More Ranting

November 30, 2007

I can’t let go of this Mike Huckabee-IRS thing quite yet.

What does he want instead of the current tax code?  The so-called National Fair Tax!  Okay, let me start by saying that I’m no fan of the current tax code.  It’s complicated as hell, it’s filled with loopholes and gimmicks, the vast majority of which are geared toward the rich.  But at least on a conceptual level it’s progressive — it has a sliding tax scale that is intended to place the greatest burden on those who can most afford to pay, while easing the burden on those least able to afford having a bite taken out of their income.  Now, again, in practice loopholes and deductions have allowed the wealthy to shelter portions of their income, and as a result middle income taxpayers now pay proportionally more taxes than do many in higher income brackets.

That’s not right.  The tax code should be simplified and made more fair — in many respects, doing the former will lead to the latter.

But let’s look at this “Fair Tax” that Mike Huckabee and other Republicans are supporting.  What is it?  It’s a national sales tax.  According to its proponents, if we do away with income taxes and corporate taxes and estate taxes, and go to a national sales tax of 23% — yes, that’s right:  23%! — we can achieve the same rate of revenue influx that we have now.  Let’s set aside for the moment that many people dispute this claim, placing the actual figure at anywhere from 30% to 50%.  We’ll take Mike and his friends at their word.  23% it is.

Are they nuts?!  23%?!  Do you want to pay 23% more for everything you buy?!  I certainly don’t.  But that’s besides the point, too.  Nobody likes taxes of any sort.  So let’s look at the two biggest problems with this approach

1) It’s a regressive tax.  This isn’t a sliding tax scale.  Everyone pays that 23% no matter their ability to pay, no matter their income.  The proponents of this tax may exempt food from the tax — I don’t know for certain, so I won’t even talk about food, except to say that if food isn’t exempted that only serves to make this tax even more unfair that it already is.  But let’s talk about clothing, shoes, blankets, heating oil, aspirin, cold medicine, telephones, cars, and every other item that people buy and have to have.  The proponents of the “Fair Tax” say that it’s fair because it only taxes consumption and so people who don’t have as much money won’t buy as much and therefore won’t pay as much.  But there are things people HAVE to buy.  Don’t less affluent mothers and fathers have to clothe their children?  Don’t they still need cars to get to work?  And aren’t they entitled to buy things that they don’t absolutely have to have?  Don’t they deserve to be able to buy their kids presents for birthdays and holidays?  This tax makes it more difficult for them, and since they will be paying exactly the same rate on these items as their wealthy counterparts, it is an unfair tax!

2)  It’s a stupid tax.  Ask any economist what has been fueling American economic growth over the past decade and they’ll give a simple answer:  consumer spending.  Budget deficits have been growing, the dollar is weak, the housing market is sputtering, and yet the third quarter economic stats for the U.S. were pretty good.  Why?  Say it with me now:  consumer spending.  So why — WHY?! — would you want to implement a new tax system that is guaranteed to slow the rate of consumer spending?!  As it is, we are on the very precipice of a recession.  The Fair Tax, were it to be implemented tomorrow, would push us right over the edge.  And no matter when it’s implemented, as consumer spending falls in response to this tax, revenue will fall with it, forcing Congress to raise the sales tax rate, which will then further depress consumer spending, which will then force Congress….You get the picture.

So it’s unfair and it’s stupid.  But it SOUNDS so good; it gives Mike and the rest of the GOP an excuse to say that they’re going to rid us of the scourge that is the IRS.  So you’ll continue to hear about it for the next year or so.  Then, hopefully, this terrible idea will fade back into the obscurity it so richly deserves.

Today’s music:  Jerry Garcia and David Grisman (So What)

I should know better.  Really I should.  When have I ever found watching Republicans debate amongst themselves anything other than infuriating?  And yet there I was, turning on the tube to watch them go at it.  Maybe I hoped that people would listen to them.  I mean really listen, so that they might hear how unbelievably ridiculous these men sound.  

I know.  I should know better.

They all tick me off, whether it’s Rudy — America’s Mayor?  Puhlease! — lisping his way through another gratuitous attack on Hillary; or Mitt sounding like a snake oil salesman; or Fred “aw shucks”-ing his way through another bungled answer, trying desperately to sound like a Tennessee farmer instead of a millionaire Hollywood actor (we all know how much the GOP base LOVES millionaire Hollywood actors); or John McCain trying once more to justify his devotion to this tragic and obscene war.

