Monday, April 30, 2012

The Truth on Who Pays Taxes

The most common lament I hear from the Fox-watching conservatives who surround me everywhere I go is that half of the people in the country pay no taxes and that it is unfair of the fifty percent of those who do pay to be forced to support these ‘freeloaders.’  I suppose that is a fair enough concern . . . if it was true.  I decided to do some homework to find the truth of the matter. 
Fact:  Low and moderate-income people pay a much larger share of their incomes in federal payroll taxes than high-income people do.   Taxpayers in the bottom 20 percent of the income scale pay an average of 8.8 percent of their incomes in payroll taxes, compared to 1.6 percent of income for those in the top 1 percent of the income distribution.   Low-income families also pay substantial state and local taxes. Most state and local 
taxes are regressive, meaning that low-income families pay a larger share of their incomes in these taxes than wealthier households do.  Stunningly, the bottom fifth of taxpayers also pay 12.3 percent of their incomes in state and local taxes, well above the 7.9 percent average rate that the top 1 percent of households pay. (Congressional Budget Office, “Average Federal Taxes by Income Group,” June 2010, The oft-quoted fifty percent figure covers  only the federal income tax and ignores the substantial amounts of other federal taxes — especially the payroll tax — that  households pay.  As a result, this figure grossly and unfairly overstates the share of households that do not pay federal taxes.  For example. data show that only about 17 percent of households did not pay any federal income tax or payroll tax in 2009, despite the high unemployment and temporary tax cuts that marked that year. Tax Policy Center, “Tax Units with Zero or Negative Tax Liability, Current Law, 2004-2011 (T11-0173),” June 14, 2011.   When all federal, state, and local taxes are taken into account, the bottom fifth of households pays about 16 percent of their incomes in taxes, on average.  The second-poorest fifth pays about 21 percent.

Fact:  A GAO study found that in every year from 1998 to 2005, 55 percent of large corporations paid no corporate income tax.  2.7 percent of large corporations reported no net tax liability in all eight of those years.  This pattern also applied to small business owners and others who deduct business losses from their taxable incomes and thereby eliminated their income tax liability in some years.

Conclusion:  The notion that “half of Americans don’t pay taxes” not only overstates the share of households that do not pay federal income taxes in a typical year, it also ignores the other taxes people pay, including federal payroll taxes and state and local taxes.  The lowest 20% of Americans pay a greater percentage of their incomes in taxes than the top twenty percent.  Half of large corporations pay no corporate income tax.  Policymakers, pundits, and others conveniently overlook these points.   One has to wonder why?  Just saying . . .

Friday, April 27, 2012

Man Hugger

“Men greet each other with a sock on the arm, women with a hug, and the hug wears better in the long run.”

I heard a great story yesterday, a wonderful story that brought tears to my eyes for its touching simplicity told to me by a good friend during lunch.  This friend, Bill, described a current situation which I know is typical for him in how he lives his life.  In the short time I have known Bill, he has been a shining example to me of how one should go about the business of serving humanity by walking the walk, so to speak, rather than talking the talk.  He has run, for example, huge charitable events generating hundreds of thousands of dollars and given untold hours of his time to help others through church-related activities and serving as a guardian Ad Litem in Manatee county. 

Bill’s brother is dying of cancer of the pancreas.  Bill flew from Florida to visit with his brother in February when he first heard the news.  During that visit, he and his brother had a conversation which I hope I am able to describe in substance if not in exact words.  It went something like this; Bill asked his brother if their parents had ever told him they loved him.  His brother said no.  Bill said that they had never told him that either, then he looked directly into his brother’s eyes and told him he loved him.  He didn’t stop there.   He asked his brother if their parents had ever hugged him.  The brother said no.  Bill said they hadn’t hugged him either, but he wanted to hug his brother right there and then.  His brother mumbled something to the effect that he wasn’t quite ready for that.  It didn’t stop Bill.  He walked over to his brother and gave him a hug, then stepped back and looked into the man’s eyes and told him once again that he loved him.  As I sat there and listened to the story, I thought about how many times in my own life I had just done the man thing, allowing such situations to just slip by avoiding the unease of leaving a comfort zone, letting my brain overrule the feelings in my heart. 

