June 28, 2006

The Right to Pay More

I'm going to de-lurk (from my own blog!) long enough to vent about a political issue: a very bloggish thing to do, no? Gas prices are going to be regulated in Nova Scotia, starting July 1. The Minister (that's the department head for you Usanians) of Service Nova Scotia says

"Regulating gas prices will protect consumers from the volatile ups and downs of the gas market and independent retailers will have a better chance to make a fair profit."

I think it's rich that this is being spun as consumer protection. Strangely, nobody is denying that this will result in higher prices overall. What consumer in her right mind wants to pay more? The windfall of this scheme is supposed to benefit independent retailers: read "rural gas station owners". Of course, they love this idea. Their spokesperson says it will be a lot more sane (his word) now that "the operators will know exactly what profit they can earn." I've got news for you, buddy: there was already a way to know exactly what profit you can earn. It's called the market. Sometimes the market is insane, but that's life.

The boosters of this policy are saying "Oh, but it works in Prince Edward Island!", but they aren't thinking clearly. Yes, it does seem to work in PEI. That's because PEI is -- all together now -- an island, and it costs at least $40.50 to get your car to the mainland. Talk about your barriers to entry! Nobody is going to drive to New Brunswick for cheaper gas with that kind of disincentive. So gas stations could charge whatever they felt like charging and people would have to pay it. Island economies are the chink in my libertarian armor; I could see why regulation is preferable in that case.

But in this case, I predict regulation is going to bite the independent retailers in the ass. Before, they could raise their price to whatever people needed to pay to get between Antigonish and Guysborough, let's say. If they were the only gas station in town, they could raise their price to whatever the local market would bear: sort of a mini-PEI. But now their price will be mathematically determined using a regional system that divides up the cost of gas among manufacturers, wholesalers, retailers, and transporters, based on nothing more than what lawmakers needed the total to be (minus their cut, natch). Are Antigonish and Guysborough in the same region? If not, then gas prices will be different. I can promise you right now that I won't be stopping in Region 2 on my trip to Region 4 if Region 3 has a lower legislated price. They're gonna be sorry they tried this.

Posted by The Greatness at 09:18 AM | Comments (2)

February 03, 2006

The Byzantine World of Taxes

I'd like to share a tale of two countries, and two people caught between them. It's a tale of unintended hilarity, experienced through the vale of tears, concerning taxes.

As many of you know, I got married this past year, tax year 2005. In Canada, since everyone who makes money files for themselves, all this means is that The Sweetness and I have to report each other's income from line 236 on the front page. No big deal. But I am an American, and because I made above the filing minimum in worldwide income, I must file in the US as well. As far as tax problems go, it's of only intermediate difficulty: figure out how much money you made in US dollars, write that amount on line 7, Form 1040, and fill out Form 2555 (I even get to use the -EZ version) so you can write that amount in parenthesis on line 21. Tax owed is 0, tax paid is 0. See you next year.

But this year I had a change in marital status, so I have to file as married rather than single. Mind you, while this difference is monumental in my day-to-day life, its effect on my tax bottom line is nil -- literally. I thumb through the Form 1040 instructions for guidance. Jen is not a US citizen or resident and has no US source income, so she doesn't have to file; she is a "nonresident alien". Nonresident aliens cannot file jointly with US citizens or residents, and I'm still married, so I guess it has to be "married filing separately". So I check box 3. But box 3 has an ominous instruction: "Enter spouse's SSN above and full name here".

Writing her full name takes all the space given, but there's a bigger problem. How does my Canadian wife get a Social Security number? Well, she doesn't. An SSN is a privilege reserved for those who are allowed to work in the US. Hmm, can I just leave it blank? Scouring Usenet shows that, back in 1994, you could just write "NRA" in the "Spouse's social security number" space. Checking the instructions again, my countenance falls:

Nonresident Alien Spouse
If your spouse is a nonresident alien and you file a joint or separate return, your spouse must have either an SSN or an ITIN.

The peculiar "joint or separate" clause notwithstanding, obviously she has to have some kind of number for me to fill in. SSN is out. What the hell is an ITIN? It's an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number. The IRS issues you such a nine-digit number for when somebody needs such a number but they can't get an SSN. (Isn't that convenient!) My wife must file Form W-7 to get one. Along the way she has to attach a tax return. But she doesn't have to file! Okay, I give up. Calling the international division IRS hotline (not toll-free) immediately connects me to a friendly and encyclopedic IRS specialist. Turns out she has to fill out the form, and then we attach my tax return, since it's the one that needs the number. I send it to a special address that's not in the tax booklet. They'll write a number on the line I left blank, forward my now-complete return to Philadelphia, and send her a helpful letter containing her ITIN so we don't have to do all this in tax year 2006.

