Saturday, March 31, 2007

Now is the time of darkness ....

I realize there are still a bunch of political things going on right now, but I feel compelled to shift gears a bit, if only because I am forced to realize there is life outside the Burghosphere, by job #2.


I don’t mean tax policy, although I am keenly interested in that. I suppose I mean tax incidence. What I really mean is how taxes affect you, or them, the people who come into tax offices. By this time, almost April 1st, there is a better than even chance that they waited this long because they knew something bad was going to happen. There is a better than even chance they knew something bad was going to happen and they want to avoid it. There is some chance they will blame the tax preparer, they will not want to file, they will walk out, trying (desperately) to stave off the inevitable. By the way, by tax preparer, I mean me. God knows I’ve done that kind of thing, but the government will not care whether you are a good person or that your employer did not explain tax liability to you (or understand it themselves). IRS agents are not bad people, they can be sympathetic, but they see the bigger picture, that the rules must be obeyed (understand, all my experience with IRS agents is indirect, but I think I understand the position they are in, and the kind of people who go into that kind of work).

The point being … If you are a single person with no kids, if you just have wages, and someone gave you good advice or no one gave you bad advice or you are able to read and understand, you could be all right. The government gives you no special favors for being unmarried and childless, they take what they want. Your only control is whether they take it during the year or when you file your taxes.

Your only control is whether they take it during the year or when you file your taxes.

I repeat that because people do not understand that when they owe, they just need to pay money the government meant to take during the year. Economists will tell you they are ahead in the tax game, but I know nobody cares about that. There are people who are unluckier than that. There are single people with two or three jobs, who maybe take a few dollars from the YWCA to watch kids or take a graphic design assignment for a non-profit for $750 because they can draw or run the computer. A person who is told by Social Security that if they charge their mom who lives with them rent (even if she doesn’t pay), their mom could get the Pennsylvania rent rebate. These are not rich people (although they could be, but where I am working now, an IRS VITA site, they wouldn’t be). If they have kids and a low-ish income, they may be OK. They won’t get back the refund they were hoping for or (if experienced) expecting, but they won’t have a nasty surprise. Their thousand dollar child tax credit, their child and dependent care tax credit and/or their earner income credit will help compensate for their tax missteps.

If you are single, the government doesn’t tax you on the first $8450 you make when you are working. If you have one job, fine, everything is understood, you should owe or get anything back when you file. But if you have two jobs, both jobs are likely to think they are your only job (especially depending on how you fill out your W-4’s). Both jobs will with-hold as if the government will not tax you on the first $8450 *they* pay you, but the government will not tax you on only *one* $8450, no matter what your jobs thinks. This applies whether you work a main job and a side job, or whether you change jobs during the year. At a 10% tax rate, we could be talking about $845. At 15% …

Last year or the year before, when I worked at Block, I had some reasonably well off people, both of whom had changed jobs during the year. Their W-4’s were probably Married Filing Joint, with two exemptions. So they each had 16,000 worth of income sheltered, twice. Of the four 16000’s, the government was willing to give them one. I think it was $45oo they owed. They left the office, never to return. I guess they went to someone who could find a way to lie for them, convincingly.

If you do an ad for a non-profit, a one time shot where they don’t put you on the payroll, or if you answer an ad to watch kids part time for the YWCA, you are not an employee. You receive a 1099 and you are being treated as if you have your own business. But as any self employed people who have been working for more than a year can tell you, the government still expects you to pony up for your own Medicare and Social Security taxes; in addition to your regular federal income tax. We’re talking about 15 to 20 percent of the payment for that ad, or of what the YWCA gave you all year. There is nothing you can do about it, you got the money without tax being taken out. The most you can do is limit your liability by thinking about what things enabled you to make that ad, or what you spent on the kid you watched. You can reduce the tax you owe, but you can’t eliminate it. If you go too far in finding “business expenses”, you invite a tax audit, and you’d better have receipts for all those expenses.

