Who We Pretend To Be

“We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” -Kurt Vonnegut

I’ve liked that quote ever since I heard it. It’s one of the reasons that I don’t often say things I don’t actually believe. I limit that to situations and audiences where the intended satire of my statement is plainly evident.

And I think that this quote becomes especially apt today with the online outrage culture. I had a friend who participated in forums at 4chan. And yes, he participated in the forums with the racism and hate. He said he didn’t actually believe it, that he did it for fun, for the lulz. And I told him that it didn’t matter, because whether he is just doing it to be funny or not the outward appearance is that it is racism and hate, so it is racism and hate. He got angry. That’s why this anecdote begins “I had a friend…”

Anyway, the problem with places like that on the Internet is that it becomes impossible for an outsider to determine which people are just joking and which people are serious. And some of them are very serious. And the people who are joking, whether they intend to or not, are encouraging the very serious people.

There is a channel on YouTube, Innuendo Studios, that puts together some great videos that I think most people should watch. And I’m posting today because, spoiler alert, their latest video uses this quote and is about this subject which I think about often.

If you can spare some time, click around their channel and watch some videos. The Alt-Right Playbook series is especially good.


I once got into an argument with a friend. It pretty much ended our friendship. Well, there was more to it than that, but the argument was indicative of the differences between us that we would never get past. The subject of the fateful disagreement was business.

You see, I maintained that “business” encompassed a level of “lying, cheating, and stealing” that I was uncomfortable with. He was offended by that statement. And as I pulled out example after example of “lying, cheating, and stealing”, he would respond, “That’s just business!” and I would fire back, “That’s my point!” and he’d argue it wasn’t lying or cheating or stealing, and I’d argue it was but he was just comfortable with the accepted level present in most business.

Ultimately, what he didn’t like were the words that I chose to describe the actions. Face it, most of the time marketing IS lying, or at least bending the truth, or hiding it. No company puts out a commercial that says “You don’t need our product, and you probably don’t even want it, but we would appreciate it if you would buy it anyway!” Nope. They are going to show you people having fun using the product and then ask, in some way or another, “Don’t you like fun?”

And as a software developer for a couple decades, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been asked to “steal”. Though, it usually comes out as “Hey, one of our competitors has this thing. Can we do that thing? Can you make it look like their thing? Can it function exactly like their thing?” Not to mention the times someone has asked me to “just pull some images off Google” to put into a product that they are going to charge money for. And all the times dealing with customers when our product was broken, but being told by management to blame other things, like their internet connection, or their web browser, even though I knew full well what the problem was, it was us, and we’d get it fixed as soon as possible, but for liability purposes we had to say “It’s not me, maybe it’s you.”

Anyway, I think back on that argument and it still bothers me. Probably more so now than then. In the intervening years it has gotten worse in a lot of ways. And the current administration’s efforts to repeal protections and roll back regulations doesn’t help. We’ve recently had rashes of incidents where restaurants all over town have posted notices about certain items not being available because of the e.coli outbreak in romaine lettuce, which happened because the regulations regarding testing of waste/irrigation water were rolled back. So some cattle got e.coli, which was in their feces, which got into the water, which wasn’t tested and used to irrigate the lettuce, and we get e.coli contaminated lettuce. Meanwhile, there is a vaccine, which can be administered to the cattle to get the e.coli at the source – but it doesn’t improve the health of the cattle or the quality of the meat they produce, so it’s almost impossible to get the ranchers to spend money on it. And I won’t even get into how the current government shutdown and the FDA curtailing food testing is going to affect things.

And I think about how the media has clear simple examples of our president lying, but they don’t call it lies. They instead say something like “the words contains less than truthful statements” because they are afraid to call the lie a lie. Some outlets are getting better about this, but not enough.

I know some people feel that using such bold, plain language is antagonistic, or rude. But we’ve got a president who literally calls people names on twitter. He’s also a man who has been coddled and surround by yes-men all his life. What he needs – really, what we all need – is bold, plain language.

And Taxes

It is important to remember that one of the greatest periods of American progress occurred under a top income tax bracket of 70% or more.

