Sunday, December 13, 2009

A Toy Store Story

The missuz and I went shopping for Christmas gifts for our grandchildren yesterday morning. We have a 5-year-old granddaughter and an almost-one-year-old grandson. (We also have an almost-born granddaughter, but she'll have to wait another year.) Since toys and other things to play with seemed to be at the top of the list, we headed for the toy store.

The toy store is the one that used to advertise with a giraffe, and whose middle initial is Yah. When our own kids were of toy-buying age, this was one of our family's favorite stores. As grandma and I were wandering the aisles yesterday, I made several observations.

1. We have barely set foot in the toy store - in any toy store - for about 8 years. Those 8 years represent the gap between when we stopped needing to buy toys for our own children and when we started needing to buy toys for our grandchildren. Seriously: can you imagine not going to a toy store, especially one of the largest toy-store chains in the nation, for eight years?

2. The classics never die. And I happily blame this on the baby boomers. Seriously, there was a time when I wanted desperately to buy Lincoln Logs for my own kids, and I couldn't find them anywhere. There was a "progressive" faction during the 1980s and 1990s, that insisted that all children's toys had to have one or more of the following characteristics:
  • plastic
  • educational
  • electronic
  • covered with stickers, which parents had to apply from a sticker sheet the size of a gas-station road map (and this was scarier than "some assembly required")
  • so utterly safe as to suck all the fun out of them
Thanks to the baby boomers who want their grandchildren to enjoy the same toys they enjoyed as tykes (back when dinosaurs roamed the earth), much of this "progressive" silliness has been rolled back and replaced with common sense. You can now buy a giant barrel of wood Lincoln Logs or Tinkertoys again. And metal Tonka vehicles. And do you remember that Fisher-Price telephone with the four wheels, wobbly eyes, and little yellow leash so the rugrats could pull it around the house and make the eyes wobble as it rolled along? It's still there.

The classic plastic ones are still around, like Easy Bake Ovens, Legos, and Frisbees.

3. Some old classics have been improved or redesigned for the new century. That Fisher-Price telephone is now available with a dial or touch-tone buttons. Some Easy Bake Oven alternatives use the family's microwave oven instead.

4. Not everything needs batteries anymore. For a while, it seemed like every toy in the store came with a limited set of features, all of which required batteries to power blinking lights, sounds, or moving parts. It's gratifying to see the toy world going retro. Not relying on electricity or electronics can free a child's imagination.

5. Some of the new toys are stupendous and will join the classics in the hall of fame. The wooden Brio train sets that came over from Europe ten years ago have been imitated over and over, so they're now affordable to everyone. Most of the imitations are compatible with Brio.

6. The Thomas the Tank Engine franchise and the Disney's Cars franchise are merrily going head-to-head. I wish them luck and hope they both win, because that means the children will win, too.

7. There's still a lot of garbage on the toy store shelves. I can't believe some of the junk that toymakers try to shove off on consumers, nor can I (sometimes) believe that people actually buy this junk. Oh well, the marketing department has never overestimated the gullibility of the American (or Canadian, or ...) consumer.

(Well, there have been a few massive failures, such as Baby Uh-Oh and the Stinkor action figure, but only a few.)

8. Red rubber balls will never go out of style.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

I Like Life, Life Likes Me

Last night some friends treated us to Scrooge: The Musical at a local dinner theatre. I'd never seen the play before. Somehow I missed the 1970 movie upon which the stage play was based.

(Let me insert a plug for the Candlelight Dinner Playhouse here. Candlelight is one of several excellent dinner theatres in northern Colorado. Candlelight is managed by a talented team who have assembled a core of dedicated and talented actors/employees/staff. Their repertoire and their menu are both top-notch. Their food portions may be smaller than I would like, but that's because I'm used to eating at Carino's Italian Grill, just up the road. Their performances are professional in every way, and when a show is over, you want to hang around for a few extra minutes until the last echoes fade away.

Candlelight's version of Scrooge is a Christmas delight. If I were to highlight anybody, I would shortchange the rest of the cast - and crew, and orchestra, and kitchen staff - so I won't do it. Besides, I'm tired of talking in italics and superlatives.

Scrooge is playing through December 27 at the Candlelight Dinner Playhouse. See their website for location and showtimes. Now, back to the blog entry.)

At a certain point in the show, the Ghost of Christmas Present appeared, and after some friendly, albeit one-sided, banter with the still-grouchy title character, the G of C P broke into song:

I like life,
Life likes me
Life and I very fully agree ...

My jaw dropped in amazement, and for an instant I traveled back in time 33 years, to the streets of Alessandria, Italy, where I was listening to someone else sing that song as we walked along. We were young Mormon missionaries, doing the good things that missionaries do, and my companion had an indomitable spirit and a song constantly running through his head. Sometimes the song couldn't stay in his head and it burst out through his lips.

