Archives for: September 2012
Ever since I saw "The Close Encounters of the Third Kind", my favorite sci-fi flick of all time, I wanted to visit its legendary landmark: the Devil's Tower in Wyoming.
Unfortunately, the prominent rock doesn't exactly advertise itself along a major touristy route. You won't run into it on the way from Vegas to Grand Canyon and don't expect much luck if you drive from Denver to Yellowstone either (although this time you won't be astronomically far from it). This natural obelisk rests in the middle of a garden variety prairie, in the northeast corner of Wyoming, far from anything even remotely photogenic. No wonder it took 20 years before I could finally unleash my eyes on its daunting slopes - a feat accomplished when I was hiking around Rapid City, SD, some 150 miles East.
But this deliberate detour was worth every gallon of gas. The tower looks great from every distance. First you spot its commanding presence from miles away and the closer you get the more dominating it becomes. Just before you make a turn from the state road 24 into the park, it reveals itself in its awe inspiring presence and you realize that it is all you ever dreamed it would be: massive, stark, majestic, slightly intimidating, triumphant, perennial, breathtaking, elegant and mysterious. A petrified chord from a Beethoven symphony. If I was an alien, I would totally land here.
I have to admit that as we walked around it I was secretly wishing we would hear the famous 5 tone sequence from the movie, and see some lanky extra-terrestrial life-form looking for a final approach. But I also wondered if our little planet would actually be worth their time, in other words if we'd pass their muster for intelligent beings. Sure, we gave ourselves a lofty tag "homo sapiens", but are we really as smart as we think we are. Just look at our actions with a bit of perspective: we kill each other over some gunk oozing from the ground or when we believe that our God is more worthy than the one our opponents worship. On a good day, our financial system resembles a shaky Ponzi scheme which benefits those who control it without much regard for the needs of the whole community. And our priorities are still royally messed up - instead of devoting most of our resources to improving our knowledge and technological abilities, we spend tons of money on shiny trinkets that we put on our bodies or complicated organic molecules that we inject inside them to get high.
It is entirely possible that one day some alien scouts from a distant world far away will indeed wander into our Solar system and after having successfully traversed those vast intergalactic distances, which are notorious for the complete lack of motels and gas stations, these weary ambassadors from the Outer Space will park their fusion propelled vehicle at the geostationary orbit and tune in to our TV and radio signals for a few weeks. What worries me about that scenario is that after watching a couple of evening editions of CNN News, they will look at each other and their gray eyes will say: "Meh...". And they will never come back.
In his famous novel "Fahrenheit 451", Ray Bradbury writes:
"We need not to be let alone. We need to be really bothered once in a while. How long is it since you were really bothered? About something important, about something real?"
Sometimes we view the wheelings and dealings of our world as a form of necessary evil which lies beyond our control, almost as if some kind of permanent natural process was at work there. But if we bothered to bother about it, we'd find that in many instances the apparent immutability of social laws is only made possible by our apathy. This week's release of Mitt Romney's tax return (showing a measly 14.1% effective rate) was a great opportunity to shake some of the accepted dogmas and shine a probing light on the way our tax system works. And that is indeed what many did.
In politics though - no action comes without a reaction of equal magnitude and opposite direction. For the conservative punditry, taxing is a sacred issue, and taxing the wealthy doubly so. What followed that little probe was a hurricane of smoke and mirrors. In a time honored tradition of taking your opponent's position to the extreme, creating a ridiculously looking straw-man out of it, and then beating it publicly to death against the backdrop of cheering masses, the right hand side of the political spectrum filled the airwaves with an impressive swarm of easily digestible slogans, ranging from warnings of impending confiscation, to accusations of class warfare and (gulp) general hatred of success. Yet in a less hysterical Universe, a tax is not a confiscation, it is a remuneration. When you come back from a dealership with a new car - for which you just shelled out $20,000 - you don't write angry letters to your local editor that the car dealership just confiscated your money. It was just a payment for goods and services and most people understand that.
