The Sigma Tax

Pronounced income disparity is the root of many of our country’s problems. Economists have been talking about it for years, and last week President Obama made an attempt to bring the issue front-and-center in a speech at Knox College.

Another thing that economists have long said is, “When you tax something, you get less of it.” So here’s an idea: let’s tax income disparity!

How would this work? Easy. For companies of a given size, we decide what the ideal distribution is of wages and other compensation. We might decide, for instance, that the 90th percentile should be earning no more than 50x what the 10th percentile earns. Whatever numbers we choose, the result is a curve; presumably a less-pronounced one than this:

Once we decide on the shape of our curve, companies are free to obey it or not, distributing their compensation however they see fit. But if their curves deviate too far from the ideal, they pay a proportional income-disparity tax. Maybe they can even be eligible for an income-disparity credit if the curves deviate in the other direction.

Properly tuned, and phased in slowly, this “Sigma Tax” (for the Greek letter that designates standard deviation in statistics) should result in gentle but inexorable pressure that reduces the wage gap, improving things for the bottom 99% without breaking the 1%, while paring some of their shameful excess.

PayPal arbitration opt-out

Bob Glickstein
[address]
[phone number]
[e-mail address]
13 Oct 2012

PayPal, Inc.
Attn: Litigation Department
2211 North First Street
San Jose, CA 95131

To whom it may concern,

I am a PayPal user at the e-mail address above. I do not agree to the Agreement to Arbitrate as delineated in your Amendment to the PayPal User Agreement and Privacy Policy dated Nov 1st, 2012. By this letter I hereby reject it per the opt-out procedure described in section 14.3 (e). Kindly exclude me from the Agreement to Arbitrate.

I further request that you consider dropping the arbitration clause altogether, for all your customers, as a matter of principle. Hand-wringing about frivolous lawsuits notwithstanding, citizen access to the public court system is one of the things that makes America great. I invite you to read my fuller thoughts on the matter at www.geebobg.com/2008/09/20/the-sue-s-of-a/

Timely written acknowledgment of this request sent to the above address would be greatly appreciated.

Sincerely,

[signature]

Bob Glickstein

Who are the real monsters?

A British film about Americans in Mexico. That seemed odd. But it didn’t stop me from watching 2010’s Monsters on Netflix recently, and enjoying it.

It’s six years after a NASA probe to Jupiter’s moons crash lands on its return to Earth, “infecting” an area of Northern Mexico near the U.S. border with samples of alien life, which thrive there and multiply, growing huge and destructive. The U.S. has erected an enormous wall along its Mexican border and its military makes regular incursions across it to suppress the creatures and limit their spread. Our two main characters have to make it back to the U.S. while traveling dangerously near, and eventually through, the infected zone. Their journey has a vérité feel and is full of suspense, with a few moments of terror and some interesting character development. By the end I found it compelling enough to go online and see what opinions others had written about it.

I was disappointed by what I found. Without exception the reviews and opinions that I read evaluated Monsters as a conventional monster movie — that is, as a mere shocker — and by that metric many critics found it lacking in terms of horror and body count and creature biology and so on, though everyone commended the guerrilla filmmaking techniques and how far the tiny budget was stretched for the sake of producing credible special effects. The principal filmmaker, Gareth Edwards, is now being talked about as a hot new talent for directing sci-fi epics.

All of which was missing the point. Not one writer commented on the glaringly obvious subtext, the very reason the film was made and the answer to why a British filmmaker chose Mexico as his setting and Americans as his characters: it’s a story about the failure of America to adapt to a changing world.

[Spoilers follow.]

Continue reading “Who are the real monsters?”

Glickstein’s law of legislative intent

Glickstein’s law of legislative intent:

When someone insists we need new powers to outlaw an activity that another perfectly good law already makes illegal, follow the money.

I’m looking at you, SOPA.

Make money the old-fashioned way

Dear film industry, music industry, and all other trade associations that lobby Congress for laws to protect their revenue streams:

You are not entitled to your profits. You are required to earn them anew, every single day.

If new competitive pressures come along and you’re unable to adapt, we the people are under no obligation to help you keep earning profits by tilting the playing field. In fact, quite the opposite.

Homeopathic democracy

What was the cry of the Boston rioters in 1773? “No taxation without representation.” What would they have said about taxation with just a teensy amount of representation?

