Archive for Thoughts

In which Wes rewrites the tax code


I should preface this article by stating that just like I’m not a lawyer or a doctor, I’m also not an economist. In fact I’ve never had even a single class on the subject. But sometimes I think the best ideas frequently come from those without knowledge of a subject that willing to ignore the rules they know nothing about. For that reason this article should be worth its weight in gold.

I’ve thought for a long time, like most have, that the U.S. tax system is way too complex and frequently unfair. It’s done nothing but grow in complexity as special interests have pushed in their supplemental taxes or cuts.

I have a proposal. One the would change the system from a complex burden to a simple process leaving you sleeping peaceful on April 14th.

Goals

First off, when embarking on the goal to change the world, you must clearly define what it is you want to accomplish. In a philosophy class in college I learned that we give up rights (like vengeance and keeping all the monetary rewards we reap) to the government in exchange for protection, services, etc. Thus, I understand that we must pay the government something or else we wouldn’t have one. And I do depend on them for at least some things. No, no… aside from lines to wait in at the DMV.

So, what are the goals of a good tax system then?

  1. The government needs money. Unfortunately, from us.
  2. Collection should be fair.
  3. Collection shouldn’t be complex.

That’s it. That’s all that is needed. An important part about my proposed change must be understood though: I’m only setting out to change the complexity. Yes, I’d love to balance the budget and change how things are spent and how much we pay as well but that’s out of scope. This time at least. You have to make one change at a time to ensure yourself that the success or failure was the result of just that change. So, for now, the net income of the government must remain the same before and after I rewrite the tax code.

The Proposal

My solution to the complexity mess is simple and straight forward: completely get rid of income tax. Goodbye. No more 1040 forms. No more April 14th all-nighters. No more file folders of fading or thermically-blackened receipts. Think of all the time you’ve just saved!

But obviously we need to replace the government’s garnishment of our wages with some other income source. That, in my opinion, should entirely be based on sales taxes. All forms of government would get a chunk of the sales tax percentage (just like states and counties already do). Now, I won’t lie to you: it’s gonna be high! But your income will be higher too.

The sales tax should be flat. Adding odd burdens from taxing things at different rates isn’t a good way to reduce complexity. So we won’t.

What gets taxed?

To be a fair system, everything should be taxed except the essentials of living: food, shelter and clothing.

Food from a store should still remain untaxed. It’s a basic necessity of life and people that are struggling and can afford little else are the least taxed, which is the point of the tax brackets we have today. To keep complexity low, though, lets not reinstitute that whole snack-tax thing. Food is food; from caviare to potatoes.

Services need to be taxed too (all of them since anything else is unfair). E.G. car washes, repairs, lawyers, dentists, … A good percentage of business is not product related.

But to obtain a shelter which is not taxed in our fair system we should exclude housing rental services from taxation. Home purchases would remain affected by sales tax though.

I’ve battled with the notion of taxing clothing. The winning side of my breain decided that it’s best to leave clothing purchases being taxed. The cost of clothing deviates wildly and cheap clothing (thus with low taxes) is not hard to find so I don’t believe it would be unfair to the immensely poor.

The Gains

The goal of this was to reduce complexity in the system and in your life. I think you’ll agree this would succeed. The biggest gain is simply time. As my wise co-worker often advises me: “Time is our most valuable asset”. She’s right. Most services are built on this model: paying for someone else to do your task will save you the time required to do that job (be it fixing a leak, walking the dog, cooking, or mowing the lawn).

The Losses

People often worry about job losses associated with major changes. What will all the IRS employees do when the complexity loss eliminates their jobs?

They’re already trained accountants specializing in taxes, so the solution is to leave them in an area they understand. Some staff will still need to review and, yes, perform audits of sales tax revenue. But the rest of them should be involved in helping businesses convert to a sales tax based system and after it is running smoothly they can still offer free advice and accounting services. Imagine the IRS being helpful before you run into problems rather than afterwards.

Yes, we could also shrink the government taxation overhead, but remember my proposal is only here to change the collection process and not quantities or budgets.

