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A Million Dollar Idea
The fantasy of tax reform is always beckoning to politicians on both the left and the right. They are on high alert now, because a moment is approaching during which something major might actually get done about our current tax system. There will be talk of the flat tax again, and the national sales tax, and its cousin the VAT — all of which will shine briefly then die of suffocation in Washington. It is into this vacuum of hopelessness that I would like to introduce my own humble vision of a kinder, saner tax system.

I call it the Million Dollar Idea. It envisions a system under which individuals would be limited to a net income, after taxes, of one million dollars. To enforce the limit, we’d return to a steeply graduated income tax. I see that sliding scale beginning to slide at about $20,000 then get steeper and steeper until it gets to the million dollar mark and hits 100%.

Deductions would be allowed, but I think this might be a good time to rethink that whole system as well. In my view, charitable contributions, including donations to non-political non-profits, should still be honored. I am open to negotiation on other deductions, but the simpler we keep it the better. We must be very careful, in any case, not to allow any loophole that might undermine our goal of limiting income.

I will also negotiate on the million dollar limit. If our leaders, in their wisdom, wanted to make the limit lower, then they would have my blessing. At a million, I think we’re being quite generous. I’m not rich myself, so my point of view might be skewed, but that seems like a very large amount of spending money to have available over the course of a year. Plus, it’s a nice, round number that would work well on a bumper sticker.

If we even need bumper stickers, that is. I am confident that the wisdom and the moral righteousness of the Million Dollar Idea would be immediately evident to most of us. Not only is a tax-free million plenty of money to get by on, I think a lot of people would say that taking more would be a sinful.

Yes, sinful. Greed is still a sin, isn’t it? We tax cigarettes and liquor and marijuana, why not avarice? The current system encourages and rewards greed; that cannot be healthy for our society, much less our immortal souls. Ask Pope Francis; he knows what I’m talking about.

If you’re concerned about how this unusual stricture might affect our economy, you shouldn’t be. There might be a little chaos at first, but that would be just the kind of problem that markets would actually be good at solving. The only pain caused by the new system would be experienced by the rich, and that would be a refreshing change of pace. I’m not certain, come to think of it, that we could even call it pain; a mild tingling sensation would be more like it.

Meanwhile, the gap between rich and poor would narrow, and maybe — just maybe — we might all begin to see that our fate and fortunes really are tied together. And who knows? A greed tax might just head off the coming revolution and save the lives of a whole lot of investment bankers. You see? Everybody’s a winner.

Okay, so maybe it isn’t such a humble vision after all. I want to revamp the tax code, salvage our free enterprise system, and save the soul of capitalism. Not that Washington cares much about humility. Or greed, for that matter. It’s money that gets the most attention there, and with billions of dollars at stake, I guess the Million Dollar Idea has as much chance as any other tax reform proposal — which is close to none.
Aristotle, by most accounts, had a lousy sense of humor. If he was witty at all, my guess is that his jokes tended toward the too-clever-by-half, labored wordplay that does nothing but give smart people a bad name.

It should not surprise us, then, that the unit of measurement used by Aristotle in his discussions of comedy was the “hee”. He is credited, in fact, with the creation of this comedic constant, and evidence of its use can be found throughout his work (which, it must be said, is uniformly unfunny).

One need only look at Ari’s Poetics to see that he’s not the right person to be making such judgments. There, he spends most of his time grinding away on the grand catharsis provided by tragedy and devotes comparatively little space to comedy. Tragedy, he thought, could only happen in the lives of the great and powerful; comedy was left for the rest of us as a way of purging our unpleasant emotions. Isn’t that the very opinion you might expect from a person with no sense of humor?

The “hee”, we now know, is not broad enough in its applications to qualify as the fundamental unit of hilarity. “Hee” is most often used as a kind of titter — just the kind of response one might predict to the lame, too-clever humor that Aristotle probably favored. When we combine “hee” with “tee”, moreover, it descends into a giggle (or worse, a sniggle). Such a term could never encompass the concept of an ordinary laugh or cackle, much less a full-throated guffaw.

