Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Should "religious" equal "tax-exempt"

Average community church
The foundation of Scientology

L Ron Hubbard was quoted many times in newspapers, and through other reports to have said numerous times something to the effect "You don't get rich writing science fiction. If you want to get rich, you start a religion," and from this marginal science fiction writer sprung the "Church" of Scientology.  Now I don't have a lot say about what other people believe and to whom they give their money, but it really tics me off that Scientology (including their celebrity members) uses our tax code for patently non-religious (and a lot of rather occult) purposes, and they are not the only one.

My father (a minister himself) was strongly against the unlimited tax breaks for religious organizations, and talked with me about it several times.  He expressed his opinion that there should be a modest ceiling tax exemption based on daily attendance or some similar verifiable accounting of active members.    He thought, beyond that limited ceiling, churches should pay taxes on assets and on income that exceeds certain operating expenses. Book stores, media production companies, parking lots, gymnasiums, skate board parks, high-rise office buildings,  and sea side villas and pent house apartments.....he could see no justification for the general population of taxpayers to be taxed more heavily to offset the funding (through tax relief) of any and every thing under the umbrella of "Religious" activity.  

Clearly churches do many good works through assistance to the needy of the world.  On the other hand, some churches spend virtually all their income to build lavish buildings, buy real more estate, purchase radio and TV time, lobby government, and provide a very nice income/benefits package to people who supposedly have renounced earthly rewards.
I like my father's idea to limit the tax-free income to a religious organization, perhaps based on membership (e.g. a few thousand dollars/member), or perhaps by meeting a threshold percent of income that is actually spent directly on aid to the poor or sick.   I personally do not donate to a charity or non-profit that spends more than 10% of its budget on salaries, fund-raising, etc.  I also give a fair amount for purposes I think are worthwhile and of benefit to needy people, but for which there is not a tax-exempt vehicle.  As it is however, my own taxes are diverted to support some things that I independently would choose not to support, or would only support via a different vehicle.

You should tax the things you want less of, and not tax the things you want more of.  However a blanket pass for anything managing to get called a "church" has led to abuse, and it is time to apply some rational limits.  After all, charity is charity, and should come from one's own heart, not from an accountant's advice.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Was Kurt Vonnegut a Literary Stephen Hawkins?

The "banning" by Republic High School in Missouri of Vonnegut's classic anti-war novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death (1969), prompted me to pull out my old, yellowed copy, saved since my original reading as an escape from the pressure of my final year in medical school, to see exactly what had prompted the action (After re-reading the book, it seems the removal from the school library was because some of the characters thoughts or actions could be considered "non-biblical" - in which case any novel about Hitler, etc could be considered non-biblical.) I am, however, confident that the banning, rather than saving the students from exposure to Vonnegut's book, assured most of the students at the school will now read the book over the ensuing weeks.

Forty years older now, my reaction is still mixed, though I see the anti-war sentiment more clearly, having by this time considerably lowered my expectations from our political "leaders."

What did strike me on my current reading were certain parts of the story of Billy Pilgram. "Billy Pilgram has come unstuck in time . . .is spastic in time." He tells the story of being captured by the alien Tralfamadorians (who see in four dimensions  - adding time as a visual dimension) and learning that "when a person dies, he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present, and future have always existed, always will exist."

If you have read Hawkins' book The Grand Design and one of his Brief History of Time books, it is apparent that current quantum physics and relativity more or less supports this claim by Vonnegut's character of the past, present, and future concurrently existing.(In fact I find these discussions of  time to be very, very strange, and it is suggested that before the big bang, time may not have existed.)   Kurt was not a physicist and never claimed any knowledge of quantum physics, but intuition can sometimes get you a long way.


The Ghost in the Wires - The biography of the "most wanted hacker in America."  Kevin Mitnick now owns his own security consulting firm.  This Link to his website currently has a video of his interview on the Colbert Report - very entertaining!

Matterhorn - a most disturbing novel of the Vietnam conflict. Having no firsthand experience, I will need to consult with my cousin John C as to the accuracy of this book

Monday, August 8, 2011

A Perfect Pair

(I have been traveling a lot this summer, and the between travel time has been very busy.  Hopefully I can spend a little more time uptading this blog going forward.)
     Sometimes I read for information; sometimes I read for pleasure; and sometimes I am lucky to find a bit of each in the same book.  Once in a very, very great while I find two such books that are informative, most pleasurable to read, and compliment each other.  This year I found (by watching BookTV one Sunday morning and catching an article in the NYTimes another day) two books providing to me this unusual pleasure: "Doc" and "The Last Gunfight."

You can read a full summary of each book at Amazon or elsewhere on the internet, but here is my perspective on these two coincidentally related books.
What you know, or think you know, about John Henry Holliday, about Virgel, Warren, Morgan, James and Wyatt Earp, and about Bat, James, and Ed Masterson is likely misinformation.  After the violent events in Tombstone, there were many sensationalized accounts of the various involved characters, often embellished by the principles themselves, and the myths have been perpetuated by Hollywood over the years.  These books use original research from the surprisingly large volume of notes, newspaper articles, and official records scattered in various libraries and historical institutions across the country to reconstruct the personality, character, and actions of these players.
Although these books were written by very different authors over the same period of time, they chronologically dovetailed perfectly.  Russell has a PhD in biological anthropology from the University of Michigan and has taught anatomy to dental students. Her book is a biography of the most interesting character of John Henry "Doc" Holliday, beginning with his birth, but ending with his time in Dodge City, Kansas.  It notes his departure for Arizona, but goes no further.  We know at this point (even if we have not read Guinn's book) that he will achieve fame in Tombstone (on a street, at the edge of a vacant lot, sort of close to the OK Corral.)  It is inclusive of the Earp and Masterson brothers, as they are an integral part of his life in Dodge City, and also is quite inclusive of the women who for the most part were informal partners or common law wives of these men.
Guinn was a school teacher, then newspaper journalist, and finally published author (I believe his first major book concerned the outlaw couple Bonnie and Clyde.)  Rather than a biography, "Gunfight" is a story of Tombstone, Arizona; its origin, rise, and fall (and then re-emergence as a tourist trap.)  As it happens, these same characters (Holliday, the Earp brothers, and the Masterson brothers) also populate the history and legend of Tombstone, and it brings to a conclusion Doc's biography..  (Unlike Russell, Guinn doesn't have as much to say about the women.)  His followup extends to the final days of Wyatt in Los Angeles, and Doc and Bat in Colorado, as well as the literary and film spinoffs that followed for the next century.

As far as I can discern, these writers worked completely independently, were coincidentally both published (by different houses) in May 2011, and by apparently blind happenstance one concluded almost exactly where the other began.  They agree for the most part on the personality and character traits of Doc and the Earp brothers.
The books are written in different style.  "Doc" captured my attention from the first page.  "Gunfight" started slow (and dry), but quickly evolved into a "good read" of its own.  I stayed up way too late several nights with these books.  I cannot think of any of my friends who will not find these historical accounts of America's "last frontier" most enjoyable - and informative to boot.

Doc is buried in an historical cemetery on a hill above Glenwood Springs, Colorado, where I took this picture a couple of years ago.  The cemetery is only accessible via a switchback trail from a small park on a street below the hill.