Thursday, September 30, 2010

What Stuff Costs

I have some strong feelings about taxes and tax cuts, ranging from the closing of our local pool to the shabby shape of roads in my hometown. Some of this stuff may come out in the blog at a later date…but, today, I just want to share a tip-of-the-iceberg fascination with what stuff costs, and a breakdown of overall percentage of income represented by those costs.

So, okay. Taxes. At a ridiculously simple level, an argument about taxes can be stated as one of opposition: Conservatives are identified with "smaller government/less taxes," while Liberals get painted with a "bloated bureaucracy/more taxes" brush. Whatev. For this argument, those over-simplified definitions don't really matter. What matters is what stuff actually costs, and how cheap you can get those things.

Why I care about this is that, let's face it, there are just some things that we all kind of "need," and there reaches a point beyond which you simply can't get those things any cheaper. For the purposes of this blog, I'm comparing a fictional schoolteacher who makes $50,000 a year with a CEO who makes $5,000,000 a year. We're only talking base numbers, here, again, for the purpose of comparing a percentage-of-income investigation. Okay? Here we go.

This is for a married family filing jointly, and figuring ZERO DEDUCTIONS. I'm just going on raw numbers here; other stuff complicates things to the level of…well, to the level of the federal tax code, I guess. A family making $50,000 a year falls into a 15% tax bracket, whose tax of $6,663 actually represents 13.33% of their earnings. Same family, CEO-style, making $5,000,000 a year would pay $1,720,308 in federal income tax, representing 34.41% of their earnings. All other things being equal, that leaves our teacher-family with $43,337 and the CEO richies with $3,279,672.

Onward. I didn't even TRY to figure out housing costs for these two opposites, but let's say they're both home-owners…or, snidely, mortgage-owners. That is to say, neither are renters. Let's outfit that house, shall we? Since both families have to mow their lawns, they'll need a lawn mower. Our teacher goes to Sears and buys a Craftsman walk-behind push mower for his small yard, paying $150. That represents .3% of his earnings. Our CEO, with a much bigger yard, needs a rider: still at Sears, he shells out $6,000 for a comparable Craftsman model…but, that only comes in at .12% of HIS earnings.

Both houses need some new appliances. Still at Sears, our teacher buys a 14.4 cubic foot white refrigerator and a standard 30" white stove (gas or electric). 'Fridge runs $460 (.92% of his income) and the stove is $268 (.54%). Mr. CEO can afford stainless for both, a 21 cubic foot 'fridge and a whopper 48" stove, dual ovens, the works. 'Fridge is $2,635 (.05% of income) and the stove is a formidable $10,639 (.21%). Oh, and wonder of wonders, the water heater in both homes conked out at the same time! For $259 (.52% of income), the teacher gets a 30-gal. unit, while the CEO spends $1,600 (.03%) for a 50-gal monstrosity. Of course, it should go without saying (but, I'll say it anyway) that the cheaper appliances aren't Energy Star rated, while the more expensive ones are…and, on a sliding scale, so that the more expensive the appliance is, the better its Energy Star rating. Which, of course, makes a big difference in your electric bill every month.

Multiply this out across everything that everyone needs. A new roof. A car to get to work. Gasoline and insurance for the car. Groceries: milk, eggs, ground beef, bread. Sure, maybe the CEO buys super-expensive Horizon organic milk and cage-free eggs…but, at the end of the day, the teacher needs those things too, and even the cheapest versions eventually reach a "rock-bottom" point. Beyond that, they just don't come any cheaper.

What I'm saying is this: you may think taxes suck. You may call them "unfair." But at the end of the day, there are things that we all need, and those things represent a bigger percentage of overall earnings for the "poorer" earner than they do the "richer" one. To wit (and with only a small dose of irony): it's CHEAP to be rich! The stuff that you need, from lawn mowers to milk to gasoline, represents a much smaller percentage of your income than it does for someone who is…hell, who isn't even really POOR, but maybe just lower-middle class. Now, how do those costs (and associated percentages) feel to someone who really IS poor? When we talk about a sliding scale for taxes, and the idea that wealthier people can afford to pay more…it's because they actually can.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Shameless Self-Promotion

I generally prefer to use this space to pontificate about the hilarious/shocking/awful nature of humanity, but today I just need to do some shameless advertising. The debut CD by the chamber group I perform with, the Great Lakes Art Music Ensemble, was released last week. You can find it here on Amazon, and should discover it on iTunes and CDBaby within the week.

