Archive for February, 2010

The man who flew his plane into an IRS building sounded to me like a purist libertarian, and right on schedule the purist libertarians have come out in defense of him.  Writing on the Lew Rockwell site, lawyer John Whitehead had this to say:

“Clearly, [Joseph] Stack is neither a hero nor a martyr. Nor is he technically a terrorist. Rather, he is the end product of a system that pays little heed to the disaffected, discontent and voiceless. And while Stack may have been alone in the cockpit of that Piper Cherokee plane, he is not alone in his discontent and frustration.”

http://www.lewrockwell.com/orig8/whitehead8.1.1.html

Thus, Joe Stack, murderer and terrorist, was the end product of a system.  He apparently did not have libertarian free agency but was moved along by forces beyond his control.  This is, of course, the fundamental axiom of socialism (cf., Godwin, Fourier, Owen, et al.).  Continues Whitehead:

“Stack is representative of a burgeoning class of disaffected Americans who are waking up to the reality that the American governmental system no longer works as it was intended. . . .”

This reminds me of the moral equivalence crowd, who will not condemn acts of terrorism without somehow managing to blame the victims of it in the process.  Whitehead says Stack was “pushed to the breaking point.”  He finds a moral lesson in the incident, that it should be a “wake-up call to Americans.”

On the charge that Stack was spouting socialism or populism, Whitehead says, “But that’s the problem with people who can’t distinguish between politics and basic human decency. They have lost sight of their humanity.”

He does manage to say something critical of Stack: “The problem with the Joe Stacks of the world is that they keep relying on government to fix the problems, but government officials are not going to fix them because most of them don’t really seem to give a damn.”

So in Whitehead’s view, Stack was on the one hand forced by his libertarian desperation into flying his plane into an IRS building, but on the other hand was also forced by his anti-libertarian statism to fly his plane into an IRS building.

Whitehead’s solution for the “Joe Stacks of the world” — the “disaffected and alienated ones among us” — is (drum roll) “churches and synagogues and private institutions.”

Given that Stack hated organized religion, it’s difficult to see how churches, synagogues, or private institutions would have changed his behavior.

In his manifesto, Stack said that he grew up learning about American principles of justice, such as no taxation without representation.  However, “I have spent the total years of my adulthood unlearning that crap from only a few years of my childhood.  These days anyone who really stands up for that principal [sic] is promptly labeled a ‘crackpot’, traitor and worse.”

Stack interprets the American Revolutionary principle as practically saying no taxation at all.  Nevertheless, the facts are that the British were attempting to tax Americans to raise revenue, sidestepping colonial governments in the process — i.e., it was a kind of inverted Old Sarum politics.

The town of Old Sarum had no voters, but two representatives in Parliament, and then in the 1800s eleven voters who did not even live in the town.  Inversely, Revolutionary Americans saw themselves as having plenty of voters, but no representation.  This sort of thing happened on a large scale.

Colonists granted that England had the right to tax Americans for the regulation of trade, but not to raise revenue (without their consent).  It was not a simple populist anti-tax reaction.

We’ve had representative government for more than 200 years now.  If anyone is to blame for the development of byzantine bureaucracies and tax codes, it’s the American people.  They vote every election for representatives who add to the miasma.  Agencies such as the IRS or local taxing authorities are simply following the law as written by elected representatives.  So it is patently false that America has taxation without representation.

Stack practically admits this when he says, “I can say with a great degree of certainty that there has never been a politician cast a vote on any matter with the likes of me or my interests in mind.”

But it is one thing to complain about no representation (as the colonial Americans did), but quite another to complain about bad representation, as Stack did.  He confused the one with the other.

Stack then indulges in populist rants against corporations such as GM and against America’s health care system — with typical rich vs. poor rhetoric beloved of demagogues.

He then turns his attention to the tax code, and complains that it’s too complex even though it still holds taxpayers responsible to comply with all tax laws.

There’s no question that people are frustrated with complicated tax laws and they hate doing their taxes as much as they might hate (say) jury duty.  So what else is new?  Most who are overwhelmed will use tax software, or hand over their shoeboxes of tax information to CPAs or tax preparers.  And there are flat-tax proposals out there but if voters don’t elect the right people, nothing will change regarding our tax system.