Many opponents of income tax view any call to return the top bracket to pre-Reagan era levels as theft or “government greed”. But they also ignore one of their own myths: when taxes go down, tax revenue goes up. If that were 100% true, then wouldn’t “government greed” mean lowering taxes to get the revenues up?

But the truth is that that myth was only true for a specific period – the Reagan tax cuts.

See, when the top bracket was being taxed at 70% almost nobody actually PAID 70% in taxes. If they did, it was probably an accounting mistake and they made sure never to do it again. I mean, who in their right mind would want to make so much money just to have 70% of those top gains taken away?

Quick aside: At no time was 70% of a person’s income taken. That isn’t how income tax works in the US. It’s done in brackets, such that the first X1 dollars is taxed at Y1%, and then the money from X1+$1 to X2 dollars is taxes at Y2%, and so on. So the 70% rate only applied to the money above, say, X5+$1. In 1981, the last time we had a 70% bracket, it applied only to income over $108,000 for an individual ($215,000 for married filing together). In today’s money, that’s equivalent to about $299,000 ($594,000 for married), per year.

Here is a document on tax brackets. And here is a calculator to get today’s dollars.

It literally only applied to the highest income earners, and even would today. How many people do you know who make over $299,000 a year? How many families do you know “scraping by” on $594,000 a year?

Now, 70% wasn’t the only high bracket, just the highest. There were other brackets at 50% and other rates, but from here on out we are going to be talking generally about high rates, keeping in mind that today, for 2018, the highest rate is 37% on income over $500,000 for individuals, $600,000 for joint filings (which also means that rich people are more likely to file separately since all the benefits of joint filing – which poorer people and the middle class tend to do – are gone).

So what exactly was the purpose of those higher brackets?

To answer that question, you need to understand what an economy is and what it isn’t. An economy is not money. When the president of the US talks about GDP or GNP or other sums of money as a representation of the health of the economy, he’s wrong. (I mean, Trump is pretty much always wrong, but here he is definitely wrong.) An economy is actually the movement of money. A simple illustration: You having $100 in your hand is not an economy, but you handing $100 of your money over to someone else for a good or service is an economy. It isn’t the money, it’s the exchange of money.

See, you give your $100 to buy… a lawn mower, then you use that mower to mow lawns, for which you are paid money, and then you spend that money to buy gas and food, which keeps you alive and your lawn mower running so you can mow more lawns, and earn more money, and go to the movies, and so on.

An economy is the movement of money… or, more abstractly, value, but we will stick with money.

Back to the brackets. High tax rates create an artificial ceiling to earnings. If you were in 1981 and making $100,000 as a single person, and your boss said “I want to give you a raise to $200,000!” you would be LIVID! And I mean ANGRY! Because your boss was going to give your an extra $100,000 a year, but the government was going to take 70% of it! So instead, your boss, knowing that giving you money wouldn’t work out so well for you, would instead give you access to the company private jet, or the company ski lodge, or the company bungalow in Hawaii, and 2 extra weeks of paid vacation in which to utilize those benefits. Because remember, in 1981 at $100,000 you were probably the CEO or a Vice President of the company. Regular schmoes didn’t make that much in 1981. That’s nearly $300k in 2018 dollars.

Even so, your boss, or the board, or whoever, even after giving you those cool benefits still have all this money they earned because you are an awesome CEO, and they can’t take them as profits either, for the same reason. If they take huge profits, the government is just going to take 70% (or some other rate). And who wants to give government all that “free money”?

So what does the company do with all this cash they don’t want to take as profits? Well, they invest in a pension plan, and healthcare benefits, and a new office building, better wages or bonuses for all the people who aren’t brushing up to that 70% scam tax rate yet. They offer company cars to employees. They start a scholarship program, or donate to build a wing of a local hospital, or back the city orchestra, or a thousand other things. They spend that money back into the economy – and I say spend because even if they choose “donate for a wing at a hospital” that money is going to pay for building supplies and construction workers and keep moving. And the movement of money is the economy.

So what happens without higher tax brackets?

