Thursday, March 24, 2011

St. Patrick's Day

Yeah, I know I’m a little late with this, but am I the only one who is annoyed when March 17 rolls around? I was grateful to learn I’m not alone when my girlfriend asked jokingly, in so many words, how the Irish get off thinking they deserve their own day of celebration. Sure, there’s Oktoberfest, but that isn’t an actual “day,” and it isn’t as widely recognized. I myself am an American Mutt, if you will, and there isn’t a day to celebrate my heritage.

I do think that our collective attitudes are changing. St. Patrick’s Day may still be about green beer, shamrocks, and leprechauns, but other holidays are undergoing a metamorphosis. Increasingly, Columbus Day is being celebrated as Native American Day, or Indigenous Peoples Day, to rightfully recognize those who came before all of us European settlers. Hm-m-m, maybe we can make St. Patrick’s Day a national holiday celebrating serpents. Saint Patrick supposedly drove all the snakes out of Ireland, so it seems only fair that we pay the reptiles a little respect.

Down here in the border states, we are also adopting certain Mexican holidays such as the Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos). It is a good way to improve relations between the two nations, as well as a learning experience for us gringos. It is also a great way to foster creativity. Have you seen some of the costumes in those parades?

I don’t know. I still think that if there should be a holiday for any one particular population, it should be for those descendants of the families that came over here on the Mayflower. What a coincidence, I am one of those people! You get my point. We all want to be celebrated, to belong to an exclusive club worthy of honor and respect. We want to be special. You know what? We all are. We are also just ordinary folks who need to get over ourselves.

Monday, March 21, 2011

E-mail Scam Alert

URGENT: I would rather not devote a blog entry to what I would consider a “Public Service Announcement,” but I have encountered one internet scam twice now that is truly insidious. I do not wish my friends and readers (one and the same I imagine) to become victims of this, so I will outline the nature of the beast in this post.

You may at some point receive an e-mail from a friend’s e-mail address claiming that the person is in London or elsewhere and in need of money. The truly diabolical part of this is that the message is often from someone who you haven’t heard from in months anyway, and are therefore legitimately concerned about. It is truly uncanny how these scam-artists are able to do this.

What has happened is that the e-mail address of your friend, along with their address book, has been hijacked by hackers to serve their nefarious purposes of bilking you out of your cash. This hacking maneuver is called “phishing” (no relation to the band), and the scam is known as an “advance fee fraud.” This scam re-occurs with just enough regularity that you might forget about it.

So, if a friend writes you asking you for monetary help, make sure you contact them by phone or via an alternate e-mail to verify that it really *is* them! I suspect that internet-based e-mail services like Yahoo are at least slightly more vulnerable to this kind of thing. Heaven forbid you should ever get one of these from my Yahoo address….

Should you want to go the extra mile and report one of these in hopes the perpetrators can be apprehended, you might start by visiting this site on consumer fraud reporting.

Thursday, March 17, 2011


My tax appointment with H & R Block is looming, and so I can’t help but be reminded of all that I find abhorrent in our tax code. I have to piece together my income as it is, and then I have to face the fact that the government simply doesn’t give a damn about how responsible I am with my earnings. Apparently I don’t deserve many tax breaks because I earn too much for the Earned Income Credit and too little for tax-deferred benefits.

”Life isn’t fair” you say. Fine, but I consider it my civic duty, in fact the very reason for my existence, to make sure that I do my best to make it more fair, more just, more equal. Please allow me to offer modest suggestions for revising basic tax code.

  • We like to extol the virtue that “charity begins at home,” but you’d be hard-pressed to find that reflected in our tax laws. Apparently my definition of “dependent” is not the same as that of those who wrote that part of the code. I contribute to the welfare of my mother, even though she is not technically my dependent. What I give her helps keep the electricity on and the telephone connected (plus, I call her every Sunday on my own dime). Why don’t I get a break for the money I contribute to her physical welfare? People should be allowed to deduct financial contributions to family members provided they can prove that those dollars were applied to necessities like rent, utilities, medical bills and the like. The relative you help should not have to live under the same roof as you.
  • Interest income should not be taxed for annual accumulated interest under $2,000. Don’t even get me started on how the Federal Reserve Chairman has essentially rendered savings accounts and certificates of deposit virtually worthless since lowering the interest rate to near zero. When the Internal Revenue Service then applies taxation to that interest, it really is just about zero. Meanwhile, we are encouraged to borrow more, increasing our personal debt. I am sick and tired of being punished for being fiscally responsible.
  • Crank up luxury taxes, and institute some new ones. I would be all for taxes on junk foods, soda pop, pornography, and other items that arguably do not contribute to our collective welfare (or actively compromise our health and social well-being). Cities should consider instituting a “parking tax” to encourage ridership on public transit and curb the need for more parking structures. Taxes can be a major influence on human behavior, and we should take advantage of that fact in a more creative fashion.
  • Taxes on “immoral” and self-destructive indulgences should be balanced with tax breaks for constructive purchases such as bicycles, memberships in health clubs, enrollment in cooking classes and other non-credit educational courses.

