Thursday, January 11, 2018

Debates About Taxes Are Taxing My Patience

(From the January 11, 2018 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

In a few weeks, those of us with a job are supposed to see in our pay stubs the real and personal result of our recently changed federal tax policy. It could mean a few extra bucks for those of us who toil somewhere between the elites and the impoverished. But the debate about the tax policy changes has been more significant than personal spending money.

I’ve heard compelling arguments on multiple sides of the tax issue. But some of those arguments are simply so bad as to be, well, taxing the patience of rational thinkers.

One strand of argument comes from a hatred of wealthy individuals or corporations, or an assumption of bad deed or motive on the part of those with lots of money. I’ve seen the meme “tax the greedy not the needy”, which, albeit a clever rhyme, succeeds only in crafting a heroic couplet of two fallacious arguments.

For one thing, people are not greedy simply for possessing a large chunk of cash. Some might be, but most obtained wealth honestly, through hard work and pursing an innovative idea. They provide employment, and I have seen numerous times tremendous and humble generosity from wealthy donors and philanthropists. This is far from greed. And, by the way, these people pay a phenomenal amount of taxes, far more than the needy.

A Pew Research Center analysis of IRS data from 2015, the most recent available, shows that taxpayers with incomes of $200,000 or more paid well over half (58.8%) of federal income taxes, though they accounted for only 4.5% of all returns filed. By contrast, taxpayers with incomes below $30,000 filed nearly 44% of all returns but paid just 1.4% of all federal income tax – in fact, two-thirds of the nearly 66 million returns filed by people in that lowest income tier owed no tax at all. 

So those advocating those they assume to be greedy be taxed should know they already are. And the needy already pay little or no income tax.

Another bad argument has to do with an unfounded hatred of corporations. Again, some corporations are shady and work to avoid taxes. But most do not, and persist in providing what economists call “positive externalities”—providing employment, useful products and services, and considerable federal to local tax revenue. Lowering the corporate rate to be on par with other nations is both fair and practical. Already we’re seeing more corporate money returning to and benefiting employees, consumers and the macro economy.

I’ve also seen some argue “what would Jesus do?” with regard to tax policy. This is problematic for two reasons. One, I didn’t see it in context as a referent deferral to divine wisdom, but more as a pedestrian rhetorical device to bolster the vague “care for the needy” emotion espoused in the bad tax arguments above.

Secondly, with regard to taxes, Jesus said little. The only time he spoke directly of taxes he said “render under Ceaser what is Ceaser’s.” He said it to humble fishermen. His point was not to affirm a particular tax policy but to distinguish between mere earthly rulers and the Kingdom of Heaven. With regard to the rich, he noted it is harder for a rich man to enter the Heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, and he cautioned a rich man to sell everything and follow him. But there is also the parable of the talents, in which those who work and invest and increase their holdings are praised, but one who does nothing with what he has been trusted to him is chastised. Alternately, he praised the widow who gave what little she had at the temple.

So I don’t think Jesus would advocate soaking the rich with taxes. He would probably say we should obey the government’s policy, whatever it is, and he would judge people’s hearts and not their tax return.

Lost in all of this debate is the consideration of why the government needs the money. To be sure, they do. But how much, and for what exactly? I looked at the list of federal agencies on USA.gov and was stunned by the number of them. None that I can see offered an annual report showing how much they received, what they spent it on, what they actually accomplished for citizens. Corporations do this, why not the government?

In some ways, tax policy reminds me of the famous bank robber John Dillinger of the Depression era. When asked why he robbed banks, he famously replied “because that’s where the money is.” It seems sometimes our tax policy taxes based on where the money is, rather than fairness, efficiency, and demonstrated need. This is how we have personal income tax, corporate tax, sales tax, gas tax, and all manner of taxes disguised as “fees.” Any discussion of taxes should be matched with a discussion of federal spending.

In the end I think the new tax policy goes in the right direction, but some criticisms remain valid. We could go further by eliminating loopholes and certain deductions, especially those only accessible to the very wealthy and corporations. With lower, progressive rates, coupled with fewer itemized and complicated deductions, there would be more transparency, and paradoxically, revenue.


