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Your Tax Dollars

Your Tax Dollars

One of the crux differences between the left and the right is how our taxes are spent. The left believes taxes should not only be used for the needs of government – defense, statecraft, infrastructure and so on but also for social programs as well. The right believes that taxes should be as small as possible and pay for the bare minimum to keep the United States strong and prosperous. Social programs should be left to charities.

Often when I get into discussions with my friends on the right about things like Obamacare, food stamps and welfare, eventually they will inevitably say something along the lines of “not with my tax dollars.” All right, then. That leaves the question; what should we spend our tax dollars on?

Of course, there are those who say we should not pay taxes at all but that simply isn’t realistic. It takes money to pay for necessities, such as embassies and ambassadors, for the military and their equipment, and simply for making sure things run properly, or at least relatively properly. So let’s assume for the moment that we all want a military protecting us, diplomats negotiating trade agreements for us, roads to drive on from place to place and air and rail traffic transporting people and goods across the country.

For my part, I’d like to see my tax dollars spent on free healthcare for all. I’d like a European-style health care system that treats everyone regardless of their economic status. I’d love to cut out the insurance middlemen who serve no function at all except to make money for themselves. I’d like to see a healthier population, one who visit doctors instead of Emergency Rooms for basic care. I don’t want to see people dying because they couldn’t afford treatment. There is something so basically, disturbingly wrong with that last that it can’t even be expressed.

I’d like to see my tax dollars spent on eradicating hunger, particularly among children. No child should have to go to bed hungry. No parent should have to hear their children cry themselves to sleep because they haven’t eaten anything all day. No retiree should have to face a choice between paying for their medication and their food. This is a land of plenty; why shouldn’t everyone benefit from it?

I’d like to see my tax dollars spent on educating the young. Our future depends on having our next generations prepared to compete globally. Our children should be learning to think innovatively, to be inspired to learn particularly in science and mathematics. Our children should aspire to create things that will make the world a better place. We need to improve our schools and their facilities. Our teachers shouldn’t have to be paying for school supplies out of their own pockets. They should be compensated for the additional time they put in. They should also be held accountable for their performances as our students should be held accountable for theirs. We need to market education as a means out of poverty, a means to elevate not just individuals but entire communities. We need to involve parents directly in the education process but not just parents; the entire community. Businesses should be made to understand that they’ll only benefit from having a superior education system in their communities as it will turn out superior employees for them further on down the line.

I’d like to see my tax dollars spent on space exploration. As Robert A. Heinlein once said, the Earth is far too fragile a basket to put all our eggs into, especially when you consider what we’re doing to despoil it. We should be exploring the local solar system and sending probes into the furthest reaches of space as we’re doing but we should be doing more of it. The technologies that have developed from the space program have fueled our economy for the past half a century; imagine what we come up with in the next fifty years.

I’d like to see my tax dollars spent on rebuilding the infrastructure. I want to see good-paying jobs created to repair bridges and highways as well as constructing new ones. I want to see AMTRAK converted to a high-speed rail system that links the entire continent. And while we’re talking about jobs, I want to put some of my tax dollars in re-training the work force so that they are more computer savvy and able to do the jobs that are in demand. Those who have the abilities and the desire to change their lives should be given those opportunities, even the education to go into much-needed fields like engineering and medicine. I’d also like to see my tax dollars spent on helping students get college loans at reasonable rates that won’t put them into enormous debt before they’ve graduated that will take them decades to repay.

My tax dollars should go to a more sane military spending program. We are spending money on tanks and battleships we don’t need. I’d rather see that tax money go to the Veterans Administration that takes care of our soldiers, sailors and airmen after they’ve defended this country. I want our veterans to have the best medical facilities administrating the best care possible; I want them to have college programs to help them re-start their lives and give them a chance to prosper after their time in the military has ended. I want my tax dollars to go to the actual people putting their lives on the line for our country, not to the makers of helicopters and tanks who have oversold their products to our military and now want to keep their factories running even though their products aren’t needed anymore. The dynamics of the marketplace should apply to them too.

