District 28 Toastmasters Conference

Friday evening and all day Saturday, I had the wonderful opportunity to attend the Toastmasters District 28 Spring Conference. For those of you who don’t know what Toastmasters is, the short answer is it’s an international organization in 106 countries around the world, dedicated to helping its members improve their communication and leadership skills.

If I had to put my finger on just one single thing I enjoy most about Toastmasters, it’s being surrounded by people who are trying to improve and to be the best person they can be. If you surround yourself with toxic, negative people, there’s an exceedingly good chance that’s where you’re headed. However, if you surround yourself with positive, upbeat people who are striving to improve, to be the best they can be, and who have committed to help you do the same, well… let’s just say it’s a wonderful experience, a fantastic community and a great way to spend one’s days as we pass through planet Earth.

The keynote speaker and honored guest throughout the weekend was Lance Miller, Distinguished Toastmaster (DTM) and winner of the 2005 World Championship of Public Speaking contest. Wow… what a speaker. Perhaps the most inspiring topic Lance discussed was during his keynote address, titled “Losing My Way to the World Championship”. Lance did not sign-up of for Toastmasters and become a World Champion the next day. Rather, it took year after year of LOSING contests to achieve the world championship. It’s a great lesson for us all. The road won’t always be clear, nor the ground always level. Sometimes it’s an uphill battle and the obstacles plentiful. Still, keep your eye on the prize, honestly evaluate yourself, make corrections in your course and never, ever, give up the ship.

We also had another honored guest, Paul W. Smith, morning anchor on WJR (760 on your AM dial). Paul was a tremendously entertaining speaker and we all agreed we could have listened to him for HOURS! He was very entertaining and so gracious to accept an invitation from District 28 and to speak at our event. It’s amazing to learn that he never prepares a speech. He just gets up and starts talking. Well, let me tell you.. he is VERY GOOD at it!

I made some great new friends with some Toastmasters from across the border in Windsor, Ontario, Canada. We sat with them at lunch and engaged in spirited conversation about healthcare reform as we asked them about their system. One gentleman said “no system is perfect, but you’d be hard-pressed to find one Canadian who doesn’t like our health care” and immediately, Kevin, also a Canadian shot his hand in the air as if to say “hello! Here’s one right here!” Kevin was very passionate about politics and explained the Canadian parliamentary, multi-party system to us. Clearly, Kevin was more conservative than his fellow club members who rolled their eyes at some of his analysis. Kevin has a better grasp on American politics than many Americans, which was very interesting.

After lunch we headed to training sessions before returning to the main dining room for the International Speech contest. Once again, we found ourselves sitting with our Canadian friends. Unfortunately, I can only remember the names of Kevin, Rick, Ada, Vladimir and Susan. There were a couple more (but I am terrible at remembering new names).

After the speakers had delivered their speeches, the room was cleared to prepare for dinner. Upon re-entering to be seated, Magda O’Hanlon (our treasurer) and I found ourselves seated completely on the opposite side of the room from where’d been sitting all day. Still, we landed with another table of Canadians – a different group this time. But alas, Magda tapped my arm and jerked her thumb over her shoulder. There were Vlad, Kevin, Ada and Rick sitting right behind us, back to back.

I have no clue how speech contests are judged. We are given scoring sheets so we can follow along and do our own scoring. I rate the speakers according to my own thoughts, but any speaker I rank as first has no chance to actually win the contest, and so it was again last night.

Let me tell you about one of the contestants, Lynn Fitzsimmons. When she was announced to speak, Lynn entered from the back of the room as all speakers do, but she was assisted by a companion who helped her make her way between all the tables and chairs in the banquet hall as she approached the stage. You see… Lynn is blind! With help from her companion and the Toastmaster of the Day, she climbed the steps and was lead to center stage. Lynn delivered a stirring speech of what it was like to be born blind, one of three blind sisters, to a blind mother and an angry, alcoholic father. She was misdiagnosed and put into a school for developmentally challenged children. Fortunately, one of the teachers saw the true Lynn and knew that she was not developmentally challenged. With this teacher’s help she made her way to a school for the visually-impaired and then a regular high school after that. She joked that when she was set up on a date with her future husband, he didn’t realize he really was getting a “blind date”. Lynn is now a mother, grandmother and successful business woman. Oh, and by the way, she’s also going represent District 28 at the World Championship of Public Speaking in California, because she won the contest! The new format of competition has eliminated the regional-level competition, so Lynn goes straight to the World Championship, though there are MANY semi-final rounds there to thin the ranks to a smaller group in the finals.

Whew… this is more typing than I planned on this Sunday morning, but I just wanted to convey to you the wonderful time I had at the Toastmasters District 28 Spring Conference. If you’re not a Toastmaster and this sounds motivating or inspiring to you, give me a shout and we’ll talk. It’s one of the best things you can do with your time.


