Thursday, January 30, 2014

Taxes: What is Your Fair Share?

As you gather your W-2's, receipts, and other documents to prepare your 2013 income taxes, you may wonder where you fall in providing the purse to
"form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common Defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity...." 

Check out the Kiplinger Report to see where you rank as a taxpayer as you get ready to file your 2013 Tax Return.

The Taxpayer Holiday expired January 1, 2013 and all Americans began paying more taxes on their 2013 income but the biggest increase of all affected those with pre-tax incomes of more than $500,000 (roughly the top 1% of tax payers). Tax-filers for 2013 in the top 1% will see their tax rate at pre-Reagan levels of slightly more than 36%:

Just who are the taxpayers in the top 1% and what should we understand about their tax rate of slightly more than 36%?  Forbes magazine published an article in March, 2012 that describes the differences in wealth of various classes of taxpayers and why the rich are getting richer leaving the rest of us behind:
 Before you can talk about the 1 percent, it’s important to put the figures into perspective by understanding exactly what that figure means. The average annual income of the top 1 percent of the population is $717,000, compared to the average income of the rest of the population, which is around $51,000. The real disparity between the classes isn’t in income, however, but in net value: The 1 percent are worth about $8.4 million, or 70 times the worth of the lower classes.
* * * 
Between 2007 and 2009, Wall Street profits swelled by 720 percent, even while unemployment rates doubled and home equity dropped by 35 percent. Since 1979, the bottom 90 percent of the nation has consistently lost money while the upper classes have gained. If the average person’s wages had kept pace with the economy since the 70s, most people would be making $92,000 per year. [Alan Dunn, "Average America vs the One Percent", , March 21, 2012] 
This infograph shows just what the differences are between the top 1% and the "Average American" who earns $51,413 a year:

How rich are the Top One Percent of Americans

Now,  do you think you're paying your "fair share"?  Do you think the top 1% is paying their "fair share"?

Want to see what other countries pay in income taxes?  Click on the following interactive map to see world tax rates and also what universal healthcare and maternity benefits the population receives:

A Global Look at Personal Income Taxes - Interactive Infographic by TurboTax
Get Your Maximum Tax Refund with TurboTax

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Kudos to my Congresswoman

Norman Rockwell painting from the Four Freedoms series
About 6:30 last night, my phone rang (the land line - yes, I still have one) and I picked it up expecting the usual solicitation (90% of my telephone calls are solicitations or recorded political pitches).  I'm one of those rare people who do not screen my calls.  A voice asked me to stay on the line to join Congresswoman Michelle Lujan Grisham (NM-1) for a Telephone Town Hall and... I didn't hang up. Frankly,  I was curious what my Congresswoman had to say.  The voice said I could press "0" anytime to ask a question, so I listened in my own house to my Congresswoman answer questions from her constituents.  I wondered why I was called?  Random? A mistaken number?  I listened for an hour and even queued up to submit a question about the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade pact.

Michelle Lujan Grisham
I enjoyed participating in this "Town Hall" and,  luckily, I wasn't busy at the time. I don't know how many citizens participated in this event, but it seemed to me that this was the quintessence of democracy in a new technological age.  The Congresswoman handled the questions gracefully and with good knowledge about most of the issues and she and her staff certainly got a lot of feedback on what issues were important to her constituents.  So kudos to Congressman Michelle for doing this. In these times where Congress is at its lowest approval rating and bashed daily by most US news outlets, talk radio and the blogosphere, I think it does the American people a disservice that Congress is painted in broad strokes as a bunch of self-serving, corrupt politicians. But let's face it, the American people are not "feeling it all that much" these days and we turn off when Congress speaks.

