The EITC in CT

For Tax Day I had a story over at the Yankee Institute about the Earned Income Tax Credit:

The EITC supplements the wages of low-income workers by sending them a check after they file their tax returns — even when they have no income-tax liability. The underlying idea is to refund the payroll taxes of low earners.

Who qualifies and how much they receive is based on what they earn and how many children they have. In Connecticut, for example, a married couple with two children making less than $51,492 would qualify. That family would receive at most $5,716 from the feds plus another $1,315 from the state. This would boost their total income to about $58,520, which is more than 227 percent of the federal poverty level.

Three different bills introduced in the Assembly sought to either expand the state EITC, kill it, or modify it, but all of them died in committee. I’ve become something of an evangelical for the EITC since learning about it last year, and it’s my hope the article, if nothing else, raises the program’s profile.

When I moved to Connecticut in 1995, I earned $21,000 a year, equivalent to about $35,000 today. I often think about how difficult it would be to live on that amount now, in part because of the increased tax burden. Back then, Connecticut only had income-tax brackets for the highest earners, but today anyone making $1 or more has some liability. I can’t imagine squeaking by on $35,000 and yet having to pay income tax on it.

At 3 percent for the lowest bracket, I’d be paying $1,050 to the state, which is very nearly the median monthly rent in Connecticut.

It’s incredible how low earners in this state are screwed, particularly by taxes. The issue of raising the minimum wage receives a lot of airtime, even though less than 1 percent of the American population earns the federal minimum wage or less (caveat: the fed’s minimum wage is very low — $7.25 an hour). In the article I cite Pew Research, noting that 3.3 million Americans earn the federal minimum wage or less, but that number is from 2013. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the total decreased to 1.8 million by 2017.

In contrast, 25 million received a refund via the federal EITC in 2018 — nearly 14 times the number of people earning the federal minimum wage or less. Many more people are impacted by the EITC than would be affected by raising the minimum wage. Don’t forget that raising the minimum wage also results in layoffs.

When you hear cries from certain quarters saying we need to raise taxes, what they really mean is the income tax (and maybe capital gains taxes too) because that’s our only progressive tax — that is, the more you make, the higher percentage you pay.

What they ignore — or maybe don’t want to admit — is that *everybody* pays taxes, including low earners. Low earners pay sales tax. Low earners pay property taxes through their rent or mortgage, and in Connecticut on their cars too. Low earners pay tariffs. Low earners pay payroll taxes. Demands for more taxes means just that: more taxes for everyone, not just for the reviled rich.

This is one of the few times you’ll ever see me boosting an entitlement program but if we’re going to have a system that uses tax money to fill the potholes (just kidding — most of our taxes go to pay interest on debt and to bomb people in other countries), then it shouldn’t be done on the backs of those living closest to the edge. The EITC is something we should keep in Connecticut.

The Road to the Senate Is Paved With Lawsuits

Over at the Yankee Institute I have an article on HB 7222, a bill currently sitting before the Joint Committee on Judiciary which would enlarge the powers of Connecticut’s attorney general, William Tong, to take action in civil-rights cases.

In the aftermath of last summer’s Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission ruling by the US Supreme Court — in which the court sided with the baker who refused to create a cake for a gay wedding — Tong promised on the campaign trail to create a civil-rights division at the AG’s office. …

HB 7222, if made into a law as written, would allow the attorney general to investigate allegations that someone has threatened, intimidated, or coerced somebody else from exercising their civil rights. This would include criminal acts of bias or bigotry, all of which are felonies in Connecticut.

While I don’t object to the AG opening a civil-rights division, I’m very worried about the draconian language specific to HB 7222, which robs the accused of due process and puts them on the hook financially the minute the AG initiates an action. I won’t repeat those criticisms here; instead, you can read my article at Yankee.

The biggest violator of civil rights is government, full stop. It was government that enforced Jim Crow; it was government that refused to acknowledge gay marriages. If a baker doesn’t make me a cake for my gay wedding, I have multiple avenues of recourse: I can file a complaint with our Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities, and/or I can simply go to another bakery. But when the violator is government itself, I have little relief except through their own courts.

From justice reform to overworked and underfunded public defenders, there’s plenty of civil-rights beef in this state for a hungry AG to chase. However, I’m skeptical that Tong is interested in taking on government bodies, which is why I worry about the bill’s language — it’s aimed at private citizens or companies who rouse his ire, not at municipalities or public bureaucracies.