In short, I don’t mind paying for things that benefit people that actually need them. I have an issue with paying taxes that support people who are already rich by making them richer, by giving corporations making record profits tax incentives and loopholes to the point where they’re getting refunds while the deficit continues to be an issue. I want my tax dollars to mean something besides a dollar sign. How about you? How do you want to spend your tax dollars?

Cruise Control

I do get it. Honestly, I do. I understand why people are so apathetic about what’s going on around them. We are under assault from every direction; from employers who marginalize their workforce and send jobs overseas, or eliminate them altogether for the sake of the bottom line to bankers who want every penny we own and will find ways of taking them from us, using credit cards and mortgages as tools.

Life is indeed a bitch, and getting bitchier by the day. What news we get is usually bad as unemployment rises, war rages and murder and mayhem rule the streets. Even our kids are not only targets of predators they’ve become predators themselves, shooting up their schools or beating up and bullying their classmates.

It’s easy to put yourself on cruise control and find ways to numb yourself out. You don’t have to think about the unpleasant things that way. Watching TV, surfing the Internet, playing games on Wii, texting your friends…these things are nice and certainly necessary to keeping our sanity but in the end they are distractions which is what they were meant to be all along.

The Romans provided their citizens with bread and circuses to keep the mob happy and docile; without those distractions they might have realized that their government was totally corrupt and the divide between the haves and have-nots was widening and the haves were few in number. Hmmm, does that sound familiar?

Governments live in perpetual fear that their citizens will find out what they’re up to and get REALLY steamed. Nearly every civilized country as had some kind of uprising in which the sitting government was overthrown by an angry mob, often with the most egregious and visible members of the government being shortened by a head as a result.

Revolutions are a lot harder to undertake these days, with electronic surveillance, satellite imaging and the ability for law enforcement to essentially suspend the constitution by naming anyone who disagrees with government policy a terrorist (not that it’s happened here, but the potential is there). However, a revolution even in an industrialized country isn’t beyond the realm of possibility if the citizens got angry enough and if the armed forces that are mostly made up of the working class chose to support them. The sheer numbers are not in favor of the very rich and powerful.

What is in favor of the rich and powerful are a couple of things – fear and apathy. People are scared to lose what they have, as little as it may be. However, apathy can be far more powerful; allow people a certain amount of comforts and they’re pretty much satisfied as long as the Internet is up and the TV still works. If the media makes the issues of the day so confusing and difficult to keep tabs on, so much the better; people will tend to ignore things that they don’t understand.

In general, the average citizen of most countries is woefully ignorant of current events. I would be surprised if one person in ten could name their local, state and federal representatives. Fewer still are aware of the voting records of those representatives. Chances are once an election with all its soundbite rhetoric is over most people become blissfully unaware of what their elected officials are doing, or the ramifications of their actions. We only hear the big button-pushing phrases; “raise taxes,” “abortion,” “gay marriage” and whatever else is making the rounds on the talk shows. What our officials actually do about even these issues generally passes unnoticed. However, people are generally very aware when a congressman, MP or representative gets caught with their hand (or penis) in the cookie jar. People are even more aware when an actor, pop star or celebrity gets into trouble. Murder cases and sex scandals also grab our attention.

The news media plays into that. The old “if it bleeds, it leads” adage was never more true than it is today. The media has always had a vested interest in selling advertising, but the bottom line is way more important now. Newspapers and broadcast stations are owned by large corporations now rather than men like William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer. Their allegiance is more to the bottom line than it is to keeping the public informed. The days of the media acting as a watchdog are essentially over; that function has been taken over by Internet blogs and political sites.

It’s not impossible to stay informed and there are plenty of places to find out what’s happening in the world on the Internet. The trouble with that is that a very high percentage of the information on the Internet is bogus; while there are libel laws that can be enforced, quite frankly there is literally no way to police the truth about what is published here. Internet journalism isn’t held to the same standards that print and broadcast journalism is held to; bloggers and internet journalists will report rumor and/or opinion as fact. That’s why you’ll hear people spouting the most ridiculous drivel and cry “I read it on the Internet.” Even respected news agencies have picked up information from the Internet that turned out to be without basis.

