Archive for September, 2012

Blessed is Nothing…

September 21, 2012

As my great-grandmother used to say.  She said it, apparently, while preparing to move.   Somebody else (dunno who, but probably not a relative) said that three moves are the equivalent of one fire in terms of loss of personal property.  Well, I’m not moving, and not planning on having a fire.  But I am (as my brother-in-law puts it) downsizing—trying to get rid of roughly one room’s worth of stuff so I can rent the room out and AVOID having to move.  I am also trying to assure myself that the stuff I give away will find a good home, and not just end up burdening the planet in a landfill.  In the process, I am discovering or maybe slowly formulating a system.

You start by deciding which items you want to sell and which ones you just want to give away.  For giveaways, there are places to donate and then there’s Freecycle, and then there’s your friends and colleagues.  Freecycle is like a no-cash version of craigslist, operating in all major urban areas and lots of smaller places.  Places to donate can be googled, and you can also just ask your friends about their favorite places to donate.
Make a list of the giveaway items, or take digital photos, or both.   Ideally, pair the photos with the items on the list.  Give, or send, the list to your friends and colleagues whom you run into on your daily rounds.  Be clear about whether you are trying to sell this stuff or give it away.   If you donate to a non-profit, it’s worth your while to get receipts for the estimated value (which the non-profit will probably take your word for) so you can deduct it from your taxes later on.
I’ve done a lot of the donating already, but I just discovered that my newly-adopted credit union has a place to donate used eyeglasses, so I’m going to pull those together one of those days.  You will continue to stumble across this kind of thing for a while now.  Just carry a notebook to take the information down, and collect it together every so often.

If you are trying to sell an item, you may want to get some idea what people more experienced than you think it’s worth.  I got suggested prices on our audio and video equipment from the guy whose store sold us most of it. Research in craigslist and eBay may also be helpful.  If you’re listing furniture, you may want to pay a call on the Salvation Army and price similar items there. You will discover (I found this out while working on a case involving destruction of a tenant’s furniture by a landlord’s broken water pipe) that “used furniture” is no longer worthless.  In fact, these days, it can be worth a fair amount. The same goes for used clothing—check it out in various resale shops, maybe both upper- and lower-tier. Ditto used books, although a lot of stores just use the rule of thumb of   ½  of the original price on the cover, which saves a lot of time.  You may want to post lists of items for sale (with or without photos attached, and with or without suggested prices—I’m trying it several different ways, and will gladly report on results as I go along.)

Bear in mind that, if you have kept your stuff long enough, it may have magically transmuted from used furniture (or whatever) into “vintage”, or even antiques.  The Immigration and Customs people classify anything older than fifty years as “antique” for purposes of assessing duties.  At that point, you need to check antique and vintage stores for prices, which should be somewhat higher.

    If you resort to eBay and craigslist, take a look at the ads other people have posted, to get some idea what kind of information people supply and how they price items similar to yours.  In any case, a picture is usually worth at least a few hundred words, and even a snapshot from your phone will probably be useable.

    Speaking of freecycle and craigslist, which operate on a local basis, you obviously don’t want to tell utter strangers, online, your name, address, and how many valuable goodies you have lying around.  Most people provide emails for contact, or even have the email hidden by craigslist format.  These days, landline phone numbers can easily be traced to addresses.  Cell phones are probably safer. It helps to arrange to meet prospective buyers in a public place (like the Starbuck’s catty-corner from where I live), and preferably show up there with a large, physically fit-looking guy who can also, if necessary, help in carrying your stuff out to the buyer’s car.  

Ebay, which (unlike craigslist and freecycle) operates nationwide and presumes that most transactions are not face-to-face, has its own systems for protecting your safety, including getting paid from a distance.  Here are some links for dealing with them:
Sometimes the nicest thing about owning something is the opportunity to give it away to somebody who needs it more.  Peace and light to you all.


THE 47% AND THE 99%

September 19, 2012

“Gotcha” politics rules again.  I don’t usually like it.  Searching for and pouncing on gaffes from campaigning politicians is an unattractive pastime. It brings out unattractive characteristics in otherwise reasonable people.  It generates schadenfreude.  (Okay, guys, let us form up our 4-part choir and join in singing, to the tune of the choral movement of Beethoven’s Ninth, the Ode to Schadenfreude:

We indulge in schadenfreude
When the other guy gets screwed,
When the other candidate
Gets caught cavorting in the nude.