A Soldier and Family Reunite

This evening I left work and was headed to a Toastmasters event and didn’t have much time. I ducked into a McDonalds to grab some dinner. The drive-thru line was really long, so I decided to just go inside.

I had no sooner sat down, when a soldier dressed in desert fatigues darted past my table, bent over at the waist to avoid being seen. He went to a nearby booth and lay low there. I happened to be facing him (he was about 20 feet away) and it felt sort of awkward, but fortunately, it didn’t last long.

Just then, on the other side of the Mickey D’s, a couple who appeared to be in their middle fifties entered, accompanied by a young woman and cute little girl with blonde hair, probably three years old at the most.

They turned the corner and were suddenly in front of the booth where the soldier lay crouched in waiting. The woman looked at the soldier as he stood up. “Are you kidding me?!?!?” she cried. They embraced. I’ve never seen people embrace so tightly that they were literally shaking. They embraced, they kissed, they embraced again. They embraced like people who weren’t entirely sure that the last time they embraced wouldn’t be their final time. It was as if their love for each other were transformed into electric energy. The room was absolutely alive with emotion. It was hard to tell whose eyes were more misty – theirs or mine.

The soldier then picked up his little girl and held her close. The shaking embrace of a spouse was replaced by the gentle but firm embrace of a father. He slowly stroked her beautiful blonde hair over and over as he whispered in her ear. Then he stood and hugged his wife and daughter together (group hug!).

I’ve seen these sorts of reunions on the evening news taking place at airports or at schools, but to see a surprise reunion, up close and in person moved me in ways that I don’t have words for.

I won’t poison this post with any debate or discussion of whether or not our military should be deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan. But, as a former Marine, I would like to point out the tremendous sacrifice our men and women in uniform WILLINGLY endure to do what they believe in, to protect our country, to protect you and me. It’s a sacrifice to serve when every waking moment may be your last. It’s a sacrifice to be away from loved ones and friends for months, or years on end… It’s a sacrifice to miss the only second birthday your daughter will ever have.

And so, it will be a long, long time, if ever, before I forget what I witnessed this evening. And, I hope in some small way my words might prompt you to give a moment of silent thanks for all those brave men and women who are willing to lay down their life, to protect yours.

I certainly didn’t want to intrude or break up this happy reunion, but as I left, I walked past and caught the soldier’s eye. I said “Thank you for all you do.” He stopped, turned toward me and said “thank you for your support”. I am not sure whose words meant more to whom.

The Importance of Great Art

Though it ended production in 2005, it was only recently that I watched the entire HBO series Six Feet Under (Thank You, Romeo Public Library).

