I have a cold…again

I have a cold…again

I have a cold…again.

I hate having a cold.  This one started just two weeks after my last cold finally left my system.   I’ve been cycling through colds separated by brief hiatuses (hiatusi?) for several months now.

It’s not hard to figure out why.  It’s an occupational hazard. Two and a half years ago, I was shanghaied into a new job.  Grand-parenting.  My official title is “Grandfather,” but never one to stand on ceremony, I prefer the  informal, “Pop.”

For the first 63 years of my life, I was not qualified for this job.  My resume was strong but it lacked one absolutely-mandatory-no excuses-accepted qualification – a grandchild. I was an honorary Grandfather, a title I still proudly hold, but in order to qualify for the bona-fide Grand Certificate and the 401K opportunity* that come with the real thing, I needed one more credit.

*[Update: I just learned there’s no 401K opportunity, but I’m expected to establish a College Fund for each grandchild. Shanghaied again.]

Finally, in late 2014 my wife Doris and I were invested with full rights, privileges and responsibilities of Grandparenthood. Our names were added to the on-line version of the Official Grandparents Directory/ US Division/ New-bees Chapter: www.diaper-changers (the national equivalent of the British Division’s famous www.nappy-changers).

There are now three acorns after my name and Doris’s.  So far all of our acorns reside under one roof.  For  good reasons, Doris and I were enlisted for temporary duty to assist in acorn management under that roof.   At least for the time being, we are a household of seven family members, two of  whom typically labor weekdays nine-to-five in “Day Care.” (Their artwork and paper hats can be stunning.)

I’ve learned that it is wise to inquire as to how many other acorns are in a Day Care. The chance that one of our acorns will catch another one’s cold and bring it home for us all to share is inextricably related to the number of acorns there. We are vulnerable to colds incubated in Day Care for export as well as the home-grown kind. Only a miracle combined with a total ban on kissing might break the cycle of colds passed around in our present environment.

Tired of grabbing tissues to clear mucus from my stiff upper lip, I recently decided to buy an over-the-counter cold remedy.  I was amazed at the number and variety of cold remedies on Walgreen’s shelves.  Each item’s label listed the specific combination of symptoms that the remedy was supposedly designed to manage: congestion, headache, runny nose, sneezing, coughing, sore throat, general aching, fever, sleep deprivation, halitosis.

(Okay, one of these wasn’t among any product’s targeted symptoms – can you find it?)

Amazingly, each product touted its prowess with typically only three or four among the universe of cold symptoms.  I found not one product claiming to relieve all cold symptoms; the most I saw was five.

I guess if you have six or more symptoms you should go to the hospital, not the drug store.

Before going out to buy a cold remedy, I suggest you should list and prioritize your symptoms.  Not including the mystery entry, my list of ailments two paragraphs ago names nine different cold symptoms.  Among products with labels advertising special effectiveness for three symptoms, there are exactly 84 possible combinations of three symptoms that could be offered. (So says a permutation calculator on the Internet.  Impressed?)

This inventory of 84 possibilities is considerably more than the 50 or so cold relief products on Walgreen’s shelves.  I suspect some odd combinations of symptoms, like headache, general aching, and halitosis, didn’t make the cut.  Nonetheless, if you are hunting for a remedy to cure your three most acute symptoms, your hay stack is 84 differing three-symptom combinations and the needle you seek, may not even be in a store that stocks only 50 or so combinations.

Make sure to bring your glasses when you go to buy; symptoms listed on the front of the package are alphabetized on some labels, but not all. No uniform code of for symptom labels addresses this issue.  Finding a package claiming to have been made for your three priority symptoms could take some time. Plan accordingly.

Alternatively, however, you can look at the lists of ingredients in the various products, like I did. There you may be surprised to find, despite the symptoms listed on the front labels, most of the mainstream cold products list the exact same active ingredients in the exact same proportions!

So why do manufacturers put the same ingredients in so many different bottles?  Well, if you see a product that appears to specialize in Runny Nose, Sneezing, and Congestion, and those are your symptoms of greatest concern at the moment, wouldn’t you choose it over other products touting their effectiveness against symptoms you don’t have?  If you don’t know the pills are essentially all the same, wouldn’t you be willing to pay more for a product that appears to have been customized specifically for YOUR symptoms? Wouldn’t that increase the product’s profit margins?

In the end, it appears that the only thing associated with a cold remedy that has been customized is its label. 

This slick trick is a shining example of American Marketing Ingenuity at the Top of its Game.

This is what Makes Money for investors, which is what Makes America Great.  

Let’s see China, Russia or North Korea top that!

 

 

 

So, What’s the Point?

So, What’s the Point?

Not for nothing, but for some sartorial reason in the flurry of photographs of President-elect Trump in the media I have noticed that he always seems to wear his neck ties longer than most men.  Typically, a gentleman will wear his necktie so that the point at the bottom of the tie reaches the top of his belt buckle.  I imagine the theory involved is that a necktie is an accessory that is intended to enhance the appearance of one’s shirt and so should end where the shirt ends.

Mr. Trump, exercising his right to freely wear his necktie in whatever manner he chooses, apparently prefers to tie his ties in a manner that the front facing end extends below his belt buckle.  Inasmuch as most ties in today’s fashion are pointed at the forward facing end, they resemble an arrow one might use to direct someone’s attention to that which is beyond the point.

As noted, in most cases, the arrowhead points to the man’s belt buckle.  In Mr. Trump’s case, and more recently that of Vice President – elect Spence, however, the elongated front portion of the tie points directly to the crotch.  Is there some subliminal, or perhaps overt intent for this?  Target practice perhaps?

What’s the point?

donaldtrump-tie6  trump-tie-3
donald-trump-tie-13

Republican National Convention: Day Three

Well, they asked for it.

Well, they asked for it.

I got an e-mail today from e-bay asking me to write a review of the refurbished Apple mouse I bought through them a couple of weeks ago:

This was my review:

Once upon a time there was a mouse that lived with an Apple that was bought by the parents of a spoiled little boy. They gave the Apple and mouse to him because it was Tuesday. (The little boy’s parents obviously had more money than they could ever spend.) The little boy was easily frustrated whenever he couldn’t figure out how to work the age-inappropriate toys his parents kept buying and buying for him to keep him busy while they lived their lives in other wings of their elaborate home. So it came to pass that the day after the Apple and mouse were installed in the wing that had been added to the house when little Donald (that was the little boy’s name, Donald) was born, the little boy, Donald, threw a temper fit when he lost another round of elementary checkers against the Apple. Despite the “computer always loses” feature programmed in the checkers app, Donald always found a way to lose, making the same exact moves in the same sequence every time he played. Naturally Donald (the little boy) blamed the mouse for always making the wrong moves, so Donald fired the mouse (he literally set it ablaze). Fortunately, the little boy’s parents (Donald’s mom and dad) knew that Donald’s favorite pastime was to fire things, so the sprinkler system they installed in his wing quickly extinguished the fire, but also water-damaged the mouse, so mom and dad took it back to the store and demanded a refund (the cheap bastards). The store then sold it for pennies on the dollar to the guys who refurbished the mouse, who charged me a very fair buy-it-now price for the mouse on e-bay. The mouse, my Apple, and I are living happily ever after because the refurbishing guys did a great job. And how’s Donald doing? He’s the Republican Party’s nominee for President.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Death, Taxes & Politicians’ Friggin’omics -Part 2

Death, Taxes & Politicians’ Friggin’omics -Part 2

Just My Luck – Chapter 14 – Part 2 – Evil’s Root

Politics is the gentle art of getting votes from the poor and campaign funds from the rich, by promising to protect each from the other.Oscar Ameringer~Oscar Ameringer~

Greed

Ralph Waldo Emerson, the wise 19th Century observer of the human condition, once wrote, “The love of money is the root of all evil.” 

