Waiting for the Nobel Prize

Today we want to recognize an important first step in re-shaping economic thinking so significantly that reducing or eliminating the national debt could be done easily, a concept so brilliant that—if appropriately expanded—could merit international recognition.

The tax bill recently approved by the House of Representatives in Washington proposes to tax graduate student tuition waivers.  For those of us who never got far enough in our higher education to be offered those waivers or who came along before they were widespread in higher education, here’s how they work:

A University tells a student pursuing a master’s degree or a doctorate they will not have to pay tuition if they help teach or do research beneficial to the university.  The university pays those students a small stipend for their work so they can eat and pay their rent.

The House bill wants to consider the tuition waiver as income.   And to tax it.

It is a matter of considering money a person never has and does not spend as income and then levying an income tax on those never-had and unspent funds.   Think of the possibilities!

Paying a tax on the raise you did not get could provide millions of deficit-reducing dollars to the federal government.  Paying a tax on a stock dividend that did not materialize would add even more.  Considering the difference between what you wanted on a car trade-in and what the dealer gave you as income and taxing that amount would add to the deficit-reducing federal income.

Here’s one we thought of the other day when we went to Columbia where the gas price that day was nineteen cents less per gallon than the price in Jefferson City.  We used our grocery store gas rewards card to knock another forty cents a gallon off of the fuel we put in our tank.  Think how much the federal government could collect if it considered supermarket gas refunds as part of our personal income.

Soon the pre-holiday price reductions we are seeing in our stores will give way to the post-holiday sales prices.  If Congress were to take the simple step of taxing the hundreds of millions of dollars that are not spent because of those pre-and-post-holiday price reductions, the annual federal deficit could be eliminated and bites could be taken out of the total national debt.

The car companies are offering multi-thousand dollar incentives to clear their lots of 2017 models.  If Congress were to consider those price reductions as income and tax it, another important debt-reduction step could be taken.

Think of how much money is saved every single day by people who shop at the day-old bread counter at the grocery store.  It might seem like pennies for each loaf, but when applied nationally and for an entire year, taxing the savings on all of those loaves of day-old bread will add up to millions of dollars a year in tax collections.

Oh, and here’s a biggie.  An industry that decides to build a factory, a warehouse, or any other facility in a foreign country instead of in the United States because it can save millions of dollars in construction and operation costs:  If those savings were considered corporate income and taxed—even at the proposed lowered corporate tax rate—the economic benefit would be enormous.

And—oh, wait, there’s one more and it’s particularly appropriate at this time of year.  Further, it’s pretty comparable to the tuition waiver.   We are awash in online and catalog offers to provide customers with a benefit if the customer provides something of value to the merchant in return for which the merchant waives a fee or charge.  Give us money, says the merchant, and we will give you a sweater but we will waive the shipping charge.  Since the customer receives the benefit–a sweater—but spends no money to receive it, the shipping charge is thus income and can be taxed as such, just as a graduate student receives a benefit—an education—by providing something of value to the university (teaching or research assistance) but does not pay the equivalent of a “shipping charge” to get it and therefore faces paying income taxes on money never possessed or spent.

Think of the incredible benefits this economic philosophy of turning unspent dollars into taxable income could provide if applied widely, assuming the federal government doesn’t just increase spending to or beyond the amount of additional funds it would collect.  Congress could wipe out the national deficit and it could provide billions of dollars that could trickle down throughout America in programs and services beneficial to the poor, the hungry, the sick.

And to graduate students.

We’ll be watching for next year’s announcement of the Nobel Prize for Economics to see if this great advance is deservedly rewarded.

Notes from the road: Solving a great musical mystery

(Boston)—The locals warn out-of-towners to forget about trying to drive in historic downtown Boston.  Traffic is terrible. Roundabouts are hopelessly confusing.  The old streets are narrow and leave strangers bewildered.  Better, they say, to stay in the suburbs and ride the subway into the heart of the city or catch a Gray-Line Tours bus if you want to see the many historic sites in one day.

Those who choose to ride the subway buy fare cards that are inserted into slots that open the gates to the platforms.  The fare cards are known as “Charlie Cards” (which you might want to remember for a trivia contest sometime).  They’re called Charlie Cards in memory of the hapless, trapped, subway rider named Charlie who became world-famous, thanks to a 1949 campaign song for a progressive mayoral candidate who campaigned against the city’s complicated subway fares which included an “exit fare,” a way to increase the taxes without changing the fare collection system at the start of the trip.  The Kingston Trio made it a hit song in 1959.

It tells the story of Charlie, who paid his dime at the Kendall Square Station then changed lines so he could reach Jamaica Plain, a place founded three centuries earlier by Puritans looking for land to farm and eventually became one of America’s first streetcar suburbs. But when he got to “JP,” as local folks call it, he did not have the extra nickel to pay his exit fare, dooming him to roam beneath the streets of Boston forever because “he couldn’t get off of that train.” His devoted wife went each day at the Scollay Square Station (pronounced “Scully” by the natives) and waited for the train to slow down enough that she could pass him a sandwich through an open window. At least, that’s how the song tells the story.

One of America’s great mysteries is why she never gave him a nickel when she gave him the sandwich.

We have done some historical research on that issue because it has bothered us, too, for decades.  We think we have uncovered the entire story in the microfilm room of the Beacon Hill Metropolitan Library, which is a short distance from the former Bull & Finch Pub that is now called “Cheers” because it was the prototype for Sam Malone’s tavern in the television show; its entrance was featured in the show’s opening.  The story found in the records of the Beacon Hill Democrat-Challenger, a long-dead newspaper, turns out to be a rather sordid matter.  But it does have a happy ending because Charlie, in real life, did get off of that train.

Charles J. Faneuil was a descendant of Peter Faneuil, the merchant who in 1740 built a market house that became the centerpiece of the early Boston independence movement.  Despite his historic family name, Charles was a middle-class bookkeeper for a suburban department store.  He was a solid and dutiful husband who left each morning and came home each night from his apparently dead-end office job that paid him enough to keep food on the table and a two-year old car in the driveway.

