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Saturday, June 8, 2002

Reporting the Death Tax II

Looks like we can add the Washington Post to the sorry list of major news outlets who report on the estate tax without revealing the actual rate of confiscation. The Post is even worse than the Times, saying little beyond referring to GOP efforts to permanently cut "the estate taxes for wealthy Americans." The story doesn't even explain the level of assets at which the tax kicks in, or that it applies to family-owned farms and businesses, not just to some abstraction of "the wealthy." Shameful.

posted by Woodlief | link | (0)

Friday, June 7, 2002

What's in a Name?

Bell Hooks. Bell Hooks. That's capital B, capital H. What's that, Bell? You want to be called "bell hooks," sans capitals? Too bad. I'm a capitalist, this is English, and you are Bell by God Hooks. So get over yourself. Edward E. Cummings you ain't. Old E.E. did enough damage of his own, sparking a trend that has culminated decades later in pathetically insecure people who indicate first person in their emails with "i" instead of "I."

Somehow Bell has cowed everyone into going along with what has been rightly labeled a pretentious affectation. Even the archconservative Frontpage Magazine affords her the lower case in its coverage of her ridiculous commencement speech to Southwestern University graduates, albeit denoted with "sic." It's time somebody nipped this in the bud.

Everyone, meet Bell Hooks. Bell, say hello to everyone. What's that? Feeling oppressed by my patriarchal capitalist assignation? Pretty girlish of you, don't you think? Stop being so emotional.

And while I'm picking on names, I'd like the following people to come to the front of the class: Cher, Sting, Madonna, Sade, Seal, Prince (don't even try that "Artist formerly known as" bit with me, you midget weasel), and Bono. Now, all of you bend over for the good swift kick in the sequined stretch pants you each deserve. Perhaps nobody told you, but there is a two-name minimum in this country. Three is fine, four if someone in your family wore a grey uniform and shot Yankees back in the 1860's. You can go by your first name when you've slain Goliath, or parted the Red Sea, or gotten yourself resurrected. And no, Cher, your career doesn't count. Even our non-biblical one-name heroes go by a last name: Washington, Lincoln, McArthur, Flutie.

And what's with these wannabe one-name stars? You've seen them; they crop up occasionally in teen-market movies and pop music bands, with names like "Chayenne" and "Simone." Now, I know I'm not the target demographic, but it seems that anybody who introduces himself with just a first name is begging to be given a last name, most likely containing the suffix "-hole." You want to know who goes by a first name only? My neighbor's dog.

And he's got more talent.

UPDATE: Scutum Sobieski explains that Sade is actually the name of the group, not just the singer. Apparently it was important to him that you know this, as he was willing to admit that he actually has this information close at hand.

posted by Woodlief | link | (21) comments

Reporting the Death Tax

The House voted yesterday to permanently repeal the death tax, which currently allows the government to confiscate the majority of any value an estate, farm, or business has above $1 million upon the death of its owner. The recently enacted tax legislation dictates that the tax will be gradually phased out, and the exemption simultaneously raised, until 2011, at which point the tax returns in full force. This strange situation has prompted many to call it the "2010 Suicide Tax," and Republicans are now pushing to replace this silly scheme with something permanent. Americans currently spend more to avoid the destructive effects of this tax than the government collects from levying it, but given that the bulk of its victims tend to be wealthier and Republican, it is a Democrat's wet dream.

It's interesting how the story was covered by major news outlets. Remarkably, in stories about the tax, the New York Times and Reuters fail to tell the reader what the current tax rate actually is. (To their credit, MSNBC and Associated Press do provide this important datum.) Writing about a tax without revealing the tax rate is akin to writing a story about a baseball game and not telling the reader the final score. Perhaps the writers avoid doing so because revealing that the government seizes 55% of a person's wealth upon his death would detract from the soak-the-rich message. Everybody loves to hate the rich, so why detract from this sentiment by explaining to readers exactly how much the government takes, or that the wealth confiscated is usually not sitting in cash, but in investments and equipment that make jobs for thousands of citizens?

One would think that enterprising journalists would find any number of juicy things to expose about the death tax. It destroys small businesses valuable to communities, it disproportionately hurts women (who tend to be the survivors hit with the tax bill), and actually does little to advance that great Democratic idol, equality. If the economics scare them, they can fall back on the journalistic method of interviewing sympathetic victims. Lord knows, if this were a story about, say, alleged toxicity of ink, we'd all be listening to some guy tearfully describe how his testicles shrank after he got a tattoo. Don't hold your breath waiting for Dan Rather to interview a grieving family who has to sell their business because the government wants half its book value, however.