Nevertheless, our debates about tax policy will for sure continue and our tax policy will forever change. As Benjamin Franklin is said to have commented, “the only thing certain is death and taxes.”

Thursday, December 14, 2017

College Clothing Could Be About Something Other Than Sports

(From the December 14, 2017 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

Years ago, when I was in my doctoral program at Michigan State, another student shared her experience driving from her home in Canada to the campus in East Lansing. As she was crossing the U.S.-Canadian border, a border agent asked her what she was doing in the country. She said she was going to graduate school.

Then came the tough question. “Are you a Spartan or a Wolverine?” He intended to be conversational. She panicked. “I don’t know!” she blurted.

As I said, she was from Canada, and apparently the colleges and universities and high schools there do not have mascots or athletic teams. At least, our neighbors to the north do not seem to make such a big deal about college sports.

Such is not the case here. This is especially evident this month, as we move into college football bowl season, and basketball season is ramping up. These two popular sports get lots of attention in the media, and on our clothing. The mascots and logos of various colleges can yield lots of conversations and even arguments.

Recently, my wife and I were in the Grand Haven Starbucks. She was wearing a University of Michigan hat and I was wearing a Michigan State shirt. Another gentleman looked at us and smiled and said something to the effect that it was odd we were together and wearing the apparel of different universities.

Another time I was wearing a Spartan jacket and someone I don’t know at all started talking to me at length about the recent game. “What?” I asked him. He just looked at me. Then I looked down at myself and realized my Spartan gear was an invitation for him to commence sports talk.

I’m ok with that. I’m a sports fan. I’m not as rabid as I used to be. But I also wish more people would realize that I, and possibly others, wear the apparel of certain universities for something other than sports. Maybe, just maybe, they are or were a student there.

I mean, people realize that a university or college is a type of school, right? And schools teach classes, right? Maybe people wear school clothing because they are proud of their personal academic achievement, and not just because they are a sports fan.

In my case, I tend to confuse people by alternating the clothing of rival sports teams. I have a bachelor’ degree from Central Michigan University, a master’s degree from Western Michigan University, and a PhD from Michigan State. One of my nephews had open heart surgery at the University of Michigan Mott’s Children’s Hospital, and another nephew is currently a student at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. Add to all of that the fact that I teach at Grand Valley. I have hats and shirts and sweatshirts from all of the above, and wear them often.

One time a UM fan chided me for wearing a Spartan item. They went on about comparative win-loss records, strength of schedule, and so forth. I waited for him to stop. Then I pointed at my Spartan logo and said simply: “I got my PhD here.” It was almost as if I blocked a last second punt and ran it in for a touchdown to win the game against all odds. Or something like that.

This is why I like to see college apparel that does not just have the name of the university, but some academic part of it. For example, you may see a university logo but underneath it says “College of Engineering,” or “Business School,” or “School of Communication,” or even “Physics Department.” It’s a reminder that schools are, you know, about school. Sports is called “extra-curricular” for a reason.


So as we enter a season where you might here “on Donner and Blitzen” I say go Spartans, go Wolverines, go Chippewas, Broncos and Lakers. I may or may not be cheering on a team. It could be I’m encouraging students.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

A Few Thoughts About 'Thoughts and Prayers'

Recently, in the wake of a tragic shooting in a Texas church that left 26 people dead. The reaction of course was grief and outrage. But an undercurrent of emotion also emerged: people grew tired of the statements by politicians and others that their "thoughts and prayers" are with the victims' families.

This expressed emotion implied and also specified that this country needs to strengthen it's gun laws. This shooting happened in the wake of the Las Vegas hotel shooting, which in turn followed other shootings at schools, parks, malls and other places.

I would agree that we need to keep guns away from the mentally ill and criminals. We could make checks un gun ownership stronger, and limit the types of guns--such as bump stocks and assault rifles--a person could own.

But we do have gun laws, and the problem in many cases  is that they were not enforced, someone slipped through the cracks, or they simply broke the law. As tough as we make our laws, we will always have guns and the tragic violent acts we had to grieve again recently.

But this is all the more reason to encourage, not deride, thoughts and prayers.

Nearly six years ago, my wife was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer. We have been through much since then. And many times people have assured us of their thoughts and prayers. I want a cure for cancer, but I never was angered by the thoughts and prayers.