Everyone Wins

Think about it. It saves frustration, paperwork, and most importantly: your time. How much productivity could you add to your life with the amount of time you spend doing taxes every year?

Who’s with me?

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Reminder: President Obama Didn’t Give Himself the Prize

I find it funny that so many people have been upset by President Obama having been given the Nobel Peace Prize. Somehow, everyone (myself included) seem to miss one vital point: he didn’t ask for it. There he was, simply sleeping the night away (probably with nightmares because of all the trials he’s undergoing) and it was handed to him. Regardless of whether or not we think he deserved it (as I have talked about before), we have to remember that he wasn’t campaigning for it and has simply been doing his job.

Michael Moore (yes that one), wrote an excellent article on the subject on why he deserves it.: Get Off Obama’s Back: Second Thoughts From Michael Moore. An important paragraph (if you don’t want to read the whole thing):

The simple fact that he was elected was reason enough for him to be the recipient of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize.

Because on that day the murderous actions of the Bush/Cheney years were totally and thoroughly rebuked. One man — a man who opposed the War in Iraq from the beginning — offered to end the insanity. The world has stood by in utter horror for the past eight years as they watched the descendants of Washington, Lincoln and Jefferson light the fuse of our own self-destruction. We flipped off the nations on this planet by abandoning Kyoto and then proceeded to melt eight more years worth of the polar ice caps. We invaded two nations that didn’t attack us, failed to find the real terrorists and, in effect, ignited our own wave of terror. People all over the world wondered if we had gone mad.

And if all that wasn’t enough, the outgoing Joker presided over the worst global financial collapse since the Great Depression.

And my favorite single sentence from it:

Never before had the election of one man made every other nation feel like they had won, too.

That’s exactly what I was trying to refer to in my previous post. Imagine how difficult it would be to turn the world’s general attitude from a very negative and pessimistic one to a positive attitude full of hope and nearly-world-wide belief that a common good might just be achievable Now imagine trying to do that in the time span of an election. I’m not sure this has EVER happened so quickly before.

Don’t get me wrong, his work is far from over. It’s certainly not time to start slacking. But he’s already achieved a task you couldn’t possibly wish on anyone. Somehow I don’t think he’s the type of person to start just kicking back and enjoying the ride.

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Should Have President Obama Been Given The Peace Prize?

I’ve been up for an hour, pondering the first bit of news I read for the day: President Obama has been given the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize. I’m now sitting and waiting for his speech on the subject and pondering my opinion on the subject.

The oddity of the prize comes from the fact that he’s not even a full year into his first term. In fact, he had to be nominated by February at which point he had only been in his post for a little over a month. He has certainly worked very hard during that 9 months and has a huge amount on his plate, both internally and externally to the U.S. Has he done enough to warrant an award yet? I’m left with many questions and few answers. I’m really only going to be documenting my questions here, since I’m neither a politics nor a Nobel prize expert.

The one thing I realized as the election was coming to a head in November 2008 was that Mr. Obama had the attention of the world in the way that hasn’t happened in a long time. Probably since the time frame of Mikhail Gorbachev’s work. He has a huge level of world-wide attention. Not just any-old attention, but positive attention.

I’ll pause now, because he’s started speaking and I’m going to listen…
(It was a good speech, but not one of his best. That being said, it was far better than I could have done after only being awake for a few hours after being told he won the prize!)

Before the election, as I was saying, I was watching TV one day and whatever I was watching was showing clips of people around the world saying how excited they were at the prospect of Mr. Obama being the next President of the United States. Coming from a point in history where there was practically world-wide disdain for recent United States actions, this was a huge change in viewpoint.

Think about it. Think about what the U.S. popularity was in October of last year compared to October of this year. Now, of course, the Peace Prize isn’t given because of how the world looks at the U.S. But it is given to people that can have a profound effect toward world harmony. I do think he has achieved that by just “being him” and winning the election.