 

RWEmerson1859
R. O. Emerson

Today, many who quote Emerson do him a disservice when they truncate the sentence to “Money is the root of all evil.”   Emerson was fully aware that money is not evil any more than a rock or a car, or a feather is evil. It is an implement, but not an implementer.

A thrown rock may convey evil, a car purposely driven into another car may be used for evil, and a feather…well maybe a feather used to unmercifully tickle can be a tool of evil, but there always must be a human involved before any object can be used to serve an evil intent.

Obviously, ‘’the love of money” is greed, pure and simple.

Greed is a disease, a particularly nasty disease.  It can infect anyone, but is especially virulent when it attaches itself to the rich.   A wealthy person has more opportunity to feed greed than your everyday miser. This makes them quite susceptible to this malady. But it is not my intention to suggest or imply in any way that all who are wealthy, or even a majority of the wealthy, are necessarily greedy.  My only point here is that those among the wealthy who are greedy can be highly dangerous.

Greed attacks the soul; it infects the very essence of the person with the disease.  The putrid environment of a greedy soul can easily infect others, and those who are not infected can nonetheless be sickened in its presence.

That is why it is best to weaken and isolate the carriers as much as possible and to be very wary of these sinister people.

This isn’t news.  Greed is not a new phenomenon that has only just infected the human condition.  It was one of the maladies in ancient Greek Mythology that escaped from Pandora’s box.  Mankind has been dealing with the disease for centuries looking for ways to purge it from our midst.

So far this only happens in fiction. Charles Dickens’s wonderful main character, Ebenezer Scrooge, in his morality story,  A Christmas Carol, is the epitome of Greed who is transformed, redeemed, safely around the corner (cured) by a merry band of ghosts: Jacob Marley, Christmas Past, Christmas Present (not gift, but now), and Christmas Future (the latter greatly resembles my old friend the Grim Reaper).

xmas 2 come
Might this be Ebenezer’s Last Christmas Eve?

Opening on Christmas Eve, the story is not subtle, but it incorporates so much in so little. Scrooge is a greedy and evil financier (sound familiar?), he exploits debtors and his lone employee (who is the most admirable, patient, and put-upon foil possible).  Scrooge is self-estranged from his family and his world is nearly microscopic – counting house, eatery, home and back.  His home is shabby chic before it was popular and he is the most miserly, miserable miscreant in the solar system.

Lesson: greedy people are their own worst enemies.

Like I said, subtle.

(I wonder, are the bogus mortgage securities bankers with summer homes in the Hamptons down at the mouth when a stiff breeze fills the sails on their yachts?)

Intervention and Redemption – Oh That It Were True

Scrooge is visited (assaulted actually) by spirits (souls) hell-bent on his redemption.  Jacob Marley, Scrooge’s partner who conveniently died on Christmas Eve seven years earlier, stops by for a chat and gives Ebenezer an eye-ful of what’s in store for him if he doesn’t soon change his evil greedy ways.  To drive down the point, Marley arranges for three other spirits to gang haunt Ebenezer. (None of these spirits were once human, though two look like humans, but all are related to Christmas times.)  They replay his checkered past, show him the effects of his current curmudgeonly persona, and scare him to death about his future, literally.  Oh so subtle.

The net effect of his long Christmas Eve: Scrooge survives to live another day, is a new man, a generous man, a friend to all, is a pillar of generosity, finds his family values, gives his beleagured minimum wage clark a raise and is beyond happy.  Add in Tiny Tim, a cripple little boy who now may walk again, and this ending is over the top!

Sno-cones and cookies for all.   Such a wonderful story.  !   I do truly love it, but:

Soooooo fictional.

For many years I have been enamored by Alistar Sim’s portrayal of Scrooge in the 1950’s movie of the same name. There have been numerous cinematic and made-for-TV versions of this story, including a musical, cartoons and one modern adaptation starring Bill Murray. A host of fine actors besides Mr. Sim and Mr. Murray have undertaken the role on screen scroogesincluding George C. Scott, Jim Carey, Patrick Stewart, Reginald Owen, Albert Finney, Michael Cain (with a supporting cast of  Muppets), Frederick March, Mr. Magoo, Fred Flintstone, and Scrooge McDuck (Uncle of Donald Duck, not to be confused with Donald the Trump).  With the exception of Fred Flintstone’s performance I think I have seen them all. 

The litmus test for my ratings of them is the joy that overwhelms Ebenezer Scrooge when he realizes he wants to, and still has time to, amend his evil ways before Christmas Future comes a’callin, agin.   The energy and exuberance of the transformation in Alistar Sim’s portrayal puts a broad smile on my face every time.  I make a point of watching it at least once, often more, each Christmas season and (ask my wife, it’s true) once each summer – usually in August.happy scrooge

Reaching back to some of my earlier posts, it touches my soul to see that albeit fictional transformation from a pure evil to a magnificent benevolence.  I have been moved by it since before I was a teenager and will probably think of it, if there’s time, when I meet the Grim Reaper for the last time.

Michael Douglas’s nefarious character, Gordon Gekko, in the movie Wall Street, has rgekkoeplaced Ebenezer as the poster child of the disease.  His oft quoted line, “Greed…is good”  is classic.  It is only from the inverted perspective of evil, that those words could be uttered.

Unlike Ebenezer, when Gordon hits hard times his stripes don’t change.  You can knock the greedy down, but you can’t cure them. The best we can do is contain them.  Isn’t that right Mr. Madoff?

Use It Well

The purpose of money is to represent value and facilitate the exchange of goods and services.  It can only be put to good or bad purposes by people. Despite all kinds of manifestations that complicate money: credit, debt, insurance, interest, dividends, derivatives, credit swaps, etc., etc., at its core money is basically a fine invention and necessary tool in any civilized society.

The ways people use money is what counts.

Closely related to greed, hoarding is another disease.

Hoarders
Items Rendered Useless

“Reality” television displays instance after instance of people who are obsessed and possessed by their possessions.  Unable to relinquish ownership of anything, their homes become dense tall indoor forests of haphazard and useless stuff stored in all the rooms of their houses, leaving only narrow pathways traversing through.  By hoarding their items, blenders that no longer blend, newpapers whose stories are no longer news, clothing that no one wears, toys that no children play with, the hoarders remove all intrinsic value in the items and thereby convert them to coveted junk.

Some people hoard only money and the same thing happens there.  Once in a while a news story will describe a seemingly poor, destitute person who dies leaving his or her astounded heirs millions of dollars that had been squirrelled away in hiding places in departed’s former home.  That lonely soul was never financially wealthy, he or she was simply a hoarder of the paper and metal physical representations of money.

The point is, money that is not circulated has no value until and unless it is returned to circulation.

wheredidthemoneygo
Money at Work

Another way of stating this is money that does no work (facilitating the exchange of good and services) has no real societal value.  The money hoarder’s home stuffed with paper and metal is just a big piggy bank; its contents only become currency again the moment the coins and paper monies are released from captivity and are transacted.

The rich (the top 10% most wealthy who are stewards of 50% of the wealth in the USA) hoard money, only differently.  True, most spend lots of money, invest lots of money, and donate lots of money to benevolent causes.  What they spend and donate goes back into circulation.  They are mostly kind hearted, generous people, many of whom earned their wealth themselves.  Many are passively making money while actively giving goodly portions of their wealth where it will do the most good for humankind.

