November 26, 2009

Maybe we’ve got this whole Thanksgiving thing backwards.

Not that I’m proposing anything heretical like missing the football games or skipping the Macy’s parade or eating a tofu turkey.

I am, however, thinking about the words thanks and giving and I’m giving some thought to the emphasis we put on one versus the other.

I love to read the notes of thanks from friends and family for gifts of friendship and kindness—almost never for physical gifts—they have received. I’d even like to think I have earned some of these notes, that I have given these people something to deserve their gratitude.

If I’ve earned a note of thanks, though, it’s only by giving the other person something to be thankful for. It’s nothing more or less than the virtuous circle.

And that’s where the whole giving part of the day requires more attention. Thanksgiving shouldn’t be a holiday devoted merely to being thankful. 

As in most of life, the thanks should come after the giving. If I want more notes of thanks next year, more notes that make me thankful, I must give more to others in the year ahead. By making them more thankful, I’ll earn more thanks in return.

Maybe next year, we’ll all get it right.


How to Save America

November 20, 2009

In which our intrepid social commentator boils down all the challenges facing our great nation into a relative handful of simple—but not simplistic—solutions.


Here’s a trick question for all my friends both liberal and conservative: What percentage of U.S. taxes are paid by for-profit businesses?

And the answer is: zero.

Yes, it’s hard to believe at first, but corporations really don’t pay any taxes to the government. Instead, they collect money from customers and then forward it to Uncle Sam, or Aunt Virginia, or Cousin Austin, but they don’t actually pay the taxes themselves.

Wait, you say. What about income taxes? Aren’t corporate income taxes a payment by the corporation to the government? Not really. Instead, the corporation is forced to take money that could have been paid to shareholders (owners) in the form of dividends and passes it on the government instead.

Dividends, of course, are the worst example of all, because they’re taxed when earned by the corporation and taxed again when received by the shareholder. If a company earns $100 and decides to transfer all of it to shareholders in the form of dividends, the shareholder would actually see $40 or less of the $100 after both corporate and individual taxes are levied.  The real tax rate on dividends paid to shareholders is more than 60%, but about 30% of that tax rate is hidden by “corporate taxes.”

Ultimately, we, the people, pay all the taxes. They, the politicians, make us feel better about those payments by telling us they’re taxing corporations instead of individuals, but that’s kinda not really true. We pay more for products and services, receive smaller dividends and gain less from investment in stock—all the result of the myth that businesses actually pay any tax at all.

So, if business taxes are simply a passthrough payment ultimately made by individuals, why do we go through this charade at all? There are two primary reasons:

  1. Economic/Social engineering. Government taxes some businesses more than others, or offers tax incentives to a select group of industries, as a means of directing economic activity. Tax breaks for green technologies or for export activity are examples of this practice. One can agree or disagree with the economic/social engineering issue, but tax policy is not the only way to drive economic activity.
  2. Re-election. Taxation of business is good for politicians who want to remain in office, because they can say they are making business pay its “fair share.” And many people nod their heads as if that’s true.

Meanwhile, vast industries are created to support corporate taxation. Whether it’s tax attorneys or accountants or lobbyists or the restaurants the lobbyists frequent, business taxation is expensive and complicated.

It would all be much simpler, of course, if there was no corporate tax at all. Companies would save money by having less complexity in their finances, costs of products would fall because the tax passthroughs would be eliminated, and individuals would get a clearer idea of exactly how much tax they’re really paying.

Which is, of course, why it will never happen. Even if it is a simply perfect idea.

How to Save America

November 12, 2009

In which our intrepid social commentator boils down all the challenges facing our great nation into a relative handful of simple—but not simplistic—solutions.


No, those jeans don’t make you look fat. Your fat makes you look fat.

Mine, too.

Every time I go to some steak place and they drop two pounds of dead cattle on the table—hey, don’t I get a side of bacon with this??—my immediate thought is that there’s no way I can finish it all. Within 20 minutes, though, it’s becoming a part of my invincible defense against famine and I’m bursting—somewhat literally—with the pride of a job well done.