But is that enough? Is it enough to just “be someone” with such extreme charisma that he should win a prize? Why this year? Certainly, he would have a longer track record to consider and judge. Or is now the right time in order to help him achieve even greater good by attracting even more world-wide attention. Should the peace prize be awarded as a flag to rally under?

I don’t have answers, but as the day goes on and I’ve had more time to think about it, I at least understand the reasons behind the decision more. And if I was going to award someone a prize for achieving world wide recognition as a positive person to rally, it would certainly be to him. he’s long since did that even before taking to office.

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The Future of Communication

Imagine it. You have a cell phone but get no bill.

Imagine it. You’re in the middle of nowhere Nevada and you get notified of incoming email from your sister three miles ahead, further into nowhere. (She wants to stop for a picnic).

The day is coming

Your mobile phone (or whatever we’ll call it then) will communicate through any local network it can find from the many in range. And it’ll be able to pick the best one without you even realizing it. (Just like cell phones now pick the best cell tower to communicate through).

In the nearish future bandwidth will be so pervasive it’ll be free or close to it. The number of network access spots is already exploding to the point you can find a connection today just about anywhere but the middle of nowhere.

There is, however, a bandwidth crunch coming. Many are concerned about it. There will be a point where you will watch all your “TV” (or whatever we call it) only over internet based sources, because it’ll be cheaper and easier to produce shows and infinitely more flexible to you. This, however, worries the network current carriers because of bandwidth concerns. But that too will pass as technology for delivering data continues to improve. And since video is the most bandwidth intensive service that’ll we’ll likely need for awhile, once the bandwidth problems of delivering lots of video are past there is little else on the horizon to worry about (until we get to the point of needing to ship around 3-D holograms).

Combine bandwidth with access

Eventually we will reach a point where access and bandwidth are everywhere and free or virtually free. there won’t be a reason to leave the fate of our communication in the hands of the few companies that are providing such poor service today.

The upcoming bandwidth availability will be a significant change in the way we live with information, as it will always be nearby.

Imagine getting into the car and it asking you “where are you heading to today?”. We already have cars that respond with a map when you say “longs”. But what we don’t have (and isn’t that far away) is a car that responds “please remember that Longs was bought out by CVS and its name has changed. Also, although the store is open, you should be aware that the pharmacy is closed. Do you still wish to go?” I wish I had that feature the other day…

Combine online inventory and pricing with instantly updating maps and when you ask your car to take you to buy a good quality socket wrench set, it’ll tell you which streets to turn on, what brand choices are “good quality” these days, what the prices will be when you get there and what isles they’re in for the store it has selected for you that carries them.

Or imagine chatting with your friend over a half-double-decaffeinated-half-calf with a twist about an old friend and wondering what they’re up to and suddenly having your phone pipe up with “Charlie is currently living in L.A. And is working as the senior manager of “Tomorrow Land” in Disneyland. How cool and creepy would that be?

Like any revolution, it’s hard to predict what “the other side” will look like. The shift to the internet meant suddenly having access at home to a wealth of information. But soon, with spreading access ability, we’ll get to the point where it will feel odd not to have access.

Imagine never not having information at your instant beck and call.

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Continued Conversations With AT&T

So, previously I got depressed about SMS conversations with AT&T. I was then consoled and warned at the same time by my friend that I was not alone. And after his advice, and some other random advice from google results I decided to try the magic “stop” word. It is supposed to work when “no” doesn’t. So, when the next message came around:

AT&T from #4436:
AT&T Free Tip: Get weather, movie or restaurant tips from Google
on your phnoe. Text HELP to 466453 to get started.
To end Tips send no to 4436

Ah ha! I got you now silly AT&T. I now know your magic key word!!!

me:
Stop

And then I waited. I’ve never waited so long for a text message. I felt like I was in high school again. Ok, not really.

AT&T from #4436:
You have Opted out of AT&T Tips messages.
Please do not REPLY to this message.

Victory! I stood up, danced around my office and laughed at the ceiling while beating my chest with my fists. Ok, not really either.

But I was happy. Finally an end!