But the thing that really ticked me off last night was Mike Huckabee’s big applause line about doing away with the IRS.  First off all, let me say that as a self-employed writer who has complicated tax returns every year, I’ve had a good deal of contact with the IRS through their help line.  Every person I’ve ever spoken with there has been friendly, helpful, professional, and knowledgeable.  These people haven’t hurt anyone.  They work thankless jobs in an agency that is universally reviled.  Second, what do you plan to do there, Mike?  If you’re going to eliminate the IRS does that mean that you’re going to do away with all domestic sources of government revenue?  No more taxes at all, is that what you’re proposing?  How are you going to pay for this war that you support?  How are you going to maintain the interstates that run through Arkansas?  Will you be in the towers at the nation’s airports keeping air traffic running smoothly and safely?   You planning to do away with Head Start?  Social Security?  Medicare and Medicaid?  Farm Subsidies?  (That’ll go over real well with the good people in your home state, not to mention all those caucus-goers in Iowa.)

Right.  I thought so.  So when you say that you’ll do away with the IRS, that’s just an applause line, isn’t it?  Because you know you can’t really do it, or, if you do, you’ll have to come up with a brand new agency, one with a more benign name, no doubt — how about  Internal Management Agency for Revenue and Taxation (IM*A*RAT)? — but one that does exactly the same thing that the IRS does now.  

Actually, the amazing thing isn’t that he said it — he might be a former preacher, but first and foremost, he’s a politician — but rather that people clapped.  Can they really be that naive?

Is this country a fiscal mess?  Of course it is.  But don’t blame the IRS, Mike.  Blame George Bush.  He’s the one who squandered the budget surpluses that he inherited from Bill Clinton.  Are well-paying jobs harder to find these days than at any time in the last twenty years?  Yes, they are.  But don’t blame illegal immigrants, Tom Tancredo.  Blame the multinationals that export those jobs as cost cutting measures and then pass along multi-million dollar bonuses to their CEOs.  And blame the allies of those corporations in Congress who built outsourcing incentives into our tax code.  Is government too intrusive?  Maybe.  But don’t blame “big government liberals,” Ron Paul, not unless you’re willing to admit that government has no business telling my wife or my sister or my daughters what they can and can’t do with their own bodies.

And one more thing.  Why is it that all these flag-waving GOP patriots, who love our country so much, are unwilling to bear any of the costs of the freedom they’re so eager to use as a bumper sticker slogan?  Do any of these men have children serving in Iraq?  With the notable exception of John McCain, did any of them serve in Vietnam or any other foreign conflict?  Does it ever occur to any of them that living in this country is a privilege, and that paying taxes to make certain that others can afford medical care and education and food and shelter and all the other things that they take for granted is a small price to pay for that privilege?  When they use patriotic rhetoric in their TV ads and pamphlets do they actually believe a word of it?

If you listen closely to what the Republicans had to say last night — or any other debate night for that matter — you hear the same thing again and again.  “If your life is not going the way you want it to, if you’ve lost your job or taken a pay cut or lost your health insurance or had a falling out with your teenager, here are the people you should blame.”  [Insert favorite scapegoat here:  Hillary?  IRS?  Illegal immigrant?  Other racial or cultural minority?  Homosexuals?]

I suppose that’s a great way to win an election, but it’s certainly no way to run a nation that is desperate for true leadership.

No music today.  Just outrage.

Discovery, part I

November 28, 2007

I have an idea for a new series.  

I’ve written two books of my current trilogy and will begin the final volume in another couple of months.  But before then I want to have this new project mapped out, so that I can hit the ground running when I’m ready to give it my full attention.  I might even write a few chapters of the first book before I go back to write volume three of Blood of the Southlands.  We’ll see.  I’m a good distance away from that right now.

But today I get to start worldbuilding.  I’ve already done a bunch of this in my mind.  I know a good deal about what the world will look like physically, on a map; I’ve started to think about its politics and religions, it’s economics and its history; its customs and, of course, its magic.  I’ve jotted down notes and started some research.  Before now, though, I’ve done these things on the side, in between more pressing projects and responsibilites.  Now I can concentrate on learning about this new place.

This will probably sound strange, but I feel the way I do before leaving on a trip to somewhere new.  Worldbuilding for me is a process of discovery as much as it is a process of creation.  Just as my characters often surprise me as I write, taking my narrative in directions I hadn’t expected, my fledgling worlds often surprise me as I begin to delve into them.

It’s been a while since I did this last, and I’ve missed it.  I created the Forelands universe nearly seven years ago, and though the Southlands are different from the Forelands, and so demanded that I do some worldbuilding before starting the trilogy, it was still the same universe, the same magic, the same basic rules. 

Today I sit before a blank page.  I can take this world anywhere I want.  

