Category: US Government

Negative Tax Rate

I’ve just about got our taxes completed for the year – we expect a huge refund because we have a tax credit that is 30% of the geothermal installation cost (the credit that made our geothermal system cost almost exactly as much as a far less efficient air exchange heat pump). What I didn’t expect was to receive a federal tax refund that exceeds our federal tax payments.

But the child tax credit is refundable – so we have a carry over for next year from the geothermal system and get a thousand bucks for having a kid. At which point, it occurred to me what Trump may be hiding in his tax returns. Not that he pays 0$ in federal taxes (yeah, I paid a whole heap of money to the state, medicare, social security, sales tax, and property tax too … doesn’t change the fact the federal government is literally giving me more money that I paid them this year) but that he finagles his adjusted income to be sufficiently low to qualify for refundable tax credits.

People get outraged when wealthy people pay a lower tax rate than the poor. Even more so when wealthy people literally pay less in taxes. But to have the federal government giving a fairly affluent individual a couple of grand extra … that would be shockingly egregious.

Personally … I didn’t try to get the money beyond including the energy efficiency tax credit in my pricing of geothermal and solar systems. I put all of my info into a tax preparation application and got an answer back. It took me a day to realize that that answer actually exceeded my payments (and that the changes I was trying to model for additional HSA contributions didn’t seem to change our refund any because our refund was maxed out and what was changing was the carry forward on form 5695. I’m also not turning it down. We have paid tens of thousands of dollars in federal taxes each year for decades – I’ll consider it getting an extra grand back from last year.

Government as a Business

We’re getting another attempt to remodel the government as a business. If I had to run the federal government like a business, I sure as hell wouldn’t want to run it like one of Trump’s businesses! But lets ignore whose business.

The problem with the swat team Trump’s announced is that it seems to presuppose that the problem with government is a top-level management issue that could be sorted by sound business practices. What corporation has their top level leadership appointed by its customers? Or even its owners – sure, corporate boards are voted by shareholders … but not the C-level positions. Additionally, what business would almost guarantee multi-year positions to their high level leadership team? Regardless of performance?!

There is something to be said for bringing private sector innovation into government operations — especially at a lower level. Match up individual functions of government agencies with private sector businesses or even non-profits that have similar functionalities. Several government agencies have large logistical operations (FEMA, military) that a logistics company could help. Maybe Habitat for Humanity has ideas that would farther HUD’s goals. University teams may have interesting input too. And marketing — corporate experience would certainly be beneficial in selling legislation and initiatives.

But the fundamental problem I have with the principal that government should run like a business is that few businesses are monopolies. If you don’t like how a business operates, what values they support, the product they create … you shop around and select another one.

There was a whole thing a year or two ago with a baker who didn’t want to make a cake for a homosexual couple’s wedding. But as a customer, I can chose not to contract with a bigoted pastry chef for my events either. It is possible enough people don’t care and she remains in business. Or her choices mean her business goes under. Either way, you are not forced to support her beliefs because there are other bakeries.

Government provides services that cannot be privatized – for reasons of efficiency, non-profitability, or sensibility (privatizing the military security and prisons are a good counter-example of why government should provide these services). As such, I cannot just pick another military if I think the federal one is engaged in too many offensive operations. I cannot select a new environmental protection agency if I think the federal one fails to actually protect the environment.

If we’re going to operate the government like a monopoly (see: industries generally subject to a LOT of regulation), we are not just the customers! The government is a customer owned co-op. One that operates in hundreds of different verticals.