Before George Washington became the first chief executive under the U.S. Constitution, he presided over the Philadelphia Convention at which the Constitution was drafted. Throughout the entire proceedings — which had its fair share of passionate disputes — Washington spoke up exactly once on an issue under debate. The proposed size of the U.S. House of Representatives was too small, he said. It would have meant one congressman for every 40,000 citizens. He insisted that one per 30,000 would produce a better, more responsive democracy, and so the change was made.

Within thirty years, as new states were admitted and the population grew, the ratio had grown to the level against which Washington had argued: 40,000 citizens per congressman. Four decades later and it more than tripled: 127,000 to 1. By this time the population of the country had grown from under two million to over 31 million, and the House of Representatives had gone from a cozy 65 members to a rowdy 241.

In 1912 the House of Representatives swelled to 435 members — roughly one for every 212,000 citizens — and there it was capped by legislation in 1929, by which time the ratio was more than 280,000 to 1.

If we had maintained that ratio, today the House would have 1,093 members. If we had maintained Washington’s ratio, today it would have 10,291 members. As it is we’re stuck with 435 — fewer than one congressperson for every 700,000 people. Some U.S. citizens have proportionally more Senate representation than House representation.

What was the cry of the Boston rioters in 1773?1 “No taxation without representation.” What would they have said about taxation with just a teensy amount of representation? No wonder our democracy is presently working about as well as a course of Oscillococcinum (the flu remedy so dilute that one dose contains none of its so-called active ingredients).

A ten thousand member Congress would probably be unmanageable. But a nation of three hundred million is (I think we can conclude from current events) ungovernable by a legislature so relatively small. Perhaps it’s time to reconstitute our national government. Here’s one idea off the top of my head for bringing representation closer to the people: add a level of hierarchy between the state and federal levels, according to the ten regions of American politics.

  1. No evocation of the modern day Tea Party is intended. []

O say can God bless America the beautiful

It was Little League day at AT&T Park yesterday, and when we got to the Giants game against the A’s it was already the fourth inning. (We’d spent the morning at Maker Faire.) So we missed the ritual singing of the national anthem at the beginning of the game.

I was therefore surprised when, at the beginning of the seventh inning stretch, fans were asked to stand and remove their hats for “God Bless America.” (My infrequent visits to the ballpark led me to expect only “Take Me Out To the Ballgame.”) The whole stadium dutifully complied as Kate Smith’s recorded voice echoed from the loudspeakers.

The whole stadium except for me, that is. I was disturbed that citizens would treat that song, patriotic though it is, with the same respect that is due the national anthem — which, for the record, is “The Star-Spangled Banner,” not “God Bless America.” For one thing, it diminishes the importance of the national anthem. But more importantly, it trains people to regard anything concerning national identity with unthinking veneration. A little patriotic pride is a fine thing, but the clearest lesson of history is that an excess of nationalism is poison.

Besides, neither of these is the best choice for a song that obliges its listeners to stand at respectful attention. “God Bless America” is merely a plea to God, with nothing in it about America per se other than that the singer lives there, gladly. “The Star-Spangled Banner” commemorates a battle and a flag, not a nation or its people or its ideals, and it’s notoriously difficult to sing to boot. But “America the Beautiful” is full of praise for our wonderful country, and it’s so easy to sing even a Muppet can do it.

Star-spangled scanner

O say can you see
By the flick’ring blue light
What the news channels hailed
From a TSA screening?

Whose broad thighs and bright scars
As he boarded the flight
Were so easily watched?
Even though it’s demeaning

In his bowels, some methane
Could have brought down the plane
If he’d saved that fart
Just to set it aflame

O say, isn’t it better
To submit and behave
Than be the land of the free
And the home of the brave?

Greatest hits: Ground Zero mosque

A relative circulated to my extended family an e-mail chain letter linking to an anti-Ground-Zero-mosque YouTube video, so I wrote this reply:

A mosque at Ground Zero is a great idea, whether you’re an anti-Muslim bigot or not.

If you’re not a bigot, then nothing could be a more powerful affirmation of America’s acceptance of all races and creeds than to turn the other cheek and honor the peaceful adherents of that noble religion, millions of whom were victims of 9/11 in more profound, longer-lasting ways than almost anyone else.

If you are a bigot, what could be better than a great big juicy target, right at the scene of the crime, for all the Judeo-Christian zealots bent on Biblical-style justice?

Personally, I’m offended that they keep letting Catholic churches get built. That was the religion of Timothy McVeigh!