The largest problem, from my viewpoint, is still the legal evasion of taxation by corporations and irresponsibly wealthy individuals. I often irritate some of my more affluent friends with the latter assertion, but I truly believe that those who work hard and elevate themselves to financial success are in the minority these days. The individuals I am talking about are “trust fund babies” and others who are living chiefly on inherited wealth, and arguably doing little to contribute to the welfare of society as a whole. Unfortunately, they wield tremendous power in all the “right” places, to insure that they will continue to prosper at the highest financial pinnacles.

One man’s (or woman’s) rant is unlikely to do anything but evoke sympathy or ire, so how do we take matters into our own hands? How do we engage constructively to effect change? Even collective movements seem to quickly get labeled and become ineffective. The “Tea Party” will be dying shortly, I assure you.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Tucson Festival of Books

This past weekend, March 12-13, 2011, I had the pleasure of participating in the third annual Tucson Festival of Books, “Where Words & Imagination Come to Life.” Held on the campus of the University of Arizona, it drew an estimated 100,000 people over the two days.

On Saturday afternoon I was part of a three-person panel, moderated by Justin Schmidt, discussing “Southwest Dangers: Things That Sting, Bite, Poison…and Kill.” Also on the panel was Amy Stewart, author of Wicked Plants, and the soon-to-be-released Wicked Bugs. Scott Calhoun, another resident Tucsonan and garden writer, rounded out our trio.

I was all prepared to hate Amy Stewart for treading on “my” turf with her Wicked Bugs book, but she is actually humble, friendly, and impossible to dislike. No pretense whatsoever, and that also applies to Scott. Once we were finished with the panel discussion and booksigning that followed, we got a head start on the author’s reception at a local bar. Later, we had dinner with Simmons Buntin, founder and editor of the online journal Terrain. I could not have asked for a better day, or better colleagues and companions.

I am not at all sure who decided I belong is this esteemed company, but the organizer of the panel, Jenn Berry of the Pima County Library, was very appreciative of all of us. I know I sure enjoyed the experience, and hope to do more of this kind of thing in the future. I do think I need at least one more book under my belt, though….

Being an audience member is good fun, too! These book festivals offer workshops on writing and publishing, discussions of current events, regional issues, sports, politics, religion, you name it. There was even a cooking demonstration tent at the Tucson Festival of Books, plus lots of exhibit booths by local authors, agencies, and media. C-SPAN brought their bus and broadcast much of the event. Then there is the food!

I highly recommend attending the book festival nearest you, or starting one in your own city.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Serial Unemployment

If my own recent experience is any indication, then our American economy is going to be in bad shape for a long time to come as far as jobs are concerned. I do believe I am a typical wage-earner, with “some college” and general skills. What has happened since April, 2009, when the division of the corporation I was working for was sold and downsized, is that I have held a series of short-term jobs. I don’t see this trend ending any time soon, either. What we are seeing is “serial unemployment,” whereby people are working, becoming unemployed, then repeating the cycle.

Obviously, this scenario works to no one’s advantage. Employers might as well install turnstiles at the door to the HR department. Workers usually do not enjoy health care coverage and other benefits, including holiday pay, when they are working on short-term assignments. Lack of continuity in employees leaves long-term employees constantly adjusting to the work styles of new personnel. Lack of long-term continuity in one’s employment history makes prospective employers for permanent jobs question the applicant’s commitment to a given employer.

I have, in the past, worked as a temporary employee, and that is, of course, the ultimate in serial employment and unemployment. It gets old very quickly, and anyone who is the least bit observant of their temp assignments learns just how screwed up work ethics have become. The less work I did, the more I earned. The harder, longer, tougher assignments rarely compensated well. What was even more frightening was the kind of assignments we received. Would you want a “temp” working on your bank accounts? I did that. Banks seem to use temps more than other businesses, in fact. I also worked at evaluating home loan applications, ensuring government compliance.

Back to the main point I’m making: We can’t support lots of out-of-work people over the long haul. We need to be creating permanent jobs, and a diversity of jobs in a variety of industries, not just service industries. We need to invest in creative industries, too, such as the arts, writing, publishing….and yes, I know I’m being self-serving in focusing on industries where I actually have something to offer.

Why not go back to school and….a) get a degree b) get another degree or c) enhance and improve your “skill set?” That is all well and good as a suggestion, but you are asking a person to do something else when you ask them to enroll: go into debt. The absolute last thing anybody needs to be doing right now is to accrue more debt. That is largely what got us into economic trouble to begin with.

The Federal Reserve Chairman needs to start increasing interest rates. We need to reward savers instead of just paying lip service to the ethic of saving. We need to discourage lending through higher rates so that there is less default (poorer borrowers thinking twice before accepting terms on a loan they might not be able to repay).

Oh, did I mention that at my current position, working part-time, I actually still qualify for unemployment benefits while I’m working? How ridiculous is that? Now, if you will excuse me, I have to go back to the phone, where I’ve been waiting on hold for about twenty minutes for an unemployment claims agent to explain to me why the internet site is not accepting my attempts to file for this week….