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Ron Paul has made me miss Ralph Nader

As unelectable politicians popular with teenagers go, I have to say, I'm really feeling some serious nostalgia for Ralph Nader now that I've seen what Ron Paul mania looks lie. It may be that I came closer to agreeing with Nader than I do with Paul.Or, now that I think about it, maybe it's just that Nader's supporters didn't delude themselves into thinking he had a shot at anything more than a few percent of the vote, so they didn't come across quite so insane.But man, I can't wait for the Republican primary to be over. The political boards here are getting close to unreadable.

Wikipedia is addictive.

During the course of one of my many arguments on these boards, I noticed that the person I was arguing with was using some pretty sketchy sources. Some quick google work verified that he was relying on a wikipedia article. Part of the issue was that he was misquoting the article to make it sound more like it supported his position, but it wasn't a very good article to begin with. Since the information in question was about tax-exempt organizations, and I am familiar with where to find filings for U.S. tax-exempt organizations, I decided to update the article with information straight from the horse's mouth. Big mistake. Two days later, I'm completely addicted to editing articles. I've even created one of my own, which I'm sure will bore anyone who reads it to tears. 8) Someone save me...

Outed by Google ads.

I think it's really cool that Gmail displays targeted ads based on the content of my conversations.  But apparently they've decided to take it to the next level and recommend lifestyle changes.  My ads at the moment:

1.  Premiere Finishing School for ladies.
2.  Quality Underbust Corsets
3.  Crossdressing Community
4.  Makeup tips for transvestites.

Here I was feeling all manly, and it turns out all along my online behavior is that of a pudgy, ill-mannered transvestite.  

Using tradition to hide prejudice

In arguments about the legalization of same-sex marriage, I often hear people claim that their opposition to same-sex marriage is motivated not by prejudice or hatred toward gay people or homosexuality in general, but by respect for marriage as a tradition.  My approach in general is to point out that in an equal protection analysis, tradition alone is not a justification for denial of equal rights.  But by focusing on the rights involved, I think I've let people get away with a fast one.  I've let people use tradition as a red herring for the prejudice that actually motivates them. Essentially, I don't think anyone actually believes that tradition is worth protecting unless there is a reason to support that tradition.

In the context of marriage, we have changed tradition many times just within the short history of our nation.  Past changes in the traditional definition of marriage to allow black people to get married, or to allow interracial couples, or to allow interfaith couples, were bitterly opposed at the time, but now are generally accepted, because our social mores have changed and legal discrimination based on race is considered abhorrent to nearly everyone.  This indicates that even to folks currently defending the tradition of marriage, changing the definition of marriage is not a bad thing in and of itself, if the current definition results in discrimination of a sort that they disapprove of.

Changing the definition of marriage to allow same-sex marriage, however, is still roundly denounced.  Given that the same group thinks it was fine to change tradition where they thought the reasons for doing so were valid, it's hard for me to see how the current opposition can be motivated by anything other than distaste for homosexuality.  That is, the reason that this particular change is considered bad is not because tradition is sacrosanct, but because this particular change in tradition is distasteful. And I can only conclude that the reason this change is distasteful in a way that previous changes were not is due to the belief that homosexuality is wrong (or at the least, that it should be treated as inferior to heterosexuality). 

In other words, the righteous indignation I so often see in response to assertions that opposition to same-sex marriage is motivated by prejudice is unfounded.  While I understand that no one likes to think of themselves as prejudiced, it would make these arguments much more honest if we could stop pretending that it is respect for tradition rather than belief in the superiority of heterosexuality that motivates opposition to same-sex marriage.

New York Drops the Ball on Same-Sex Marriage

I started this discussion originally on my board, but I thought I'd post it here as well. 

The New York Court of Appeals upheld a state law banning same-sex marriage.  The court held that marriage was a fundamental right, which is a promising sign for marriage rights, but held that that right is only fundamental for heterosexual couples. 

From a constitutional perspective, I think the court here simply got it wrong.  They agreed that marriage was a fundamental right, but argued that same-sex marriage can't be a fundamental right because it is a relatively new concept.  As a result, rather than applying strict scrutiny, the court approached this case as though the key question is whether there is any rational reason to allow opposite-sex marriage that might not apply as strongly to same-sex marriage, and concluded that (1) because opposite-sex couples are more likely to reproduce than same-sex couples, encouraging a stable environment for raising children is a rational reason to support opposite-sex marriage that a state could rationally conclude does not apply with as much force to same-sex marriage, and (2) children benefit more from having two parents of opposite sex as role models, and opposite-sex marriage encourages that environment.

