Archive for February, 2012

The extent of human radio broadcasts, or why we haven’t made contact with alien life and aren’t likely to do so (click through to the full size image, make sure it’s displayed full size in your browser, and find the blue dot in the black square):

President Obama has proposed reducing corporate income tax rates from 35% to 28% while eliminating some loopholes to make up the lost revenue. I think it would be interesting to consider a more controversial change:

What would happen if we eliminated corporate income taxes?

This kind of suggestion would be greeted with elation from libertarians and some Republicans, and generally derided by liberal Democrats like me, but if done correctly, it might actually turn out to be a pretty good idea.

We have to recognize first that any tax levied will result in some amount of tax avoidance behavior.  Some of this we want, like charitable contributions and reinvesting in the. But the behavior we don’t want, like off-shoring and spending millions on accountants and lobbyists to create and exploit loopholes, can be really costly to economic efficiency. What you get is really huge companies that pay no income taxes, and due to various tax credits, actually get money back from the government after making billions in profits.

Corporate income taxes, in spite of the fact that many large corporations pay little or no income taxes, are also used as an excuse for having a regressive 15% tax rate on capital gains, the notion being that dividends are being taxed twice, once as corporate profit and once again as capital gains to share holders.

I think we would potentially capture more revenue if we eliminate corporate income taxes altogether, but tax all capital gains as ordinary income.  This would eliminate the “double taxation” argument, and eliminate a lot of inefficiency involved in off-shoring.

If we just say that all corporate income is tax free there would be new kinds of tax avoidance behavior. If it is all business profit, then I can just quit my job and work as an independent contractor and suddenly I pay no taxes.  So I think the first rule is that for this to apply you must pay dividends at a certain level relative to profits.  We would also need protections against CEOs simply living off the company bank account. Some other rules would be needed to get back the behavior we do want that corporate taxes drive. For example, for a corporation to be tax free it must also give no money to lobbyists or political campaigns. Violations of regulatory rules, instead of resulting in one time fines that large corporations are more than willing to pay, result in revocation of tax free status until the company passes a review demonstrating that they have cleaned up their act and paid restitution. There would be no tax loopholes for corporations outside of this policy, so if you get caught and are forced to pay taxes, you pay the full amount, no exceptions. There should also be some level of profit as a percentage of revenue above which you go back to paying income tax, to continue to encourage reinvestment and hiring.

I would love to have real economists look at this idea and run the numbers to see how it would affect income tax receipts. Perhaps they have, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen it addressed in quite this way. Part of the reason for that is likely that conservatives would only look at eliminating corporate taxes and not doing any of the other mitigating things I’ve mentioned, while liberals scorn the very notion without considering that it could be a more practical means of attaining very liberal goals. My personal guess is that we would not see much decrease in tax receipts, and maybe even an increase. All dividends would be taxed as normal income, and hedge fund managers who currently pay 15% would suddenly be paying 38% on their millions in annual income. That’s a lot of money.

At the same time, businesses should save money by not having to work as hard at avoiding taxes. Not to mention we would move at least some jobs back to America. We’ll never be able to compete with offshore locations in terms of labor costs, lax environmental regulation, and cheap transportation, but some kinds of businesses are less affected by these costs and would move back. Financial services companies would be delighted to move back to the U.S. so there would be plenty of money and jobs coming back to America. States like Florida and Texas that have no state income tax could become new centers of finance.

Nevertheless, I’m not foolish enough to think that I’ve just solved a huge problem with a simple solution that no one ever thought of before. I expect there are holes in my idea, but I just can’t think of any that would be insurmountable, except for the political ones.

One of the hardest things for the human brain to comprehend is the scale of the universe, both in physical size and in time. It’s really not possible for our brains to make sense of really big numbers, and simply impossible to grasp things on a scale far beyond what we evolved to interact with. But the universe we live in is “vastly hugely mindbogglingly big”, so we need to do our best to understand it, and technology can help. I love creative uses of technology to demonstrate all this. We need as many different demonstrations as we can get just to try to keep in mind our place in the Universe and this is one of the best (click that link to see it, I can’t figure out how to embed flash in WordPress). My only complaint is the music (which you can turn of by clicking the music note icon in the upper right of the animation). And since this is showing up all over the place without attribution, it was created by a couple of 14 year olds, Michael and Cary Huang.  I found the link to the original creators at ABC News. Oh, and the quote above is from Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe.

Here’s the music I would have used:

This video has been making the rounds on Facebook. It’s a dad whose daughter put a post on her Facebook wall (not visible to her parents), ranting about the chores she has to do and how she feels poorly treated. The dad responded by making this video in which he shoots her laptop nine times and posting it on her Facebook wall:

I have no interest in the particular issues of what chores this girl does or should do, whether she should get a job, or whether her parents treat her fairly on a daily basis. There’s no way to know from a she said/he said exchange. Instead, I want to talk only about the father’s choices in making and posting the video. What I see in this video is a father who is immature, childish, and has serious trouble dealing with his anger, and even more trouble relating and communicating with his daughter.

