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Linking taxes to empathy

I look at how logical Ireland, Sweden, Denmark, Japan, Australia and the Netherlands are [because they enacted a carbon tax] and wonder how we in the US are still so positively stupid.

(I’m not alone in thinking so.)

It’s the one tax that both conservative and liberal economists agree on. You tax the amount of gasoline you use, the amount of garbage you don’t recycle (since it releases greenhouse gases once it’s sitting in a landfill), and the amount of energy you use to heat your home. The result: more money for the government (which wouldn’t be in such a fiscal mess otherwise), and less pollution. If you design it so that lower-income households are subsidized, it doesn’t lower consumption or increase inequality.

You can’t blame Obama entirely because any environmentally-progressive thing he might want to do would be vetoed by the Republican-controlled House (though it doesn’t mean he shouldn’t try). And you can’t blame Republicans in the House entirely because someone elected them. Could you blame the people that elected the Republicans?

I used to think that people who were homophobic, conservative, and tax-evading didn’t have the same access to good education. But then I remembered Alex. He and I went to the same public middle school and high school, and by his senior year, most of his opinions were already formed. He was smart and capable–he just didn’t care about most other people. And there’s the problem: no public school curriculum in the US teaches empathy.

Are all environmentalists good people? Probably not. Are all environmentally apathetic people “bad?” Certainly not. But for every person who opposes having taxes, I must ask: will they still refuse to pay taxes once they need the services of a fireman, policeman, public school teacher, or even sanitation engineer (garbage collector)? Once they or their children somehow end up needing social services support? Why should it be different for our shared environment and climate? Why do we need gigantic natural disasters to foster any significant action?

On Humility and Power

I haven’t posted since getting the unexpected honor of “Freshly Pressed” two months ago (thanks to everyone for your kind comments!)… in part because I hate disappointing people, and wouldn’t want to disappoint a now slightly-larger group of followers. But also because I had no idea how many people a few photos from Italy could reach, something that HONY probably realized this year.

A small sample of the reach of WordPress–reaching millions of places I’ve yet to visit.

A person could see this wondrous map and think a number of things:

  • Photos break the language barrier.
  • Some places, like North Korea, Papua New Guinea, Bolivia, and Greenland still have no access to the internet [or even the electric grid].
  • People living in these places have better things to do than read blogs.
  • A good chunk of us want to be in Italy right now.

As I begin the job hunt, I can’t help thinking about how to have the biggest positive impact. Not in the white-man’s-burden kind of way, but helping people where and when they want to be helped. I’m not sure that photography is the only way to go, but I think it needs to be part of the equation. A recent Lens blog post (among a stream of others) profiled an artist that wants to do just that–turn art into stronger activism. Several others (on violence against women in Norway, sexual abuse in South Africa, and domestic violence in the US) are possibly even more powerful. Just some food for thought…

Moral Ambiguity // Financial Stability

I must admit: I am fascinated by prostitutes. For all the characters that frequent films, from 3 Needles to Almodovar’s Todo sobre mi madre and Volver, there is still something mystifying about learning of a seemingly “normal” person who can cope with the moral ambiguity, physical and legal danger, social stigma, and health risks that are inherently part and parcel of the profession.

The character study of Barbara Terry, 52, while a bit simplistic, is no exception. One comment of hers I thought was particularly interesting:

“This place [the prostitute’s street, and the institution] has made me strong. It keeps you young.”

While it’s easy to label prostitution as a corrupt institution, especially when it’s tied to politicians and tax dollars, I’m waiting for the day that it’s legalized, or at the very least recognized as a profession by the US government. Just like legalizing marijuana would lead to more tax revenue, legalizing prostitution would allow for greater access to health check-ups, as well as greater tax revenue from income taxes (as was part of the reasoning for allowing prostitutes to operate in Brazil). As for those that attack the profession on moral grounds, I would argue that those who purchase sex will still find ways to do so regardless of the legal status. Besides, since when were land grabs investors and oil company executives even regulated?

Home for the Holidays

Last week on my way home from Manhattan, a homeless Vietnam veteran sang “My Girl” for me on the subway after I gave him a dollar. Today as I rode home, a group of African American teenagers were break-dancing to a remix of a Soviet solidarity anthem as the Russian women on the train tried to hide their giggling. Although I would have loved to see a decrease in the number of people soliciting on the subway (and the number of homeless people), it was a nice welcome back.

It’s also good to see a bunch of new construction projects underway, from progressive growth of the Freedom Towers to revitalization of the Hudson Yards and [finally] more progress on subway expansion throughout Manhattan.

Yet, as much as my adopted hometown of NYC is flourishing, the larger picture of the US looks bleak. Whereas my friends and I have joked since we were kids that we’d want to live in exotic foreign countries after college, it’s now almost a reality. Our collective outlook on the political situation is dismal at best; what’s the point of a democracy if there’s nobody worth electing for office? Obama lost his identity after NDAA FY 2012, his mutant insurance system (instated via the Affordable Care Act), and now SOPA. Ron Paul, while the least air-headed person on the Republican side, is still highly ignorant on issues related to climate change and abortion (such as his Sanctity of Life bill). Regardless of who will win the 2012 presidential election, we as citizens are headed for a downhill battle if the status quo continues. Except now, unlike in our more naive teenage years, we understand that we have no place to run to, for every country has its problems and entropy must take its course.

On skepticism and happiness

To say that I am a skeptic is an understatement. I don’t think that murdering a figurehead like Osama bin Laden will bring an end to extremism, nor that keeping a currency artificially high will bring the best results in the long run. The eternal New Yorker in me sees skepticism as a mode of survival, but in California this seems to work against me. The happy folks out here equate skepticism to pessimism, and pessimism to downright grouchiness.

Well, happy people, you are both right and wrong. A good friend, calling himself a humanist, lives by the motto that he can’t control others’ happiness, but can at least ensure that he does things to make himself happier. While I would never deny the benefits of an Epicurean lifestyle, there’s something to be said for empathy. People everywhere are struggling–not in deciding between two different cars or girlfriends–but to survive. And there’s beauty to the struggle, always. But to ignore it because it doesn’t fit neatly into the bubble lifestyle of VC funding and 401Ks is to ignore one’s roots… and forgetting our roots is the most common mistake we make as a species. So we continue to be amazed by the harshness and anonymity of war, the nostalgia for extinct species as we keep losing more, the scale of revolutions technological and political alike.

One step forward, two steps back.

I don’t think foreign aid is the answer to others’ struggles. Charity rarely is, mostly because it’s not sustainable and lacks an accountability mechanism (though it arguably needn’t have any). I don’t think stopping FDI inflow will prevent land grabs, nor do large-scale land acquisitions have to be inherently unwise. They just often are. Things are more complex than the media, the progressives, the conservatives, and the governments portray. So why not be skeptical?