Our House of Representatives was designed to be the "People's House" with citizens serving short 2 year periods in office, representing their local constituents and debating legislation with the rest of the people's representatives to govern our nation in partnership with the Senate. There are hard-working, honest representatives in Congress, in both political parties, who are shining examples of public service with little notice by the media who favor controversial and flamboyant antics of certain politicians who say outrageous things, engage in corruption, sexual misconduct, or are caught in compromising situations.  Where people are disengaged in the political process, beaten down by poverty or economic distress, poorly educated, and dished up a steady diet of "fast food" distraction television, democracy suffers. The loud-mouthed "shock talk" radio hosts get more of our attention than do our elected representatives when political issues are being discussed.

Every two years, we see a freshmen class of Congressmen and Congresswomen and hope that they can make a difference to change the status quo in Congress.  I personally think that more women in Congress will make a big difference and with 20 women in the Senate now, we are beginning to see "new standards for civility and bipartisanship".

Michelle Lujan Grisham is one of the newly elected women in the House that represents these higher standards of behavior in Congress.  Just look at this  recent interview on a local PBS television show with Congresswoman Michelle Lujan Grisham.  She's bright, knowledgeable, passionate about the issues and the people she serves, and she isn't afraid to tell the truth - even about mistakes her own political party has made (for example, her criticism of the ACA starting at minute 14.00).

Congress would be better off with more people like Michelle Lujan Grisham elected.  This can only happen if the voters pay attention to the issues and the players without having some hyperbolic filter in between pushing emotional hot buttons.

Friday, January 17, 2014

The Rotting Corpse of Racism That Lies Beneath Our Feet

There is that smell again, the sweet-putrid odor of something rotting.  Some people can't smell it.  It's been around them all their lives and it just seems normal.  And there are those who are aware of it, but they think it is a smell associated with personal freedom. These people resent being "PC - Politically Correct".  For others, they are aware of the smell as "otherness" - that is a feeling of "unfamiliarity" and "foreignness" of another's culture, race, or religion.  The smell alerts them to danger, to circle the wagons, lock the door, buy a gun for protection, or join a crowd of like-minded people in declaring war on the "others".  And, finally, there are those who smell it every minute of the day, hyper-vigilant least they fall, face-first into the rotting decay,  into harms way or even death. These are the people with a pigmented skin or other features that draw attention to their "otherness" when they step out of their home or community.

I want to talk about the reality of that rottenness that exists all around us, even when we think we have the most pristine homes and the most righteously pure thoughts in our hearts and minds. The rottenness that I am talking about is "racism".

I know that many people who live in America think that racism is a thing of the past.  The great majority of these people are white.  Recently we heard from one major political party that "racism has ended".  I have friends, family, acquaintances and fellow citizens who remind me that the rotting corpse of racism is ever-present and there is no way to avoid walking on its detritus each and every day.

Being white, I am not one of the hyper-vigilant people who thinks about the consequences of race each day. I am usually in a white community or in a social gathering where most, if not all the people around me, are white.  98% of my neighbors are white and the great majority of my friends and associates are white. But my sense of right and wrong is highly informed by a sense of empathy for others. If another person is harmed because of hate or prejudice, I feel it too.

To speak out against or to act to stop racial hatred and prejudice inevitably invites heightened social conflict, something most humans are wont to avoid.  I am a witness to the effects of the rotting corpse of racism among my family, friends, and fellow citizens almost daily.  Sometimes I say something...sometimes I do not in order to avoid social conflict.

Recently I traveled  to Virginia and Maryland, states on the mid-Atlantic coast of the USA. Historically, Virginia and Maryland were slave holding states prior to the US Civil War. Although there have been steady migrations of new residents from northern and western U.S. states and foreign countries, these states still have deep racial prejudices among the white population.  I witnessed pick-up trucks and residences with big Confederate Battle Flags flying.  They are flown for many reasons: southern pride, rebellion against the government, and white racial supremacy are three of the predominant reasons. Maryland and Virginia have large Black populations, 31% and 21% respectively,  many whom are the direct descendants of slaves. The affront that these flags symbolize to Black people living here cannot be underestimated.  The people who fly these flags are sending a racial statement despite their overt explanation that it is their right to free speech and rebellion.  Virginia is a state with a highly divided voting population that has resulted in Barack Obama winning the state in 2008 and in 2012 by close margins. In the aftermath of the election of a Black President by the majority of Virginians, right-wing politicians and their media have fanned fear among the white population. There are now 30 Hate Groups in Virginia tracked by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The extreme hysteria on the right has led to a run on guns in Virginia.  In 2013, over 480,000 legal gun transactions occurred, an all-time high.