I first watched the final episode about three days ago. I have watched the final ten minutes of the final episode probably another ten times since then. Consequently, the beautiful song “Breathe Me” plays in my head 24×7. I am drawn to that final sequence for two reasons: considering my own life and mortality and, as an aspiring screen writer/director, this sequence has some symbolism (at least *I* think it’s symbolism) that is pure genius. Let’s take the last item first.
The final sequence begins with the Claire, the talented but often confused youngest of the Fisher family heading off to New York. Barely a couple of years out of high-school, she is looking for her first job in the world of photography and hoping to make it in the art world. Claire is the central character of the entire sequence. Actress Lauren Ambrose’s acting in this scene is gut wrenching as we feel her pain at leaving home.
As she pulls her car out of the driveway, leaving the Fisher and Sons Funeral Home in the distance, we, along with Claire are moving on and leaving the past behind. The point is underscored again when while still only a block or two away from home, she glances at the car’s side-view mirror only to see the image of her dead brother Nate, jogging behind her. Nate’s image slips away as the car continues on.
What follows is a montage of the years that follow in the Fisher extended family. We see the family grow, then grow old and then die, one by one. But Alan Ball keeps bringing us back to Claire, who by now is out of L.A. and heading into the desert.
It is here that I really love what writer/director Alan Ball does. Claire’s car is filmed from a helicopter (aerial shots) and we also see the desert countryside from inside the view of the car, with Claire’s eyes visible in the rearview mirror. Whenever we see the car from the external point of view, the film runs at normal speed, looking…well.. normal. Whenever we see the desert from inside the car (Claire’s point-of-view) the film is sped up so the car appears to be traveling unnaturally fast. The switching of the film-speed, juxtaposed to the steady pace of the music which ties both views together really emphasizes the quicker pace of the internal view. Of course, all the while, we are cutting back and forth to the montage of the deaths of each of the Fishers. In my mind, this is symbolic for how fast our lives go by.. how quickly time seems to pass. Because this sequence is SO well done, it gives me a small sense of satisfaction that I have one recommendation for Alan Ball on something I would have done just a little differently. When we see Claire’s point-of-view from inside the car, I kept focusing on her eyes to see if the entire film-speed was increased or only the outside image. And… it was not really noticeable one way or the other. I could see Claire’s eyes move about, but it was not definitive one way or the other if they were sped up as well. And of course, that is my suggestion. I would have done something more noticeable, like see Claire lift a bottled water and take a drink from it, and then perhaps glance out the window, turning her head at regular speed. I would have done something to make the action inside the car definitely noticeable as being run at regular speed and the landscape passing by at quick speed. This would have really driven home the point that while the moments of our life always seem to pass at normal speed, the collection of them , the totality of them, the landscape of our life seem to pass so quickly.
And like all good film or TV, it leaves an impact on us as we consider our own ever-slipping-away lives. Are we living them as fully, as happily, as lovingly as we can? The montage of deaths, one after another, not only mark the passing of characters we have grown to love, but drums into our head that our own death is coming. And while day by day, it may be a long way off, through the windshield of our life, it is coming faster than we want to consider.
And yet.. the last death we see is Claire’s. She’s 102 years old (it’s 2085, after all). She appears to have had a very successful life as an artist. She’s at home and there’s an attendant reading a book in a chair next to her bed. The camera pulls in very tight on the veiled eyes of this incredibly old looking woman. As the screen goes white in the classic Six Feet Under announcement of death “Claire Simone Fisher 1983-2085”, the next shot is an equally tight close up of young Claire, back on the road driving her car. Everything about this shot of Claire, the youth, the freshness, the utter innocence of an earnest young adult heading out into the world and all that lay ahead for her reminds us that “yes! life is going by too fast, damn it! But you’re here, now, you’re alive!!!… LIVE while you can, live before it’s too late.” The last scene of the series is Claire’s car driving into the distance, lost in the vastness of the desert landscape. The empty desert landscape might be seen as “a clean slate” for Claire and for us.
I am certainly not an artist, but I can appreciate art, especially film and (good) television. My own test for greatness in film/television is that days later I still find myself in a melancholy, introspective mood. Six Feet Under passes with flying colors. If Alan Ball’s work can make me, and others, consider their own lives and change them to live more life in the years we have remaining, then I would say that is meaningful and important work.
And I haven’t even discussed Alan Ball’s “American Beauty” yet. Let’s just say.. “same effect”.

So Little Time

I can remember summer days as a child. Some of my friends might have been off visiting relatives, others stuck in their houses doing chores, but whatever the case, I would on occasion find myself alone, sitting on my porch with nothing to do.

I was cursed with the most dreaded fate that can ever befall a child: being bored. Two doors down there stood a giant cottonwood tree. In addition to performing its annual ritual of blanketing the neighborhood in puffs of floating fuzzballs, its produced a sound that still I cherish today – the sounds of summer winds roaring through its leaves. On these days, I’d sit on the porch and listen to the old cottonwood, the sound of leaves rising and falling and rising again, and I wished that there were something to do.

Today, boredom is nothing more than a pipe dream I don’t think I’ll ever again achieve. Family and career alone are enough to squeeze every last moment out of an already overbooked life.
I like to keep the image of Forrest Gump in my mind, sitting on a bench at a bus stop. People and buses come and go, but Forrest just sits there on a beautiful sunny day watching the world go by, talking to strangers until their particular bus arrives. Wow… I think I actually just relaxed a bit while typing that sentence. Just the thought of sitting on a bench and watching the world go by has a certain calming effect to it.
Well, it’s Saturday. I only slept for about six hours tops last night. Today will be a full day of Toastmasters, lunch with friends, off to do some tax work at the office, back tonight to do more tax returns at home, and if I am lucky, some practice on my guitar for the three new songs I must learn by Easter for the choir.
By tonight the house will be empty as my wife and daughters are off to a dance competition. Maybe, just maybe , while they are gone and the house is silent, I can set aside my tax work and shut off the never ending spigot of thoughts in my mind and pretend to be bored… oh to be bored! What a gift!

One Shining Day

Though we typically don’t give it much thought, it’s sort of sad that as humans, we don’t have the memory power to remember the details of each day of our lives. Granted, the average day for most of us is just the mundane, the routine, the easily forgettable. But, we are lucky that we also live those special days that refuse to recede into the dark recesses of our mind. Sometimes they can are unexpectedly recalled by something as simply as hearing a song, smelling a scent or seeing a person.

Yesterday I turned on the ignition to my car as I was leaving the public library and Green Day’s “Good Riddance (The Time Of Your Life)” filled the air.

Whenever I hear that song, I am instantly transported to September 27, 1999. More specifically, I am transported to the corner of Michigan Avenue and Trumbull in Detroit, which at the time was the site of Tiger Stadium, home of the Detroit Tigers.

It was a spectacular early autumn day. A day that had been anticipated with both excitement and dread. It was the date of the last game ever to be played in historic Tiger Stadium.

