Friday, December 11, 2009

Taxes and the US Postal Service

It's December. And one of the times of the year when two government agencies particularly draw my ire. The US Postal Service and the IRS. It's a good thing Christmas is here this year so that I can have a breath of good cheer in the air.

With winter comes snow. With snow comes the drudgery of shoveling out the driveway. And as I found out the first year in Iowa, also making sure that the area in front of the mailbox is cleared. If not then I will undoubtedly get a nasty gram from the mailman telling me that I need to clear it or he won't deliver the mail. Now, mind you. I own my house (and the land that it is on). The city owns the sidewalk, but I am responsible for clearing it. The street/cul-de-sac that I live on is owned and maintained by the city. I don't even have a say in who does the plowing.

So, when the plow truck came by that first year and deposited three feet of snow and ice near the curb (in front of the mailbox), I get a nasty gram. After about the third time, I finally started snow blowing in front of the driveway and mailbox so that there was less stuff to be deposited. After reassessing the situation this year, I think I will just leave a nasty gram myself to the postman if he leaves one for me. "Dear sir, Thank you for your concern about getting my mail to me. However, if you leaf through it you will find over the course of a month there is only 1 or 2 letters that are actually worth opening. The rest goes in the recycle bin. So, please hold my mail until spring. I don't need it."

I am amazed that there is still individual house service by the US Post Office. Earlier this year when they knew they were going to be losing billions (again), there were whispers of maybe cutting service on Saturdays. However they weren't going to make a decision until the September board meeting, more than 6 months away. Doesn't that sort of defeat the purpose of whining about losing money if you aren't going to take any action for 6 months? So I came up with a plan if I was given control over the US Post Office to turn it around.

First, no service on Tuesday or Thursday. Also, I would cut service on every other Saturday. Postal workers would work 12 hour days on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and every other Saturday. Second, no more individual mailboxes for each house. There would be a community mailbox area like I have seen in most new neighborhoods. My street has about 2o houses. These could be served by a single station with 20 boxes at the beginning of the street. I would be willing to bet that you could eliminate half of the delivery workforce just by doing this. Third, no more package delivery to the door. There could be a few large boxes at the community station for packages or they can be held at the post office. Fourth, rural delivery routes would occur once a week. No sense in wasting all that driving to deliver coupons from Bed Bath and Beyond (why don't they just lower all of their prices by 20% rather than sending me a coupon every single week?). Fifth, eliminate the franking privileges of elected officials. We pay them enough and provide enough for their office budgets that they can buy their own stamps. Some quick back of the hand calculations make me believe that these 5 suggestions would cut the postal expense by 75%. If you can't meet your budget after cutting 75% of your expenses, there is no help for you.

The US Postal Service is becoming an anachronism. Sure for 150 years, there was no other economical option to get documents from point A to point B if they were separated by more than 50 miles. However, there are several package/document companies that will do it for you now and overnight. Furthermore, if it weren't for monopolistic government regulations which require them (private companies) to charge more than the US Post Office, than their prices would be very competitive. Email and online bill pay has nearly eliminated the need to send checks through the mail. Frankly, the junk mail people are the only thing keeping the post office afloat. I send out more Christmas cards, than I do all other mail combined. And if there is ever a private company that will deliver them for 50 cents to a dollar a piece, I would use them. Even digital photography has made it so that you can share pictures with family without the mail. So, let's see if we can't get rid of the US Post Office in the next 25 years. Don't worry, private companies will come in to pick up the slack for less money, with better service, and faster.

So the next subject of my ire this time of year is the IRS (and subsequent state department of revenue). Every December, I do an estimate of my taxes to see how much I owe or how much I get back. This is so that my wife and I can budget out the next year. The last few years have been wacky, resulting in thousands of refunds. My work has always had a significant portion of my pay in the form of bonuses and overtime which is automatically withheld at 25% even though I claim enough deductions on my W-4 so that very little is taken out of my regular paycheck.