Mrs. Charles J. Faneuil, born Ann Revere Adams, was a descendant of two early Boston families whose “old money” was spent several generations previous to her marriage to Charles.  They had three children, Samuel Adams Faneuil, Betsy Ross Faneuil, and James Otis Faneuil.  Ann was a housewife but longed to be part of Boston’s upper social strata made up of descendants whose “old money” still existed and had multiplied because it was not squandered by previous generations. She yearned to be part of the kind of organizations that would refer to her as “Mrs. Charles Faneuil” instead of “Ann Faneuil,” as her friends did in the Tuesday Evening Mahjong Society.  In time she came to see her husband as an adequate provider but someone who would never give her a chance to live her dream.

The first public indication that the domestic life of Mr. and Mrs. Charles J. Faneuil was not all peaches and cream (and sandwiches handed through subway car windows) is the notice that Mrs. Faneuil had filed for divorce, charging desertion and abandonment of family.  She claimed Charlie had willfully absented himself from the family home by intentionally taking only a dime with him when he left for work that morning, knowing that he would need another nickel not only to get to work but would need another dime and a nickel to ride the subway back home that evening.  She suggested in her filing that Charlie did so because he had become enamored of one Theodora Williams, whose friends called her “Teddy,” a fellow rider on the subway. And she claimed that Teddy did not loan her husband a nickel, either, because she didn’t want him to leave the train so she could make sure he would be there for her.

The case was filed for Mrs. Faneuil by Quincy Kennedy Kerry, the Faneuil family attorney, whose main reason for representing the family was his attraction to Ann Revere Adams Faneuil. When he had heard of Charlie’s predicament, he had visited Ann to express his sympathy and found her surprisingly willing to accept it, not knowing that she—weary of being a simple housewife and child-raiser—had fantasized about what life would have been like if she had married a lawyer many years ago, instead of good old steady Charlie, and how nice it would be to dine at the club, wear elegant clothes, and travel to beautiful places that lawyers like to visit.

Charlie learned of the action when he read about it in a discarded copy of the Democrat- Challenger that he found on a seat in his subway car after the morning rush hour.  The news stunned him.  He did not know Teddy although he thought she was a fellow passenger during baseball season when she rode the train to Fenway Park. Teddy worked at the will-call window of the ticket booth.  They had hardly spoken other than an occasional “good morning” when she took a seat across from him. In fact, she had shown no interest in having a conversation.

That’s when it also dawned on him that divorce was a reason why Ann never put a nickel in the sandwich bag and, further, never put an additional fifteen cents in it so he could get home.  He had many times regretted not grabbing some extra change from the dish on the table by his front door as he left that fateful morning and had been grateful that he found the dime that he had left in the pocket the last time he wore those pants. Not until he got aboard the train did he discover there was not a nickel in that pocket, too. He would have said something to Ann during the sandwich deliveries, but she always timed her delivery so it happened as the train began to move again, leaving no time for discussion.

Teddy learned about the divorce filing when she heard some of the other girls in the ticket office chattering among themselves that same morning.  “Charlie who?” she wondered.  She also wondered if it might be the strange guy she sometimes saw in the subway who always wore the same increasingly rumpled suit and, in fact, seemed to smell bad in the few times she had been forced to sit across from him.  His hair was much too long and his scraggly beard had not filled out well in the weeks—or was it months?—since she had first noticed him.

Charlie also worried that he had lost his job because of his growing list of absences. His mood darkened in the next few days, likely driven by increasing hunger and his deepening concern about his job, to the point that he was thinking of leaving the train without benefit of nickel by throwing himself onto the tracks from the rear car and lying there until the next train ended his misery.

But that was when conductor H. W. Longfellow (his friends called him “Hank”) noticed Charlie’s state and took the steps that saved his life.  Charlie and Hank had formed something of a bond on the long low-passenger hours during the day shift when Longfellow worked. Longfellow, feeling some responsibility for Charlie’s situation because he was the conductor who told him “one more nickel” arranged for Evangeline’s Pizza to deliver one of its specialties to Charlie each day at the Scollay Square Station, a savvy move for Evangeline’s because the story of Charlie was starting to gain some public attention and Evangeline’s got some great public promotional value out of being Charlie’s food supplier. Longfellow also brought a pillow and some blankets from home for Charlie to use at night to sleep with at least a little comfort. Longfellow has come in for some criticism because in all the time Charlie was trapped on the train, Longfellow did not loan him a nickel.  But it was strictly against MTA policy for conductors to give nickels to passengers who claimed to have “forgotten” to bring one from home. The authority knew that it soon would be dealing with hundreds of “forgetful” passengers if it let its conductors loan nickels or even to let a passenger promise repayment on the next trip.  Employees who showed such kindness had been known to be kindly excused from their jobs, a circumstance Longfellow could not risk because he had a wife and family, too.

But Hank had something else that became important in the long run.  Hank knew a lawyer.

Hugh Louis Dewey was an ambulance-chasing attorney whose grandson, Hugh III, became nationally famous as the busy attorney for two Italian brothers who ran a car-repair shop in suburban Cambridge where they purportedly “fixed” cars they had never seen after diagnosing the problems during a telephone call without consulting maintenance manuals. When Huey Louie Dewey, as he was known in the office on Harvard Square, got involved, the case really got juicy.

Dewey could have paid Charlie’s exit fare to get his client off the train but he advised Charlie to continue to ride while Dewey called the local press and arranged for some sympathetic news coverage. Charlie’s story took up two full pages of the Sunday feature section of The Democrat-Challenger, including pictures of Charlie with his now-long hair and beard and later, clean shaven, trimmed, and wearing a new suit—all of this provided by Dewey to show the man Charlie had become since his wife took up with the family lawyer and stopped providing nickel-free daily sandwiches and then showing him as the man he once was and could be again.

Dewey hit Mrs. Faneuil AND lawyer Kerry with an alienation of affection suit and, since Mrs. Faneuil didn’t have any money, asked for substantial damages from Kerry, whose law firm was one of the upper-crust firms in the city.  If it had been in Memphis, and if John Grisham had been writing novels when all of this was going on, Kerry’s law firm would have been the prototype for a best-selling novel.

And Charlie DID get off of that train. He did not, in fact, “ride forever beneath the streets of Boston,” nor was he “the man who never returned.”  Folk song stories, one must remember, are just stories, not history.

