Tax breaks as ‘Tax expenditures’

A major proposal to address the deficit is to eliminate various tax deductions–such as for home mortgages and charitable (such as church) giving.  Those tax breaks are being interpreted as the same as government spending.  Eliminating them would increase government revenue by billions of dollars, or even, according to some estimates, a trillion.  Glenn Kessler, the Washington Post “Fact Checker,” takes a look at these claims and finds that things are not so simple.  Actually, he shows, cutting out the tax breaks may not raise so much money after all.

His evidence and reasoning resists simple summary, so I urge you to read what he has to say:   Warning to budget mavens: ‘Tax expenditures’ may yield less than expected – The Fact Checker – The Washington Post.

He also mentions a simpler variation that might have a better chance of passage:

One interesting proposal, advanced by Martin Feldstein, Daniel Feenberg and Maya MacGuineas, would cap the total value of tax reductions that a person could take to just 2 percent of adjusted gross income. Their research suggests that such a cap would raise $278 billion in 2011, and it would encourage 35 million Americans to shift from itemized deductions to the standard deduction, thus simplifying their taxes. It might also be easier to implement than trying to eliminate or scale back some of these popular provisions.

We conservatives hate tax increases, and the notion that the government deigning to let us keep our money is the same as a government expenditure–as if everything we have rightly belongs to the government–is noxious on multiple levels.

And yet, addressing the deficit in a bipartisan plan will almost certainly call for increasing revenues.   Setting aside the question of whether that should be the case, what means of increasing government revenue would you find most, if only minimally, acceptable?  What tradeoffs would you be OK with?

For example, I would want to preserve the housing deduction (since to do otherwise would damage the housing market even more, which is where our economic woes hurt lots of ordinary Americans, as well as contributing to high unemployment).  I would also want to preserve deductions for charitable giving (since churches and other non-profit organizations depend on those).  But to preserve those, I might grudgingly accept a cap on deductions or an increase in other taxes.

HT:  FWS

Philosophical counselors

Psychiatrists medicalize personal problems, while psychologists apply the social sciences.  Now there are counselors who use philosophers to help people think through their problems:

Patricia Anne Murphy is a philosopher with a real-world mission.

Murphy may have a PhD and an intimate knowledge of Aristotle and Descartes, but in her snug Takoma Park bungalow, she’s helping a broken-hearted patient struggle through a divorce.

Instead of offering the wounded wife a prescription for Effexor — which she’s not licensed to do anyway — she instructs her to read Epictetus, the original cognitive therapist, who argued that humans often mistake their feelings for facts and suffer as a result.

Murphy is one of an increasing number of philosophical counselors, practitioners who are putting their esoteric learning to practical use helping people with some of life’s persistent afflictions. Though they help clients cope with many of the same issues that conventional therapists do — divorce, job stress, the economic downturn, parenting woes, chronic illness and matters of the heart — their methods are very different.

They’re like intellectual life coaches. Very intellectual. They have in-depth knowledge of Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist theories on the nature of life and can recite passages from Martin Heidegger’s phenomenological explorations of the question of being. And they use them to help clients overcome their mother issues. . . .

Unlike a visit to a conventional psychologist or psychotherapist, seeing Murphy won’t involve lying on a couch or reaching for the obligatory tissue box. Though she works from a home library lined with tomes by Albert Camus, Søren Kierke­gaard and Immanuel Kant, Murphy takes clients outside for brisk strolls through her leafy neighborhood because Kant believed that walking helped thinking and was soothing for the soul.

The therapy is not covered by health insurance but is typically offered on a sliding scale and averages about $80 an hour for one-on-one sessions. . . .

The field is still in its early stages. There are about 300 philosophical counselors in 36 states and more than 20 foreign countries who are certified by the American Philosophical Practitioners Association, along with another 600 who practice but are not certified, said Lou Marinoff, president of the organization and author of the international bestseller “Plato, Not Prozac! Applying Eternal Wisdom to Everyday Problems.’’ . . .

“You can go on the Internet and find 100 people who are giving you advice,” [Practioner Anne] Barnhill said. “But there are thinkers who are recognized for their knowledge, and ignoring them in our generation just seems like such a loss.”

via - The Washington Post.

I was skeptical reading this–for one thing, there are so many philosophers offering conflicting perspectives on everything–and yet Dr. Barnhill here makes a good point.  We do have a heritage of wisdom that one might draw on.   There is also, of course, spiritual counseling, which, at its worst tries to emulate secular psychology but at its best brings Christ into people’s difficulties.  Do you think there is room for the philosophers?

