Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Tenacious G & the Silence of the Grams

Tenacious G (a.k.a. Grandma) slows down to have her picture taken.
 A few months ago, a nurse at the assisted living facility where my mother resides suggested that Mom might benefit from Alzheimer’s medication. When I pointed out to her that my mother did not exhibit any symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease or even generalized dementia, she responded that my mother had problems speaking. I reminded her that my mother had aphasia—a fancy word for problems speaking—as a result of a brain hemorrhage she had back in 2004. For the most part, she speaks quite well, but occasionally she just can’t find the right word, particularly when she is tired.

More recently, Mom was in the hospital and in rehab. During her stay in the hospital, because my mother was tired and confused, the staff referred to her as “pumpkin.” They told me she had memory problems but was “a sweet little pumpkin.” This tells me that these condescending caretakers never took any time to get to know her. First, Mom is a defiant and intelligent senior citizen. Second, it is a bit traumatic for an 84-year-old to be yanked out of her safe and comfortable home and placed into an impersonal hospital setting. Add to that scenario 24-hour beeping monitors that make it impossible to get a good night’s sleep and anyone would be dazed. So cut her a break.

If they had any genuine concern about my mom, they might have found it interesting to know that she was the first woman ever to be elected to the town council in the Town of Boonton, had her own radio show, wrote a newspaper column, taught creative writing and even had some children’s fiction published. She was also the president of just about every club she ever joined. And it royally ticks her off when people talk down to her or assume she is demented because she has speech problems.

Tenacious G posing with the carp at the local plant nursery.

In rehab, because my mother had had it with being away from home and tried to walk out with suitcase packed, she was drugged with Alzheimer’s and anti-seizure medicines to keep her quiet. When she reacted to the drugs, they pointed to her behavior and gave that as evidence that she was surely in dementia. They were ignorant, callous and just plain wrong. She was supposed to be there for physical therapy, but she was so drugged up that she could hardly sit up in bed. With the patient quietly immobilized, they proceeded to collect Medicare physical therapy payments.

There is a prejudice against the elderly. If they express any sense of rebellion about their circumstances, get confused or say inappropriate words because they are tired, or in my mother's case, have aphasia, they are labeled demented and drugged up.

Let me tell you something about my mother. She reminds me of birthdays and anniversaries that I have forgotten because she insists on sending cards and presents. When we’re driving and I forget how to get somewhere, she remembers the directions and acts as a very competent navigator. Does she sometimes have problems finding the right word? Yes. The part of her brain that governs speech is damaged due to a doctor not properly monitoring her blood-thinning medication several years ago, which resulted in a brain hemorrhage. She is lucid and knows what she wants to say. I understand her because I know her well. Impatient medical professionals look at her gray hair and wrinkles and rush to judgment. She’s old, so naturally, she must be demented. Even one close relative, who lives out of state and visits once or twice a year came to that ignorant conclusion.

I really don’t know what can be done to educate doctors, nurses and allied healthcare professionals about the inhumanity of their expediency. They should think carefully about their actions, because the practices they establish today will come back to haunt them. If they do not take a stand against the disrespect and abuse of the elderly, someday it will be they, gray-haired and helpless, who are drugged up and forced to view the world from a perpetual narcotic gaze.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Rant, Rant, Clap, Clap

In the 1960s "original" Star Trek—moral compass of Baby Boomers everywhere—Captain Kirk and his swashbuckling crew railed against a society that had one class of people living in the clouds and another class mining under ground with no hope of a better life. Feisty landing parties destroyed computers that ruled entire societies, because people were meant to determine their own destinies. Federation officers talked their way out of enslavement and generally spread an obnoxiously American dogma of freedom for all. Thus, my unrealistic expectations were set.

Today, there are two classes of people in the U.S. One class lives in the clouds of tax dodges, trust funds and leisure while an underclass is working harder and earning less and less without much hope of anything better. Computers have graciously stepped in to make our lives "easier" but at the price of enslaving us to cubicles and to 24/7 smartphones. Those CPUs have even supplanted meddling mothers as intermediaries to socializing. Every day, it seems like more and more things in the world are falling under the tight control of forces that are motivated by power and profit rather than freedom for all.

Where is Captain Kirk when we need him?
Genetics: the Devil's playground?

I do not like Monsanto meddling with the genetics of my food, but the company is doing so anyway, with most corn and soy products sold in this country now being of genetically modified origin. Alfalfa is next and can salmon be far behind? Their maniacal scientists mix the genes of miscellaneous plants and/or animals with our food, in an FDA-approved reenactment of the Island of Dr. Moreau (I’m talking the 1977 version with Burt Lancaster, not the 1996 remake).

Dr. Paul Moreau: How does a cell become enslaved to a form, to a destiny it can never change? Can we change that destiny?
Andrew Braddock: Should we?

Good question, Braddock (aka, Michael York). Apparently, the answer is yes if you can make billions of dollars doing it.