Parents are always the adult in the room when dealing with their children, and they ought to act like it. The main crime this girl seems to have committed, according to her father, is disrespecting her parents by posting the message and using curse words in it. For which he sets out to humiliate her to her friends and the world, destroy her laptop, and frankly, terrorize her. He could have taken the laptop away in a number of ways. Apparently he works in IT, surely he could just as easily have blocked her from Facebook, or deleted her Facebook account and placed controls on the laptop to limit her access so she could still use it for school work. Or, if he really had to take it away, found a poor kid struggling to get by who could put that computer to good educational use. But no, he didn’t do that, he wanted to instill fear and to express his rage.

What he really should have done from the beginning is to pretend he never read the Facebook post. Maybe he wanted to oversee her Facebook account to make sure some truly inappropriate things weren’t going on (but I’d argue that unless he had established that arrangement with her in advance, it was still an invasion of her privacy), but this post is just a girl on her way to becoming a young woman venting her anger to her friends. Does he expect her not to get angry with him? Does he expect her not to share that with her friends, in the medium where high school kids now converse with their friends? Does he expect what she says to her friends about him to be respectful? Does he expect her not to use words she likely learned from him? He needs to deal with real issues, and deal with them in an adult manner, not demonstrate his impotent rage and attempt to strike fear in his daughter’s heart because he was personally insulted by the way she talks about him to her friends when she’s angry.

I sincerely hope that when my children are teenagers I will be able to be the adult in the room. I also hope that none of my kids’ friends have parents like this. If I saw this video from a parent, my child would not be allowed in their home or car or to be alone with them. No one who uses firearms in such an irresponsible manner and has such plain anger issues should be anywhere near my kids. Oh, and don’t get me started on the fact that the dad smokes throughout the video. And one other little thing that drove me nuts: he tells his daughter not to call the lady that cleans their house a “cleaning lady”, because she “works harder in one day than she ever had in her life”. Does anyone else see the problem with that? He’s saying cleaning ladies don’t work hard and are lesser human beings than he or his cleaning lady. Most disturbing of all: there seem to be a lot of other adults on Facebook, YouTube, and elsewhere on the internet who see this as good parenting, as opposed to as the result of a complete failure in parenting.

Imagine you work for a large corporation, and it provide you with health insurance. Let’s also say that, like Facebook, the corporation has no board of directors and its CEO also holds a controlling interest in the company. Now imagine that the CEO one day became a Jehovah’s Witness. Jehovah’s Witnesses do not believe in blood transfusions, so the CEO goes out and changes the company health insurance to a special JW plan that doesn’t provide coverage for transfusions. Now if you need a blood transfusion to save your life you’re going to have to pay out of pocket for it. I don’t know what that costs, probably a lot.
Absurd? Yes. Ridiculous? Yes. Your employer is forcing you to live by his religious views. That’s fundamentally wrong and essentially discriminatory.

So why is coverage for birth control different? It’s not. Birth control has medical uses far beyond contraception, but even if it didn’t, it’s still basic preventative health care that saves a lot of money down the line. And employers shouldn’t come between patients and their doctors, even if the employer is associated with the Catholic Church. So as long as we’re mandating that plans cover certain items, birth control should be one of them, and all plans should cover it, even if that means that at some multi-layered distance, a Catholic is paying for something he doesn’t like. Because you wouldn’t let a Jehovah’s Witness get away with not covering a blood transfusion he didn’t like.

In the Cincinnati area Catholic affiliated hospitals and health care groups employ over 17,000 people. Now I don’t know the complexities of those groups, how strongly they are affiliated, and how many employees would be affected by Catholic hospitals being exempted from covering birth control, but it would absolutely be thousands of doctors, nurses, orderlies, technicians, cafeteria workers, and janitors of varying beliefs and needs. And most of the women in that group use some form of birth control. Not only that, the Catholic bishops want every employer who happens to be Catholic (or any other religion) exempted from covering birth control, not just Catholic hospitals and universities.

Requiring employers to cover birth control is not religious discrimination. Employers forcing their employees to pay for coverage based on some religious belief of the employer is discrimination. It is discrimination against employees with different beliefs and it is discrimination against women.

Now, if you can handle some NSFW language and a lot of righteously angry feminism, there’s a lot more about this topic starting here, and she’s dead on.

Let’s get this started by establishing some basic, incontrovertible facts about the universe we live in. I expect people to disagree with me on a lot of things, but if you don’t accept the following then you and I live in fundamentally different realities, and unless you are very willing to adjust your reality, you aren’t going to like it around here much. This was almost an 11 point list, but I decided not to include a couple of things that might require some convincing. This is really the uncontroversial stuff:
  1.  The universe began sometime around 14 billion years ago (13.75 plus or minus 130 million is the current estimate).
  2. The Earth came into existence around 4.5 billion years ago.
  3. The Earth is an oblate spheroid, which is a fancy way of saying round, but lumpy and bigger around the middle.
  4. The Earth revolves around the Sun.
  5. Life on earth began sometime around 3.8 billion years ago, and evolved over time through a process of random mutation and natural selection from single celled organisms to plants, simple animals, fish, amphibians, insects, reptiles, birds, and finally, mammals and the full proliferation of life on this planet.
  6. The first thing resembling a human didn’t exist until about 2.5 million years ago, and modern humans about 200,000 years ago. So we haven’t been around for very long at all.
  7. Human’s first organized themselves into cities around 5,000 years ago, but there is every indication of thriving cultures creating ingenious tools and symbolic artwork long before that.
  8. All humans first evolved in Africa and migrated outward to cover the world.