Declare Those Pennies on Your Eyes

IRSWriting about taxes on tax day seems so intellectually lazy. Complaining about our complex, confusing, largely unequal, and definitely incomprehensible tax system simply doubles down on the cliche. After all, American’s don’t agree on much, but I think it’s pretty universal that the systems by which we collect money at the local, state, and federal level have become so bloated and outrageous that the only people satisfied are politicians sucking at the public teat and tax accountants who try to guide the rest of us lost souls through the process. Apologies to tax accountants for tethering you to politicians.

Yet, here I sit the morning after our college-age son had to pay 10% of his pretty meager “income” to Uncle Sam after filing his taxes last night. Both our boys worked hard and earned generous academic scholarships. Instead of forking over tuition dollars, I’ve been able to buy a big screen t.v.  (Who says reading to your kids doesn’t pay off!) Last night, though, as my younger son completed his taxes, we found out that scholarship money above and beyond tuition, fees, and required books counts as taxable income.

Really? Somehow, some hair-brained numbskull in our nation’s capital decided that we really need to go after all that extra money full-time college students are pulling down in their spare time between classes. Can’t let those crazy kids live too high on the hog, after all. Better declare those pennies on your eyes, as George Harrison says.

I’m not trying to express some sort of Unabomber outrage. I’ll willingly admit that I do think people need to pay their fair share in taxes. For my money, our taxes give us access to goods and services that make America great, and we need to share those costs. At the risk of oversimplification, it’s much less expense if we share the cost of military protection among the all 300 million of us than if we all form our own isolated feudal compounds and hire our own protection. Public schools, public roads, consumer protections, and thousands of other “goods” work much better when centralized and when costs are shared. Having healthy debates about what those shared costs should be is worthwhile (and, in theory, something we do every election cycle when we vote for candidates based on their debates about the issues–ha, ha, ha!).

As such, I don’t mind taxes on goods and services, property taxes, or other taxes associated with my choice to consume various goods and services. I think it’s worth reminding everyone that rich and poor, citizen and alien, old and young all pay taxes into the system simply by living and consuming in America. Likewise, I have no issues with federal taxes on income, capital gains, inheritance income, and I fully support requiring that all workers pay into the federal system, even if that amount is as small as 1% of earned income. There’s nothing wrong with ensuring everyone has a little skin in the game. I’ll even admit that I’m a fan of a progressive flat tax system with limited deductions to avoid letting the government pick winners and losers based on who hires the best lobbyists.

Full-time students should have access to that limited set of deductions. My son pays taxes when he buys his books, pays for food, and pays rent. He, like any full-time student moving toward graduation, has limited earning possibilities, though, if he’s going to take enough classes each semester to graduate in four years. Those students who work, like my older son who covered his living expenses as a student, pay taxes every paycheck, but they (usually) get a refund at the end of the year because they don’t earn much.

For students who earn scholarship money above and beyond the cost of tuition, though, the tax bill hits even if the amount above and beyond is the same as their colleagues who work. My son last night paid 10% of his scholarship to Uncle Sam. I’m sure if there’s a CPA reading this blog you can tell me there was IRS Form 666 or something we could have filed, but my son shouldn’t have to do do. Likewise, my older son, once he marks full-time student on his W-2 should be exempt from having money withdrawn. He shouldn’t have to wait for a refund. Let’s put money in the pockets of those citizens who need it the most, especially those who are working to improve their futures (and future earnings).

Like so many other things, we can’t trumpet the value of an education and then actively work to make earning that degree difficult. Students who earn scholarships are being paid to do well in school. That money isn’t income; it’s a long-term investment. After, Uncle Sam’s going to get his eventually, anyway.

 

 

 

 

 

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You Can’t Pursue Happiness if You are Sitting Still

A friend of mine emailed the other day. He’s been teaching Cormac McCarthy’s The Road this week, a novel we’ve both had good success with in the past, but this time around “there were two or three passionate responders in a sea of potted plants.” He’s teaching a general education Humanities course and at times there “seems an active, even aggressive attitude on their part to NOT BE INTERESTED at all costs,” he writes.