Maria, from Metropolis. I know just how she feels.
I want renewable energy for my house and car, but they are too expensive for the average person to afford. Instead, I can only watch how wonderful they are on Green Channel television where millionaires like Ed Begley are doing state-of-the-art things to their homes that most of us couldn’t afford without knocking over a bank. Hey, Ed, stop panting over the technology for a moment and see if you can’t invent a way for the rest of us to get affordable access to it.

It would be nice to work freelance without horrendous health insurance costs and self-employment taxes. Unless you have a partner who is working full-time for a company that supplies discounted health insurance, it is challenging to afford working on your own. It is as if our healthcare system and government are conspiring to make sure we have no choice but enslavement to a lumbering corporate entity out of the 1926 movie classic, Metropolis.

Freder: It was their hands that built this city of ours, Father. But where do the hands belong in your scheme?
Joh Frederson: In their proper place, the depths.

Even then, people knew that the average person was nothing more than fodder for the upper class.

Okay, lots of whining here. So what do I want, anyway?

I want Monsanto to keep their genetically soiled hands off of my food so I don’t grow an eye on the side of my neck. I want our government to build good public transportation including high-speed trains and monorails. I want cars that run on anything other than gasoline so people in the Middle East no longer have to complain about our presence there, and so I will not be subject to gas prices driven by oil speculators every time I fill my car. I want public utilities to outfit homes and businesses with solar and wind power, just as they so graciously hooked us all up to electric, gas and oil. I want the U.S. Congress to take a cut in their bloated salaries ($174,000/year as of 2011; $193,400 for minority/majority leaders; $233,500 for Speaker of the House) and from their up-to-80%-of-salary retirement pensions as a show of solidarity with what the rest of us have to endure.

That’s right. I want a Disney movie. Let’s get the Blue Fairy out here to take care of business. If she needs some backup, then the Fairy Godmother and Tinkerbell can drag their sorry butts out of their celluloid happy endings to help get this world in gear. Afghanistan, Wall Street, Congress, Monsanto and our melting globe could all use a little fairy dust just about now. Maybe… if we all... just...  clap our hands….

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Evil Socks of Spring

On Sunday, March 20, at 11:23 p.m. Universal Time—7:21 p.m. in New Jersey—the vernal equinox occurred, marking the beginning of spring in the northern hemisphere. The next morning, we woke up to a snowstorm, which blanketed our neighborhood with about five inches of snow. This mushy precipitation had the decency to start melting away later on in the day, but the damage to my morale was done. Two days later, another snowstorm rode into town, reducing spring to a bitter and meaningless ruse.

The winter of 2010-11 was an especially grueling one, particularly for those of us who had to do our own snow shoveling. So seeing nature sneer at us on the first day of spring is a bit much. More sneering a few days later is totally unacceptable.

Just in case Mother Nature didn’t know, the “ver” in “vernal” is Latin for spring—not snow. In a show of optimism, many cultures celebrate the spring equinox. Putting a brave foot forward, I have selected two completely random observances that are my favorites. The first is from antiquity, the second is a more recent American tradition.

I'm thinking that winter may have some boundary issues.
Evil Winter
The Zoroastrian holiday of Persian New Year, or Nowruz, is particularly important to me because it involves a mythical king of Persia who saved everyone from a brutal winter that threatened to kill every living creature. This mythical king, Jamshid, constructed a throne studded with gems. He had demons raise him above the earth into the heavens so he could sit on his throne like the sun shining in the sky. The world's creatures gathered in wonder about him, and called this day the New Day or No/Now-Ruz. That said, here’s the important part of the story.

One day, Ahura Mazda, the God of Truth, warned Jamshid of an upcoming catastrophe: "Upon the material world, the evil winters are about to fall, that shall bring the fierce, deadly frost; upon the material world the evil winters are about to fall, that shall make snow-flakes fall thick." Ahura Mazda advised Jamshid to construct a multi-level cavern underground, two miles long and two miles wide. He was to populate this cavern with the fittest of men and women as well as with two of every animal, bird and plant. Food and water was supplied from the previous summer's harvest. Jamshid created a city underground with streets and buildings, and brought nearly two thousand people to live there. He created artificial light, and finally sealed the underground chamber with a golden ring. Thus, he saved at least some of the world from this terrible winter. My hero.

Evil Socks
Perhaps one of the stinkiest spring equinox traditions hails from Maryland. Boatyard employees and sailboat owners there celebrate the spring equinox with the Burning Of The Socks Festival. Traditionally, the boating community wears socks only during the winter. These are joyously burned at the approach of warmer weather. Officially, after this ritual, nobody dons socks until the next equinox.

Nothing says spring like the stench of burning socks.
A bit more recent than Persian New Year, this tradition is said to have begun in the mid 1980s, thanks to a guy named Bob, who managed the Annapolis Yacht Yard. He spent winters working on other people’s boats. At winter's end, his socks were coated with an unappealing mixture of dried varnishes, fiberglass goop and miscellaneous debris. One day, which happened to be the spring equinox, he shed his socks, placed them in a paint-roller tray, carried the tray out to a pier, doused it with lighter fluid and threw in a match. Thus, the hallowed Burning Of The Socks ritual was born.