Such was the power of Aristotle’s intellect, however, and so great was his influence over Western thought that the “hee” persisted as philosophy’s standard unit of funniness well into the Middle Ages. Indeed, it continued to be used by anyone who thought seriously about humor… until the time of Thomas Aquinas. It was Aquinas who sought to overturn Aristotle’s influence and replace “hee” with “ho” as the measuring stick of merriment.

Sadly, St. Tom was no better equipped than his Greek predecessor to make such assessments. Although “ho” is a rounder, holier version of its predecessor, it is also clearly inadequate as a gauge of comicality. Anyone who seeks to attach humor to Godliness is setting himself up for failure. That is why ho-hoing survives today only within the Dominican order itself and in the quasi-amusement of such figures as Santa Claus and the Jolly Green Giant. If we are looking for a gold standard with which to value jollity, then “ho” is more like the bitcoin — not based on anything real.

In modern times, Jean-Paul Sartre has made the case for making “heh” the yardstick of humorousness. We see that this promulgation also fails. Although “heh”, like “hee”, is a recognized and widely used expression of mirth, it suffers from the same lack of comprehensiveness in meaning. Also, thanks to its frequent association with dark irony (let’s call it for what it is: sick humor), there is some doubt as to whether the “heh” has any real connection to levity at all.

As was the case with those other great minds, it seems that JP was not the right man for this job. Five minutes spent thinking about the implications of existentialism will make that obvious.

What’s left, then, is the “ha”. It has been the common man’s standard for funniness since chimps first chuckled, and it will no doubt be there after the last fancy-pants philosopher tries to explain humor and falls on his arse. Perhaps Aristotle was right after all, though not quite in the way he thought. Comedy, as he suggested, is a tool of catharsis best used by common folk. To that philosophical axiom I would add this corollary: since the common folk cannot take part in tragedy, so too should the great and powerful steer clear of humor. This applies to philosophers in particular; they can kill a joke by just looking at it.
The X in Xmas
I am not a Scrooge. I like Christmas well enough as a part of the end-of-year holiday season of feasting and thanking and getting crazy paralytic drunk. I like the presents thing (to a point), and I have nothing but empathy for the people who bite, bludgeon, and tase their fellow shoppers on Black Friday. Plus, Jesus seems to have been a very nice guy. That’s all good.

What I don’t like are my Christmas tree lights. I plug them in, anticipating my own little Festival of Lights, but no. There is always one string that fails. I just bought that string last year, yet it will not illuminate no matter how imaginative my curses are. Those lights were supposed to be there for me at this time of year, along with comfort and joy, but all I get is another last minute trip to Kmart.

Hold on now, you may interject, are you going to let a silly little thing like malfunctioning mini-lights spoil the whole season? My answer is yes — but not just because I got ripped off. Those defective holiday bulb systems are a symptom of a much larger problem, one that undermines not just Christmas, but our entire retail-based civilization.

Allow me to illustrate. I also own a set of Christmas tree lights that were passed on to me by my parents. After seventy years, the color has worn off some of the bulbs, and the ratty wiring threatens to burn down my house every December. Even so, they work. When one does fail, it can be unscrewed, tossed, and replaced with a new bulb. If a socket is so corroded that it can no longer accept a new bulb, the rest of the string goes on shining in spite of it. I won’t call it an elegant design, but it has lasted.

Lasted without, it should be noted, any teeny, tiny fuses in the plug itself. Fuses! My failed string of mini-lights comes with fuses! They are included to keep the system from failing, I guess, but it seems the fuses have also failed. The mini-lights even come with a pair of back-up fuses. Do I really need to tell you that they, too, have failed? Layer upon layer of failure, violation upon violation of the implied warranty of merchantability. I’d sue, but I only paid $4.39 for that string of tree lights (on sale, which only heightens my anguish).

This is what’s wrong with Christmas; this is what’s wrong with the world. My ant poison doesn’t kill ants. My fluorescent lights don’t last a year, much less ten. My collapsible umbrellas disintegrate after one usage. Yet I (and lots of other people, it appears) continue to buy these cheap-ass products. I fear that the engine of our great economy will soon be fueled only by the continued re-purchase of products that don’t work.