The money the rich invest to continually maintain and grow their fortunes, remains under their sole care, custody, control and benefit.  The often quite considerable monies dedicated solely to the preservation of wealth can benefit only a microscopic portion of humanity.  They do not typically circulate to nourish others as “consumer spending, the life blood of the economy.”  These investments come home every night under the roofs of the rich who already have exponentially more than they could ever spend.

Those who have no need for more money but eagerly work to amass more anyway have fallen in love with hoarding-money bedmoney.  The buying power they remove from circulation might as well be in walls, in mattresses, or under beds and floorboards like the possessions of other hoarders.

Meanwhile consumer spending that circulates the nourishing lifeblood of the economy among fellow citizens, operates without the participation of significant portion of 50% of the nation’s wealth.

Let’s be clear here, consumer spending is a process of give and take – presumably an even exchange of value for value.  Investment is a win/lose risk proposition whose sole objective is to take and whose only consequences are win, lose or draw.

Under many roofs of the 10% and others who aspire to that lofty height, the primary financial goal is “wealth preservation,” not survival, not relief from hard work, not small pleasures, not the joy of giving.  These may all be objectives as well, but not the primary purpose of the fortune.  Preserve your wealth so that the major achievement of your wealth is that you can leave it to your gene pool, who will leave it to theirs, etc. etc.

I wonder, “Why is that?  What purpose does the handing down of immense kinetic spending ability serve?”

Don’t be a moron,” you reply.  “Everybody knows Money is Power.”

Yes it is, yes, it certainly is.  Just look at our money-bloated friend in Las Vegas.

Risk & Reward

Venture capital looks to grow capital by taking calculated risks in funding the growth and development of someone’s idea to create something new, or better, or cheaper, or modified to increase value.  A successful venture that adds new or improved or less costly products or outlets betters the flow of spending in the economy.  In a well proportioned economy, that’s great.

But what are the expectations of the Venture Capitalist?  What is a hedge fund’s objective?  Profit, certainly.  Nothing wrong with that except when it violates the common sense principles of ENOUGH.

When a financier seeks a 50 to 1 return on his/her investment, the investment itself becomes ridiculously disproportionate and thereby toxic to the economy. When returns of 10 to 1 are considered failures, someone is dangerously in love with money and their greedy expectations infect our entire society.

I Repeat

The lifeblood of the economy is consumer spending.  The wider money is distributed among people, the greater can be the demand for goods and services.  Self serving greed that hoards money and curtails consumer spending undermines our economy.

Greed is Economic Public Enemy #1.

End of story.

 

©2016 James Ash

 

Death, Taxes & Politicians’ Friggin’omics

Death, Taxes & Politicians’ Friggin’omics

Just My Luck – Chapter 14–1

Politics is the gentle art of getting votes from the poor and campaign funds from the rich, by promising to protect each from the other.

~Oscar Ameringer~

My invitations to dance with the Grim Reaper kindled a great deal of thought about a life worth living.   My concern for serving others naturally includes exploring the idea of social justice,  a cornerstone of Democracy that appears to be in jeopardy.

Bad Signs of Things to Come

Social justice is impossible absent an economic system that empowers all people appropriately.   By appropriately I mean supported in meeting life’s basic needs and having no unfair impediments to finding and enjoying economic and social opportunities.   The simple premise at the foundation of this idea is that equal opportunity for all does not necessarily imply equal success for all, but unequal opportunity that makes failure a virtual certainty does not serve a the spirit or the operation of a Democracy.polar quote

The more lopsided an economy becomes the more difficult it is for more and more people to meet life’s basic needs.  There is ample evidence of this in the American Economy today.  I worry that if we don’t wake up and find a way to distribute our nation’s phenomenal wealth much more proportionately, we will be courting a disastrous socio-economic  implosion.

The gulf between the wealthy and the rest of us has already widened to the point where we can hardly communicate one side to the other.   The polarization of politics is an urgent warning of the polarization in the body politic.  The dwindling areas of common ground between the haves and the have nots threaten to rip apart the fabric of our democratic systems.  The next Civil War in America will not be fought for territory, it will be economically driven, a fight over the fundamental distribution of wealth.

eat cake

To divert away from the dangerous path our economy is taking I propose that it is in the best interests of the wealthiest 10% of our nation to not only cease opposition to taxes designed to re-balance the economic playing field , but to champion those tax reforms.  Warren Buffett should not be alone in his contention that the wealthy pay much less than they should in taxes.

The bridge and insulation between the wealthy and those below the poverty line has historically been a strong middle class.  Tax immunities first granted to the rich in the 1980s and enhanced handsomely thereafter, enabled the 10% to build ever higher mountains of money .  Comparisons to the age of the “robber barons,” who amassed ridiculous wealth with no taxes early in the 20th Century, are really not far from the mark.

Meanwhile the middle class has been the repository from which most of the money has been drawn to further swell the mountains of wealth of the 10%. (Hey, it had to come from somewhere.)  Furthermore the middle class has borne and will continue to bear the lion’s share of the growing national debt fed by the deficit spending needed to compensate for the loss of tax revenues no longer collected on half of our nation’s wealth for the past 30 or so years.

Further, as the leading taxpayers in this country, it was primarily the middle class who paid for the train wreck of the latest economic meltdown caused by careless bankers and other financiers of the 10%.

It would be foolish to continue to erode the middle class buffer, forcing maworking-class-one-fist-copyny to join the ranks of the impoverished. Absent the middle class, the 10%  may face hoards of hungry, angry, disenfranchised 90%ers with little or nothing left to lose.

I’m no Economist, but having no corporate blinders or “loyalties” to cloud my vision, I can see how things are operating.  I firmly believe we have to change the ways we interpret the goals and principles of Economics in America and put them into action before it is too late. 

 

The Lifeblood of the Economy

If, as I have often heard experts say, “the lifeblood of the economy is consumer spending,” shouldn’t the flow of money be as robust as possible?

When the gulf between the few money-hoarding rich and the hoards of the money un-rich is as wide as it is today, have we not isolated a massive reservoir of dormant buying power in the neighborhoods of the rich?

If the main purpose of this massive reservoir of money is just to grow bigger, how does this churning massive body of wealth contribute to the consumer spending needed for a healthy economy for all?

It simply doesn’t.

money piles

Since roughly half of the money of the body politic resides in the hands and serves the interests of the wealthiest 10% of people in this country, the remaining 90% of the body politic is being starved of the nutrients needed to survive.  The power of consumer spending is concentrated in the rich, leaving only half of lifeblood of the economy thinly dissipated among the 90% un-rich.

The only place where the economy has been robust in the past several years is among the rich.  For a truly robust countrywide US economy to operate, it seems obvious to me that the buying power in the economy needs to be more evenly distributed.   More of the lifeblood needs to be released to nourish the whole body politic.

I am NOT suggesting that we need some utopian level playing field where everyone has an artificial equal share of the buying power simply because they are alive.  The arguments against this foolishly simplistic notion are valid and well known.  Reasonable risk taking, the development of skills, and the time spent in productive work need to be rewarded, especially when they result in something valued by and/or of benefit to society.

I contend the current proportions of the rewards and the access to opportunities need to be seriously revised before it’s too late.  One of the key ways to revise the imbalances is via the Tax Codes.  We need the income and holdings of the wealthy to yield tax revenues at rates that are at least equal to (preferably higher than) the maximum rates paid by people and businesses with incomes below the 10%.

Graduation Corrupted by Pompous Circumstances

The concept of a “graduated income tax” is built on the premise that money spent on food, shelter, health and other necessities should be taxed at the lowest rate, if at all. Funds available for non-essential items (which we nonetheless deserve) should be taxed on a sliding scale where the more discretionary the funds are, the higher the tax rate should be.