Even leaving aside the complete lack of evidence for the second of those two potential "rational" bases, I thought the dissent had the better argument regarding whether marriage is a fundamental right--you cannot recognize marriage as a fundamental right, but deny that right to a particular group solely because that group has historically been denied that right.  That is, the court defined the right at stake too narrowly--they cast it as a request for recognition of a new right to same-sex marriage, rather than a request for recognition of the existing right to marriage itself.  I think the dissent raised another interesting argument--even assuming the Court was correct that same-sex marriage is not a fundamental right, the question ought not to be whether there is a rational basis for granting benefits to opposite-sex couples, but whether there exists a legitimate basis for excluding same-sex couples.   That is, the question even under the Court's rational-basis approach should be whether excluding same-sex couples from marriage rationally further a legitimate state interest.  Cast that way, I think it is much harder to find rational support for the ban.

Tax policy Primer, Pt. II: Progressivity

It's been a while, but I finally am trying to finish this series. This post will deal with how our current federal tax system is structured, and will then discuss the arguments for and against a progressive tax structure.  I have no doubt that I will leave something important out, but I thought it would be best to finally get this damned thing done.

Our tax structure:

Our tax system, at the federal level, consists primarily of a progressive income tax, coupled with regressive income-based payroll taxes (as well as some excise taxes that I don't know enough to discuss intelligently, but which don't account for a large portion of our tax base). 

Just to clarify some terminology that comes up often in these discussions, "progressive" means that as your income rises beyond certain thresholds, additional earnings are taxed at a higher rate.  For example, someone earning $10,000 may pay 10% tax on that $10,000.  Someone earning $15,000, however, would pay 10% tax on the first $10,000 he earns, but might then pay 20% tax on the remaining $5,000.  Thus, his marginal income tax rate (the rate of tax he pays on each new dollar he earns) is 20%.  His effective income tax rate (meaning the total amount of tax paid as a percentage of his total income), however, would be roughly 13.3%.  The income tax currently has a top marginal rate of 35%, which applies to taxable income (meaning income net of any deductions to which you may be entitled) in excess of $326,450.

In addition to the progressive income tax, our system imposes a payroll tax on wage earnings, of which 1/2 is deducted directly from an employee's paycheck, and half is paid by the employer.  A portion of this tax applies to all wage earnings, but the bulk of it (the portion reserved for social security and medicare) applies only to the first approximately $90,000 in wages.  In other words, payroll taxes are regressive: persons earning less than $90,000 pay a higher percentage of their earnings than persons earning more than $90,000.

Under our tax system, corporations are treated as taxpayers separate from their shareholders, and are subject to a tax of roughly 35% (although a lower rate applies to small corporations).  This leads to the potential for double taxation, since earnings will be taxed to the corporation, and will then be taxed to the shareholders as income when the corporation pays a dividend.  In practice, this risk is relatively small, but it was politically potent enough to lead to a recent change in our tax laws: dividends from corporations are now taxed at 15%, instead of at the normal marginal income tax rates.

Gains from property purchased for investment (capital gains) are also subject to a favored tax rate.  The rationale for this was to encourage liquidity of investments.  Gain in value of property held for investment is not taxed until the property is sold or otherwise disposed of.  As a result, if property increases in value, there is an incentive to hold on to the property rather than to sell it.  It was thought that by lowering the capital gains tax rate, we would encourage people to sell their investment property, which some thought would result in a boost to the economoy.

Finally, we charge an estate and gift tax for transfers of property at death or during life.  Lifetime gifts of wealth in excess of an aggregate total of $1,000,000 are subject to taxation on a graduated scale.  The maximum marginal tax rate is currently 46%.  Transfers of wealth upon death are subject to tax only to the extent that the estate exceeds a certain minimum threshold.  At present, that threshold is $2,000,000, but it will increase each year until 2009, where it will reach $3,500,000.  Estates over that minimum amount are taxed on a progressive scale, with a maximum rate that is currently 46%, but will decline to 45% beginning next year, and will drop to 35% beginning in 2010. 

