Steve Reads

Just a little maintenance; nothing to see here — May 5, 2015

Just a little maintenance; nothing to see here

After having run this blog on my own site (via either Blosxom or self-hosted WordPress) for many years, I’ve moved to WordPress.com. Turns out that doing your own web and email hosting became a mug’s game maybe around five years ago. So anyway, I’ve migrated a good bit of the site to shared WordPress infrastructure. You’ll notice lots of little nits around this blog now — e.g., it seems like posts formatted with Markdown don’t render properly unless I edit each of them individually and click ‘Update’. And the old plugin via which I could type, e.g., [book: This Is The Title Of A Book], and get back a title formatted with italics, isn’t installed on the shared host.

Do forgive the annoyances while I work through these.

Obama and 529 plans — January 27, 2015

Obama and 529 plans

I had set President Obama’s State of the Union proposal on 529 plans to one side to read and think about later, but now I see that he’s already killed it.

Soon I’ll write a proper review of Kleinbard’s [book: We Are Better Than This], which goes into this sort of thing in great detail, but: the opposition to Obama’s plan seems like a great example of tax illiteracy. Maybe it’s also a problem of impolitic presentation on the president’s part; I’m not sure. But there are a few things that absolutely need to be pointed out:

  1. Any kind of benefit that comes to you in the form of a tax deduction helps the wealthy more than it helps the poor. If you spend $18,000 a year on mortgage interest, and your top marginal tax rate is 28%, then you get to spend $5,040 less on your taxes every year than you would in the absence of the mortgage-interest deduction. Whereas if you make a bit less money and are in the 25% bracket, you get to save $4500 on your taxes. The wealthier person saved $500 more than the poorer person for the same mortgage.

    The same is true of the health-insurance deduction: if you get insurance through your employer, you don’t pay taxes on that benefit, even though it’s basically a form of cash; and wealthier people get the same insurance more cheaply than poorer folks. This even holds within the same company: even if the CEO and you use the same health-insurance plan, he’s getting it more cheaply than you are, thanks to the tax law. (Kleinbard himself went through this example a year and change ago.)

    (Worth pointing out: just as the deductibility of health-insurance benefits encourages us to spend more on health care than we otherwise would, so the mortgage-interest deduction encourages us to buy larger houses than we otherwise would.)

  2. Many of the benefits that come to us through tax deductions encourage people to save, and those people often turn out to not need the encouragement. 401(k)s are a great example here. I, personally, save the legal maximum in my 401(k), but I would be saving that money some other way if the 401(k) weren’t pre-tax. So I’m getting a tax benefit, and for what? To encourage me to do something that I’d do anyway. The government shouldn’t be in the business of giving people money for no benefit.

  3. When we encourage behavior through tax deductions, we can pretend they’re not actual expenses. Here’s how to help middle- and low-income kids afford college: pay for them to go to college. Or better yet, run public universities and community colleges directly. But if we did this, there would be a cost on the books, and our elected representatives (and many Americans, I suppose) hate to spend money on things. So instead we give people tax deductions, which suffer from all the problems I’ve mentioned above; then we can pretend that these aren’t real expenses.

    This spending is called, instead, a “tax expenditure”, and we’ve only been tracking it since 1967. Better yet, I discovered from Dr. Kleinbard that we undercount tax expenditures: we count the lost income tax, but we don’t count the lost Social Security tax. So when people talk about how “Social Security is going broke,” a large part of the blame can be laid at the feet of our health-insurance and mortgage-interest deductions. If I understand the accounting properly, the health-insurance deduction costs about $100 billion in Social Security taxes annually. Think about how much more easily we could shore up the Social Security Trust Fund if we put that back on the books.

    I can hear one objection already: “That’s the taxpayer’s money. Don’t pretend that the government ‘deserves’ that money.” That’s a fair objection, but my point is not that one side or another deserves the money. My point is that if we’re going to spend money, we should be honest about what we’re spending. Instead we’re patently dishonest: because we’ve developed a public allergy to spending money on things, we hide our spending in the form of tax deductions. Somehow a dollar of foregone tax revenue doesn’t count the same as a dollar of direct spending. So we opt for subterfuge. (I got a review copy years ago of [book: The Submerged State], but never got around to reading it. My understanding is that it makes this point more broadly.)

My point, and I think President Obama’s, is that if we have to spend money, we should spend it honestly, should spend it wisely, and should spend it progressively. If the goal is to encourage middle-income families to send their kids to college, and if we feel we must make this happen through the tax code, then give people a tax credit that doesn’t increase with income. Better yet, spend the money directly rather than hiding it in a tax expenditure. And don’t give people a tax-advantaged way to save when those people would already be saving money even without the tax break.

This is all common sense, yet I’m coming to the sad conclusion that we as a country like to be lied to. Not only that, but tax policy is boring. To paraphrase Leon Trotsky: “You may not be interested in tax policy, but tax policy is interested in you.” I hope there comes a point when we grow up and pay attention to how our nation is being mismanaged.

Recent books as of 2015-01-25 — January 25, 2015

Recent books as of 2015-01-25

  • Janet Malcolm, [book: In The Freud Archives]

    One fellow, Kurt Eissler, is the [foreign: éminence grise] who presides over the Freud Archives — a repository of Sigmund Freud’s papers. Another fellow, Jeffrey Masson, befriends Eissler and, using apparently enormous reserves of personal charm, wheedles his way into the good graces of Eissler and of Freud’s daughter Anna.

    Now, apparently Freud’s understanding of psychological illness reached a crucial turning point when he rejected the so-called “seduction theory.” (I don’t know much Freudian vocabulary; if I did, maybe I’d be using “neurosis” and so forth here. As it is, I worry that I’d misuse a very precise term.) The seduction theory, according to Masson and Malcolm, is sort of a materialist theory according to which psychological illness arises from repressed childhood sexual abuse. (“Seduction” must have meant something different back in the day, because my goodness does that word seem ill-matched to the phenomenon it’s meant to describe here.)

    According to orthodox Freudians, Freud’s rejection of the seduction theory was the crucial turning point at which he invented psychoanalysis. Rather than study the direct effects of childhood sexual abuse, orthodox Freudians turned to studying psychological illness as a manifestation of fantasy. That is, Freudians stopped being quite so concerned with what actually happened to their patients, and started being much more concerned with how people’s minds manipulate the actual facts of the world.

    There seem to be good arguments for both perspectives. On the one hand, as Masson puts it, it matters a great deal that your patient lived through Auschwitz; we need to engage with the actual world as the patient experienced it. On the other hand, there are a lot of layers between the facts of the world and how they manifest as psychological disorder. Perhaps, for instance, there are certain patients who emerge from physical abuse stronger and tougher; in these cases, abuse alone isn’t enough to uniquely determine the patient’s mental state.

    Masson comes to the conclusion that the seduction theory was right all along, which instantly makes him an apostate among Freudians.

    All of that would be fine, and would make [book: In The Freud Archives] a nice little essay about a particular dispute in the history of psychoanalysis. Instead, Malcolm spends most of her time on the psychoanalytic infighting around Eissler, Masson, and a cast of others who spend their days poring over the letters that Freud and his friends wrote to one another. It reminds me of nothing so much as the line famously ascribed to Kissinger (though I think it predates him): that academic politics are so vicious because the stakes are so small. Who, honestly, really cares whether Masson’s particular brand of psychoanalysis is in keeping with what the master himself desired? Has psychoanalysis descended to a brand of fundamentalism where only the purest adherence to officially sanctioned dogma is allowed?

    So Malcolm’s book is a short biography of some cranks. I wonder whether she herself perceives it that way. Maybe it’s all a very tongue-in-cheek joke. Certainly possible.

    Her book does make me want to go read more about Freud, but not this sort of scholarly squabbling.

  • Thomas H. O’Connor, [book: Building A New Boston: Politics and Urban Renewal, 1950-1970]

    To my mind there are two unavoidable questions that anyone has to ask if he’s familiar with the Boston of today, and if he’s read Robert Caro’s [book: The Power Broker] (as I assume Thomas O’Connor has):

    1. How did Boston arrive at the place it’s in now, where sizable chunks of the city (West End, Government Center, Mass. Pike) have been bulldozed and replaced with soulless concrete, and where even larger chunks would be destroyed if the Big Dig hadn’t put them underground?

    2. Following Caro, you can only understand power if you understand how it’s exercised against the powerless. So how did all the bulldozing affect those with no power to resist?

    O’Connor’s book has “politics” in the subtitle, but it’s politics-as-a-game rather than politics-as-lived-by-the-little-people. It’s largely a love poem sung to Boston’s mayors John Hynes, John Collins, and Kevin White. O’Connor nods in the direction of those who lost their homes when the West End was plowed under, but he mostly seems satisfied with it, because he believes that Boston from before the destruction was so much worse.

    I can’t weigh in on how pre-destruction Boston looked. According to O’Connor it was a used-up backwater that was literally rotting into the sea. The redevelopment of the 1950s brought actual tall buildings — most notably the Prudential Center — to a city that had basically none. It drew business back into the city.

    Even taking O’Connor at his word, there’s fundamentally a counterfactual in here: was destroying Boston the only way to save it? Did any cities manage to pull themselves out of the postwar decay without “urban renewal”?

    Apart from all the urban-renewal destruction I had already been aware of — West End, Scollay Square, the highway that cut the North End off from the rest of the city — O’Connor’s book informs me of loads more. Among the saddest is the New York Streets neighborhood in the South End. It was called New York Streets because its streets were named after towns in upstate New York: Troy, Rochester, Genesee, Oswego, Oneida, Seneca. The city destroyed it; it was replaced with soulless factories, including the Boston Herald’s. The Herald left recently, to be replaced with a new high-end development and a Whole Foods. It abuts the highway, which cuts the South End off from South Boston; walking from any of the South End’s attractions to the Broadway T stop, for instance, requires that you pass under an Interstate highway.

    During the first few years of my time in Boston, walking from the Haymarket T station to the North End involved a similar walk under Interstate 93. The Big Dig put I-93 underground, replaced it with a park, and reconnected the North End with the rest of Boston for the first time since the Hynes administration. Much modern development in Boston seems designed to redress the wrongs that the city perpetrated against itself under the mayors whom O’Connor venerates.

    “America’s Walking City” did a fabulous job in the Fifties and Sixties destroying its beautiful walks. To O’Connor, many of those who opposed this destruction were old Protestant sticks-in-the-mud, quite happy for Boston to remain small and old and familiar and very dead. From a vantage point fifty years on, the opponents of development seem to have a point.

  • Ronald C. White, [book: Lincoln’s Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural]

    It’s hard to imagine that a single speech by Abraham Lincoln — a speech of barely 700 words — could be expanded into a 256-page book. But in fact this book feels no longer than it needs to be; the speech is exceptional, and is one of the finest pieces of rhetoric I’ve ever read. White’s book elaborates on the slow evolution of Lincoln’s thought, which led him to this unspeakably jaw-dropping line:

    > [I]f God wills that it [the Civil War] continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

    I imagine a man on his knees before his God every night, trying to understand how to end the anguish of the war that was tearing the country apart. Eventually he came to the realization that this war might well be the penance that our country paid for its original sin.

    As a work of rhetoric, as well — a piece of argument assembled carefully for its intended audience — the Second Inaugural is a masterpiece; White walks us, line by line, through its every carefully chosen syllable (“and the war came”).

    I think every American needs to know that speech, and the history that surrounds it. I could make a good case that everyone ought to read White’s wonderful book.

Starting to read Main Currents of Marxism. First observation. — January 19, 2015
Mint.com and home-buying — January 15, 2015

Mint.com and home-buying

Do any of my belovèd readers a) use Mint.com *and* b) own a home? I’m in the process of buying a home, so now there are these enormous checks flying around that I think Mint will just have no idea how to handle. The purchase-and-sale check was just cashed, for instance; if Mint treats this like an ordinary expense, then my net worth just dropped by tens of thousands of dollars. But in fact my net worth is the same as it ever was; I’ve just transferred that money from one pocket (checking account) into another pocket (equity).

If I’m correctly reading the official Mint answer on how to handle downpayments, the suggestion is just to ignore them. By ignoring them, the funds don’t disappear from (in this case) my checking account, so it’s like my net worth didn’t change at all. But this is obviously not right. The correct thing to do is to treat this as a subtraction from the checking account and an addition to the equity account. No disappearing transactions, no change in net worth.

If Mint suggests hiding downpayments, then it’s going to get even harder with mortgage payments. Let’s say I write a $2,000 mortgage check every month. In the beginning, maybe $500 of that will be equity and $1500 will be interest. So the mortgage check would be correctly treated as a $500 transfer from checking to equity, and a $1500 expense. Seems to me that my net worth would shrink by $1500 after every such check. But if Mint doesn’t have the capacity to treat a downpayment as a transfer to equity, then I suspect it also won’t know what to do with the equity piece of the mortgage payment.

My mortgage lender isn’t one of Mint’s partner financial institutions, and I can’t figure out how to properly register my mortgage. I can add a generic ‘loan’, but … man, is that feature undercooked. It asks me how large the loan is. I enter the amount. Then … that’s it. It doesn’t ask me for the interest rate. If it asked the interest rate, then it could compute the change in principal every month; the change in principal on a mortgage is the amount that goes to equity. But it doesn’t ask me that. So the ‘loan’ feature is, oddly, not suitable for use with mortgages.

There’s a way to add real estate, but a couple things seem wrong with that feature. First, it seems largely focused on tracking changing property values as a way to monitor the ups and downs of my net worth. And, second, it doesn’t seem to create an account of the sort that you can transfer value (e.g., a downpayment) into.

If my mortgage company were one of Mint’s recognized lenders, then I assume it would have smart backend logic to realize that when $2,000 disappears from checking and appears in the mortgage account, a fraction of that (depending upon where we are in the amortization schedule) should count as reducing my net worth, and the remainder should just be a transfer into equity.

Without the integration between Mint and my lender, I can see why it would be hard to add mortgage transactions. If I have a credit card in Mint, for instance, and I make a credit-card payment, then I assume Mint sees that $1,000 disappears from this account and appears in an account whose name looks like ‘AmEx’. But what if I have a payment to an unrecognized lender? I could put it in the ‘mortgage’ category, but Mint doesn’t know whether this is the mortgage on my first or (at this point fictional) second home. So then it can’t know the interest rate on that payment, can’t know the principal, etc.

So without integration between my lender and Mint, am I SOL? Any amount of Googling does not turn up a satisfactory solution to this.

Note to Boston: our population still has a ways to go —

Note to Boston: our population still has a ways to go

Graph of Boston's historical population, and its population's rank among US cities, over time. Population peaked in 1950, and the rank has been ever-increasing: we were the second- or third-largest city in 1800, and now we're the 20th-largest or so.
(Source: raw data, gathered from the Census Bureau)

In fairness: if you look at the population of Metropolitan Statistical Areas, the Boston metro area is 10th rather than in the 20s. The metro area stretches west to Worcester, north to southern New Hampshire, and south to Rhode Island, last I checked.

Boston should be proud that it’s growing at a healthy clip (healthier than the Commonwealth’s growth rate as a whole). Personally, I’ll be a lot happier when the suburbs shrink and the city grows.

A note to my fellow yuppies about the Ink Block Whole Foods — January 11, 2015

A note to my fellow yuppies about the Ink Block Whole Foods

I went to the new Whole Foods at the Ink Block development (so-named because it sits where the Boston Herald used to publish) in the South End yesterday. I want to clarify that when the press release says it offers “a large beer, wine and spirits selection”, they are not at all kidding about the “spirits” piece. I was not expecting that. I expected that they’d have only wine, but no: they have enough bottles to stock a full home bar with top-shelf liquor. In particular, they have a lot of local stuff, including from Bully Boy and Berkshire Mountain Distillers. I checked one of their prices against what I’d get at my favorite local liquor store, and it was identical. Not sure if that’s true in general, but it’s a hopeful sign.

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