Over the years, the tradition has expanded up and down the east and west coasts. Apparently, it is a low-key affair. Crowds tend to be small. And a barrel of oysters and a shucking knife were recently added to the festivities. Otherwise, it tends to be a quiet and smelly acknowledgment of impending spring. Only in America.

So what have we learned? Well, the message here is—and I hope you are listening Mother Nature—that spring is the time of year when snow is nothing more than a frosty memory, people who have survived the winter emerge from their caves, and socks are ecstatically burned in commemoration of a guy named Bob. Such is the eternal truth of the vernal equinox, and such is all we need know.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Talking Dangerously

"A truth spoken before its time is dangerous."—Greek Proverb

I recently had lunch with a friend who made an interesting comment. He said: “Cell phones, today, are like the cigarettes of yesterday.”  What he meant, I suppose, was that there are many health hazards connected to our stylish cell phones that have not yet surfaced.

Health hazards?  Even people in remote Third World countries can be seen urbanely clutching cell phones. So how harmful could something that common actually be?

More harmful than we would all like to believe, according to Physicians and Scientists for Responsible Application of Science and Technology. Yes, I know you didn’t want to hear that. Neither did I.

Here is their basic position on cell phones:

“A considerable body of evidence proves, beyond reasonable doubt, that microwave radiation from mobile phones and cordless phones cause a significantly increased risk for brain tumors. In addition, increasing evidence is indicating that it causes disturbed brain function, damage to the genes and other disturbances.”

Okay. Buzzkill. What crackpots are claiming this, anyway? Well, one of them is Olle Johansson, MD, professor at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, and a Nobel Prize winner in medicine. He has studied the effects of mobile phones, Wifi and other devices on human health for more than 20 years and finds the evidence related to serious hazards convincing. Surprisingly, he believes that the brain tumor issue is a minor one compared to many other harmful effects. While brain tumors affect a small percentage of phone users, other serious effects are impacting the whole population, including genetic damage, sleep disturbances, reduced learning capacity, concentration difficulties and psychological problems. Watch the news and this becomes fairly easy to believe.

My beloved iPhone may be bringing me closer to my next incarnation.
Due to the 24-hour bombardment on our bodies of Wifi and other microwave broadcasts, Dr. Johansson points out that the level of electromagnetic exposure we are receiving is huge compared with Earth's background radiation. He reasons that if microwave radiation is not dangerous, then a large number of quality scientific papers reporting  its hazardous effects must be wrong. He adds, however, that such a scenario is highly unlikely.

Professor Lennart Hardell, also of Sweden, studied more than 1251 cases of cell phone users with brain tumors as well as more than 2000 controls. Researchers reported increased brain tumor risk of 170 percent with cell phone use and 80 percent with cordless phone use after 10 years. In a separate analysis, the highest risk for brain tumors was among those who began using mobile phones before the age of 20.  For this group, the risk increased by 390 percent for cell phone use and 290 percent for cordless phone use. The moral of this and many other studies: The more years and the more hours per year a cell phone is used, the higher the risk of cancer.

“A Eurobarometer survey of almost 1,000 children in 29 countries found most had telephones after age 9.”New York Times

But let's not rely solely on those crazy Swedes.

U.S. government-funded research has proven that cell phones influence the activity of the brain to a significant extent. After 50 minutes of exposure to a cell phone, the metabolism of the brain has been shown to increase in the areas close to the phone. The research was conducted by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Lead author of the study, Dr. Nora Volkow, is quoted as saying, “I must admit that after seeing the results I changed my way of using the mobile phone and always use a loudspeaker or handsfree.”

A recent, well-publicized Interphone study published in 2010 claimed to prove that cell phones have no effect on cancer development. However, two scientists participating in that study noted that most of the subjects in the study had used cell phones for far too short a time for brain tumors to appear. It takes ten years or more. Apparently, when researchers recalculated risk excluding people whose exposure had been too brief, they found that the Interphone study actually showed a significant risk for developing a severe form of malignant brain tumor—aka, a glioma.

By now, you've read just about enough about cancer and could probably use a drink. Me, too. So let’s steer away from that dark subject and talk briefly about cardiovascular disease. Professor Magda Havas of Trent University, Canada, did a study to measure the effect of cordless phone radiation at an intensity of exposure that was 200 times lower than approved Canadian safety norms. The study found that immediately at the start of radiation exposure, a person’s pulse almost doubled. It immediately returned to normal when the phone was turned off. She points out that this study is relevant to cell phone use as well, as cordless phone radiation is in the same range of intensity and frequency.

What about the unborn? Does cell phone use affect them? We return to Scandinavia for that one, where researchers found that cell phone use by pregnant women may affect the future behavior of the unborn child. A study of 28,000 Danish children followed up from pregnancy to age seven found that children exposed to mobile phones while in the womb were 40 percent more likely to show abnormal behavior than those who were not exposed to mobile phone calls by the mother.