So take things you read on the Internet with a grain of salt. Most of what you read is either opinion (as it is on this blog) or blathering (which it often is on this blog) or simply someone with an agenda who will say anything to promote it, even if it’s something patently false (not on this blog).

So we operate on cruise control, staring straight ahead while things go on to either side of us and behind us that affect our daily lives but that we are completely unaware of. The mechanisms that caused this economic downturn were painfully evident; industry watchdogs were predicting disaster and chaos years before the meltdown occurred but nobody listened because it was easier not to. Anything having to do with finance is confusing and boring; it’s much easier to watch the latest episode of “The Office” than to watch the news. People are far more aware of what Dwight Schrute is up to than what their political representatives are doing.

I do understand why this is. Believe me, I spend a lot of time doing the same sorts of things and until recently I was just as ignorant about my representatives as everyone else is. However, as things began to fall apart, I began to take an interest. Why weren’t politicians protecting their constituents? Why were things allowed to get so far? Why are our tax dollars being spent to bail out corporations who then give that money to their executives as bonuses? Why are my taxes so high? Why are services being cut back? Why do I know more about the sex life of our politicians than their voting record?

All legitimate questions that I’m still trying to answer. However, taking an interest can be very draining and very frustrating. It takes a lot of time and energy to stay informed; after working hard all day, the last thing I want to do is work more simply to find information about what my congressman is up to. A lot of times, I just retire to my movie websites or turn on the boob tube. It’s so much easier on the psyche.

The problem with cruise control is that sooner or later you run into a traffic jam and then you need to hit the brakes. If you aren’t paying attention, you’re going to crash into something. I’m not advocating that you give up blowing off steam entirely – we’ll have a nation of stressed out zombies having coronaries and aneurisms left and right that way. I’m just saying that rather than spending all your free time doing it that you spend at least a small percentage – say, 10% – keeping track of what your elected officials are up to. We can’t count on the media to keep an eye on them any longer, so we’ll have to do it ourselves.

For my part, I much prefer flirting to fact-finding but both have to get done. The greedy and the power-hungry want us to be uninformed. That way they can continue to erode the constitution and abridge our freedoms. Information is power and the more we have of one, the more we get of the other. It is in our own best self-interest to keep an eye on things and at least have some idea of what’s happening in the world around us, even if it is boring and confusing. That’s the only way we’re going to retain the things we have – and the freedoms we cherish.

Bits and Pieces 2

This week, in honor of Larry King’s announced retirement I thought I’d do a different kind of blog; rather than a single topic, just a collection of random thoughts, observations and complaints. Okay, mostly complaints.

Is it just me or do the cars with the loudest engine noises tend to have the worst drivers? Is there some kind of relationship between mufflers and driving skills? Or is it just that people who can be counted upon to make bad decisions behind the wheel are required to announce their presence to the world by gunning their engines? Personally, I think that if a driver gets enough traffic tickets, their cars should be outfitted with a special light or buzzer that informs the rest of us that a bad driver is approaching so we can take the proper precautions.

While we’re on the subject of driving, what is the deal with rap music? I get that those who are really into the music love to “feel” the bass line but I personally get tired of sitting at a red light minding my own business listening to my own music suddenly having it drowned out by some a-hole who pulls up to the light in a Z28 or some other crap car with rap blaring from speakers that are probably more expensive than the vehicle they’re driving. I think it should be legal to take a baseball bat to their speaker system and to the driver as well. Of course, that’s a bit extreme I know; perhaps it would be more humane to weld headphones to their ears that play a constant stream of Henry Mancini and Perry Como so that they can get an idea of what it’s like to be forced to listen to music you can’t stand.