I’m an American, dammit, and I can handle anything. And that includes three-pound burgers and those sundaes that you get for free if you can eat the whole thing without, uh, what’s the word the aristocrats use…oh, yeah…puking.

In the world of gastronomy, the French created words like flambé and sauté. The Italians gave us al dente and dolce. In America, we created Drive-Thru (for people too lazy to walk 50 feet to the counter) and Supersize (when you’re afraid of missing out on the mystery meat).

And doggy bags. You know, there is no local term that equates to “doggy bag,” anywhere else in the world, with the exception of some parts of Southeast Asia.

I however, have no need for doggy bags. I am AN AMERICAN. I have trained like an Olympic swimmer or Tour de France champion, sculpting my body into a caloric consumption machine. Or perhaps I am like an eastern mystic, learning how to become one with all creatures, mostly by eating them.

There is a dark side to all this fun, however. Eating like an American leads to pretty much every problem we have today.

Obesity is killing us, but only after we run up huge medical bills and enjoy life a lot less and have to see therapists to discuss our poor body images and join health clubs that we never go to because it’s just too damned hard and we’d have to get off the couch.

We’re also importing an ungodly amount of oil just to run the farms and ship the food and carry our overly endowed rumps around in cars that have to be big enough to carry us. If we weighed less, our cars would burn less gas carting us around. If we lost enough total pounds, Saudi Arabia would be unable to balance its budget without a bake sale.

Beyond health costs and energy consumption, there’s that whole environmental thing. We’re using up all kinds of resources to grow the food, package the food, ship the food, repackage the food, serve the food and, only a few hours later, process the stuff that’s left after we digest the food. Ick.

How much less is the right amount of eating less? Hey, I’m not some USDA dietician and I’m not your momma and I’m not Jiminy Cricket, sitting on your shoulder to tell you what’s right and wrong.  

Less. That’s all I’m saying.


November 5, 2009

In which our intrepid social commentator boils down all the challenges facing our great nation into a relative handful of simple—but not simplistic—solutions.


Step II: End voice mail.

If, as some believe, Alfred Nobel created the Peace Prize out of remorse for his invention of dynamite, what do you think Stephen Boies owes the world as atonement for inventing voice mail?

When Samuel F.B. (FaceBook) Morse invented the telegraph, he typed an awestruck comment, “What Hath God Wrought?” to an equally impressed audience. We don’t know the first message recorded on a voice mail system, but we do know that the guys behind this technology hath wrought the two biggest lies in the world:

  1. Your call is very important to us. 
  2. Please listen carefully as our menu has changed.

Every other lie in the world, from “I’ll respect you in the morning,” to “Iran won’t build nuclear weapons,” to “the cable repairman will be there by noon,” is ten times as credible as the siren song of voice prompts.

Voice mail was supposed to make us more efficient and save time, but the actual impact has been just the opposite. If I have voice mail and you don’t, I can fire ten customer service reps and force you to waste time listening for the “new” menu options. I’d save money, but you’d spend more. Too bad for you, but that’s life.

Since everyone has voice mail, though, every person in the United States is wasting two hours each day, waiting to learn which button to push for more options. People who could be in the customer service department, answering real calls from real customers, are on hold instead, cursing as they push the wrong button and hear the dreaded, “I’m sorry, that is not a valid selection. Goodbye.”

The net result is that tens of thousands of companies are paying millions of people to listen to machines instead of talking to other people. Worse, it takes longer to listen to the prompts and get to the right person through voice mail than it takes to simply ask an operator for “accounting” or “customer service” or “sales.”

Voice mail is taking at least 30% off our GNP every year, and the number is closer to 98% in January, when everyone is calling about the Christmas presents that don’t work right. Add in the hours spent on FaceBook, Twitter and solitaire in the workplace and it’s no wonder that this country hasn’t manufactured anything since 1993.

The simple solution is to declare this noble experiment a failure and have real people taking the incoming calls. Productivity would rise, stress would plunge and people would rediscover the joy of actually talking to each other.