“Children and teenagers are five times more likely to get brain cancer if they use mobile phones.”Independent

So what devices are we talking about? All of the following emit the same types of microwaves:
  • Mobile phones also called cell phones, cellular phones, cellulars
  • Cordless phones
  • Wi-Fi devices (wireless internet connection and wireless networking).
Oft-forsaken landlines may be a healthier choice.
According to Hardell, things do not bode well for the young generation of cell phone users. "Unfortunately, this radiation permeates our society and those who use a cell phone are contributing to second-hand radiation such that anyone near cell phone antennas is also exposed to this radiation." Sounds like second-hand smoke all over again, but where is the U.S. Surgeon General on this one?

“In the committee [that sets the standards], one co-chair is from Motorola and the other is from the Navy, the military-industrial establishment.”—Dr. O. Gandhi

Hold on a minute. Why would the cell phone industry put us in harm’s way? Cell phone corporations reap multibillion-dollar profits, and would suffer billion-dollar losses from research proving harmful effects.

If cell phone technology keeps rolling along, business-as-usual, what is at stake? Based on the above studies and many more, the proven effects of cell phone use include brain tumors, genetic damage, sleep disturbances, reduced learning capacity, concentration difficulties and psychological and/or behavioral problems. It may also double pulse rates and some studies indicate that it causes clumping of brain cells similar to that found in Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases.

Are telecommunications companies too big to be influenced by the average person? Well, decades ago, it was generally thought that the tobacco industry was invincible. But as smoking-related health data began mounting, people got upset about losing loved ones to preventable cancers, banded together in a grassroots effort and pushed tobacco out of the mainstream. 

“Studies show there has been a 40% across-the-board increase in the number of brain tumors in the past 20 years.” —Australia Senator Lyn Allison, after brain tumors became the leading cause of death in children under 15

What can we do about this? The Physicians and Scientists for Responsible Application of Science and Technology offer the following practical tips on their website:
  • Minimize your use of mobile phones and cordless phones to very few and brief calls. Instead, use landlines as much as possible.
  • People younger than 20 should use mobile phones that allow SMS messages only, but no talking, because the risks are far higher in young people.
  • Fight to change cell phone technology so it is safe, just as a previous generation fought to move tobacco out of the mainstream of our culture.
  • Pray. (I added that one.)
For more stomach-churning information about cell phones, visit: No one wants to believe that cell phones are harmful because we are all so dependent on them. Unfortunately, the evidence suggests that our governments and cell phone corporations have given us all a wrong number.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Mystery of the Steamy Basement

In the classic movie, Murder on the Orient Express (1974) famed Belgian detective Hercule Poirot finds himself traveling on—you guessed it—the Orient Express. One of the passengers, Mr. Ratchett, asks Poirot to act as his bodyguard due to recent death threats. Poirot declines and Ratchett is found stabbed to death the next morning. Woops. Bad call. Poirot sets about trying to solve the mystery of who murdered the man, questioning the dozen or so passengers on the train.

We have an equally impenetrable mystery in our home. There is a sinister puddle lurking around our shiny, new boiler. One night, I saw drips coming down from the ceiling and landing on the tank of our new boiler. So our first suspect was the bathtub overhead. We called a local plumber who came by, checked the piping thoroughly and concluded there was no drip from the tub. He suggested another suspect: groundwater running into the basement after a rain. This did not solve the mystery of where the drip I had seen originated. Nor did it explain why the mysterious puddle persisted, even on days when there was no rain.

We were baffled. What was the diabolical source of this foul puddle? Then, yesterday at 2 a.m., my husband came running up from the basement—he’s a night person—excitedly wanting to drag me out of bed to see something important in the depths of our home. I staggered down the stairs after him and we both stood aghast. The discharge pipe on our shiny, new boiler was trickling a few cups of steaming hot water onto our basement floor. My husband felt an exhilarating mix of triumph and rage as only an Italian can.

Peerless WBV: our new espresso machine.
I sent an email to the master plumber who had installed the boiler and early the next morning he replied, promising he would come by to look at it later in the day. He said it was highly unusual for that pipe to discharge water (despite the fact that it was called... a discharge pipe… hmmmm). That may well have been the case, but my husband and I both saw it pour a few cups of steamy brew onto our basement floor in the early morn.

The plumber came by, rechecked all the settings on the boiler, established that all the settings were correct, then placed a high-tech plastic pail under the offending pipe. “If that fills up again,” he instructed me, “Then call and I’ll come out again.” The directions were complex, but I felt strangely up to the task. (Actually our boiler plumber is a very conscientious man, so he, too, was genuinely troubled by this damp mystery.)

(SPOILER ALERT: if you intend to see Murder on the Orient Express, read no further.) In the aforementioned movie, the murderer turned out to be EVERY PASSENGER ON THE TRAIN. (The victim was a very unpopular guy.) Here’s my neurotic fear as a homeowner. What if… the leak... is from the bathtub, groundwater AND the boiler? 