Have you ever been helped through a personal problem by just reading something that pulled you through it?

I felt the earth. move. under my feet

I was writing in my office at school when, around 1:51 yesterday, the building and my desk with the built in bookshelf started shaking.  Hard.  Back and forth for thirty seconds.   My mind went just blank, and when I gathered my wits, right at the time it was over, I realized, Earthquake!

I have never experienced one of those and have always been kind of paranoid about it, mildly worried whenever I set foot in California.  I had heard from my California friends that they went through them all the time, that they were usually just mild ripples.  This was no mild ripple!  It was a hard long shake.  It turned out to have been 5.9 on the Richter scale, no less, with an epicenter of around 100 miles away from us in central Virginia.   We are close to Washington, D.C., where I’m told people downtown rushed into the street and the Pentagon and White House were evacuated.  The quake was felt for hundreds of miles, including in Philadelphia, Boston, and New York, where JFK airport was shut down.  And yet there seems to be no damage to speak of and no one hurt.  (If you hear reports otherwise, please report them in a comment.)

Some of you readers must have felt it too.  If you did, please report and give your location.  Let’s see if we can calculate how far this thing reached.

A different take on our economic woes

The wild fluctuations of the stock market last week seem to be a reaction to the national deficit and the downgrading of American bonds.  But, as financial analyst Liaquat Ahamed, points out, investors were dumping stocks and investing in government bonds, despite the downgrade and despite record low interest rates.

So, if financial markets aren’t worried about the full faith and credit of the United States, why is the stock market falling? An alternative view, most prominently expressed by New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, is that the markets have concluded, given the struggling economy, that budget cuts are precisely the wrong medicine for what ails us. The Obama administration was backed into a corner by the S&P downgrade and must now focus on cutting the budget deficit to the exclusion of all other policy objectives. Such austerity — whether achieved through spending cuts or tax increases — at this moment in the business cycle would only exacerbate a slowdown. In this reading, the stock market is preparing itself for the coming double-dip.

If this is the market’s message, what should we do? Instead of instituting deeper budget cuts and other austerity measures, the government should pursue the opposite: It should take advantage of the fact that it can essentially borrow for free to finance badly needed infrastructure investments. After all, our airports, roads and bridges are in need of urgent repair, and the extra investment would provide job opportunities and inject money into the economy.

via What is the stock market telling us? – The Washington Post.

Expect that to be the Democrats’ position, that we should stop worrying about the deficit and spend even more money to create jobs and get the economy going.  Mr. Ahamed says, however, that this isn’t politically possible.  Mainly because ordinary Americans saw the government bailing out big banks and corporations, but doing nothing to bail them out.  He proposes a different kind of government activism aimed specifically at consumers and homeowners, which, I suspect, may also become Democratic proposals:

A large-scale government program to restructure residential mortgages and help households refinance underwater mortgages would reduce the debt overhang and support consumer demand. Most important, by channeling public money to help individual families, rather than Wall Street, this initiative could alter the political dynamics that currently doom any government efforts to jump-start the economy.

Can you answer this take on the economic problems and what government might do about them?

Playhouse mansions

As the real estate market for adults is in shambles, the market for playhouses is booming.  Some of them cost as much as a real house:

APART from the open bar by the swimming pool, the main attraction at parties held at the Houston home of John Schiller, an oil company executive, and his wife, Kristi, a Playboy model turned blogger, is the $50,000 playhouse the couple had custom-built two years ago for their daughter, Sinclair, now 4.

Cocktails in hand, guests duck to enter through the 4 ½-foot door. Once inside, they could be forgiven for feeling as if they’ve fallen down the rabbit hole.

Built in the same Cape Cod style as the Schillers’ expansive main house, the two-story 170-square-foot playhouse has vaulted ceilings that rise from five to eight feet tall, furnishings scaled down to two-thirds of normal size, hardwood floors and a faux fireplace with a fanciful mosaic mantel.

The little stainless-steel sink in the kitchen has running water, and the matching stainless-steel mini fridge and freezer are stocked with juice boxes and Popsicles. Upstairs is a sitting area with a child-size sofa and chairs for watching DVDs on the 32-inch flat-screen TV. The windows, which all open, have screens to keep out mosquitoes, and there are begonias in the window boxes. And, of course, the playhouse is air-conditioned. This is Texas, after all.