 

 

Read Your Constitution

I hear a few people hopefully speaking of impeachment as the FBI investigates Trump and his campaign for possible collusion with Russia during the 2016 election. Does anyone seriously think impeachment would nullify the election?! So Trump gets impeached. Now we have Pence. Trump minus the populist bits (infrastructure funding, trade protectionism) but with a heaping side of religious zealotry. I don’t care if the dude would personally never be alone in the same room with a woman other than his wife. People have all sorts of out-there principals that they uphold; so long as they don’t expect *me* to follow their dictate … who cares. But legislation banning sex ed, restricting access to birth control, bring back the sodomy laws – homosexual marriage isn’t illegal (so saith the Supreme Court) but so doing will meet the evidentiary requirements for a surveillance warrant at your local PD. Hell, even if you lived in a local and state jurisdiction where they just fail to investigate (and, don’t worry, the feds will threaten to withhold money from these ‘sanctuary cities’ too) … watch out where you vacation. Scrutinize your connecting flights. Hope there isn’t an emergency landing. Point being, Pence isn’t actually better. He has discipline and knowledge of government. He has a shot of getting pet legislation through Congress.

Maybe they’re hoping that Pence goes down with the ship too – great, now we’ve got Ryan. May be a win on the legislating fundamentalist Christian morality front, but we’ve seen his health care plan seven years in the making. Anyone seriously think his tax plan, regulatory plan … are going to be any better.

Then we’ve got Hatch – might be an improvement. Tillerson: government run by what’s best for oil companies! Of course next in line is Mnuchin: government run by what is best for mega-banks. Eventually one of these people will stick around – several were not involved in Trump’s campaign.

Budgeting

There is an incredible amount of money spent on the American military. Trump thinks NATO countries should be spending more on their militaries … and when I first heard this, I assumed it meant he wanted the US to reduce its military spending. Now that some details of his first proposed budget are floating around, it seems he wants to increase American military spending. INCREASE!?! So we’re lowering taxes, increasing military spending, and not touching entitlements (at least not for the elderly, maybe he’ll completely get rid of services for the poor to make up for spending increases and tax cuts?). Basic math fail. I get that Republicans have an odd belief that reducing taxes increases income so much that it offsets the tax reduction … but that’s a gamble (an odd governing methodology for a group claiming to be ‘conservative’). You might get lucky and hit the lottery if you sink next month’s mortgage/rent payment into lottery tickets too … but few will have any sympathy for you when the likely outcome occurs.

Something In Common

There have been a couple of recent articles that highlight how very similar the opposition party’s view of Trump and Obama actually are (although the articles seek to highlight the hypocrisy of objecting to behavior in which you engaged just last year). To some degree, I understand — if I think my position on an issue is the only good, upstanding, moral, godly position … there’s no compromising, the other side is not only WRONG but an immoral force looking to corrupt others. And it’s a logical conclusion that the figurehead of the immoral force is going to be vilified. I didn’t really understand it with Clinton – right-leaning friends acted like the chap had personally offended them. But it’s something that made sense to me with Bush 43. Invading a foreign country on flimsy evidence (that turned out to be wrong) was offensive to me. Maybe not immediately personal as I couldn’t be drafted … but friends getting called back into service because of linguistic skills or SIGINT training is personal. Wasting the country’s money, farther destabilizing a region … and doing so in my name was offensive. Trying to privatize social security was personally offensive (and created my retirement plan of “if social security actually pays out, there’s extra mad money for you”) and impersonally offensive (the government program enacted due in no small part due to the Great Depression and associated stock market collapse was going to allow people to invest money in the stock market because you could make more money that way?!? Seriously, consult big huge event that led to the program in the first place. Then repeat your idea.). I tried to keep this in mind when Obama encountered the immovable Republican congress. No, I don’t understand why getting rid of preexisting condition exceptions is controversial – and I understand why no for-profit business is going to be willing to operate if they have to cover your sudden (and expensive) illness but you don’t have to buy their coverage until you get your diagnosis. And I really don’t get why Republicans who advocated for a lot of the components of the plan suddenly deemed it anathema … except that the figurehead of the opposition is so vile that anything they support must be somehow wrong.

And now those same people think left-wing opponents treat Trump cruelly, use parliamentary machinations to block vital legislation … the people who did exactly that to Obama … don’t see it as the same thing because it IS different to them. A bit like vilifying Pol Pot and then vilifying Mother Theresa. One of them deserves it.

