Archive for the government helpfulness? Category

There are two kinds of bullies.

The kind who control the way you play a particular game.   And the kind who insist you play their game.

Most Americans reject the first kind (save for those who like to be BMOP (big man on playground).

But, if truth be told, the first kind is pretty easy to get away with.  You can just walk away.  Life isn’t grade school.  If I think Joe is a bully, I just decide to hang out where Joe isn’t.

It’s the second kind of bully that can be the problem.  The second kind of bully wants to keep you on his playground, playing his way by his rules.

And, unfortunately, our “system” encourages such bullies to get together and seek power.  They know that it’s a lot easier to keep on bullying if you’ve got a gang of bullies who stand with you.

Economics says that a cartel contains the seeds of its own destruction.  That cartel members have an incentive to cheat, since they can reap extra economic benefits from doing so.  But bullies aren’t driven by economic incentives.  They’re driven by the pursuit of power.

That’s why a Constitution of enumerated powers combined with a t Bill of Rights was such a critical thing. The founders knew their would be bullies out there.   Bullies who would see majoritarianism as a tool.

Unfortunately, “we the people” have emasculated both Constitution and Bill of Rights by converting them into a tool of utilitarianism.  And in so doing, we’ve enabled bullying on a huge scale.  Indeed, we’ve converted the greatest innovation in government ever into an unprecedented affirmation of the bullying ethos.  If we don’t like what other people want to do, the solution has become to pass a law to make what they want to do illegal.

We’ve professionalized and legitimated bullying.  Look at your typical Congressperson, your typical President, your typical bureaucrat.  They’re almost all bullies.

They’re just bullies that look good and promise better.   All at the expense of the evil on the other side of them and us.  We don’t want our bullies to be jackbooted thugs.  We want them to be expertly coiffed with business suit and nicely shined shoes.

Why is political correctness such an evil?  Because  it is nothing more than another excuse for type 2 bullying.  To convert taking offense into taking over the schoolyard.

Do I consider some speech offensive?  Sure.  Absolutely.

And as an adult, I have a pretty easy solution available to me:  I can walk away.

But political correctness doesn’t work that way.  If the PC bullies are offended, they’re solution isn’t walking away and associating elsewhere.  They’re solution is that of serfdom.   They want to build a 10,000-volt fence around the schoolyard, and then, when the offending person can’t escape, pummel him unmercifully until he speaks better.

Look at today’s newspapers.  Look at the stories and editorials where people are calling for government action.  Look carefully at what people are asking for.   Are they asking for enforcement of the Constitution and its protection.   Or are they asking for help in bullying other people?

If you have to, start with those whose causes you don’t share.  (It’s always easier to see bullying on the other side.)  But after you’ve identified the opponents’ bullying tactics, move to those who you agree with.  Look in the mirror.  Look real carefully at what is being proposed with respect to the choices of your opponents.   I hate to say this, but more often than not, you’re seeking to take advantage of the same bullying tactics and threats.

This isn’t meant as America bashing.  Bullying using state power has been the default of political action since long before our republic was founded.   Indeed, what made the American Experiment so special is that it attempted to formulate rules that prevented legitimized bullying and that discouraged just the sort of bullying we now practice.

It’s just that we no longer hear the voices of the Founders well enough.   We’re too busy trying to be bullies.

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What are the differences between organized crime and a majoritarian state?  Seriously.

For the life of me, I can only think of three:

1.  Agents of the state are more likely to claim what they do is done for your benefit.

2.  Agents of organized crime resort to the use of force somewhat quicker.  (Though part of this one may simply mean differing views of how much blood is left in the turnip.)

3. The ultimate extortionists in the case of the state are “We, the People.”

There may be other differences.   Just can’t think of any right now.

Ah well.  Perhaps extortionists are the social equivalent of the hornets and cockroaches that hang out around dumpsters.  No apparent necessity for their existence.  Just there.  If you want an alley, you need dumpsters.  And if you have dumpsters, that means you get hornets and cockroaches, too.

Unavoidable.

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I’m a pro football fan. It’s really the only major sport I follow at all anymore.