He didn't sing much MoTab; it was usually something from Neil Diamond, the Beach Boys, the Guess Who, or other popular singers/bands. But this little jewel was in the Top Ten of his personal Hit Parade, and I never tired of it, although I didn't know where it had come from. We became close friends, and we have been fortunate to run into each other repeatedly (and live close to each other, a couple of times) in the years since.

So while everyone else in the theatre was enjoying the show, I was savoring memories of good friends and good times in Italy.

Later in the story, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come showed Scrooge his own funeral, with a chorus of (former) debtors dancing on his casket and singing

Thank you very much
Thank you very much
It's the nicest thing you've ever done for me ...

and I was swept back to Italy again. This time it wasn't my companion singing, but the sister missionaries. Once again, I sat there and savored the memories while the rest of the audience only saw singing and dancing.

As usual, I left the theatre gustatorily and emotionally satisfied, but I got a little bonus as well. I woke up this morning smiling and humming I Like Life, and I can't stop. That's why I sat down to write about it, and to tip my hat in the general direction of Jim and Laura.

(Coincidentally, the award-winning Leslie Bricusse wrote those songs, and Jim's middle name is Leslie. Sometimes in life, the jigsaw puzzle pieces just fit.)

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Yet Another Modest Proposal: A Flat Income Tax

The two best books Tom Clancy ever wrote were The Hunt For Red October and Red Storm Rising. Okay, so the latter of the two was a collaborative work between Tom Clancy and Larry Bonds, but Bonds has written some pretty good stuff himself, and so it's no surprise that the collaboration bore good fruit.

Clancy's fiction post-Red October fell more and more into the "potboiler" category: something the author wrote to keep the fire going under the pot in the kitchen so he could keep eating. Even then, some nuggets of value kept appearing in his product line, and as he established a solid reputation as a writer of the techno-thriller, he acquired an amazing - even fantastic, even unbelievable - amount of credibility. Not bad for a fiction writer.

Even so, his novels kept growing. I mean, they got longer. His publisher had to go to thinner paper and smaller fonts (no, I'm not kidding) to keep the books to a manageable size, and reading them became somewhat of a chore, as Clancy's text devolved into Dickensian (or maybe Dumasesque) exposition. However, this penchant for lengthy exposition, combined with his fantastically acquired credibility, allowed his characters to stand in for Clancy - to stand on his soapbox for him and preach his gospel to the world.

Where am I going with all this, you ask? What does all this have to do with a flat income tax? Ah.

In Executive Orders, Clancy begins with the premise that nearly the entire federal government - all three branches - have been demolished in one terrible stroke, leaving an unelected (think Gerald Ford) President in charge of guiding the country safely through a constitutional crisis and rebuilding the federal government. It's Clancy's chance to write an essay beginning with the sentence, "If I could start with a clean slate and rebuild the U.S. government, I would ..." and thus a would-be potboiler becomes a political treatise.

One of the things Clancy advocates for in his book, very strongly, is a "flat tax." The idea isn't new, and it didn't originate with Tom Clancy. It's an idea I've toyed around with for a long, long time. Politicians bring it up once in a while, but they usually get laughed at for their simplistic views or shouted down by all the special interests who benefit from the status quo. In Executive Orders, Tom Clancy gives his character (and therefore himself) a bully pulpit from which to argue for a "flat tax."

There are many other names for it, but a "flat tax" is basically this: figure out how much money you made last year, and send your share of it to the IRS. There are no deductions, no exemptions, no credits, no shelters or dodges. Everybody pays the same share, a fixed percentage of their income, and the percentage is the same for everybody.

Let's say the percentage is 8 percent. Then a day laborer who makes $10 per hour, or about $10,000 per year, pays $800 in taxes, while the ousted president of Hewlett Packard, with a severance package of $28 million, pays $2,240,000.

Every penny of it. No hiding it in other investments, in charitable contributions, or elsewhere.

Having a flat tax will make it easier for the federal government to figure out a budget, because they will know more accurately how much money they will collect in a given year. It will make it easier for the American taxpayer to figure out how much tax they owe, since the work can be done with a handful of 1099s and W-4s and a pocket calculator, in about an hour, without the aid of accountants, tax lawyers or investment advisers. It will make it easier for taxpayers to be honest, as it will simply be harder to cheat. And it will also make it easier for politicians and bureaucrats to be honest, as taxpayers will have a clearer idea of how much of their money Uncle Sam really wants, and what he wants to do with their money.

