Saturday, January 28, 2012

Analysis of Avarice

A wealthy American’s tax returns were recently in the news, and I made a post on Facebook about it. My interest was doing some number-crunching that I had not heard performed in any of the news coverage on these tax returns. I pointed out that this person earns nearly $60,000 every day from investment income (and thus pays a tax rate of less than 15%). The thought of raking in this lofty level of income every 24 hours is both incredible and sad to me.

In my prior posting, I did not use his name, in an effort to stay non-partisan, but everyone knows I am referring to Mitt Romney. In previous elections, I could probably have written similar essays on Nelson Rockefeller, Ross Perot, Steve Forbes, or Teresa Heinz Kerry’s husband. I want to acknowledge that this is not a vendetta against Romney. He seems like a nice guy who has done some good things in his life. Plus, I can remember when his dad ran for president, and as a kid who was into cars, I thought it would be cool to have a former auto maker as a president. I am really not trying to say anything about this candidate’s current campaign. I’ll wait until closer to Election Day to decide who gets my vote.

He is quite rich, but he is far from the richest American. It is just that his tax returns went public, and so I decided to do a little math on the numbers. Extrapolating further (and just to keep it simple), if he is getting a 10% return on investment, then his roughly $21 million annual interest payments come from a total corpus of only $210 million. There are lots of folks from both political persuasions who are way richer than he is (Gates, Buffett, Soros, Koch Brothers, Walton family, Zuckerberg, Bloomberg, etc., to name just a few of the billionaires).

The point I was trying to make in my posting was how I have a hard time understanding this wealth accumulation mentality. To me, at some point one has to worry if they are crossing into avarice (also known as greed), one of the “seven deadly sins.” I grew up with a sense of charity such that I could never stand to have so much money—I’d be giving it away once I could live comfortably. I’m proud that I will never be that rich!

However, many of America’s rich seem to have the same interest in collecting money and holding onto it as some of those demented folks I saw the one time I watched that TV show about hoarding. It just does not seem Christian to me to accumulate that much wealth. I prefer to think that if asked “WWJD,” He would not be controlling such a fortune.

It is clear to me that no one really needs that kind of money for themselves. Since it is more than you can spend in a lifetime, one of the goals of this kind of capital accumulation is to ensure your future generations are set for life (e.g., Rockefeller, DuPont, etc.). It is one thing to want to help out your own children, it is another thing altogether to set up an everlasting dynasty. Remember, America was created with the idea that unlike Europe, we would not have a nobility class of inherited wealth—ours would be a merit based society where anybody could pull themselves up by their bootstraps and make a name for themselves. We seem to be forgetting this early maxim.

Dating back to my college days, I always felt that a good benchmark for knowing when one was really well off would be when you are making more than the salary of the MOST IMPORTANT job in America—the Presidency. Even when it was only $200,000 per year (now it is $400,000), I advocated a higher tax rate for anyone making more than the President makes each year. I’m not opposed to capitalism, but when you are making more money than the President, you should help contribute more to the country that made this possible (and do so without complaining—especially when your country is in dire straits with its finances).

After all, the 16th Amendment creating the income tax would never have been approved by American citizens had it not been for the fact that the original intent was to let those who had prospered in our country to help pay for it. The first income tax, when converted to today’s dollars, only applied to those who made about a hundred grand. Anyone making less than that did not have to pay income taxes. No wonder the citizenry clamored for it to be added to the Constitution!

The release of these tax returns show someone who makes more in a week (~$60,000 x 7 days = $420,000 per week) than the President makes in a whole year! I’m truly glad I’m not that person. I don’t mean to personally condemn him or any of the other millionaires and billionaires, but I think the general topic is worthy of reflection. I’ve written before on this topic (see and the Bible verse “For it is easier for a camel to go through a needle's eye, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.”

Some people may yearn for riches, and it is good to want to prosper. Even the Chinese have learned the values of capitalism. But at some point, my personal feelings are that if one is well off, then you should be giving it away as fast as it comes in. Charitable contributions can help the country just as much (if not more) than capital formation and investment.

I’m not saying that everyone should live as Mother Teresa—I’m certainly glad that after eight years of higher education (B.A., M.P.A., J.D.), I am ahead of the average annual income in America. In addition, I put as much as I can towards my retirement, so I can one day live off my meager investments. But I will never be mega-rich—I would feel too guilty if I was ever that rich.

That is one deadly sin I will never have to worry about.