Reading Stack’s autobiography, it appears he was a tax protestor with an irreligious bent:  He says:

“My introduction to the real American nightmare starts back in the early ‘80s. . . . Some friends introduced me to a group of people who were having ‘tax code’ readings and discussions.  In particular, zeroed in on a section relating to the wonderful ‘exemptions’ that make institutions like the vulgar, corrupt Catholic Church so incredibly wealthy.  We carefully studied the law (with the help of some of the ‘best’, high-paid, experienced tax lawyers in the business), and then began to do exactly what the ‘big boys’ were doing (except that we weren’t steeling [sic] from our congregation or lying to the government about our massive profits in the name of God).  We took a great deal of care to make it all visible, following all of the rules, exactly the way the law said it was to be done.”

So he got together with some like-minded tax protestors to exempt his income in the same way 501c3 organizations are exempt.  He goes on:

“The intent of this exercise and our efforts was to bring about a much-needed re-evaluation of the laws that allow the monsters of organized religion to make such a mockery of people who earn an honest living.  However, this is where I learned that there are two ‘interpretations’ for every law; one for the very rich, and one for the rest of us… Oh, and the monsters are the very ones making and enforcing the laws; the inquisition is still alive and well today in this country.

“That little lesson in patriotism cost me $40,000+, 10 years of my life, and set my retirement plans back to 0.  It made me realize for the first time that I live in a country with an ideology that is based on a total and complete lie.”

It seems Stack’s tax avoidance scheme was caught by the IRS, and he had to pay back-taxes.  He said that once the 10 years were up, he had dreams of being an “independent engineer” but was thwarted by the tax code.

His specific gripe involved the difference between employees and independent contractors.  The law in question was an attempt to prevent tax avoidance by computer programmers, et al. who were setting themselves up as independent contractors when instead they were really doing employee-type work.  For an explanation of the arcane tax issue, see:

http://www.taxfoundation.org/blog/show/25870.html

Since the law went into effect, software engineers and programmers who want to do piece-work for corporations, have to work for a third-party “broker” who then leases the programmer’s services for the jobs.  Companies want programmers to go through these third-parties.  If they just gave the programmer a 1099, the programmer could come back later and say they were really employees, thus exposing the company to FICA tax risk.

I happen to agree with Stack’s complaint, though not with his solution.  I see no reason why engineers or programmers should not be able to set up their own businesses as independent consultants and not have to pay third-party “pimps” or “headhunters” in the process.

But there are more than enough issues in the tax code to complain about.  The way problems are solved in this country  — including tax problems — is at the ballot box.

That was Abraham Lincoln’s point against the southern secessionists on the eve of the Civil War.  He said that “ballots are the rightful and peaceful successors of bullets; and that when ballots have fairly and constitutionally decided, there can be no successful appeal back to bullets; that there can be no successful appeal except to ballots themselves, at succeeding elections.” (Lincoln, “Message to Congress,” July 4, 1861.)

It’s true that a heavily centralized, bloated government can make voters feel like little more than cogs in a machine and that they have no recourse against a vast, impersonal bureaucracy.  Nevertheless, the solution is decentralized government, not more government, and certainly not, as Lincoln said, a resort to violence.

Stack’s argument might be taken more seriously if there were some evidence he had actively supported efforts to decentralize government.  Instead, his populist ideas call for more government — stick it to the rich and to big corporations.  But that can only happen by making government larger and more centralized.

In addition, while Stack may have written letters, there is no indication he ever involved himself in local politics, joining local parties, or showing any concern for political process — which is the usual way things are done in America.

Despite the bad times, Stack was able to get work, but then he was laid off during the 1990s as a result of military base closings.  Later, he went through a divorce, struggled at business, then had to shut his business down because of the dot-com bust and post-911 security restrictions.  He then moved to Texas, and couldn’t find work, so he had to live on his retirement savings.  He says:

“I filed no return that year thinking that because I didn’t have any income there was no need.  The sleazy government decided that they disagreed.  But they didn’t notify me in time for me to launch a legal objection so when I attempted to get a protest filed with the court I was told I was no longer entitled to due process because the time to file ran out.  Bend over for another $10,000 helping of justice.”