It turns out we had two leaks. The boiler leak was eventually solved by draining excess air from the water tank. Another leak, which we discovered when it burst into a gushing fountain in our livingroom, came from an old, rusted steam valve on a radiator.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Beware, the Fries of April

If you are not a millionaire or billionaire, there is no escaping taxes. In celebration of the upcoming Ides of April, I am highlighting the history of taxes in Western Civilization. If nothing else, it gives us a clear idea of whom to blame. Special thanks to the Tax Analysis group, whose website I drew upon as a source for this fascinating history of legalized robbery.
Egyptian kitchens were the scene of the earliest recorded taxes.
  • Earliest records trace taxes to Egypt. During one period, the Pharaohs imposed taxes on cooking oil. To make sure citizens were not skimping on taxable cuisine, tax collectors audited households to make sure the appropriate amounts of cooking oil were being consumed and that families were not using leftovers from other cooking processes as a substitute for the taxed oil.
  • Much like today, the ancient Athenians in Greece used taxes to fund wars. No one was exempt from the tax, which was used to underwrite special wartime expenditures. However, unlike our government today, when the war was over, the tax was rescinded and the plunder gained from the war effort was used to refund the taxes that had been paid. Nice.
  • Roman ruler Caesar Augustus (63 BC-19 AD) was considered a shrewd tax strategist. During his reign, he eliminated national tax collectors and placed responsibility for tax collections on local officials in each city. He instituted an inheritance tax to provide retirement funds for the military, which was 5 percent on all inheritances except gifts to children and spouses. The English and Dutch later used this as a basis for developing their own inheritance taxes. 
  • During the time of Julius Caesar (100 BC-44 BC) , a 1 percent sales tax was imposed. Augustus expanded on this a bit. There was a 4 percent sales tax on slaves and 1 percent on everything else. I guess you might consider the former an early example of luxury tax.
  • One of the earliest tax revolts on record comes from 60 AD. Boadicea, Queen of East Anglia, in what is now Britain, led a revolt against Rome which some say was due to corrupt tax collectors. When she was finished, her legion of 230,000 angry taxpayers had killed all Roman soldiers within 100 miles and seized London. It is said that more than 80,000 people were killed during that uprising. Sadly, Emperor Nero eventually crushed this citizens’ movement and the Queen felt compelled to commit suicide.
  • Boadicea was not the last woman to lead a tax revolt in Britain. In the 11th Century in England, Lady Godiva, of chocolate fame, was an Anglo-Saxon woman married to Leofric, Earl of Mercia. Leofric was taxing the bejesus out of the citizens of Coventry. When Lady Godiva objected, he sneeringly replied that he would lower the high taxes he had levied on local residents when she rode naked through the streets of town. This may be the earliest record of a couple playing Truth or Dare. Lady Godiva chose the latter. This resulted in a double bonus for taxpayers.
  • The 100 Years War (conflict between England and France) began in 1337 and ended in 1453. One of the key irritants that renewed fighting in 1369 was the oppressive tax policies of Edward, the Black Prince, over the nobles of Aquitaine. Aquitaine was British until the end of that war, when it was annexed to France. (No one knows why Edward was named the Black Prince, a name that sprang up after he died.)
  • During the 14th Century, Britain dabbled with progressive taxes. In 1377, the Duke of Lancaster paid 520 times the tax of a common peasant. Those were the good old days. The earliest income taxes were imposed on the wealthy, office holders and the clergy. A tax on movable property was imposed on merchants. The poor paid little or no taxes.
  • Any British history buff knows that Charles I was charged with treason and lost his head. What many people may not know was these charges came about based on a disagreement in 1629 about the rights of taxation. Charles thought the king had the rights of taxation. Parliament felt it had the rights of taxation. Charles lost the argument. Somehow I can't imagine it mattered much to the average person, who was going to get taxed either way.
  • In 1643, Britain’s Parliament levied taxes to fund Oliver Cromwell’s army. These taxes made the late and headless Charles I look generous in comparison. Essential commodities such as grain and meat were taxed with a devastating effect on the poor. Rural laborers were taxed so much that they couldn’t afford to buy food for their families who were now starving. At the same time, the common lands were enclosed and peasants were banned from hunting there. Angry citizens responded with the Smithfield riots of 1647, and the legend of Robin Hood was born.
  • American Colonists had their first taste of taxes with the Molasses Act, which was later expanded in 1764 to the Sugar Act because it now included duties on foreign molasses, sugar, wine and other commodities. Apparently, this did not raise the money Britain had expected, so they imposed the Stamp Act in 1765. This taxed all newspapers printed in the colonies and most commercial and legal documents. All of these taxes resulted in an agitated populace. They dumped tea in Boston harbor and decided to form their own country.
  • Taxes, however, did not end with the birth of the United States of America. In 1794, settlers west of the Alleghanies, in opposition to Alexander Hamilton’s excise tax of 1791, started the Whiskey Rebellion, and rioted against the tax collectors. President Washington eventually sent troops to quell the riots. Two settlers were convicted of treason, but Washington granted them both a pardon.
  • Now for the origin of Freedom Fries. (Well, not really.) In 1798, Congress passed the Federal Property Tax to fund the expansion of the army and navy in case the U.S. went to war with France. John Fries began the Fries Rebellion to voice his opposition to this tax. No one was hurt during this revolt, but Fries was arrested for treason. Eventually, he was pardoned by President Adams in 1800. In a twist of irony, Fries had been the leader of the militia unit called upon to quell the Whiskey Rebellion.
  • The first suggestion of an income tax came during the War of 1812. The proposed tax was based on the British Tax Act of 1798 and applied progressive rates to income. The rates were .08 percent on income for the average person and 10 percent on income for the well-to-do. However, the tax was never imposed because the Treaty of Ghent was signed in 1815, eliminating the need for additional revenue.
  • During the Civil War, President Lincoln passed the Tax Act of 1862 to help fund that war. The rates were 3 percent on income above $600 and 5 percent on income above $10,000. The Commissioner of Revenue stated "The people of this country have accepted it with cheerfulness, to meet a temporary exigency, and it has excited no serious complaint in its administration." While the populace may have been cheerful about it, compliance was not high. Only 276,661 people filed tax returns out of a population of approximately 38 million. Additional taxes were passed with the “recognition of the idea that taxes shall be paid according to the abilities of a person to pay," according to Senator Garret Davis.
  • When the Civil War ended, the public suddenly became less cheerful about the concept of taxes. Several attempts were made to make the taxes permanent, but by 1869 even the New York Times was coming out against it, writing that “no businessman could pass the day without suffering from those burdens.” Finally, in 1872, federal income tax was repealed and significant tariff restrictions took its place, serving as a major source of revenue for the federal government until 1913.
  • Interestingly, in the 1860s, federal income tax was challenged in court. The Supreme Court unanimously supported the tax. After the war, however, the tax was declared unconstitutional by the same court because it represented direct taxation on the citizenry which was not allowed under the Constitution.
  • In 1913, the Constitution was modified. The 16th Amendment was passed, which allowed Congress authority to tax the citizenry on income. I bet you never learned about that in school.
  • During the Depression, in the 1930s, individual federal income taxes were kept to no more than 1.4 percent of the Gross National Product (GNP). Corporate taxes were never more than 1.6 percent of the GNP. (GNP is a measure of a country's economic performance, or what its citizens have produced, i.e. goods and services, within its borders.) In the 1930s, corporations took the brunt of the tax burden; this changed. In 1990, those same taxes as a percent of the GNP were 8.77 percent for citizens and 1.99 percent for businesses. 
So there you have it. It all began with cooking oil in Egypt. Then it crossed to the Mediterranean to Greece and Rome, went up into Europe and across to the New World, aka, these United States. I can't help but wonder, though... would things have turned out differently if only the ancient Egyptians had learned to steam their food?