Friday, January 27, 2012

My thoughts on SOPA/PIPA

I generally try to steer clear of politics on Facebook, because I am fortunate to have friends from a variety of political persuasions—and consider myself fortunate for the diverse postings I get to see. I have always been an independent rather than a political party partisan (evidenced by my working in the 1980 presidential campaign of Congressman John Anderson, plus having served two terms on the non-partisan school board). In this election year, I think the biggest patriots are those who can see positive aspects in all major candidates (albeit sometimes one has to dig a bit harder to find those positive aspects). I especially like to see regular people take part in their government!

As someone who has taught American Government and Constitutional Law for WVU-P, I was thrilled to see so many of my Facebook friends (some of them former students of mine) post comments and links related to the Congressional bills known as the “Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA)” and the “Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA).” Because of the work I do in my real job, I have known about these bills—and the overall problem—for a long time.

In my opinion, the bills were reaching too far—especially with the expectations to block entire domains like Wikipedia. I can understand that the Hollywood studios don’t like to have their latest movies uploaded to the Internet where they can be viewed for free. The same goes for the music recording industry. However, I don’t think these industry-driven bills were written with the proper appreciation for the Internet and what it has provided to all of us. Don’t further increase the power of the government to shut down swaths of the web just because of a particular pirate who uploaded a movie (it can already be done with the laws now on the books—see the news about Don’t inconvenience the rest of us by outright censoring—it might be harder to do, but if someone is ripping off your intellectual property, then only go after the violator without impacting the rest of us. [Also, you might want to think about your whole business paradigm, which may have worked in the old days (vertical integration with studios owning the theaters as well as the stars), but may not be realistic for today’s world.]

Sure, they will cry that this is too hard to do, but it is the most just approach. Americans value freedom, and the Internet wants to be free. There is a lot of bad stuff on the Internet, ranging from hacking tools to kiddie porn to bomb-making instructions. But all of that is outweighed by the repository of human knowledge that it truly is—and all of it for (relatively) free! We don’t want to head down the road of Internet censorship that China and many other countries are already on. It is our love of liberty that helps to set us apart, and makes us that “shining city upon a hill, whose beacon light guides freedom-loving people everywhere” (a favorite quote of mine from President Reagan).

So it was with great pleasure that I watched the SOPA and PIPA bills get pulled down this week, as a result of the massive public response via the Internet. Perhaps only a decade ago, this sort of legislation, backed by fatcats of both parties and greased along by massively funded lobbying efforts, would have snuck through the Congress somewhat under the radar. However, it was the outcry of the citizenry that changed the trajectory of this legislation. I like that!

I just hope that Facebook and the Internet can be used more often to engage the citizenry on legislative topics in the future. Perhaps the impact from the millions of binary 0’s and 1’s carrying our on-line petitions and e-mail messages across the web and into Congressional offices can somehow offset the millions of dollars that are often used on Capitol Hill to grease the skids for legislation intended to benefit certain sectors, rather than doing the greater good.

Since the Internet came along, I have never been bored. There is always something new to learn about, and it is all available to me through my keyboard. What originally started as ARPAnet is probably mankind’s greatest invention to date. Let’s use it responsibly but resist letting governments anywhere overpower it, because the web can be a vital tool for discovering the truth. As the motto of my alma mater says, “Vos Veritas Liberabit” (the truth shall make you free, from John 8:32).

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

11's twelve best

As the year 2011 comes to a close, like many other people I like to reflect back on my fondest memories from this year. I decided to list the top dozen activities from this year which I will long treasure. It was hard putting them in order, so consider this merely an approximate ranking (some were lumped together to allow more to fit into the final list). I’m providing links to the earlier stories on this blog in case you’d like to read more. By the way, I fully realize how fortunate I am to have enjoyed these experiences all in one year.

1. Selecting the top pick was difficult, but I think riding the Greenbrier River Trail gets the top billing ( I am grateful that Anna’s brother accompanied me on this two-day bicycle trek through the beautiful West Virginia woodlands along the scenic Greenbrier River.

2. Anna and I just recently returned from a fantastic Caribbean cruise ( Since meeting Anna I’ve learned how nice a cruise vacation can be. Perhaps the most memorable experience (out of many) from this year’s trip was the day we spent visiting with Peace Corps volunteers in the Dominican Republic.