The graduated income tax was invented to help fairly distribute wealth within the body politic so that the money people need to survive is protected and above that level, the tax rates that pay for any and all government services gradually increase as one’s income increases.  This way those whose incomes are higher pay a higher rate on their excess money because they can best afford to do so. There comes an income point above which a maximum rate holds steady.

For example, a family of four with an annual income of $60,000 might pay:

  •  no taxes on the first $20,000 of their income,
  • a tax rate of 9% of the next $20,000 [$1,800], and
  • 12% of the next $20,000 [$2,400]

This then makes their total tax liability for $60,000 = $4,200, which is 7% of the family’s income.  So in this hypothetical tax structure for everyone with an income of $60,000 or more would owe $4,200 taxes on their first $60,000 of income.  If their income is above that threshold, the tax rate for the next layer should be a higher rate than the 12% that was applied in the layer below it.

Look at it this way:

grad hypo

(Please note: these  numbers are for demonstration purposes only; the actual tax rates at various income levels today are almost certainly different.      Any accuracy in these hypothetical rates is amazingly accidental.)

Unfortunately, somewhere along the way in the 1980s, the graduated system was corrupted so that after the maximum rate kicks in at say the $100,000 income level, there comes another tax rate, say at $160,000 of income, where the tax rates change direction and shrink significantly.

grad corrupt

(Please note how much more of their income after taxes the wealthy keep.  You may say, well yes but there are so few of them, what does it matter? It doesn’t matter how many taxpayers there are, it’s how much in taxes is no longer collected from them.  Remember, they control 50% of the economy, so this money lost to taxes is gigantic.)

So let’s say another family makes $1,200,000 per year.  The first $60,000 of that amount is taxed just like everyone else’s for $4,200 (7%).  With the tax rate graduating upward, lets say the next layer above $60,000 is $40,000  which is taxed at 20% – $8,000.  So for the first $100,000 of income the tax bill is $12,200, which is 12.2% of $100,000.

Up to now, the system is working fine asking those who have more to pay a bit more.  The $60,000 income is taxed overall at 7% and the first $100,000 portion of the $1.2 million income is at 12.2%  But now the system is corrupted.  For the remaining $1,100,000 of the family’s enviable income, the tax rate drops to 4% or $44,000.

So here’s how the total tax bills compare:

Income                         Taxes by layer                                            Tax Rate on Income

$60,000                $0+$1,800+$2,400= $4,200                                     7.0%

$100,000                 $4,200 +$8,000 = $12,200                                    12.2%

$1,200,000             $12,200+$44,000=$56,200                                    4.7%

So, the family with the MOST income – $1.2 Million – pays the LOWEST RATE, only 4.7% of earnings in taxes.  Meanwhile the family with the LEAST – $60,000 pays proportionately nearly twice as much, 7.0% of their earnings in taxes.  And the middle class carries the biggest burden (again) at proptionally well over twice the rate paid by the winning wealthier family.

How did this happen? 

Ask the Congresses and the Republican administrations of Reagan, Bush, and Bush II.  Ask the spin doctors who planted the idea that taxes are always evil in the American voters’ mindsets. Their’s has been a masterful scenario that has protected the immense tax privileges of the 10% while sticking it to the middle class and keeping the impoverished poor.  This grand scale political scam is just as ugly and greed-driven as the phone scammers who prey on the elderly in America. The only difference is the number of zeros in the bottom line number.

Capital Gains vs Earned Income

One might think that the distinction between tax treatment of Capital Gains and that of Earned Income might have something to do with the fact that people work to earn income, people realize capital gains (sell stocks, etc. for more than they paid for them).  On the surface one might think money earned via work would be treated a bit kinder than money from stock profits, but it is the other way around.

Earned income (paychecks) for the work you do has a maximum tax rate (the most you would pay for the top portion of your income) somewhere between 30% – 35%.  Income comes from long term capital gains (bought a stock for $1 six or more months before selling it for $2, your long term capital gain is $1) is taxed at 15%.

So income from the growing value of a stock portfolio is taxed at about half of what you and I earn from the work we do.

There is a valid rationale for treating these different sources of income differently. Lawmakers wanted to stimulate investment in companies to help stimulate the economy and so used the tax codes to make it more attractive to invest.  But the difference between the maximum earned income tax rate and the capital gains rate is very large. There are not many folks who are not at least financially “comfortable” who are likely to risk their hard earned money on the rigged games of Wall Street.

I would be surprised if the investors on Wall Street would pick up their marbles and go home if their incentive to invest was a 25% tax rate instead of 15%.

These are the tax laws that our representatives created in Congress.  Makes you wonder if they are OUR representatives or someone else’s.

Financial Justice?

We also need to punish white collar crime in proportion to the social and economic detriment it causes. The damage caused by the polluted mortgage backed securities knowingly assembled and sold by people intent on defrauding investors was devasting and worldwide.  Yet only one banker among literally thousands who stuffed cash in their pockets and laughed at their hundreds of thousands of victims was sent to jail.  We have mandatory multi-year sentences for people caught with an ounce of marijuana, but the architects and contractors who built the financial house of cards still walk the streets in freedom. They still smugly gather at their exclusive country clubs knowing they can safely keep their ill-gotten gains.  They all should be serving life without parole (as they are in Iceland) if only to protect the public from the predators.

eat cake

A Disproportioned Bodypolitic

In the metaphoric “bodypolitic,” the components of a healthy economy are generally arranged well in proportion to one another.  Though muscles, the engines of the body’s motion and activities in the world, require more  lifeblood than does the skeleton, a great deal of lifeblood is needed to keep the central organs of the body, heart, lungs, pancreas, skin, brain, etc. healthy and operational.

Our body politic today is alarmingly disproportioned.  Our functioning economy has made us disproportionately muscle-bound at the expense of key organs we need to stay alive.  The huge lifeblood reserves hoarded in our muscles (the rich) are starving and weakening the skeleton, organs and skin (the rest of us). All parts of the body, including the muscles, need one another in balance in order to stand erect, operate, and hold things together efficiently and effectively. bodyprops3

What good is it to have massive bicep muscles if the arm bones are too brittle to hold them up and the heart is overworked and ready to give out?   The well fed muscles of someone whose heart stops are dead and buried along with  the rest of the corpse.

I hold that the present distribution of wealth is this country is life threatening to our entire Democracy.  Money is power, and when too much power is concentrated in the hands of the few, the will of the powerful rules, not the will of the people.

If we haven’t already done it (and some insist we already have), we are very close to creating a government:

  • Of the Rich,
  • By the Rich, and
  • For the Rich.

As the gulf between the rich and the un-rich opens wider and wider, I worry we are courting socio-economic disaster and straying farther and farther away from the Democratic ideals upon which this exceptional nation was founded.

Just look at this ugly case in point:

Consider the situation and activities of Sheldon Adelson, the eighth richest man in America. Ensconced in the desert of Las Vegas, he has profited ridiculously by preying on the losses of everyday people who gamble in his casinos.  He owns quite a lot, but he wants more, always more.  He wants not to be, but to own the President of the United States – a humble aalelson white housespiration of a humble patriot. 

How can he achieve that objective cost efficiently? If he bet on every horse in the race, he would surely win, but at what cost?  No, it’s much better to examine the field, pick the horse that will do him the most good, and give him/her $100 million to use to assure victory (bribes, sabotage, etc. – you know, usual politics).  So that’s what he did. 

When summoned, all but one of the 2016 Republican candidates for the Presidency of the United States flocked to his throne in Vegas to offer large  tributes in power to Mr. Adelson in return for a $100 million contribution to the candidate’s campaign.  The man ran his own private job interviews to literally fill the vacancy of the Presidency of the United States!  He wants to buy the next President.  And the Republican candidates were all, (with the exception of one) obviously for sale. 

