Tax Day 2014

Oliver Wendell Holmes once quipped, “Taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society.” I believe he was mistaken. Taxes are actually the price we pay for our lack of civility. A truly civilized society would find non-coercive means to finance necessary services and eliminate altogether the unnecessary ones that seem to make up the lion’s share of government spending today.

So in honor of Tax Day 2014, I’ve pulled together a few links on the subject. To start off, you might enjoy a couple of articles about the sunny side of being looted each April.

Emma Brockes of The Guardian begins with an article about how the IRS ordeal offers one an opportunity to reflect on the ups and downs of the prior year. Personally I’d rather do that for free on my birthday, but Ms. Brockes is obviously a glass-half-full kind of person.

Derek Thompson of The Atlantic provides a number of charts intended to convince us that giving up at least a third of our income is actually a good thing, comparatively speaking. Echoing Justice Holmes, he informs us that “taxes are a keen reflection of what we value as a country.” Evidently we Americans value undeclared wars, empire, intergenerational theft, and interest on the borrowed money used to pay for it all.

CNN’s Julian Zelizer is worried that at least a third of one’s income isn’t enough money to throw into the gaping maw of the US government, and encourages Democrats to raise taxes even more (mainly on people who make more money than he does). He longs for the days of the 90% tax bracket. As if in answer to Mr. Zelizer’s request, Americans for Tax Reform remind us that President Obama has attempted to raise taxes 442 times since he took office (this number excludes the taxes that were signed into law as part of the Affordable [sic] Care Act).

Some of the less sycophantic articles have turned up a few interesting tax-related tidbits. Although not income-tax related, a man in Chicago allegedly pulled a gun in a store over a twenty-two cent tax on soda. The man told police that he was exempt from the sin tax because he lived in the neighborhood. The police disagreed with his interpretation of the law. Fortunately no one was harmed in the incident, but had he lived in New York City during the Bloomberg years things might have gotten really out of hand.

And CNN reminds us that laws do not apply to lawmakers. Of the 39 members of the House Ways and Means Committee, the group responsible for writing tax law, at least eight have had problems with paying their taxes on time (if at all).

The Internal Revenue Service, facing stiff competition from the TSA and NSA for the coveted “Most Reviled Agency in American Government” award, has upped its game and decided that the debts of the father are now the debts of the son. They are collecting back taxes owed by deceased taxpayers from the surviving children. Evidently the agency isn’t content to rifle through the pockets of widows and orphans with the estate tax.

But enough with the downers already! Tax Day is depressing enough as it is. So Kate Incontrera of The Daily Reckoning outlines some of the stranger taxes Americans pay. Take the candy tax in Illinois, for example, which hits Tootsie Rolls at 6.25% but sensibly only taxes Kit Kats at 1%. And between 2005 and 2009, Tennessee levied taxes on marijuana, cocaine, meth, and crack (until someone reminded the state legislature that those things were actually illegal).

And finally, the always entertaining Remy gives us the Tax Day Edition of the song “Happy.” Enjoy!


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Terms and Conditions

The New Yorker recently ran a piece in its “Shouts & Murmurs” humor section titled “L.P.D.: Libertarian Police Department.” It’s a mildly funny parody, but I thought its real value lay in illustrating (once again) that the statists are getting really nervous about libertarianism.

The consistently excellent Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic wrote a counter-satire titled (naturally), “N.L.P.D: Non-Libertarian Police Department”. The difference between the two is that The New Yorker piece is based on the author’s caricature of libertarians, whereas The Atlantic piece is based on all-too-real events (complete with hyperlinks).

I have no intention of trying to outdo Friedersdorf’s response here. I’m not that good. But it did make me wonder what it might be like if companies were to offer their services according to the government’s terms and conditions. I think the exchange might go something like this:


CUSTOMER: I’m considering hiring your firm to protect me, my family, and our valuables.

SALES REP: No problem. Happy to do that for you, sir. Here is our rate sheet, but I wouldn’t waste too much time on that if I were you.

CUSTOMER: Why not?

SALES REP: Well, for one thing it’s thousands of pages long and no single human being can actually decipher it – not even our Accounts Receivable department can give you a correct answer when you call them to ask a question about billing. Besides that, our rates are subject to change at any moment, and at the end of the day we’re just going to take whatever amount we feel you owe us. Oh, and just to be clear although we are the sole provider of protective services in the area, you should not construe that as any guarantee that we will actually protect you from the bad guys.

CUSTOMER: What do you mean? Isn’t that exactly what I’m paying you for?

SALES REP: Only in a very general sense. But you can’t expect us to accept responsibility for the quality of the services we purport to provide.