Let me offer a few of my own thoughts I have about thoughts and prayers:


  1. They need to be sincere. It's true that it's a cliche' to say "you're in my thoughts and prayers" as a knee-jerk comment. 
  2. They need to be authentic. You know someone is really thinking about you when they follow up and ask about you. You know they are really praying when they ask if there is anything specific they can pray for.
  3. They can be in the moment. One thing that surprised and delighted me at the church we started attending only a year before my wife's diagnosis is that fellow church-goers  would not say in the hallway at church that they would pray for us, they said "let's pray" and we did right there. There have also been prayers over the phone. In all cases they have been powerful, comforting, and appreciated.
  4. Prayers are better than thoughts. I know that  not all people in my circle are people of faith, so they may say to me just "you'll be in my thoughts" or email me "sending positive thoughts your way." It's nice to know someone has me in mind, that I'm not alone. However, when someone prays for me I know they are bringing me and my situation before God, along with myself and others who pray. This is imminently more comforting.
  5. Prayer is more than a request. I have learned that prayer is not a vending machine in which we ask God for something and get it immediately. That can happen. But mostly prayer is about an ongoing relationship with God, a conversation with Him. Problems may persist  but knowing God is with you is something far more powerful than a cliche' uttered by a politician at a podium or a meme circulated on Facebook.
At the end of the day, thoughts and prayers given all of the above are very helpful and a good response to large-scale tragedy and individual difficulties. As for me, people telling me "it'll be okay; we're going to pass a law" might be a good step. But I will always appreciate thoughts and prayers.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Writing About Writing Keeps Me Writing

(From the October 12, 2017 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

I have been writing this column for more than 15 years, and it just occurred to me that I have rarely actually written about writing. Once was when I shared about my experience participating in an event of writers and artists at an art gallery in Douglas. Another time I wrote about the experience of self-publishing a collection of these newspaper columns.

But I have never written about the craft of writing. Lately, however, writing has been on my mind for several reasons.

For one, I have noticed a decline in it. Video and emoticons seem more popular than actual text. Because of this, people are losing the ability to write fluidly, clearly, and persuasively. Even in my field of public relations, I hear other educators and employers bemoan the lack of quality writing.

That all makes the second reason for my pondering writing even worse. The job market for writers. I have an old friend who has been unemployed for three years. He’s an excellent writer, with a diverse array of bylines in national journalistic publications and for organizations. But, he keeps getting a “no” after the third interview. He lives in the Washington DC area, where the writing jobs are numerous. But there are also many young people who can be paid less for the same job.

So while some employers complain they can’t find good writers, it seems many of them are unwilling to pay for it.

I also have been thinking about writing because I’ve been thinking about a favorite author of mine, Jim Harrison. I encountered his work long ago when I was starting out writing for Traverse Magazine in northern Michigan. I heard about a local writer whose novel had been published, and I was intrigued. I read and own everything Harrison, originally from Reed City, wrote. He died last year. His friend and fellow writer Phil Cacputo found him on the floor next to his writing table in his home in Arizona, collapsed from a heart attack. “He died a writer’s death,” Caputo said. “With a pen in his hand.”

This past summer I read Harrison’s memoir and learned how much he struggled, near poverty, but stuck with the craft. Eventually he sold novels and screenplays and did well for himself. But the sheer challenge of writing was striking. Then, in late summer, I was talking to an innkeeper on Mackinac Island who grew up in Grand Marais and met Harrison, who had a cabin there. The two became friends, and the innkeeper told me several stories about him. I was so excited. I had never met Harrison, but feel as though I knew him well through the bond of writing and reading.

A few months ago I attended a writers conference. I came away with equal parts inspiration and frustration. Publishers want you to have an agent, and agents typically want you to be committed to writing full time. I have a pretty full day job, which involves academic writing. I have an idea or two for a personal book I wanted to explore. It seems an uphill battle. I was told there are 300,000 books published in the U.S. every year, and another 600,000 self-published. That doesn’t mention the volumes rejected.