One of the results of the convoluted federal and state tax systems is that I have paid more SS tax than state income tax than federal income tax. In fact last year, once all of the credits were added in, I had zero federal income tax liability (Note: I am not foolish enough to believe that if I get a refund I don't pay taxes, what I am saying is that my federal refund was equal to or more than the total amount of federal income tax that was withheld). And I make a decent amount of money. The states that I have lived in that charge an income tax (Iowa, New York, South Carolina, Oklahoma) always seem to get more than enough. And while the federal return has enough deductions and credits to eliminate my tax liability, the states don't.

For instance, Iowa allows you a $40 tax credit for each person claimed on your taxes. $40! Compared to the federal child tax credit of $1000 + the $3650 per person exemption of income (which translates into $360 to $1200 of taxes depending on your marginal rate). The $40 is more like an insult than anything else. Why bother even giving it? Times like these, it makes moving back to Texas (with no income tax) look real promising!

The other thing I don't understand the logic for is underpayment penalties. Basically, both the state and federal systems are set up so that if you don't have enough withheld from your paycheck. In Iowa, the penalty is 5% of whatever your underpayment is. However, on the reverse side, if you overpay (i.e. get a refund) they don't tack interest on to it. So, the system forces you to overpay your taxes. Frankly, I'd be happier if we just had to write one check a year. So far our elected officials don't seem to care how much money comes in, they spend 10% to 50% more each year. Any complaint that the government wouldn't have a steady income flow is laughable.

Dividends are another big gripe. In case you didn't know, when a company reports earnings, that is the amount they are taxed on. To the tune of 35%. Then, the company pays out dividends (which have already been taxed at the corporate level), and the individual getting the dividends pays taxes on those (15% or 25% although for the next couple of years some of them are 0%). Double taxation at its finest.

I've blogged before about the federal budget. I support the Fair Tax. Is it perfect, no. But it is a heck of a lot better than the system we have. Now, I need to go look at some retirement properties in Texas, Washington, Alaska, Florida, Nevada, South Dakota, and Wyoming. I may work in an income tax state right now, but when I no longer am tied to a location for a job, you can bet I won't be living in a state where I have to pay income taxes.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Firearms and the Medical Profession

In the last 10 years, there has been a small segment of the medical professional population that is pushing for more interaction with patients about firearms. I read an editorial here where a Physician's Assisstant makes a push for talking with patients about firearms. What ever happened to going to the doctor and discussing aches, pains, blood and sometimes snot or stool?

As the author correctly points out, firearms safety is not something that is covered in their training process. Here is a hint: it wasn't covered in my training process as an engineer either. I don't think teacher's go through it, neither do professional athletes (except the one's involved in the shooting sports). And I am perfectly OK with that. I want doctors and nurses to learn about aches, pains, blood, snot and stool. That is what they will deal with. Whether my pain comes from getting kicked by a horse or shooting a Mosin-Nagant 50 times in one hour is irrelevant. Just give me something to dull my senses!

So what do guns have to do with health anyway that we would want our doctors to ask us about them? Well, the author gives a few examples:

"Consider the child who plays with a loaded handgun that he found unsecured in his home" Well, storage of firearms is probably better talked about with a gun dealer or someone who sells safes. You know, the ones who actually know how to secure a firearm. Another good source of information might be your local Sheriff or District Attorney's office to find out what the laws in your area are. Do we expect physician's assisstants to tell us that we shouldn't leave matches where kids can get them?

"the intruder who wrests a loaded gun from a panicked homeowner's grasp in the middle of the night" Oh good, the straw man of someone taking the gun away. Could someone please explain how a doctor's advice (who knows far less about guns than I do) is going to help me out in this situation. It the intruder takes my gun and uses it against me I may (the author didn't like statistics so I am trying to contrain myself from using any) be dead/hurt, if I don't have a firearm the intruder may hurt/kill me anyway since he probably scoped me out and feels he has the advantage. So how is following this physician assisstant's advice any better?