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Tenacious G and Many Happy Returns

Last September, my mother and I went to a local store to buy a full mattress for her room at the assisted living facility. After much pondering and badgering, she chose a mattress set that suited her sensibilities. Two weeks ago, she called to inform me that her bed had sunk in the middle after only five months of use. The facility manager there told me that the box spring wood had warped.

Would you deny this woman a good night's sleep? (Offending bed not pictured.)
I called the local store. The salesman there said I needed to call the national customer service number. I called the national customer service number and was informed that an inspector would have to go out to investigate the mattress before a replacement could be issued. My mother is 84 years old. What improper use did they think she made of the mattress? I feel certain she did not jump up and down on it. Being a morally upright Protestant, it is unlikely she invited over any rambunctious gentleman friends.

After a week, I called to see where the inspector was. I was informed he would call my house and leave a time he was available. Unfortunately, he left a message during an evening that I was at a professional meeting and I did not notice the blinking message light until 11 a.m. the following morning. His voicemail informed me that tomorrow—which was now today—he was only available from 10 a.m. to noon, which meant his time window was about to close. Woops. I called and left a message. He called back and said he would visit my mother after lunch. I called to let her, and her facility manager, know about it. The inspector visited and I heard nothing more.

Oh, Laura Ashley! Warped after only five months.
A week later, my mother called and insisted I had to call the store "right now" to find out when the new box spring would be delivered. I called and was informed that the box spring was indeed found to be defective and was told that my mother would get a letter in the mail in a week or so informing her that she had a $368 credit to buy a new one. Unfortunately, she would be responsible for an $80 delivery fee. Apparently, the manufacturer was willing to supply a new box spring, but the delivery was contracted out independently.

I will not repeat my reaction to hearing that. However, following my reaction, the woman at the other end asked me to hold so she could see what could be done with the delivery charge. When she returned, she offered to have a box spring delivered the next day at only half price—$40. I proceeded to lecture her on corporate responsibility and the limitations of someone retired on a fixed income. Why should my mother have to pay more money to replace a shoddy product? She put me on hold again, then returned to inform me that this time, only, they would generously waive the delivery fee. Were they expecting more returns?

Since they were sending the same shoddy box spring as a replacement, I expressed the hope that this one would last more than five months. I called my mother back to give her the happy news. She had spent several weeks sleeping on a metaphor for the state of business in this country. I’m sure that can’t be comfortable.