But the story doesn’t end there.  His brother’s daughters have recently joyously told Bill, who is going back to visit with his brother again next week, how their father has become a hugger.  Since Bill’s visit, his brother hugs anyone and everyone who visits him, an epiphany in the life of a dying man.

Thanks Bill.  Hugs to you.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Baseball Heal Thyself

The Detroit Tigers lost a game Sunday afternoon when the Texas Rangers' Alberto Gonzales attempted a bunt with the bases loaded in the eleventh inning. The ball hit his knee and ricocheted onto the playing field. The winning run scored from third base. The umpires missed the call which would have been called a foul ball if it had been seen.  As both an avid golfer and admitted Tigers fan, I think the incident is one that needs to be addressed from the concept of sportsmanship.  Why is Gonzales/s deception by silence considered to be a standard part of the sport of baseball?  His act is deceptive because he knew the ball hit his knee (he admitted it after the game) and, yet, went along with what he clearly knew was a ruling that was both incorrect and allowed the winning run to score.  If an equivalent situation occurred in golf (e.g. a double hit on a shot coming out of a bunker, a fairly common event for some of us) the golfer is expected to acknowledge the double hit and penalize himself/herself.  In other words, the failure to declare such an incident by a golfer is considered cheating.   A baseball athlete who just keeps his mouth shut about a situation known to be clearly wrong is cheating and creates a horrible example.  It teaches kids a terrible life lesson.  This attitude has permeated both baseball  and American culture and allows one to understand why the use of steroids was ignored for so long.  Baseball heal thyself.  Just saying . . .