"a gun-owning college student who is despondent over both a breakup with a girlfriend and his plummeting grades" I am guessing she is implying that the student goes on to commit suicide as opposed to his friend down the street who is in the exact same situation and decides not to kill himself because he doesn't have a gun. Its not like he was smart enough to use a knife, rope, pills, alcohol, car, bridge, or any other implement. Wouldn't a doctor be more concerned with the depression/suicidal thoughts and refer him to a psychologist? Furthermore, if the kid is anything like I was, he isn't going to see a doctor, nurse, or physician's assistant for all 4, 5, or 6 years that he is in college.

"the single mom who answers her doorbell, only to find her estranged husband standing there with a rifle—despite a restraining order that is supposed to keep him away." Wait a minute, we need our doctors and physician assistants to tell us that some people who shouldn't have guns get a hold of guns. What advice/counsel would they give to this single mom beforehand that would change this situation? Don't have guns in the home? That isn't the problem, the estranged husband with the rifle on the doorstep is!

After complaining about gun control arguments devolving into a "battle of statistics," she proceeds to use survey results (statistics) to show that there is some hope for this profession afterall. Even though supposedly a majority of people said they wanted doctors to counsel on gun safety (a majority of people also want free food and housing - it doesn't make it a good or practical idea), the vast majority of doctors do not provide any counseling on firearms - probably a major factor in that result is that they have not been trained on gun safety themselves. Perhaps the reason is since Galen, nobody has shown how firearms (or any weapon for that matter) directly (as opposed to someone else misusing it or intentionally using it for harm) affects one's health. When used as the manufacturer recommends, firearms do not harm any innocent party. The author trys to compare guns to smoking or drinking, except that smoking and drinking when used the way the manufacturer intend, do affect one's health. Guns in relation to the medical field are better compared to automobiles or baseball bats.

Then the author has this doozy of a statement: "A gun in the wrong hands at the wrong time or handled improperly can kill instantly." I happen to agree with it (and if you don't you are probably an imbecile). Of course if you change gun with any number of words I would still agree with it: car, bat, knife, lighter, glass window, cement block, bathtub, battery, etc. Do we need our doctors and physician assistant's to be trained in every method that can do us harm? Can you imagine going to your doctor's office and having a display of flyers with the following titles: "Gun Safety in the Home", "How to Properly Jumpstart Your Automobile", "Remember Icicle Safety while Shoveling Snow", "Have You Child-Proofed Your Sports Equipment?". If they need training on all of these (and countless other subjects), when are they going to have time to learn about aches, pains, blood, snot, and stool?

Then she has three rules to counsel patients with:
"(1) Remove guns from your home, or keep them unloaded and locked up, with ammunition stored separately." Besides the removing guns part this is sensible. Should we also remove other things from the home that result in more accidental deaths such as bathtubs, matches, and stairs (I really want to use some statistics from a source the author approves of, the CDC, but I'll restrain myself). Why we need a doctor to tell us this is beyond me. Any training class on firearms will say the same thing. Most of the literature that comes with a new firearm will also say the same thing.

"(2) Treat guns as if they were loaded and ready to fire." Alright, if you are going to rip-off Colonel Cooper's rules, then use all of them. The 4 Rules aren't there to pick and choose from. Slipping up on one is forgiveable.

"(3) Do not allow children access to guns. " Sort of like not letting children have access to birth control, matches, or car keys. This rule is complete bunk. Children should have access to guns, under the watchful care of an experienced adult family member. How else are they going to learn how to properly handle them. I learned the rules of the road long before I could drive. Making things taboo only invites curiosity.

So, if on the 1 occasion every 5 years I go to the doctor, I am ever asked about my firearms, my response will be, its none of your business. If the issue is pressed further, I will engage in a conversation (which includes statistics) about how firearms "affect" my health. Finally, if the doctor/physician's assistant presses further, my visit will end, and I'll find another doctor.