Virginia is a place full of contradictions and historically troubled race relations.   It's capital, Richmond, was the capital of the Confederate States of America during the US Civil War. The Colony of Virginia established their first English settlement in Jamestown in 1607 on land already occupied by native peoples who lived united under the leadership of Chief Powhatan.  The English people treated these original inhabitants as an inferior race and frequently used violence to take the land,  justifying the killing of men, women, and children in their belief that they were endowed by their Creator to make the land "productive".  Slaves from Africa were first brought to Virginia to provide labor for the farms that the Englishmen established.  The English settlers needed to produce agricultural goods that would provide income and they soon found out that tobacco was a particularly good money crop when unpaid, slave labor was used to harvest and process it for sale back in England.

Thomas Jefferson, author of The Declaration of Independence
and 3rd President of the United States of America
Thomas Jefferson, among many Englishmen born and raised in Virginia, was one of many of America's great leaders and skilled writers and thinkers on the subject of oppression and individual liberty. But Thomas Jefferson owned 600 black slaves in his life and became quite wealthy because of slave-labor.  After his wife, Martha, died, Jefferson took a Black slave as his concubine with which he sired 6 children. One of the complications of race in our U.S. history was well-illustrated in the life of our 3rd President and author of the Declaration of Independence who in his private life used his slave, Sally Hemings (the mulatto sister of his wife) ,  as the object of his sexual gratification.  Prior to the American Revolution, as a young man in the House of Burgesses in Virginia, Jefferson presented resolutions to outlaw slavery, but found that he was overwhelmingly castigated by his fellow wealthy plantation owners, and never again went against the tide on the issue of slavery. Indeed, when the Royal Governor Lord Dunmore threatened to offer freedom to slaves that revolted against the colonists and then removed the gunpowder from the Williamsburg Powder magazine,  the colonists feared a slave uprising more than British reprisal. It was the Virginia Royal Governor's action more than anything else that pushed previously reluctant Virginians into supporting the American revolutionary cause and citizens of Massachusetts who had already fought two battles against the British.

Thomas Jefferson, like many of America's statesmen of the 18th and 19th century, was not an advocate of racial equality. Jefferson did not feel that the two races were equal and if slaves were freed, he believed they must be returned to Africa because Black people, in his eyes, were an inferior race, and he did not believe that the two races could live together peaceably.  It is of interest that the Republican Party founded in the mid-19th century, was partly created in reaction to the failure of the Whig Party,  the Democratic Party and the Know Nothing Party to stop the expansion of the institution of slavery.  Many Abolitionists (those who advocated the abolition of slavery) were prominent leaders of the Republican Party, like the great leader and ex-slave, Frederick Douglass, who said: "I recognize the Republican party as the sheet anchor of the colored man's political hopes and the ark of his safety." 

Frederick Douglass (1818-1895)
The Republican Party of the mid-19th century had varying opinions on racial equality in America, but was united in it's platform that slavery must be ended. Most white Republicans in those days, including Abraham Lincoln, did not believe that Black people were social equals.  The Democratic Party of the 1800's was a pro-slavery party and represented Southern slave-owners interests.  The Ku Klux Klan was formed in 1865 as a reaction to the Reconstruction Era in the American South.  The interests of Southern whites, the Democratic Party, and racists all found common ground in the poisonous propaganda and tactics of this organization that spread in every community of the South and influenced power and politics throughout the USA in it's numerous iterations.  