A friend of mine had a thread on Facebook denouncing moral relativism … but moral relativism is what you need to address these situations. Yes, your morals say X is completely wrong. But someone else’s morals say X is the only reasonable course of action … and neither set of morals are wrong. They are just different. Maybe the hope is that the opposing party will just run out of members and lose power forever. Doesn’t seem likely. The alternative is that we have a government vacillating between positions as different parties are elected. There would essentially be a set of laws enacted on day 1 for Republicans that gets completely supplanted with an alternate set of laws enacted on day 1 for Democrats. Long term business planning would be neigh impossible — who knows which set of laws will be in place two years from now! You’d have to develop a business that could comply with either or two different business plans. Even managing your own home would get silly — I want to install solar, but I need to wait until the Democrats come back into office so financial incentives are restored. Want to buy a big gas guzzling vehicle? Better wait until the Republicans are back to suspend fleet fuel economy requirements.

And if we’re going to have a set of laws that essentially ignores the minority (remember majority rule, minority rights … won’t have that anymore) … then we should go farther than what this silly compromise stuff has given us. In R terms, our SS contributions will go into stock funds. Then in D terms, we’ll be buying government bonds. During R terms, you’ll get vouchers and pick whatever school you are willing to drive your kid over to. During D terms, anyone who didn’t pick (a) their local district or (b) a private school they can afford anyway will transfer their kid to the local district. Reductio ad absurdum.

Dodd Frank Rollback & Regulatory Costs

I heard a statistic today that JP Morgan has over 43,000 regulatory and compliance employees — for every four employees doing other ‘stuff’, there’s a regulatory guy. I don’t know who all counts as an employee engaged in banking business (does an HR person count?) or as a regulatory employee (one hour a year doing something related to federal regulations qualifies you?) but I’m willing to take the statement on its face. I don’t necessarily see that as a failing in regulations as a failure in automation.

My Latest Conspiracy Theory (Movie)

There is a logical extrapolation to a world with facts and ‘alternative facts’ — why would alternative facts just be used to refute a report? They can just as easily make a story of their own. Trump has made a lot of outlandish campaign promises — ones that require significant money, legal maneuvering, and time to complete. But why bother completing them at all? You can just say it is done.

So they declare the wall built. Then there’s a whole conspiracy theory about it not actually having been built, people trekking down to Southern Texas and to get pictures of the not.a.wall down there. Government press releases with this huge, aesthetically pleasing, immigration stopping wall. How do you know which is the fact and which is the alternative fact (i.e. an obvious lie).

The problem with lying is you’ve either got to have people sufficiently willing to believe you to overlook the missing logical consequences of whatever you lied about OR you’ve got to create the same conditions either way. There are a lot of people willing to believe Trump *now* … but if they don’t start seeing results, either his wall was a complete waste (yeah, it was – I still say a massive fleet of drones could actually stop human traffic across unauthorized checkpoints for FAR less money — not saying I think the stopping human traffic is a good thing or not, but if we’re hell bent on DOING it, at least DO IT) or illegal immigrants were not the cause of unemployment and huge government spending on entitlements (yeah, they weren’t).

A priori assumption: an insufficient number of people are willing to believe the lie as evidence against it mounts to sustain a re-election campaign. Now they need to recreate their predicted result … government assassins offing some percent of people on public assistance (so they can declare reducing illegal immigration eliminated this money we’ve been wasting) and maybe even offing a random percent of the gainfully employed population (to open up jobs now that illegal immigrants aren’t “stealing our jobs”).

Just need some out there hippy type in an old VW bus cruising around the country trying to stop this murderous conspiracy.

The ISIL Plan

One facet of the campaign that I found fascinating was Trump’s touted secret plan to defeat ISIL. Now, I’ve encountered a lot of situations in politics and business where there really is no good answer, and when pressed repeatedly to come up with *something* … well, if I had figured out the answer to world peace, I’d have already rung up the UN Sec Gen. Solved malnutrition and starvation, I’d have published it on slash-dot. Hell, even if I had solved the P v/s NP problem … I would have TOLD SOMEBODY.