The inconvenient truth is that the wealthy benefit tremendously from the goods and services offered at the federal level. It is government which keeps the seas safe for shipping and trading routes, the government maintains the highways on which they truck their goods, the government backstops the financial system, and even such abhorrent function as entitlements is in fact beneficial to the producers. Imagine how much less demand for various products there would be if it wasn't for various forms of government support which put money in people's pockets. You see - the poor don't invest that money in gold or emerging market stocks. They go and buy stuff, which eventually fattens the bottom line of our beloved corporations. How many CEOs would not get their performance bonus if it wasn't for the despised government stimulus. Now ask yourself - who profits more from the stable business environment which our taxes collectively create - an average worker or the upper management? I think the answer is pretty clear. But on this planet of ours everything costs money. So we are not really trying to confiscate anyone's wealth, we are merely asking the rich to pay their fair share. And honestly, 14.1% does not sound like a fair share to me. Most of my friends pay double that rate.
Now closer inspection of the mystery of Romney's low taxes reveals that it is mostly caused by the capital gains rate. See, at some point we determined that income from capital gains is somehow nobler and more important than income coming from one's labor and we taxed it accordingly. And I think that attitude needs to change. Why would we think that a farmer working hard from dawn to dusk should pay more taxes than some dude whose income comes from capital gains in the portfolio established by his industrious and enterprising grandpa? Why would a teacher who spends evenings pouring over the efforts of the next generation of entrepreneurs and engineers have to pay more than a hedge fund manager who merely chaperones other people's money in the casino of financial markets? No disrespect but both labor and capital are instrumental to properly functioning economy, so why do we constantly favor the capital?
Equalizing these two would not mean that we hate success. It would just mean that we want those who succeed to contribute to the environment which enabled it. Just like the rest of us do. Sure - some functions of the government could be greatly streamlined and they should. But the costs of whatever remains ought to be carried by all segments of the society. Repealing the capital gains tax rates won't violate any laws of physics and it won't be the end of the world. But it's not gonna happen by itself. We'll have to push it through several lines of entrenched defenses and expect to catch some flak along the way. Because - as we know - for every action there is always an equal and opposite reaction.
I hope President Obama is bothered about this.
Das Reich in der Luft
Flying is a source of many wonders. My favorite in-flight movie - the one played on that little round screen on the side - comes at that moment when a descending airplane is just about to delve into a thick layer of clouds. You can see them slowly approaching from below, like a seemingly infinite bank of fog. Then you start recognizing the bulging shapes of individual clouds and soon the silvery wings of the aircraft start cutting gently into the streaming wisps of water vapor. Like blades of a lawn mower making stacks of celestial hay right in front of your eyes. Puffs of moisture are rolling wildly by like condensed dreams of a rogue angel hanging ten on a cotton wool beach. This is what a battlefield would look like if Heaven and Earth had a fierce pillow fight. A sight out of this world.
When I was a teenager, I enjoyed reading Romain Rolland's excellent biography of Beethoven. It was a book whose deep and instinctual insight into music influenced me in many ways. But there was one expression in that book which I remember to this very day although it is in German - a language of which I have only a very limited knowledge. When the flow of narration comes to Beethoven's Piano Sonata op. 106, Rolland observes that in this Masterpiece Beethoven reemerges as the supreme ruler of his "Reich in der Luft" (Kingdom in the Air). After many years spent in a creative limbo, his 29th Piano Sonata became the definite sign that the new Spring is in the offing. The king has returned to the throne.
The phrase itself had roots in Beethoven's own words. In one of the letters to his nephew Carl, he observes: "Mein Reich ist in der Luft" (my kingdom is in the air). So there it was - straight from the horse's mouth. For while I took it only as an abstract figure of speech, without any deeper meaning, but when I started flying to America, I discovered that there is an image that goes with it.
It is what you see from your window when the airplane starts skimming the clouds.
When that happens I imagine Beethoven walking amidst the billowing cushions, frowning as usual, flailing his arms like giant batons and humming fragments of the Hammerklavier Sonata to himself in a loud and coarse voice. And when I look at the world consisting only of two colors - white and blue - and yet offering endless variations in its shapes, I feel that this is a fitting home for his legacy.
Here, high above the ground he will live forever - the supreme ruler in his Reich in der Luft - unencumbered by Earthly noises and giving benevolent advice to those who aspire to fly.