Aspiring authors are expected to do their own market research, establish a platform for themselves online to gain a following, and complete a lengthy and detailed proposal including market potential before they get anywhere near an agent or publisher. If the writing itself isn’t daunting enough, the logistics and business aspect could stymie your creative juices.

I did come away with some glimpses of hope. Several acquisition editors from publishing houses gave me good feedback and encouragement in one-one sessions the conference arranged. I was invited to write short pieces for a magazine. A literary agent followed up with some guidelines and invited me to send a proposal and sample chapters for my book. So I am encouraged, but have more work to do than I imagined.


But I’ll take the challenge. Meanwhile, I’ll keep writing this column. It’s good exercise for me. And, every month I think about quitting, and one or two of you out there tell me you enjoyed my last column. At the end of the day that’s what writers want: readers. And, as many writers will tell you, they don’t really enjoy writing, but they love having written.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Tempting Tables Offers Elegant Encouragement

From the November 9, 2017 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

They came as a complete surprise. The gorgeous plants we found on our front porch. One was a huge pink azalea, along with some gift cards, delivered on a lovely day in May. Then again last December there was a beautiful winter arrangement in a frosted vase, arriving the day of our wedding anniversary, and just after my wife’s eighth surgery related to breast cancer.

We did not know the person or persons from whom these delightful gifts came. We were guessing it was friends from church. For a moment my wife thought the one on our anniversary was from me. I was honest and said no. But we learned that they came from an unusual and delightfully positive organization called Tempting Tables. We don’t know how they found out about us. It could be from a photo of my wife in the paper when she ran a local race and had a sign on her shirt about her breast cancer. Or it could have been someone connected to the organization who knew us and kept their lips sealed. Whatever the case, we were pleasantly surprised and grateful.

My wife had actually attended one of their events in 2015. She took a lot of photos to show me the displays of various themes, some quite humorous. She enjoyed the event in its own right, but also the cause for which it is created. It is a showcase of complex “tablescapes,” elaborately designed table settings that go beyond crystal and china. They are more like art gallery, museum or juried art show displays. The biennial event also features personal collections of various items.

Or to put it succinctly from the Tempting Tables web site: “an extraordinary biennial event featuring exquisite table settings and unique collections benefiting breast cancer research.”

I am not the type of guy who is in to this sort of thing. It’s enough for me to remember where to place the knife, fork and spoon. And I usually find the sofa more tempting than the table. But I admire this organization because their mission is to create greater awareness of breast cancer. They do this with their event, and the proceeds go to breast cancer research organizations here in Michigan. They also have a “Dream Fulfillment Fund,” which provides gifts to women currently going through treatments for breast cancer. That’s why my wife received the gifts on our front porch.
   
I can tell you that both times the gifts were a surprise, and a tremendous encouragement. The beauty of the flowers, and the thoughtfulness in their arrangement and unexpected arrival gave us another needed reminder that we are not alone.

Sometimes I get cynical about all the efforts to “raise awareness” of breast cancer. It seems anyone and everyone can slap a pink ribbon on their product, storefront or clothing. I wonder if they are actually doing any good for breast cancer programs or if they are hitching a ride on a popular cause and trying to benefit their own reputations. I actually read an article about that in a media ethics journal recently.

But the Tempting Tables event is one of quality, in my view, for several reasons. One, it’s elegant, and if you know a woman with breast cancer you know the disease can take a lot of dignity and femininity away. This is a fine event, suitable for real ladies of class.

I also like the event because it’s more than a piggyback effort. There are lots of volunteers and donors putting in considerable time and effort to make this all happen. It shows a level of commitment to the cause that goes beyond what sometimes is suspected as mere lip service.

I also am impressed that the benefit is real and local. They give tangible encouragement to women, like my wife, who are battling breast cancer. They also go beyond “raising awareness” to fighting this terrible disease through research. Their web site has a link specifically for updates on breast cancer research, including profiles of several doctors who are on the case.

So, yes, Tempting Tables is doing it right. They are setting the table for awareness and action to beat breast cancer.


If you want to go this year, the series of events are October 18-21 at the Holiday Inn in Muskegon. There is a patron’s event Wednesday evening, and then the exhibits are open Thursday and Friday 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Saturday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. You can also consider volunteering or making a donation. More information and tickets are available at www.TemptingTables.org.