The Republican Party and the Democratic Party experienced an absolute flip-flop on the issue of racial equality and civil rights in the first few years of the 1960's. Landmark Supreme Court decisions like Brown v. Board in 1954, the escalation of opposition to racial segregation like the Freedom Riders' actions in the summer of 1961, and then the legislative agenda and accomplishments of the Democratic Party and President Lyndon B.Johnson in 1964 caused a backlash against the Democratic Party by white southerners.  The Republican Party that was in decline by this time, saw an opportunity to take political advantage of the split in the Democratic Party on race and devised a Southern Strategy to win the White House for Richard Nixon in 1968. Nixon's political strategist Kevin Phillips, in a New York Times article in 1970, explained how the implementation of a "southern strategy" was so successful:

'From now on, the Republicans are never going to get more than 10 to 20 percent of the Negro vote and they don't need any more than that...but Republicans would be shortsighted if they weakened enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. The more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans. That's where the votes are. Without that prodding from the blacks, the whites will backslide into their old comfortable arrangement with the local Democrats."

Lee Atwater, a consultant to Ronald Reagan,  in a recently released interview made in 1981, spoke bluntly about how the "Southern Strategy" deliberately took advantage of Southern hostility toward Black people's equality and used code words to break white voters away from the Democratic Party:

Now this brings me to the election of our first African-American President in 2008.  I have heard people say that,  since President Obama had a 69% approval rating by the American people at the time of his inauguration as President in 2009, race was no longer an issue in the United States. But in reality, the election of Barack Obama exasperated the rotting corpse of racism in America.

As human beings,  our comfort level with other people is based on what they have in common with us...e.g. race, language, religion, age, occupation, economic status, neighborhood, etc.  To step out of that comfort zone is very difficult for many, especially when we live in highly homogeneous communities. Racists are hyper-aware of skin color and other ethnic differences because they do not live among or socialize with people of different races.  Most of these race-centric people know better than to state their real racist views in public (although they will in their private lives and among their peers).  Disingenuous and calculating political operatives seized upon these fears and race-centric sentiments of many white people and used rhetoric (what they call "talking points") to present the new black President (falsely) as other than American, a foreigner, not "one" of us, a Muslim, a radical socialist and so forth. They do this to re-gain power.  This has led to a Republican Party of today that is held hostage by the former Southern Democrats and other extreme political groups who give them just enough votes to win elections at the state and local level.  This is what keeps the GOP from renouncing the false and inflammatory rhetoric that destroys the unity of our people at a time of great economic and international challenges.   It is not only morally reprehensible, it has destroyed the high unity our nation had when we voted our hopes and dreams in 2008.

I went to a Martin Luther King Parade in Albuquerque yesterday.  I belong to a Chapter of the NAACP and we always have a contingent in the MLK Parade on the day before Martin Luther King, Jr's birthday each year. Sunday's parade and celebration in Civic Plaza was a beautiful and positive celebration of all races, ages, and classes.

We celebrated the memory of Dr. King for his principled stand for social and economic justice, as well as for racial equality. We celebrated the use of non-violence, love and kindness instead of violence, hate, and hurtfulness as tools  to combat such injustices. We celebrated American principles of democracy and liberty for all.  Racists hate that we celebrate Martin Luther King. Jr.'s birthday.  They make nasty comments and mock the life of Dr. as they did in the 1960's.   Many of these same people will talk about how they are outraged by terrorism.  They applaud loudly when our politicians talk about The War on Terror and they stand in reverent attention for our soldiers who are on the front lines of that fight.  They cry when innocent people are killed in horrific bombings and attacks on peoples' homes and businesses.  Why do they not understand that Dr. King was one of our greatest leaders battling terrorism in America and that he gave his life for that cause?  To truly understand the impact that Dr. King had on African American lives in America, please look at HamdenRice's post on "Most of You Have No Idea What Martin Luther King Did".