And the biggest story in pro football the last few days has been Plaxico Burress. It appears that Mr. Burress, a sometime star wide receiver (he caught the winning TD in the last Super Bowl), is in more than a little legal trouble. If the consensus of rumors proves correct, Mr. Burress appears to have been out at a night club in the wee hours of the morning when he accidently shot himself in the leg with a concealed handgun for which he lacked the appropriate permits. And, NY being NY, this means he’s being prosecuted for a felony that carries a mandatory prison sentence of a minimum of 3.5 years.

Now if these facts prove true, it is pretty clear that Mr. Burress is a bonehead of the first degree. Were I a NY stand-up comic, I’d be tempted to tell an X-rated joke about not being able to know which gun he was playing with in his pocket. Perhaps more likely is that he was there, there was some tension in the air, and he was simply being prepared in case that tension went too far in a certain direction. But there’s a good probability that we’re just talking about someone who doesn’t have much of command over the basics of handgun safety, just another dumb, spoiled pro athlete being just another dumb, spoiled pro athlete.

Yet, I find myself more bothered by the intrusiveness of the NY law than by the idiocy of the football player. My guess is that shooting yourself in the leg and surviving is itself a pretty darn good lesson about the virtues of paying attention to the dangers of mixing weapons and alcohol. (Especially since I’m sure doctors and everyone else is going to be telling him just how lucky he was not to have nicked a femoral artery.)

Yeah, Burress may well have been a bonehead of the first degree. But, well, putting someone in the pen for 3.5 years because they are a bonehead strikes me as a bit of overkill in the name of public safety. I mean, if we put away every bonehead out there, well, we’d need more concrete to build prisons than there is on the planet.

But my biggest problem with this isn’t even New York and its idiotic approach to concealed carry. We’re talking New York and the East Coasters after all. I don’t expect them to share my views on the Second Amendment, guns, or, for that matter, on just about anything.

What bugs me more is the deafening silence so far about that idiocy across America. I mean, sports fans, especially here in the Midwest, aren’t universally chardonnay-and-Harvard liberals. You’d think, at least among the watchers of ESPN or FoxSports, there’d be some real bitching and moaning about the non-proportionality of sentencing anyone, even a spoiled rich athlete, to three-and-a-half years of showering according to the timing of the Man and the rules of Bubba the Knife.

It’s not just that people aren’t out there quoting the Second Amendment. I understand that people differ in their opionions about what it’s protections involve. I can see where someone might argue that NY’s concealed carry law is still constitutional. I’d disagree, but never mind that.

It’s that people aren’t even out there complaining about how utterly stupid a law is that has to put a person in jail because he boneheadedly used an unregistered weapon to shoot himself in the leg.

No, it’s not the Second Amendment that’s puzzling the crap out of me today. It’s that Americans in general can’t seem to be able to see just how whacked-out our approach to laws is. How ill it reflects on *us* (not on Mr. Burress, not on Mr. Bloomberg, but on us, Joe Fan/Citizen). How stupid *we* are when we fail to see how stupid it is to put people in jail for 3.5 years because they reveal their stupidity by shooting themselves with an unlicensed weapon. How we fail to understand that jail time is how we punish people who commit real offenses against society, not for people who are offensively stupid.

Because I’ve heard virtually none of that reaction.

Perhaps the reaction has only been delayed until Mr. Burress and his lawyers start the pre-trial legal maneuvering. Maybe But given the reaction so far, my gut tells me that Joe Fan is going to be more “he’s getting what he deserves for being a bonehead.”

And, putting the whole Second Amendment thing aside, that would be just…well, even more boneheadedness.

Even more proof that the problem with America isn’t the Bushes, Obamas, or Bloomberg’s of the world.

It’s us.

If there’s a 1-10 scale for boneheadedness, Mr. Burress probably deserves an 8 or 9.

But America? We, collectively, appear to be off the scale.

Sigh.

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In a word:  No.

Okay, no one is going to be satisfied with a one word answer here unless it is “yes.”  But “yes” is the wrong answer, and here’s why.

People don’t vote because, for one reason or another, their perception is that it isn’t worth their effort.   A low voter turnout is a statement by the electorate that a lot of people consider the act not worth their time.

This is a problem only if you are convinced that a lot of people can’t be trusted with decisions about what is “worth it” and what is not.

Now, I understand.  In a way the entire principle of  having government decide things via law and regulation and executive order is built upon notions that, in this case or that case or that whole bunch of cases, people can’t be trusted to value things well.

