29 September 2011

As The Worm Turns

So I ‘m transferring a bunch of files between computers this morning, a long a tedious process that nonetheless requires regular attention.  In short, a numbing chore.  Between checks I scan the NYTimes of course, and find this article:

Bill Buckner Strikes Again - NYTimes.com by Nate Silver

Anyone who follows baseball even a little knows that it is enthralled by numbers.  The new movie, Moneyball, is all about a chapter in that story.  Nat Silver’s charts and calculations are impressive, especially as that pertain to a sport.  Would that many Americans were as devoted to such calculations applied to the national debt and other economic questions.  Politics would be the better, perhaps.

Anyway, as someone not gifted with numbers or using the principles of algebra, I slogged through Silver’s article until I saw a reference to Bayes’ Theorem.  This took me to an article (hyperlinked for your convenience) that took me to new levels of algebraic esoterica. 

But I was hooked now, and worked my way down the article to where it cites Richard Price, 18th century English clergyman and philosopher, to wit:

“Richard Price discovered Bayes' essay and its now-famous theorem in Bayes' papers after Bayes' death. He believed that Bayes' Theorem helped prove the existence of God ("the Deity") and wrote the following in his introduction to the essay:

"The purpose I mean is, to shew what reason we have for believing that there are in the constitution of things fixt laws according to which things happen, and that, therefore, the frame of the world must be the effect of the wisdom and power of an intelligent cause; and thus to confirm the argument taken from final causes for the existence of the Deity. It will be easy to see that the converse problem solved in this essay is more directly applicable to this purpose; for it shews us, with distinctness and precision, in every case of any particular order or recurrency of events, what reason there is to think that such recurrency or order is derived from stable causes or regulations in nature, and not from any irregularities of chance." (Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, 1763) [3]

In modern terms this is an instance of the teleological argument.”

Of course, I had to read about that.  And so I found myself reading that article, which to my delight ended up citing my friend, the late philosopher,Charles Hartshorne on panentheism. 

So between file transfers and other tedia, I took a walk from the collapse of the Red Sox to the arguments for and against God.  They connect on the matter of chance and probability. 

At the end of it all I think the chances of the the Red Sox failing to make the playoffs is less than the chances there is some sort of divine entity in the universe.  But if that’s so, how can a piece of the universe that we know is true be less likely that a force in the universe that we can’t know is true? 

Let me see, maybe I should click on ontological argument

22 September 2011

Fair is Fair

What is fair?  John Rawls devoted a career to fairness as a political concept (even as he was notably less than fair in his private life I have heard).  It is clearly hard to pin down, and yet like Potter Stewart (or what is Byron White?) who could not define obscenity but knew it when he saw it, fairness is something even five year olds grasp in the negative.  They and we know when something it unfair.

The president has finally, in my opinion, grasped a solid moral handhold in the economic wrestling match over taxes and debts.  His commitment to allow the Bush tax cuts to expire rests on the idea of fairness. 

This fairness, though, is not financial but moral.  In a time when a nation must sacrifice current comforts in order regain strength in the future, everyone must be perceived to be giving up something that matters.  14 million citizens are searching for work and cannot find it.  More have simply stopped looking.  Almost one of five Americans are at or below the poverty level.  And many many more are making do by spending less because incomes are flat and the future is uncertain.  For some, though few, to be not only safe and sound but to be prospering as much as ever, appears to be unfair.

Thus to ask that those who have prospered also sacrifice - as those who are unemployed and uninsured and less secure because of reduced government programs to mitigate those struggles – seems eminently fair.  A nation that places the burdens of nationhood on some and the benefits on others is precisely the moral peril of slavery 150 years ago. 

“The[re] are two principles that have stood face to face from the beginning of time, and will ever continue to struggle. The one is the common right of humanity and the other the divine right of kings. It is the same principle in whatever shape it develops itself. It is the same spirit that says, 'You work and toil and earn bread, and I'll eat it.' No matter in what shape it comes, whether from the mouth of a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation and live by the fruit of their labor, or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle.”

That was Abraham Lincoln in October of 1858.  When 400 families have more wealth than 150,000,000 Americans (half the country) we either do not have a democracy or we do not have a country. 

I say America is a democracy or it is not America.  As all must share in the political task, so all must share in the economic task.  “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.”  Let those with eyes see, as the man said. 

Taxes, the Deficit and the Economy - NYTimes.com

17 September 2011

Hey, That Was My Idea!