Dewey eventually provided the nickel for Charlie to pay the exit fee a week after the big newspaper article. He was put up in a motel while he waited for the lawsuits to work their way through the courts and while he looked for a new job.  His friend, Longfellow, convinced his MTA bosses to hire Charles J. Faneuil temporarily as the company’s first passenger-relations agent. The move garnered some positive publicity for Charlie and the as well as a modest income so he didn’t have to live on Evangeline’s pizza anymore. It also scored some public relations points for the MTA, which had been pilloried by the Democrat-Challenger, and avoided a lawsuit threatened by Dewey alleging Charlie’s continued presence in the subway constituted a form of kidnapping and the exit tax was a form of ransom.

Dewey also rushed to Fenway Park to meet with Teddy Williams and sign her up for a separate lawsuit accusing Ann and lawyer Kerry of libel.  She also wanted damages for pain and suffering caused by extensive office gossip.

It took about eighteen months for all of this to work itself out.  Charlie did not contest the divorce although he did fight Ann’s efforts to get alimony and child custody.  The judge ruled that Charlie had not abandoned Ann. In fact, the judge said, Ann—by ending the sandwich supply runs—had abandoned Charlie and in doing so had endangered his health. Therefore, said the judge, she was an unfit parent and the children were given to Charlie.  She was allowed to keep their house into which Quincy Kennedy Kerry moved after a respectful interval.  He, however, turned out to be only a member of his law firm and not one of the top partners whose memberships at exclusive clubs were picked up by the firm.

Teddy Williams settled out of court for ten-thousand dollars and a public apology from Ann and Quincy.  She and her partner, Dorothea “Dix” Hancock, used the money to open what became a successful wedding cake business in the Back Bay area.

By the time H. W. Longfellow retired from the Metropolitan Transit Authority, the MTA of folk song fame, had become the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority.

And Charlie?  He left his job at the MTA when the suburban department store gladly rehired him as an assistant manager, thinking it could capitalize on his notoriety.  He was the store manager when he retired.  The three children grew up to be good citizens and showed no scars of the split-up of the family. By then Charlie had married a widowed high school social studies teacher, had slipped from public view, and was living quietly in a middle-class Boston neighborhood. He refused to take part in the changes at the MTA. “I’m so tired of hearing that damned song,” he once confided to his wife.

On December 4, 2006, the MBTA ended its exit fares and began using “Charlie Cards.”

That afternoon, two elderly men got their cards from a machine and used them to go through the gate to the platform. Charlie Faneuil and Hank Longfellow took a ride to the Harvard Square Station.  Nobody noticed them.   No newspaper photographers were there.  Nobody wrote about them in the next day’s newspaper.  When they got off the train, they caught a cab for a short ride to 73 Hamilton Street, a place known as the Good News Garage, where a couple if Italian guys claimed to have fixed Charlie’s car, a 1960s Dodge Dart. It had 21,294 miles on the odometer, not many miles for a car so old.

That’s because, of course, Charlie rode the MTA.

(photo credits: MBTA, etsy.com)

Notes from the road—August, 2017

(Anywhere, Indiana)—When we fueled up in Terre Haute a few days ago, we paid ten cents more than we would have paid on June 30.   That’s because Indiana increased its fuel tax by ten cents a gallon on July 1.

It’s nice to see that the people of Indiana, a state many of us would consider pretty conservative, have increased their gas tax for their transportation system.  By a dime.  That’s more than Missourians have considered for more than half of the lifetime of today’s youngest voters.  Missouri has another committee that is going to talk about the issue.  Again.  It’s been only a few years since a special committee spent weeks talking about state transportation funding before failing to convince voters to support its idea.  We talk.  Indiana builds.

(Wakeeney, Kansas)—This shrinking Kansas farming community is four counties east of the Colorado border, a motel stop on Interstate 70 where the Motel 6 is a decent place for travelers headed home from Denver and its environs—or wanting to rest after the long miles from Missouri.

Your chronicler of the current scene had just finished his motel breakfast, was looking at the rack of promotional brochures for the deepest hand-dug well and the biggest ball of twine and other more impressive Kansas attractions (we LIKE Kansas, by the way) when we heard someone call our name.

Somebody knew us at the Motel 6 in Wakeeney, Kansas, for crying out loud!

It was Paul Woody, a young man who was a member of Governor Bob Holden’s staff and then was a policy and communications advisor for House Democrats. He’d left Jefferson City in 2005, gone to law school, run unsuccessfully for state rep a couple of times, and now is a lawyer in St. Charles.  He and his family were headed home from a visit to the mountains.

Wakeeney, Kansas!!!!

(Somewhere, Indiana)—We bought a couple of lottery tickets in Indiana.  Buying lottery tickets isn’t something we do every week.  We only buy them when the jackpots coincide with our level of greed. We wonder how many folks think their luck will change if they change the place they buy their tickets.

Hasn’t worked for us, either.

But we figured a major change of location such as Indiana was worth the, uh, gamble.  As we were boring out way across Illinois, the thought occurred that buying a winning ticket in Indiana would mean that we would pay a bunch of taxes there, not in Missouri.  We’d help support Indiana institutions and services, not ours.   We debated whether buying the ticket in Indiana was irresponsible, that as a Missourian we owed it to our home state to support ITS institutions and services.  But Guilt had quit hitchhiking by the time we reached Effingham.

And the good news, we guess, is that we have learned we won’t be paying millions of dollars in taxes in Indiana anyway.

(Somewhere, northern Illinois)—A reminder that sports is the toy department of life, and not as serious as we want to make them sometimes, comes in the story of Steve Bartman.

The Chicago Cubs have given a World Series champion’s ring to Bartman, a lifelong Cubs fan. Not one of those things like the Cardinals are handing out to the first x-thousand fans coming through the gates now and then.  This is the real thing, so big he might have to use his left hand to raise his right hand for shaking purposes in social settings.