The current tax burden:

At present, the average effective federal tax rate, including all federal taxes, is 21%.  That is, the average federal tax burden for an individual is 21% of their income.  Broken down by tax type, the average person pays federal income tax of 10.3%, payroll tax of 8.3%, estate tax of 0.2%, and corporate income tax of 2.4% (that is, the corporate income tax results in a 2.4% reduction in income to the individual shareholder).  This burden is distributed progressively, however, so that persons in the bottom quintile pay an average effective tax rate of 3.3%, while persons in the top quintile pay roughly 25.4%.  A further breakdown is available here.

The argument for and against progressivity:

Our tax system has been progressive to various degrees since its inception.  However, some believe that progressivity inhibits economic growth by making each additional dollar earned worth less (and thereby discouraging earning past a certain point).  In addition, some have expressed concerns over the fairness of charging higher rates to some people than to others.  Some also view progressive taxation as punishment for achievement. 

There are several arguments used to justify progressive taxation.  The first is based on the burden caused by taxation: As income levels rise, a greater portion of income is disposable income, and therefore, a wealthier person is burdened less by a high tax rate than a poorer person.  Another common argument is that the wealthy benefit most from the existence of government, and therefore have the highest obligation to contribute to funding it.  A third is that the marginal utility of wealth decreases with each additional dollar earned, and that some redistribution of wealth helps society operate more efficiently.

I spent more time than I meant on the current system, and less on the actual merits of progressivity, but I don't think I can write anymore right now. :D  Anyway, comments are welcome.

Tax Policy Primer, Pt. I: History

The current administration has placed a heavy emphasis on both cutting the overall tax burden and on redistributing the burden so that percentage that those with large incomes pay is not as much higher than the percentage that those with small incomes pay. I thought it might be helpful, since these issues come up on the forums quite often, to have a basic primer on the issues involved in redistributing the tax burden, as well as on some of the mechanics of taxation, since it can be a bit complicated and the media doesn’t always do a great job of explaining things.

This first installment is mainly background: how we got our income tax and what restrictions are placed on it by the constitution. It is not meant to be a comprehensive guide, but merely an overview. Future installments will discuss how taxes actually work, and the issues involved in progressive taxation and redistribution of income.

What gave the government the power to take our money in the first place?

Our founding fathers, recognizing that our government would need some way to pay for itself, gave Congress extremely broad powers to levy taxes. Article I, section 8 of the Constitution provides that “The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States.”

Thus the power of Congress to collect tax was limited in its scope only to the requirement that they be used to provide for the common defense and general welfare (a phrase whose interpretation is often disputed). The manner in which Congress could levy taxes, however, had substantial limits. First, all taxes were required to be uniform throughout the United States. In other words, Congress couldn’t create different rates for citizens of different states. Second, Article I, Section 9 provides that “No Capitation, or other direct, Tax shall be laid, unless in Proportion to the Census of Enumeration herein before directed to be taken.” That is, “direct taxes” such as taxes on real or personal property (or, at the time, slaves) could only be levied on the basis of state population, and not on the basis of income. Other forms of taxation had no such limitation.

In the late 19th century, the Supreme Court ruled income taxation unconstitutional for the reason that part of income is derived from property, making it a “direct tax.” This came despite an earlier ruling upholding an income tax during the Civil War. For a short period after this, the Court issued a series of rather conflicted rulings regarding whether or not certain types of taxes were “direct” or not. This resulted in the corporate income tax being considered constitutional, even though an individual income tax was not. There was speculation that the Court was on its way to reversing its ruling that income tax was unconstitutional. The distinction between “direct” and other taxes was eliminated, rendering the issue moot, however, when the 16th amendment was passed, giving Congress the power “to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived, without apportionment among the several States, and without regard to any census or enumeration.” The 16th amendment strengthened Congress’s already substantial taxation powers, eliminating restrictions on the manner of taxation (although retaining the requirements that taxes be uniform throughout the United States).

What can the government use our money for?

