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December 2010

Don't ask William Zinsser to come to your school and present tips on writing

Here's why:

Tips can make someone a better writer but not necessarily a good writer. That’s a larger package–a matter of character. Golfing is more than keeping the left arm straight. Every good golfer is a complex engine that runs on ability, ego, determination, discipline, patience, confidence, and other qualities that are self-taught. So it is with writers and all creative artists. If their values are solid their work is likely to be solid.

Bill Gates, charity, and the limits of planning

"Five Years In, Gauging Impact of Gates Grants," New York Times, 12/20:

About 1,600 proposals came in, and the top 43 were so promising that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation made $450 million in five-year grants — more than double what he originally planned to give.

Now the five years are up, and the foundation recently brought all the scientists to Seattle to assess the results and decide who will get further funding.

In an interview, Mr. Gates sounded somewhat chastened, saying several times, “We were naïve when we began.”

Bill Gates is universally acknowledged to be really smart. (Old line: "Bill Gates has five brains. And each one of them is smarter than yours.") And he's a successful, experienced businessman.

So if he was "naive" what hope do other big, sweeping, top-down charitable enterprises have?


"The Magic Bullet"

John Steele Gordon, 12/12, has a good question for Progressives:

I carry no brief for “the rich,” although I’d be happy to be counted among them. But this all reminds me of a conversation I had many years ago with a close friend, now gone, on this subject. She was very liberal. (How liberal? In 1948, she not only voted for Henry Wallace; she went to the convention and worked in his campaign. That’s liberal.) I proposed a thought experiment. “Suppose,” I said, “there were an economic magic bullet — that if Congress would pass the necessary legislation and the president were to sign it, the effect would be to double everyone’s real take-home income. If you were living on $50,000 this year, you’d have $100,000 to spend next year.”

. . . .

“But there’s a catch,” I answered. “The effect of the magic bullet would not double the take-home income of those earning over $1 million — it would quintuple it. In other words, the rich would make out far, far better than the average Joe. But there’s no way out, it’s all or nothing. Would you vote for the magic bullet if you were a member of Congress?”

Link courtesy of Michael Greenspan.

See also Caroline Baum, making (independently?) the same point:

Amanpour didn’t ask Axelrod what he would say if the pie doubled but the share of income that goes to the rich, poor and middle class stayed the same.

I’m not sure what he’d say on TV, but I bet I know what he thinks: not fair. Redistributing income -- reapportioning the pie slices so the thin slivers are thicker -- is the real goal.

And see also William McGurn, "'Billionaires On the Warpath'?"

"The 'Tax The Rich' Con"

This is very well done.

This narrative conveniently ignores three inconvenient truths:

--Personal income taxes are levied on income, not wealth.

--The rich can (and do) shift most of the burden of higher tax rates to the middle class.

--Over time taxes targeted at the "rich" today often are broadened to reach into the pockets of the middle class tomorrow.

Part 2 here. (Further discusses an important bit of economists' wisdom: taxes don't necessarily stay where they're put.)

Part 3. Presents some very relevant history:

The "tax the rich" mantra was at the heart of arguments for a federal income tax. Passage of the 16th Amendment in 1913 was the culmination of a two-decade campaign for a progressive income tax that, the American people were told, would reduce the economic power of the wealthiest American families.

The initial law imposed a tax rate of 1% on families with incomes above $4,000--equivalent to about $88,000 in today's dollars--and a top tax rate of 7% on incomes over $500,000--or more than $11 million today. Three years later the base rate was doubled to 2% and the top rate was increased to 13% on incomes above $2 million.

Today the base rate is 10%. And families with that same $88,000 in taxable income have one-fourth of their income above $68,000 taken by the federal government.

This story of transforming a tax aimed at the rich into a levy on the middle class is one of many. The Alternative Minimum Tax passed in 1969 targeted 155 high-income households that had eliminated their income tax liabilities through the lawful use of deductions and other tax benefits. Today, absent Congressional action, 28 million taxpayers are subject to the tax--82% of whom have incomes of less than $200,000.