The candidates actually passed one another in the lobby of the hotel, each eager to answer the holy summons.  And if Mr. Adelson were to offer $100 million to the Democratic candidate of his eventual choosing, I am confident that (with the exception of one Democrat) we would see a rare case of bi-partisan activity in Las Vegas, though not Washington..

edelson
Kiss My…ring.  

Does anyone see anything wrong with this picture? 

Is there anyone left on the planet who recognizes that this is unvarnished influence peddling of the most egregious degree? Why is this not illegal in our Democracy? Why isn’t there rioting in the streets about this?  Why does anybody support these politicians who are lining up for the opportunity to sell our Government Of the People, By the People, and For the People, to the Rich and Powerful?

 Ironically now we have an overdue voter’s backlash in support of one of the only types of person who can afford to run for the presidency without taking the billionaires’ money: another billionaire. This one is a malignant narcissist to boot.  Donald the Trump.   Oh, true to form, knowing now that Trump will be the Republican Party’s candidate for the Oval Office, Old Man Adelson invited ‘the Donald’ to Vegas to broker a deal. Adleson has now pledged his $100 Million donation to the Trump campaign.  One has to wonder, however, when two sharks swim in the same water, can they both resist the temptation to eat the other one? 

Is this a friendly or clandestinely hostile merger strategy of billionaires?

eat cake

What has caused our country to become so disproportionately muscle-bound while essential organs are starved?  The answer is very simple.

Greed

(to be continued)

©2016 James Ash

 

 

 

©2016 James Ash

A Life Worth Living – Part 2

A Life Worth Living – Part 2

Just My Luck-Chapter 13-2: Enough vs. Never Enough

When did we lose our satisfaction and happiness with enough? When did unsatisfiable greed replace happiness as the primary motivation of life?

When Doris and I returned from eight years in Maine, we left the roughly 3,000 square-foot, brand new house we had mortgaged in 2007.  In 2015 we returned to Fairfield County CT and purchased a 1,350 square-foot condominium to call home.  Do the math.

A Dream Realized

From the moment we first saw it, we loved the house in Maine.  It was for me the realization of a dream I’d harbored on every commuter train ride back and forth to Manhattan for nearly 30 years.  It was quiet and secluded. The back deck overlooked our 250 feet of waterfront on Long Cove on Orr’s Island. I was able to fulfill the simple wish that articulated my dream, to be able to have my morning cup of coffee while looking at the water every day.

18 Heather Ln snow crp
Our Former Home – Orrs Island, Maine

We saw seals, egrets, blue heron, lots of fish and several kinds of ducks.  In our first week there, standing on the deck I used a pair of binoculars to follow an osprey that dove straight into the middle of the cove 100 feet in front of me.  When the bird surfaced it didn’t return to the sky, it used its wings like oars to row to the other side of the cove.  I was worried it had been hurt in its dramatic dive, but when it got the opposite shore, it emerged dragging a fish twice its size in its talons. Wow!  Too big to carry in flight, the osprey and its mate feasted on the fish on the rocky shore.

This was but the first, though most dramatic, of many successful osprey fishing expeditions we witnessed.  Nearly every time I took to the cove in my kayak the osprey would circle above me and call out their distinctive whistle.  I tried to mimic their signal in reply but could only master a poor imitation.  Nonetheless, they usually kept up their end of the conversation anyway.  Sometimes they would successfully dive bomb the cove with empty talons then surface and take flight with a fish in their grasp.  When they fished while I was there they always flew directly over me, showing me their prize.

kayak
Kayaking on Long Cove

One osprey couple returned to its nest atop a tall pine tree on our property every year.  They announced their arrival by circling  100 feet over our house and scolding us not to disturb their family.

I loved those birds.

Before our puppy, Charley, was big enough to be a threat, the neighborhood flock of 10 to 12 wild turkeys would strut around our property gobbling up the cracked corn I put out for them and the ticks the families of deer provided.  Sometimes they would sleep high in the tall evergreens that lined our driveway.  If you’ve never seen or heard a wild turkey take flight, you’ve missed something special.  They are the jumbo jets of the local aviary population on Orrs Island.  Once Charley was big enough to be reckoned with, we seldom saw the wild turkey spectacle.  He loved chasing them and they hated it.  Charley wouldn’t have a clue what to do with one if he caught one, but they didn’t know that.

A young friend in the final few hundred miles of a cross country auto trek stopped by to spend a few days with us.  He became very excited when we told him we had an American bald eagle in the neighborhood.  He told us he’d seen all the wildlife he’d hoped to on his trip, with the lone exception that he had never in his life seen an American eagle in the wild.

Later that very same day, he and I were swimming in the cove when I saw two osprey circling above us.

Hey Bob,” I called pointing to the sky, “see the osprey circling?  Watch this.”

Not quite on cue but shortly thereafter, the first feathered dive-bomber splashed into the cove maybe 40 yards from us.  It came up empty and returned to the sky.  A few moments later the second bird, its mate, made a stab at the same fish, but failed.

As the birds took up new circles over their prey, suddenly from left field came the bald eagle flying low and fast a few feet above the water’s surface.  Looking as if it was just sent from Central Casting to audition for a National Geographic special, he glided in low, raised his talons and neatly plucked the osprey-coveted fish from the water.  He then grabbed some altitude, and banked left for the tree line on the shore.

Bob & Boid 1
Bob and “Baldy”Looking for Turkey

Bob and I cheered as it flew over us with two osprey in hot pursuit.

The following Thanksgiving at his parents’ home, I gave Bob a statue of an American Bald Eagle to commemorate his first and only siting.

That place was just the paradise I needed to help me heal.

One Big Empty Nest

The thing is, this was the largest house we had ever owned and, as empty-nesters we were the smallest family we’d ever been.  This wasn’t just  more than enough house for us, it was far too big for us.  Why did we buy it?  It was nearly everything we ever wanted in a home. But a great deal of what we wanted was tied to the full nest we once had.  We had bought for the want, not for the need.

When we returned to Connecticut, we weren’t the first of our acquaintances and friends to “downsize,” but we had to shed an amazing amount of stuff we’d acquired in four decades of marriage and for a too-big house, before we could fit into our new digs.

We are surprisingly comfortable and truly very happy in our 1,350 square feet.  We still have more than enough to be happy, but it was really good to drop a lot of the dead weight we had been essentially storing in plain sight .

There is no question that we still have more than enough.  But at least we now have a better idea about what enough is.

Enough

enough 2John C. Bogle, Founder and former CEO of the Vanguard Mutual Fund Group wrote a small book on that very topic.  Published in 2009, in the wake of the greed-incited debacle on Wall Street, his roughly 250-page book Enough. True Measures of Money, Business, and Life, told of values and life lessons that were the antithesis of the fraudulent financial feeding frenzy that ruined so many lives across America.

With no appreciation for the concept of Enough, many of the greedy creators of the debacle were ultimately given golden handshakes and forced into luxurious retirement. (SoMaster-Card-icon sad)

Petty crime doesn’t pay. Huge crimes of the wealthy fleecing the rest of us? – Priceless.

Vladimir would have enjoyed Mr. Bogle’s book.  In fact, he’d probably have sent it to a few folks.  In his opening chapter, Mr. Bogle reveals that he and his twin brother were born on May 8, 1929.  [5+8+1929= 1942= 16= 7th life of his soul]  Vlad would not have been surprised at that.

I read Mr. Bogle’s book while licking my wounds in the initial years of my time as a healing hermit in Maine.  Ironically, our move to Maine coincidentally happened a month before Lehman Brothers’ downfall knocked over the next domino in line and the ugly mortgage laden financial world collapsed before our eyes.