At last, my journey is complete. But is it? She also has to attach identification, either a passport or a driver's license and voter registration card, etc. Originals will be returned. What if I don't want to send an original? (How would she drive if we sent her license to Pennsylvania?) Well, in that case we can get a certified or notarized copy of the document. But if it's going to be notarized, it must be so authenticated by a US notary public, or... my specialist muses as to whether Canada is party to the Hague Convention on Abolishing the Requirement of Legalisation for Foreign Public Documents. He thinks not. Do I have a US consulate nearby? Thankfully, I do. Well, then, that covers it. But I'll probably have to make an appointment, and come with her as the business concerns the taxes of a US citizen, and bring $50 cash. US dollars, naturally.

So, The Sweetness and I must make an appointment at the consulate, get US$50 at the bank, take a half-day off work, make the copies, have them notarized, fill out form W-7, and attach my return, so a nine-digit number can be added to my return and I can legally claim her exemption. Which I didn't need, because, as I've pointed out, I owe nothing.

Are you laughing yet? Crying? Raging at the dying of the light?

Posted by The Greatness at 10:42 AM | Comments (1)

January 24, 2006

The strangest story of the Canadian election

In a Canadian election pivotal enough to get top billing on CNN's web site, no doubt there are many implausible results to pore over. But for my money, the most bizarre turn of events has to be the elevation of André Arthur from out-of-work radio host to Member of Parliament.

Mr. Arthur, a self-described libertarian, nevertheless somehow managed to get elected to federal office. In Canada. Specifically, in the Quebec riding of Portneuf-Jacques-Cartier. That a "politician" who spent $1.88 (like, $1.30 US) on posters and gives his speeches in French should be the first federally elected libertarian in North America (with apologies to Ron Paul) simply doesn't pass the reality test... but there it sits, to my persistent amazement. Shouldn't Neil Boortz be ashamed?

Posted by The Greatness at 01:07 PM | Comments (0)

November 16, 2005

Do you really want a democracy?

Various current events centering around the law have gotten me thinking about issues of governance. The subject is rumbling around in my head, reverberating into a constellation of tangential arguments, but for my readers' sakes I'll resist (for once!) the urge to write a magnum opus and keep it compact. As always, I welcome your comments.

We pay lip service to democracy. The notion of pure, "one person, one vote" democracy has been damned with faint praise by every generation since its conception in ancient Greece. While we desire to be governed only with our consent, we fear everyone else's incompetent, parochial, or otherwise bestial natures will nullify that consent. This fear of the masses screwing everything up was one of Plato's major beefs with Athenian democracy -- and their version excluded 75-85% of the population. Apparently among that 15-25% there were still enough reprobates to foul the deal! Something else was needed in order to "counter majoritarian tendencies", which is high-flown language for our desire to keep part of ourselves immune from the whim of the rabble. Plato's addition, though restated and modified in several ways, still is with us: a ruling philosopher class.

Modern democracies worldwide have incorporated philosopher classes in the form of the judiciary. Judges have a politically benign interpretive role (in the West, based on historic common-law or civil code a la Napoleon), where they serve as umpires in the game of big-law-trumps-little-law. But when something happens that falls through the gaps of the written law, they are empowered to render a judgment based on what they consider prudent. In America and Canada (except Quebec, naturalment), this jurisprudence has a historical basis in the chancery court, which was supposed to deliver judgments based on the principle of equity; in other words, what is fair. While this power of the judiciary can be defended practically (we can't possibly think of every law we might need) and ethically (some things i.e. rights should be beyond majority rule), it nevertheless is both politically powerful and subject to misuse: whose "fair" are we using?

In this continuing he-said-she-said debate over "judicial activism", we never talk about how we ceded our sovereignty to an appointed few. Instead we tend to praise court decisions that match our pet philosophies while vilifying those that don't as irresponsible. This shouldn't be surprising. After all, in politics, everybody wants their hands on the big levers of government, and who wouldn't want to be able to shut their opponent up by making his position illegal to implement? The laws I want rest on ideas and beliefs I hold dear, which (I think it's safe to say) do not necessarily comport with the majority. I am not naive enough to believe I'm right about all of them, but a suitably examined subset I really do believe are The Right Thing and should be the law. Some of them I feel are such major injustices that they ethically should not be subject to democracy. Don't we all?

But for the sake of democracy, we must resist this urge and retake our authority. If we truly believe that a government by the people is the most ethical, then we need to back it up by allowing the legislature to decide these things. Nearly all of us agree murder simpliciter is wrong. Do you think it's murder to kill the unborn? To kill death row inmates? To kill Iraqis? Stand up and be counted, and let's have our laws reflect that. If enough of us think a certain right, say abortion, needs protection from our own fickleness beyond what the Constitution currently states, let's amend it rather than engaging in clever eisegesis in the Supreme Court. If enough of us think the Second Amendment is an anacronism, let's do away with it. Wanna have a do-over? There's a way.

But if you cringe when the Gallup polls come out, well, I guess you know the answer to my question.