I love this part of my job.

Today’s music:  Jerry Douglas (The Best Kept Secret)

My Other Art

November 27, 2007

When I’m not writing, or doing something having to do with my duties as Dad, husband, or stay-at-home guy, chances are I’m taking pictures or working with my digital images on my computer.  I’ve been interested in photography since I was a teenager, but I got away from it for a while.  I was in grad school, and then I was starting my writing career, and then Nancy and I were starting a family.  Suffice it to say, I didn’t exactly have a lot of spare time. 

But about four years ago, I started getting back into it again.  I started with film — slides actually, because slide film tended to deliver the best color — but shifted to digital when we went to Australia.  The last thing I wanted was to have to transport back a year’s worth of slides when our stay there was over.

Over the course of these past few years, I’ve gotten very serious about my photography and I’ve learned a tremendous amount not only about the technical side of the craft, but also about composition, about how to see the world with a photographer’s eye.  And last night, in a very small way, all the work I’ve put into this passion of mine paid off.  I am now officially an exhibited photographer.  I have two pieces hanging in a small gallery here in town.  As I say, it’s a small step, but I have to admit that seeing those two photos hanging on the gallery wall was a bit like seeing my first book in print.

My older brother, James Coe, is a professional artist (www.jamescoe.com).  He’s been drawing or painting for just about as long as I can remember, and he’s incredibly talented.  I always envied his artistic ability; I’ve been writing stories since I was in first grade, and I’ve been playing music for years, though not in any serious way.  But though I always wanted to create visual art, I was never able to draw or paint or sculpt. 

With photography, I finally have that outlet for the visual side of my creative impulses.  It turns out that, for me at least, photography and writing are not so different.  Both demand that I look at the world in unconventional ways, that I capture details others might miss, that I make sense of images and use them to tell a story.  (For the record, though, photographers get to play with much better toys than writers do….)  

One of the things I’d like to do as I continue to improve both my crafts is find some way to merge them.  I don’t know yet exactly how I’d do it, but it’s something I intend to try at some point.  In the meantime, I’ll write my books and continue to steal a few days here and there to take photos.  

Today’s music:  Russ Barenberg (When At Last)

Back At It

November 26, 2007

The kids are back in school, Nancy’s back to teaching, I was back at the gym this morning and am now ready to get back to work.  There are years when Thanksgiving falls so late in November and Christmas break for the kids’ schools begins so early that the time in between is too short to be useful.  Not so this year.  Thanksgiving came early this year, just about as early as it could have.  And the winter break begins relatively late.  We’ve got four solid weeks, and I intend to make the most of them.

Beginning with this week.  I have a story to mail out — I want it off my desk by end of business on Friday.  I have a new project to begin — I want to be world-building by week’s end.  I have a manuscript to critique for the South Carolina Writer’s Workshop (I allowed them to auction off a book-length critique by me for their charity auction) that I want to finish in the next two to three days.  And . . . well, some other things that I might blog about later in the week.

Suffice it to say, I’m ready to be busy again.  I enjoyed the time off last week, but I’m rested now and ready to work.  WordPress doesn’t have those little “Mood” emoticons that some journal sites have for each post, but if it did, my mood for today would definitely be “energized”.

Today’s music:  Mike Mainieri (Wanderlust)

BTW, my entry yesterday about the Aussie elections was picked up by a political ezine/website in Oz as part of their post-election commentary.  Pretty cool!

They Did It; Why Can’t We?

November 25, 2007

On Saturday, the voters of Australia finally voted Prime Minister John Howard out of office.  

Howard, for those of you who don’t know, was the dominant political personality in Australia for the past decade.  He led Australia’s Liberal Party (the equivalent of our Republican Party) and continually outsmarted and outmaneuvered the hapless leaders of the country’s Labour Party.  He was, aside from Tony Blair, George Bush’s most reliable ally in the Iraq War.  He refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, making Australia one of only two Western industrialized nations to opt of the treaty.  He was the bane of Australia’s workers, he cynically coopted Australia’s burgeoning religious right for his own political purposes, using their issues when it suited his needs, and he was willing to do pretty much anything else that was necessary to hold onto and consolidate his political power.

In short, if you want to understand who John Howard is and was, imagine George Bush, but with a bit more native intelligence and no term limits.  I know:  it’s not a pretty picture.