After 1981, the Reagan administration begins scaling back the tax brackets. By 1988 there are just two brackets: 15% and 28% with the dividing line being just under $30,000 (about $69,000 in 2018 dollars). So up to the line you paid 15% and anything over that line you paid 28% on.

The effect that this had on wages is huge. Suddenly, a board wanting to pay their high performing CEO a huge salary isn’t impeded by a high tax rate. You can pay him $500,000 a year. You can pay him $1,000,000 a year. You can pay him $10,000,000 a year. And the government is just going to take their 28%. This brings us back to the myth, that decreasing taxes raises revenue. See, as the tax rates went down, monetary compensation went up, which increase the base from which taxes are drawn. There was no artificial ceiling to wages anymore. So since the wage base grew, tax revenue grew. But here in 2018, when the tax rates are going from 39% to 37%, the US isn’t going to see an increase in tax revenue. It’s probably going to see a 2% drop because compensation isn’t going to increase enough to make back even that lost raw 2%. That ship has sailed. The ceiling is gone.

And with the ceiling gone, it also meant that companies were no longer “encouraged” to spend their potential profits back into the economy. So the pensions went away, and healthcare benefits are slimmer every year, and companies try to cram as many people into as small a space as possible, they pay lower wages, give lower raises, and more, all to maximize profit, which they feel good about taking, because the government isn’t going to get 70% of it. In fact, with a good accountant, most companies will pay the minimum, which is around 20-22%. (Note: lots of rich people are actually “corporations” on paper, so even though the highest tax bracket in 2018 is 39.6%, most wealthy folks pay the 20-22% corporate rates – which is a smaller percentage than most middle class families will pay.)

With more money going to higher compensation for people at the top, it also has a “trickle down” effect of ruining the economy. An economy is the movement of money, and a person who makes 300 times as much as the average worker isn’t also consuming 300 times as much economic value. They don’t eat 300 times as much food (sure, they may eat pricier food, but a $100 steak is not 300 times as much as the $20 steak the average person eats at a restaurant), they don’t buy 300 times as many clothes, or buy 300 times as many cars or own 300 times as many houses. They do consume more individually, but their contribution to the economy as a whole is actually less than if that money were spread out among 300 workers. So a portion of the money they earn is going to leave the economy, to sit in a vault or a bank, or possibly worse, to invest in money markets where money makes money but doesn’t make the same amount of capital investment it could if it were being directly invested into things. I say this is “worse” because it has the effect of allowing the person to feel like they are contributing to the economy without doing so in a real way, so they think they aren’t part of the problem.

Could we return to higher tax brackets?

We probably should. All the math, the research, and the history shows that the economy and the US would likely be better off with higher taxes – not to collect more tax money, but to discourage wealth hoarding. But the political will isn’t there yet.


Have Card, Will Carry

In 2016, like a lot of folks, I didn’t think that clown could win. But he did. Then I desperately hoped that after the election, but before he got sworn in, he would take to the mic and pull off the mask to reveal he’d been Andy Kaufman all along. But he didn’t. And what initially was a comically bad transition team and all the mistakes that only an amateur could make turned slowly (though in some cases rapidly) into a nightmare joke of a presidency, where the man’s word isn’t worth the tweet it’s posted on. Lies and contradictions and bad decisions and disgraceful displays on the national stage. Surely, I thought, the Republican party would rein him in. And maybe they tried. Quietly. Behind closed doors. But publicly no one stood up to him as he trashed all the mores and traditions of the office.

I do think that a democracy only thrives when there is opposition and compromise. But the Republican party has shown that they are no longer interested in compromise, or even democracy. Just opposition, and power, and money. And the current administration… there are plenty of wild conspiracy theories about the Democrats and Hillary Clinton and “the Left”, conspiracies that would put anything about the JFK assassination to shame. There are so many dots to connect and so many of those threads are completely fabricated. There is a lot of “What if…” and not a lot of “Here is a fact…” But the current criminals in power, it’s like someone once told them the best way to hide something was “in plain sight” and so all of their criminal activity doesn’t require conspiracy theories, just connecting two dots with a fact. “Did the Trump campaign meet with Russians?” “Yes, and here are the emails and calendar appointments that prove it, and also the guilty parties just tweeted out that they did it.” “Are people paying for access to Trump?” “Here, you can see the Mar-a-Lago membership rates are at their highest ever even after a large price hike, and Trump spends a lot of time there.”