I love stand-up comedy. I honestly do. I’m not so fond of going to stand-up shows. Not because of the comics – they’re doing what they do best. It’s because of the idiots who go to the shows and think they’re as funny as the guys and gals onstage. Newsflash – you’re not. Shut the hell up. And while you’re at it, don’t try to be funny after the show either; you got no game. To the rest of you, you’re welcome.

So now they’re making 3D televisions, and apparently this is the next serious thing in home entertainment. Having a plain old television isn’t enough anymore; first you had to have HD because apparently the difference in clarity was sooooooooo pronounced – NOT! Then we had to get Blu-Ray instead of DVD because the picture and sound are sooooooooo much better. Now, we have to have 3D because that makes the experience so much more realistic. Does anybody really need to see “Two and a Half Men” in 3D? I mean, I like Jon Cryer and Charlie Sheen as much as the next guy, but do I really need a third dimension to really appreciate them? Two dimensions aren’t enough for us anymore?

I used to think Roger Ebert was a bit of a curmudgeon because he constantly railed that 3D is unnecessary in films and even though the technology is better, it remains more of a gimmick than an intrinsic part of the storytelling process. I have repented, however, and publically apologize for doubting you Roger. I should have trusted you. We have become such sheep that we will pay an extra $3-$6 per ticket in order to add that lovely third dimension that in most cases don’t do anything for the story or the experience. The studios and the theater owners rake in the cash and we fork it over without a word. I wonder sometimes if some alien farmer showed up to harvest us for food in some sort of “Twilight Zone” alternative reality if we wouldn’t just meekly walk into the slaughter house because we were told to do it. I know theater owners wring their hands and complain about the cost of updating their facilities with digital projection equipment and the 3D equipment, and the cost of purchasing those lovely, stylish 3D glasses which after paying extra to see the movie we don’t even get to keep. Baaaaa.

It’s not just the theater owners and studios who are doing this to us. Have you noticed we’re being nickeled and dimed on every little thing these days? Everything we do, we get charged for the privilege of doing it. We purchase airline tickets for ourselves and now, we have to purchase them for our bags as well. If you want to use your credit card or debit card to pay for gasoline, why that’s two to five cents per gallon extra because, after all, taking your money costs. The list goes on and on.

 I blame this way of thinking on banks. For years, the banks have charged us for every little thing we do. Want to withdraw your money? There’s a fee. Want to transfer your money to another account? There’s a fee. Want to purchase money orders with your cash? There’s a fee. Want to convert your money into a different currency? There’s a fee. Want to pay your mortgage early? There’s a fee. Want to pay it late? There’s a fee. Want your transaction to be handled by a teller? There’s a fee. Want to do your transaction at an ATM? There’s a fee. Want to do it over the phone? Fee. Want to do it over the internet? Fee. Want to think about your money? Fee. Fee. Fee. Fee. Fee.

It’s time to take back our lives. I have a modest proposal and President Obama; I’m talkin’ to you now. Let us enact a new Consumer Reciprocation law. Basically my idea is along the lines of what’s good for the goose is good for the gander; any policy enacted by a retail institution, financial institution or any sort of business that interacts with a consumer must also be reciprocal. If a bank charges a consumer fees for them to withdraw their cash, the consumer should be able to charge the bank for holding it, and I’m not talking about interest. If a doctor charges a patient a cancellation fee for changing an appointment, the patient should be able to charge the doctor if that doctor keeps them waiting more than half an hour for their appointment. If an airline charges a passenger a fee for their bags, that passenger should be able to charge the airline a fee for misplacing that bag. It seems only fair.

Any business that charges a late fee for payments should then be charged a late fee when they don’t process refunds in a timely manner. Don’t you get tired of doing business with companies that charge you late fees if your payment is a week late, but then tell you that the refund they owe you will take six to eight weeks to process? Me, I think businesses should be held accountable to the same standards they hold their customers to.