As noted above, Congress has the power “[t]o lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States.” There has been some dispute as to the scope of the term “general welfare.” Some (most notably James Madison) have argued that “general Welfare” was limited to those powers explicitly granted to Congress by other sections of the Constitution, so that the tax power is simply the manner by which Congress can fund the activities that it is expressly authorized to engage in by the Constitution. Others (including Alexander Hamilton) have argued that “general welfare” can be interpreted literally, and that Congress has the power to tax and spend as long as it does so to promote the general welfare. This latter view has won out in the courts, and debate on the subject has completely ended, at least as a legal matter. The debate over how taxes should be used remains very much alive as a policy matter, however, with some advocating the use of tax funds on social programs that ostensibly promote the general welfare, and others advocating limiting taxation primarily to providing for the common defense, with very provision for non-defense-related general welfare.

Child Custody for Same-Sex Couples

The California Supreme Court recently heard arguments in three cases involving lesbian couples that split up after becoming mothers. The problem is that the laws designed to fix rights and responsibilities of parents after a divorce were crafted with straight couples in mind, with the result that it is not clear what happens when only one of the parents is biologically related to the child (as is the case when one partner is artificially inseminated, for example). This problem is complicated by the fact that each of these divorces were on extremely unfriendly terms. As a result, the biological mother is put in a position in which her best legal argument for keeping custody of the child may very well be that lesbian couples should not be treated on equal legal footing with straight couples.

The laws need to be fixed in order to recognize these all too common problems. Families that are tied together by something other than pure biology are becoming more and more common, and absent the availability of institutions like marriage to create binding legal ties between family members, these situations are going to continue to be even more difficult to resolve than they already are. In many cases, the non-related mother will adopt the child in order to achieve a legal status on par with that of the biological mother. But even that option is not always available, particularly in states that do not allow gay individuals to adopt, or that do not allow unmarried partners to adopt a child if the biological parent does not relinquish her own parental rights.

Personally, I think this kind of situation makes it crystal clear that same-sex couples need to have access to an institution like civil marriage, civil unions, domestic partnership, or whatever one wants to call a state-recognized bond between two people. It also is necessary to clarify parentage in cases of artificial insemination or surrogacy in cases in which the couple involved, whether straight or gay, has chosen not to get married. The fact that one partner contributes no biological material should not be the sole decisive factor in determining custody, child support rights, or the myriad other legal issues arising out of the decision to start a family.

When Faith Overshadows Good Taste

I can't remember exactly why this popped into my head, but I used to work at an ice cream parlor, and perhaps because our staff had a very punk look to them, people were always leaving religious pamphlets in our tip jar. Most were simply honest, if alarmist, attempts to warn us of the dangers of not believing in Jesus. But some were so far odd that they stuck in my mind. Understand, I personally usually enjoy being approached by evangelists simply because I admire such devout faith and I like to hear new perspectives on religion. But once that faith is reduced to a flyer, the admiration is far too often replaced by bemusement (or amusement) at how groups are willing to cross the boundaries of good taste in order to try to "market" their faith.

My all-time favorite: A check made out to Whosoever Believeth in the amount of "Eternal Life and xx/100," signed Jesus Christ. Memo: John 3:16.

I don't think that strong faith is incompatible with a sense of perspective, but the more extreme believers seem to give that impression, and I often wonder if for some people, the strength of their religious convictions is a product more of their inherent stubbornness and belief in their own infallibility (not to mention an unwillingness to accept the consequences should they turn out to be wrong) than it is of their honest submission to the infallibility of God. Some of that may be a product of my own stubbornness and belief in my infallibility; I personally have enormous faith in the divine, but none at all that my approach to worship is the only correct path. Naturally, I like to think that my way is the best way ;) But accepting my bias for what it is, I can't help but wonder, when I speak with someone who is so firmly committed to their religion that they refuse to consider any other possibility, whether their commitment is a product of faith alone or whether it might be tainted with stubbornness, narcissism, and fear.

Here goes nothing :)

After two weeks of doing absolutely nothing, I start my new job tomorrow. Naturally, I'm staying up late to ensure that I'll get no sleep and make the worst impression possible on my new employer. I don't know why I can never make myself go to bed the night before a big event, but it happens every time. It's not that I can't sleep. I can always sleep once I'm in bed. But I can't make myself get in there. It's like the internet suddenly becomes a land of adventure, with excitement around every corner. Oh, look, a post about gay marriage! How can I resist? Hey, there's a thread about how much liberals suck! I had better put my two cents in, for the good of all humanity!

On the bright side, half a night's sleep after 2 weeks of sleeping as much as I want is way better than half a night's sleep after 6 months of 60-80 hour weeks. :)

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