CUSTOMER: But if someone breaks into my house and steals my television you’ll at least replace the television, right?

SALES REP: That’s not exactly how the process works. Instead of making you whole for your loss, we’ll write up a report. And if we do manage to catch the thief we’ll make an effort to lock him in a cage for a while.

CUSTOMER: So how does that help me? I’m still out a television.

SALES REP: True, but as long as the thief is locked up he won’t be able to steal anyone else’s television. And the cost to you for his incarceration is already included in the rate, so no worries on that score.

CUSTOMER: You mean I’d be out the cost of your services, have to replace the television at my own expense, and then have to pay for the thief’s upkeep as well?

SALES REP: Yes, sir.

CUSTOMER:  I’m not really seeing the value proposition here.  Maybe I should just look for another company.

SALES REP: Oh, no sir. I’m afraid we don’t allow other firms to compete with us in this geographic service area – it would really eat into our profit margins. Some customers tried that several years back and it did not end well. But if you are dissatisfied with our service for any reason whatsoever, you’ll be glad to know that you can vote for a different Chairman of the Board once every four years.

CUSTOMER: What kind of choices do I have for Chairman?

SALES REP: Well, the specifics vary somewhat from term to term, but you’ll always get to choose between someone from our Sales division and someone from Marketing.

CUSTOMER: But they’re always from the same company? How does that help me make any substantive changes if I’m not happy?

SALES REP: Substantive changes? We don’t really do that here, sir. But like our corporate motto says, “If you don’t vote, you can’t complain.”

CUSTOMER: So let me get this straight. You expect me to pay you whatever amount of money you unilaterally decide you deserve for purporting to protect me, my family, and my property.

SALES REP: Yes, that’s right.

CUSTOMER: But there’s nothing that actually requires you to provide that protection, and I’m not allowed to look for another company.

SALES REP: Exactly, sir.

CUSTOMER: That’s insane. I’m not signing up for this ridiculous protection racket!

SALES REP: Sir, I would strongly encourage you to reconsider.


SALES REP: Well, as I said before, we don’t really allow that sort of thing. Listen, I don’t normally like to bring this up during a sales call, but you do see that I’m very well armed, right?

CUSTOMER: Yes, I see that. Are you threatening me now?

SALES REP: We don’t really like to use the word “threat.” We did a focus group and found it has some negative connotations with certain key demographics. We much prefer the phrase “performing one’s civic duty.” It trends better.

CUSTOMER: And if I don’t feel like “performing my civic duty?”

SALES REP: We’ll send you a bill for non-performance.

CUSTOMER: And if I refuse to pay the bill?

SALES REP: We’ll throw you in a cage until you change your mind.

CUSTOMER: And if I don’t go willingly into your stupid cage? What if I decide to fight back?

SALES REP: Well, sir, as I said – I’m very well armed.

CUSTOMER: Can I move outside your company’s service area?

SALES REP: You’re free to do that, of course. You’ll just have to pay us an early termination fee and check in with us each year for ten years after you move. But you should understand that every area on Earth is covered by firms just like ours (though I honestly believe our firm is the best one there’s ever been). And despite certain differences in management style and marketing, I think you’ll find they generally all operate according to the same terms and conditions I’ve already outlined for you today.

CUSTOMER: Well then, I guess I have no choice. Where do I sign?

SALES REP: No need, sir. Your mere existence in this particular region implies your acceptance of all our terms and conditions, whatever they may be at any given moment.

CUSTOMER: Are you serious? You just assumed I would agree to all this?

SALES REP: Absolutely. We couldn’t do our job without our customers’ support, so we just take that support for granted. Really streamlines the paperwork. And speaking of paperwork, if you have a few minutes you can go online and fill out our customer service questionnaire, one being the lowest and five being the highest. I certainly hope I’ve been able to provide you five-star service today (but it’s not as if my pay depends on your satisfaction). Have a nice day, sir!

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Lagniappe – April 2014

Golden State Update

Following up on my earlier post titled, “California’s Public Sector Crime Spree,” Angela Spaccia has been sentenced to almost twelve years in prison for her participation in the Bell corruption scandal. That participation included “misappropriation of public funds, conspiracy, falsification of government records,” and various other felonies. And Leland Yee, the gun-grabbing state senator who was busted by the FBI for gun-running, pleaded not guilty. As is typical for public-sector employees under indictment, he has been suspended with pay (what those of us in the private sector would call “vacation”).

And speaking of California’s public sector workers, the Centinela Valley Union High School District school board asked Superintendent Jose Fernandez to step down now that it has been revealed that they paid him $674,559 last year, which equates to just over $100 per student in the district (and almost twice what the superintendent of the much larger Los Angeles Unified School District makes).