Had I been sitting around my bling’ed out parlor lulled into a zen-like state by the sunlight dancing on the gold, well, everything when the thing that’s been missing all along in our fight against terrorism popped into my mind … what kind of asshole keeps it super-secret hidden and offers to reveal the solution if you’ll vote for him. So, yeah, either a liar or an asshole. (Also, not mutually exclusive).

Well, enough electors voted for him and where’s this super awesome solution? Did Trump think Putin’s praise meant Russia would pressure Syria to get the whole terrorism thing sorted? Implying Trump thinks Syria could do something to stop ISIL if only they tried … which is almost more frightening than many of the other points of ignorance the man has shown in the last few years. Did Trump think there was actually a good plan on the Chairman of the Joint Chief’s desk but Obama refused to implement this plan — so Trump’s plan was to say “OK, General, do it”?

Doesn’t bother me that the dude doesn’t have a plan (lets be honest, I assumed he didn’t have a plan as soon as he started spouting off about it), but why doesn’t anyone call him on yet another broken campaign promise?

Elector Unfairness

Gore won the popular vote in 2000, but the electoral college process subverted the popular decision and irrevocably changed our country’s history. Essentially this country is set up to elect Republicans, and only a supremely popular Democrat can win. This year, though, we’ll see if a Republican can actually be unpopular enough to overcome the party’s advantage.

What advantage? Well — each state has a specific number of electors based on population but (a) at least one and (b) they also each have two more electors. Three electors doesn’t seem like it should make a big difference, but calculate the number of people represented by each elector in the most and least populous states and the impact is clear. One elector from California represents 713,000 people. One elector from Wyoming represents 195,000. And, yeah, Texas may be conservative and Vermont may be liberal … but on the whole, Republicans have an electoral advantage.

 

State Electors  Population  # People / Elector
Wyoming 3              586,000                   195,333
Vermont 3              626,000                   208,667
Alaska 3              663,000                   221,000
North Dakota 3              758,000                   252,667
South Dakota 3              865,000                   288,333
Delaware 3              946,000                   315,333
Montana 3           1,042,000                   347,333
Illinois 20         12,801,000                   640,050
Pennsylvania 20         12,802,000                   640,100
New York 29         19,795,000                   682,586
Florida 29         20,612,000                   710,759
Texas 38         27,862,000                   733,211
California 55         39,250,000                   713,636

 

 

Tax and Budget Reform

I wish there was a decent way to file RFE’s (request for enhancements) with the federal government. I can’t do a thing about the complexity of the tax code or the annoyance of having to spend a weekend filling out forms just to get my money back. But there’s existing tax code for charitable deductions (although you can fall afoul of the AMT if you donate too much of your income … so that may need a little rewrite here). Create a new tax deductible donation categorization for government entities — then each department of the government not get themselves registered as a not-for-profit-goverment-entity that qualifies for tax deductible charitable donations. I would feel a LOT better about paying 10k in taxes this year if I knew the money was going toward departments I support (and not going to departments I do not support). I could literally donate every dollar I owe in taxes to specific departments – then get my payroll deduction contributions completely refunded (bonus, US government, you got the interest on my payroll deductions since you held on to them). Don’t want to bother? Then don’t – your payroll deductions will get allocated out for you through the budgeting process.

With a significant adoption rate, if no one wants to fund the Department of Whatever, then the people writing the budget could well take that as a hint. Obviously that’s not a perfect rule – no one wants to fund the IRS, but you’re still going to need someone to handle tax collection & filing (at least until you manage to sort out the tax code & processes). But someone who advocates eliminating the Department of Education may be surprised how many people voluntarily earmark their taxes for Education. Or the military industrial complex may be shocked that donations don’t approach the 60% or 16% (depending on your point of view of “all spending”) of the federal budget that goes into the military and Homeland Security.