Only I did not do anything about, so all I can do is mope. But the short version is that I have been saying the same thing as this fellow from DC:

Separation of church and state in marriage? - The Washington Post

Why should religion be in the legal marriage business at all? In a nation with an established religion, this makes sense (to the extent that established religions make sense at all). But when religion is separate from the state, formally and legally, then why should clergy have the power to do legal marriages?

As the article says, other nations do this without falling into ruin. A brief study about why such historically religious states as France and Germany now actually prohibit clergy from legally marrying people is a great case study in why separating church and state makes sense. A deeper study of how marriage got to be a religious concession is also informative. Let’s just say that practice existed before theory and law came after that. My DC colleague begs the question of why we should have the legal power at all, and I agree with him.

Now, it was fun when I was a baby clergyman to sign licenses, because it meant I was a ‘real’ clergyman. Now, a credit card and an internet connection can make you as ‘legal’ as any bishop, and in some states anyone can preside over a particular ceremony with the consent of those getting married. The coolness has has been completely lost.

The only reason, theologically that is, for clergy to retain the right to marry people legally is to make that religion’s notion of marriage legal. It is to enlist the state to support with the law a particular religious point of view. If it were not so well established by history it would not pass scrupulous constitutional muster.

I do not expect things to change because one or two folks like me exist. But it may be time to start thinking about why we do it this way, and whether it is wise in lots of ways.

15 September 2011

Imagine I am Running for Congress - 6

So, last time I started talking about taxes, about which everyone has strong feelings and often inchoate reasons for said feelings. 

My idea was to begin over with a simple notion – that people should pay in federal tax in proportion to what they receive of the national income. 

Not hard to understand, but tricky to implement because it means knowing the combined national income and the combined national income tax.  Fortunately, we can know previous national income and federal tax.  All we need do is use those figures.  To make it simple, I say divide the national income into percentiles.  Those at the top will be few, so they will have to pay more per person.  Those at the bottom will be many, so they will be less. 

According to Prof. Wm. Domhoff (citing E.N. Wolff) the top 1% earned 21.3% of the national income in 2006.  The next 19% earned 40.1% of the national income, the remaining 80%, earned 38.6% of the national income.  No doubt if you broke those latter groups out by percentiles the amounts would be even more disparate. 

Now, those at the bottom edge of the 1% are actually closer to the bottom 80% (in income) than they are to the top of the 1%  That’s how steep the curve is.  So we would have to subdivide the top 1% into tenths at least. 

It all sounds very elaborate, but if you presume that there would be no ‘adjustments to income’ or ‘deductions’ because we are being asked to pay our share of taxes based on our share of the income, then all one would need would be W2s and 1099s and other records.  Add them up, plug in the right number that is your position in the national income, and out comes your tax. 

This obviously means we no longer use the tax code to accomplish political purposes, like charitable giving, home ownership, child rearing, and so on.  As a clergyman, homeowner and parent I am a little nervous about this, but the end cost to me will likely be but a little higher than it is now, not vastly.  And it would truly be my share of the common burden. 

With so many feeling so little connection to community and country, one way to remedy that would be to make sure taxes truly exemplify the idea of universal, equitable, responsibility.  If we knew our taxes expected equitable, not equal but equitable, shares from everyone it would be a step, a big one, in the right direction.

So it seems to me. 

09 September 2011

Already Tired…

… of the September 11 coverage that is.  Mostly because all they show is imager of the burning towers, the smoldering pentagon, the collapse, the fire, etc.

This both numbs me and nauseates me.  So I sent the national news networks the following message.  I doubt it will have an effect. 

“Greetings,

Instead of showing footage of burning towers and pentagons over and over, why not show pictures of those who perished? Not only is watching them all the time unnecessary, it sends the implicit message that the attack is more important than those who died in it.

(Rev.) Fred Wooden
Fountain Street Church,
Grand Rapids MI”

Just a thought. 

03 September 2011

Imagine I am Running for Congress - 5

Taxes!

Is there anything that inspires more emotion these days, even more than terrorism. The whole tea party phenomenon is about taxes, as the name Tea Party says. Of course the original Tea Party was not about excessive taxes but unjust taxes, the whole 'no taxation without representation' thing. Which does not mean people like paying taxes, as evasion is as old as taxation itself. I am only saying that the current 'Tea Party' is anti-tax because taxes are the fuel of government, and government is their true adversary.