Who is this Bartman guy?   Just the one who might have cost the Cubs a National League pennant fourteen years ago, the then-young fellow who reached for a foul ball during the 2003 playoffs, leading to umpires ruling he had interfered with the right of a Cubs fielder to make a catch.  The Cubs after that lost the lead and their chance to play in the World Series.  Cubs fans—much as Cardinals fans still turn purple at the mention of Don Denkinger’s name—have never forgotten what he did.  He got death threats.  He became the object of long-term ridicule.

Now, the owners of the Cubs say it’s past time to forgive and forget. “While no gesture can fully lift the public burden he has endured for more than a decade, we felt it was important Steve knows he has been and continues to be fully embraced by this organization,” said a team statement.

Bartman released a statement in response saying he was “deeply moved and sincerely grateful” for the recognition.  “I am relieved and hopeful that the saga of the 2003 foul ball incident surrounding my family and me is finally over,” he said.

And then he continued with thoughts that speak beyond the playing field: “I humbly receive the ring….as an important reminder for how we should treat each other in today’s society.  My hope is that we all can learn from my experience to view sports as entertainment and prevent harsh scapegoating, and to challenge the media and opportunistic profiteers to conduct business ethically by respecting personal privacy rights and not exploit any individual to advance their own self-interest or economic gain.”

The Cubs have done something classy for Steve Bartman.  Don Denkinger is 81 now, these thirty-two years after Cardinals fans started speaking his name in derision.

In both instances—Bartman and Denkinger—their actions are not what caused the Cubs or the Cardinals to lose.  The Cubs failed to make the plays to win their game.  The Cardinals disintegrated in the next game.  The Cubs have said it’s time to quit whining about a fan who wanted to catch a foul ball.  We wonder if the Cardinals and their reputedly best fans in baseball  will ever do something to say it’s time to quit ridiculing Don Denkinger.

Increase our taxes

We are a retired family living on a more-or-less fixed income.  We hope our taxes go up next year.  In fact, we’re going to give our permission in a few days for them to go up regardless of what happens to our income.

Jefferson City needs voter permission to raise the money for a loooonnnnnng overdue second high school and the school district wants people like us and our neighbors to approve a higher tax levy.  This household is unanimously in favor of the idea.

We don’t have any kids attending the schools of Jefferson City.  We haven’t been to a school play or a school concert or to a school football or basketball game in years, probably decades.  Haven’t been to a PTA meeting for even longer, probably.  We do go into one of the public school system’s buildings three or four times a year for the city concert association events but that’s about it.

So we have no personal connection to a school system that wants to increase our property tax bill by a pretty good amount.   But we want the system to do it.

We took a pile of income tax information, over which Nancy had agonized for countless hours, to our accountant a few days ago.  We’ll learn the damage before long.  Naturally, we wish we could keep that money but when we come down to it, we don’t mind paying taxes—because we understand what they buy.  We just hope the people we elect to distribute those funds do so in a responsible manner that benefits the general public. We confess there are times when we think those people could do a better job by putting more emphasis on the word “general”  but we haven’t met anyone yet who has come up with a better system than the present one for making sure all of us share the Biblical and the democratic responsibilities to each other.

Somebody has to pay for the things we expect government to do for us and we’re okay with putting our financial drop into the big bucket that finances more things for us that we can count. And education is one of the biggest benefits.

We’ve lived in Jefferson City nigh on to half a century—a statement that amazes us every time we recall the things we ‘ve seen and done—and we can’t recall a time when somebody wasn’t saying, “Jefferson City needs a second high school.”   Actually, Jefferson City already has a half-dozen or so public and parochial high schools including the high school program at the Algoa prison, a high school for about fifteen severely disabled students, and a Christian academy with about five students in grades ten through twelve.

In our household we think it’s important that children have opportunities to learn.  Not just classroom subjects, but the things they can learn through band, and science clubs, and school newspapers, and sports, and debate clubs, and other things that add to the creation of a thinking, active, inquisitive life that is to come.   We think a better future can be incubated when all of the eggs are not jammed into one basket.

And it’s the future we’re talking about here, a more learned society in a world that increasingly demands educated people who understanding that learning and life have to go together if hopes for a free humankind are to progress.   A second high school in our town will increase opportunities for our grandchildren’s generation to have a better chance to make that idealized future a materialized future.

We know that we write from the standpoint of ones who can afford to pay these higher taxes, knowing that there are many who feel they cannot.  We wish we had an answer for them for some of them are our friends.  We, and they, are left with leaving others who are in policy positions who have the knowledge to ease those concerns to recognize them and act on them.

Regardless of our economic standings, the thing we CANNOT afford is ignorance.  Ignorance is one of the greatest enemies of a democracy.  It is one of the first tools of the despot.  The control of learning and the limitations placed on it and on the circulation of public learning are trademarks of the societies we identify geographically and often culturally as threats to our way of life.  A visit to a nation governed by those who know ignorance equates to power and control is a sobering experience.

We’ve been there.  We’ve seen it.  We know that the American system of public education is one of our greatest protections.  We’ll be glad to pay more taxes to make that system better in our town.

We in this household are products of public education from our first days in a classroom to our last days in graduate schools.  We benefitted because our parents and grandparents paid the taxes that helped shape us as, we hope, good and responsible citizens.  We’ll be glad to pay some higher taxes so other generations will have a better chance to defeat ignorance and all of the perils it presents.

It’s okay if our taxes go up next year, even if they go up by a pretty good amount. In our household we think that the Preamble to the United States Constitution is not only a statement of the virtues we want in government, but is also a commitment by We the People to work through that government to “establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity,”

Promotion of the general welfare cannot be done in a climate that impedes an escape from ignorance.  We will pay higher taxes because we wish to help create a climate that better serves the future general welfare of our city, our state, and our country.

Notes from a quiet street—VII /2016

—random observations not worth the effort to type hundreds and hundreds of words.  Several dozen, though.

We have made a slight correction in our earlier entry (September 27) about this being a historic election to reflect that both candidates for governor are divorced, rather than just one as we originally noted, making this election even more noteworthy as the first that matches two divorced candidates for the office (although one has remarried)

The Tax Foundation says Missouri has the nation’s 15th most favorable business tax climate. The only one of our surrounding states with a better ranking is Tennessee.  Kansas ranks 22, Illinois 23, Nebraska 25, Oklahoma 31, Kentucky 34, Arkansas 38, Iowa 40.