Finally, though, after four terms of John Howard as their leader, the people of Australia said “Enough!”  And they said it emphatically.  The lower house of the Australian parliament, majority control of which determines who leads as Prime Minister, is made up of 150 seats.  On Saturday, Howard’s ruling coalition had a net loss of 22, going from an 82 seat majority to a sixty seat minority.  And best of all, John Howard appears to have lost his local parliament seat, as well.  Not only has he been voted out as Prime Minister, he’s been voted out of the government entirely!  The new Prime Minister-elect, Kevin Rudd, has already vowed to sign Kyoto and improve industrial relations (we’d call it labor relations).  It remains to be seen what he’ll do about Australia’s military presence in Iraq.

After spending a year living in Australia and listening to my progressive friends lament of ever getting rid of John Howard, I find these results incredibly encouraging.  I know that George Bush won’t be on the ballot next November, but the fate of his right-wing agenda will be.  And if the good people Down Under can give such a resounding victory to their progressive political party, maybe, just maybe, we can do the same.

Fingers crossed.

Today’s music:  Roy Hargrove (Diamond in the Rough)

So, About That Story….

November 24, 2007

The one that I finished several days back and put away, and referred to in my post last week.  I’ve read it through, and I made a few changes.  Overall, though, I liked it.  I think.  At least I didn’t hate it.  Now I’m thinking it’s time to send it out.  

This is the part that always trips me up.  Having people read my novels?  No problem.  I have all the confidence in the world in my longer work.  But this is a different form, a different kind of story.  It’s not epic fantasy; there’s no political intrigue; there are no mages, or swords, or castles.  It’s . . . different.  And I find myself in the unfamiliar and uncomfortable position of being scared to let anyone see it.  This, of course, makes it difficult to sell the thing….

Different is good (he tells himself).  This story was fun to write precisely because it was different.  It forced me to stretch, to take chances, to go against those instincts that steer me onto familiar ground.  That’s all great, until it comes time to let someone else read it.  I stretch before I work out, too, but I’m not sure I’d want anyone to watch, and, more to the point, I’m not sure anyone really wants to see that.

A few weeks ago, when I taught at the South Carolina Writer’s Workshop conference, I was very brave on my students’ behalf.  “Polish it up,” I told one, who had written a truly excellent beginning to what I’m certain is a terrific novel.  “And then send it out!  It can’t get published if you don’t send it out.”  Such surety!  Such glib confidence!  Where is that self-assurance now that it’s my work sitting on the desk, printed and ready to go?

Established writers out there:  Am I the only one who does this?  Shouldn’t I be past this by now?  Do any of the rest of you have trouble stepping out of your comfort zone?

Today’s music:  Steps (Smokin’ in the Pit)

Quiet Day

November 23, 2007

One of my kids is watching Miracle on 34th Street (the original, in black and white, of course), because, after all, ’tis the season.  The other one is doing some homework and listening to music.  I’m getting a bit of work done, running a few loads of laundry.  Nancy’s in the lab, getting some research done, but only until midday.  It’s too cold out to do much, and it just feels like a day to be quiet and a bit lazy, to eat leftovers and laugh at the notion of sitting in traffic and wading through crowds of shoppers.  

Black Friday?  No thanks.  I’ll take just plain old Friday instead.  

Thanksgiving was wonderful — and I hope it was for all of you, as well.  We spent the day with friends, eating good food, drinking Nancy’s home-brewed beer, occasionally glancing at one football game or another.  Also a quiet day, in its own way.  Simple pleasures.  We didn’t have to travel far — just a couple of miles to our friends’ house.

I feel that I should have more to say, but I really don’t.  Maybe tomorrow.  Maybe Monday.  But for now, I’m enjoying not doing much of anything.  I don’t have many days like this, so I plan to enjoy it.

Today’s music:  Sphere (Flight Path)  

(Sphere was a short-lived jazz group of the early eighties that reformed again in the late nineties with slightly different personnel.  Straight ahead, traditional jazz — Kenny Barron on piano, Charlie Rouse on sax, Ben Riley on drums, and Buster Williams on bass.  Their name was intended as a tribute to Thelonious Monk, whose middle name was Sphere and with whom Rouse and Riley played for a number of years.  But their music, particularly on this album, was entirely original, and exceptionally good.  You don’t hear much about them anymore — Rouse died in 1988 and was replaced by Gary Bartz on an album released in the late ’90s.  Their early albums are available only as imports.  But “Flight Path” is one of my favorite jazz albums of all time.)

November Revisited

November 21, 2007

So, is it December yet?

A few days ago I was waxing poetic (or at least trying) about November’s arrival.  Today, not so much.  I should have known that it would come to this.  This morning, and into the afternoon, I raked leaves.  More accurately, I used the rake for some parts of the yard and the lawn mower for others.  Whatever.  It sucked.  