Let’s be frank: The Tigers were terrible that year, finishing 23 games under .500. But this special autumn evening wasn’t about the fortunes of a team over a single year. This was the end of a 104 year old love affair between a city and a special location where the magic of baseball unfolded summer after summer, decade after decade, generation after generation.

The game was truly meaningless in the context of the current season but the Tigers did manage to muster up a grand effort for the old girl’s final game, defeating the Kansas City Royals 8-2. In the bottom of the eighth, Robert Fick hit a grand-slam to put the Tigers way ahead. All of the pent up emotion, love, pain, joy, anguish came rollicking its way down to the field from the seats. So thunderous was the cheering that you might have thought Fick had just hit a home run in the bottom of the seventeenth inning in game seven of the World Series.

A postgame ceremony celebrated the history of the old ballpark by

Stop the Economic Silliness!

I have on more than one occasion received the following email, forwarded to me by friends and family:

There recently was an article in the Grand Rapids press in The Business Section asking
readers for ideas on: “How Would You Fix the Economy?”

I think this Terry Wallin guy nailed it!

Dear Mr. President,
Please find below my suggestion for fixing America ‘s economy. Instead of giving billions of dollars to companies that will squander the money on lavish parties and unearned bonuses, use the following plan. You can call it the “Patriotic Retirement Plan”:There are about 40 million people over 50 in the work force. Pay them $1 million apiece severance for early retirement with the following stipulations:
1) They MUST retire. Forty million job openings-Unemployment fixed.
2) They MUST buy a new American CAR. Forty million cars ordered–Auto industry fixed.3) They MUST either buy a house or pay off their mortgage–Housing Crisis fixed.
It can’t get any easier than that!!

P.S. If more money is needed, have all members in Congress pay their taxes…
Mr. President, while you’re at it, make Congress retire on Social Security and Medicare. I’ll bet both programs would be fixed pronto! No charge–Terry Wallin

If you think this would work, please forward to everyone you know. If not, please disregard.

I think it’s time to rebut this nonsense once and for all.

The author and proponents have no grasp for the difference in numbers involved – we’re talking orders of magnitude (OK, I’ll pause while many of you stop to look up the definition of ‘order of magnitude’…. got it? OK, continue…). As distasteful as it has been to give ‘billions’ of dollars to banks and automakers, people need to understand the difference between ‘billions’ and 40 trillion. Where’d I get 40 trillion? That’s the product of 40 million people over 50 and a bribe of $1 million dollars each. What’s the significance of this number? Well, at the end of 2008, there was only 9.1 trillion dollars in the entire money supply of the United States. Creating and dumping 40 trillion dollars into the money supply is not the same as dumping a few billion into the money supply. First of all, as strapped as we are for cash, coming up with billions is relatively easy. It can be borrowed or taken from tax receipts, resulting in little or no new money created. 40 trillion would have to be printed. There’s simply not that much existing money. Creating this amount of new money would be an event of cataclysmic proportions. First of all, this money would go through a multiplier effect known in monetary circles as velocity, through which it would increase by a factor of 9 in a matter of months, resulting in 400 trillion dollars. This is due to the Federal Reserve’s reserve requirement of 10% on deposits, but that’s another story.

The effect of all this would be massive, apocalyptic inflation almost overnight. Somehow the advertisement for the famous Little Caesar’s Hot-N-Ready pizza at a mere $215.00 doesn’t sound as attractive anymore. Worse though would be the effect on savings, Imagine that today you had $100,000 in the bank, for which you’d spent YEARS toiling, saving, delaying gratification until another day just to save up that money. In the back of your mind, you always knew that inflation would take it’s toll on that $100,000, but you had a pretty good idea of what it could buy. A couple of decked out Cadillacs… a nice house at a fire sale, ten really, really nice vacations… etc.

Poof…. overnight, your $100,000 now only has the purchasing power of $2,345 in yesterday’s money. Your two decked out Caddies shriveled into a 60 inch plasma TV right before your very eyes.

Oh, and that million dollars you were so happy to accept as a handout from the government, now is worth only $23,450 in terms of yesterday’s purchasing power. True enough, you could pay off your mortgage, whose value in absolute dollars did not change, but considering it’s been re-fi’d several times, it was probably MORE than your house was worth BEFORE the collapse in home prices. So let’s say that your mortgage was 200K, now you’re down to $800,000 which now has a purchasing power of $18,760 dollars in yesterday’s money. In TODAY’s money, how far will your remaining $800k last you when: A pizza is $215.00, a gallon of gas is $135.00, hell, you won’t even have enough money left to buy that coveted new American car, since it went from $25,000 to over a million dollars over night. That right there is precious!! Giving 40 million people a million dollars and then mandating that they buy an American car when they very inflation caused by their gift will price the car out of range. And that doesn’t even consider the effect of demand on price, merely the monetary effect.