Saturday, April 21, 2012

A Reader's Lament:  I am doing something with my blog this morning that I have never done before.  I am taking the liberty of enclosing in its entirety an article that appears in today's New York Times which aptly describes the beauty of school children reading simply for reading's sake, rather than to satisfy the current national goal of passing some exam that is supposed to tell authorities who is teaching best, or not at all.  One of my goals as a grandfather to eight terrific kids has been to encourage reading.   In the past several years, our traditional trips to Barnes and Noble where each of them was encouraged to pick out a book or two of their own choosing has been gradually replaced by providing Kindles and the resources necessary to stock these devices with their respective choices.  In truth, the scope and dimensions of their individual choices astound me as does the impact of the efforts described in the Times article.
Teach the Books, Touch the Heart
FRANZ KAFKA wrote that “a book must be the ax for the frozen sea inside us.” I once shared this quotation with a class of seventh graders, and it didn’t seem to require any explanation.  We’d just finished John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men.” When we read the end together out loud in class, my toughest boy, a star basketball player, wept a little, and so did I. “Are you crying?” one girl asked, as she crept out of her chair to get a closer look. “I am,” I told her, “and the funny thing is I’ve read it many times.” But they understood. When George shoots Lennie, the tragedy is that we realize it was always going to happen. In my 14 years of teaching in a New York City public middle school, I’ve taught kids with incarcerated parents, abusive parents, neglectful parents; kids who are parents themselves; kids who are homeless or who live in crowded apartments in violent neighborhoods; kids who grew up in developing countries. They understand, more than I ever will, the novel’s terrible logic — the giving way of dreams to fate.  For the last seven years, I have worked as a reading enrichment teacher, reading classic works of literature with small groups of students from grades six to eight. I originally proposed this idea to my principal after learning that a former stellar student of mine had transferred out of a selective high school — one that often attracts the literary-minded offspring of Manhattan’s elite — into a less competitive setting. The daughter of immigrants, with a father in jail, she perhaps felt uncomfortable with her new classmates. I thought additional “cultural capital” could help students like her fare better in high school, where they would inevitably encounter, perhaps for the first time, peers who came from homes lined with bookshelves, whose parents had earned not G.E.D.’s but Ph.D.’s.  Along with “Of Mice and Men,” my groups read: “Sounder,” “The Red Pony,” “A Raisin in the Sun,” “Lord of the Flies,” “The Catcher in the Rye,” “Romeo and Juliet” and “Macbeth.” The students didn’t always read from the expected perspective. Holden Caulfield was a punk, unfairly dismissive of parents who had given him every advantage. About “The Red Pony,” one student said, “it’s about being a dude, it’s about dudeness.” I had never before seen the parallels between Scarface and Macbeth, nor had I heard Lady Macbeth’s soliloquies read as raps, but both made sense; the interpretations were playful, but serious. Once introduced to Steinbeck’s writing, one boy went on to read “The Grapes of Wrath” and told me repeatedly how amazing it was that “all these people hate each other, and they’re all white.” His historical perspective was broadening, his sense of his own country deepening. Year after year, ex-students visited and told me how prepared they had felt in their freshman year as a result of the classes.  And yet I do not know how to measure those results. As student test scores have become the dominant means of evaluating schools, I have been asked to calculate my reading enrichment program’s impact on those scores. I found that some students made gains of over 100 points on the statewide English Language Arts test, while other students in the same group had flat or negative results. In other words, my students’ test scores did not reliably indicate that reading classic literature added value.   Until recently, given the students’ enthusiasm for the reading groups, I was able to play down that data. But last year, for the first time since I can remember, our test scores declined in relation to comparable schools in the city. Because I play a leadership role in the English department, I felt increased pressure to bring this year’s scores up. All the teachers are increasing their number of test-preparation sessions and practice tests, so I have done the same, cutting two of my three classic book groups and replacing them with a test-preparation tutorial program. Only the highest-performing eighth graders were able to keep taking the reading classes.  Since beginning this new program in September, I have answered over 600 multiple-choice questions. In doing so, I encountered exactly one piece of literature: Frost’s “Road Not Taken.” The rest of the reading-comprehension materials included passages from watered-down news articles or biographies, bastardized novels, memos or brochures — passages chosen not for emotional punch but for textual complexity.  I MAY not be able to prove that my literature class makes a difference in my students’ test results, but there is a positive correlation between how much time students spend reading and higher scores. The problem is that low-income students, who begin school with a less-developed vocabulary and are less able to comprehend complex sentences than their more privileged peers, are also less likely to read at home. Many will read only during class time, with a teacher supporting their effort. But those are the same students who are more likely to lose out on literary reading in class in favor of extra test prep. By “using data to inform instruction,” as the Department of Education insists we do, we are sorting lower-achieving students into classes that provide less cultural capital than their already more successful peers receive in their more literary classes and depriving students who viscerally understand the violence and despair in Steinbeck’s novels of the opportunity to read them.   It is ironic, then, that English Language Arts exams are designed for “cultural neutrality.” This is supposed to give students a level playing field on the exams, but what it does is bleed our English classes dry. We are trying to teach students to read increasingly complex texts, but they are complex only on the sentence level — not because the ideas they present are complex, not because they are symbolic, allusive or ambiguous. These are literary qualities, and they are more or less absent from testing materials.   Of course no teacher disputes the necessity of being able to read for information. But if literature has no place in these tests, and if preparation for the tests becomes the sole goal of education, then the reading of literature will go out of fashion in our schools. I don’t have any illusions that adding literary passages to multiple-choice tests would instill a love of reading among students by itself. But it would keep those books on the syllabus, in the classrooms and in the hands of young readers — which is what really matters.  Better yet, we should abandon altogether the multiple-choice tests, which are in vogue not because they are an effective tool for judging teachers or students but because they are an efficient means of producing data. Instead, we should move toward extensive written exams, in which students could grapple with literary passages and books they have read in class, along with assessments of students’ reports and projects from throughout the year. This kind of system would be less objective and probably more time-consuming for administrators, but it would also free teachers from endless test preparation and let students focus on real learning.  We cannot enrich the minds of our students by testing them on texts that purposely ignore their hearts. By doing so, we are withholding from our neediest students any reason to read at all. We are teaching them that words do not dazzle but confound. We may succeed in raising test scores by relying on these methods, but we will fail to teach them that reading can be transformative and that it belongs to them.                                                                                   An English teacher at a public middle school in Manhattan.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Squeeze Play

Squeeze Play

I love baseball, our national pastime.   One of the most exciting parts of the games is the squeeze play where a runner on third base dashes to home while the batter places (or attempts to place) a bunt that requires a perfect fielder’s response to prevent a run from scoring.   Good stuff.  What I write about today is a not-so-nice squeeze play by the powers of big money and governments.  We have been treated the past couple of weeks to the exposure if the activities of a massively-funded right wing organization known as ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council).  ALEC introduces state legislators to already-written proposed statutes or laws which then require only that the legislators introduce the bill into Republican-dominated legislatures where they are quickly voted into law and, equally as quickly, signed by a Republican governor.  An example of the working results of ALEC would be the ‘stand your ground’ statute causing so much uproar in Florida and mimicked by no fewer than eighteen other states.  

