November 27, 2021

In Praise of Not Streaming

I am a Netflix subscriber. Unlike most subscribers, I not only stream material, but I also receive DVDs and Blu-ray disks. The option to get physical disks costs more, but, for me, it’s worth it. It allows access to classic—i.e., old—movies, as well as relatively new movies that are not yet available on streaming services (or on streaming services to which I subscribe, at any rate). The two most recent movies I’ve received through the mail are Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (a classic film) and News of the World (a 2020 film).

An additional benefit of watching movies on disk is that most disks contain “extras,” videos about the movie or the people who made it, deleted scenes, and commentary on the movie by directors, actors, or academics. If a movie is any good to begin with, the extras tend to enhance one’s enjoyment by providing perspective or insight.

The running commentary on News of the World by its director, Paul Greengrass, got me thinking about how supplementary material for a video disk is assembled. First, let me say that News of the World is indeed a fine movie, and principals Tom Hanks and 12-year old German actress Helena Zengel are superb in their respective roles. (I want to adopt Zengel.

Disk extras fall into two basic categories: historical and technical information about the movie, on one hand, and analysis of the movie itself, on the other. On too many disks, all the extras are of the first kind. These disks emphasize the mechanics of movie-making. That’s very interesting, and I have learned much about the craft of cinema from movies I have viewed on disks. What I miss on such disks, however, is insight into the actual product, something we might identify as literary criticism. It is frustrating when the supplementary videos on a disk concentrate on movie-making mechanics and the running commentary does the same.

The Paul Greengrass commentary on News of the World is a welcome outlier. Although he points out scenes that were difficult to film, most of what he says addresses the story itself. He talks occasionally about the actors, but mostly, he talks about the characters. Who are these people in the film? Why do they act as they do? How do they change over the course of the film? How does the movie reflect its historical context? What are the subtle choices made by the director and related craft people that are likely to be missed in a casual viewing? What is the message of the movie, particularly for our time?

What became crystal clear from the exploration of the Blu-ray disk of News of the World is that technical and personnel information about the movie should be in supplemental videos. The running commentary on the movie, irrespective of who is providing it, should analyze the movie and increase the viewer’s enjoyment of it by providing a deeper understanding of what appears on the screen.

Those folks who assemble movie disks should take note.

November 26, 2021

Collect for the Homeless

That this country has a problem of homelessness is well-known. It is a problem we have thus far chosen not to address. Removing homeless people from public view solves nothing. Unfortunately, the problem is likely to get worse—perhaps much worse—as pandemic-inspired moratoria of evictions expire.

Addressing homelessness is complex because the causes of homelessness are many and varied. I won’t offer a program to eliminate homelessness, but it is my hope that individuals and government try to develop such a program.

For now, the best I can do is to offer a prayer that addresses homelessness:

For the Homeless

Merciful God, whose son became an itinerant teacher and healer, watch over persons who have no home, bless the efforts of those who minister to them, and strengthen our resolve that all people should have a proper place to lay their heads, thereby respecting the dignity of every human being and following the example of Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.

November 19, 2021

Repeal the Second Amendment

 I regularly watch the evening news on television. (And, no, this is not my sole source of news.) I am increasingly disgusted with the damage that firearms are doing to the nation in general and to individual citizens in particular.

I believe it’s time to introduce the following amendment to the Constitution:

Section 1. The second article of amendment to the Constitution of the United States is hereby repealed.
Section 2. The Congress shall have the power to regulate the manufacture, sale, distribution, licensing, and use of arms.

This is a modest proposal. A more thoroughgoing proposal would outlaw firearms except for sport, hunting, law enforcement, and the military.

Schroeder Update 1

Schroeder showed up again today. (See my earlier post.) Perhaps a cold snap had something to do with his appearance. I put out cat food, and Schroeder ate eagerly. (I gave him seconds.) He again tried to come inside. When he was in the doorway, I petted him a bit. I opened a carrier in the doorway, but he was not interested in getting inside it.

I wanted to get a picture of Schroeder’s face. Like most cats, he doesn’t pose for a portrait, but the photo below is a good first attempt.
 

Schroeder

November 18, 2021

A Christian Nation

Many people claiming to be Christians argue that the United States is a “Christian nation,” even though our Constitution is decidedly secular.