I could get into the discussion of what constitutes an “American” car any more, but suffice it to say that my Honda Civic, built entirely in Indiana with all America parts, save for its transmission, fed a lot more Americans through its construction and sale than did my prior car, a Chevy Impala, built in Oshawa Canada, with parts from who knows where?

And so… our 40 million friends CANNOT afford to retire because inflation has rendered their IRAs and 401k’s to be worthless and their paltry million dollars isn’t enough to live on. We’ve wrecked the dollar and the economy much worse that it was before. We likely ended up in court deliberating which cars are American and which aren’t But all is not lost! If you can get your hands on $500 in ‘spare change’, perhaps in your pocket or under a sofa cushion, you can always pick up a six-pack and drown your sorrows.

Good Money, Bad Money

The following is actually an outline for my next speech on the history of money. Internalizing this information will answer many questions surrounding the economic chaos you see all around you. And now, here’s the outline of the speech:

Speech 4 – Good Money, Bad Money

1. In our last speech, we drew up on the white board how the creation of more money stock automatically devalues the proportion of wealth correlated to each existing money unit. If you know anything about how the stock market works, you know that when companies issue additional shares of stock it lowers the value of shares already in circulation.

2. We asked the question “who could be in the position to do this and why would they do it?”

3. We now go back in time to the period where over the centuries, gold had been selected for use by society as a money stock. While gold is divisible, it’s not easily divisible by anyone other than a metal-smith. Imagine shopping in a bazaar and each vendor having a scale to weigh gold. Each transaction is a very timely proposition as just the right weight of gold must change hands.

4. To overcome this barrier to trade private banks and gold houses introduced the concept of coinage. Coins were minted in precise weights with the coin bearing a number that indicated the weight of the coin. The coins were also of a guaranteed purity. Citizens and vendors alike could toss out their scales and transaction times were greatly reduced as people could make change by visually looking at the numbers on the coins. Coins issued by multiple minters circulated simultaneously, side by side, with no problems, because the weights were plainly stated, were precise and the purity guaranteed.

5. One time-honored tradition among certain segments of all societies is to call into question the integrity of any private enterprise and suggest that government is the only entity that can be truly trusted by the people. Private minters, after all, could mint coins with weights lower than the stated face value, thus defrauding the public. In any case, governments around the world tossed their hat into and began minting coins that circulated side by side with private coins.

6. Of course we know from innumerable examples in history that governments were the very first and about the only minters to defraud the public. By making coins weighing JUST less than the stated weight, or by equaling the stated weight but having centers made of lead and merely coated in gold, governments were able to mint more coins than there was actual gold. And of course by keeping some of the coins themselves, governments now had money to pay for endeavors such as wars, roads and services that they did not have to “tax” as much for, thus endearing their public to them, seemingly by being able to pay for these goodies out of thin air.

7. Observant people are everywhere and it was realized that the government coins were not as fully valuable as the private coins, face value claims of weight notwithstanding. And slowly, people began keeping the private coins and only circulating the government coins. This is the basis of Gresham’s Law. Sir Thomas Gresham was a 16th century English economist who stated that “bad money drives out good money”.

8. Private coinage was driven out of circulation as a money stock, but still held on to by individuals as a store of value, a practice that continues to this very day, witness the Canadian Maple Leaf, etc. As the decades and centuries marched on, the numbers imprinted on the coins lost their original meaning to the citizenry. The numbers certainly no longer actually represented the weight of gold in grams, ounces or any other unit of measure. Coins were now minted that contained little or no gold at all but still had numbers on them that indicated some number of units. These units, dollars, pounds, lira, etc now became entities in their own right. However unlike gold, governments can create as many of these units as they want, with no limits upon them at all.

9. That brings us back to our close from last time and our analogy of the money supply to poker chips. Who’s in a position to create more poker chips (money) and why would they do it? The answer is government is in the position to do it because of Gresham’s Law. They have driven “good” money out of circulation and 99.999 percent of the people have no clue what a coin is supposed to represent. They think that a “dollar” is something that has intrinsic value. It does not. The “why” is because they want to curry good favor with citizenry to stay in power by showering them with governmental goodies. There are two ways to do this: Tax them at the required levels with income tax rates of 50, 70 or 90 percent and cause a revolution, or do it with the hidden tax of inflation and the the continued creation of “bad money”. The people’s wealth is stolen just the same, but they feel much better about it because they still have the same number of “dollars”… whatever that means.

10. Ladies and gentlemen, you now KNOW the FACTS of history. They are recorded facts and they are indisputable. YOU can continue to vote for politicians who seem to promise everything to everyone, or you can demand more from those who would be your elected officials. Those of you in this room now possess the burden of truth. You can turn away from it or you can demand REAL change, not fake change. Future generations are now counting on you.