Fervent anti-taxers like Chief Justice John Marshall's famous observation in 1819 that "the power to tax is the power to destroy," is a touchstone. Those who like the libertarian implications of this notion ought to review the context in which it was said, as it was directed against a state (Maryland) that sought to tax the US Government and thus impede its work. In short, the decision (McCulloch v. Maryland) in which that famous phrase was written actually defends the supremacy of the federal government over the states. Ironic, isn't it?

But in my imaginary campaign the issue of taxes is very real. Who can get elected on a platform of higher taxes and stronger government? Fortunately, this is an imaginary campaign so I can be truly honest. Yes, we need higher taxes and we also need stronger government. Let me tell you why and how.

The debt crisis involved two things - expenditures and revenues. The provisional solution only employed one of them. To pay off the entire debt only by reducing expenditures would require all but closing the government, which in some quarters would prompt thunderous applause, but would in other quarters prompt riots and insurrections. I guarantee that at best it would last only as long as one congress, two years, four years at the most. That's because the costs in human terms would be unbearable to so many that they would choose those who would reverse course. Then the anger would be on the other side, and so it would go.

Sound familiar? We are already there in some ways. So the only path available (aside from suspending democracy entirely in a federal Emergency Financial Manager act that would be essentially a dictatorship) is the 'half a loaf' option. Some expenses get cut. Some taxes get raised. Higher revenues are inevitable. The only question is how much for whom for how long.

I have an answer. And it comes from Adam Smith, the father of free market thinkers. (Surprise!) He wrote:

(Book V. chapter 2) The subjects of every state ought to contribute towards the support of the government, as nearly as possible, in proportion to their respective abilities; that is, in proportion to the revenue which they respectively enjoy under the protection of the state. The expence of government to the individuals of a great nation is like the expence of management to the joint tenants of a great estate, who are all obliged to contribute in proportion to their respective interests in the estate.

Proportionality is a ratio, not a number. the tax we pay should be based on where we stand in relation to others in terms of income and wealth, not merely on how much we have.

But we already do that, you say. To an extent. Progressivity is way we do this, asking from those who have more. BUT IS THE CURRENT PROGRESSIVITY PROPORTIONAL TO WEALTH AND INCOME?

No. At the very highest and lowest levels taxes are way out of proportion, and ironically in the same fashion. Those who have very little pay nothing at all in income taxes, which is unwise, but those who have a very great deal pay far too little in income taxes which is also unwise.

I say, let's create a tax code in which we tax people based on how much they have of the national income they have. According to Wikipedia, which is not authoritative but neither is it ideological,

The aggregate income measures the combined income earned by all persons in a particular income group. In 2007, all households in the United States earned roughly $7.723 trillion. One half, 49.98%, of all income in the US was earned by households with an income over $100,000, the top twenty percent. Over one quarter, 28.5%, of all income was earned by the top 8%, those households earning more than $150,000 a year. The top 3.65%, with incomes over $200,000, earned 17.5%. Households with annual incomes from $50,000 to $75,000, 18.2% of households, earned 16.5% of all income. Households with annual incomes from $50,000 to $95,000, 28.1% of households, earned 28.8% of all income. The bottom 10.3% earned 1.06% of all income.
In other words, we should ask for 50 % of taxes from those who had 50% of the income, meaning those with incomes above $100,000, which is 20% of households. So we should ask 20% to pay 50%, $3.86 trillion, that would be proportional. But the top 20% are more spread out in come than the bottom eighty percent so to be really fair in Smith's sense, we have to further divide that 20%.

The top 8% of earners, those who earned more the $150,000, actually got 28.5% of all income, meaning they earned significantly more than the 12% just below them. Their share should reflect their income which would be $2.20 trillion, well more than half of the $3.85, which would be fair. Within THAT group, those earning $200,000 or more earned 17.5% of the national income, which would make their share (in 2007 dollars) 1.31 trillion.

This sound complicated, but the principal is not. You share of federal taxes is exactly your share of the national income. The more you make the more you pay, not based on marginal tax rates or other arbitrary lines, but on your share of the wealth.

Think about how simple this would be, and how objective. You would pay what you make. I know the devil is in the details, and politicians can make a camel from a mouse with their hands tied behind their backs. But this principle has the appeal of the flat tax in simplicity and the fairness a flat tax lacks.

I have some libertarian readers who doubtless will chime in. Please do. But join me in thinking outside the tax box as it now exists, with its awful choice between fairness and simplicity. And yes, I have not considered Social Security or Medicare, or state levies. This I know. Focus on this for now and tell me what you think. But please think. That, it seems to me is most missing in our politics at the moment.