I will admit that we are a Christian nation, however, when all our people are housed, when no one fears hunger or violence from others, when all workers earn a living wage, when quality education and health care are provided for all, when our prisons are emptied of persons who have hurt no one but themselves, when religion claims no special rights and no religion receives special considerations, when the right to vote is universal and can be exercised conveniently, when our government seeks what is in the best interest of all its citizens, when the wealthy pay more of their wealth in taxes than do the less wealthy, when corporations have no rights that are properly exercised only by actual persons, when military expenditures are not so large as to inhibit spending on the immediate needs of people, when government eases the burdens of caring for the old and the young, when longstanding wrongs against minorities have been righted, when we welcome the victims of violence and injustice into our country, when we encourage other nations to emulate how we organize our own, when protecting the planet and its creatures is a national priority, and when we are at peace with all the nations of the world.

November 16, 2021

The Message of the Parable of the Good Samaritan

I have never been completely satisfied with the text of the parable of the good samaritan. Luke 10:25–37 reads as follows in the New Revised Standard Version:

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

The Samaritan Ministers to the Robbery Victim
A minor complaint is that this text has far too many pronouns and too few nouns. That said, it is not difficult to figure out the referents of the various “he”s and “him”s of the text.

Likewise, the lesson of the parable is clear: We are to treat our neighbors as we ourselves want to be treated, and our neighbors are not only those with whom we are familiar, but everyone. All the characters in the story are Jews except the Samaritan. Samaritans were foreigners not on the best of terms with Jews. The surprise of the story is that the Jews did not help a fellow Jew in distress, but a Samaritan did.

My problem with this story concerns the question Jesus is supposed to have asked. We cannot know what he did ask, of course, for the author of The Gospel According to Luke was assuredly not around to have heard the question. 

 In the story, Jesus asks who “was a neighbor” to the robbery victim. To make the obvious point of the parable, however, Jesus should have asked something to the effect of “who understood the robbery victim to be his neighbor?” The victim is in no condition to be neighborly to anyone and, in this story, is not asked to be. Of the three passersby, only the Samaritan saw the injured man as his neighbor, thereby providing an example of how we should treat our fellow human beings whatever their station. Since the “neighborly relation” is not intrinsically symmetric, Jesus’s question should properly identify who is the active person in the relationship he is seeking to elucidate.

It is unfortunate that the parable has come down to us as it has. Preachers should explain that Jesus probably did not ask the precise question he is reported to have asked.

November 12, 2021

Schroeder

From time to time, a cat will show up under my bird feeders. I’ve seen a calico a couple of times, and a black cat came by once. For the past few weeks, I have had a more frequent visitor, a male tabby. Whereas other cats have run away as soon as I opened the back door, this one didn’t. I threw some cat treats on the ground in his direction, and he eagerly found and ate them. Since then, whenever my visitor has shown up, I have put out a bowl of dry cat food for him.

The photo below is from September 28. The bowl rests on a stepping stone just outside the back door.


This cat has come by at irregular intervals, occasionally on successive days, though not usually. During an extended absence, I wondered if I would see him again, but he has continued to show up.

Our encounters have been somewhat fortuitous. I have not stood by the door all day looking for the cat, though I have taken to looking out the door more regularly than usual. The cat typically shows up not on my doorstep but in a little clearing about a dozen feet away. He has come to me when called. Occasionally, I have been alerted to his presence by my own cats staring out the glass in the door.

When I first called the cat, I just said “hello.” It seemed to make more sense to call the cat by his name, however. Since it was unknown whether anyone had given him a name, I decided that I had to invent one. My cats, Charlie and Linus, are named after Peanuts characters, so I decided to call my visitor by another Peanuts name, Schroeder. 

Schroeder is an intact male, so I doubt that he is someone’s pet, but I have arranged to have him checked for a chip if I can catch him. I am not much of a cat catcher—read about my latest adventures getting my own cats to the vet here and here—but the behavior of Schroeder has given me hope that I might be able to entice him into a carrier. He has actually tried to walk through the doorway, though I have not let him come into the house. I have been able to touch Schroeder, but he has not acted like a socialized animal. I want to have him neutered and released if he is not a candidate for adoption. As you can see below, he looks like a young version of Charlie.

Schroeder came by yesterday, and I put out a bowl of food for him as usual. Charlie and Linus were nearby and took an intense interest in the visitor. In the photo below, Charlie is standing on his hind legs trying to get a good look at Schroeder, who is eating just outside the door. Linus is also watching Schroeder from his usual lower perch on the cat tree.