In Defense of the IRS

During a presidential election year, so-called second tier candidates look for any means possible to grab the attention of the electorate and pull themselves up into the top-tier. One of the most popular maneuvers is to call for an end to the Federal Income Tax and/or an end to the Internal Revenue Service.

I admit right here that I come from a conservative/Libertarian background for the majority of my life and have never been a big fan of either the IRS or the income tax. But then something happened – I became more educated about both and my viewpoint has changed dramatically.

Before I tell you why the IRS and the income tax are never going away, I’d like to make something clear: do not confuse my support of the IRS and income tax with support for runaway government spending, the inflationary printing of money, congressional earmarks and the like. I believe that there are things governments should spend money on such as national defense, court systems, roads and other essentials. However, the federal government spends enormous amounts of money on activities it shouldn’t be involved in. You’ll get no disagreement from me on this.

Now, back the IRS and the income tax. If you accept the premise that the government should fund certain activities, then you must also accept that the money has to come from somewhere, hence taxes.

A case is often made for a national sales tax. While appealing in theory, some remnants of the IRS would still be necessary to verify actual levels of income. Why? Because a sales tax is so regressive in its nature that almost certainly the federal government would provide rebates (or “pre-bates”) to lower income people to help them offset the impact of the sales tax. But the real problem with a national sales tax arises from the level that would need to be charged and what would result. This election year a sales tax has been floated at rate of twenty-three percent. A sales tax rate at this level will most undoubtedly result in a thriving black market. If you think we have a violence problem surrounding the illegal sale of narcotics in the country, wait until you see the criminal activity leap when nearly everything becomes a candidate for back-alley sales. You won’t have to be an addicted crack-head to fuel this movement, merely a regular Joe who wants to save five hundred dollars on a plasma television.

The tax code, I learned, while primarily concerned with creating revenue, is also a tool for economic change and social influence. Consider the case where the economy is suffering. Congress can enact tax legislation that provides incentives, such as immediate expensing, for capital equipment purchases. And, in fact, this has just recently occurred, as the economic stimulus package just agreed to between Congress and the president provides an immediate expensing of fifty percent for purchases of new capital equipment, as opposed to depreciating it over many years. I prefer this method of economic stimulus much more than the oft-inflationary tactic of lowering interest rates, which has the effect of lessening the value of all those dollars you’ve worked so hard to save for retirement.

The complexity of the tax code is mind-boggling, particularly to the layman. If one takes up the academic study of taxation, there is a foundation that actually has both rhyme and reason. It is the details above and beyond the foundation where the inordinate complexity comes in. However, this complexity is not the result of an intentioned, thought-out plan to confuse you into oblivion. Rather, it is a response to you, the taxpayer. Most people think of money changing hands as cashing their paycheck, going to Wal-Mart and paying their bills. The reality is that there are innumerable ways for money and consideration to change hands. The tax code as it exists today is the result of an “arms-race” of sorts, between those who make the money and those want a piece of it. Think of money as water, our economy as an enormous mountain and the tax code as little barriers erected along the mountain side, intended to prevent some of the water from reaching the base of the mountain. What happens is that water continually flows over and around the barriers, looking for new ways to make it to the bottom of the mountain. In the same way, companies and individuals continually look for ways to make transactions that will skirt the letter of the (tax code) law. Once a successful way has been found, the tax-man often takes the inventor of this new way to tax court. Some times the IRS wins and some times they lose. Believe it or not, the IRS does lose quite often in Tax Court. When they win however, the results are codified in a new treasury regulation or revenue procedure or revenue ruling which has the effect of law. This process is repeated until you have the tax-code that we have. It’s a series of actions and reactions

The ability to influence social behavior via the tax code is not a power accorded to the government in our founding documents and I certainly don’t advocate it, but the power exists and the reality of the situation is that Washington simply does not divest itself of power it has acquired. Let me give you a simple example. The Hope college credit is available to students in their first two years of college, or to their parents, assuming the parents are paying the tuition. The taxpayer becomes ineligible for the Hope credit if the student has been convicted of a narcotics-related felony. Apparently, assault, robbery and other such felonies do not disqualify one from eligibility for the Hope credit, just drug use or sales. Clearly this is an example of attempting to influence behavior through the tax code, and, as I said earlier, Congress simply does not divest itself of this sort of power, regardless of what any presidential candidate may promise.