I never anticipated that my 401k would deflate so low so fast just as I began my retirement.  My plan to take some time for myself to heal from the still painful 9/11 experience was undermined somewhat by a new worry about how I was going to remain retired.  Like millions of others, I was among the victims of miserable, despicable, lecherous, insidious, money-grubbing, greedy, and ultimately valueless people.

To any and all greedy bankers, investment bankers, mortgage brokers, derivative creators, and other vermin who knowingly and purposely were complicit in the defrauding of investors and ultimately the fleecing of hard working American tax payers, I sincerely hope that you will ultimately get what you deserve. You may have bought your way out of justice here, but though I’d be pleased to escort you to it, I wouldn’t want to be on your deathbed. 

Finding Mr. Bogel’s book was a tonic for me. His perspective and his experience-earned wisdom were in stark contrast to the unscrupulous financiers who poisoned the well. He described a time when few sharks swam in the financial services waters, where the lifeblood of the economy was protected by the integrity of the professionals who took responsibility as stewards of other people’s financial interests.  This was followed by a chronicle of how greed insinuated its self, its hideous spirit, into the fabric of finance, corrupting it to its core.

The book’s Table of Contents is in itself a synopsis of Mr. Bogle’s excellent observations. Here are the 10 Chapter Titles of the three core segments of the book:

Money

Chapter 1       Too Much Cost  / Not Enough Value

Chapter 2       Too Much Speculation / Not Enough Investment

Chapter 3       Too Much Complexity / Not Enough Simplicity

 Business

Chapter 4       Too Much Counting / Not Enough Trust

Chapter 5       Too Much Business Conduct / Not Enough Professional Conduct

Chapter 6       Too Much Salesmanship / Not Enough Stewardship

Chapter 7       Too Much Management / Not Enough Leadership

Life

Chapter 8       Too Much Focus on Things / Not Enough Focus on Commitment

Chapter 9       Too Many 21st Century Values / Not Enough 18th Century Values

Chapter 10     Too Much “Success” / Not Enough Character

 

If you haven’t read Enough, I highly recommend it.

As the volatile and hungry trading in mortgage clusters with bogus ratings was taking place, I would guess nearly every time the word “enough” was used on Wall Street it was paired with the word “never.”  I don’t believe the notion of enough has gained even a tiny foothold in the canyons of the Financial District in lower Manhattan and beyond since then.

Those who are unfamiliar with the concept of enough are missing something very important to their own selves/souls.  If we always strive for more money and possessions, there’s never enough.  When there is no end achieved, where does satisfaction come in?  What is important, the process or the objective?

Greed, the love of money, can never be satisfied.  Greed’s voracious appetite, like a hungry shark, can turn back on itself and consume itself until there is nothing left of genuine value in the person afflicted with the disease.

Self-Regulation of Financial Institutions (and Other Fairy Tales)

It is because of greed/never-enough/and the absence of integrity that financial institutions today cannot be trusted to self-regulate.  End of story.

Effective self-regulation was the safeguard that Reaganomics depended on to keep the economy fair for all.  It was to be the protector of the faucet that wselfRegulateas to trickle down economic largess to everybody!  Poor Ronnie. He was a genuine idealist. He made one mistake, albeit a really big one. He expected there’d always be integrity. In other words, he trusted the bastards.

Maybe in a Disney cartoon sharks can make an effort to deny their very nature [“Fish are not food”], but the expectation that Wall Street sharks would ever self-regulate to keep things fair proved, not at all surprisingly, to be absolutely ludicrous. Real self-regulation that champions fairness, responsibility, and enforcement requires huge amounts of a terribly scarce commodity in today’s financial community: Integrity.

Integrity in the financial markets is just a bad joke, laughed at by malignant narcissists who care nothing about anyone but themselves.

An entirely different commodity, Cash, funds finance regulations and regulators that turn a blind eye to deceit, opportunism, and god-damn greed.

Sorry to say, the legislators – the pilot fish for the sharks  – have the concentrated gall in the wake of this last disaster to continue to oppose the most common sense controls on the sharks’ feeding habits.

I wonder ,why?  Is someone else being fed at the same time? Naaaaaaah.  In America? Naaaaaah.

Take a look on-line at rate of increase in net worth of legislators in Washington who are the true power brokers.

https://ballotpedia.org/Changes_in_Net_Worth_of_U.S._Senators_and_Representatives_(Personal_Gain_Index)

Some brought their money with them but others made most of their fortunes on Capital Hill, in the White House, and I suspect even on the Supreme Court.  What are their salaries as public servants?  How much were they worth when they first arrived in Washington?  How does one account for the huge divide between then and now?

A Nasty Shameful Greedy Perversion of Justice

Insider trading?  Sure that’s some of it.  Congress made it legal for Congressmen, their aides, members of the administrative branch and others to do what any other American citizen would do some hard prison time for doing.   Insider information is confidential information about companies that, if known by the general public, would inflate or deflate that company’s stock prices.  It is illegal for anyone, except the self-serving polconflictiticians who cooked up and passed their law, to buy or sell stock in a company if they have insider information, until after that information has been made public.  Trading on insider information is like having the ability to read tomorrow’s Wall Street Journal’s stock price listings today.  It is a not so sophisticated way to steal money from investors who do not have the advantage of knowing what will happen tomorrow.  Making it legal for themselves gave these public servants the license to steal that money from investors without any punishment at all.

Isn’t it cute?  Can you imagine how embarrassing it must have been when law makers were exposed for making insider trading legal just for themselves. They were caught with their hands in the cookie jar.  So they proceeded to make a big splash about righting this heinous wrong.  They quickly passed legislation rescinding this insult to the integrity of Congress. There were some great photos of the president signing that bill.  End of story. Right?

Not so fast.  After enough time passed that the bombshell was defused, this same self-righteous Congress proceeded to very quietly de-fund the only data system that could track this complex nefarious activity.

So they stealthily gave themselves the right to steal, they boldly and loudly showed righteous indignation and revoked the right to steal, and then they stealthily hid all evidence of their stealing where no one could find it.  Will 60 Minutes please, please follow up on their story that first made the American Public aware of the criminals we call legislators?

Is it conceivable that some of these pillars of government are for all intents and purposes owned by big money?  Or are these legislators immune to temptation?  Not when they’re immune to the laws they pass.lobbyists

My, My.  How Neatly The System’s Been Rigged.

Sometimes all one needs to do is stand next to our flag to be able to get away with almost anything.  All it takes is a great propaganda campaign guided by slick PR wonks, a stable of sugar-daddy-donors, and greed.  But the flags these politicians wrap themselves in have a strong scent of excrement when they take them off.

Let’s get back to basics:

Does money feed the soul/ self?  Or does the continual growth of one’s pile of money feed on one’s self?  Greed is a disease that attacks the soul.  At its worst, it’s heroin, crack cocaine, oxyconten, valium, and Johnny Walker Double Black all packed into one overdose.

Beware of this affliction.

The sign over the gate to Auschwitz  the Nazi extermination camp during World War II read “Work Will Make You Free.”  I would not be surprised to learn that the sign over the gate to one of Hell’s most populated neighborhoods says:

Never Enough.”

©2016 James Ash

 

 

A Life Worth Living – Part 1 – Values

A Life Worth Living – Part 1 – Values

Just My Luck – Chapter 13-1

mother TSomewhere between Mother Theresa and Donald Trump is a place where I’d like to live the rest of my life.  Like yours, my definition of a life worth living is strictly my own.  It is driven by my values –  the purposes and priorities that resonate with my self/soul.  A life worth living is a goal, an ideal, a standard that measures my progress, self-disciplines my actions, and helps me make choices – all to improve my self, to feed my soul.the trump et

Between the extremes of the self-sacrificial and the self-serving, my natural inclinations are far short of the saintliness of Theresa but are definitely considerably farther from the malignant narcissism of Trump.