We’ve been listening to candidates critical of Missouri’s slow economic growth (Business Insider said earlier this year we had the tenth worst economy in the country and the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics said we were the 14th worst state for economic growth.) and promise that they would generate more jobs if we could just cut taxes on business even more.

Hmmmm.  How could our economy be doing so poorly after legislative policy-makers have made this state so business-tax friendly?

They might maintain, as some have maintained, that the silver bullet is Right-to-Work. The Business Insider rankings list non-RTW states with the first and third best economies (DC is in between).  Eight of the top 15 states are non-RTW (including DC), and 15 of the top 24 are non-RTW states.  And it says nine of the bottom eleven states ARE Right-to-work.

Rankings, of course, are what you make of them.

—–

A lot of critical words have been written about Donald Trump and his apparent avoidance of taxes and his proclamation that failing to pay taxes makes him smart.  Is it not fair to recognize he was only taking advantages of tax law provisions that allowed him to escape taxes.  He is hardly the first businessman or woman to have accountants smart enough to do that.  It is politically profitable to jump all over Trump and what many perceive as his arrogance on the subject.  Unfortunately it does not appear to be politically profitable for those in Washington and in our state capitols to change them. Hillary Clinton says she will do it, though.

We will wait for the second debate to see if Trump will close his own loopholes to show his solidity with the common people or if Mrs. Clinton will explain how she’ll do it without the blessing of Congress.

As long as we’re watching the Official Political Bizarre Meter needle move into uncharted territory, we note the legislative session is now just three months away.  We have seen some pretty bizarre circumstances in four decades-plus of watching our lawmakers but having one House member serving with another member who, she says, raped her would move the needle pretty close to the peg.

—–

If voters approve the campaign contribution limit proposal on the ballot in November, there is likely to be a legal challenge.  Regardless of the outcome of the lawsuit, the approval by voters should send a message to a legislature that has made special efforts to avoid the issue.  We will learn how deaf the General Assembly can be to such a message if it passes and the court challenge is successful.

The state Supreme Court has ruled that a company that sells frozen meals to airlines is not entitled to a refund of sales taxes it paid under protest.   The ruling certainly raised our eyebrows.

We had no idea until now that those pretzels had been frozen.

—-

A lot more work is going to get down around the house by Missouri baseball fans this October because both of our teams failed to make the playoffs. But the darkness of the baseball parks in St. Louis and Kansas City serves to remind us that baseball is a human endeavor.  Players age. Muscles pull.  Bones break.  Tendons tear.

Major League Baseball is divided into seasons to remind us that disappointment is temporary and hope is eternal.

——

Speaking of Chicago where “hope” is pronounced “Cubs”:   We had a reason to look up the 1966 White Sox records the other day.  The leading pitcher that year is still part of the game although not in person. Tommy John is 73 now.  He won 124 games before the surgery; 164 after it in a 26-year career. Wonder if some statistician has added up the Won-Loss records after all the TJ surgeries done through the years.

——

We were listening to the radio the other night and heard an announcer promoting an upcoming European cruise on the Dunooby River.

A couple of seconds later when it sank in, your observant listener about drove off the road.

Dunooby, spelled D-a-n-u-b-e.

—–

But let us not be too critical of the young announcer.  Remember that we live in a state that has towns like Versails and New MADrud.

Spring break

This is the traditional time to assess how the General Assembly is doing and is likely to do this year.  Spring break for lawmakers always produces proclamations from the majority party that things are going well and proclamations from the minority party that the legislature has failed to do its job.

Both sides are right.  And they’ll be right in May, too.

The heady enthusiasm of January has worn off and the slogging through a muddy legislative battlefield is in full slog.  Some trench warfare has developed.  Some verbal bombs have burst in the air.  It’s about eight weeks before adjournment (seven when the legislature returns on Tuesday).  Eight loooonnnnnng weeks.

The rush to pass meaningful ethics laws has lost momentum.  Photo Voter ID and the latest efforts to make a legal medical procedure too difficult to obtain are a game in process.  The state budget and its accompanying intimidation, sandbagging, and sniping festival still has a lot of innings to play.

The majority leader of the Senate says people are working together, “for the most part.”  Ah, but that other part promises to enliven these last seven weeks.  Seven weeks is a long time to slow a slog to a crawl but nothing is unexpected in the General Assembly these days.

It’s a campaign year so don’t look for anything significant in the field of campaign reform to happen.  It’s a campaign year so do look for the majority party to do all it can to satisfy its base so it can keep its supermajority.  Look for the minority party to try to appeal to its base by stopping the majority from appealing to its base. The pressure to satisfy both sides only increases from here on.

Every session creates interesting bed fellows and this one has just created one. In this case, it’s one special interest trying to find a comfortable place under the covers for itself.

The Missouri Chamber of Commerce, which has fought efforts to pass laws banning businesses from firing people because they are gay, is now opposed to a proposed constitutional amendment protecting those of its members who don’t want to sell things to gay people—because the amendment would be bad for business.  What an interesting conundrum for the majority party: Do you side with the state’s biggest business organization that traditionally favors your party or do you side with the evangelical voting bloc that has embraced your party?  It’s the House’s problem now.

And the legislative dance floor has the potential for some other interesting moves in the last seven weeks.  Perhaps some will be humming Chubby Checker’s great hit as they twist their way around the issue of transportation funding.  One idea would keep the Highway Patrol from using gas tax money to enforce laws on the highways by having the patrol’s funding come out of general tax collections which already are inadequate for numerous programs and services, most glaringly education, and which some legislators want to reduce even further with tax cuts.

This long-time observer always had the feeling that the legislature should leave when Daylight Savings Time arrives.  Being cooped up at the Capitol while the days are dark and cold is okay.  But, oh man! When there’s warm temperatures and daylight and the session drones on and on for seven more weeks—that’s cruel and unusual punishment.

But we know how it will turn out. The majority party will proclaim this a great session.  The minority party will maintain it was a disaster.

And then they’ll go home for a longer break.

Equal pay for equal work

We were thumbing through a Reader’s Digest while waiting for a doctor’s appointment the other day and came across an article that might let Missouri Republicans and Missouri Democrats reach an agreement on one of the big issues that separates them—paying women the same salary as men for doing comparable work.