The Wonderful World of Warrantless Wiretaps

Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has joined the board of directors for Dropbox. Rice, who defended the FISA courts and the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping during the Bush years, says she’s looking forward to helping Dropbox navigate the debate “about how exactly to manage privacy concerns.” Others are less enthusiastic about her navigational skills, and are encouraging users to “Drop Dropbox.”

And speaking of spying, the US government has denied Angela Merkel’s requests to see her NSA file. This should not come as a surprise, given that the Obama administration just received a “Jefferson Muzzle” award, which is presented by the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression to people and institutions that excel at violating the First Amendment.


Really, I’m Not

Republican Mike Huckabee made the news this week when he explained (with a straight face) that he’s not homophobic. “I’m not against anybody. I’m really not. I’m not a hater.” I’m really hoping he runs in 2016, because he’s a steady source of blog material (and I took great pleasure when I saw Apple’s auto-correct function changed “Huckabee” to “Huckster”).


The Ever-Expanding Axis of Evil

David “Axis of Evil” Frum just published a piece on CNN to express his deep concern that President Obama is not sufficiently interventionist. But then again, who is interventionist enough for the likes of Frum, who never met a country he didn’t want to invade? As The New York Times columnist Peter Bergen wrote of Obama back in 2012,

“He overthrew the Libyan dictator. He ramped up drone attacks in Pakistan, waged effective covert wars in Yemen and Somalia and authorized a threefold increase in the number of American troops in Afghanistan. He became the first president to authorize the assassination of a United States citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki, who was born in New Mexico and played an operational role in Al Qaeda, and was killed in an American drone strike in Yemen. And, of course, Mr. Obama ordered and oversaw the Navy SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

Ironically, the president used the Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech as an occasion to articulate his philosophy of war. He made it very clear that his opposition to the Iraq war didn’t mean that he embraced pacifism — not at all.”

Not at all.

But that’s not enough for Mr. Frum, speechwriter and cheerleader for the Bush administration’s wildly successful adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now he’s lobbying Obama to stick our collective nose in Iran, Syria, Ukraine, and Venezuela. What could possibly go wrong?


On The Cover of the Rolling Stone

Rolling Stone magazine continues to shoot itself in the foot. Not content to publish economic advice columns from avowed communists, they’ve now put a picture of Julia Louis-Dreyfus on the cover of their April issue. She’s got a copy of the Constitution printed on her bare back…complete with John Hancock’s signature.

And they wonder why their circulation is less than that of Everyday with Rachel Ray.


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Things Could Be Worse

As regular readers are aware, I am a frequent international traveler. As a matter of fact, I just got back from a business trip to Australia (which is one of the reasons that I wasn’t able to post anything sooner). International travel offers a number of benefits, but one of the most important may be the sense of perspective that results from going abroad and seeing how the rest of the world lives. As a US-based libertarian, I can find any number of things to complain about (as 99% of this blog will attest), but it is always beneficial to step back occasionally and remind oneself that things could be worse – and that for much of the world’s population, they are.

Take India, for example. A few months ago, Indian officials charged a group of Kashmiri students with sedition because they cheered for Pakistan in a cricket match against India. Those charges were dropped once the news broke and Indian authorities were subject to global ridicule, but those same authorities may yet press charges of “disrupting communal harmony” against the group.

And now it appears that Pakistan is determined not to be outdone by its Indian counterparts. The BBC reports that Pakistani authorities have charged a nine-month old baby with planning a murder, threatening police and interfering in state affairs.

I’ll give you a minute to let that last sentence really sink in.

Adult human beings in Pakistan hauled a toddler, Muhammad “Babyface” Mosa Khan, into court of “law” to defend himself against charges of attempted murder and threatening the local police. The child has been released on bail pending his next hearing (no word on whether he’ll be tried as an adult). At no point in this process did anyone in the local Lahore government demand the charges be dropped, although the Chief Minister has since asked for “clarification” from the local police. The assistant superintendent who filed the charges was also suspended – but again, only after the news hit the international press.

This is not to say that we in the US and the rest of the developed world should set the bar so low – having a legal system that is only marginally better than that of India or Pakistan would be nothing to cheer about. Injustices in our courts are commonplace, and it is right that we point them out and seek to remedy them. But in doing so it is easy to lose our sense of perspective, and forget that things could be worse.