So, apparently Stack did not respond to IRS inquiries or notifications within the legally required time, and thus could not bring the issue to court.  And here we come to Stack’s most recent problem:

“So now,” he says, “we come to the present. . . . [H]ere I am with a new marriage and a boatload of undocumented income, not to mention an expensive new business asset, a piano, which I had no idea how to handle.  After considerable thought I decided that it would be irresponsible NOT to get professional help; a very big mistake.”

So given all of his problems in the past with taxes, one would think Stack would give up his tax avoidance schemes.  But then he tells us he had a “boatload of undocumented income.”  And he also claims that a piano is a business asset, which would only be true if he were a professional piano player or music instructor.  He also mentions that his wife had unreported income.

The results were predictable: “This left me stuck in the middle of this disaster trying to defend transactions that have no relationship to anything tax-related (at least the tax-related transactions were poorly documented).  Things I never knew anything about and things my wife had no clue would ever matter to anyone.  The end result is… well, just look around.”

Like tax delinquents, tax cheats, tax protestors, or just sloppy taxpayers everywhere, Stack could not prove his income was exempt nor that his deductions were valid.  Not even a shoebox apparently as backup.  He says:

“I know I’m hardly the first one to decide I have had all I can stand. . . . Sadly, though I spent my entire life trying to believe it wasn’t so, but violence not only is the answer, it is the only answer. . . . Well, Mr. Big Brother IRS man, let’s try something different; take my pound of flesh and sleep well.”

He then concludes: “The communist creed: From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.  The capitalist creed: From each according to his gullibility, to each according to his greed.”

In actual fact, the communist creed is more like what George Orwell said: all are equal, but some are more equal than others.  Taxation is a fact of life, like death, and exists in any economic system, no matter how well-disguised or renamed.

It’s interesting to see that in Britain a Tea Party movement is beginning.  See:

http://www.tfa.net/the_freedom_association/2010/02/brighton-tea-party.html

However, as much as we might sympathize with those who oppose heavy taxation or complicated tax rules, we must remember that the original “Tea Party” philosophy was not about taxation per se.  It was about the nature of representation.  It is too bad that Joe Stack never learned this lesson.  For further discussion, see my essay on the American Revolution at:

https://vernerable.wordpress.com/politics-history/7-american-revolution/

 Vern

Grace Amazing

Posted: February 18, 2010 in Culture, Theology

Celtic Woman really hits this one out of the ballpark:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HsCp5LG_zNE

Wikipedia has a lot of information about this song at:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amazing_Grace

I did not realize that one of the verses to John Newton’s “Amazing Grace” had been taken from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin:

“When we’ve been there ten thousand years,
Bright shining as the sun,
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise,
Than when we first begun.”

Judy Collins introduced a whole new generation to the song around 1970 and the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards based their popular arrangement on Collins’s version.  The Celtic Woman arrangement is based on the Guards’ version and starts off the same way.

The Wikipedia article says, “Since the 1970s, self-help books, psychology, and some modern expressions of Christianity have viewed this disparity in terms of grace being an innate quality within all people who must be inspired or strong enough to find it, something to achieve.  In contrast to Newton’s vision of wretchedness as his wilfull sin and distance from God, wretchedness has instead come to mean an obstacle of physical, social, or spiritual nature to overcome in order to achieve a state of grace, happiness, or contentment.”

There is definitely a clash of theologies going on here.  To sing “Amazing Grace” as though it were about some innate quality in man, or man’s ability to achieve a goal, is about as perpendicular to the meaning of the song as one can get.  The main point of the song is that there is nothing in us that is worthy of God’s favor, not in our lifetime, not in a million years, not ever.  And yet God still saves us.  That is what Newton thought was so amazing about grace.

It’s rather amazing in itself that people can sing the same song and have two entirely different meanings in mind.