With that brief introduction as background, I call your attention to Alabama which I view as the runner on third base in the squeeze play under consideration.   ALEC has written an anti-immigration law that is intended to serve as the model for the country.  That law passed but various court proceedings have limited some of the more onerous portions of the statute.  The Alabama legislature went back to work and re-crafted the statute ALEC-style.  As reported in the NYTimes  “The changes under the new measure will do little to end the abuses and inconveniences created by the law. Companies, for example, won’t automatically lose their licenses if they knowingly hire unauthorized workers. Instead, penalties would be left up to a judge. Landlords won’t be arrested for renting to undocumented immigrants, but churches and humanitarian groups still risk prosecution for harboring or transporting them. The police would be allowed to check drivers’ papers only after ticketing or arresting them, not after any stop. But officers would also be able to detain anyone else in the car, a blatantly unconstitutional overreach.”  

The batter laying down the bunt is the Supreme Court with its recent decision allowing strip searches for anyone arrested.  Hispanic residents, legal or not, are caught in the middle of this squeeze play (okay, the analogy is not perfect) and it doesn’t take much imagination to envision the humiliation and degradation that is soon to follow as Alabama police go about their daily business.  Citizens will be arrested for a minor traffic violation and all of the occupants of a vehicle can be taken to the local police station where they can be forced to strip and display their various body cavities, all with the ordained approval of the highest court in our land.  

Welcome to America Alabama-style.  Just saying . . .

Monday, April 9, 2012

Early Monday Morning Thoughts

Just sitting here at my desk early on a Monday morning I am thinking about friends. Without exhausting either my short or long-term memory banks and using my fingers and toes, I can count no fewer than fourteen of my friends who live day-to-day on narcotics supplied by their doctors in an entirely legal manner. I have undergone two surgeries in the past six years after which both of my surgeons, without prompting, wrote prescriptions for me for substantial amounts of narcotic pain-killers which included several refills. Sales of narcotic painkillers reached $8.5 billion last year, compared with $4.4 billion in 2001, according to the consulting firm IMS Health.

The New York times reports this morning that “a conscience-provoking article by Dr. Howard Brody, director of an institute that explores ethical issues in health care, published in The New England Journal of Medicine in early 2010. Dr. Brody criticized the performance of medical groups during the health care debates, saying they were too concerned about protecting doctors’ incomes while refusing to contemplate measures (beyond malpractice reform) to reduce health care costs. He urged each specialty society, using rigorous scientific approaches, to develop “top five” lists of tests and treatments whose elimination for major categories of patients would save the most money quickly “without depriving any patient of meaningful medical benefit.” As a result of this challenge by Dr. Brody, nine major physicians’ groups have identified 45 tests and procedures (five for each specialty) that are commonly used but have no proven benefit for many patients and sometimes cause more harm than good.”

Given the rampant legal use of narcotics in our society, one would naturally assume somewhere among these 45 tests a recommendation to limit the use of addicting opioids would be found. The staggering sales of narcotic pain killers suggest common use well beyond temporary suppression of post-operative pain. This class of medications includes many painkillers that are more commonly known as narcotics, such as morphine. Opioid medications attach to receptors found in the brain, gastrointestinal tract, and spinal cord, altering the body’s perception of pain. They may also cause sedation, euphoria, and respiratory suppression. The potential for dependence. is a major concern in the use of these drugs, and the illegal use of these drugs constitutes a huge public health problem and over-burdens our criminal justice system as well.

However, despite my assumptions, narcotic painkillers are mentioned only once among the 45 recommendations made by these various groups and, in my view, a manner that makes it more likely that legal narcotics will continue to be abused. The nephrology group, in fact, recommends the “short-term use of narcotic analgesics [which] may be safer than and as effective as NSAIDs.” NSAIDs include aspirin and ibuprofen, over-the-counter drugs which currently are used safely by millions upon millions of Americans.

Just for sake of comparison, in our deficit-concerned society, all of us taxpayers would heartily welcome a reduced expenditure that would save $4.1 billions dollars a year. Reducing the use of narcotic pain killers to 2001 levels would exactly do that. Just saying. . .