Saturday, April 26, 2008

To FairTax or Not To FairTax -

A couple of years ago, I read The Fairtax Book by radio host Neal Boortz, along with John Linder, the Georgia Congressman responsible for proposing the FairTax bill. I'm still not 100% convinced in the FairTax, but I was extremely pleased to see it coming up as a serious issue within the Republican primaries thanks to Mike Huckabee, who made it a major part of his platform.

In this new book, FairTax: The Truth, they return (along with Rob Woodall, Linder's Chief of Staff) to relate further advancements in the FairTax, as well as to deal a bit more directly with some of the criticisms.

For those unfamiliar with the FairTax, the basic reasons for the FairTax are as follows:

1. The current tax code allows politicians to covertly give benefits to one group and penalize other groups by modifications to the elaborate tax code. Ultimately, all of these penalties to corporations and industries trickle down in the cost of goods and services to the individual customers.

2. The current tax code, in the form of both income tax and payroll taxes (Medicare, Social Security, etc.), provide unequal distributions of taxation. Low income earners are burdened with payroll taxes on their earned wages while wealthy individuals are able to virtually avoid payroll taxes entirely since they earn low wages, but gain vast wealth from capital gains and other non-payroll taxed methods.

3. Currently a number of individuals in America do not participate as part of the federal tax basis. Specifically, tourists, illegal immigrants, people paid "off the books," and those involved in illegal activities are able to earn incomes without being any part of the federal taxation system.

The FairTax seeks to remedy this by eliminating the IRS, along with current income, payroll, corporate, capital gains, and estate tax laws. This would be replaced by a 23% inclusive consumption tax on all goods and services sold in the United States, expanding the tax basis considerably. (A 23% inclusive sales tax means that if you buy an item for $100, you just paid $23 in sales tax.)

The portion which makes this tax feasible (not to mention progressive) is that every legal resident of the United States would register the number of people in their household annually. Based upon this number, they would obtain a prebate every month up to the poverty level. In other words, everyone would be exempt from taxation on the necessities. People at the poverty level would have zero federal taxation, while those near it would have virtually none.

There are many nuances to the FairTax bill, although it is only 133 pages long, so it's relatively straightforward as far as legislation goes. The books do an excellent job of illuminating the key points, as does the Americans for Fair Taxation website. Of course, all of these are propaganda in favor of the FairTax. For an alternate account, I would consider the fairly balanced Unspinning the FairTax at ... although in FairTax: The Truth, they address some of the issues brought up in this article (though not the article specifically ... just the issues in general) and, in my opinion, fairly handily deal with them.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

10 Books That Changed My Life -

In the process of catching up on my BookWise training, I listened to a session in which our mentor Robert G. Allen asked "Have you ever read a book that changed your life?" The answer, for me, is a resounding yes.
* - Books indicated with an asterisk are also available through my BookWise bookstore. You can join as a Preferred Customer, completely free, and then search for books at great discounts, some as low as wholesale!

Several of these books touched me on multiple levels, triggering intellectual, professional, and spiritual paths of thought which have ultimately lead me to my current position in the world, of which I'm quite fond.

For example, Stranger in a Strange Land was the first book I read which touched on religious and spiritual themes. Even though I have, in the years since, come to believe that the spirituality Heinlein presents is fundamentally limited (not to mention chauvinistic), it still resonates with me as being the first introduction to a wider sense of spirituality beyond the strict confines of Christianity which, as a participant in American society, it is impossible to avoid.

Calculating God touches on religious themes in a very different way, but that was not its greatest impact on me. No, Calculating God was significant because it introduced me to the work of Robert J. Sawyer and ultimately lead to an opportunity to meet with him in person. He has proved to be something of a role model and mentor to me, and I have learned many lessons about the publishing industry from him. He has also helped to inspire me to continue writing in the face of difficult, disheartening times.

Books have a power to connect us to greater truths, to the deepest components of our own minds which are searching to transform into the next important phase of our lives. All of these books helped motivate and inspire me into a transformative phase of my life. What books have inspired you in this way?

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Visions of a Futuristic God -

A couple of months ago, I learned about Gabriel McKee's The Gospel According to Science Fiction: From the Twilight Zone to the Final Frontier from the blog of my friend Robert J. Sawyer, himself something of a legend in the science fiction field whose books frequently address religious topics quite prominently. McKee has a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School and maintains SF Gospel website and blog, so he clearly has the chops for the task.

While I was anticipating the book to be good, I have to admit that I was not quite anticipating the sheer scope of McKee's enterprise. Across 10 chapters and 250 pages, he covers nearly the full range of religious themes, from the institutions and rituals that comprise social religion to the innate logistics of the afterlife and apocalypse, to the very nature and purpose of belief.

Much of the book recounts specific examples from science fiction literature, film, and television ... examples which clearly illuminate the different aspects of religious experience. Some of the discussion are purely in the realm of science fiction, such as the analysis of godlike alien races, but still others go to the very heart of quintessential human experiences such as faith (or lack thereof) and the nature of free will (or lack thereof).