All of these are “close to real” examples, and the YWCA example is very real, a person whose taxes I reviewed last night had that (by reviewed I mean; in VITA office this year the IRS is having a second person look at people’s taxes). But the rent thing I mentioned earlier is absolutely and unfortunately happened to the same person who was surprised with a 1099 from the Y. Her story was that apparently her mother lives with her, or in a house she owns. I don’t believe her mom paid any rent. Well, someone in the Social Security Administration told her that if her mom did pay her rent, then mom could qualify for a Pennsylvania rent rebate. But there’s a flip side, now the woman (the daughter) has to claim rental income.

VITA sites aren’t equipped to file the forms needed to deal with rental income. We had to turn the woman away. Now I wonder if she will file at all.
Well, I gone on with this a long time, and I’m not sure I even had a point. If you (tax preparer) get people a lot of money, they will think you are the best thing since sliced bread, even if you are pretty convinced that software would have gotten them the same refund. And if they owe, or just get back less than they think they deserve, there first response will be to accuse of incompetence and then to think you cheated them. Most of the time tax preparers have very little leeway in tax preparation. But of course people attribute god like powers to you, and then wonder why you have not favored them.

Mostly though, you should look at your pay stub. If something doesn’t make sense, there is probably a reason for that, and you should ask. By the time next year’s filing time rolls around, it will be too late to fix anything.

Maybe this was just about blowing off steam.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

more questions than answers

So I know we are all beating the dead horse furiously, but there are just things I don’t understand. Like I said in my last post, I don’t feel I ever knew what Bill was about in his candidacy for mayor. I’m told there were position papers in the ’05 run (I’m mixing up dates here, I think ’05 is right), but none this time. At the same time, Pittsburgh Guy covers bizarre efforts by Bill to influence ACDC members prior to the endorsement with mailings designed to look like official party documents. This is difficult to reconcile with Bill’s claim that he was withdrawing because he didn’t want to go negative. Anyway, much of the Burgosphere believes Bill wouldn’t have had to go negative, he could just have no commented that to death. I mean, since Bill was behind he had the freedom to simply run a clean campaign. But again, whither be the issues, where are the meaty position papers that would have indicated what you meant when you said you are the leader of a reform movement. Now, apparently Bill explained to Fred Honsberger that there were indications that people thought Bill was dissing the memory of Bob O’Connor by running against Luke. While the statement is interesting, it’s not like Bob reached up from his hospital bed and anointed Luke. Luke, of course, has tried to establish the connection, but I don’t think it would have gone unchallenged.

I don’t know, there are a bunch reasons for pulling out of a race, but nothing Bill has said has been convincing. Of course, this seems to encourage endless speculation around the parts of the Burgosphere I read. The thing is, as I try and step back and really take a look, I know some of the facts but not really enough to even try to explain what happened.

I also don’t know what is going to happen to the city. Luke surely seems like nothing so much as a Culkin. When he gets a bit older, he is not going to find hidden depths and emerge as a great director like Opie (to continue beating the actor analogy). Luke will turn out to have been one more hack politician all along, perhaps in the vein of Jim Motznik. A kid who likes to watch hockey. And the city will have lost its new star, and slide a bit further backwards.

Would an Onorato as governor pull Pittsburgh’s fat out of the fire? Will the immoderate spending of a Ravenstahl administration finally drive us into bankruptcy despite the presence of state overseers? I would say stay tuned, but what choice do we have?

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Here's the thing ...

So at this point it just doesn’t matter, but, you gotta understand that I am an ordinary guy, and I look at the world in ordinary ways. By which I mean I read the paper, often every day, I agree with it if I like the paper and take it with a grain of salt if I don’t (I don’t read the trib much). I go through phases where I ignore local news, so I don’t know a lot about Pittsburgh’s history.