And I would hope that everyone does the same thing. I don't waste my time trying to diagnose my doctor's heart condition. Why should he waste his time (and mine) talking about firearm safety (unless he wants me to teach him, in which case the doctor's office isn't the proper locale, a range is)? If he did have a question about explosives or projectiles, I'd be more than happy to help him with it.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Thanksgiving Weekend New Shooters

The Thanksgiving weekend brought me two opportunities to take new shooters out to the range; one expected, the other unexpected. Let me get in to a little background on training.

The first opportunity was my oldest daughter. I have promised all of my children that I would teach them how to shoot a gun once they were eight years old. I had planned on doing this at a range near our home sometime near Christmas, but since for Thanksgiving we decided to visit my brother and his in-laws own a bit of land, I decided to do it then.

Some quick background. I don't hide firearms from my children. They know I have them and I'll let them hold them (properly following the 4 Rules) whenever I get a new one or I'm cleaning them after a range trip. I do keep them where they cannot access them without my help. So, the initial training of my children started long ago. But this was the first range trip for my daughter. My brothers and I had set up some old hay bales and a table about 5 yards away facing a hill (always a good backstop). My daughter chose the target we would shoot at (paintballs), and I also set up a steel swinging target and an old shovel head that I brought down.

I made sure everything was set up before hand so that my wife and I could walk out with her (don't want to introduce her to the drudgery of setting up the shooting range just yet). We had a review of the 4 Safety Rules and discussed how we would follow them. Then it was time to break out the firearms (all .22LR). One at a time. We started with the revolver. I showed her how to check the cylinder and then load the rounds. I took one shot at the target, exploding a paintball. Then I let her have the chance. The hammer was difficult for her to cock back, although she was able to manage it. After firing the whole cylinder we unloaded the revolver, and went to look at the target. She had almost hit two paintballs.

We returned and I asked whether she wanted to do the revolver again or use Momma's gun (semiautomatic). She wanted to use Momma's gun. So we put the revolver away and got out the semiautomatic. I explained how the action worked briefly, and then we put two rounds in the magazine (one for me and one for her). I showed how to rack the slide and then took a shot. Then I handed the gun to her and she took her shot.

With the semiautomatic, she was much more successful and was able to hit three or four paintballs. She liked Momma's gun a lot and went through several magazines. The only thing she didn't like was the flying brass. Then I was ready for the rifle. I don't have a youth rifle yet, so I might have to get one. Even full sized .22LR rifles are huge for kids. Basically, we had it tucked under one arm and she was shooting it from a seated position. Getting a sight in the scope was difficult for her because she is right eye dominant, but can't close only her left eye very well (probably related to the surgery she had earlier this year). After a few shots she was rather frustrated so I let her shoot Momma's gun again. She did say that she likes the semiautomatic (not having to charge it each time) but doesn't like the flying brass. Anyone know of a brass catcher that works on a Walther P22? I might as well get the sound supressor for it too!

As I mentioned before, the second opportunity was unexpected. I have a relative (who will remain anonymous for this blog to protect her identity) that we will call Janet (again, not her real name). I had taught Janet's husband to shoot previously and they were both at Thanksgiving with us. After shooting clay pidgeons on Friday afternoon with Janet's husband, on Saturday morning I made the joke that she should come and watch us shoot clays that afternoon so that she could see her husband's skill or watch him get knocked on his backside with the double-barrelled 12 gauge.

Laughter all around, and then as people dispersed to go and do chores, she quietly came up to me and said "I'll go shooting with you for a little bit this afternoon." OK, that is a total shock! If you can ever imagine someone who you would think would never pick up a firearm, Janet is it. She grew up in a place and culture that views firearms as objects that only kill people. At lunch I casually mention to Janet's husband that I am going to go shooting with her after lunch. He looks at me and says, "You'll never get her to go shooting."

"I don't have to convince her, she asked me." A dumbfounded look crosses his face. A short while later, Janet's husband and I go out to set up the range. "I have one rule for you." I say to him.

"What's that?"

"Keep your mouth shut. I'm the instructor here and I don't want her having any distractions."