He attributes their indifference to a growing sense of entitlement and a laser-like social and cultural emphasis on STEM fields. Let me say first that my colleague is one of the good guys. He’s a fine teacher who willingly creates cross-disciplinary courses, emphasizes critical thinking, and truly helps his students learn. He has an ability to take complicated material and help students understand and, on occasion, even enjoy such things. He is the kind of teacher who normally is able to show students that reading Shakespeare or Homer or even Cormac McCarthy is both worth their time and rewarding. He couples short fiction with popular culture, even showing a “Simpson’s parody to a mirthless audience.” He’s the kind of teacher many of us would like to be and the kind many of us wish we had taken.

While I would agree that we have increasingly raised a generation of students who think showing up is all of the battle (not just half anymore) and too many students who demand passing grades simply for putting forth a minimal effort, I think my friend misses the boat a bit. In many of my general education courses I’ve stopped teaching works that I truly and dearly love because I get frustrated not because the students don’t love the poem/novel/play, but because too many students are almost aggressively apathetic in those classes. They have been so bombarded with an educational ideology that tells them to seek out their passion that they too often refuse to engage with ideas if they don’t feel passionate, treating each class as if it were a side dish at Thanksgiving dinner. Mom makes you take a spoonful, but if you lick the spoon and don’t like the taste, you move the food around on the plate and scrape it in the trash when no one is looking.

They firmly believe they are entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness but they have forgotten, as one of my professors used to remind us, that pursuing requires effort.

We have, simply put, convinced a generation of students that passion is more important than work. Far too many teachers, educators, and parents have become convinced that school must be fun, entertaining, and teachers must create active learning environments. We have passed along such ideas to our students and they sit idly by waiting for us to engage them. More important, they willingly admit that they only work well if they “like” the assignment or “feel comfortable” with the topic.

Mike Rowe, in his S.W.E.A.T Pledge at profoundly disconnected, tells us that Skill & Work Ethic Aren’t Taboo and his list of Pledges includes a reminder that “I do not ‘follow my passion.’ I bring it with me. I believe that any job can be done with passion and enthusiasm.” I might, were I so bold, change “can be done” with “should be done.” Jobs, essays, readings, and anything else worth doing should be done with passion and enthusiasm regardless of your desire.

But it’s more than just this misplaced emphasis on passion. Far too many of our students in these classes lack a larger sense of self. We see this increasingly, I think, in our students’ inability (or unwillingness) to laugh. There is, in many ways, some measure of irony in this “mirthless” generation. School, for years now, has been fun, filled with pep rallies, crazy clothes weeks, and school lunches that are a diabetic 12 year old’s wet dream.

Yet, I think, we have too many students who just don’t get humor that doesn’t involve body parts, flatulence, or violence. There’s more to humor than crazy grandpas and jack asses.

You have to have some brains to understand parody, satire, and sarcasm and we have developed too many pedantic, humorless students. They go to high schools where parody and satire are dangerous (and too often offensive) and where their English teachers teach, I’m convinced, scared. It’s one of the reasons so many high school reading lists are filled with crappy, politically safe books that focus on feeling good and teens struggling with their own identity. We’ve turned reading lists into “After School Specials” and in doing so we perpetuate the myth that the struggle of teenagers is unique, special, and worthy of study. I hate to sound all curmudgeony and such, but who really gives a shit about teenagers who are sensitive and freaked out.

Aren’t they all? Aren’t they supposed to be? They will, history shows us, grow out of it.

Even at the university level we see common read programs that choose books that above all offend no one and are accessible to multiple populations. I’m all for inclusion and I certainly believe we must move beyond the dead, white male reading lists of the 1950s, but we also must demand that our students stop expecting their trials and tribulations sit at the center of our daily studies. Education is about pushing ourselves beyond what we know comfortably and willingly, and I might argue even aggressively, finding a way to be happy and engaged.

Even when the material, or the professor, seems dull.