Values

After each of my potentially life-ending experiences, I have revisited my values to evaluate their relevance and to amend them if needed.  Absent strong and defining principles, I would be worthless to myself and others.  I don’t want to die in that state.

I already wrote in my previous chapter about how much I’ve learned to value Commitment, so I’ll not repeat that here.

Pretty early in my life, I was taught in church that our purpose as people was to serve God.  Okay, got it. That’s good.  One thing though, how do I go about serving God?  What in the world does God need that _wsb_524x205_OK_GOD_Now_What+title+words+onlyI can do for Him or get for Him?  (Remember, this was in the 1950’s before we realized that God might be either gender or neither one.) Really, I want to help, I want to serve, but since God is the master of everything, what’s left for me to do?

Then it hit me, an epiphany, a good way to serve God would be by serving Her/His best creation in my neighborhood, my fellow man (in the gender inclusive sense).  That would satisfy the mission, I was sure.  And I’m still sure of that today.

So, the underlying purpose of my values has long been to help others.

I think it’s a fine value.  It pleases me and I think it pleases God.  It’s stood the test of time at the head of my list .  Coincidentally (or not) Doris also independently realized that her reason for being on the planet is to help people.  Frankly, she’s a lot better at it than I am, and always has been.  But I’ve learned quite a good deal from her.  You’ll see.

While trying to be helpful, I also try to be mindful of the corollary, do no harm.  I’ve found that tenet is often hard to follow unless I amend it to do no harm on purpose.  I always need to keep an eye out for those pesky unintended consequences.

Helping Others

My efforts at helping others are sincere; they’re not an obligation, but a choice I made that gives me great rewards.  Doris is more active in accomplishing this mission we share, but while she may see an opportunity to be helpful more readily than I, we often work together to pursue it.  I find some on my own as well, a trend that has increased with age.

Helping can take a staggering number of forms: donating money to charities, spending time with someone who is lonely or bereaved, change a flat tire, running errands for a shut-in, making a child laugh, returning a found object to whoever lost it (wallet perhaps), cheering for someone’s accomplishment, encouraging someone who is not self-confident, giving time and attention to someone else’s needs or problems, the list is huge.  And one doesn’t necessarily have to go out of his/her way to do it.  Create something good when you do anything.  Complimenting a co-worker on a job well done costs you nothing but rewards the recipient handsomely.  Telling an acquaintance he or she looks good in that outfit, or looks to have lost some weight, or is admired, or whatever.

In my undergraduate training to be an English Teacher, I was taught the basic psychological truth that positive feedback is a much stronger learning motivation than is negative feedback.  Building someone up yields greater returns than tearing them down.  A teacher, a boss, a parent, a priest, anyone in a leadership position can help make the lives of their students, employees, children, congregation members, constituents better simply by using positive rather than negative motivation.

Anyone can build others up. My sage mentor Vladimir one day tolwaiterd me, “When I retire, I want to become a waiter.”

“A waiter? Really?” I replied.  “Now why would you want to become a waiter ?

I will never forget his answer.

“Because a waiter always has the opportunity to make someone’s day better.”

Knowing him, working for him, working with him, made my life considerably better.  He too valued doing good for others and I was a beneficiary of his help. He encouraged me to believe in my talents and look for opportunities to learn. He predicted that I could go far, and inspired me simply by telling me so.  He was my boss, but he offered me his friendship.  Never since have I known such a human being.

The opposite is also true.  The worst way to motivate someone is in the negative.

The guy who initially introduced me to Vlad by arranging my job interview, later told me that my mentor was doing me no favors in over-complimenting my work.  He warned that when I eventually worked for someone else, I would find it hard to find a cheer leader to replace him.  In short, I was being spoiled by Vladimir and one day I would have a rude awakening when he was no longer there to stand between me and the sharks in the tank.

Put another way his message was, “don’t get a swelled head from his flattery, you’re not that good.”

He was a little right and he was a lot wrong.

Vlad died in 1990 and I did indeed miss his encouragement.  As I mourned his loss (my loss), I was his successor in the office.  I was more than a little daunted by the size of the shoes I was to fill, but he prepared me well.  He helped me believe in myself and recognize my strengths and weaknesses. Armed with this, I took those strengths and minimized those weaknesses further than I ever thought possible.

I am ever thankful that he was my mentor and I miss him still.

Smilingsmiling-dog-moose

I like smiling.  I especially like smiling at strangers and the smiles that precede a good laugh with a friend.  A warm smile is a cost efficient way to brighten a day.

Occasionally, it can be difficult in some venues, but generally making eye contact, smiling and nodding the head once in silent greeting brings a smile in return.  It’s a small, momentary connection between two people who may have never seen one another before and are unlikely to see each other again, but it is not meaningless.  If I am a tenth-of-a-degree warmer for the experience and so is the other person, it’s a fine use of the time and energy it takes to smile.

I don’t smile at everyone I see, but when the thought hits me I smile readily.  Just the act of smiling can improve your day.  Smiling works on you like the salt, pepper, thyme, or other favorite spices work on your food.  Smiling makes your time more interesting, enjoyable, and flavorful.   The fact that a smile has no calories or carcinogens is a fine bonus.

When I smile at physically “attractive” women, I wonder if they assume I am coming on to them.  Truthfully, sometimes I wonder if I am, but I’m always satisfied and happy to be one of two smiles passing.

The best fun is smiling sincerely at people who least expect it, like Vladimir the waiter would have.

I like to think that I am an indiscriminant smiler.

Competition vs. Congeniality

When I returned from my hermit-hiding place in Maine to the suburb of New York City where I spent most of my life, I brought with me a new and fresh perspective from which to view my home environment.  With the exception of my first year of college at Virginia Tech, Connecticut had been my home state for my entire life before we moved to Maine.   I really needed that change of venue to experience a different worldview.   I was a different self when we returned.

Both places have their attractions and their “unattractions” (my newly invented word), but I quickly realized that many of the differences between them is a product of their contrasting population densities and their proximity (or lack thereof) to a major city.

Of all the differences I observed, the one I find most striking is thedriving competitionjpg highly competitive nature of many in suburbia versus the more relaxed and congenial aspect of rural Maine.  This contrast is especially stark when dealing with strangers in a situation where one’s anonymity is assured, e.g., driving a car.

In Fairfield County, Connecticut and other outlying suburban areas of New York City driving long ago devolved to an intense competitive sport.  Many drivers either believe that they have an inherent right or obligation to be ahead of anyone in front of them, or believe that they have a moral duty not to let the self-entitled jerk behind them get in front of them. (I tended more toward being the latter of these two sociopathic deviants.)

Put these two particular classes of drivers on the same road at the same time and you will create the perfect medium for road rage.   It is also hazardous to those with heart disease and/or ulcers.

The Law of Large Numbers

In Maine we lived in Cumberland County where in 2016 the population is just shy of 285,500 residents who inhabit 1,217 square miles along the coast.   I have returned now to Fairfield County, which has nearly 940,000 residents living in an area of 837 square miles.  The population densities per square mile in the two counties then are:

  • Cumberland, ME     234 souls
  • Fairfield, CT 1,123 souls

If the number of asshole drivers is 1% of the total population in each of these areas, you are almost five times more likely to have to deal with one of these idiots while driving to or from work in CT than in ME.  Given that more than 125,000 Fairfield County warriors commute to New York City to work at some fairly competitive jobs, and many other highly competitive jobs have migrated to suburbia, the actual percentage of the population made up by competitive drivers in the CT county is likely inherently higher than in Maine.