"No problem, I'll do whatever you say."

Janet came out a short while later and I asked her about her experience with firearms. She had shot a rifle once about 20 years or more ago. We started by going over the 4 Safety Rules. I showed her the application of each one (as with my daughter), including looking behind the backstop. I then had her repeat them to me.

We started off with the revolver. One cylinder of that and she was ready for the next firearm (why people don't like revolvers, I don't know, I think they are a blast!). The semi-automatic handgun was next. We were shooting at a swinging target from about 5 yards and she was able to hit it several times. Next we went to the rifle. I told her that she needed to aim about 1 inch higher with the scope since we were so close (5 yards). She was able to hit the target again.

Then we moved the table back to about 25 yards and had her take another 10 shots at the target, this time aiming for dead center. All shots were hits. After this I asked if you wanted to try anything in caliber's about .22LR? She was willing as long as the gun wasn't going to come back and smack her.

So I pulled out the 9mm and the Tokarov. I lined up the cartridges on the table so she could get a visual idea of how much more power each of these cartridges held. I explained where each one was used (US military, law enforcement and Eastern Bloc). I then shot the 9mm first so she could see the reaction of the firearm and the target. The swinger when hit with a .22 makes a plunk and moves slightly. With the 9mm, it swung a full circle. She then shot the firearm once. We repeated the process for the Tokarov.

Now that she had been introduced to handguns and rifle, I wanted to let her have a feel for a shotgun. I had a 20 gauge single shot that had a decent recoil pad (it was one of the ones I was using to shoot clays the day before). I set up a couple of water jugs and grabbed three rounds of bird shot. The picture below is the only one of her. She didn't want any pictures holding a gun. After emphasizing that she needed to hold the shotgun tight to her shoulder (unlike a .22LR rifle) I took aim at one of the water jugs and blasted it into oblivion.

She then took her chance with two shots and was finished for the day. She did comment to my wife that she could see how shooting guns could be enjoyable for some people. Is she going to go out and buy one, most likely not. But she was willing to go through the experience, and now if she is ever asked if she has shot a gun she'll be able to say yes. Handguns, rifles, and shotguns. Who knows, maybe the next time we get together she'll want to go shooting again.

Since there were plenty of water jugs left, Janet's husband, my brother (who was hosting the shindig) and I had to dispatch them. Janet's husband started complaining about the recoil after barely perforating a water jug with a couple of rounds of bird shot. So, I pulled out the slugs. Janet was still hanging around and basically I showed her that a slug was a giant bullet for a shotgun. Janet's husband was able to redeem himself by successfully exploding two water jugs. My brother also exploded some water jugs. During this I happened to glance at Janet and my wife and saw that a big smile crept onto her face as each jug exploded. Maybe that is what this world needs to solve more of our problems. We all go out onto the back 40 with our shotguns and explode water jugs. There is some primordial urge of everyone I've met to smile when they see some harmless everyday object, like a water jug, explode. It certainly brings me happiness. Remember, just because the plastic is shredded, doesn't mean it can't be recycled. In fact, they are going to shred the plastic anyway, so they should give you a bonus for turning in water jugs that look like this because you have saved them some money!!

Finally, I had to shoot the board of paintballs with birdshot to splatter most of them. Then, I shot the swinger with the slug. While the .22 made it go ping, and the 9mm and Tokarov made it do a flip, the 20 gauge slug turned it from a swinger, into a spinner.

Lessons learned:

1) Have a third person watch with new shooters and act as the "Safety Spotter." While you are concerned with a million things to make sure the outing goes well, it is always good to have someone catch (and correct) any violations of the 4 Safety Rules that you miss. The person doesn't have to be very experienced (my wife and Janet's husband worked fine), but they do need to know proper application of the rules.

2) Explaining a sight picture is a lot easier if you have a pencil and paper (or pre-printed pictures), I wish I had have had this.

3) Lots of varied targets are fun. Everyone likes to shoot at different things.