And then…

And then…

5 days later:

AT&T from #1111301000:
AT&T Free Tip: You can check your
voice plan minutes used & sms
messages sent with My Account.
Click Go to try.  To end Tips no
to 4436

NOOOOOOOOOO!!!

Now, I don’t know if you caught it. Go back, look at that last message and catch the difference. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Done?

You didn’t cheat did you?

Good. You spotted it (I’m giving you the credit here): it’s from a different number. It’s no longer from 4436, it’s now from 1111301000. Now, lets do some quick math. 10 digit number, with 10 possible digits (1-9) in each spot. I actually think that first number is a 1 meaning country code one (+1 is how they write it in the rest of the world; that same “rest of the world” that uses metric and other standardized conventions). So, lets assume that there are only 9 numbers they can vary. That’s 10^9th possible combinations.

Or: 1,000,000,000 (1 billion to save you from counting zeros)

Now, assuming I can send 200 free text messages in a month under my plan (they say their messages are free. They never once say that sending back “no” or “stop” is free), then it would take me….

1000000000/200 = 5,000,000 months to cancel them all with “stop”
which is:
5,000,000/12 = 416,666 years!

Yes! I can actually calculate the days until freedom! (152,187,500 days)

And yes, I included leap years. Because I’m just that much of a geek.

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My Friend’s Older Conversation With AT&T

I recently posted my both funny and depressing text message conversation with AT&T as a result of their spamming me (which, by the way, I still haven’t managed to turn off mostly because I gave up).

A friend of mine (WY0X) gave me permission to post his recap of his on-the-phone conversations with AT&T about a similar, but even worse, problem:

Be really careful with those. I recently had to deal with a scam on Karen’s phone. Apparently AT&T has made it super-easy for 3rd party “providers” to send you a text message, and if you reply AT ALL, that’s all AT&T can see in their system. The 3rd party company then uses the convenient “upload an XML file full of phone numbers and any arbitrary price we desire to extract from said phone users” file to AT&T for AT&T to handle the billing. When you call to contest this $19.99 monthly “subscription” that shows up on your AT&T cell phone bill, they say, “Well, we see you exchanged text messages with the company in our system. You must have accepted an offer from them.” Only after an hour of explaining that my wife was NOT that stupid and NEVER replied to any message that said “will you sign up?”… did they offer to refund the charges and set up “Parental Controls” (HA!) on both of our accounts so NO 3rd party could ever bill anything on them. I highly recommend to all on AT&T.

So seriously, some company could send you this message “Hey, what you doing tonight?” from a number you don’t recognize, and you could send back, “Who is this?” and AT&T would see that as “proof” that you had a business relationship with them. When I pointed this out to an AT&T supervisor they said, “I suppose that could happen — we are getting a ot of complaints right now. However I’ve refunded the fees this month.” … Okay lady, how do I stop it FOREVER, and why are you making it easier for unknown third parties to bill me, your customer, than it is for me to opt-out of such shenanigans? Oh by the way, I will be reporting this to our State Attorney General since it’s generally considered bad business to bill for another party whom you can’t prove has a business relationship of any kind with your customer. You yourselves say you can’t see the text messages for privacy reasons… so how do you know EVERY one of the bills you’re sending out isn’t a scam such as I described?

She was like a deer in headlights, and started reading from the script again. After about four attempts I said, “What would you say if this were my 12 year old’s phone?” “Oh, we have Parental Controls for that!” Well, there ya go lady… fire me up some “Parental Controls” on both lines, please… my wife’s and mine. “But you won’t be able to order any other services!” “That’s absolutely correct, and I can’t see us ever NEEDING those other services either, but my wife did enjoy a few of the Trivia questions she received once a month from these idiots.” That was pretty much the end of the conversation at that point. 30-45 minutes of my life wasted, stopping my cell carrier for billing me for other people’s scam businesses.

AT&T *did* do the “right thing” and refund it, but there were clueless about why I was upset about it. I finally got down to asking everyone I talked to there: “Please prove I have a business relationship with XYZ third party company, which allows you to bill me for their services.” They were dumbfounded. There was nothing on their (so called) customer service scripts to handle someone asking such a “tough” question.

