Thursday, January 24, 2019


Lying about your past isn't a smart political move.

I will probably get a lot of flack and be called racist for making fun of Ms. Aleandria Ocasio-Cortez's name, which is just too damn long and hard to spell.  Alexandria is the name of a city, not a person, and Ocasio-Cortez sounds like the name of a Japanese digital watch.

How about something easier to remember and spell, like "Alex Cortez"?  No hypens or umlats or whatever.  We need to return to simpler names.

The complex name thing crosses all racial and social boundaries, too - so put down your torches and pitchforks, I am not being racist.   In the last 20 years, the new generation of  "special snowflakes" has insisted on complicated names - many bestowed upon them by their equally-as-special parents.  Three-syllable first names are commonplace today, as are hyphenated last names.  And don't get me started on funny spellings of common names - like "Nyncy" instead of "Nancy" or whatever.

The key is, of course, power-shifting.  If you misspell or mispronounce one of these crazy new names, you are the bad guy (and probably racist, even if the name you struggle with is "Tyffany Hoyt-Symthe" or something along those lines, and belongs to a white person).   It is a way of demanding special treatment in a tiny way - a "micro-aggression" if you will - sort of like people who make a big freaking fuss about ordering the special meal on the airplane.

That's the name of the game today - to be outraged and offended by everyone and everything.  And that in short, is why I no longer fly on airplanes.  I'm just a middle-aged white guy without a service peacock or some hyper-allergy or other special need, so I would get royally shit upon.  And if dragged off the plane, no one would bother to take a "viral video" of me, but instead tsk-tsk and argue that I "had it coming" what with my 400 years of oppression of native peoples and all.

But I digress.  And I hope you are not so humorless as to not recognize sarcasm.  But being utterly humorless is indeed the name of the game these days.

But getting back to Westchester, it is something that ties into Ms. Cortez's plans for 70% marginal rates, in a way.   You see, Mark and I both have ties to this County - one of the wealthiest counties in the United States.  If you are not from the New York area, maybe Westchester doesn't resonate with you, but to New Yorkers, moving "Upstate" often means Westchester or its environs, which are wealthy suburbs, like those in Connecticut, where houses sell for obscene amounts these days.

There is a stereotype of residents there.  When I was in college, we had a young fellow at the GLSA who we nicknamed "Westchester" as he often mentioned he was from there.  He was an attractive young man - sort of a Kurt Hummel type - who wore stylish clothes.  And we sort of called him "Westchester" in a mocking sense, which probably wasn't very nice, and maybe a little bit of bullying.  He was somewhat insecure, which was why he put on this air of being from the upper class elite.

Of course, not everyone who lives there is super-rich, as Ms. Cortez is quick to point out.  Her mother worked a blue-collar job, and they moved from the Bronx to Westchester to be near work. The problem with that claim, is that she has stated, on more than one occasion, that she was "born and raised" in the Bronx, and this "Bronx Tale" turns out to be less than accurate.   Her street cred is somewhat lacking. The difference between attending school in Westchester and the Bronx is staggering.

My Grandfather lived there and was mayor of Larchmont, located in that County.  Now before you say, "I knew it!  You are one of those 1% rich bastards of the elite!" you should know the whole story.  My Grandfather grew up in the early part of the last century, in Brooklyn, back when Brooklyn was the sticks.  His Grandparents farmed there, but eventually lost all their land due to bad business dealings.  His own Father committed suicide, so his mother - a formidable woman - worked buying and selling second mortgages to put her three children through City College.

He graduated, got a law degree, and went to work in a Brooklyn firm representing what is now Citibank.   He worked his way up to partner, moved to Westchester and was elected mayor - probably the first, last, and only Democratic mayor of that city.  A committed new-dealer, he was also involved in establishing new banking regulations during the great depression.

But they were hardly wealthy by Westchester standards, or indeed, even today.  He had a nice four-bedroom house in a suburban neighborhood, but it was hardly a mansion.   They had a cleaning lady, and when he retired, he bought a Cadillac, which back then was considered a "nice car".  They were comfortable, but hardly rich.  And what wealth he had, he earned from the ground up, one dollar at a time.

One reason he never became wildly rich was probably the high income tax rates back then - and we'll get back to those later. With marginal rates as high as 70%, it was hard to accumulate dynastic wealth.  And with increasing property taxes, owning a fancy "white elephant" house was out of the question for him.

Mark's Dad had a different trajectory.  After being released from the POW camp at the end of the war, he returned to the New York area where he was raised.  He inherited as small amount of money from a relative and used it as a down payment on a mansion in Westchester.

"I knew it!  More of those damn 1%'er elites!"

Calm down there, Trotsky.  There's more to the story.

After World War II, you couldn't give houses like that away.  Marginal tax rates were high - as high as 70% and property taxes were nothing to sneeze at, either.  It wasn't until a Democrat - John F. Kennedy - lowered marginal rates significantly, that there was any tax relief.

Mark's Dad bought the place not to live in (as indeed, he could hardly afford that!) but as a business. The house was huge, with a dozen bedrooms, a ballroom (with an orchestra balcony, no less), a long winding drive and outbuildings and a caretaker's cottage.   He reconfigured it as a retirement home for wealthy old ladies from New York City, whose sons and daughters paid to support their Mom in old age.

And he made a living at it.  The income paid the mortgage and taxes and employee's salaries.   But they hardly got rich from their income - and it was a lot of labor, 24/7.    Mark's Dad always drove Ramblers (and later AMC's) because they were economical and affordable.  Like I said, he hardly got rich from it.

