Theft, Extortion and Murder

Like a lot of people who live on the outskirts of Portland (I live near Canby), I try not to go anywhere in the city that requires paying for parking.

A few weeks ago I was asked to attend a meeting at the Ecotrust building. I arrived early for the 2-hour meeting, allowing time to locate a parking space. I parked, got out of my car, and went to the machine to get a parking permission slip.

I noted, as I always do (too late), that the machine would only take credit cards or coins – not bills. I began feeding coins into the machine, desiring to pay for 3 hours (the maximum for the space I parked in). It became clear that I was not carrying enough change. Everyone carries 4 or 5 dollars in change, right?

After putting in $1.40 I left the machine to return to my car to get more change, and returned to the machine. No one else had appeared on the street in my absence, but the display on the machine was now blank. I looked for any indication that there was a way to call back credit for the money deposited a minute or two ago, but there was none. The machine had simply stolen my money.

I then proceeded to insert the balance of the money needed to pay for 3 hours of parking (an additional $3.00) and print out the permission slip. Needless to say, the original payment was not included on the permission slip, nor did the time reflect the full payment. I faced a dilemma: start over (by paying another $4.40 to get a new slip), or make a note on the slip I had, explaining the problem.

I wrote on the slip. I then stuck the slip on the curbside window and went to my meeting. Of course, on return about two and a half hours later, I had a ticket for overtime parking.

I wrote to the Circuit Court, explaining the situation, and enclosing a copy of the Parking Permission Slip showing my notes about the problem.

But that is all background.

Here is the core of the problem:

I received a letter from the Circuit Court, explaining that they had received my “documentation”, but were unable to “forward your dispute to a judge for review” because I had not enclosed “payment for the full bail amount”. Failure to do so would be grounds for the city to impound “the cited vehicle” – take my car away. Without a hearing.

In other words, I must pay the city before I can have my day in court. If I don’t, they will take my car. Sounds like extortion, doesn’t it?

Now, I know that this approach is easier, for the city, and more efficient, for the city. And so it is policy.

But it is not easier for me, nor more efficient. It is not fair. It is not even reasonable. Given that the accused is supposed to be innocent until proven guilty in this country, I am not sure it is actually legal. But, it is policy.

It is a policy that comes from politicians and bureaucrats who think they are more important than the rest of us. It comes from people who believe that their time is more valuable than ours. It comes from an arrogance that says that our actions are supposed to make their lives easier, not the other way around.

Why get so worked up about a parking ticket, you ask?

It isn’t about the parking ticket.

It is about that arrogance. The same arrogance that got Aaron Campbell murdered.

Because Mr. Campbell did not immediately respond to multiple conflicting instructions from multiple officials, he was killed. And the Grand Jury says it was a bad thing, but it is policy.

It is that arrogance that allows police to shoot unarmed people simply because the officer fears for her/his life. In the process it ignores the fact that the murder of unarmed citizens is a huge contributor to the tension and distrust that officers feel on the streets, leading them to fear for their lives.

It is that arrogance that allows an armed professional to be held less responsible than a typical citizen, and to murder people because it is easier, and more efficient, than dealing with the real problem.

It is policy, and the policy is followed, and that’s the problem.

It is, quite literally, killing us.

What do you think?

What is this Thing About Taxes?

In his amazing book The Breakdown Of Nations Leopold Kohr says that, biologically, people could live individually in caves in the mountains, and come out of the caves once a year, mate, and go back to the mountains. Except that we are social creatures, and want to hang around with each other. And the hanging around with each other is what leads to societies, and conflicts, and eventually to laws and governments.

Governments do stuff, and doing stuff costs money, so we pay taxes.

We pay taxes for roads, and water systems, and sewers, and courts, and police, and the military, and firefighters, and paramedics, and..

This all leads, of course, to disagreements about what government should be doing – with our money.

But in the last few decades in the United States there has been a growing feeling that paying taxes is the government (them) stealing money from the people (us). What is perhaps even more important, we have forgotten that we pay taxes for the services and facilities we need to live in societies instead of in caves in the hills, and that government is merely the people we hire and entrust with the duties of supplying those services and facilities.

We have lost the idea that the government is us, if we would simply resume the responsibility. Of course, this is the United States where we pride ourselves on not taking responsibility for our decisions, or our actions. It is always someone else’s fault, or someone else’s responsibility.

Perhaps it is time for each us to step forward and resume our responsibilities to guide the government in what it is we expect them to do, then give them the money needed to do it. Of course, we will also need to remember that this is a group enterprise, so there will be things we don’t like as well as those that we do.