I love the fact I have intelligent friends. I hate the fact I have less-than-intelligent companies.

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Today’s Conversation With AT&T

So, AT&T has gotten in the recent habit of spamming you with “tips”. “tips” are really “spam” when they’re trying to get you to do things that will eventually make them money (ie, by using more of their services).

Here’s the “tip” I got today:

AT&T:
AT&T Free Tip: Get weather, movie or restaurant
tips from Google on your phone.
Text HELP to 466453 to get started.
To end Tips send no to 4436

Easy, enough, I thought.

Me:
No

And a few seconds later, I got the response back:

AT&T:
Sorry, we did not understand
your response.  Reply ONLY the
word "YES" to activate the 4
channel/$6 Mobile TV plan

HUH???

Ok, I thought. Maybe it’s because my phone auto-capitalized the word “No”

Me:
no

And a few seconds later, I got the response back:

AT&T:
Sorry, we did not understand
your response.  Reply ONLY the
word "YES" to activate the 4
channel/$6 Mobile TV plan

NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO

sigh…

[UPDATE 2009/08/20: Read the follow-on story from a friend describing his conversation with AT&T]

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Just For The Good Of It

There are many times in my life where I’ve thought “I wish I had the time to make that part of the world OK again”. But invariably time and money always gets in the way of my goals for world improvement. (ok, and frequently politics).  (ok, and frequently over commitment to too many things that need to be made better).  Sometimes I wish I could just get paid to “do the right thing” of my choosing. Here’s a salary. Go forth and do good.

http://www.thegentlemensfund.com/nominate_form.asp

The problem is that little in the world works that way. Capitalism is founded on the belief that both sides of a transaction must prosper economically for the transaction to be beneficial. But when one side of the transaction is “the good of mankind” it turns out that the entity doesn’t have any cash to spend. And unfortunately the world works on cash (or at least my mortgage seems to think so).  Many times an idea may be good in theory but there is no way of having it “turn a financial profit” even if world would be better off with its instantiation.

Even if there was a “for world good” entity with funding to spend at will there is an inherent problem of trust of the common man. Even if only 10% of the world embezzled or drank their money away with nothing positive to show for it (and I only wish the percentage was that low) the average sponsor would be pretty distrustful of all the applicants.

So in the mean time, most of my grand ideas for world good (ranging all over the map from improved communication systems to improved emergency response solutions) will have to remain in my head until someone comes along willing to just pay people to “go forth and do good”.

What would you do, given unlimited funding “to just do good”?

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The Art of Waiting

I’m waiting for daughter to come out of school…

Many times in life we find ourselves waiting. Waiting for a plane to come, or a train to go. Many times, as I’ve said before, we have no control over when we’re forced into the waiting state. Other times, however, it’s just random chance that we arrived early for something (or someone else arrived late).

Don’t lose this precious time!! Never ever let yourself get caught
off guard and suddenly bored. Here are some ideas on avoiding boredom and getting more out of these otherwise wasted moments in life.

Always Have Reading Material With You

Now I’m waiting a few minutes for the BBQ briquettes to coal-up. They’re close enough now that there isn’t enough time to do anything else so I might as well write more.

The important rule of never being bored is: always have something to read with you. I, personally, carry electronic books on my cell-phone. For example, I always wanted to read the Sherlock Holmes mysteries and one day I finally put it on my phone. I was sure that reading a book on my phone would be miserable on account of the small screen size. But A few months later I had read the first book in 5 minute increments here and there and had spent an entire few months never waiting randomly without something to read. I’ve been addicted to E-Books ever since. Mostly I’ve been reading free ones. The ones past the Disney imposed extended copyright date, as can be downloaded from Project Gutenberg, and other sources. Want to read the works of Shakespeare? Gutenberg has them all. My kids have heard Dr. Doolittle only because I happened to have it on a phone when we were somewhere without a source of a night time story.