Well, personally, I think it’s a pretty good sign when more and more people seem to be staying home each election.  Because that says more and more people realize that those being elected simply aren’t worth it.  That those we elect to make laws and hire government bureaucrats simply don’t create much value.

Yes, I’m going to vote this time.  And, no, I’m not going to tell you who I’m voting for, except to say that my decision has nothing to do with the quality of party convention speakmaking.  (Because, IMO, nothing said at political conventions has provided real value in at least 20 years, and so I didn’t bother listening to any of the speechmaking this year.)  But I’ll tell you that deciding to vote was a lot harder decision to make than the decision of who to vote for.
Because the guy I’m voting for  == well, let’s just say that the tens or hundreds billions or so that his various fundraisers  and advocates have spent aren’t going to be providing value of anything approaching those tens or hundreds of billions.

Not by at least an order of magnitude.

The fact that his opponent will provide even less value for the billions his supporters have spent doesn’t change that.

The fact of the matter is that the American political “system” has become a colossal waste of natural and human resources.

Part of America has been engaged in a very public debate the last several weeks about a $700 billion or so bailout of various borrowers and/or lenders. Actually, I’m with David who, in another thread, suggested that the total cost could well be twice that.  But whether it’s $700 billion or $1700 billion, the reality is that this bailout represents just a tiny fraction of the wealth our political “leaders” have squandered in my lifetime.

Those who don’t vote, in my opinion, shouldn’t be chastised.

This is not about who, McCain or Obama, I think is the better man.  That, to me, is an easy choice.   It’s not even about who, McCain/Palin, or Obama/Biden, I think represents the better ideas.  That, to me, is also an easy choice.  I have no doubt that anyone who knows anything at all about my economic/political philosophy knows who I’m going to be voting for.

This is about whether that better choice is worth any significant effort to vote.  And there, I’m sorry to say, I think my answer has to be “no.”

The economic history of American political institutions over the last half century or so makes the people who have put their entire life savings into slot machines one quarter at a time look like the epitome of temperance and responsibility.   Congress, state legislatures, executives, cabinet level department, etc. — these are institutions that have proven, over and over and over again, not up to any task worth doing in the last several decades.

And this squandering of wealth happened despite decades with no shortage of fine and noble Mr. and Mrs. Smiths who have gone to Washington to reform and to change things.  The result, even when those individual Mr. and Mrs. Smiths played true to the values of the character played by Jimmy Stewart rather than those played by Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie?  Less gas mileage than a stadium parking lot full of recreational vehicles; and the result,

No, I don’t think it’s those non-voters who should be chastised.

As Pogo might say, look in a mirror.  It’s us.  The ones who keep voting and contributing to the coffers of the Republican and Democratic parties.  We who keep voting are the ones needing chastisement.

We’re the ones who keep acting like someone with a real gambling problem.  We’re the ones who, despite decades worth of losing hands, keep hoping that this time will be different.  That this will be the big score America needs.

We’re the ones who keep shoving the quarters in even though we ought to have figured out by now that the house always wins.

And uses the proceeds in ways that would make the builder of penthouse suites on the Vegas Strip blush.

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Tenured faculty members enjoy one perk still very rare in the rest of the working world — sabbaticals.  And for more than one reason, none of which I’m going to go into here, I’m glad I’m one of those sabbaticals right now.

But today I find myself with an addition reason for gladness.  Were I in the classroom this fall, I’m sure I’d be getting “Well, what do you think about the situation in the financial markets, the proposed bailouts, etc, etc?”  Such questions go with the territory when you teach economics.

But, while I have opinions, I am absolutely certain that very few of my students, or my colleagues, or my superiors, or my student’s parent’s would appreciate them.    And they would appreciate very much less my explanation of them, for, even for someone as verbose as I usually am, my explanation in this case would be very, very lengthy.  It is not  a simple situation.  It doesn’t have simple answers.  And any question or answer that claims otherwise is wrong.  Including, I expect, every question and answer about it in the upcoming presidential debates which I refuse to waste my time upon.

And, were I in the position of teacher this fall, I would feel compelled to give that explanation.

Compelled in a way that I do not feel in this blog.  Here, I’m perfectly content to just blurt out my convictions without explanation, just like everyone else.  And, no, I’m not particularly interested in arguing these points right now — because it would take too much time, and, believe it or not, there are far more important things to talk about.