Someone else’s team gets faded,
Someone else’s house burns down,
Someone else’s bar gets raided,
Pass the cup of joy around.)

And I really don’t like it when the gaffe has been lying around online since May, and only finds its way into the larger public eye in September.   Not unlike, actually, that dumb anti-Muslim film trailer, which was apparently online for quite a while before September 11 presented the perfect occasion for wild indignation about it.  This reeks of premeditation.

But it’s hard to feel sorry for Mitt Romney for getting caught out saying that 47% of the US population (a) doesn’t pay federal income tax, (b) lives on and feels entitled to government handouts, (c) sees themselves as victims, and (d) will therefore undoubtedly vote for Obama.  How is this horsefeathers? Let me count the ways.  

1. Everybody who takes part in the money economy is paying somebody’s taxes; and almost everybody is paying some taxes in his or her own name.  The push that began in the 1980s to reduce the federal tax burden had the net effect of pushing a lot of that burden down the line to state and local governments, generally less trustworthy and efficient than the feds, and forcing them to raise their taxes, sometimes by more than the federal taxes fell.  

Local governments are now getting really ingenious about raising money and cutting services.  Here in Chicago, it now costs $250 to park illegally in a handicapped parking zone.  And people are getting ticketed for being photographed driving through a red light (that’s an expensive one too.)  

Everybody who works for a living is paying payroll taxes, which cover Social Security and Medicare.  A lot of working people who do pay income tax pay more in payroll taxes.  

Most people pay sales taxes.  Poor people pay a larger proportion of their income in sales taxes than rich people, because they have to spend pretty much all the income they take in.  

All homeowners pay real estate tax, and all renters pay their landlord’s real estate tax, though they don’t get credit for it.  

A lot of people get taxed on their utility and phone bills.  You get the idea.  Most of the people who aren’t paying federal income tax are paying a whole lot of other taxes.

2. The people who aren’t paying federal income tax are mostly exempted for some really good reasons.  Like being in the military in a combat zone.  Or just not having enough taxable income to be taxed on.  The personal exemption and standard deduction now shelter $31,000 from federal tax for a family of four.  That’s maybe 50% higher than the federal poverty level.  But the payroll tax is likely to eat up 15% of that, plus maybe another 10% for state and local taxes.  Which brings that family right back to the poverty line.  Seniors and people with disabilities who are living on Social Security are mostly exempt from federal income taxation, but if they work at all, they are paying payroll taxes, and as you will note from the previous heading, everybody pays sales taxes and most people pay real estate taxes.

3. Which brings us to Romney’s statement equating everybody who doesn’t pay federal income tax with recipients of federal handouts.  Well, yes, if you count military combat pay as a federal handout…  And seniors and people with disabilities…most people do not view Social Security retirement and disability benefits as “handouts.”  If Romney does, he’s likely to have problems with one of the biggest and most serious voting blocs in the country.  Ooops.

4. So we’ve got two groups of people, who may or may not overlap—people who don’t’ pay federal income tax, and people who get government handouts.  Do people in either of these categories “feel like victims” or “feel entitled to housing, medical care, and food”?  I know of no data on these questions.  I’m guessing Romney doesn’t either.  

5. But if they did, would that be so unreasonable?  To the extent that many of the people in these categories are trying to support their families on minimum wage or close to it, they have every right to feel like victims.  If the minimum wage had kept pace with the cost of living since 1970, it would now be $25.00/hour.  It’s not.  Isn’t that victimization?  (Romney, no doubt, would say that we should be providing minimum-wage workers with better jobs.  He doesn’t seem to have any detailed plan for doing it, and if he did, we would still have minimum-wage worker—just different ones, but, if Romney had his way, still earning the same wage.)

6. And, oh dear me, imagine the nerve of these people, many of them working full-time, or having worked most of their lives until they became too old or too infirm, and now feeling entitled to housing, food, and medical care!  Next thing you know, they’ll be claiming an unalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  

7. And saying that 47% of the population won’t vote for him because they’re lazy penniless deadbeats sounds a whole lot like making excuses for the inevitable—as Mayor Daley the Elder used to say, he’s going to lose the election because he won’t get enough votes.  You don’t excuse that by saying the people who won’t vote for you are all deadbeats.  