The same thing applies to governments. If I have to jump through hoops to get a permit to open a business or remodel my home, then the government should have to jump through hoops to get my tax money. You want my taxes? I’m sorry, you’ll need to fill out Form 854-A in triplicate, then send it to my business office. After that, there will be a 30 day waiting period while I do absolutely nothing, after which time I will deny your request out of hand. At that point, to appeal you’ll have to fill out forms 631-ZZZ, 282-4/Y, 4,802,396-QZR and form 65,266,945,782,389,631,442-XFVR/Y-@91!3 in blood on a Tuesday and submit them while standing on one leg in the front of my home so I can laugh at them, at which point I’ll set it aside for three years until suddenly sending them their check without explanation.

Finally, on a more serious note, what is all the big deal about gay marriage? Why are so many people so passionately against it? The most common explanation I hear on the subject is that a marriage exists as a commitment between two people whose goal is to raise a family. Now, I don’t have a problem with that if there’s a standardized definition of a marriage as an institution whose purpose is to nurture children and create a home. However, there are a lot of gay couples who want to do just that. There are also plenty of heterosexual couples who don’t want children at all.

So if we define marriage strictly as a means of creating and raising children, should couples who choose a lifestyle that doesn’t involve children be allowed to marry and receive the same tax benefits as those who choose to have a family? And then shouldn’t same sex couples who meet the same criteria of a heterosexual marriage reap the same benefits?

It boils down to prejudice, folks, plain and simple. The people who say that gays are second class citizens and shouldn’t be afforded the rights that straight people get are the same sorts who thought that African-Americans shouldn’t get to vote or attend the same schools as white people. Denying same sex marriage is tantamount to the state telling an individual who they are allowed to love, who they are allowed to make decisions for them when they are incapacitated and who is allowed to inherit their estate when they die. It’s unconstitutional, plain and simple and for those who believe same sex marriages should be disallowed on moral grounds, for one thing I’ve known same-sex couples who have FAR more morality than a lot of heterosexual couples and secondly, the last I heard there was a separation between church and state in this country so check your goddamn religious beliefs at the door of the state house.

It’s also hypocritical to my mind for someone who follows Christian philosophy that at its core teaches us to love one another to spew such hatred and venom to people who only want to love who they want to love. Sure, I get irritated when I see a raging queen on a TV reality show acting catty – for one thing, I hate perpetuating stereotypes but also I find that behavior in straight women just as irritating as in gay men – but by the same token I get far more irritated when I see a self-righteous jerk telling me that the raging queen is a lesser person because he doesn’t conform to Christian religious morality.

Screw that – I believe that we show compassion to EVERYBODY regardless of their beliefs or their lifestyle. That’s what Catholic education taught me, that we are all of us God’s children, owed the same respect as we would want to be treated with ourselves. If a right doesn’t extend to everybody, it is meaningless. It is time we give up our prejudices, lift our ape knuckles from dragging on the ground and evolve.

Bread and Circuses

As a species, humans tend to be easily distracted. This isn’t a new fact; even the ancient Romans knew that if you gave the people bread and circuses, they would pretty much be satisfied with anything, no matter how despotic.

We are in much the same boat today my friends, except we’re getting Big Macs and digital entertainment. Our lives have been made so easy with gadgets and devices mean to give us instant gratification that we have become complacent and lazy. In the meantime, we have abrogated our rights to special interests, corporate lobbyists and other unscrupulous sorts.

From time to time we’re aroused from our stupor, particularly when our pocketbooks are impacted. Taxes go up? We take notice. The economy takes a header? We demand change. Yet we sit idly by while the financial institutions that we entrust our money to act irresponsibly in the name of chasing profits, while our climate is done irreparable harm and while our rights are eroded with legislation that on the surface is meant to “protect us.”

Most of us probably couldn’t name our congresspersons or local representatives. Only a very few of us are probably more than peripherally aware of their voting records. Fewer still are aware of any legislation out there other than the most controversial bills. A surprising number of the people who live in the United States are more than generally aware of how their government works.

It’s understandable why we got to the place we are. We have to work harder and harder to make ends meet; it takes energy and commitment to keep up with politics and the things that affect us. Energy and commitment are largely limited to young people, which is why the vast majority of political activists are under 40. After all, you can’t feed your family on a volunteer’s salary.