Another reason that the complex tax code will never be completely replaced by flat tax or a sales tax is purely political in that the current code provides the flexibility for each major political party to “throw bones” to their constituents and not dramatically affect the amount of revenue that the income tax brings in. For example, Republicans like to lower rates paid by business and then campaign to those affected as having “delivered the goods”. Democrats meanwhile like to raise rates on business and the wealthy and then flaunt it to their constituents, the low and middle classes. That this does not help the poor and is merely the politics of “sticking it to the rich” is of course pandering of the worst possible kind. You see, politicians’ every move is driven by voters and voters are driven by a “what have you done for me lately” attitude. In his book “Hardball”, author and political commentator Chris Matthews gives a real-world example of exactly this from his days as a young staffer in Washington:

“Soon after I went to work in the Senate, my boss, Frank Moss of Utah, decided to offer an amendment I had drafted. It dealt with the minimum wage. I had noticed that, over the years, the minimum-wage increases periodically approved by Congress consistently followed rises in cost of living and in productivity. The amendment I recommended to the Senator would have pegged annual minimum-wage increases to these two indices automatically. I expected it to attract considerable support from the pro-labor senators on the Democratic side of the aisle, but it claimed just fifteen votes. Later I would learn the reason. Democratic politicians were not about to give up the opportunity to raise the minimum wage every few years, the kind of sugarplum that helped them with the working people of their districts and kept labor involved in the party legislative agenda.”

Almost nothing provides more “sugarplums” than the tax code. The government cannot not pay your mortgage, but it can make the interest you pay a deduction. It cannot pay for everybody’s college, but it can give you a credit for some of the tuition you pay. It cannot force you to find a job, but it can encourage you to work by putting free-money, such as the earned-income tax credit into your pocket, whether you pay taxes or not. Why on earth would politicians, whose only real concern is getting re-elected, ever cede power over the broadest and deepest goodie-bag in the country? They would not and they will not and every politician knows this – but you don’t – and that’s why political hopefuls throw this out there every few years, because the masses think it’s possible. You’ll note that no incumbent has felt it necessary to make the arguments I have to derail a challenger. Promises to abolish the IRS and the income tax are usually made only by fringe candidates with no realistic chance of winning. An incumbent on either side of the aisle will never admit to the things that have been discussed here. It’s simply not talked about in the light of day, at least not to the masses. At most, you may catch glimpses of it in books written by politicos for politicos, such as the Chris Matthews book. It would be very interesting to see such a promise made by a candidate who did have a realistic chance of winning an election. I suspect that you would see some of these arguments presented by the incumbent, only spun in a more favorable light.

The final political reason that the IRS is not going anywhere has to do with demographics. Fifty percent of the population in this country legally pays no tax or pays very little tax. Further, many of the people who pay no tax actually get money returned to them in the form of the earned-income tax credit. What complaints might these people have with the current system? None, I suspect. I imagine they like it very much. I know I would. Since a democracy is based on a majority rule, you would have to convince at least some of these voters to get rid of the IRS and the income tax. Well, good luck with that.

In short, I don’t necessarily love the tax code we have, but, I understand that it has a job to do, the reasons why it is as complicated as it is, and most of all I understand the political reasons of why it’s never going away. So, if you’re one of these folks who spends your life burning up a lot of energy, dreaming of a day without the income tax or IRS, my suggestion is you go find another worthy cause and channel your energy toward something where it might actually have a chance of becoming reality.

In Defense of Iran

Disclaimer: I am a former U.S. Marine and proud of it. This may rile up some of my conservative friends, but oh well, I’m not a conservative anymore, I’m a Libertarian 🙂 I am still working on confirming a few details, but this is a theory I’ve developed and have discovered substantiation for quite a bit of it.

In 1971, the United Stated ended the last link to gold-backed currency. The dollar was now 100% fiat currency. In 1974, OPEC countries, most notably Saudi Arabia, began to accept only U.S. dollars for oil transactions. This meant that countries wanting to purchase their oil had to buy dollars on world currency markets and then buy oil. This became known as the “petrodollar”. This artificial demand for the USD on world currency markets allowed Washington to print money and spend it as they saw fit, without the downside of third-world runaway inflation, as oil buyers around the world bought up excess dollars. Because enormous amounts of dollars were funneled into very few pockets (Saudi monarchy, etc), the vast majority of these dollars were effectively taken out of circulation, thus restraining the growth of the circulating supply of dollars.

In 2000, Saddam Hussein broke ranks with OPEC and stopped accepting US dollars as payment for Iraqi oil. The U.S. government, well aware of the implications of this, was not pleased. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 provided the first plausible cover that the United States needed to remove Saddam Hussein from power. It is noteworthy that Iraqi oil is once again traded only for US dollars.

The topic of Iran frequently makes headlines. The rogue state and it’s nuclear ambitions are frequently discussed. There’s no question Iran is a rogue state and I certainly am not a fan of its government. However, what if its nuclear aims are defensive in nature? What if Iran, seeing the true value of its oil decline with the dollar has plans to also end accepting dollars and demand another currency? Euros for instance. Having witnessed the Iraqi experience, perhaps Iran wants to exercise control over its natural resources and exchange them for a commodity with more “staying power” than the dollar. The rise of Venezuelan and Russian oil in recent years has begun to deteriorate the petrodollar, as these countries accept US dollars, but do not demand them.