And that this is all part of the price we pay for not having to live in caves.

What do you think?

Who Is Paying?

There are a number of things most of us know, but don’t think about much.

In recent years, prompted by the pitched political rhetoric about taxes, and particularly taxes on businesses, I have been thinking about the economics of business in contrast to the economics of individuals. In particular, how we tax individuals, in contrast to how we tax businesses.

Businesses, particularly corporations, come out way ahead.

This has been brought into sharp focus by two recent tax measures on the ballot in Oregon. (I live near Portland, in Oregon.)

WARNING: if details of tax stuff puts you to sleep, skip the next paragraph – just understand that the measures raised taxes on individuals making a lot of money and some corporations.

In short (VERY short), Measure 66 raised income taxes on individuals with taxable incomes of $125,000 or more, and households with taxable incomes of $250,000 or more. It raised taxes for these people 1.8%. Measure 67 is more complex, but did 2 things – raised the minimum annual corporate fee from $10 to $150 for all corporations, and for type “C” corporations imposed a new minimum tax of 0.1% of gross income on corporations with Oregon gross income of over $500,000. For these corporations it also raised the tax on profits by 1.3% for tax years 2009 and 2010, when the increase drops to 1% for two years. At that time the tax becomes permanent, but only applies to profits above $10,000,000. The corporation will only pay the larger of the profits tax or the gross income tax. For full details on the measures see http://ballotpedia.org/wiki/index.php/Oregon_Measure_66_(2010) and http://ballotpedia.org/wiki/index.php/Oregon_Measure_67_(2010)

When we look at income taxes, there is a strange difference between how we tax businesses and how we tax individuals.

Businesses are able to deduct any expenses that are incurred in order to generate income: costs of goods sold, marketing and advertising, transportation, fees, supplies, payroll, etc. In fact, almost everything spent is deductible from income before taxes are calculated, even money spent to influence legislation and support or defeat particular politicians. In the case of corporations, that even includes things like legal costs and fines when convicted of crimes or found liable in civil suits. It’s all the “cost of business”, and therefore deducted from income.

But people can’t do that. Not as individuals. If we have a business we can do some of that, like office space in the home, or printing costs for business cards and letterhead, etc.. But not as individuals.

And yet, we really have the same expenses.

A corporation gets to write off the costs of a place where it lives because it has to live somewhere. even if it is only a post office box. What about people? Don’t we have to be someplace before and after work, even if we live on the street and only have a PO Box? But we not only can’t write off our home, we can’t even write off the PO Box rent.

A company gets to write off transportation costs, because it has to get to where it does it’s business. Don’t you and I have to get from where we live to where we work? The only time we can write off transportation is if we drive around for work, and then we have to be sure we document the mileage/expenses related exclusively to work, because only those are allowed.

The parallel examples are legion. Take a look at the expenses a typical business writes of against it’s gross income, and then compare them to the expenses you have that are necessary so that you can be alive and healthy and go to work.

So why do we seem to get so worked up over a small change in the tax rates for businesses? They already pay so little tax compared to people that a few percentage points seems minor in comparison.

Maybe what we need to get worked up about is that we should be able to write off the same costs as businesses. Then we could rebuild a tax system that actually has us all on a level playing field.

After that, we can discuss what we want to be taxed for, and what we no longer want to pay for.

What do you think?

“Corporations are Selfish, Greedy Bastards”

I recently had a conversation with Susan W, Clark concerning the implications of the recent Supreme Court decision on corporate political speech. We were watching PBS Newshour.

The two commentators (Mark Shields and David Brooks) were in disagreement about whether corporations would use their now legally clear ability to spend all the money they wanted to influence elections and legislative issues.

David Brooks said that corporations are interested in the welfare of people generally because, after all, they wanted to sell to them. Mark Shields responded that he did not see corporations pushing for the Equal Rights Act, or supporting the Voting Rights Act.

Sue’s response was, “Of course not. Corporations are selfish greedy bastards!”

While her remarks can be taken as somewhat cynical, and may well be offensive to those who disagree, there is unquestionably some truth in her statement.

After all, law and precedent have repeatedly clarified that the primary responsibility of corporations in the United States is to maximize return on investment for their stockholders. This imperative is so overwhelming that it actually overrides the corporations’ responsibility to obey the law.

History holds many examples of corporations selling defective products that injure or kill people, even when the corporations had full knowledge that their products would do so. A review of the records shows that they often continued to manufacture and sell those products because it was more profitable than redesign, repair, or discontinuing them.

It is hard to disagree with the “selfish, greedy” part. The “bastard” part should probably be considered artistic license.

What do you think?