When Peduto ran before, I guess in ’83, about all I knew about him was that progressives seemed to like him and that he had been Dan Cohen’s staffer. I was pretty impressed that a high powered lawyer like Cohen had been on council, so automatically I was well disposed towards Peduto, but people also said he is smart. I dunno, some people you get that smart vibe and some people you don’t; I didn’t really get it from Peduto but, who knows. Dropped out of school? Was Cohen’s campaign chair/hatchet man in a House run?

So who is/was Bill Peduto? Policy wonk, Loyal Democratic Soldier, scheming politician …. All three?

Al Gore is considered a policy wonk. Of course, Al Gore claimed he invented the internet … NO NO NO (look at the Wikipedia page). But I gotta say, there was a bit in “An Inconvenient Truth” where Al was talking about the professor from, I think, the sixties who was where Al Gore first heard about global warming. The thing is, Al said the guy had noticed the upswing in the temperature for like, at that point, the last five years or so. FIVE YEARS??? That’s nothing, the guy should have had his tenure yanked and been thrown out on his ass.

OK, so the guy was right, but shame on Al for listening to such a crack pot.

But Al Gore has written some books and made a movie with Laurie David (almost as annoying as Larry David). What makes Bill Peduto a wonk.

I tried to find examples of what Peduto has done. Maybe I should watch council on the TV, because I looked on Bill’s campaign website and nary an issue or policy. Of course, Luke’s doesn’t either that I could find, but we are talking about the reputed wonk. Other people have said Bill’s a wonk, so I am inclined to believe it, except that I can’t prove it to myself. Granted, his council site has a couple of policy things. I get the impression he didn’t write them, but at least he posted them and I assume read them.

Here’s the thing, I am a slightly better than averagely informed person, but I never got a firm grasp on what Peduto might do as Mayor. Now just not being Luke would have been something, but since Luke is a walking national billboard for the city, I can see where the city might not want to replace Luke. Several people commented on the Peduto blog site that there weren’t any issues there.

One of the reasons Bill gave for dropping out was that he didn’t want the campaign to go negative. Well, he can control what comes out of his own mouth. Yes, there were viral videos going up, but that was because the Mayor was mis-stepping everywhere. If Bill wanted to talk about policy or issues, he should have done that, and made it interesting and brief enough to satisfy his voters and the media.

I don’t know, I don’t have much more to say ('sides I'm tired). Does seem likely, the way things have gone, that tomorrow could well bring some new shocking news.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Little did I know ...

Little did I know, when I said that events move fast in the Burgosphere last night, what this afternoon would bring…

Peduto is keeping his campaign office open, and holding a scheduled fund raising event next week. He mentioned running as an independent, more than once in his press conference. He might have an angle, something to get around the Caliguiri rule. Since he was likely to lose the primary, no matter how much dirt came out about Luke, Peduto is not exactly losing anything here. Maybe Peduto thinks that the combination of Republican and Democratic voters in the fall election will work better for him. Maybe there is something coming in an ethics investigation.

A certain loss in the primary versus a chance at some sneaky way to run as an independent in the fall. Can’t say as I blame Bill. Couldn’t blame Bill for turning his back, at least temporarily, on the local democratic party, after their spectacular lack of support at the endorsement meeting.

Well, maybe Bill can get some local filmmaker to help him make a film about these issues he really cares about. Maybe “An Inconvenient Budget”.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

I'll say it again, events move fast in the Burghospere

Although the Mayor's latest flare-up had nothing to do with blogs, still it strikes me that, at least during campaign season, events move fast. This happened, what, tonight, and already there are a half dozen different analyses I could find.

How much spin is left in the Mayor

Well, I tell you what, I’d rather be putting this into a comment than a post, because I think more people might see my comments on *other people’s blogs* …

So the Mayor has been caught in a lie *again* and once again the MSM is carrying it, perhaps a bit more aggressively. If the MSM keeps it up, the Mayor’s campaign may be fairly damaged by this.