8. And finally, what overlap is there, if any, between the 47% who won’t vote for Romney and the 99% who have to split up 60% of the nation’s wealth among them, while the other 1% control 40% of that wealth?  Well, 4 out of 5 of the households among the 47% have less than $30,000 per year income.  And then, of course, there are the 7,000 millionaires who paid no federal income tax last year.  I bet they feel entitled.

So okay, I don’t exactly feel sorry for Romney, I just wish Mother Jones had spread his gaffe on the record a few months earlier.  Waiting until this close to the election smells a bit like premeditation.  

Red Emma

Good Copt, Bad Copt?

September 15, 2012

Okay, so I was wrong about the people who made the anti-Muslim film that caused all the trouble. They weren’t Jewish, they were Copts. Apparently their purpose was to frame the Jews for insulting the Muslims in order to arouse the Christian Evangelicals against the US government. Sorry, I don’t mean to insult the Copts in general, who are probably very nice people, aside from this particular guy and his buddies, whose motivation I cannot begin to fathom.

Anyway, illustrating the old law that all consequences are unintended, the person who came out of this mess looking least commendable was, of all people, Mitt Romney, who had made the mistake of attacking Obama for apologizing to the mob that had killed US ambassador Chris Stevens. Turns out that the speech Romney was condemning had been issued the night before Stevens was killed, and had to do with events in Egypt rather than Libya. So the Carter Moment I had been nervously anticipating never happened.

Obama apparently lost a few points worth of foreign policy trustworthiness in the polls, but not enough to worry about. The election remains neck-and-neck, with Obama handicapped by being a Democrat and Romney handicapped by being wrongfooted.
Every now and then life holds pleasant surprises even for pessimists.

So let’s get back to the rest of the world. Chicago is still in the middle of a public school teachers’ strike. The head of the teachers’ union is a member of my congregation, and she looked just fine this morning, after having told the newsies last night that a settlement was in the offing. All the public school parents I know are getting to the end of their patience, so it better be.

The High Holidays are just around the corner. Because of various screwups on my computer, I have not had time to post my annual message, so here it is, guys: I forgive any of you who may have offended me this past year, and ask forgiveness of any of you that I have offended. Forgiveness is a gift to us from the Holy One. It keeps us from being trapped in the past. Anybody who doesn’t make use of it is missing out on a very good thing. Which is, actually, what seemed just about to happen in Libya last week. We have dodged a bullet. Peace and light.


And a Happy 9/11 to You All

September 12, 2012

Scenario: an Israeli expat produces an anti-Islam film, funded by a bunch of less-than-thoughtful Jewish donors. It plays once in the US, to a mostly-empty house. Then the trailer for the film somehow finds its way onto YouTube, complete with a translation into Egyptian Arabic. Muslims all over North Africa and the Middle East take offense. They storm the US embassy in Cairo, take down the stars and stripes, and raise a black Islamic flag in its place. And the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya is attacked and burned to the ground, and the US ambassador to Libya and three members of his staff are killed while escaping the fire.

And all of this apparently takes place (except the production and first showing of the film, I guess) on September 11, Middle Eastern time.

Background: during the previous week or so, political commentators in the US have been saying that Obama is the first Democrat in decades to be perceived by the public as more trustworthy on national security than the Republicans.

The Paranoid’s Index (fill in whatever numbers you like):

___________ The number of degrees of separation between whoever put the film on YouTube and the Republican National Committee.

___________ The number of degrees of separation between the late unlamented Moammar Khaddafy’s friends and family and the guys who stormed the US consulate in Benghazi

___________ The number of nukes Obama will have to drop on Libya to avoid a Carter Moment.

___________ The odds of his doing it.

___________ The number of anti-US rioters the Libyan government will have to arrest, try, convict, and hang to prevent the nuking of Libya

___________ The number of hours within which they will have to do it

___________ The number of days before the GOP proposes a constitutional amendment moving the national election to September

___________ The number of hours before the Iranians claim the whole thing is part of the international Zionist conspiracy

___________ The number of hours before an International Zionist Conspiracy website appears on the Net

I don’t even know if You Heard It Here First.