Conservatively then, let’s assume that 2% of the population in Fairfield County pretend to be Dale Earnhardt Jr. (or Mrs, Jr., ladies can be like this too) when they drive.  If the one asshole per 100 drivers rate in Maine holds steady, you are 10 times more likely to feel like you inadvertently drove onto the Daytona Speedway while in Fairfield County than in Cumberland County.

The reason for including these calculations here is that when I moved to Maine, I made a concerted, conscious effort to lose my own experienced and well-honed asshole driving style.

The Little Old Ladies from Passadumkeag

The Beach Boys never sang about them, but these little old ladies, and others like them, are a force in Maine.  In terms of residents, Maine is the “oldest” state in the Union, so it’s logical that it has proportionately more “elderly” people driving on its roads than does any other state.

These folks are typically cautious and more deliberate in what they do and how they drive.  Accordingly, I needed to learn patience behind the steering wheel.  At first whenever I felt old lady drives 2like shouting in frustration, I had to talk to myself down off the cliff to remember my goal.  “Imagine that’s Mom driving that car.”  That got my attention and before long I actually became a naturally patient driver.  I even smiled while I drove.

While Maine may not have as many assholes on the road, they have their share.  When they popped up in my rearview mirror I learned to wave them on and silently wish them well.

I congratulated myself to the changes I was making until I began to realize that I was actually on the cusp of becoming another senior citizen in the census poll with highest state average age in the country.  Maybe along with my intent to change my driving style, I was naturally becoming one of the typically cautious and more deliberate drivers.  If so, that was okay.  It was a positive change no matter why.

Back to the Demolition Derby

Having:

  • returned to the land of late-model, expensive, foreign-made sedans, cross-overs, SUVs, and sports cars,
  • driven by masters of the universe
  • who live in huge houses and
  • drive aggressively because
  • they can,

(please allow me a deep breath before I continue this run-on sentence)

  • my patience is wearing thin again.

My self-esteem is once again being challenged by the bold arrogance of some drivers here.  I’d left them, they hadn’t left me. In short, now that I’m back in Fairfield County I am starting to revert into an asshole driver.

Just last week a guy in Nissan sedan decided to jump the line of cars in front of him waiting at a red light.  Our lane was clearly marked for those who were going to go straight.  He chose to leave the back of our line (where I had been one stop-go cycle earlier) into the left turn only lane and pulled up next to my car. His intent was pretty obvious. He wasn’t in the wrong lane by mistake, he just believed that he deserved to be ahead of all the fools who comply with the proscribed traffic patterns.

Directly across the intersection from the guy’s car was the left turn only lane for cars coming toward us.  The Nissan and I were both second in our respective lines so he was right beside my car. When the light turned green he rode the bumper of the car in front of him that was also jumping our line.   Their lane’s first car barely gained our lane in front of our first car, but our first car yielded no room for the Nissan to pass.  Now it was up to me to preserve the honor of our lane by denying the lane jumper his objective. So I did.  When the Nissan asshole began to turn I, the Ford Escape asshole, ignored it and blew past him as did several cars behind me.  We left the Nissan stuck nose-to-nose with the cars in the turning lane from the other direction.  They were not happy with him for blocking their ability to turn.

Mine was a fine piece of competitive defensive asshole driving.  I scolded myself and grinned.

I truly don’t want to return to the ‘me’ that I’d worked so hard to abandon in Maine, but I have a natural aversion to letting other assholes take advantage of this asshole.  If I choose to let them have their little victories, I’d just like them to know that I could have denied them their ego rushes if I wanted to.  Short of installing a public address system in my car, I haven’t figured out how to do that.

I guess I havintelpost121126_assholebook_250.jpge to be content with knowing that myself.  Who cares what they think?

My goal is that next time I’m in that situation I want to let the jerk have the lane and not care.  I just don’t know if I have it in me to be that mature yet.

For an in-depth philosophical analysis of, and suggestions on how to manage, these types of folks, I highly recommend the work of Aaron James in his book, Assholes. *A Theory

Generosity

I always considered myself to be as generous as the next guy (I could have taught a graduate level course in Comparative Generosity), and I’m sure I was about as average as one could be.  I only learned about true generosity and the real joys of giving from my wife.  Having been a lifelong practitioner of giving, Doris is an accomplished expert.

Breaking me in, she started small.  “Is that all you’re leaving for the tip?

For the past 45 years I’ve witnessed the pure joy she gets from giving to un-expectant people: family, friends, and strangers.  Gradually at first, and then more readily, I’ve come to share that joy.

As my fingers have been dancing on my keyboard, I literally just overheard Doris speaking on the phone in the next room to someone named Doug who must have been working in some retail outlet’s call center.  In signing off the call she said, “I want to thank you Doug for all the help you’ve given me this morning.  You were really great and I want you to know I really appreciate it.”  Now, what did that cost her?  How do you think Doug felt about her compliment?  How often do you think Doug gets compliments like this?   The neat thing for me is that when deserved I too now make a point of speaking person to person to a Doug and expressing genuine gratitude.  I picked that up from Doris.

She is prone at times to go even another step beyond.  On the phone, in a restaurant, in a Lowes or a Home Depot for that matter, she asks a worker who has been very helpful to her, “Who is your Manager?”  It’s actually funny, but also a bit sad, that most times the person she wants to praise to his/her manager, is visibly shaken and fearful of that question until Doris follows on with, “I want to tell the manager what a  fine job you did for us.”  Likewise, when the summoned manager arrives, it’s usually like a student called to the Principal’s office.  The relief on the manager’s face when Doris delivers her message of gratitude then becomes a broad smile.

I dare anyone to walk away from that encounter in a bad mood.

Giving is now a very soul-satisfying endeavor for me. The joy (I know I am repeating that word, but it has no peer, joy is felt in the soul) of giving reaches my core. The happy surprise of the recipients of unexpected generosity is literally priceless.  Just the message that someone cares can be a gift that reaches the soul.

So I believe generosity is a fundamental method of communicating soul-to-soul.  When someone says, “I’m truly touched by your generosity,” it’s the soul that has been “touched.”  Touching and being touched that deeply can be so exquisite it can bring tears.

Like many, many people, we support what we consider to be worthwhile causes and organizations with donations of money, goods and services.  That is always good for our souls.  But we also enjoy helping people in need who we meet or hear about.  Most often the help we give is provided anonymously – somehow that makes the experience more joyful for us.

I’m still a novice compared to my wife, but I get to share in the wonderfulness of her giving.  I offer but one more recent instance that captures the essence of what she sometimes does with our resources.

We recently had a mid-afternoon lunch at a local diner.  The nearby high school had obviously finished another day of classes; several well-mannered students occupied tables at the far end of the diner.  While we enjoyed our meals the kids left sporadically in small groups and drove away.  Those at the largest table were the last to leave.  A few minutes later we heard their waitress moan, “Oh no.  They stiffed me again.”  The kids had paid their bill but left no tip.  In the exchange between the waitress and the owner of the diner at the cash register, we learned their check had come to about $100.  The waitress was more saddened than angry about the situation.

We finished our meals, left our usual tip on the table, and approached the owner at his pay counter to settle our check.  Before leaving, Doris reached into her wallet and handed the man a $20 bill and said, “We overheard what happened.  After we leave, please give this to the waitress.”  He smiled warmly and said “Thank you, I certainly will.”

We had a very nice drive home.

Sometimes the giving that’s not tax deductible is the best.

 

©2016 James Ash