Buffet on taxes

Just in case you missed Warren Buffet’s NYT Op-Ed on taxes this week, it’s awesome (even my wife, who skips the political posts, i.e., most of this blog) should read it.  My favorite part is the attack on the fallacious logic used against higher capital gains rates (the secret to Buffet and the rest of the super-rich paying a lower percentage of their incomes than ordinary people):

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, tax rates for the rich were far higher, and my percentage rate was in the middle of the pack. According to a theory I sometimes hear, I should have thrown a fit and refused to invest because of the elevated tax rates on capital gains and dividends.

I didn’t refuse, nor did others. I have worked with investors for 60 years and I have yet to see anyone — not even when capital gains rates were 39.9 percent in 1976-77 — shy away from a sensible investment because of the tax rate on the potential gain. People invest to make money, and potential taxes have never scared them off. And to those who argue that higher rates hurt job creation, I would note that a net of nearly 40 million jobs were added between 1980 and 2000. You know what’s happened since then: lower tax rates and far lower job creation.

Exactly.  Obviously, we don’t want these rates too be too onerous, but we are talking taxes on capital gains.  I.e., if you weren’t making a profit on an investment, you’re not going to be taxed on it.  Therefore, you’ve still got plenty of incentive to go out and get yourself a gain.  Anyway, the whole Op-Ed is really good.



It’s called fiction 

I’ve got to say, I’ve always been really bothered by all the criticism of The Help (which I’ve not read, but Kim and others I know have loved it) basically because it is about Black people and written by a white person.  Righting in Salon, Mary Elizabeth Williams gets at what is so wrong with this line of criticism:

As a reader or viewer, you might not like “The Help.” It is a formulaic Hollywood feel-bad and then feel-good work, one in which beautifully bathed-in-sunlight characters say Very Important Things while music swells. But there’s a difference between being critical of the work and being squeamish about someone’s right to create it. It’s clear that the main problem a lot of people have with “The Help” is that the story was written by a white lady. And that’s a really bad road of reasoning to go down, people.

The job of fiction is to inhabit someone else. Argue, if you will, that Stockett didn’t do a credible job — but don’t bother taking offense that she ambitiously took on the challenge in the first place. Don’t assume that only the Toni Morrisons or Alice Walkers or Sapphires of the world have permission to write in the voice of African-American women. Or, for that matter, that members of any group should only write about their own.

Flaubert once famously said, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.” Who’s to say that a man can’t write of the tragic frustrations of a housewife? That a Russian can’t channel a Continental pederast? A Japanese man can’t write about postwar English servants? Or a white woman can’t write about African-American maids? That’s fiction in a nutshell for you. Otherwise, it’s called memoir.


She’s a Man, baby

Not to ruing the Crying Game (now available via streaming on Netflix– another tidbit from Roger Ebert) for you, but damnit, you have had 19 years to see by now.   More notably, the latest research suggests that knowing the surprise twist does not actually diminish our enjoyment of movies, books, etc., that take advantage of this.  I love being surprised, but hey, the science says I’m wrong.   Jonah Lehrer:

The experiment itself was simple: Nicholas Christenfeld and Jonathan Leavitt of UC San Diego gave several dozen undergraduates 12 different short stories. The stories came in three different flavors: ironic twist stories (such as Chekhov’s “The Bet”), straight up mysteries (“A Chess Problem” by Agatha Christie) and so-called “literary stories” by writers like Updike and Carver. Some subjects read the story as is, without a spoiler. Some read the story with a spoiler carefully embedded in the actual text, as if Chekhov himself had given away the end. And some read the story with a spoiler disclaimer in the preface.

Here are the results:

I will note, though, that these are means.  Surely, for some people– though the data suggest a minority– there really is more pleasure in actually being surprised.  Also, I totally disagree with Jonah Lehrer’s third intuition on the matter:

3.) Surprises are much more fun to plan than experience. The human mind is a prediction machine, which means that it registers most surprises as a cognitive failure, a mental mistake. Our first reaction is almost never “How cool! I never saw that coming!” Instead, we feel embarrassed by our gullibility, the dismay of a prediction error. While authors and screenwriters might enjoy composing those clever twists, they should know that the audience will enjoy it far less.

First, these differences are statistically significant, but I wouldn’t call it “far less” enjoyment.  And I almost never feel gullible or stupid.  If done well (i.e., Crying Game, Sixth Sense), I’m impressed at the craft in the storytelling.  Actually Lehrer’s first point got me thinking, too:

After all, mass culture consisted for thousands of years of stories that were incredibly predictable, from the Greek tragedy to the Shakespearean wedding to the Hollywood happy ending. (Did this hankering for shocking endings begin with The Usual Suspects? It’s not like Twitter could ruin the end of a John Wayne movie.) What this research suggests is that the lack of surprise was part of the pleasure: We like it best when the suspense is contained by the formulaic, when we never have to really worry about the death of the protagonist or the lovers in a romantic comedy. I’d argue that, in many instances, the very fact that we’re seeing a particular type of movie (or reading a particular type of book) is itself a giveaway, a reminder that we know how it will all turn out. Every genre is a kind of spoiler.

I’m thinking maybe I really am different from the average person.  One of the reasons the Wire was such a great show, was that you could truly believe the creators might kill off any character.  In the real world, sometimes the good guy dies.  I was just watching this week’s Breaking Bad last night and I really would not have been totally surprised if one of the show’s leads had been killed off.  The fact that I was even considering that as a possibility, is one of the things that makes Breaking Bad so much better than ordinary television.

You may be convinced otherwise, but personally, I will still avoid spoilers.  I’ll end the post with one, though.  Not to ruin it for you, but the Apes take over in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. :-).

My non-fascinating, non-predictive thoughts on Rick Perry

You know, I really just have no idea what to expect from Rick Perry in a national campaign.  Sure, I like to think that my political expertise is worth something, but other times, the better part of valor suggests admitting when you really don’t know what to expect.  And I certainly feel chastened after mis-reading Pawlenty’s chances.  I could honestly see Perry consolidating a lead and essentially coasting to victory.  I could just as easily see him flaming out.  On paper, many of his views are honestly too radical for even the Republican party (basically abolish the national government from pretty much everything but national defense– and he doesn’t back down when pressed).  Likewise, on paper, he seems like almost the perfect Republican candidate.  So, who knows.   That, of course, is ultimately what makes politics so damn fun.  In this case, I just look forward to enjoying the ride.  [If you want the skinny on Perry, just read Ezra’s blog from yesterday– it was literally Rick Perry day.]

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