McKee's book is not merely a rehashing of these concepts but, in the terms of Howard Gardner's Five Minds of the Future, presents a true synthesis of them with the most fundamental questions of human existence. For example, consider this passage from the end of the chapter on faith vs. skepticism, entitled "Believing and Knowing":

"Far from being merely 'nonoverlapping magisteria' with nothing to do with one another, science and religious experience can in fact strengthen one another. In faith, the scientist can find a driving factor for exploration, a divine reason to inquire into the world's mysteries. In science, the believer can uncover the secrets of God's majesty, perhaps finding in subatomic particles or distant stars something mystical."

Though often skeptical of religious institutions and favoring rational explanations over faith-based ones, the literature of science fiction has always been deeply rooted in a search for meaning, for sense out of the seemingly chaotic universe. In this sense, it is the form of literature which most coincides with humanity's deepest spiritual foundation - looking into the heavens and asking "What is out there and what does it mean?"

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Twenty-First Century Minds -

In Five Minds for the Future, Harvard psychology Howard Gardner - creator of the "eight intelligence" theory of the mind - describes the five types of mental processes which will prove to be the most crucial in performing well in the twenty-first century.

The first mind presented by Gardner is the disciplined mind, by which he refers to the idea of learning things as a discipline instead of merely as an unconnected series of facts and tasks. Part of the reason for this, to my mind, is that information and technology change so quickly in our age that learning a specific job isn't going to be as useful as learning a discipline. For example, learning the discipline of "information technology" would prove useful, whereas learning specifically how to encode for, say, an Oracle database may have more limited use in 10 years when technologies have radically changed. The keys to this sort of mind are being diligent and focusing on improvement and continuing education throughout your lifetime. If you ever feel like you can stop learning, stop growing, then your mind is not a disciplined man.

The second mind presented is the synthesizing mind, which is adept at drawing diverse information together in a cohesive manner. A synthesizing mind is selective and capable of drawing out the salient details of a topic, presenting them in any of a variety of forms: narrative, taxonomies, lists, rules, aphorisms, concepts, metaphors, images, themes, wordless embodiments (i.e. artistic metaphors, perhaps), theories, etc.

The creative mind extends the knowledge gained and puts a new spin on it, introduces some unique element to the mix that makes it different upon output than it was upon input. Gardner points out, however, that a creative mind that produces no output, that never puts these ideas into the "field" to "make judgements of quality and acceptability" is ultimately a wasted creative mind.

The next couple diverge, in that instead of talking about how a mind deals with information they relate to how minds interact with other minds. The respectful mind is about how to respond to differences among individuals and groups in a sympathetic and constructive manner. These differences will only grow in the future and ultimately we will all have to learn how best to deal with a wide range of diversity in all aspects of our life, even in aspects where the most progressive of us would prefer that things stay the same.

The final mind is the ethical mind, which goes a bit beyond being respectful and begins to deal with the individual's role as a good citizen in general. While the respectful mind focuses on individual interactions, the ethical mind focuses on interactions between an individual and the diverse roles that we assume in society - family roles, work roles, community roles, etc.

This one, of all of the minds presented, is the one that I'm least convinced of. Sure, it's great to be a good citizen and perform "good work" (one of Gardner's buzz phrases), but is this really inherent crucial in the same way the other sorts of minds are? Perhaps it is, though ... and perhaps I'll find out why when I read one of his other books, Good Work.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Fascism & Liberalism: Strange Bedfellows? -

The last month has been hectic, in ways that will shortly become apparent from changes to the site (as if the very re-emergence of the site over the last month hasn't been enough change!), I read Jonah Goldberg's book Liberal Fascism (again, motivated by Goldberg's appearance on The Daily Show). I was a bit disappointed in Stewart on this one, because he really didn't let Goldberg explain the premise of the book and pointedly ignored some fairly reasonable comments. He was talking at Goldberg, instead of to him. I was disappointed ... but I definitely wanted to read that book.

In Liberal Fascism, Goldberg makes the thesis that current liberalism dates back to the "progressive movement" of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Okay, no particular problem there. We expect such a historical tradition, right?

But then he proceeds to explain how the progressive movement was actually linked to Italian fascism (which is clearly distinct from Nazism, as he points out). In fact, as Goldberg points out, scholars can't even agree what the term fascist means. But whatever it means, it was not the evil that it has been portrayed in the years since. Italy, until it essentially lost sovereignty to Germany, actually protected Jews from persecution.

His whole point is that liberals are, in general, way too "liberal" about throwing around the word fascist to describe anything they disagree with, all the while not really having any understanding of what the word means. In fact, most liberals would be truly disgusted by some of the actions championed by "progressives" of the past, ranging from eugenics to clear support of corporate interests over individual liberty.

Goldberg is not attacking all liberals as being fascists. Oh, he doesn't like liberal politics, but that's not really his goal here. Instead, he's providing a thoughtful analysis of the historical evolution of liberal policies, and linking current liberal policy initiatives to their historical antecedents.

Perhaps one of the most entertaining aspects of the book, for me, was a very minor little side comment regarding World War I. It seems that, during this time, sauerkraut became temporarily referred to as "Liberty Cabbage" since America was at war with Germany. Granted, we were never at war with France, but it still bears similarities to the silliness regarding recent "Freedom Fries."

Goldberg's book didn't actually change my stance on a single issue, thankfully, but it did open my eyes to some of the historical roots, and possible dangers of extremism, that are inherent in the viewpoints I do hold. I think it's an insightful book, for both liberals and conservatives ... so long as they're willing to actually explore the ideas of the book instead of just embracing their own ideologies.