Studies year after year show women earn twenty to thirty percent less than men for doing the same kind of thing.   The Onion published a story about a year ago showing how one company has resolved the issue without being forced to do so by activist judges or over-reaching federal bureaucrats.

The story reported that Northstar Solutions of Seattle had begun paying men and women 78% of what they should be earning.  The article describes Northstar as “a progressive company” and quotes CEO Jack Stargell saying, “We’ve always believed that employees who contribute the same level of hard work for the same duties should earn the same meager fraction of a reasonable wage, regardless of whether they are men or women.”  The company reviews the salaries annually to make sure they don’t get out of whack.  Stargell says, “Sex is simply not a determining factor in how we view our workers; they’re all disposable quantities that deserve an identical amount of disrespect and lack of recognition.”

Yes, yes, yes, we know The Onion is a satirical weekly paper, not a real newspaper.  But it might be onto something that could draw together the great minds and the differing philosophies of government that divide the Missouri legislature now.

The legislature could pass equal pay for equal work, which the few surviving liberals want, and it could mandate that companies pay men the same wages that women earn for doing their same jobs, which could satisfy demands from the business interests that pour money into conservative coffers.**

Let’s face it, if businesses had government approval to pay men 22% less than they’re paying them now, the profitability of Missouri companies would jump and Missouri could truly become the magnet attracting new businesses that conservatives want it to be.  And we all know, because the business interests have convinced conservatives that this is true, that the businesses would take those large windfalls and use them to create MORE 78% jobs.  And that would be incredible news to jobless Missourians whose unemployment benefits have been significantly reduced by those same legislators.

AND things could get even better if the next proposed income tax cut is approved.  Lower taxes on lower wages mean even less money for state services, programs, and infrastructure, advancing the drive to “right size” government.  Observers who have been critical of Missouri’s politics would be hard-pressed to deny after all of this that Missouri is not a progressive state.

A lot of people make the mistake of dismissing The Onion as just a satirical publication.  Maybe Missouri legislators should look to it as kind of a guidebook to state prosperity and political harmony.

There’s one more thing to note about this issue.  Missouri already has a law that mandates equal pay for men and women performing equal work.  But it applies to only a select few.

21.140. Each senator and representative shall receive from the treasury an annual salary of eighteen thousand seventy-eight dollars plus any salary adjustment provided pursuant to section 105.005.

The most recent figure we’ve seen puts the basic equal adjusted salary for each man and woman in the General Assembly at $35,915 a year plus a per diem, mileage, and full state health benefits.  Men and women in this select group also can equally qualify for a pension after working six years.

The 78% plan of Northstar Solutions is not necessary in their case.

**The law probably should exclude CEOs from its provisions so that they can receive multi-million dollar bonuses for improving the company’s bottom line.  Female CEOs also could get bonuses but only 78% as much as the male CEOs.

I have a religious objection

….to religious objections.

But I’m rooting for Kim Davis, the Rowan, Kentucky County Clerk who spent five days in jail for contempt of court for refusing to issue same-sex marriage licenses that the United States Supreme Court says are legal under the Constitution.  She’s out now and still has her job.  She remains “religiously opposed” to issuing same sex marriage licenses but is under a federal district judge’s order not to keep her employees from issuing the licenses she opposes.  If she does, she could be on the wrong side of the bars again.

Her lawyer says, “She loves God, she loves people, she loves her work, and she will not betray any of those three,” a statement that seems from this distance to advocate an interesting dance.

She does not want her name on any same-sex marriage license. Her attorneys say the licenses issued by her deputies while she’s been away are not valid because they don’t bear her signature.   However Kentucky law says any act she is entitled by law to do can be legally done by a “lawful deputy.”

Of course, some political candidates are quick to hitch their campaigns to Davis, who has become a symbol to an important voting segment of our population. Ted Cruz and Mike Huckabee have gone to Kentucky to sand by Davis. Other Republican hopefuls are keeping some distance.  One of our Missouri Attorney General candidates already has claimed that, if elected, he will have the power to issue an opinion that will protect those who have sincerely held religious objections to state and federal laws.  Apparently this candidate for Attorney General does not realize that an attorney General’s opinion does not have any force of law and is, as a judge said many years ago, is just another lawyer’s opinion.   Interestingly, none of the other candidates for Missouri Attorney General have claimed they also could be a savior.

Kim Davis is the darling of the Religious Right today and, should she wish, could make a lot of money on the speaking circuit.   Her release was a disappointment to many people, not because they believe she is wrong in her position but because her case could set up a court test of the Religious freedom Restoration Act movement.   But she and her supporters are fighting the same-sex marriage issue on more than one front, so her case is likely to get to the United States Supreme Court one way or another.

Some see this case that was, to be blunt, inevitable when RFRA started gaining popularity in increasingly conservative legislatures.  It has been framed as a question of whether government can force someone to violate their personal religious beliefs. The mirror image of the question is whether one person can impose their religious freedom as a way to limit the religious freedom or the secular civil rights of fellow citizens in a nation that has a history of trying to keep church and state apart.

We saw a cartoon the other day portraying the chaos that can result if RFRA is fully sanctioned in society.  A person in a supermarket checkout lane wants to buy some condoms but the checkout clerk says she cannot ring up that sale because it would violate the clerk’s sincerely-held religious beliefs.  “You have to go to register ten,” the clerk says.   So the customer takes the groceries to register ten and has no problem buying the condoms but is told, “I can’t ring up that ham because my sincerely-held religious beliefs do not allow me to sell ham.   You’ll have to go to register eight.”

There is another story that might provide some guidance.  Might.

The ancient historian Josephus, a Pharisee, has written that followers of that movement were supported by the common Jewish people in the time of Jesus.  They claimed to be guided by the law of Moses in their interpretations of Jewish law.  If your correspondent’s understanding of Jewish history is correct, the Pharisees claim to be the founders of today’s Rabbinic Judaism.   Josephus contrasts them to the Sadducees, an upper class whose authority came from the high priest in the times of Solomon.  We fear we have over-simplified the difference, but over-simplification of religion and government is so common today that we hope our indiscretion has not been a serious one.