The next day, when the box spring was supposed to be delivered, I received a call from the store. They had put a mattress in their truck, rather than a box spring. When they arrived, the facility refused delivery because they were expecting a box spring, not a mattress. I was informed that the store would have to send a second inspector out to look at the box spring because the first inspector's report stated that he had investigated a mattress.

I asked if they could waive the second inspector since the first one had clearly inspected a faulty box spring. The mattress was fine. After 15 minutes on hold, the customer service rep came back on the line to say that getting the approval to waive the second inspector would take more time; he would have to call me back. At this point, I wondered if it might have helped to bring Henry Kissinger out of retirement for the negotiations.

When he called me back, he told me they could not replace the box spring because its warping was considered normal wear and tear. I pointed out that it had been purchased at the end of September and this was the beginning of March—only five months' time. He put me back on hold. I was now handed over to a woman who informed me that they would only replace the mattress, not the box spring, based on the inspector's report. If Mom had to have another delivery, it would cost $80.

Completely puzzled, I decided to unleash my secret weapon—my brother. At the time of this writing, I do not know what the resolution of this process will be. In the meantime, Mom is still sleeping on a taco-shaped bed.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Debt Be Not Proud

"The strength of a nation derives from the integrity of the home."
Perhaps we should have realized the extent of the problem when we woke up last Thanksgiving to a house bereft of heat.

The oil tank was dry, so we called the fuel company for an emergency delivery. Little did we know that replenishing the oil would be a stop-gap, nothing more. The signs were there, if only we had been looking for them. In the next two months, we filled the house’s 275-gallon oil tank three times, which was unusual, even considering how cold this winter had been. Call it a classic case of denial.

Say hello to our new boiler: the Peerless WBV.

A final event brought the situation into painful clarity. We woke up to a house filled with fumes and a boiler bleeding water all over the basement floor. The smoke alarm pierced the morning like a nasal ambulance siren.

After 17 years, our tired oil boiler suffered a massive mechanical coronary and expired. The final expenses for sending our dearly departed heater to its resting place and replacing it with a newer model was $7000. Naturally, there were tears. We could only hope that when one sooty door closed, another cleaner one would open. Our old 60%-efficient oil boiler was being replaced with an 85%-efficient boiler, which promised to use less oil than its predecessor. (Ha! See Internet article below in gray for that one.)

When mortality strikes, there is a tendency to flash back to all the times you’ve spent together. We had brought this boiler into our home shortly after we moved in. It was our first major expense. Just as it had temporarily impoverished us then, it was doing so now, but to a greater extent. It was hard not to have a lump in your throat thinking about it.
"There is nothing like staying at home for real comfort."
Jane Austen

Of course, we will move on. That’s the way life is. Yesterday, the contractor installed a new oil boiler. Today, we discovered that our water-softening system is not working. We are bracing ourselves. They say these things usually come in threes.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Hoarding of America—Part II

In my last blog, we learned about how 20% of the richest Americans own 85% of this country’s wealth, leaving 15% for the remaining 80% of average workers in this country. In 2007, CEOs in the United States took home an average of $10.5 million, 344 times the take-home for typical American workers.

In this blog, we’ll discuss how all this wealth concentrated into the hands of such a small group of people. In short, it has to do with tax dodges, inheritance bypasses and general ignorance on the part of the average American. As for the latter, I do not exclude myself. I am no wizard of finances. The media are not covering this to any noticeable extent, and it is difficult for the average person to sort through, but let’s give it a try.

According to a report entitled Executive Excess 2008: How Average Taxpayers Subsidize Runaway Pay:
  • The federal government, through the tax code, is actually rewarding companies that overpay their top executives.
  • Average Americans are unaware that their tax dollars are helping the country’s top business executives become phenomenally wealthy. Congress is not directly involved; it has never taken an explicit, up-or-down floor vote on any of the major tax code loopholes that enrich our current titans of industry and finance. These loopholes, instead, owe their existence to obscure bureaucratic rulings that well-paid corporate lawyers and lobbyists have stretched and distorted far beyond their original intentions.
  • The five most popular tax loopholes, which I admittedly don’t understand since I am not math- or finance-inclined, are: 
                      1. Preferential capital gains treatment of carried interest
                      2. Unlimited deferred compensation
                      3. Offshore deferred compensation
                      4. Unlimited tax deductibility of executive pay
                      5. Stock option accounting double standard
  • Ignoring the details of what the above loopholes are, know that, combined, they cost the rest of us $20 billion a year in lost tax revenues, but the wealthy do not stop there.
  • Actually, $20 billion may understate the true extent of the current taxpayer subsidy for executive excess. These loopholes only speak directly to executive pay. We, the taxpayers, offer many additional perks—everything from economic development grants to accelerated depreciation allowances—that inflate corporate quarterly bottom lines and share prices and, in the process, generate windfall rewards for executives who have their pay pegged to the “performance” of their companies.
What all that means is that the rich have enough money and power to influence tax regulations so that they can continue to accrue even more wealth than they currently have at the expense of the average person. Let’s take a closer look at what that means:

You can see from the above information that the rich in this country are really raking it in. To put it into perspective, the $20 billion being scooped up by America’s most powerful is more than double what the federal government spent last year on educating America’s most vulnerable—children with disabilities. Personally, I find that disturbing. I mean, just how much money does anyone really need?
  • Beyond that initial $20 billion they earn from deferring or not paying taxes, there are many billions more taxpayer dollars that indirectly encourage excessive executive pay. That includes everything from government contracts for goods and services to corporate bailouts. More than 85% of the public companies on the federal government’s top 100 contractors list paid their CEOs over 100 times the pay of average U.S. workers. That’s right, our government supplies the paychecks, from our taxes, that pays these guys.
  • Legislation that would plug executive-friendly tax loopholes is already pending in Congress. But this legislation has stalled due to current Congressional voting dynamics—or should we say lack of dynamics?
  • Excessive executive pay and the tax code loopholes that enable this excess reflect the absence of checks and balances on America’s economic landscape. Historically, trade unions have operated as the most important of these checks and balances. They could play that role again if lawmakers passed the languishing Employee Free Choice Act, legislation that would help workers realize their right to organize into unions and bargain collectively with their employers.
  • A half-century ago, over one-third of American private-sector workers belonged to unions. Bargaining between these workers and their employers set wage patterns throughout the U.S. economy, in both organized and unorganized workplaces, and served to restrain executive rewards at the top of the corporate ladder. Unions were also largely responsible for the development of a middle class in America.
  • Today, according to the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics survey data, only 7.4 % of private-sector workers belong to unions. Top executives, at the vast majority of America’s workplaces, face no institutional challenge from their workers. The absence of that challenge leaves executives free to pocket rewards at levels that would have seemed recklessly greedy only a generation ago. It also signals the death knell for the middle classes in America.
Why is the ratio of executive pay to average-worker pay important? Well, we all are taking our pay from the same corporate pie. Recent academic research has demonstrated the executive/worker pay difference that a union presence can make. In one survey, released last year, researchers found that CEOs at nonunion companies take home nearly 20% more than their fellow executives in unionized firms. Workers in union companies, meanwhile, make $200 more a week than their counterparts in nonunion firms—$863 a week for union employees versus $663 weekly for their nonunion counterparts.

Even death does not diminish the tight grasp of the wealthy. There may be inheritance taxes, but they easily dodge them, thanks to their friends, the banks.

First, let’s examine how many people should be concerned about inheritance taxes. According to a study published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland:
  • 1.6% of Americans receive $100,000 or more in inheritance
  • 1.1% receive $50,000 to $100,000
  • 91.9% of Americans receive nothing
Thus, the attempt by conservatives to eliminate inheritance taxes, more popularly known as “death taxes,” would cost taxpayers an estimated $1 trillion between 2012 and 2022 for the benefit of the heirs of 0.6% of Americans, according to Citizens for Tax Justice. Not surprisingly, a study in 2006 found that the financial support flowing in to anti-government activists for eliminating inheritance taxes came from 18 super-rich families. Not to worry. Inheritance tax laws may be moot, anyway.

The rich already have a new way to avoid inheritance taxes, forever, thanks to bankers. After Congress passed a reform in 1986 making it impossible for a "trust" to skip a generation before paying inheritance taxes, bankers convinced legislatures in many states to eliminate their "rules against perpetuities," which means that trust funds set up in those states can exist forever, thereby allowing the trust funds to own new businesses, houses, and much else for descendants of rich people, and even to allow the beneficiaries to avoid payments to creditors when in personal debt or sued for causing accidents and injuries. Gift tax for these transfers of wealth would be 0%, according to a December 2010 article in Forbes online. About $100 billion in trust funds has flowed into those states so far.

Why are the ultra rich getting away with not paying taxes and fair wages at the expense of everyone else? Well, basic ignorance is a factor. A 2010 study by Norton & Ariely found that Americans from all walks of life have no idea that the top 20% of households in the U.S. hold 85% of the country’s wealth. They also didn’t know that the bottom 40% of households hold a shockingly low 0.3% of the wealth.

Is it hopeless? No. The average worker can try to regain some of the wealth that is being hoarded by the greedy 1% of our population. This isn’t the first time this has happened. Education is the key. We cannot rely on the news media, because they are owned by the same entities that benefit from the inequity that is draining our economy. The only way to defend our incomes is at a grassroots level.

One option: Go to United for a Fair Economy to learn about wealth inequity and the need to support legislative movements to close tax loopholes for the rich. The IRS is not giving you or me a break; why should the super wealthy get special treatment? For a complete list of tax fairness organizations, listed by state, go to This site also offers speakers who can come out and talk to groups about wealth inequity and how we can become activists for our own incomes.

Taking back YOUR money from CEOs, Wall Street and the leisure rich will not be easy, because they have all the power and strongly influence the news media and our government. But it can be done. If our great-grandparents and grandparents could fight for workers’ rights, then so can we!

NOTE: I am in no way affiliated with any of the sources in this blog. I am just attempting to understand this mess our country is in. If you think that any of this information is incorrect or distorted, please feel free to comment. It would be good to learn more.