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California’s Public Sector Crime Spree

The great state of California is now suffering one of the worst crime sprees in its history. New stories of high-profile crimes committed against the citizens of the Golden State appear almost daily. The criminal activity has occurred at a number of different places and at different times of day, with no clear MO. Nevertheless I believe I have found the common thread linking all of these heinous events.

They were all committed by public sector employees.

Let’s start with the city of Bell, California, where five members of the city council were found guilty of bilking their constituents for millions of dollars. As The LA Times reports,

“Former council members Oscar Hernandez, George Cole, George Mirabal, Teresa Jacobo and Victor Bello last year were found guilty of misappropriation of public funds, the result of drawing paychecks for serving on boards that seldom, if ever, met. Sitting on these boards pushed council salaries to high as $100,000 a year in a city of less than 40,000 people.”

Two other city employees, Robert Rizzo and Angela Spaccia, were also convicted of various felonies related to the corruption scandal (but unlike the other convicted felons from the Bell city council, they haven’t sued the city over their convictions – yet).

As egregious as the Bell scandal was, it doesn’t hold a candle to the thoroughly depraved behavior exhibited by an “educator” in the Los Angeles Unified School District. I won’t go into the gory details here, but Mark Berndt, a (now former) teacher at the Miramonte Elementary School in south Los Angeles, pleaded no contest last year to 23 counts of lewd acts with children and was sentenced to 25 years in prison (which is roughly thirteen months per child abused).

Okay, so there are some issues that need to be ironed out with a few of our city councils and school systems. But that’s just the kind of thing the police can reign in.

Unless the police themselves are also the perpetrators. Case in point is Kelly Thomas, a homeless man with mental problems who was beaten to death by two Fullerton police officers. The entire beating of the clearly defenseless and non-resistant Thomas was captured on video, but both officers were recently acquitted of all charges.  As their attorney stated, “These peace officers [sic] were doing their jobs…they did what they were trained to do.”


But that was here in Orange County. Surely things are better in Los Angeles, right? Perhaps, although it bears mentioning that the FBI is currently investigating the LA County sheriff’s office over its treatment of an informant who made allegations of abuse by officers.

Okay, so there are some issues that need to be ironed out with the local constables. But that’s just the kind of thing the California state legislature could reign in – if it wasn’t busy with a few scandals of its own.

The California State Senate recently voted to suspend three of its finest Democrats. State Senator Ron Calderon has been indicted on corruption charges. State Senator Rod Wright was convicted of voter fraud. And as you have no doubt heard already, the distinguished gentleman from San Francisco, Leland Yee, was recently arrested by the FBI on corruption and gun trafficking charges. Given his record as one of the legislature’s great gun-grabbers, the allegation that he was selling M16s on the side makes a lot of sense (it’s a bootleggers and Baptists kind of thing, with Yee as a bootlegging Baptist). Now that he has been arrested, Mr. Yee has decided to remove his name from consideration for California Secretary of State.

Okay, so there are some issues that need to be ironed out with the Democrat Party. But that’s just the kind of thing the Republicans could reign in, right?

Well, maybe not. It appears that one of the GOP’s four gubernatorial candidates, Glenn Champ, is a registered sex offender who spent over ten years in prison for various and sundry offenses such as involuntary manslaughter and assault with intent to commit rape. We’ll call him a longshot for a career in Sacramento.

Okay, so there are some issues that need to be ironed out with the Republican Party, too. But these are all state and local problems, which are just the kind of thing the Feds could reign in.

Unless they’re too busy prosecuting one of their own Customs officials for participating in a drug smuggling ring for the past ten years.

Geez – and I haven’t even mentioned the concerns over how $40 million of taxpayer money was spent by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Now that I put all of these incidents down on paper, it really does seem like California is a lost cause.

Maybe I should just move to Charlotte, North Carolina. Things have to be better over there…right?

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The Homage Vice Pays to Virtue

For those of us inclined to hold the state in low regard, the Edward Snowden revelations are the gift that just keeps on giving. The exposure of rampant lawlessness and blatant disregard for the privacy of law-abiding citizens around the world has put the US and British governments on the defensive, and some of the ham-fisted responses by government officials have been both informative and entertaining.

Case in point is the reaction by the odious Dianne Feinstein upon learning that the Senate committee investigating allegations of torture by the CIA may have been spied upon by the very same CIA. Prior to this revelation, Ms. Feinstein had never met a domestic spying program that she didn’t like – as long as the spying was directed at us, and not at her (“It’s called protecting America!”). Better writers than I have already written about her obvious and thoroughly disgusting hypocrisy on this subject, so I won’t bother commenting further.