I’m reminded of what the theologian Karl Barth said in 1934 to the “German Christians,” just before the nightmare of fascism & Nazism descended upon Germany.  He was very opposed to the “God and” theology, the idea that God needed a human contribution in the matter of salvation:

“Let me warn you now,” he said.  “If you start with God and . . . you are opening the doors to every demon.  And the charge which I raise against you, I lay before you in the words of Anselm: ”Tu non considerasti, quandi ponderis sit peccatum!  You have failed to consider the weight of sin.  And that is the sin: that man takes himself so very seriously.”  (God in Action, pp. 137ff.)

Vern

The Red Sea

Posted: February 15, 2010 in Uncategorized

Depending on context, the Bible uses the term “Red Sea” (yam suf) to refer either to the western Red Sea (bordering Egypt, i.e., the Gulf of Suez), or to the eastern Red Sea (in the land of Edom, i.e., the Gulf of Aqaba).

In some cases, Hebrew suf refers to “reeds” as in Exodus 2:3ff., where the mother of Moses placed the ark in the reeds (suf) and where the daughter of Pharaoh found Moses.  Literally, the biblical term yam suf means “sea of reeds,” but that is an etymological translation, not an identification of the body of water in question.  Many believe suf is a loan word from Egyptian twf (meaning papyrus).

The term suf in yam suf simply refers to what may have been the origin of the name “Red Sea” not to its geographical location.  Some claim that the western Red Sea (Gulf of Suez) cannot be meant as the place of the Israelite crossing because reeds do not grow in salt water.  However, this is an illustration of what D. A. Carson called the root fallacy:

“One of the most enduring of errors, the root fallacy presupposes that every word actually has a meaning bound up with its shape or its components.  In this view, meaning is determined by etymology; that is, by the root or roots of a word.”  (Exegetical Fallacies, 1996, pp. 28ff.) 

For instance, our English word “nice” means pleasant or good, but its Latin root means “ignorant.”  (Idem.)  Thus, a translation cannot always be based on etymology, but has to be based on usage and context as well.  If that’s true of translation, it goes double for interpretation (e.g., location or identification).

So the literal or root meaning cannot in itself be used as a geographic indicator.  This is shown by Numbers 33:10, where the term “Red Sea” (yam suf) has reference to the eastern Red Sea, the salt-water Gulf of Aqaba.  It does not refer to a fresh-water lake of reeds.  In 1 Kings 9:26, Ezion Geber is located on the shore of the eastern Red Sea (yam suf) bordering the land of Edom, again the Gulf of Aqaba, not a fresh-water marsh.  (See also, Jer. 49:21.)

With respect to the Red Sea of the Israelite crossing, the Septuagint translates the term yam suf as “Red Sea” (eruthra thalasse).  This is not so much a literal translation of yam suf as it is an identification of it with the western Red Sea.  Thus, the Jews of the 3rd to the 1st century BC understood yam suf as referring to the traditional Red Sea (Gulf of Suez).  Note that eruthra thalassa is not a reference to reed-filled lake marshes since eruthra means “red” not “reeds.”

The New Testament writers also ascribed the Israelite crossing to the western Red Sea (Acts 7:36, Hebrews 11:29).  Here they also used eruthra thalassa (red sea) to translate the Hebrew yam suf (sea of reeds).  The authority of the New Testament seems decisive to me.

I think the reason translators want to translate yam suf as referring to a shallow lake or to northern marshes above the Gulf of Suez is simply because they are attempting to downplay the miraculous and provide a naturalistic explanation for the crossing.

I don’t think Christians have this option if they really believe in the biblical philosophy of history vis-à-vis a naturalistic, uniformitarian philosophy of history.

See for discussion, James K. Hoffmeier, Israel in Egypt, 1996, pp. 199ff; Nahum M. Sarna, Exploring Exodus, 1986, pp. 106ff; Colin J. Humphreys, The Miracles of Exodus, 2003, pp. 172ff.