Eventually, the State of New York required that all wood-framed rest homes be equipped with sprinklers, and the cost of installing them was more than Mark's Dad could afford.   By then, the real estate market had recovered (thanks to the Kennedy tax cut) and investment bankers from New York were snapping up these old mansions.  He sold the place and made enough money to retire to Maine.

Today, the house and grounds are worth a staggering amount of money - far more than anyone in either of our families could afford.  And certainly more than the income from a small retirement home would generate.  Times have changed and cutting the 70% marginal rate meant that a new generation of super-wealthy can once again afford these estates.

In the small town I grew up in, a similar thing took place.  In the late 1800's the super-wealthy (remember there was no income tax back then!) bought homes along the lake and built mansions and hired servants - the descendants of the latter now populate the town.  When I was growing up there in the 1960's and 1970's, these hoary old estates had been long sold off to local people, who lived in them and raised large families (we had a lot of "devout" Catholics in that town!).   I would go to a friend's house and we would skateboard in the ball room.   Again, they weren't wealthy people - they could barely afford to heat these huge homes - and often didn't, with the thermostat set at its lowest setting at all times.

But with the tax cuts of the 1980's and 1990's, all of that changed.  Over time, these houses changed hands, and the new owners, flush with new money, remodeled them to their former glory.  Some were subdivided into subdivisions and tacky mini-mansions built around them.   It seems odd, because I recall at one time, they were talking about bulldozing one lakefront estate because it was worth nothing to anyone because no one wanted "such a large house" - an 8-bedroom shingle-style "cottage"on the lake.   How times have changed.

(A few decades earlier, another wealthy resident left his lakeside estate to the town for use as a library.   Not able to afford the upkeep, the town burned the mansion down but kept the land as a lakeside park.   Monster houses require monster incomes to keep up, which is why so many rich folks leave these nightmares to the State where they fester on as monuments to themselves, for us plebes to visit and ooh and ahh over their fixtures and fittings).

Maybe, you could make the argument that it is time for higher tax rates - going back at least to Obama-era rates would be a start.  We are seeing, once again, a huge increase in income inequality over the last couple of decades.   Before the Federal income tax was instituted (and no, tax protesters, it isn't optional!) you could accumulate wealth, which in turn would allow you to accumulate more and more wealth.  The more land and businesses you owned, the more you could control, to the point of forcing others out of business.  It was not a fair system, unless you were born into wealth.

We see today, a bifurcation of markets.  In the boating business, since 2008, there are two markets - one for trailerable runabouts, and one for 100+ foot mega-yachts.   The old days when middle-class people could afford a 30' cruiser seem to be behind us.   It's rowboats or ocean liners, these days.  The lower classes can afford little more than a jonboat (unless they load themselves up in debt to their eyeballs for a fancy metalflake fishing rig).  The upper classes have millions to spend on custom-built yachts.

Airplanes are about the same.   After the war, you could afford a small Cessna or Piper and fly it on weekends, if you were a middle-to-upper-middle class person.   Today, it is all about private jets that cost tens of millions.  Fewer and fewer people can afford even a small private plane, much less have the free time to fly it or even stay current on their FAA license, which requires periodic flying time.

We see the same in real estate.  Penthouse "apartments" in New York City are selling for millions - tens of millions or even 100 million in one recent sale.   But the working class can't afford a place to live.   No worries, the same people who bought the penthouse bought up all those affordable houses after the market crash - and would be happy to rent one to you, provided you have a good credit rating.   And by the way, they own the bank that wrote you all those "private" student loans you are saddled with.

Now of course, if you are one of those folks who has all that money, raising tax rates seems like a pretty rotten deal.   And their children probably don't like the idea, either.   The very rich do end up paying a lion's share of the country's taxes - albeit at an effective marginal rate far lower than some of their employees, as Warren Buffet once noted.

A rich friend of mine once argued that she didn't understand why she should pay any taxes, whatsoever - parroting a line no doubt her Dad had taught her.  After all she wasn't earning income but rather living on dividends and capital gains.   Of course, she didn't realize that the rates she was paying on this "unearned income" was lower than the marginal rates I was paying on my work earnings.

It really doesn't matter - people are people, and we all see things in the light most convenient to ourselves.  It's called weak thinking.   And we all like to indulge in it.   Some more than others.

There has to be some happy medium, I would hope.   Abandoned mansions in the town I grew up in were an eyesore and certainly didn't help the local economy.   Having people with money move into town certainly improved the tax base and brought increased business - while increasing the cost of living.   On the other hand, living in a drab stalag of soviet housing where "everyone is equal" doesn't seem like such a swell choice, either.  Nor does abandoned buildings.

I doubt we will see a return to 70% marginal rates, however.  Such rates were too excessive and indeed, curtailed the economy - as Jack Kennedy told us.   The idea that both the House and Senate could go Democratic (the latter 60% or more) and pass such legislation seems, at the present time, far-fetched.

I mean, after all, the Republicans have been so good and convincing trailer-dwelling troglodytes that the so-called "Death Tax" (actual: Gifts and Estate Tax) applies to their pitiful estates.  They will have no trouble convincing them that a 70% marginal rate on incomes above $10 million will apply to them as well.  Some people aren't confused by facts.

Of course, such a tax rate would really make winning the mega-ball lottery suck, wouldn't it?