I will keep everyone posted on future interactions with my occasional feline visitor.

November 6, 2021

CPKC

Although both stockholder and regulatory approval remain to be obtained, it appears that Canadian Pacific Railway will be allowed to acquire Kansas City Southern Railway Company. The merger will be the first marriage of Class I railroads in decades and, according to pundits, likely the last. Two facts make this merger particularly interesting:

  1. The two railroads have no parallel routes, which is unusual for railroad mergers. The only place where the two roads meet is in Kansas City. This makes regulatory approval easier, though other railroads will register objections because that’s what railroads do in such cases.
  2. The combined railroad will be a true North American railroad, with major routes in Canada, the United States, and Mexico. In principle, a single train could travel on the combined railroad, which will be called Canadian Pacific Kansas City (CPKC), from Mexico City to Vancouver.
Each railroad traces its origins to the nineteenth century. Canadian Pacific dates from 1881; Kansas City Southern to 1887.

Canadian Pacific CEO Keith Creel was interviewed by Bill Stephens for Trains. He indicated that the combined road will honor the histories both of CP and KCS. His chosen name for it is indicative of that intention. He did not speculate as to what livery CPKS locomotives will wear. CP locomotives have lately been red with white lettering, with “CP” on the nose. The traditional KCS livery sported a striped pattern of red, yellow, and Brunswick green (a very dark green) or black. Some recent locomotives have been monochromatic with “KCS” painted in large red capitals. Not so long ago, CP locomotives and rolling stock sported a “CP Rail” legend, along with a design of a black triangle within a white semicircle.

According to the Trains, Creel restored the traditional CP logo on his first day on the job as CEO. (See image at right. The logo has had a number of variants over the years and appears on some locomotives.) Creel called the beaver “near and dear to our hearts.” (It wasn’t clear to whose hearts he was referring.) Creel had this to say about a new logo: “The beaver will be part of that when it’s finalized, there’s no doubt in my mind. So it won’t be a huge retooling of our logo. It will be an enhancement that will honor the KCS team, and I think we’ll make them proud to be a part of it.”

Creel’s fondness for the beaver is a bit hard to understand. The current logo—the red “CP” is a recent addition—has a definite nineteenth-century air about it.


The KCS logo (See image at left) hardly seems like a twenty-first-century design, but neither does it seem ancient. I fear that Creel might simply affix “KC” to the existing “CP” add-on and re-center the resulting text. This would hardly suggest a forward-looking, expanded Class I railroad. Nor would it “honor the KCS team” very much.

Retaining the beaver would heavily emphasize the Canadian heritage of the merged road, failing to acknowledge as significantly its United States and Mexican appendages. Creel was not asked if he intends to keep the maple leaf as well.

If CPKC really has to retain the Canadian rodent, I have a suggestion to offer, a suggestion that would afford recognition to all three countries through which CPKC runs and honors both CP and KCS heritages. Put a sombrero on the beaver and portray him eating a steak.

Likely, Creel will not take my suggestion. If we must have a beaver, a more stylized, modernized beaver could be part of the new logo. (Think of the Morton Salt, umbrella-carrying girl who was significantly modernized some years ago.) The circle, ribbon, and shield have to go, along with “Canadian Pacific.” Not retooling the CP logo is a terrible idea. Creel needs to leave the logo design to professional designers.

November 5, 2021

Planning for the Worst Case

I am sick and tired of the obstructionism of Senators Manchin and Sinema. Speaker Pelosi is apparently going ahead with a vote on the Build Back Better bill, though it isn't clear that it will get 50 votes in the Senate. If it doesn’t and only the hard infrastructure bill goes to President Biden’s desk, he should veto it.

New Phone

I purchased a new cell phone recently. Happily, most of what lived on my old phone was ported seamlessly to the new one. The transition was not as smooth as one might like, however, and I am still re-entering passwords and configuring applications. I am nonetheless satisfied with the new phone and likely will be especially pleased when I begin taking pictures with the new and improved camera that is part of it.

In many ways, I am risk-averse. In particular, I cannot imagine carrying around an expensive cellphone without a protective case or putting a naked phone, as some people do, in my back pocket. My old phone was protected by an OtterBox Defender case, which comes with a holster that can attach to your belt. I wanted to get another Defender case for the new phone. It is a very secure case.