Cutting the Cord And Hoping for the Best

My oldest son was born in a flood of taco sauce, chocolate, and ice cold coke. After nine months of eating healthy, exercising, popping daily vitamins, sleeping as well as someone carrying a 7 pound parasite can, and, in general, following the guide to a perfect pregnancy, my wife came home from work one day with a 12 pack of tacos, a bag of m&m’s, and enough soda for everyone in the neighborhood. It was the family meal deal before we really had the family.

I think my son knew it was time to make an appearance. Out of dietary self-defense. Any more meals like that and he might not fit down the tube.

And the night he was born I cried–tears of joy, relief, and abject fear that my wife and I had to take responsibility for this human being. He could be a chef, scientist, actor, writer, pro athlete; he might develop a taste for human flesh, torture small animals, or even become a politician. In those first few minutes of life, the possibilities are endless. After all, I was in graduate school studying southern literature, my wife went into labor during an episode of  Baywatch, and he was struggling down the birth canal during Bill Clinton’s State of the Union Address. (In retrospect, those last two seem strangely, and appropriately, connected.) We were, as you can imagine, a tad bit worried about those immediate cultural influences. What if he came out looking like David Hasselhoff with a southern accent and a taste for government pork?

I’ll admit, like so many other parents, I also cried last weekend when we dropped that same child off at his college dorm a couple days ago.

Joy, relief, and abject fear are those parental emotions that, we are learning, remain constant.

Joy–he finally used the potty on his own! Relief–no more diaper costs and stench. Fear–what if he has an accident at school?

Just keep adding milestones as the years go by: Joy–he graduated from high school. Relief–he got accepted to college (with scholarships). Fear–what if he has an accident. (Okay. So maybe the fear part is the same every time?)

Admittedly, everyone in our house knew it was time for my son to move out, including him. Don’t get me wrong–we love our son, we appreciate our son, and we value our son. He’s a pretty good kid and we have been lucky that we have had very few issues and problems. He’s relatively well behaved and we’ve never had to choose between paying the cable bill or sending in bail money.

But there’s a reason 18 year-olds are considered adult enough to rent their own apartments, join the military, or be tried as adults. There is a time to pack his bags, box up his valuables, and hope we spent those 18 years wisely. At some point, we have to let him put our parenting to the test out in the real world and hope the lessons stick.

Yet, as we drove away watching him stand in front of his dorm, it’s easy to travel back in time and see him as a little kindergartner standing in the room, lost, scared, happy, petrified, excited, nervous–pick an emotion and I’m sure it was swirling around. For all of us.

But at least he came home 7 hours later.

What, we wonder as we drive away, if he holes up in his room and forgets to go to class? What if he gets lost and can’t find a place to eat? What if he hates his roommate? Gets sick? Depressed?

What, we fear, if he doesn’t make any friends?

How, we wonder, will he ever survive without us?

Because, of course, without us he’ll forget how to set an alarm, become a social leper, and let himself starve in a fit of despair.

Or not.

He’s got 18 years of experience under his belt and I’m pretty sure we covered alarm setting and eating. History tells us he’ll be fine, meet new people, and continue growing up. We managed, after all, to survive after our parents abandoned us to the wilderness of the “real world” and turned our rooms into guest rooms/sewing rooms/anything but a come back and live with us rooms.

In fact, for the most part, everyone tends to grow up. Eventually. Hopefully, his path is easy, but I suspect he’ll grow up either because of us or in spite of us.

We probably need to worry more about whether he will ever visit, not if he will visit too often. Either way, there’s a time to cut the cord and hope for the best.

And the irony of parenting, it seems to me, is that we work hard to become increasingly less relevant to our children’s daily lives. Or, at the least, differently relevant. He doesn’t have to come home in 7 hours. Or 7 days. And, in fact, isn’t the goal that he knows he can but he doesn’t feel like he has to?

I just hope my desk fits under his old window and we have enough boxes for the stuff he left at home.

Things I Read

And Things I Learned

Washington Monthly

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Joanne Jacobs

Thinking and Linking by Joanne Jacobs

Inside Higher Ed

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

FiveThirtyEight

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Balloon Juice

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Scott Adams' Blog

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

The Full Feed from HuffingtonPost.com

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)