As I have said, Christ was a nice feller. He never bought a Christmas present for anyone, but if he had, it probably would have been something of the loaves and fishes variety rather than a useless piece of crap. The holiday that was named for him, however, has taken a different path. For whatever reason, its success has come to depend on the purchase of large quantities of crap. The American economy, in turn, relies on Christmas to stay afloat, and the rest of the world relies on America.

This is the dangerous state of affairs that has soured my enjoyment of the holiday season (not my own Scroogic —or Grinchly— nature). I sense that we, and the entire world, are living in a fool’s paradise. One day, the crappiness quotient of manufactured goods will become so low that our entire retail network will crumble, and civilization will be left holding the empty gift bag that Christmas came in.

What’s worse, we’ll have only ourselves to blame for our own humbuggering.
Free (hah!) Will
I didn’t think much about free will until I got to college. Then came Philosophy 1 and my introduction to the theory of Determinism. If this is your first encounter with this numbing concept, I apologize. Your comfy world view is about to be upended and spilled out onto the Parcheesi board of your life. As you will soon see, however, there was nothing I could have done to prevent this from happening. No offense; it was simply meant to be.

Determinism asserts that everything that happens must happen because it has been caused by all that has gone before, all the way back to the First Cause (if there was such a thing). That fabric of causality can only unfold in one way, and every event within it is predetermined from here to the end of time (if there is to be such an event). The universe is fully determined and immutable forever. Within such a framework, I am sad to say, there is no place for free will.

The first time I heard this line of reasoning, I immediately accepted it as true. Of course every event is an outgrowth of previous events. That’s obvious, it seemed to me. Furthermore, the mesh of causality could certainly be fine enough to include the most complex human motivations, genetic structure, and ways of being. Not only is our behavior predetermined, then, we are predetermined.

This realization is a double-edged sword. Cosmically, we’re off the hook for anything we do (and that’s a relief), but at the same time our lives are rendered utterly meaningless. That’s kind of a tough sword to swallow, philosophically. Ever since that first collision with Determinism, I’ve been trying to square my acceptance of a universe that is already written in stone with my conviction that what I do makes a difference. It’s proven to be a difficult task. Until now.

Though it is not widely known, I am something of an amateur theoretical physicist. Furthermore, I am happy to report that my research in this field has brought my decades-long struggle with the free will/determinism conundrum to an end. I call my discovery the Negligible Differentiation Effect, or NDE. I won’t get into all the technical stuff about event eruptions along intertwining chains of causality projected within a four-dimensional field of space/time. Most of you would be bored by the math. Suffice it to say that free will does exist after all — but not quite in the way we have imagined.

Here’s how it works. Within the parameters the NDE, we have a narrow range of control over the events we experience. We can make real choices which are not predetermined. We can choose to have granola for breakfast, for example, or we can choose Dinosaur Eggs Benedict, and that choice would be wholly our own and utterly unaffected by events that have preceded it. So yes, there is free will — but there is a catch, as well. Our choices, no matter how consequential they may seem, will have no effect on subsequent events. The egg dish might well cause us to experience an episode of indigestion that we would not have had with the cereal, but that slight variation in events will bring about a negligible differentiation among succeeding events. Such choices disappear into a kind of causal vortex within the NDE and hence count for nothing in the grand scheme of things. I could show you the calcs, but you are fated neither to understand nor to care, so why bother?

Perhaps it would be helpful if you imagined the entire universe of events, from the beginning to the end of time, as a giant tree sloth covered with a thin layer of slime. That slime is the NDE. It has an interesting sheen to it, especially when the sloth is moving, but it will wash right off in the first rain.

Again, I should apologize… for that sloth metaphor and for what I’ve done to your peace of mind. The only thing my years of work have accomplished is to replace one double-edged sword with a smaller, tarnished one. I should apologize, but I won’t. It is what it is, as they say, and it couldn’t have been anything else. It was set in stone, you see, and covered with slime.
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Trump supporters are people who know what they believe.
~ JC, Bonny Doon