So here are my blurts:
1.  Why in the world does anyone think that “government” can be trusted with a bailout decision.  Has the Bush administration, or the Congress, or their respective predecessors for the last 20 years or so, together or separately, provided any evidence that they should be trusted with $700 much less $700 billion?

2.  The people of this country have become addicted to the idea that “papa government is here to help us with every travail of our lives.”  Despite that government showing, over and over and over again, that it belongs at the top of any list of delinquent and abusive dads.

We are like unlearning victims of a Ponzi scheme:  First we went to them because they promised solutions to million-dollar problems.  When, helped by their fraud and mismanagement and out-and-out “governing” stupidity, those million-dollar problems were replaced by billion-dollar problems, we went to them again.  And, now, after more fraud and stupidity and help-that-is-no-real-help-at-all, we are going to them with “You Must Do Something About” a $700 billion problem.

Yes, America may have a financial crisis right now.  And I certainly have no easy solutions, much less any painless ones to that crisis.  But for the life of me, I simply don’t understand why people think the Bushs and the Pelosis, the McCains and the Obamas, are going to be the ones with the solution.

In the days, weeks, and months ahead, I expect no shortage of bickering and finger-pointing and grandiose plans promising solution of this latest crisis.  But, frankly, I have no confidence in these people even if they do somehow manage to come together and actually embrace the true bipartisanship they all claim is essential.

Because that’s not how Ponzi schemes work.   When we trust these con men and con women — any of them — with the $700 billion, all we are assured of is that tomorrow they’ll be asking us for control over $7 trillion more.

And that’s what we do with every problem today.  We ask con men and con women to solve it for us.

Pick any major national, regional, or state newspaper.  Dig into its archives for the last, say, five years.  And I bet you will be hard pressed to find three consecutive issues of their front page that doesn’t have one or more stories reflecting a majority opinion that “the government must do something” about some problem or event or catastrophe.

Heck, I’d be surprised to find two consecutive issues.  Ours is a nation whose history and success has been built on the notion of self-reliance.  Yet that self-reliance has become too much of a myth.  Every act of God or of our fellow man now deserves government assistance and retribution.

No single Ponzi scheme, not even one of $700 billion, can threaten an economy capable of generating at least $14 trillion of new value every year.

But a cultural addiction to the lures of Ponzi-masquerading-as-Papa?  That can.

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I must admit I’d find the ongoing discussion by the usual suspects about the qualifications of Sarah Palin amusing if it weren’t for what it says about the state of shared belief in this country right now.

Democrats are busy sneering about Palin’s time as a small town mayor and her lack of big-time national and international experience.  Meanwhile, Republicans are busy talking about how qualified she actually is because of her big-time experience as Alaska’s governor.

And, it seems to me, they’re both ignoring something else — namely how important it is that we have leader who pay attention to the small scale things.  Frankly, it’s not how much or how little time Sarah Palin has gallivanted around on fact-finding missions at public expense to foreign countries that’s important.  It’s not whether she has lots of experience hobnobbing with the powerful and people that CNN anchors and the Senate Democratic Caucus and the Republican National Committee spend their time pay attention to.

What matters is what kind of neighbor she is.  Frankly, I want to know what kind of mayor she was.  Even more, I want to know what kind of hockey mom she was.   Was she one of the obnoxious ones or one of the good ones?

My feeling for a long time has been that if someone wants to be in high political office, they are presumptively unqualified for that position.   Before I’m going to vote for someone, they have to overcome that presumption.  And the qualifications that matter most is their everyday moral character and their everyday relationships with others.

I’m not concerned with whether they can exercise the power of their office.  It’s a heck of a lot easier for a quality human being to transform himself or herself into a CEO than it is for a quality CEO to make themselves into a quality human being who pays attention to the personal consequences of their decisions.

To me, it’s almost irrelevant how much experience Obama or McCain or Biden or Palin have in high political circles.  Because, to me, it’s not about what the President and VicePresident will be doing with other rich and powerful people.  It’s about what they are going to do to the rest of us.