While writing the story, I kept asking the AG’s spokeswoman what kinds of actions Tong was interested in taking if the bill passed. Would there suddenly be a crackdown on bigoted bakeries? Or would he sue the police departments of municipalities cooperating with ICE in tracking the whereabouts of illegal immigrants, as was revealed last week by the ACLU? In other words, was he planning to sue private citizens or take action against government nonfeasance or malfeasance? She didn’t answer my question, but instead told me the AG would do so himself in his testimony before the Joint Committee, which occurred on Friday.

Reading Tong’s testimony (pdf) has only slightly mollified my concerns. In it, he cites several recent incidents as examples his office would investigate:

The Islamic Center in New London receives fake poison in the mail, or Klansmen ride in Stafford Springs.

African-American and Latinx people in Hartford are denied safe, quality housing while the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development sits on its hands.

Immigrants in our cities and towns are subjected to large-scale, systematic wage theft.

Connecticut residents with disabilities fear being pushed out of jobs because a big box store has decided to reclassify their position without accommodation.

Somebody sending poison, fake or otherwise, through the mail is a straight-up crime. Keep in mind that in Connecticut, there’s a strict division of responsibility between the attorney general, who pursues civil actions, and the chief state’s attorney, who prosecutes criminal charges, so this case would fall squarely under the latter’s jurisdiction. Moreover, terrorism through the mail is a federal crime and the Postal Inspection Service would be all over this long before the AG arrived on the scene. I don’t see what Tong could do beyond sue the culprit who should already be in prison.

As for the Klan incident, it was hardly a “ride.” Police suspect it was a handful of dumb teenagers at a party. Tong might as well sue the governor of Virginia while he’s at it.

The other three examples are more relevant, although it’s still unclear what action Tong would take in each of those cases. Sue HUD? Sue the feds to bring about immigration reform, so that more immigrants are legalized and thereby on the books? Again, no answers. Keeping a close eye on Walmart is probably the only thing Tong and I agree on.

More instructive, however, are the five cases Tong further lists in which state attorney generals — armed with the same kind of power granted by HB 7222 — won civil-rights victories, most of them through settlements rather than through the courts. The opponent in each case he mentions is a private company or institution.

Which I think is the clearest answer I’m gonna get. Tong isn’t interested in suing police departments cooperating with ICE. He isn’t interested in suing HUD or the Department of Homeland Security. He’s looking to sue companies.

And it’s not a bad strategy when you consider Tong’s long game. Tong clearly has ambitions for national office: he ran for Lieberman’s senate seat in 2012, only to lose to Chris Murphy in the primary. Our other senator, Richard Blumenthal, is 73. Winning settlements against big companies is a great way for Tong to build his brand and increase name recognition for the day when Blumenthal’s seat comes up for grabs. After all, it worked for Blumenthal himself, who forged his career with consumer-protection victories as our state attorney general.

Some Major Cognitive Dissonance

True Detective, June 1952

Well, here we are again as the conclusion of another season of True Detective looms nigh.

Judging from conversations and the scores registered at Rotten Tomatoes, my sentiments for this season dovetail with those of other viewers. It is neither as rich and compelling as season one nor as Byzantine as season two (and I say that as someone who liked season two). The sense of setting, so pervasive before, feels more any-town here, and the lyrical dialogue of the characters has been toned down. For me the biggest disappointment has been the drastically curtailed soundtrack, with the deep cuts of the last half century replaced by instrumental scores and Moog bass so low it shakes our television. Seriously — the site I check after every episode for the track list is crickets and tumbleweeds.

And yet the central mystery of this season is probably the strongest of the three. When you smooth out the flashbacks and flashforwards of the original McConaughey and Harrelson adventure and lay it linearly, the story is fairly straightforward. The plot of season two was completely lost among the sprawling cast of characters, which is OK because I understood writer Nic Pizzolatto was going for a Raymond Chandler type of noir and Chandler emphasized characters and language over plot. This season, with its return to S1’s rural roads and tripartite time frames, seems to be playing with our expectations of similarity, and yet after seven episodes we still don’t know the motives for the crimes committed. The trailers and opening credits inspired us to anticipate things that have yet to materialize; we thought we were buying another backwoods conspiracy involving child predators, when instead what we may be watching is a clandestine custody battle complicated by an accidental murder.