The rich-versus-working class trope is just too appealing, even when it is largely misapplied. The real rich versus working class angle here is the conflict between families who have to fold their businesses because of the death tax, and the superwealthy, who argue in its favor, because doing so earns them fawning press, and because losing half of their wealth, especially given that their businesses are incorporated entities, won't place their survivors in financial jeopardy. Elites like Soros and Rockefeller can afford their "socially conscious" poses. A businessman in Iowa with a small chain of stores can't, he's too busy creating jobs and community value on a tight budget. And he's just a statistic; the heavy hitters in this area are either cultivated elites who favor the death tax, or conservative wealthy Republicans who oppose it. When journalists survey this field, it's no surprise who they side with; theirs will always be the tribe of arts and letters, not the tribe of money. So it's not an ideological obsession with equality at all costs that causes journalists to give short shrift to families hurt by the death tax; they do so because they just don't know people like this.

This seems often to be the case. Journalists aren't overtly biased, but they depend heavily on their personal social networks for information, and most importantly, for a sense of how to frame a story. Given this inevitability, perhaps news media outlets would do well to require national news reporters to do field service in flyover country for a minimum number of years before being absorbed into the intellectual cliques of metropolitan coastal areas, with their clipped, simplistic frames, their self-absorption and condescension.

The alternative is that they continue to write stories like those mentioned above, which talk about a tax but not what it does to people, how much it takes from them, how often it ruins what someone spent a lifetime creating. Continue on this path, and readers will continue to disappear, the dull ones because the news is boring, the intelligent ones because they know there is much more to the story. This suggests a growing bifurcation; the former, increasingly aliterate anyway, will turn to variations of the tripe that serves as television entertainment, while the latter will turn . . . where?

Good magazines and ezines, ideological but trustworthy news sources, and perhaps -- blogs. To think that a blog can ever replace the raw data-gathering ability of large organizations is a pipe dream. But the challenge is not so much the collection any more, it's the assemblage and framing of this information. And journalists, national and local, seem increasingly impaired when it comes to doing this effectively.

posted by Woodlief | link | (3) comments

Thursday, June 6, 2002


Here's an interesting study in the Journal of the American Medical Association which finds that 25 percent of medical studies cited by journalists are never published in medical journals, while another 25% are published in "low-impact" journals. In other words, half of the medical scares and "breakthroughs" reported by the news media don't have sound scientific backing.

Journalists favoring hype over facts. Shocking.

posted by Woodlief | link | (0)


I had to fly on one of those little jets that necessitates venturing onto the tarmac, rather than waltzing down a ramp connected directly to the jet's door. Upon arriving in Atlanta's crappy little airport, there was no elevator in sight, so everyone had to file up a narrow set of stairs encased by dirty metal siding. We were moving at a glacial pace, and I soon realized why. A few people ahead of me, at the front of the line, was an old woman who didn't have the strength to carry her rolling bag. She was using two hands to pull it up a step, then taking one step herself. Because of the contortions required to do this, the woman a little behind and beside her couldn't go past. Directly between me and the old woman were two men, both quietly huffing at the delay. One carried a sissy European man-purse, the other had nothing in either hand. Nothing.

So, I shouldered my computer bag, used my other bag to press past the two sorry excuses for men in front of me, and with my free hand picked up the old woman's bag. She was exceedingly thankful, almost to the point of tears, it seemed. In my alternate universe, once I got her bag to the top of the stairs, I kicked the guy behind us in the throat, causing him to careen with lethal velocity into the man behind him. The rest of the passengers cheered me, and airport security gave me a free ride to my connecting gate on that little golf cart with the annoying horn, letting me honk it at will as we sped past the less heroic travelers.

In reality, I gave them both a disgusted look and went on my way. I wish now I had confronted them. Shame on any man who doesn't help an old woman with her bags, or let pregnant women go to the front of a line, or hold open doors for ladies. Males who don't do these things deserve to have their manhoods revoked, permanently, by means of a small guillotine.

A very small guillotine, I suspect.

posted by Woodlief | link | (11) comments

Tuesday, June 4, 2002

Good Job!

When potty training a two-year old, it's important to give them lots of encouragement. So, my wife and I developed the habit with Stephen Caleb of saying "good job!" whenever he was, well, productive on his little plastic potty.

So now, if he hears a porcelain seat being lowered, he drops what he's doing to run into the bathroom and give its current occupant some hand clapping and cheerleading: "Aaayyy. Good job!"