The Mayor is in a fairly interesting position. He got national attention last year taking over Pittsburgh, going on Letterman and getting national write ups. He is clearly a photogenic young man, and although to me he sounds a bit like a kid when he speaks, this seems to be part of his charm. The story on CBS Sunday morning didn’t hurt. Then there is the Penguins story; they were going to leave and all looked dark, then suddenly we were all pulled back from the brink. Between Rendell, Onorato and Ravenstahl, Ravenstahl has clearly benefited the most because Rendell is not running for anything and Onorato is uncontested. Arguably Ravenstahl contributed the least of the three.

So it is no surprise that the local democratic council bestowed their blessing on Ravenstahl, he is our media star, practically a tourist destination. No surprise that Ron Burkle pulled him aside and invited him to New York. I don’t know Burkle, but if he is a FOB (Friend of Bill) he probably has some pull.

By the way, some people have suggested this trip was a violation of ethics. C’mon, get real. The Mayor, this Mayor, is on a different plane (no pun intended). He is basking in the glow of popularity and generating buzz. How could he refuse? I mean, he’s not like that stick in the mud Onorato. Hmm. Back to that in minute.

The thing is, this is a 27 year old politician Mayor. Now there are different kinds of politicians. There are those who play the wonk, like Peduto seems to be (like Adlai Stevenson played an “egghead”, blasted for being a phony by the Kennedy’s, according to Beschloss)(what?). Then there are the campaigners, which is what Ravenstahl seems to be, charming and pretty intelligent, probably enjoys helping people, but also in it to win. Mostly (I suspect) in it to win.

The other thing is, he’s 27. Young enough not to have learned when *not* to be combative. Young enough to think that people care more about the bad thing you do than they do about whether you own up to it. Consider that people believe that Clinton lied, and many think that Bush has lied. Clinton (eventually) owned up and apologized, and even the Republican senate couldn’t quite get rid of him. And he finished the second term with pretty good poll numbers. Much better than Bush’s number right now, the Bush who can’t admit he’s made mistakes.

And Ravenstahl has made mistakes, lying about Heinz field, lying about the New York trip, letting Dennis Regan make bad calls for him, etc. Then there are potential ethical violations. Cost recovery (the lack of) may be a mistake, although the voters probably won't care. Still, as these mistakes begin to pile up, I wonder what the democrats are going to do? They have this novelty figure, but if it turns out he can’t figure out how to behave with the press, can they afford to keep backing him?

I wonder about Dan Onorato. Here he is, a rising star, managing to make the right friends in the party, championing “right sizing” the Port Authority yet escaping any accusation of selling out the county. He’s weathered the assessments mess so far (probably because even expensive property in Pittsburgh would be considered a steal anywhere else). Dan’s worked pretty hard to get where he is, but he is not getting any national press. Suddenly here’s this kid, and everybody is paying attention to him. And what does this kid do with this incredible gift from heaven? He’s risking throwing it all away because he doesn’t know when to tell the truth.

Onorato must be beside himself, Rendell too. When do they start to distance themselves?

If the MSM stays with it, if tough questions get asked in the debates (if there is/are debate(s)), this might be a turning point. Tough questions might get asked too, because reporters have memories, and remember that Luke stonewalled them on the Heinz field thing for months. Or maybe the blogs are too incestuous and the voters still like the spiky hair.

Friday, March 16, 2007

A few thoughts on the Mayor and the campaign

The divide between Mayor Ravenstahl and what I know of the blogging community in Pittsburgh (the part that apparently calls itself the Burghosphere – spelling?) seems to be widening. With the exception of a very polite and reasonable individual going by Matt H, Pittsburgh bloggers seem uniformly to find the find the mayor lacking. There is also a fair amount of half hearted support for Bill Peduto. There are several anonymous posters who support the mayor. I have run a little sideshow here because of my support for Pat Dowd, and there is an anonymous commenter who has challenged my support here and a few other places.