For New Courville, a crossing at the Gulf of Suez is consistent with the MB1 Exodus theory since MB1 indicia have been found on both sides of the western Red Sea.   In our opinion, the best location for the Israelite crossing of the Red Sea is in the Gebel Atika area, where MB1 indicia have been found.  This area is on the Egyptian side of the Red Sea.  The Israelites would have entered the Sea at this point and journeyed to the other side, arriving perhaps at Ayun Musa, about 13 miles distance.  For more discussion, see our essay “Crossing the Red Sea”:

https://vernerable.wordpress.com/archaeology/crossing-the-red-sea/

Vern

I write in protest of Arizona House Bill 2512, sponsored by Representative Rick Murphy.  This bill will prohibit Arizona cities and towns from hiring private, third-party contractors to provide tax services.

I work as a sales tax auditor for an Alabama-based company called Revenue Discovery Systems (RDS).  Formerly I worked for the Arizona Department of Revenue for about 18 years until the Arizona legislature “riffed” a third of the employees (a “reduction in force”).

Wise legislators don’t cut their tax administration and collections services during a budget crunch since tax auditors and collectors bring in many more times the dollars it costs to pay them.  But the question of whether Arizona legislators are wise is one that perhaps should be tabled for another time.

Unfortunately, HB2512 directly affects RDS’s ability to do business in Arizona.  It seems to me if the politicians at the Arizona legislature cannot even get their own budgetary house in order, why are they dictating to the cities with respect to their budgets?

I was surprised to see that ATRA, a supposedly conservative organization, supports the House Bill.  The main reason is that ATRA is responsive to business lobbyists.  These lobbyists are concerned that if cities start hiring private firms, businesses might have to do more paperwork.

I see this as a non-issue.  In fact, business will be able to file on-line and it would be a simple matter of transferring their general ledger sales information over to their online tax returns.  Why would that involve any more “paperwork” than businesses already have with the State?

Business lobbyists are also afraid retailers and other businesses will be subject to more audits.  However, RDS is not an auditing firm per se.  Their primary function is administration of taxes (accepting monthly returns, tax payments, business licenses, etc).  Auditing and collecting are additional services offered to the cities if they want to pay more for them.

I think the true conservative position in these days and times is that government should be decentralizing, not centralizing.  This bill would take away the right of cities to govern their own affairs, and would amount to unnecessary centralization of government.

Someone (in Alabama I think) has accused RDS of employing “bounty hunters” to go after delinquent taxpayers.  Apparently, being a bounty hunter is a bad thing in this person’s view!  In fact, the American institution of bounty hunting is an honorable profession.

But RDS employees are not bounty hunters, nor are they law-enforcement officials or revenue agents, nor can they capture people and throw them in jail.  Prosecution of tax cheats or delinquents is, and always will be, entirely up to state and city governments.

I think it’s sometimes easier for taxpayers to work with private auditors in that it’s not quite as “scary” as it might be in dealing with government employees.

RDS is not a get-rich-quick scheme for cities to solve their budget woes.  Just hiring RDS doesn’t mean cities will start seeing money flowing in like a torrent.  Lost revenue from the downturn in the economy isn’t something a private tax service can change.  However, RDS has enough experience and resources to enhance efficiency in tax administration, as well as to discover uncollected revenue.

Businesses will also benefit.  RDS is owned by a large collections firm, and they can presumably afford the latest in online technologies.  This will mean businesses will be better able to organize tax information.  Losing track of how much one owes in taxes can be unnerving.  So, reporting taxes to RDS can provide businesses a way to stay on top of all their tax obligations.

The bottom line is that cities should have the freedom to organize their departments, including their tax departments, in whatever way they deem beneficial.  If that includes hiring private companies, that should be their choice.

House Bill 2512 is therefore unconservative: it diminishes the freedom of local governments; it discriminates against one or two companies since the legislation will have a direct impact upon the ability of RDS to establish a business in Arizona; and it will rob cities and towns and businesses of the efficiencies that can be brought about by an experienced private tax service.

For these reasons it should be rejected.

Vern

2/13/2010

Note:  Revenue Discovery Systems does not give prior approval to any writings or links on this blog, nor is notified in advance of any writings or links on this blog, nor is responsible in any way whatsoever for any content expressed in any writings or links on this blog.   The views expressed above are my own opinions.