My old phone was put into its Defender case by the person who sold me the phone.  I did not carefully observe the process, which, after all, was performed years ago. Where I purchased the new phone, there were few cases to buy for Android phones but plenty cases for iPhones. I therefore had to buy my new case on the Web and fit my phone into it myself.

Once I had my new case in hand, I assumed that putting my phone into it would be simple. There seemed to be only two parts—the case proper and the holster. The case came with the following (and only the following) instructions:
 

That was it, The only words of instruction were found at the top of the above card. None of the objects portrayed on the card were labeled. In particular, I couldn’t figure out what object was supposed to be the cellphone. I suspected from the pictures that the case came apart, but I feared that trying to pry it apart might break something.

After what seemed like an eternity of frustration, I turned to the World Wide Web. Sure enough, YouTube had more than one instructional video showing how to install a phone inside a Defender case. The videos gave me the confidence to break open the case, insert the phone, and put it all back together.

I have to say that OtterBox makes a fantastic case. But could they please spare a few English words to tell their customers how to use their product?

A Proposal to Replace the Income Tax

No you never get any fun
Out of things you haven’t done.
                           —Ogden Nash

Objection to changing tax law is one of the roadblocks to the passage of President Biden’s Build Back Better legislation. The president wants to finance much of his social agenda and national efforts to forestall climate change by extracting more revenue from rich individuals and corporations. Discussion of new taxation has caused me to rethink our current system of taxation, a baroque tangle of laws and regulations that efficiently extract money from the non-wealthy yet is maddingly ineffective at doing so from large corporations and the actually wealthy.

If we began from scratch, could we create a simpler and fairer tax scheme? In a desirable system, most people should incur some tax liability, The very poor may pay little or no tax or even benefit from a negative tax. Well-off persons and entities should be levied a higher percentage tax than others. This increases revenue and tends to decrease wealth inequality, which has been growing in recent decades. In other words, the tax system should be graduated.

Policy exists within a context of other social arrangements. To reduce wealth inequality, unions should be strengthened, training for trades should be improved, health care should be guaranteed, and inheritance taxes should be steep. I won’t try to deal with all these issues in this modest proposal, however.

The government’s main source of revenue is the income tax. Though this system wasn’t designed by Rube Goldberg, it might as well have been. It is complicated, incorporates many questionable preferences, and fails adequately to tax those who live well with little or no conventional “income.”


Senator Elizabeth Warren has promoted a wealth tax. This is an attractive concept, but I think it unworkable. How do you evaluate the wealth of someone who owns a few Picassos, a garage full of classic cars, and a large part of a private corporation? How do you deal with the inevitable changes to the values of such assets over time? And should you be taxed over and over for the same asset? (Real estate taxes, which do recur, exist to provide local services; that Picasso doesn’t need them.) But Warren does have a point. Wealthy persons can live off loans collateralized by their belongings while having no conventional income or tax liability.

Expenditure Tax

Ogden Nash had a very useful insight. Notwithstanding the questionable notion that the best things in life are free, a corollary to Nash’s lines is that to have fun (or whatever you desire), you have to spend money. Uncle Scrooge’s money bin may have offered some psychological satisfaction, but Scrooge McDuck couldn’t eat or travel or do much else unless he was able to spend some of his bin’s contents. However we obtain money, having money confers only intangible benefits. Only spending yields material benefit. It makes sense, therefore, to tax not wealth (as Senator Warren would do) but expenditures. I propose, therefore, a kind of sales tax on everything. For want of a better term, call it an expenditure tax. This tax is superficially similar to a value-added tax, but it is different in a number of respects. 

The expenditure tax would tax both individuals and organizations on what they spend each year. As is now the case, returns could be filed on April 15 covering the previous year. To generate substantial revenue and to be fair to everyone, greater expenditures would be taxed at a higher rate. The low end of the rate scale might exempt some people from the tax completely or might give them money to maintain a morally acceptable standard of living. Families could be treated as a unit. In some circumstances, a spouse or even a child would need to file separately. In any case, this tax is not intended to replace the whole of the social safety net.