Oddly enough, I appreciate the affirmation.

posted by Woodlief | link | (4) comments

Crime, Math, and Libertarians

I started out to make a simple point, and then it got bigger, and soon butted up against an issue that I plan to lay out here in clearer form at a later date. But in deference to the patriarchal, eurocentric linear time concept, let's start at the beginning, shall we?

The New York Times reported a recent study that reveals a climbing recidivism rate among inmates released from prison. The study's authors, along with a host of other experts interviewed for the article, blame inadequate rehabilitation for the increase.

Here's another thought. Assume that criminals derive some satisfaction from their deeds. Let's call this the demand for crime. Assume further that this demand has some elasticity, meaning that it is affected by the "price," which comes in the form of risk-adjusted punishment (i.e., the odds of incarceration multiplied by the average time served for a particular crime in a particular state). Now we have a math problem.

Thankfully, the fine folks at the National Center for Policy Analysis have done the hard work for us. They find, by examining data on crime and clearance (the odds someone will serve time for a crime) rates, that the "price" of committing crime has dropped considerably since the 1950's.

But here's the catch for the claim that a declining price for crime is the cause of the elevated recidivism rates: the price started to increase in the 1990's. Here's where the sociologist (perish the thought!) might come to the aid of the economist. Imagine not just a price threshold confronting the potential criminal, but a moral threshold as well. This moral threshold is determined in part by how others in the community view crime. As the price for committing crime dropped from the 1950's into the 1980's, more and more people in some communities succumbed to the temptation. Every person who did so thereby weakened the social norms against crime in his community. Thus even after the price has started to rise, the moral threshold continues to decline.

This appears to be what happened in another area: out-of-wedlock births. Illegitimacy increased with welfare payments, but continued to grow even as AFDC was reduced, in real terms, during the early 1980's. Most welfare experts (dominated by the hard left) pointed to this as proof that welfare doesn't breed illegitimacy. Some bright thinkers argued, however, that the continued growth of out-of-wedlock births even after a reduction in AFDC payments was the result of a similar moral threshold erosion, precipitated by an initial erosion of the economic cost of illegitimacy.

Interestingly enough, both crime and illegitimacy display marked geographic clustering, with considerable variance even across poor neighborhoods, which is a strong sign that community norms matter. In other words, both phenomenon behave as epidemics, spreading as more and more people in a neighborhood "contract" them.

The difficulty this reality brings to those (mostly conservatives and libertarians) who want to adopt a purely economic view of crime and welfare is that an increase in the economic price of these pathological behaviors may not bring about a cure. Pandora's box, in the form of eroded social norms, has been opened in many neighborhoods. The cost of closing it again, if we rely solely on punishment, may be extremely high, amounting to little more than transplanting entire families and neighborhoods into prisons. Absent any sort of moral or spiritual awakening, we may simply create a new way of life for these people -- a brief stint in public school, a few years of wilding, and then life with friends and family behind bars.

But the state has never been good at administering moral and spiritual guidance. It has at its disposal mostly the blunt tools of economics. And now that it has, after decades of drunken liberals at the wheel, contributed to the destruction of community social norms, it may have no means of recreating them. Conservatives and libertarians, whose social prescriptions often amount to nothing beyond the reduction of government, may have little to offer as well.

This, I think, is an overlooked problem confronting libertarians especially. Our solutions are anti-solutions, namely, the elimination of government. We assume that when the cause is removed, the problem will be removed as well. I wonder if there is room in libertarian philosophy for something more.

posted by Woodlief | link | (7) comments

Monday, June 3, 2002

New and Improved

Here, courtesy of that fiery webweaver Robyn, of Sekimori Designs, is the new me. Actually, just the page is new; I'm still the same irritating person. Look around for awhile at all the cool stuff Robyn did. I'm in Moveable Type now and at a new host, which should mean less outage. I have adorable pictures at the bottom. My email can no longer be picked up by spam auto-bots. You can all comment directly on my individual posts, relieving me of the burden of trying to relay all your intelligent observations in my periodic (and overly long) Reader Mail posts. In short, I am better, stronger, faster than before.

They have rebuilt me.

Special thanks to the lovely Robyn, who bled, cried, and cursed over my pages, all the while enduring requests like, "Can you completely shift the entire thing to the left one pixel, and enlarge the graphic by a third?"

To the technologically ignorant this is all magic, but apparently these things take work. Yet to her everlasting credit, Robyn did not hop on a plane in order to personally deliver a sound beating. For that, my legions of fans owe her thanks.

posted by Woodlief | link | (28) comments