It was a lovely morning.  Mild, breezy, clear.  (It’s raining now and it’ll be getting colder tonight as the front moves through.  We’re supposed to have flurries tomorrow.)  But while I was raking it was very nice.  That didn’t really help.  And actually the breeze was the worst part of it.  Because all the while, as I was raking, and carting piles of leaves into the woods, the wind was sending more leaves down onto the lawn.  At times it was like I was in a snowglobe, but with leaves instead of the white stuff.  Actually that part of it was very cool.  So many leaves floating above me.

But at times I was literally shaking my fist at the leaves and shouting at the wind to stop. (Okay, that was mostly for my kids’ benefit — they loved it.)  I’d clear a section of the yard, and as soon as I moved on to the next, the leaves would start raining down on us again.  It was my own private Sisyphusian nightmare.

So I go inside when I’m finally done.  I’m tired, sweaty, my back is sore.  All I want is to eat something and take a nap.  And my wife — my lovely, sweet, kind wife, who isn’t nearly as funny as she thinks she is — looks out the window at the lawn and says, “So, when are you going to rake the yard…?”  Yeah, I know:  she’s exactly as funny as she thinks she is.

Don’t know if I’ll write tomorrow.  If not, I hope all of you have a wonderful Thanksgiving.

Today’s music:  Miles (Kind of Blue)

Books and Bytes

November 20, 2007

Interesting article in the NEW YORKER today (that’s my reading of choice while I’m working out, for those of you who don’t know).  I’m actually making my way through the November 5th issue; my road trip to the South Carolina Writers Workshop and WFC made me fall a bit behind, although in truth, I’m never fully caught up with my NEW YORKERs.

Anyway, the article was called “Future Reading,” and it was written by Anthony Grafton, a history professor at Princeton.  Grafton was basically saying that despite predictions that Google Book Search and other similarly ambitious efforts by tech giants (eg. Microsoft and Amazon) to digitize the entire compendium of world literature, we’re a long way from seeing the Death of the Printed Word.  Instead, because of gaps caused by copyright issues, the West’s lack of knowledge about — or serious interest in — literature from other cultures, and bugs in the current scanning technologies, we are destined to wind up with something far less than the comprehensive universal library suggested by the hype surrounding these projects.  (Grafton makes a point of noting here — and I’ll do the same — that Google, Microsoft, and Amazon never made claims to match the hype.)  Rather, what we’ll end up with is a patchwork of literature with a powerful bias toward material produced in wealthier societies, most of them Western.  This is, of course, a cursory summation of a far more nuanced and interesting article.  I urge anyone interested in writing or reading to check it out.

One image from Grafton’s concluding paragraphs, though, struck me as being particularly and poignantly illustrative of the power of the printed word in its physical form.  The passage in question cited another work by a second historian, Paul Duguid.  To quote Grafton:

Duguid describes watching a fellow-historian systematically sniff two-hundred-and-fifty-year-old letters in an archive.  By detecting the smell of vinegar — which had been sprinkled, in the eighteenth century, on letters from towns struck by cholera, in the hope of disinfecting them — he could trace the history of the disease outbreaks.  (Grafton, Anthony, “Future Reading”, NEW YORKER, November 5, 2007, p. 54)

The point Grafton was making, the point I took away from his piece, was that something is lost in the digitizing of the written word.  Books, magazines, letters, documents of all sorts — they’re more than just collections of words.  They’re artifacts, and as such, their essence cannot be realized in full on a computer screen.  The medium in which the written word is presented, is, in and of itself, something to be studied and appreciated.

As someone who writes and loves books, I found Grafton’s article comforting.  I’m not fool enough to believe that my books will ever be treated as historical documents.  For one thing, though they have been said to stink, they have never smelled like vinegar.  I think those critics who questioned the quality of my work had an earthier scent in mind…. 

But I also believe that, like me, many people who love to read also love to hold their books in their hands.  Every day we spend more and more time in front of our computer screens, or reading text on our blackberries and cell phones.  Reading a book offers an excuse to get away from the technology, to do something that we did pretty much the same way when we were kids, or that our parents and grandparents did when they were kids.  And I’d like to think that if someone does go looking for my books, say fifty or a hundred years from now, that they’ll go to a library rather than to a digital archive.  I like to imagine them finding my book on a shelf somewhere.  Yeah, it’s a bit worn, maybe there’s some dust on it, and it smells musty.  But it’s a book nevertheless.  And they sit down on the library floor, or in a comfortable chair, or outside on the warm grass, and they start to read.  That’s how I want my books to be enjoyed.

Today’s music:  Darol Anger and Mike Marshall (Woodshop)

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