What’s that? Your phone can’t read documents? So!!! Print them out. Keep one page in your pocket (or better keep 2 so you can cycle to the next when you only have a a paragraph to go). One or two pages, next to your keys or wallet, is not too much of a load. I travel a fair amount for work and always have something work-related printed out so I can walk down the jet-way to the plane reading instead of just waiting in line.

Coals are ready. Gotta go…

Or Be Productive

Now I’m waiting for my beautiful wife…

(Not that reading isn’t to be considered productive)

Another anti-boredom maneuver is to bring something with you that allows you to be productive. My Palm Treo, which has a full keyboard, is letting me type this up, for example. But even without it, carrying a small pen and piece of paper or notebook around on which I could design my next garden, antenna or starship (Sorry. Couldn’t resist. We just got out of Star Trek).

She’s back; Off to Costco

Wow, this Costco line is actually short!

Yes, by the way, typing on a small keyboard on a a phone with only my thumbs is less than ideal and hardly efficient. But it’s either that
or twiddle them.

I’m now waiting for my daughter to come out of school again. Talk
about a place where I’m always early and need to have something
planned to occupy my time!

I’m at home sitting on the couch waiting for my son to bring me a
book. My phone was sitting close than anything else I might grab…

Puzzle Lovers Are Always Prepared

True die-hard puzzle lovers have always carried around a crossword,
word search or, more recently, Sudoku Puzzles. In fact, if you fly at all these days I assure you someone on the plane with you will be staring at a Sudoku Puzzle book for the entire flight. I’m sure you can find websites that will generate random puzzles of many types for you to print out.

It really doesn’t matter what your interest or hobby is. Just figure out how to make it (or more likely a portion of it) portable. The trick is dividing any favorite (or not) task or hobby into small enough pieces that at least one piece is transportable.

Good luck! If you don’t know where to start, try bringing a piece of paper to brain storm with you the next time you leave the house.

Time wasted writing this: -25 minutes. Because it was time gained and not lost.

Bonus points if you can spot the Dr. Suess Reference

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Has Faster Forms of Communication Lowered Our IQ?

Remember the days when you were stumped doing your research and in order to get help you had to write some other famous person a long and detailed letter about the problem and then have it delivered by a messenger on horseback. No? Ok, well me neither. But I do remember a time where getting help on a problem was a bit more difficult than it is now.

In the Good Old Days (TM)

Back in the day, when scientists were scientists and intellects were intellects, we solved our own problems, darn it. If we were stuck on a science problem and we needed to write Isaac Newton to get help on a new gravitational theory, we made darn sure we were truly stuck. The reason was simple: it would take a month (at least) to complete the round trip. And that’s assuming he wrote back right away. We would never give up immediately. We’d always explore every last option before firing off that letter. Probably because writing with a quill can’t be easy (I wouldn’t know; I haven’t actually tried. I get mad enough when the ink in my mechanical pencil runs out.)

But today…

But you don’t live in that era, do you? (unless you succeeded in some back-to-the-future mojo) No, today, when you’re stuck on a difficult problem you probably just fire off an email to someone saying “help me”. Obi-wan, you’re really my only hope in figuring out how that silly web page actually picked the card I was thinking about.

We’ve Grown Impatient

I participate in (free) software support mailing lists where savy internet users will write in with a question on Friday afternoon and respond to themselves on Saturday saying “does anyone have an answer for my problem? No one has written me back yet.” What’s worse is that 90% of the time, the question was probably could have been solved by RTFM (“reading the fine manual”; or at least that’s what the polite form of the acronym is).

The Result

The result of modern, quick communication forums is that we don’t solve problems for ourselves any longer. We immediately ask for help or simply give up on sometimes the most trivial of problems. We’ve lost the ability to analyze the situation for ourselves and ensure every possible path has been checked to the best of our own ability. What’s worse, is we expect people on the other end of the communication chain to take time out of their day to solve the problem for us.

Fight back, I say. When you run into a snag: learn something about what you’re working on. Take the time to get truly, truly stumped. Even if you don’t succeed in solving your problem you’ll have learned something in the end. I promise.

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