“I think of it as bling for the yard,” said Ms. Schiller, 40.

Some people might consider it “obnoxious” for a child to have a playhouse that costs more and has more amenities than some real houses, she conceded. But she sees it as an extension of the family home. “My daughter loves it,” she said. “And it’s certainly a conversation piece.”

Even in a troubled economy, it seems, some parents of means are willing to spend significant (if not eye-popping) sums on playhouses for their children that also function as a kind of backyard installation art.

There are a number of companies and independent craftsmen that make high-end playhouses, which can cost as much as $200,000, and come in a variety of styles, including replicas of real houses, like the Schillers’, and more-fantastical creations like pirate ships, treetop hideouts and fairy tale cottages. And many of these manufacturers report that despite the economic downturn, they are as busy as ever.

Barbara Butler, an artist and playhouse builder in San Francisco, said her sales are up 40 percent this year, and she has twice as many future commissions lined up as she did this time last year. Not only that, but the average price of the structures she is being hired to build has more than doubled, from $26,000 to $54,000.

“Childhood is a precious and finite thing,” Ms. Butler said. “And a special playhouse is not the sort of thing you can put off until the economy gets better.”

via Playhouses – Child’s Play, Grown-Up Cash – NYTimes.com.

An interesting example of over-the-top parenting.   How does this manifest itself among us less affluent family-values types?

You have already been judged

Our pastor, Rev. James Douthwaite, is on vacation, so my son-in-law from Australia, Rev. Adam Hensley, preached the sermon last Sunday.  It was an amazing exposition of the Gospel.  His text was  Romans 8:28–39, focusing on  verse 3:

God for us. It is no overstatement to claim that these three little words make all the difference to everything! They change the very landscape of your life! Indeed, they allow St Paul to say just a few verses before, “for those who love God all things work together for goodFor, because of Christ, God our Father—the Judge and Creator of all–has already judged in our favor!

Already this morning you have heard Him speak his final judgment upon you, when you heard me declare to you in His stead and by His command: “I forgive you all your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” You do not have to wait until Judgment Day to know His verdict—He has already given it: He has forgiven you for Christ’s sake! . . . .

Now a good judge prizes himself or herself on being neutral. A good judge shows no favoritism, but executes justice without regard for status, fame, prestige, wealth, or appearance. A good judge does not regard the face,but is fair and even, rewarding, justifyingthe righteous and punishing the wicked.

Here we may think of Lady Justice, that statue inspired by the Roman goddess Iustitia, as the epitome of this ideal. She stands blindfolded, indicating that she does not judge by appearances or what she sees. In one hand she holds a sword, symbolizing authority, and in the other a balanced scales, symbolizing equity and fairness. Indeed, Lady Justice is the ideal model for the office of judge in the courts; in God’s left hand Kingdom, as we say.

But Lady Justice is no model for our Eternal Judge, who judges us in Christ!

Our Judge is anything but neutral! He acquits the guilty! He cancels debts! He justifies sinners and transgressors!

He shows favoritism! He shows His favor to you for Christ’s sake. . . .

Now some people talk about the justice of God, or about God as Judge and for all intents and purposes leave Christ out of it. They get into discussions about God’s sovereign right to condemn some and save others in general. . . .But God does not deal with us in the abstract. He deals with us in Christ! He always points us to Christ, and says of Him, “Here is my justice for you! Here I justify you! . . .

God loving is still ―God punishing sin with death, but it is God Himself taking on our human flesh and bearing the punishment—our death sentence—for us.

And so justice is done. Sin and guilt are punished. God’s wrath is exhausted.

Not blindly though, but with both eyes open! For the Father knew what He was doing. The Son knew what He would endure and why: the Innocent would die for the guilty.

And yes, this is a miscarriage of justice to our way of thinking: Christ was no blasphemer as He was accused of being. But it is God’s miscarriage of justice. It was God’s plan that Christ, the Son of God, become the Blasphemer, the Murderer, the Adulterer, the Sinner. And we have become the “called,” “justified,” “glorified” children of the Heavenly Father.

And He who was born of a virgin, talking upon Himself our human flesh and all our sin and guilty, who then died and rose again… He now intercedes for you and me! Both His eyes are open, looking upon you with compassion; looking to the Heavenly Father and pleading the perfect plea for our forgiveness: His wounds that testify that all sin has been punished by death; all our debt paid in full.

So, the eternal Judge and the eternal Defense Attorney is for us! And not only that: He is also the one who chose to endure your sentence for you!


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