It will not penalize the low-income worker for making too little, and it will not penalize the high-income worker for his success. At the same time, it will ease the current burden on the middle-class worker, the poor sucker who is called upon to pay increasingly more than his fair share of the tax bill.

Finally, simplifying the tax code like this takes the power out of the hands of the politicians, the special interests that they serve, and the thousands of bureaucrats tasked with enforcing the current tax code - bureaucrats who are not accountable to the American taxpayer in any way and are nothing more than overhead, a hidden and increasingly unbearable burden on the back of the American taxpayer - and puts the power back where it belongs, in the hands of the people, the American taxpayers.

Executed correctly, a flat tax will be revenue-neutral as far as the federal government is concerned, meaning that the IRS will collect no more and no less than it would have collected under the old tax code. But it will be a boon for American workers and businesses alike, as they will spend less time and money worrying about their taxes and paying people to figure their taxes for them.

Executive Orders was written in 1996, and like Debt of Honor which preceded it, EO appears to have predicted some of the events and crises of the early 21st Century. Much has been written about the flat tax since 1996, and much was written about it before 1996. The flat tax seems like an idea whose time has come, even if it's still not politically palatable. If you want a summary of all the issues facing adoption of a flat tax, EO is a good place to start.

Another Modest Proposal: Drunken Drivers

This is another great idea that I had: how to handle drunken drivers. Coming on the heels of my proposal regarding prison overcrowding, you may at first think that I'm proposing capital punishment for drunks.

I have considered it, from time to time. In a posting to an online community a few years ago, I asserted that more people are killed every year by drunk drivers than by terrorists. I had the numbers to support that assertion, too. Even though I have many friends who drive when they've had too much to drink, I think that drunken drivers should be apprehended immediately and handled severely. I've known of too many lives that were ruined by drunken drivers to feel sympathy for anybody who drives while drunk -- even my friends.

Okay, now that I got that off my chest, here's my proposal:

1) First, give every police officer the authority -- no, the mandate -- to pass immediate judgement on a person suspected of drunk driving. The laws on the books today allow an officer to cite someone based on their failure to pass a sobriety test, their failure to pass a breathalyzer test, or their refusal to take a breathalyzer test. Let's keep those three criteria -- they'll do just fine for what I have in mind.

2) Second, when a police officer determines that a driver is drunk, using the three criteria currently on the books, the police officer is to get on the radio and call in The Crusher (dun dun dunnnnn...).

The Crusher is just what its name implies: a giant hydraulic ram, mounted on the back of a flatbed semi trailer, big enough to hold a Dodge Ram 4WD or a Ford F99950 with oversized tires, a lift kit, and a roll bar with an array of fog lamps, plus a crew cab and an extended bed. The Crusher is also strong enough to convert said oversized excuse for male anatomical deficiency into an 8-inch-thick steel pancake. The Crusher is accompanied by another truck, a flatbed semi with a crane at one end, the kind you see hauling bricks or roofing supplies or sod.

The number of Crushers required for a given state will depend in large part on the estimated number of drunks on the road on a representative Friday night. It'll vary from state to state, and from legislature to legislature.

3) When the police call it in, The Crusher arrives with its traveling companion. The drunk is given five minutes to remove incidental personal items from the vehicle (but nothing semi-permanently attached, like radio or wheels). Then, while the drunk watches from a safe distance, in the custody of the arresting officer, the crane picks up the vehicle and deposits it in The Crusher. In five minutes or less, The Crusher has reduced the vehicle to scrap metal. The crane then picks up the crushed car and deposits it on the second flatbed, where the operator secures it in place and eventually hauls it away to a smelter.

4) The operator of The Crusher gives the drunk two pieces of paper: one is a receipt for the scrap metal, complete with the former vehicle's VIN and license number; the other is a bill for the cost of crushing the car and transporting it to the smelter. If, after the numbers are crunched, the state owes the drunk money, he has 30 days to show up at the courthouse to collect. On the other hand, if the drunk owes the state money, he has 30 days to show up at the courthouse to pay up.

Either way, it soon becomes too expensive for the drunk to continue driving drunk. If that was his own car, then he has to go buy another one. His insurance won't cover it -- and if his insurance does cover it, then you can bet his premiums will go way, way up, and quickly. If that was a car he'd borrowed from a friend, his friend will take it out of his hide, because the same state law that authorizes The Crusher will indemnify the state from claims in cases where the drunk was driving someone else's car. If the car was stolen, then fine: the owner's insurance will handle the case much as it does today.

But if the car was stolen from, um, let's say, someone who belongs to a fraternal organization whose members take acts like this very personally and act swiftly and unitedly to serve up their own brand of justice upon the offender, well, let's hope that drunk can run really fast.