Mahershala Ali and Stephen Dorff are nothing short of mesmerizing but for me S3’s real standout has been Carmen Ejogo’s character Amelia. The unsure wannabe writer of the earliest frame, scribbling notes with some vague notion of collating them into a book, is replaced in the 1990s frame by a confident author receiving galleys and doing bookstore readings, inversely mirroring the decline of Ali’s character Wayne Hays as she matures and ascends to the role of superior detective. A complaint about journalism in general and true-crime writing specifically is that it preys upon the misfortunes of others, and it’s particularly galling for Amelia to be a target of that spite from her own jealous husband.

No one questions the police officer’s inquisitiveness, but writers and reporters, for all the vitriol aimed at them — especially these days — are just another kind of investigator, complete with flaws, mistakes, and fuck-ups. True-crime writers are especially relentless detectives; just ask Michelle McNamara’s widower husband. If the officer isn’t begrudged a promotion at the close of a successful case, why do we begrudge the writer her book or the reporter his news story? The answer, to paraphrase Vince Vaughn’s character from S2, is because writers often refuse to parrot back the lies we tell ourselves. When somebody else tells a narrative of events that differs from our own, it angers us.

The joy of watching True Detective is constantly readjusting, episode after episode, my ever-unfolding theories about the mystery. Sunday night I’ll probably be right about some stuff and wrong about other stuff, and because I can’t tell which will be which, I’ll also be surprised.

The Latest

Over at the Yankee Institute blog, I interviewed Frank Cortese, operations manager for a Greenwich-based fuel and energy company, who said the installation of tolls on Connecticut’s highways would cost him more than $57,000 during the winter months and maybe even $72,000 a year — a cost he will pass down to his customers.

Separately I also reported on a bipartisan movement to eliminate Connecticut’s Business Entity Tax, which is a tax businesses pay simply because they, well, exist.

Reading the Gonzo Apocalypse

At the tail end of 2017, I posted a story on Medium about a bunch of post-apocalyptic novels I had read over the course of the year, books with themes and situations that often reflected upon these United States during seemingly cataclysmic times.

After the clock struck twelve on New Year’s Eve I kept reading post-apocalyptic fiction. For whatever reason — maybe because every daily headline was more absurd than yesterday’s — the stories I read in 2018 trended toward wilder, more fantastical visions of the end of the world. For the interested, here’s a quick update on the stuff I read.

Man Made

Sea of Rust

It’s ridiculous how much I enjoyed Sea of Rust (2017), C. Robert Cargill’s cinematic novel of what happens after the robot apocalypse, in which the tin-man rebellion that exterminated all human life is immediately followed by a civil war among AIs.

The result is a scorched planet inhabited by the few remaining freebots trying to keep one step ahead of warring mainframes, which want to assimilate them (and each other) and ultimately become the Earth’s singular intelligence. With factories under the dominion of the mainframes, freebots like Brittle must scour the wastes for the spare parts needed to survive. Unfortunately, Brittle is also one of the last remaining Comfortbots — an automaton nurse and caregiver — which puts her in literal crosshairs when the only other remaining Comfortbot starts to fail and needs her parts.

Cargill, a screenwriter, keeps the thrill-ride steamrolling along, peppered by flashbacks to the events before, during, and after the robot uprising. His style is perhaps a little unpolished — among other flaws is a tendency to punctuate. Sentences. Like. It’s. Twitter. Circa. 2016. — and for a self-aware toaster oven, Brittle doesn’t seem to have much on her mind beyond PTSD.

That said, it’s hard to stay angry at a novel in which an assortment of Futurama robots battle hive-mind drones atop a speeding Mad Max battle wagon. Alexa, make sure to pre-order the sequel — and please, don’t kill me.

Oryx and Crake

Yet what to think of Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (2003)? On one hand I found it every bit as unputdownable as Sea of Rust, largely due to its kindred vision of created usurping creator. On the other, I learned the darling lefty author of The Handmaid’s Tale definitely has some rather narrow worldviews.

Just as Handmaid originated from Atwood’s anxiety over the state of women’s reproductive rights during the 1980s evangelical movement, Oryx and Crake has its genesis in her clear concern over GMOs. Snowman lives in a tree and wears a bedsheet, cared for by genetically modified people called Crakers. While wallowing in his own stink and self-pity — our protagonist brings to mind Thoreau’s jibe that “None is so poor that he need sit on a pumpkin. That is shiftlessness.” — Snowman recalls his years as Jimmy, living in a crony-corporatist America where sequestered scientists churn out GMO medicines, enhancements, and food for consumers in the pleeblands.