Since 1974, the US has enjoyed the spectacularly enviable position of being able to “print oil”. Other countries must trade REAL wealth for oil. The United States merely prints the money it needs for oil and keeps its treasure for other purposes. There is a great deal of news and history that has been shaped by the “petrodollar”, but nearly all of the populous is unaware of the history of the petrodollar.

Stillborn Dream

The thought, like a broken record, kept playing over and over in his mind: “This is the worst night of my life. It will never be worse than this.

It was midnight. It had been about seven hours since he’d first heard the news. Their baby was dead. Looking at his wife, lying upon the hospital bed, it seemed hard to believe that the belly which only yesterday held a moving, living, baby boy, now only contained a body waiting to be delivered into the world as a corpse. Why couldn’t they simply remove the baby via cesarean? It seemed particularly cruel to have to go through a prolonged delivery process. For what?

He’d taken the call at the office in the late afternoon. His wife’s voice crying into the phone that something was wrong – horribly wrong. The voices of his co-workers, who knew they were expecting, laughed and cheered behind him as the young father-to-be rushed out the door. His back to them, they did not see the look of panic that gripped his face.

Arriving at the hospital he burst through the double doors of the maternity ward, asking for his wife by name. The faces at the nurse’s station fell in unison. The look of sympathy and the glances that, almost apologetically looked away, seemed to confirm his worst fears.

The doctor was an immigrant, his English broken. His finger hovered over the ultrasound. “See this here? This is the heart. It not beating. I am very sorry for you. These things happen sometime”.

“Why? What happened?” He couldn’t tell if he was whispering, shouting or crying. It sounded as if somebody else were saying the words.

“We don’t know until we see baby”, he said.

“So what happens now?” he asked.

“She will deliver baby.”

“Deliver?”, he asked, not able to believe it. “Can’t you just, you know, cut it out?”

“No”, he said, seeming to suppress a chuckle. “Cesarean is major surgery. We not do that unless necessary. She will deliver”, he said. With that, he left the room.

For the first time, they were alone.

His wife had a look of quiet anguish on her face. They did not speak until he said, “I can’t believe this is happening. What… what happened?”

She spoke softly, the light glinting off her tear-stained cheeks as she said, “When I woke up this morning, something just felt wrong. I couldn’t feel him move. Everything just felt strange. I went to the doctor and he said he couldn’t hear the heartbeat and that I needed to get to the hospital to see if they could hear the heartbeat with better equipment.”

You drove yourself here?” he asked. He tried to imagine his wife driving in traffic knowing that her baby was probably dead. “Uh huh”, she replied. He stood and brushed her hair aside with his hand. “I love you”, he whispered. “I love you too”, she said.

And so it began. The waiting. He had never experienced anything like it before. This must be what it’s like, he thought, to be on death row the night before one’s execution. Only then, the hour is known.

Minutes seemed to last hours. He imagined himself playing catch with his son. He imagined him again as a young man, adjusting his tuxedo in a mirror before the high school prom. Random thoughts flooded his mind. Stop it! Stop it! STOP IT! And yet, he could not stop. Worse, as painful as the thoughts were, there was almost a perverse, twisted, yet comforting pleasure in the exercise. He knew this was as close as he would get experiencing these events, so, why not wallow in them, no matter the pain?

He looked at his wife. He couldn’t imagine what it must be like for her – her constant companion of these past months, now gone. He felt guilty. He should be talking to her, comforting her, supporting her. He felt as if she were lying there, limbs severed, bleeding to death, and he, missing limbs of his own, was unable to stop the flow.

They should have slept, but neither could. The grief, the unanswered questions wouldn’t allow it. And so, the silent vigil continued until the first signs of a distant dawn began to lighten the ink-black sky.

A doctor, different from yesterday, and a nurse appeared. It was time. As the delivery progressed, he peered down and could see the top of the baby’s head. Bright, overhead lights shone down upon him as the nurse turned to him, saying, “He has your color hair”. Under ordinary circumstances, the comment would have been met with a wink or a laugh. Here, now, the young father wailed a long, deep sob. It was the kind of cry that upon hearing, one hopes to never hear again.

Finally, the baby arrived. The mystery was no more complicated than the umbilical cord wrapped tightly, like a hangman’s noose, around the baby’s neck. No genetic disorder, no birth defects, healthy in every way except that terrible one way.

Treating the lifeless body with the same care as if he were alive, the nurse cleaned him, diapered him and wrapped him in a blanket. She put a little knit hat upon his head before gently laying the bundle in his mother’s arms. No words were spoken.

The nurse left the room, leaving the young family alone for the first and last time.