And that means I want to know how they approach the everyday choices that impact their neighbors.  Choices like how they treat their children’s associations, how (or if) they have time to talk to their kid’s teachers or the person shelving soup at the supermarket, who they drink coffee with.   The boring stuff.  The everyday stuff.

National politics is a place where the distance between “compromise” and “corruption” is often measurable with a micrometer.  A distance that a president or vice-president is constantly going to be tempted to cross.

Yet we need a president and a vice-president who will resist that temptation.  And, in my opinion, that means we need a president and vice-president that are grounded in the everyday.  Not grounded in their own power or their experience with the world of compromise and corruption.   But grounded in the everyday of parent-teacher conferences and supermarkets and  filling their own gas tank and all the rest.

Think about it.  Look at our leading national politicians and candidates for the last thirty years or so. And try to imagine how much they connected with their neighbors as they climbed the ranks from state office to federal office, from Congressman or “influential citizen” to senator and beyond.   I’m not talking about photo ops and campaign events with ordinary people at parades or fundraising dinners.  I’m talking about meetings with the school principal or the football coach, or a meeting about their town’s library funding, or playing pool at the local watering hole.

And you know what?  I’m betting that you’re finding it really hard to imagine them doing any of those everyday things.  Much less doing those things on anything approaching an everyday basis.

And you’re surprised that politicians screw things up over and over again?

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I try to do a bit of random web-surfing every day. Start with a link that looks interesting, perhaps from my Yahoo page, or Google search results, or somewhere in the blogosphere. Not looking for anything in particular, just following connections.

It’s a great activity (though I strongly recommend using an alarm or something else to limit the time — this kind of thing can be a huge time waster if you let it).

Anyway, today’s surfing took me to the following AP article: “Employers use federal law to deny benefits”.

People ask me why I’m such a grumbler about using the state to solve problems. Well, this is a classic example of one reason, what the economist calls rent-seeking.

Here we have a statute supposedly designed to ensure that employers provide a certain quality of health care. And it gets used by those employers to avoid the very liability the law sought to impose.

The solution suggested by the article is even more government action — by Congress, by President Bush, by the Courts — to keep the evil employers from frustrating the law’s purpose.

And entirely missing the economic point. It’s no accident that Big Business is regularly involved in lobbying for consumer protection, safety, health care legislation, etc etc. Not only do they get public relations bennies for their social consciousness, they have the resources to ensure that the rules favor them. They can afford the $500/hour lawyers that draft the thousands of sections of fine print for both enabling legislation and implementing regulation. They know how many millions of dollars are going to be at stake and they can use those lawyers and others to ensure that they protect those millions of dollars.

“Rent” to an economist isn’t what you pay for the occupancy of your apartment, it’s any return over and above your opportunity cost. If you’ve got big rents possible — in this story, the millions of dollars that you will save in health care liability — you’re going to be willing to spend a lot of your resources up front to get the rules that favor you.

And guess what, the same rent-seeking motivation is going to make Big Business a big participant in the next round of negotiation for “health care reform”.

These sort of stories will allow the Senators Leahy of the world to push changes through. The regulations will get more and more complicated with more and more “protections” for us poor peons of the world.

And guess what: the corporations will hire more $500/hour lawyers to protect their million dollar rents by all the things that $500/hour lawyers are good at, things that are designed to make it harder and harder for us peons to get “justice” or whatever idealistic-sounding label the Senators Leahy put on it.

I’m not a big fan of Big Business. I’ve spent the better part of two decades researching the history of the corporate form of business organization, and I’m convinced that a big part of big business exists only because of one or another legislative/regulatory action that makes it economically necessary to be “big”. Not because of economies of scale or other ephemera of the microeconomic imagination.

But I’m wholly skeptical of our power to use the state to regulate the bastards.

Because the reason those lawyers get paid $500 an hour is that they can, and do, provide value of at least $5,000 an hour.

And in a battle between a salaried bureaucrat and a $500/hour lawyer, I’ll bet on the $500/hour lawyer.

Every time.

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It may be the single best document ever written by the hand of man.

Marx and Engels wrote an impressive little screed that inspired millions, yet The Communist Manifesto is juvenile whining when placed against these thirteen hundred words.

Lincoln spoke well on the fields of Gettysburg, but the limits of the immediate occasion meant that he could only emphasize one part of this document. A funeral oration may speak to our greatest aspirations, but it remains constrained by the rhetorical need for honoring the past and dead.

No one since 1776 has understood economics better than Adam Smith, but much as I love An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, it has dozens of pages that could be safely ignored by everyone to whom I have recommended its reading over the years.

The Bible is more, but — at least if you share my theological belief — it wasn’t just written by the hand of men.

Oh, my calling this document from just over 232 years ago, the “best ever written” is a bit hyperbolic. I have no doubt that anyone who reads this blog entry will be able to point to other works of words that are just as “great” or even greater.

But, to be honest, I have no desire to hear that sort of argument today.

Because today is July 4th. And today we should be remembering this document more than any other.

The document which ought to more than inspire us. Which is more than just a list of complaints and aspirations and “ideals” to be shunted aside in our pursuit of fireworks, barbeque, and family fun.

2008 is an election year. As I watched the caucuses, straw polls, and primaries unfold over the last several months I found myself becoming guardedly optimistic. For the candidates rising to the top in each party were both men of ideals and ideas. Neither Barack Obama nor John McCain will have a platform I have much patience for, but at least it looks like we are going to be choosing between men of principle rather than just among competing cynics, manipulators, and opportunists.

Yet on this day when every year every American becomes an optimist, I can’t help feeling depressed. And not just because I remain underwhelmed by both Obama and McCain as choices.

But because, unlike most Americans, I have read and studied and thought about the words of the Declaration of Independence.

The words that speak of what governments are for (“securing” our “unalienable” rights), and of our duties in that regard.

We — and by “we” here I’m not talking about Messrs. Obama and McCain, but about “we, the poeple” — talk about rights and duties and the role of government all the time. But we do not talk of these things as Thomas Jefferson did.

We have instead contented ourselves with being corrupted by the madness of King George. We have abused our power to give the consent of the governed. We have replaced the securing of fundamental rights with one attempt of social engineering after another. Homeland security, cradle-to-grave subsidized health care, smoking bans, hundreds of other smart ideas that demand hundreds of thousands of pages of federal, state, and local regulations to implement.

All of which are nothing less than attempts to alienate the unalienable. We have avoided some of the acts of tyranny Jefferson listed, but what is amazing is how many of them we have not. Our self-inflicted injuries, abuses, and usurpations run much longer than Jefferson’s list of twenty-seven. And I have no doubt that the convention platforms of each party will demand an extended list of new injuries, abuses, and usurpations.

Tyranny is no less because it it done “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” It is only more insidious. Smart ideas aren’t always good ideas.

Obama versus McCain offers us a better choice than Clinton vs. Romney. Better than Bush vs. Gore or Bush vs. Kerrey. Hoorah.

It would be something worth celebrating. Except that once upon a time, other people called Americans decided to choose between a John Adams and a Thomas Jefferson.

The Declaration of Independence. Read it here. Really read it.

And weep.

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I’m a small business person. I’m hard at work trying to figure out my first year income tax return under Subchapter S of the Internal Revenue Code.

(Yes, I know. I should have hired an accountant/tax lawyer to help me out. Well, guess what, like a really big chunk of the 26 million small businesses in America, my cash flow is such that I have to do myself a lot of things that I would prefer to outsource.)

Back to the wonders of Form 1120S. I just spent the better part of two hours making my way through the Treasury regulations referenced in the oh-so-helpful instructions about one line on the form, before I discovered that — in fact — there are not one but four exceptions that cover my case and so I can enter a zero on this particular line.

And were it not for the fact that in a prior life, a couple decades ago, I went to law school and did some tax returns during my brief stint as a lawyer, I would have zero confidence that I’ve correctly read those regs. (As opposed to the something less-than-100% confidence I actually have.)

And remember, this is the section of the “tax rules” for “small” business, I’m talking about. Rules supposedly started because the powers-that-be (i.e., our elected idiots) felt small businesses should get certain benefits of the corporate form. This is not the rules for MegaCorp, International. This is the “simpler” tax form.

Having a baby tooth pulled or a minor cavity filled without anesthetic is less painful than having a wisdom tooth pulled without anesthetic, I suppose.

But I don’t know about you, I don’t have particularly fond memories of those juvenile trips to the dentist.

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All content of this blog, except comments added under names other than "Wade," are copyright © 2008, 2009 Wade E. Shilts