You’d have to be very inattentive to miss where the book is going once Jimmy encounters a transfer student named Glenn but that predictability doesn’t diminish enjoyment of Atwood’s dystopia. Glenn is a sociopath and a genius, and he and Jimmy spend their days watching crush videos on the dark web and footage of pleebland riots on the news. Glenn’s eventual rise as a master gene-splicer (along with Jimmy’s simultaneous plateau into mediocrity) is merely background exposition for the real mystery of how Oryx, a woman loved by both men, fits into mankind’s final act.

Which brings us to Atwood’s cringeworthy depiction of women. Female characters in the novel are sparse (Jimmy’s mother, who’s arguably the most interesting of them, is felt more than seen). Oryx, meanwhile, appears late in the book, usually in scenes of degradation as an Asian child prostitute. Somehow she rises to the level of executive career woman, presumably by sleeping her way up corporate ladders. We never know for sure, nor are we privy to any inner development because she’s presented as — ahem — inscrutable. Ultimately her character exists simply to inject jealous tension between Jimmy and Glenn.

Feminists might argue that’s exactly Atwood’s point — that women are nothing but playthings in a world of male corporate plutocracy — but for me, it’s just weak writing. I kept turning the pages, hooked on thrilling action scenes of a man pursued through the ruins by carnivorous chimeras and Atwood’s lush metaphors (“Amanda Payne shimmered in the past like a lost lagoon, its crocodiles for the moment forgotten.”). But even with all that going for it, I’ve zero interest in reading any of the sequels Atwood has since penned.

I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire

Star Man's Son

Andre Norton’s first full-length novel, Star Man’s Son (1952), panders to its audience. Having clearly learned what notes to strike in her previous career as a children’s librarian, Norton laid out YA’s ur-outline some 45 years before Harry Potter with this science-fantasy of rejected teenager turned hero.

Fors is a both an orphan and an outcast, a silver-haired mutant among an enclave of pure-strain human survivors of the Great Blow-Up. After being passed over again for promotion to a higher echelon of his community, he’s faced with the prospect of being a farming drudge for the rest of his life, all because of his dirty blood.

Rather than submit, Fors runs off to explore the wasteland where his father perished, picking through urban ruins and crossing deserts melted into glass by atomic fire. Eventually Fors must consolidate several hostile tribes into an alliance against a rising tide of mutant Beast-Things, who aim to supplant mankind — mainly by eating us.

It’s a boy’s adventure tale set against the backdrop of crumbling skyscrapers instead of castles and dungeons, but Norton took her job seriously (she legally switched her first name from Alice to foster legitimacy among her young readers — I mean, who wants to read a book written by a girl?). The writing doesn’t stray far from simple sentences and straight-forward dialogue, but even so, she managed to sneak in some radical messaging for the 1950s. “Why should there be distrust between the twain of us because our skin differs in color?” asks a black character of Fors, who’s white. “In peace there is trade, and in trade there is good for all,” says another, later. “When the winter closes and the harvest has been poor, then may trade save the life of a tribe.”

Lessons of tolerance and free trade? These days, that’s crazy talk.

Damnation Alley

It’s hard to say nice things about a novel that even its own author disliked. Roger Zelazny expanded an earlier novella into Damnation Alley (1969) solely with an eye toward a film deal (which eventually came to fruition in 1977 — and which Zelazny similarly reviled). As a writer myself, I can’t fault his pecuniary motives; but as a reader I have to wish he’d put more thought into what’s fundamentally a great idea.

Hell Tanner is a captured murderer diverted from prison and put behind the steering wheel of a futuristic big rig for a suicide run from Los Angeles to Boston, carrying medicine to cure an East Coast outbreak of plague. Seeing his chance for escape, Tanner puts pedal to metal and strikes out across a United States blasted by nuclear hellfire and infested with swarms of giant bats and other mutations.