It has been pointed out that the MSM (main street media) has largely ignored the issues battles that have gone on in the Burgosphere. I would argue that the Burgosphere’s battles are genuine ones, questions about finances and ethics. Yet they may be the sorts of things that only policy wonks are interested in. The debates almost resemble something that college students might do, argue over various political issues over a dining hall table. The dining table, I might point out, has a fairly unlimited number of seats, but the participants have a limited attention span, and scrolling through twenty comments gets fairly tiring (especially if the commenters are as long winded as me). You have to be someone who enjoys hearing yourself talk, but you have to be self aware and literate enough to make interesting comments. Rude and stupid comments will be ridiculed as such.

So the Burgosphere is at once democratic and moderately elite. As was pointed out at The People’s Republic of Pittsburgh recently, the MSM is not picking up, or barely acknowledging the issues making the rounds round here. As long as that continues to be the case, I expect the democratic machine will also continue to ignore the Burgosphere.

Mayor Ravenstahl’s campaign has actually set up a fairly significant web site. With streaming video and actually only a few pictures, it is fairly slick. Of course, I would argue that streaming video is a way of avoiding providing actual content, but then so few elections seem to be about content (or policy).

If you look carefully at the non-political blogs, such as The Burgh Blog, while the author mocks the Mayor fairly often, the comments about Ravenstahl seem genuinely split between support and dislike. A recent barrage of comments included several people expressing their support because the Mayor is young, and therefore has “new ideas”. Between the Democrat Committee endorsement, the positive press the Mayor has received and the aversion of the crisis with the Penguins, I personally think the Mayor is a shoe-in in the Primary, and thus in the election.

But ever since the massacre when Bob O’Connor fired BJ Leiber (Lieber?) and two other staffers over the phone (in what I thought was strange circumstances), I think the city has been moving in a dark direction. Denny Regan *may* be out, but ever since O’Connor went into the hospital, city government has been collectively engaged in massive power grabs, thinly veiled as the city "moving forward after tragedy". Mayor Ravenstahl has been in the thick of it, using his position to control the spin as best he can. But lets be clear, I don’t think this Mayor has been particularly good at this. Between the clumsy effort to put his picture on literally every city surface to his obvious pandering to the police union over cost recovery to his refusal to debate Peduto because he (Ravenstahl) is too busy to his demotion of Catherine McNeilly (spelling?) to his initial denials and later tortured story about what happened to him at Heinz Field, this Mayor has shown a lack of experience and sophistication about politics.

Now, I’m not a politician, so I don’t know how much pressure Mayor Ravenstahl is under, and I don’t know the man. He may well be a great guy, a policy wonk, or whatever. But I gotta go with my impression, and my impression is that this is not the Mayor for a city teetering on the edge of bankruptcy (a place where we will be for years if not decades to come). What’s interesting to me is that Peduto (and yes, Dowd) also have web sites, arguably with more content, and clearly are darlings (well, Peduto anyway) of the Burgosphere. I mean, the bloggers would turn on them in a heartbeat if they were in office and made a mis-step, but for now as the under-dogs, many mistakes can be forgiven. This may drive a wedge between the official party and the blogging community. But I think the democratic nature of blogging and commenting is also a part of the future for the party, a wave of new political involvement with a heavy emphasis on policy. I think we are all democrats here, but this particualr primary has indications that the democrats will try to eat their young (love that metaphor).

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Questions, questions

Where are the Mayoral debates?

Where's Act 47 on the new Arena?

Where's Act 47 (as if it were a person or group of people) on cost recovery?

Where's the ethics board?

Big Announcement

I'm certainly willing to break the big news: Ravenstahl wins primary!

Well, actually the news services are announcing that the Pens deal has been made, but it amounts to the same thing. Now the debates can be scheduled. Maybe the interim Mayor will wear a Pens shirt to them.

The only problem I can see is that the Mayor will have to talk. Then again, Bush had to talk in his debates too.