3. I had always been interested in riding the New River Train tour that runs up the Kanawha and New River to Hinton each fall, showcasing the fall foliage as well as the geology and history of West Virginia. This part of southern West Virginia has always interested me, and I recently found out that my great-great-great-grandfather spent a good bit of time there during the Civil War. As it turns out, I was riding under the New River Gorge Bridge just one week after walking on top of that famous bridge during the annual Bridge Day festivities. One Saturday each year they close the bridge and allow parachuting, bungee jumping, zip lining, or just simply walking across the gorge and enjoying the view. This was my third time at Bridge Day, and it was a beautiful sunny day. [Back in late March while in Fayetteville, we stayed overnight at the Morris Harvey House bed and breakfast, but the weather was snowy that weekend.]

4. Anna’s family joined together for a weekend of camping at North Bend State Park. To hold down our campsites, I spent the week commuting to work via motorcycle from a tent in the woods ( and had a grand time. I purchased a nice kayak from one of my former students and was able to put it to good use exploring the new lake at North Bend. This was also my first time ever to have a laptop while camping. It was a new experience to have a tent lit up by the glow of a laptop screen.

5. Anna’s Ph.D. program required her to travel to Atlanta this summer ( We had a great time there (of course, since she was attending classes, I probably had a better time than she did). Highlights included the Carter Library, the Georgia Aquarium, the Coca-Cola Museum, Underground Atlanta, a Segway tour, and more. I also participated in a 5K at the Georgia capitol.

6. Anna, Halley, and I had a fun time together on a New York City bus trip last month ( I’m thrilled that my daughter is so adept at handling herself in a big city, as I described in my blog posting about this trip.

7. The fourth hijacked airplane on September 11 crashed in Shanksville, PA, not all that far from Morgantown ( We had always talked about going to the crash site to pay our respects, but had not got around to it. Finally, this summer (prior to the 10th anniversary) we made the journey, and were glad we did.

8. After graduating from WVU in 1985 with my J.D./M.P.A. and moving to Washington, I saw TV ads for the Maryland Renaissance Festival. While it piqued my curiosity, for various reasons I never made it during the years I lived there. However, those ads led me to check out other Renaissance Festivals over the years. RennFests are a fun combination of history and entertainment. This year (thanks to the Stansberry family), I finally got to check out the Maryland version. It was a lot of fun! It was the best of the RennFests I have visited.

9. Outdoor activities this summer included a weekend taking my daughter and nephew down the Youghigheny River in inflatable kayaks as well as rafting the next day on the man-made course at the Wisp Ski Resort. I also had an adventure weekend in Fayette County with Anna’s nieces, flying on the zipline and rafting down the New River. Additionally, I had lots of fun on creeks, rivers, and lakes with my new (used) kayak (thanks again, Alex!).

10. Anna and I had the opportunity to tour historic Annapolis, Maryland, on two-wheeled Segways. It was a lot of fun in a very scenic area. Other trips to the DC area this year gave me the chance to participate in the Peace Corps 50th anniversary celebration (part of the annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the Mall) as well as stopping at the Antietam Battlefield and the original Washington Monument on a mountaintop in Maryland.

11. Columbus, Ohio has always been an important city for me, as it is the closest major metropolitan area to my hometown, and this year was no different. Anna and I have always visited several times a year, in part because she has family living there, but also because our first Columbus date involved a visit to the Shadowbox ( We loved their incredible musical and comedic talents, and attend several of their shows each year, and this year was no different. One of the highlights was watching their recreation of the Woodstock concert over Memorial Day weekend, as well as attending their last show at their longtime home in the Easton shopping center. This year, we also added a visit to the Funny Bone Comedy Club to see John Heffron, a winner on NBC’s Last Comic Standing. Finally, we also enjoyed a ride this fall on the Hocking Valley Railroad with Anna’s young nephews—their first train experience.

12. Many of you know that I am a major supporter of my alma maters—the University of Charleston and West Virginia University. This year I got to see the UC basketball doubleheader at OVU, the annual Governor’s Cup Regatta, and the Homecoming football game. However, the biggest college sporting memory for me this year will probably be from when the ESPN Game Day television show came to Morgantown. Halley and I went down to show our support, and we are sure that ESPN was impressed (as evidenced by the clip I posted on Facebook of Erin Andrews’ positive remarks about WVU while appearing on the Jimmy Kimmel show). While we lost to #1 LSU that night (after rolling up more offense against them than anyone else), the team finished reasonably well. Other favorite 2011 memories of WVU sports includes our trip to Maryland to see the Mountaineers defeat the Terps, my first rifle match (, my return to rowing (, and the WVU volleyball banquet (