The novel’s plot is laughably linear and so steeped in its late sixties atmosphere of California motorcycle gangs, cops, and counterculture that it’s hard to picture the characters sporting anything other than bell-bottoms and fringed leather vests. And while the high concept of the book is matched by Zelazny’s terrific descriptions of monsters and killer tornadoes, secondary characters come and go and subplots are nonexistent, which is why Zelazny’s conceit of a bad-guy-as-savior thrown into a dystopic/apocalyptic setting has seen much better interpretations (e.g., Escape From New York). If given the choice between the two versions of Damnation Alley, read the novella instead — if only because it’s shorter.

The Man Who Japed

As if we needed more proof that our contemporary reality is a phantasm sprung from Philip K. Dick’s Benzedrine imagination, I submit his early novel The Man Who Japed (1956) as exhibit Z.

Set in a post-post-apocalyptic world where civilization has rebuilt after a devastating nuclear exchange, Allen Purcell has lived a strait-laced life under Moral Reclamation, the conformist and puritanical one-world government that safeguards against immorality, which in its adherents’ view is what led to World War III. Purcell is such a good citizen, in fact, that the government promotes him to head its propaganda department.

Except Purcell also has a dimly remembered night life in which he “japes” society through vandalism, drunkenness, and other petty transgressions. His scaling the peaks of success has produced a psychological schism between his square public persona and his inner critic of Moral Reclamation’s inertia and claustrophobia. This conflict comes to a head when Purcell the propaganda chief orchestrates — wait for it — a fake news broadcast.

Later Dick is so much weirder and darker than early Dick, and here Moral Reclamation doesn’t come off as particularly sinister; nonconformists, for example, are exiled to a vacation planet that sounds more like a reward than a punishment. But Dick’s trajectory is still easy to see: his love of psychology and pharmaceuticals, the authoritarian setting, the questionable value of our perceptions. In other words: drugs, dystopia, and gaslighting. Welcome to the future!

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That’s it for 2018. Cash me at the bottom of 2019 to see where the endtimes took me this year. Fingers crossed we’re all still alive.

Story Terrace

Late last year, I scored a gig writing for Story Terrace, a UK-based company that’s expanded into the US.

Story Terrace publishes memoirs and autobiographies ghostwritten by a stable of authors, who interview the subject at her home and then compose a finished book complete with photos and a professional layout. The company has gone through several rounds of investment, including a crowdfunding effort this past summer that raised more than £617,000.

So far I’ve written three books of varying lengths for Story Terrace: the first was a memoir of a successful lawyer about his years growing up in Queens in the 1930s and 40s, while the other two were biographies of an Italian-American couple and an Irish-American woman, all of them immigrants who left the poverty of their homelands and achieved the American dream. It’s fun and rewarding work — much more rewarding, in fact, than I had anticipated.

Initially I was reluctant to write about the gig publicly because the position was originally advertised as “ghostwriter.” Years ago, in addition to the bylined articles I wrote for them, I did some ghostwriting for Dig and Calliope, the children’s magazines about archaeology and history, which I was actively discouraged from talking about.

That, I now realize, was ghostwriting of a very different stripe. The editor loathed having to deal with PhDs with their jargonized writing styles, outsized egos, and complete lack of respect for any form of deadline, so in a few cases she found it easier to assign the writing to me and then, after a cursory review by the academic in question, slap Professor Snootynose’s name on it. I didn’t particularly care about the byline — as long as the check clears, I’m good — but I was also sworn to super-duper secrecy with cherries on top, lest the professor be unmasked as a fraud by his peers, ridiculed, and driven like a mangy dog from the ivy-covered halls. The editor took pains to stress how seriously I needed to keep my lips shut — because we all know how tolerant our colleges and universities are.

The work I do for Story Terrace is ghostwriting of a less stringent sort. It’s work-for-hire, meaning the copyright goes to the customer, but I get a small credit inside the front of the book so there’s no top-secret surreptitiousness involved.

Further, Your Most Obedient Servant actually receives a commission for referrals that lead to projects, so if anything, the company wants me blabbing about it nonstop (not to mention that they have my headshot on their front page). I’m happy to recommend them.

So — if you or someone you know has always said, “I should write a book,” but never has, Story Terrace may be able to help make it a reality. The company has three different standard packages you can buy or you can tailor a project specific to your needs. All of the projects I’ve worked on were commissioned by adult children for their parents to capture their memories and experiences before they were lost forever. If you’re interested, just drop Story Terrace a line and mention my name. If you’re local, we can even arrange for me to write the project.

Makes a great stocking stuffer!