Three of the Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, record the day that some Pharisees hoped to trip up a young rabbi with a challenging question.  Matthew and Mark say they were Pharisees.  Luke says they were “spies pretending to be sincere.”   Luke says they were trying to set up Jesus so he would say something that would make him vulnerable to prosecution by the Roman governor.

They first flattered him: “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances.”  Then came the zinger: “Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?”  The Jews objected to paying those taxes, of course.   Matthew says they asked the question maliciously.  Mark says they asked it hypocritically.

Jesus, who was born at night but not last night, recognized immediately what was afoot.  And he got a little testy because, as Luke says, he saw through their craftiness.  “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites,” he said in Matthew’s version.

“Show me a coin,” he demanded.  And when they gave him a denarius, He asked them, “Whose face  and inscription are on this coin?”  The scriptures don’t say if there was any hemming and hawing although there might have been at least some of the Pharisees who might have immediately seen where their strategy was about to go out of the wagon tracks.   “Caesar’s,” they answered.

We wonder if Jesus paused for dramatic effect or if he flipped the denarius back to the person who gave it to him as he said, “Therefore, render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”   The Pharisees, the scriptures say, were stuck silent and after a while got up and walked away.   They still didn’t like this guy.  But they couldn’t argue with him that day.

The Pharisees, common people like Kim Davis today, had a strong religious objection to the edicts of their government.  And they didn’t want to obey that government.   And some perhaps curried favorable public opinion by opposing them.

We’re not scholars of the Bible in our house.  But we are unaware of any similar statement in the Old Testament, which was the foundation for the Pharisees’ positions in those times.

What Jesus did that day was define the line between church and state.

Many of those who side with Kim Davis argue that she should not be persecuted in this Christian Nation for standing up for her Christian beliefs.   Others say it might not hurt for the Christian Nation to remember the day Jesus Christ defined the line between church and state.   And perhaps the Kim Davis case, if it works its way through the legal system, might determine how much the definition in the First Century of the Common Era remains the same these twenty centuries later.

 

Apples and oranges

Kansas City’s council has voted to require an increase in the minimum wage paid to hourly employees working within its city limits and some members of the legislature, believing the sky will fall as a result, are threatening to punish the city.  Because Kansas City wants to give some people a bigger bite of the apple, the legislature wants to take away an orange. .

The statewide minimum wage is $7.65 an hour.  The Kansas City Council wants to increase it by eighty-five cents an hour this month with annual increases until the wage is thirteen-dollars an hour in 2020.  Critics contend the increases will cause businesses to provide fewer minimum-wage jobs.  Does that mean the people with corner offices will become the ones to re-stock the grocery shelves at night?  Or flip the burgers?  Somebody is still going to have to do that work.

Because Kansas City has mandated that its lowest-paid citizens get raises, some lawmakers want to end the earnings tax the city collects from all of the people who work in Kansas City, even those lowest-paid folks.  Maybe that’s the real problem.  Giving people raises means they’ll pay more taxes on their earnings and we know that tax increases are bad, bad, bad.  Even if the tax increase is less than eight-tenths of a cent an hour.

Let this long-time observer of legislative apples and oranges suggest an alternative to those legislators who think putting more money into people’s pockets is under this circumstance such a dreadful thing that it merits draconian retribution.  Normally the idea that people should have more money in their pockets (because they know how to spend it better than government does) is a concept the legislative majority likes to trumpet when it wants to cut taxes.  But here it’s some kind of municipal capital offense if those taxpayers earn that money.

So, in the spirit of being helpful, we offer an alternative that will improve the image of our lawmakers, particularly those who propose taking a guillotine to Kansas City’s municipal budget. And we can pretty much guarantee that this idea will produce bigger, more positive, headlines than the proposed orange penalty.

Instead of trying to punish Kansas City for having gone through a lengthy process to determine what the city council thinks is a fair phased-in step to take for the lowest-paid workers, the legislature should adopt a position of humility and comradeship.  It would be better for these lawmakers to say, “While we don’t believe lowest-paid workers in Kansas City deserve raises, we support them.  To show that we are in close sympathy with those workers who get the present statewide minimum wage, we are introducing legislation that calls for members of the General Assembly to receive the minimum wage, too.   In doing so, we will lead by example and in that way we will convince Kansas City to repeal its ordinance.”  It’s better to build a bridge than to build a bunker. Or in this case, it’s better to join together with workers at the apple barrel than to yank away a municipal orange that contains a lot of healthy fiscal vitamin C.

Just for grins, let’s calculate how much our lawmakers identified with those making $7.65 an hour.

Floor debate is often 4-6 p.m. on Mondays, 10 a.m. to, say, 6 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday and let’s say nine to noon on Thursday, which is roughly the schedule for a good part of a legislative session.  That’s twenty-one hours.  Some committees meet at 8 a.m. on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.  Some meet for a couple of hours in the early afternoon. Let’s be charitable (501(c)4 so we don’t have to report who provides the money) and calculate the average legislator works twenty-five hours a week.   That’s $191.25 for a short work week.   The legislature is in session for three weeks in January, four in February, March, and April, and three more in May, generally.  That’s eighteen weeks.  That puts their earnings at $3,443.50 for the session.

Oops.  We forgot the veto session in September.  Two more days.  Let’s say these folks work eight hours each day.  That’s another $122.40.

Of course, they’re doing constituent things while they’re at home so they’re never really completely off-duty.   So let’s just multiply their weekly wages by fifty (including the September veto session) and that’s an annual salary of $9562.50.  We multiplied by fifty because they’d probably want two weeks off for a vacation or something and we know minimum wage people don’t get paid when they’re not working.

Zowee!!! At minimum wage our 197 House and Senate members would earn $1,883,812.50, total, for a calendar year.  The basic payroll for the members of the legislature is about $7.1 million a year under the present annual salary of $35,915.  That doesn’t count the $105 per diem that each member gets to pay for motel rooms, apartment rents, meals that lobbyists don’t buy for them, drinks at the local bar (ditto), and so forth.  And that doesn’t calculate the cost of state health insurance coverage they get.  By going to a minimum wage, our smaller government legislators could save about $5.2 million taxpayer dollars every year.  That’s another $5.2 million in business taxes that could be cut for all those companies flocking to Missouri and creating all those new jobs we keep hearing are being created because of an improved business climate.

