their background:

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Brace yourself

Back in July I got to see Hamilton. Kate wanted to treat herself (and us) to something special for her 50th, and I thought she'd found an excellent way to do that.

Throughout the show I had a growing sense of the tension between the stage and the world outside.

Onstage, a team of audacious artists had reconceived part of the story of the Founding Fathers, and presented those iconic white men as people of color, rapping.

Out in the wider world, we were at the start of a general election in which the Confederate flag was making a more prominent appearance than I remember in my 40 years of paying attention to politics. Citizens were organizing to protest against the insanely high odds of being shot for the color of their skin, and some portion of the populace looked at the phone videos and managed to find a way to say there was nothing wrong.

Signs of progress, next to unsettling reminders of how far we had still to go. The sickness in the population was evident, but I was confident the election would come out OK.

Saturday, January 14, 2017


A couple weeks ago, looking for something to read, I picked up from my shelf The Germans by Gordon A. Craig, an eminent historian of Germany.

I keep coming upon passages that, in the current context, seem to ring a bell.

The chapter on "Romanticism" is an insightful overview of the flight from rational thought. I was struck by the relationship to a sense of helplessness:
Sociologically, Romanticism was always - as the sociologist of literature Leo Lowenthal has suggested it was in its first phase - an essentially bourgeois movement, and politically it was an escape from the bourgeois dilemma of powerlessness. Thus, it was significant that the years 1830-1848, when bourgeois self-confidence was at its height, and when the German middle class had every expectation of seizing political power, as the middle class had succeeded in doing in France in 1830 and in England in 1832. But the failure of the revolution of 1848 destroyed these hopes and did serious and permanent damage to middle-class amour propre and self-confidence, and in the subsequent period escapism and regressive behavior became the order of the day. (p. 197)
Craig traces the glorification of the peasantry and the denigration of city people, presenting a passage from the social geographer W.H. Riehl: