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Enhancing Organizational Performance

Rain and Taxes

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“Taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society.” – Oliver Wendell Homes Jr. – 1904,

Above the door at 1111 Constitution Ave., Washington DC, IRS Headquarters

It has been raining for what seems like most of the summer. I don’t know how much rain in total we have had, but my pond which is usually down 4 feet or so this time of year is brimming to the rim, a situation that is fairly rare even in a wet spring. I have mushrooms growing on top of mushrooms, my flowers were devastated, and my firewood pile is rotting away despite my best efforts to keep it dry. Because of all the moisture the mosquitoes are everywhere and you can’t go out around sunset without getting bitten three or four times.

“At 428 PM EDT…satellite imagery and National Weather Service Doppler radar indicated that thunderstorms were rapidly developing near Nanuet…and moving north at 25 mph.”

All the rain put me in the mood to read something relevant and so I bought a fiction book called “Flood” by Steven Baxter. It is one of those depressing doomsday end-of-the-world books, which seemed appropriate given the weather. This one, as you can probably guess by the title, is about calamity by water. I like Baxter’s books as he is a Ph.D. in aero-engineering, and a mathematician and his works of fiction, while pushing the edge, are grounded in plausibility. The basic premise in the book is that ocean levels rise, not only due to the melting of the polar icecaps, but also because of the release of vast subsurface supplies of water.

Our oceans today have already risen between 6 and 8 inches due to thermal expansion from global warming, and if the icecaps continue their melting we could expect another 6 meters or so in rise. A rise of that extent would be devastating and would not only destroy many coastal cities, but would inundate many low lying land masses. Florida, for instance would cease to exist. Going beyond the current worst case scenario, Baxter, in his work of fiction, speculates what the world would be like not with a 6 meter rise or a 10 meter rise, but with a rise of 800 meters. At 800 meters half of the current land masses on the planet would be under water.

That could happen if there were other sources of water beyond what we currently view as the source of water (the icecaps) being released due to global warming. For instance, if only 1% of the volume of the mantle of the Earth consisted of water, and that amount was forced to the surface, a relatively trivial event for the planet, but quite devastating for all forms of life both on land and in the oceans, including humanity, we could expect a rise in ocean levels to the extent speculated in Baxter’s book.

“…A Flash Flood Warning remains in effect until 645 PM EDT for Westchester and Rockland counties…”

“Already nearly two-thirds of humanity — some 3.6 billion people — crowd along a coastline, or live with 150 kilometers of one. Within three decades, if trends continue, 75 percent of humanity, or 6.4 billion, will reside in coastal areas, nearly a billion more people than the current global population.” (American Association for the Advancement of Science).

Now before you write this off as completely absurd, consider that in 2009 it was confirmed that the northern and southern icecaps on Mars contain roughly 100 times the volume of water of all the Great Lakes combined, a volume of water that until this year was hidden from view. We are learning new things about planets, including ours, all the time.          

The book catalogs the various ills that could befall civilization including the deaths of hundreds of millions, the mass uprooting of hundreds of millions more, the spread of all sorts of disease, the near-collapse or total fall of many governments and civilizations. In the US, the federal government relocates from Washington, DC to Denver the highest state capital in the country, Nebraska becomes part of the new east coastline as a vast inland sea covers most of the current eastern part of the country. Europe and Asia suffer worse. During all this, one wealthy individual, whose company was benefiting immensely from providing services to the flailing government, still manages to complain about the taxes he has to pay. You never get away from it do you, death and taxes. While I have every reason to believe that some people will complain about paying taxes no matter what the circumstance there are some benefits that taxes bring to us, some that many don’t realize or think about.

Excessive runoff from heavy rainfall will cause flooding of small creeks and streams…highways and underpasses. Additionally…country roads and farmlands along the banks of creeks…streams and other low lying areas are subject to flooding.”

Back in the real world, a banker whose institution has successful weathered our current financial crisis by, as the New York Times puts it, “avoiding gimmickry”, which I applaud resoundedly, gave a speech in which he espoused the philosophies of Ayn Rand who wrote the fiction book Atlas Shrugged. In that story, reason, laissez-faire capitalism, and a focus on self-interest is celebrated and altruism is viewed as a destructive force. In Atlas Shrugged, “nothing is more heroic – and sexy – than a hard working businessman free to pursue his wealth. And nothing is worse than a pesky bureaucrat trying to restrict business and redistribute wealth.” The gradual takeover of businesses during an economic collapse by government and a smothering of innovation that follows is the basic premise in Ayn Rand’s fictional work and there are many adherents to the notions described in Atlas Shrugged who are collectively called objectivists.

Redistributing wealth can be equated to collecting taxes and using that money for projects that don’t simply benefit those who paid the taxes, but benefits all of us collectively, like roads, airports, mass transit, schools, hospitals, a strong military and police force, disease research, weather forecasting, etc. Those activities are wealth redistribution activities, since the wealthy pay a larger percentage towards creating them than the poor. But they are also those things that make it possible for those with an entrepreneurial inclination to be entrepreneurial. I owned my own business for a large number of years and will hopefully one day do so again, but I did not complain about paying taxes, for with my taxes I not only bought “civilization”, as quoted by the Supreme Court Judge Oliver Wendell Homes Jr., I also bought potential, an environment that allowed my business to flourish. What I resented much more than paying taxes was when people who should have been paying taxes got out of paying them. In other words, if the playing field is viewed as “fair” with everyone paying their share there is little resentment, it is when the playing field benefits only certain individuals or special interests does my resentment build. I know that I am not alone in those feelings. The on-going negotiations between UBS and the IRS to disclose the names of those hiding their money in off-shore accounts demonstrates that the IRS understands that as well, in addition to their desire to enforce the law. I realize of course that “fair” is in the eye of the beholder. What baffles me though, I have to admit, is that some of the adherents of “pay no taxes” are the very people who benefit the most from the taxes paid. They make no connection to the world in which they live and how it was created, as though infrastructure and civilization somehow magically sprang forth from the very earth itself.   

“Do not drive your vehicle into areas where the water covers the roadway. The water depth may be too great to allow your car to cross safely. Move to higher ground.”

Imagine if that very successful banker with all his millions had to hide behind prison-like walls and could not venture forth because in a free-for-all society the rule-of-law would be weak or non-existent and some enterprising individuals would look at him and think “you know it is easier to take it from him than to build the wealth ourselves”. He would be hunkered down, constantly looking over his shoulder for threats. Congratulations you are living in a tax free utopia. That banker by-the-way accepted over 3 billion dollars in US government bailout money, complaining that they had to in order to remain competitive with other banks accepting low cost money. Seems a bit like picking and choosing which side of the argument you want to be on at any moment.

Now don’t get me wrong, I am fiscally conservative, and believe that taxes should be kept as low as possible, but I do believe in a strong military, a strong social-safety net and a strong government and other programs that support our society, those things require tax dollars to occur. I guess you could sum it up by saying I am fiscally and militarily conservative and socially very liberal (I was born and grew up in New York after all). And yes, I realize that hard choices must always be made.   

“at 601 PM EDT…National Weather Service Doppler radar indicated a  line of severe thunderstorms capable of producing penny size  hail…and damaging winds in excess of 60 mph.  These storms were  located along a line extending from Harrison to Scarsdale…or  along a line extending from White Plains to Port Chester…and  moving northeast at 20 mph.”

Simply paying taxes of course does not guarantee effective use of those tax dollars and our government’s miserable efforts in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina are a testament to that. Patronage and special interests once again at play. So not only do we benefit from taxes being paid but we also benefit when they are being paid into a government that is making effective and efficient use of those tax dollars. And of course there are examples that can be cited of government inefficiently using our money, but there are also many cases when government makes effective use of our money. Remember, our government was not set up to be the most efficient decision making body. That was intentionally done by the founding fathers. Our government was set up to purposely be somewhat inefficient, so that the decisions as they get made are deliberate and that checks and balances inherent within the system protect the interests of all, including those who are not strong enough to even raise their voices. Sometimes the system fails in that task, but mostly we have a government that is the envy of the world, a system that has created the most successful country this planet has ever seen, where by and large merit does in fact count and eventually the truth prevails.   

In addition to large hail and damaging winds…continuous cloud to ground lightning is occurring with this storm. Move indoors immediately! Lightning is one of nature’s number one killers. Remember…if you can hear thunder…you are close enough to be struck by lightning.

Can’t wait to get tomorrow’s NOAA weather forecast.

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

November 4, 2009 at 7:38 pm

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