Either way (as I said), it soon becomes too expensive for the drunk to continue driving drunk. And that solves one of the biggest problems with today's drunk-driving laws: they're ineffective as a deterrent to driving drunk. The statistics vary, but even the most conservative statistic says that 1 out of 10 drivers on the road on a Friday or Saturday night is legally intoxicated. Maybe the prospect of punishment that is a swift (say "immediate"), certain, and tangible blow to the pocketbook will do a better job as a deterrent.

A Modest Proposal: Solving the Twin Problems of Capital Punishment and Prison Overcrowding

This is an idea that has bouncing around in my mind for several years. I am certain that it will not be palatable to either political conservatives or political liberals. Both sides would lose too many friends (not to mention constituents) should this idea become reality. It's just too far-fetched for anybody to take it seriously.

Having said that, let me beg your indulgence for a few minutes - for as long as it takes you to read this entry, scratch your head and say "Whaaat?", and then reread it to make sure you weren't mistaken.

For decades now, the individual states that make up the United States of America have been struggling with the issue of capital punishment. The debate will continue for decades more. I do not wish to discuss its merits or drawbacks here, nor the rationale for its continuation or its abolition. Wiser people than I have written entire books about the issue. For now, I want to carve out a little, tiny piece of the argument in favor, the part that says that execution of criminals allows us to rid society of these dangerous and damaging elements. (Reword that any way you like, and be happy with it. Then let's move on.)

Other nations have also struggled with this issue. Period. Let's not step into those waters, okay?

The U.S. and other countries have also struggled with the issue of prison overcrowding. The local county sheriff has at times had to free some of the more lightweight criminals who have been tried and convicted by the courts in order to make room for the ones who really do need to be removed from society, for society's own safety. The fact is that this nation's courts are putting people behind bars faster than the nation can build prison beds to accommodate them. The nation's taxpayers and their representatives are demanding tougher sentences for criminal offenders, but somebody forgot to make a place for them all.

According to the monthly report available at our state Department of Corrections website (find your own!), our state prisons had almost 15,000 beds in November 2009, with a total state population of around 5,000,000 residents. That's 3 beds (or inmates, if you prefer) for every 1000 residents.

But the state Dept. of C. was in charge of 22,000 convicted criminals in that same month, meaning that 7000 of them had to go elsewhere or go free.

Here's how my proposal works.

1) First, you set a maximum inmate-to-resident ratio. That ratio of 3 to 1000 sounds like a good place to start. Ignore the question of "legal" vs. "illegal" residents. Just use whatever number the U.S. Census gives you.

2) Second, you only build the number of prison beds allowed by the inmate ratio. If your state population grows, then you can expand the prison capacity -- and if your state shrinks (Hello Michigan, anybody home? Helloooooooo...), then you demolish or inactivate some prison capacity.

3) Now, you have a panel of judges review the sentences of all the existing prisoners and rank them in order, from who deserves the most to live (litterbugs and parking-ticket scofflaws, for example ) to who deserves the least to live (serial killers, abusers of the innocent, people who drive less than 65 mi/hr in the fast lane on I-25 and won't move over, people who never use their turn signals, and people who talk too loudly on their cellphones in inappropriate places, for example -- okay, maybe only the first two).

Everybody gets a rank number. Currently, according to our state Department of Corrections website, there are currently over 22,000 offenders in a system designed to handle just under 15,000.

4) Once everybody gets a rank number, you take everybody with a number greater than 15,000 and you execute them.

Congratulations! This takes care of today's overcrowding problem, and it reduces the question of capital punishment to one of space utilization, nothing more. I'll leave the details and the logistics of the body disposal for the bureaucrats to figure out.

5) Now you have 15,000 beds and 15,000 inmates with numbers of merit, or rank numbers, from 1 to 15,000. The next time somebody is convicted of a crime, the judge has to decide where to put the convicted criminal in the list of 15,000. Say it's someone who ran a chop shop in Aurora and was convicted on 178 counts of grand theft auto and interstate transportation of stolen property. That's pretty serious, so the judge assigns him the number 12,000. That means that everybody with a number of 12,000 or more has a new number, one number higher. What do you do with the poor guy who's now 15,001? Bang! Bye-bye!

The beauty of this system is it always gets rid of the ones who have done the least to merit society's forgiveness, or who would do the most damage to society if they were released to walk the streets again. Eventually you've killed off all the really bad guys, and your 15,000 beds are full of petty thieves and crooked politicians. Whenever a new really bad guy hits the court system, he's almost automatically guaranteed the 15,001st slot, and so out the door he goes. So in the end, society has rid itself of all the terribly bad guys, and all that's left are 15,000 beds full of jaywalkers and pencil embezzlers.

I dunno; I think it's a good idea. But it will never fly.

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