At one time, the newspapers (and to a certain extent radio, newsreels and television) were watchdogs on Washington and our local state capitals (and Ottawa and our local provincial capitals – insert your nation here). As the media has largely become corporate-owned, the media began to swing more in the direction of protecting corporate interests. Today it’s very rare for the mainstream media to do any investigation into things that don’t sell advertising.

The Internet is, in many ways, the last great hope for keeping the citizenry informed but unfortunately it has devolved into something of a shouting match where people on both sides of the aisle promulgate dubious facts which eventually begin getting circulation as gospel truth. How many people actually believed that Obama’s Health Care Reform would include death panels whose only job was to weed out the elderly?

Our political knowledge tends to be informed by 60-second soundbites we see on CNN or in political ads. Conservatives worship at the altar of Sarah Palin and her teabagging cronies; Liberals get their marching orders from Jon Stewart and Bill Maher. It’s like nobody has a mind of their own anymore.

And yet we all have our own causes. Some of us are passionate about animal cruelty; others are pro-life to the core. Some people are big supporters of gay marriage while others think that our borders should be protected more vigorously. Left, right and center, we all have opinions on things that matter to us.

We rarely do anything about them however, beyond voting on bills that support or threaten those causes near and dear to us and even that only when we feel motivated to. Until 2008, more people voted for the American Idol than for the American President in any given election year. Somewhere along the line, our priorities went haywire.

That’s because it’s far easier on our psyches to spend our energy on things that don’t require much thought. Thinking is really hard work. It’s much easier to navigate the headwaters of celebrity gossip rather than the often conflicting arguments behind financial reform. It’s easier to have our opinions handed to us rather than to formulate one of our own; if your family has always voted for one political party, you’re going to tend to believe in the precepts that party espouses.

I was like that too. My father was a staunch Republican and so was I, for quite awhile. However, there was always a niggling feeling in the back of my mind that I was fighting for the wrong team, and after my father passed away I did some soul searching and figured out that what I really felt strongly about were of a more liberal nature than the Republicans believed in. For the longest time, my political philosophy had been not to argue with my Dad, which was a shocker to someone who had always thought of himself as relatively intelligent. Like most human beings, I was prone to dancing to the tune that was being played for me.

At one point, it became obvious that following the herd was not as preferable as following my heart, so I broke with my dad’s beliefs and followed my own. We all do that to a certain extent – how many times have you said to yourself “I am not my parents”? – But we usually do that when we’re young. It’s much harder as we get older to change our way of thinking, particularly if it’s the way we’ve done things since we were young. Once you’re comfortable in your own skin, changing it is a tall order.

But you can teach an old dog new tricks, contrary to belief. Change is a matter of will, and we all have at least a dollop of willpower. It comes down to how badly we want things to change, and how willing we are to make that change happen, for change often involves sacrifice.

Sacrifice is sorely missing from our lives, the willingness to give up something we want for the betterment of others. My parent’s generation had it. My grandparent’s generation had it. Even the Flower Power generation had it. Somewhere between Woodstock and Live-Aid we lost that crucial element of our make-up. We’re far too busy texting and playing Mafia Wars on Facebook to take a look at the things that truly affect our lives. We act as if we’re living in a hotel, and whatever mess we make will be cleaned up by the housekeeping service.

Except it is our children who will have to be housekeepers and the mess we’re making may soon become too much for anyone to clean up. We have a responsibility to our kids – even if we don’t have any yet – to be caretakers for our planet and our society. I’m very anxious that the freedoms that I have always taken for granted be passed on to my son and his children someday; there’s a very real possibility that he won’t have the same rights and privileges that his mom and I have now.

We have to get off of the couch and switch off the television. We need to step away from the laptop and turn off our cell phones. We need to open our eyes and look around us. We have been seduced by bread and circuses. The trouble with that is that it only worked for a short while in Rome, and then Rome fell. I don’t want my children or grandchildren to see our civilization fall as well.