It is time for each one of us to pick up a shovel and toss a load of dirt on the rotting corpse that lies beneath our feet...bury the stinking carcass of racism for good.  Do it for yourself and for the salvation of America.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Celebrating 8 Years of Marriage and Memories

Ron and I were married January 14, 2006.  We've made it to 8 years.  We celebrated with dinner at an Albuquerque French restaurant called Chez Axell. The food was in the style of the south of France that I can now say I have visited. Who knew 8 years ago that Ron and I will have come so far and seen so much in the later years of our life?  Ron promised to take me places and he definitely has fulfilled that promise.

Together, we recounted our wedding day which was in San Diego County in a Poway backyard with friends and family.

Our blended family

 We left for a honeymoon in Ireland for a week.  We landed in Dublin and spent an evening in Temple Bar..

 We rented a car and drove south through Ireland to Killarney National Park and the Dingle peninisula.

 We also stopped at the Rock of Cashel in County Tipperary .

 And so began our marriage...and many travels later, we are still here, ready to pack our bags for more memories before we're done with this world.. Thanks, Ron, it's been a wonderful 8 years!

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Wonderful Ensemble Acting in August: Osage County

Saw this film last night.  I haven't seen such a good film as this in a very long time.  Ensemble acting at it's zenith.  Like "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" or "Carnage", this film comes from a highly successful Broadway play with huge accolades and Tony awards.  Tracy Letts' stage play was adapted to the screen with great skill. This film evokes the theatrical genius of Tennessee Williams in his "A Streetcar Named Desire" or "Cat On a Hot Tin Roof".  Meryl Streep is astounding, again, in another Oscar-worthy acting performance from the greatest living actress today. Julia Roberts, too, provides an Oscar-worthy performance and I expect she will get a "Best Supporting Actress" nomination for the Academy Awards this year.

I read Richard Roeper's review in my newspaper who gave it a rating of C- and criticized it as histrionic performance that overreaches.  Because of this review, my husband and I went to see the movie with somewhat low expectations but I knew I would see great acting from the all-star cast .

Film critic Roeper has so misrepresented this complex film.  This is same reviewer that gave Out of the Furnace an A+ rating praising it as the best film he has seen in 2013.  With his review, I watched Out of the Furnace with great anticipation and found it to be good but with great tension, violence and darkness of character that exhausted my sensibilities by the film's bloody ending.  I question film critic Roeper's ability to distinguish a great film when he sees it if he gives Out of the Furnace an A+ and August: Osage County a C-, especially on the basis of his criticism of heavy acting.  Roeper apparently understands little about the appeal of ensemble acting at it's very best. Films will have different audiences based on individual preferences of genre and subject matter.  But a critique of the acting in August: Osage County is pretty absurd as a reason to pan this film because all the actors gave extraordinary performances.

The film opens with Sam Shepard's portrayal of the alcoholic patriarch of a family in their endgame of distress and collapse, a man of once great  accomplishments in the field of poetry who quotes T.S. Eliot.  He even gives a copy of a T.S. Eliot book to a Native American woman (Johnna) he has just hired to look after him and his cancer-stricken, pill-popping wife (Violet played by Meryl Streep).  Johnna remains the one character that represents stability and grace throughout the movie. At the end of the film, Johnna is indeed reading the T.S. Eliot book and I immediately recalled T.S. Eliot's most famous quote: "...This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper". The family members all have their crosses to bear, their hidden secrets, their anguish and regrets on constant display. The result is a superb ensemble performance of comedy and tragedy.  Disturbing to the viewer, yes, but histrionic, no.  My husband and I talked for an hour about what we had just seen and I can tell you that's the first movie in a year to produce such engaging discourse.

We saw American Hustle recently and it is a good film with lots of Golden Globe nominations.  I liked it (this certainly seems to be a productive year for Christian Bale as well as for Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Lawrence and Meryl Streep), but I recommend you see this film, August: Osage County because it is as good as many of the films up for Best Picture this year.