An expenditure tax would be indifferent as to where one’s money has come from. No source is treated preferentially. Policies that do so distort economic decisions anyway. Likewise, there are no preferred expenditures. People are expected to spend funds however they feel is most beneficial. In principle, taxable expenditures would be calculated by adding income to cash and cash equivalents on hand on January 1 and subtracting cash and cash equivalents on hand on December 31. There should be no exemptions for medical expenses, business expenses, charitable giving, or anything else. People should spend their treasure however they like without regard for legislated preferences. This freedom from arbitrary incentives has the potential to make everyone wiser and more rational spenders.

Implementation Details

There are, I think, two kinds of objections to the expenditure tax. There are administration issues, on one hand, and issues related to particular kinds of transactions, on the other. I will offer preliminary thoughts on these matters, but I do not claim to have worked out all the difficulties. I would hope that an implementation would not result in the sort of byzantine rules and regulations that infect our current income tax system.

For most people and corporations, figuring out the annual expenditure for tax purposes is not complicated, though individuals might need to do some bookkeeping they are not now doing. The inevitable movement away from cash to credit and debit cards makes calculations easier. The ability of the government to collect taxes and verify their amounts is a bit tricky. Withholding taxes from wages has guaranteed that most workers will not only pay their required taxes but also will not be faced with an impossible bill at tax time. Since income is not being taxed, withholding funds from paychecks is inappropriate (and doesn’t work for everyone anyway). A value-added tax could be imposed, of course, but that is complicated and, in its usual form, tends to be regressive. Lacking a better scheme, perhaps everyone should simply pay a quarterly estimated tax. I leave it to others to figure out how the IRS is to verify compliance. Paying estimated taxes would not be excessively onerous; many people are already required to file estimated taxes. Organizations such as corporations already track expenses. Accounting for them would actually become easier.

I now want to consider particular types of transactions. In general, any time one parts with one’s money, a taxable expense is incurred. No one gets a special deal. The bus driver, the church, the foundation, and the Silicon Valley corporation play by largely the same rules. I envision doing away with charitable organizations so far as taxation is concerned. People should contribute to what are now nonprofits to advance what those organizations do, not simply to avoid taxes. The government is a poor judge of an organization’s ability to advance the public good rather than private interests and probably should not be in the business of conferring nonprofit status. Doing so has become controversial of late. Anyway, if an organization believes it can do something worthwhile, it should do so irrespective of the tax consequences and should be taxed like everyone else. (This will not be a popular idea.)

Expenditures for an individual would include purchases of food, clothing, health care, furnishings, insurance, utilities, charitable contributions, personal luxuries of whatever sort, and state and local taxes. It might be desirable to exempt state and local taxes to avoid the noxious concept of taxing taxes. Or maybe not.

Organizations of all kinds would pay tax on salaries, fringe benefits—there may need to be some rethinking about the notion of fringe benefits once they are taxable—rent, advertising, lobbying, research and development, capital improvements, loan payments, dividend payments, fines, and legal expenses and judgments. As for individuals (or families), we could choose to exempt state and local taxes.

Financial transactions present a special problem. Clearly, putting money into a checking account is not really an expenditure, even if the account pays interest (and might theoretically be deemed an investment). A deposit does not mean one has lost the use of one’s money. Purchasing certificates of deposit, treasury bills, and the like would simply be considered mechanisms for parking one’s money. Purchasing stocks, which have no guaranteed value, would be taxable expenditures. A distinction need perhaps be made between relative secure bonds and junk (or near junk) bonds. The latter are more of an investment (and a risky one). A bank making a loan is not making an expenditure by this reasoning, though a particularly risky loan perhaps is.  Even with this system of taxation, certain regulations may be unavoidable.

Other objections could be raised against the expenditure tax, of course. For example, does the system remove from Congress the ability through taxes to advance certain social goals? Yes, it does, though that may not be a bad thing. In any case, other kinds of taxes may still be levied, such as taxes on polluters. The lack of a depreciation provision means that capital expenses are taxed all at once. If desired, leasing arrangements could ease this problem (if it really is a problem).

Whatever objections may be offered against the proposed system, its greatest advantage is that no one can escape paying taxes. Not even the richest industrialist or financier can live without spending money. And large transactions—think corporate buy-outs, for example—would be subject to taxation. This could even discourage transactions that are not completely rational.

The expenditure tax is surely not perfect, but no tax scheme can be perfect. Nonetheless, there is something to be said for scrapping the current income tax and starting over from scratch.