The news just keeps getting better and better, doesn’t it?

Of course, most people earning $7.65 an hour don’t have health insurance provided for them.  Maybe the altruistic lawmakers would want to save the state millions of dollars more by not taking part in the state health insurance program, showing even greater support for minimum wage earners in Kansas City, and elsewhere, who don’t need to earn more while at the same time increasing opportunities for more tax breaks for those job-producing businesses.   Plus, most of our legislators moonlight with second jobs when they’re not in Jefferson City and they can use the money from those second jobs to buy health insurance, just like minimum wage workers do—don’t they?

See, folks, crippling our largest city financially because it has done something for low-paid workers is the wrong way to go.  It’s better to set a positive example by showing that those workers don’t need a higher hourly wage because legislators can get by on the same thing the minimum wage workers get now.

In a time when so many people have a negative impression of government, this would say the Missouri legislature truly is government OF the people.  The best way to change Kansas City’s mind is to show through personal leadership that a minimum wage increase is not needed.

It is only fair that we note that the legislature time and time again has rejected recommendations by a state commission that legislative salaries, already more than double the amount a minimum-wage worker could earn for fifty 40-hour weeks, be increased.  Imagine how much prouder their constituents  would feel if the lawmakers said, “We want nothing more than the hourly wage paid to Gladys who checks things out at our supermarket cash register or Phil, who works behind the counter at our convenience store, or the teenager who takes our money at the fast food place pay window.”

And what would make perfect sense would be a law that says any increase in the minimum wage paid to our legislators beyond increases provided by law would trigger the elimination of the state income, or earnings, tax.

Makes perfect sense.

Of course it does.

No thanks needed.  This proposal is just part of being a good, helpful, citizen who has had the good fortune for many years to hear our lawmakers praise themselves as citizen-legislators.

 

Overgrown is good

We see that the Mayor of Florissant has asked Governor Nixon to call a special legislative session to increase the gas tax by two pennies so the state will not miss out on hundreds of millions of federal-collected matching-fund tax dollars coming back to Missouri for road and bridge work.

The legislature muffed the chance to do that in the recent session. Some lawmakers, to be frank, will oppose any tax increase for any purpose and will exert efforts to block approval of one. Based on his past record, Governor Nixon is unlikely to call a special session unless legislative leaders guarantee the bill will pass.   Once burned, twice shy, and Nixon got burned a few years ago.

The Missouri Department of Transportation needs some strongly visual reminders of how bad things are in our road system. The public and the legislators need to be reminded of how tight things are and what their continued wandering in the world of smaller government is costing.

We were driving along one of our highways a few days ago when we saw a department crew mowing the roadside and the median. We thought, “Why is MODOT spending money on mowing when it needs every penny it can get to keep more of our roads from turning back to gravel and more of our bridges from turning to rust?” We have noticed several medians and roadsides have not been mowed and on our recent trip across Kansas and into Colorado we saw a lot of tall grass in miles of rights of way.

MODOT needs to cut the cutting.

Let the grass and the weed and the flowers and the brush grow. Let the roadsides and the medians get absurdly shaggy. Let those areas represent the financial shabbiness of our state transportation program. And when the public complains, be truthful. “We can’t afford to mow our rights of way because we need that money to fix potholes and a few bridge decks. The legislature could ease that problem but it won’t. If you’ll give me the name of your senator or representative, I’ll look up his/her phone number. I’m sure they’d be glad to hear your concerns.”

A good friend, “Cutter” Short, who once was in the road-building and repair business, has cautioned against such a practice. He points to Federal Highway Administration guidelines for “vegetation control” that say the reasons to mow are:

  • Keeping signs visible to drivers.  (Hey! We’re talking about grass in this discussion, not tomato plants, grape vines, kudzu, etc.)
  • Keeping road users–vehicles, bicycles and pedestrians–visible to drivers. (We are not suggestion that the grass be allowed to grow tall ON the roads, just beside them or in the medians).
  • Improving visibility of livestock and wildlife near the road. (It’s nice of the FHWA to want cows and deer to be able to watch cars and trucks go by.)
  • Helping pedestrians and bicyclists see motor vehicles. (Yes, they’re at least as important as the cows. See also point 2 above)
  • Keeping sidewalks and pedestrian paths clear and free from overhanging vegetation. (Grass doesn’t “overhang.”
  • Removing trees close to the roadway which could result in a severe crash if hit. (Again, we’re talking grass here.  It’s okay to remove some dangerous trees. We don’t know what to suggest about the rocky bluffs, though)
  • Improving winter road maintenance in snow and ice areas. (Never can tell when one of those big salt trucks with dozer blades on the front might get entangled in the roadside or median grass, you know.)
  • Helping drainage systems function as designed. (They’re designed to handle grass clippings when rain moves in right after a mowing?)
  • Preserving pavements through daylighting and root system control. (A little extra height on the grass isn’t going to keep daylight from arriving when the sun does.  But we will concede that grass roots can be dangerous for our highways.  Not as dangerous as a lack of funding to pay for pothole repair, though)
  • Controlling noxious weeds in accordance with local laws and ordinances. (Let’s call on our courts to sentence people convicted of DWI to a week of Musk Thistle-pulling.)

We can add another couple of plusses to letting the grass grow.  It will hide those unsightly but necessary cables in the median that are designed to stop crossover crashes.  In fact, if the grass is thick enough it might help retard the momentum of the wayward vehicle.  And, for those who look for reasons to punish the Department of Conservation, there is the argument that taller grass will give deer, opossums, armadillos, and turtles more places to hide until they can jump out and attack unsuspecting motorists.

But it’s worth the risk to let the grass grow to emphasize the need for the legislature to overcome its horrible fear that Missourians might have to fork over a few pennies to pay for something like roads and bridges. The danger, of course, is that our lawmakers might not do anything to increase funding for mowing and for concrete and steel work. Instead they might declare roadway grass is a new official state symbol. They’re pretty good at that sort of thing.   Essentials, sometimes, not so much.