These are all original compositions and arrangements, done for our current instrumentation of flute, flute, guitar and percussion. We performed this repertoire during 2007/2008, culminating in an appearance at the National Flute Association conference in Kansas City, MO in August of 2008. One audience member likened our performance to a "religious experience." We recorded the disc over a 2-day period in the acoustically-fantastic Staples Family Concert Hall at CMU. We're pretty proud of it, and of course are planning to advertise the snot out of it.

If you're so inclined to leave a review, please be kind…but honest. If you like what you hear, you can indicate that on Facebook, as well as see some video of us performing. Spread the word!

Monday, September 06, 2010

Fortune And Glory

Spent an enjoyable day with my mom yesterday, doing one of the things that we do best: treasure hunting. Our treasure hunting takes on many forms, but of course all of them center around one basic theme: finding The Big One.

I was brought up to be a treasure hunter. Ever since I was a kid, Mom and I have attended various flea markets, antique stores, and auctions. We're looking for things to add to various collections, of course: comix, records and Magic cards for me, Krome-Kraft and other bric-a-brac for Mom. But we also keep our eyes peeled for that One Big Find, the one that, if it won't let us retire in style, will at least bring a hefty profit on eBay. Mom had a good one once, a trumpet purchased at a local auction. She spent, I dunno, maybe a couple hundred for it, but followed its pedigree to discover that it was a super-nice example of a pretty rare horn. When she listed it on eBay she had bidders from all over the world peppering her with questions, including one guy from Europe who claimed that, by the photos at least, the horn she was selling was nicer than the one in his instrument museum. She ended up selling it for several thousand bucks, a-thank yew verrah much.

We got into metal detecting in the later '80s, and spent the better part of a year knocking on the doors of century-old houses in town, asking the owners if we could run the machine over their yard. Perhaps surprisingly we almost always got a "yes," but I think the owners were also hoping for The Big Find, maybe Uncle Henry's buried cigar box of 1933 double eagles. When they saw the (usually) pitiful collection of pull-tabs, rusty toy cars and wheat cents we'd pulled from under their lawn, they generally shrugged and told us to keep it. We got pretty good at finding stuff, but we were late to the party, so to speak. Metal detectors first came to cultish public use in the '70s, and THOSE guys (whom we referred to as "first wavers" with sullen jealousy) could show you coffee cans full of silver halves and class rings. We were happy enough to find Indian cents, an occasional silver dime or quarter, and the rare day-maker like a seated Liberty dime or walking Liberty half.

One time Mom took the detector to some mud piles that had been dredged from the local culvert running through town, and kept stumbling upon little green Coke bottles and the like. She eventually returned the detector to the car and started picking up the bottles. That spawned a NEW fascination with us: bottling. And that's what we spent yesterday doing.

Bottle hunters are a less common breed than metal detectorists, on the whole. There are the guys in super-old cities like New York, who plunge 10-foot long steel rods into the ground looking for (gulp!) old outhouse holes that were typically filled in with bottles. THEY find genuinely old and valuable stuff. Here in Michigan, though, it's mostly looking for old township dumps or trash heaps over riverbanks where folks used to toss their garbage. We started with our OWN trash pile, yes, over the riverbank, the idea being, apparently, that "nature will take care of it." We dug through mountains of rusty tin cans and what appeared to be an entire Model T, in pieces, but we pulled out plenty of bottles too. For a Baptist family that claimed alcohol was The Devil, my dad's parents and grandparents sure seemed to consume their fair share of Frankenmuth Beer!

We've specialized since those days, preferring to keep embossed bottles that once held beer, milk, soda or "medicine." Some of those - like yesterday's bottle that claimed it's contents could "cure consumption and ailments of the liver - are pretty scary. Ditto the Burnett's Cocaine bottle that I once pulled out. Hmmm…cocaine as medicine. Take THAT, Johnson & Johnson! We've never found The Big One, the one that would make the Antiques Roadshow folks do a double back-flip. On the other hand, Mom's kitchen cupboards are topped with lots of things that we found & liked: blob-top beer bottles from Saginaw, Bay City and Grand Rapids. Milk bottles from tons of little dairys all over the Thumb, all of which have long ceased to exist. And, we have a ready source of milk bottles from the old Michigan State College Creamery, in E. Lansing. We had a fair amount of success selling those in the past; a one-pint example got bid up between two "playahs" at Christmastime, and ended up selling somewhere north of $250. But basically it's just an exercise in having a good time, talking to each other, never knowing whether or not the next hint of glass will turn out to be The One that sets you for life. Good times.