It’s like if you start reading a murder mystery and the butler just admits right up front that he did it, hands over the murder weapon, and the security camera footage of him doing it. And then the next 200 pages are the butler’s family and friends, and hat wearing supporters, trying to convince the reader that maybe facts aren’t true and maybe the guy wasn’t even murdered at all anyway, or that murder shouldn’t even be a crime when it is committed by butlers.

Two years of this, with no end in sight, has finally turned me into a card carrying member of the DNC. And until the GOP collapses I will continue to be.

Signifying Nothing

This is a rant…

Recently it came to my attention that I was probably paying too much for my car insurance. Not because I saw a Geico commercial or anything, but because I was randomly musing about the fact that we have two cars, one a 1997 Volkswagen Cabrio and the other a 1998 Jeep Cherokee, and they are both (obviously) old, 15 and 14 years old respectively, and that they probably aren’t worth very much, each is worth – in theory – about $2,000 for private sale or maybe $1,500 trade-in value. We currently are sporting a policy with a $1,000 deductible. Given the worth of the cars, any accident which is going to cost more than the deductible to fix is going to be 50% or more of the value of the car, thus the insurance company is likely to just “total” the car and cut us a check instead of paying for repairs. So, it seemed silly to me to pay them what I was paying them for them to not really cover anything.

So, I called them up and cut my insurance payment in half, maintaining the medical coverage and the liability (damage to other people). They were very happy to do it and thanked me for my continued business and all was right with the world. Until…

Money to Burn
Like any average American, I have so much, I can do this. Not.

A couple hours later, I’m sitting there smiling about the money I’m going to be saving when it occurs to me that the value of my cars hasn’t changed much in the last couple of years. They’ve hit a sort of “value plateau” where the fact that they are running in good condition is the bulk of the value. Which means that I’ve been overpaying on my insurance for a couple of years. It’s going to total out to probably around $600 a year that I save, which means I’ve probably paid $1,200 to $1,800 for coverage I didn’t need.

Being a software developer, I know that it would be painfully simple to have a program that compares the coverage on a vehicle to the vehicle’s reported value (using something like the Kelley Blue Book as source) and this would generate a list of people to whom you could contact, by mail or email, and make them happy by offering to adjust their rates.

Of course, I know why they don’t do this. Something like auto insurance is seen by people as being required but interchangeable. They have to have it, and they pay more attention to the ads the companies run than to their actual policies. Most people will go to another company, get a quote and switch insurers before ever considering calling their current insurer to see if they can get a better rate. As such, companies focus more effort on signing new customer than on retaining existing ones.

For a non-insurance example, look at your local cable company. When was the last time they called to say they were running a special for all existing customers? Never, that’s when. The half price deals are for new or returning customers. Or for people who call to cancel. If you don’t leave and don’t complain, they’ll happily charge you twice what they charge new people, returning people, or people who threaten to leave.

Lesson: call your cable company every six months or so and threaten to cancel. Tell them you are switching to satellite, and then accept the new rate they offer to keep you.

You can probably do this with your garbage collection too, if you have to pay for it yourself and there is competition in your area. I’ve had the same company for a couple years, but where I was originally paying $30 a month, I’m down to $10 because they’ll “price match” any competitor’s offer, I just have to prove it’s a real offer. But they know who their competitors are, and they know what they charge. Why aren’t they sending out a letter to all their customers saying, “Hey! In appreciation for using us, we’ve reduced our rates!”

The other main reason they don’t randomly call existing happy customers to offer new lower rates is because those customer are, apparently, happy overpaying. Why would they throw away that money? Sure, being awesome for your customers might breed some loyalty, but loyalty is nothing in the face of cold hard cash.

Where am I going with this?