Posted by The Greatness at 12:45 PM | Comments (5)

January 18, 2005

Why I am Not an Angry Libertarian

Another reprint. If you didn't see it the first time, well, a certain NBC jingle comes to mind...

When I was an elementary-school child, keeping myself company during recess while the other kids played, I formulated three specific propositions concerning my peers:

  1. They didn't like me.
  2. They did like each other.
  3. They were all really dumb and unworthy of my time.

(Sadly, proposition 1 was probably true at that age but has since been proven false, at least as strongly stated. Proposition 2 is generally true if you believe in humanity. And proposition 3 is demonstrably false, but some days I can't help but wonder...)

Naturally, my parents were a little concerned about my antisocial behavior and sought to involve me in all sorts of group activities. Because I love them -- and because the courts do not typically emancipate ten-year-olds -- I went along with it, but I still didn't like talking to children my own age. I felt like some kind of alien until I got to middle school, where I met some people who were like me. Suddenly I wasn't alone anymore; I was part of a band of "differently socialized" brothers (and one sister) that formed my core group of friends through high school and beyond. In college I found lots of people like me, and I continue to be surrounded by such people in my workplace. I was glad for it, of course, but I puzzled as to the reason. Why didn't I feel understood until I got to college?

Prof. David Keirsey's highly-recommended books Please Understand Me answered my question, and the knowledge proved to be a revelation. His study of personality types and their fundamental interactions put a much-needed theoretical framework into my thinking about other people. More than that, it explained why I needed a theoretical framework, while others didn't. I'll share my general notion of temperament theory in way-too-short order at this time (or you can take the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test, learn a lot more, and then skip to my political conceit):

  1. People have different personalities, perhaps even from birth.
  2. They cannot not be those personalities, for to act against one's own nature is harmful.
  3. The personalities can be divided into major branches called temperaments:

    • Guardians (denoted SJ; 40% of population)
    • Artisans (SP; 40%)
    • Idealists (NF; 15%)
    • Rationals (NT; 5%)

  4. Each of these temperaments can be subdivided into role variants based on extrovert/introvert preference (E/I; 75%/25%) and what I prefer to think of as organized/disorganized preference (J/P; 50%/50%), for a total of sixteen personality types (not important to this discussion, but you can always count on The Greatness to be unnecessarily thorough).

I am an INTJ (1%). So is Keirsey, I've heard. So it makes sense that I like the way his book explains things. Other people might not be so enthusiastic. Even other NTs, for that matter: those who have accepted a slightly different set of core propositions might call this stuff "pseudoscience." (More on that some other time, perhaps.) To them I say, "MBTI has been studied and deemed useful for over half a century, it's internally consistent, it has predictive value, and it's no less falsifiable than anything Stephen Jay Gould ever did with dinosaur bones. It may be soft science, but it's still science." To everybody else, well... all the SPs have likely stopped reading by now, if they ever started. The SJs saw the title and are waiting for me to start bashing Libertarians (and maybe Republicans). And a lot of NFs are genuinely interested in this stuff already, having seen it in their psychology classes. The lucky few members of my opposite complement ENFP (3%) don't need to read the book, because they were born with this knowledge and apply it fairly well.

So what does temperament have to do with politics? Consider the libertarian philosophy, which stands for laissez faire capitalism, personal responsibility, and individual freedom. Libertarians truly believe that people will cooperate if they live under a government based on reason. It's not so much that they believe in the goodness of people in any ethical sense, but they do believe in the competence of people to make their own life decisions. Of course, the government in America (or Canada, or any other country for that matter) doesn't look like anything Ayn Rand ever suggested: it's corrupt, inefficient, and often ridiculous. Partisan Libertarians hate this insanity and will argue to anyone who will listen that things will work better if we have privatized roads, schools, and post offices. And I agree with them, with one significant caveat. I, for one, would enjoy living in John Galt's utopia. But I'm an NT. So are most libertarians.

The Libertarian Party has a minor role in American politics, due in part to the unfair laws enacted by the two major parties to keep them, and other third parties, out of the political process. But mostly it's because there aren't that many of us. To the other 95%, libertarianism sounds like that "They Saved Lisa's Brain" episode of the Simpsons, where the local Mensa society takes over the town government and passes laws that everybody else didn't like. I still think the LP should fight for change, but appealing to reason won't win elections in a democracy. Fortunately, I'm not the only one who thinks so; check out Dagny Sharon's tactic brief (ya think her parents were Objectivists?). Here are my own thoughts on how we might win some more votes for libertarian policies using the resolving power of temperament:

As much as we rationals think it's stupid, we may always have an "imperfect" government, and we need to be okay with that. We must accept the notion that a large majority of our citizenry, endowed with the same natural rights as us, is not interested in self-reliance and will continue to vote for paternalism, knee-jerk solutions to complex problems, and maudlin wars on social ills -- unless we convince them otherwise, in their own words. No other victory is logically possible.

Posted by The Greatness at 03:45 AM | Comments (1)