I will, however, point to a similarly ludicrous degree of hypocrisy displayed by the British government. As I mentioned in the previous post (“Striking an Optic Nerve”), the UK spy agency GCHQ has evidently been eavesdropping on millions of Yahoo video chat users. Not surprisingly, Yahoo’s management took offense to being used by GCHQ to violate the privacy and trust of its users. In response, it is now considering relocating its EMEA headquarters from London to Dublin, where it would not be subject to Scotland Yard’s demands for user data and other information under the UK’s rather wide-ranging (and far-fetched) anti-terrorism laws.

Here comes the funny part.

Theresa May, the current Home Secretary, has summoned Yahoo to an emergency meeting to express her…security concerns. But it’s the government’s security she’s concerned about, not Yahoo’s. As The Guardian reports,

“The home secretary called the meeting with Yahoo to express the fears of Britain’s counter-terrorism investigators. They can force companies based in the UK to provide information on their servers by seeking warrants under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, 2000 (Ripa).

The law, now under review by a parliamentary committee, has been widely criticised for giving police and the intelligence agencies too much access to material such as current emails and internet searches, as well as anything held on company records.

However, the Guardian has been told that Charles Farr, the head of the office for security and counter-terrorism (OSCT) within the Home Office, has been pressing May to talk to Yahoo because of anxiety in Scotland Yard’s counter-terrorism command about the effect the move to Dublin could have on their inquiries.

Farr, a former senior intelligence officer, coordinates the work of Scotland Yard and the security service MI5, to prevent terrorist attacks in the UK.

‘There are concerns in the Home Office about how Ripa will apply to Yahoo once it has moved its headquarters to Dublin,’ said a Whitehall source. ‘The home secretary asked to see officials from Yahoo because in Dublin they don’t have equivalent laws to Ripa. This could particularly affect investigations led by Scotland Yard and the national crime agency. They regard this as a very serious issue.’”

So in essence Ms. May is worried that a move to Dublin might actually accomplish the goals of moving to Dublin, and that if Yahoo were subject to Irish law it would be operating in an environment that lacks the overly broad police powers enjoyed by Her Majesty’s Secret Service(s).

If it is true, as Francois de LaRochefoucauld said, that hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue, then virtue must be blushing from all the flattery heaped upon it by both Ms. Feinstein and Ms. May. The rest of us, however, can only feel insulted.

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Striking an Optic Nerve

The Guardian now reports that the British spy agency, GCHQ, has engaged in widespread surveillance of millions of users of Yahoo’s video chat service. With help from the NSA (naturally), the UK government “intercepted and stored the webcam images of millions of internet users not suspected of wrongdoing.” The program was (is?) called “Optic Nerve.”

According to the documents revealed by Edward Snowden, it seems that the GCHQ’s only real qualm about Optic Nerve was that its spies’ tender sensibilities might be offended by “inappropriate” sexual material they were being paid to watch in the state-sponsored voyeurism program. The GCHQ reminded its staff that, “under GCHQ’s offensive material policy, the dissemination of offensive material is a disciplinary offence.” So you can watch all day long, just don’t e-mail your co-workers about it.

The revelations from The Guardian have prompted three US senators (Democrats Udall, Wyden, and Heinrich) to demand answers about the NSA’s involvement with the program, as the Optic Nerve peepshow was not limited to UK residents. US citizens were also caught up in the dragnet.

“We are extremely troubled by today’s press report that a very large number of individuals – including law-abiding Americans – may have had private videos of themselves and their families intercepted and stored without any suspicion of wrongdoing. If this report is accurate it would show a breathtaking lack of respect for the privacy and civil liberties of law-abiding citizens.”

Udall, Wyden, and Heinrich have been vocal critics of the NSA since news of its programs was revealed. And Optic Nerve’s targeting of the Yahoo video chat service is just another in a long list of, shall we say, questionable spy programs revealed by Edward Snowden. Since he went off the NSA reservation, we’ve learned that the NSA was spying on Angry Birds users, and spent untold hours spying on World of Warcraft games (coming up with nothing but a +5 battle axe for their troubles). And GCHQ also considered hacking Microsoft to spy on Xbox Kinect users (because as we all know, the terrorists hatch their evil schemes while playing Dance Dance Revolution).

I’m not sure what, if any, effect these latest revelations will have on the debate over warrantless spying (to the degree there is one). They could lead people finally to realize that the agencies’ actions are so far removed from any rational tie to legitimate national security interests that they simply must be reined in. Then again, they could lead people finally to realize that the agencies’ actions are so idiotic and childish that they can be safely ignored, or at least tolerated – annoying and incompetent, maybe, but something that we just have to live with from now on (like a virtual TSA).

I’d prefer the former, but I expect the latter.

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