I have no idea. It all folds into that idea of “enough” I suppose. Some of these companies are making lots of money in profits, and they don’t reinvest that money into making the company better, nor do they reinvest it in reduced prices, they take it out of the system. Maybe they spend it back into the system somewhere else, but not at the rate it would get spent back into the system in the form of a few dollars into the pockets of thousands, tens or hundreds of thousands. Despite what the self proclaimed “job creators” tell you, a person, or small group of people, earning $5 million a month aren’t going to spend $5 million a month, but a million consumers saving $5 each on their bills are incredibly likely to spend that $5.

It just seems logical, for the better health of the entire economy… which is probably why I’ll never run a company or be in politics.

Podcast Playlist

Podcast Logo
Feed me.

It’s been about 9 months since I wrote about radio shows. And things have changed a little since then, so I figured I’d do a round-up and review of the podcasts I’m currently listening to. Here they are, in alphabetical order:

  • Atlanta Radio Theater Company – They do all sorts of stuff, from sci-fi to horror to comedy to … well, pretty much anything. If you pull up their feed, you can listen back to several years worth of recordings, which I have. The current format for the free podcast is monthly, so once you catch up it’s easy to stay current. And if you don’t mind paying for things, you can get a bunch of their full shows at audible. Overall it’s good, though sometimes I feel the live audience detracts from my enjoyment. But for free, I can’t complain.
  • Common Sense – Dan Carlin talks about politics and current events. It’s interesting to see the way he ties topics together, all without sounding like some sort of conspiracy loon. It helps, I suppose, that I tend to agree with his views. A little confirmation bias, but at least I’m aware of it.
  • Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History – Long, sometimes multipart, podcasts about historical topics. Some are better than others, but all of them are interesting in their own way. I wish my history teachers in school had spoken with this much passion for the subject.
  • Decoder Ring Theater – Back in my original post when I was looking for old-time radio style shows, this is what I was looking for. They have two main shows, The Red Panda Adventures and Black Jack Justice, which are a Shadow-style superhero and a pulp noir detective, respectively. They also do other items in their Showcase, and like ARTC they’ve got years of shows in their feed, and I’m still catching up – I’m in June of 2007 with over 100 episodes to go, and loving every one so far.
  • How Did This Get Made? – Listen as a few comedians talk about movies that are so bad that they are awesome, and occasionally movies that are awesome but in ways that defy the Hollywood system yet still got made. I highly recommend the episode on Punisher War Zone as an example of the latter, and they even got the director on as a guest.
  • Making It – Riki Lindhome (of Garfunkel and Oates) talks to people involved with acting and movies about how they got started, the breaks they’ve had, the troubles they’ve run into and more. I’d recommend it to anyone interested in acting as a profession.
  • Penn’s Sunday School – I just started this one, so I don’t have a real opinion on it yet, but since I pretty much love everything that Penn Jillette does I’m sure this won’t be the exception.
  • Radio Free Burrito – Wil Wheaton keeps to no particular schedule and just random puts out collections of stories and bits of music. It isn’t deep, but I enjoy it.
  • The Moth – Podcast version of their True Stories Told Live, it ranges from serious and thought-provoking to silly and thought-provoking. And they are short, so I can listen to one when I run quick errands in the car.
  • The Nerdist – Chris Hardwick, Jonah Ray and Matt Mira talk to people, usually about comedy but really about anything that comes to mind. Personally, I delete all the episodes without a guest because I just don’t find their “hostfull” episodes to be worth the hour.
  • This American Life – A podcast version of the radio show, they pick a topic, interview people and tell stories. It’s more like a news program than anything else I listen to, very highly produced rather than just talking. I think I mostly listen to this because “everybody” listens to it. Half the time I’m barely paying attention. Maybe I should drop it.
  • Thrilling Adventure Hour – Much like the Decoder Ring Theater, this is new stories in the style of old-time radio, though here they do much more comedy. In fact, I don’t think I’ve heard anything that wasn’t comedic. Beyond Belief and Tales from the Black Lagoon are my favorites.
  • We’re Alive – A serial drama set in the zombie apocalypse. This show is right up my ally, and I cannot begin to convey the amount of pure awesome that this show is. Everyone should listen to it. If you are just starting, there are two complete seasons with the third under way.

I’m always open to more, so if you have good ones to suggest, please do so. I might just add it to my trusty Zune.