Republicans try to make IRS worse for the poor

Here’s some government speak for you:

The Department of Treasury reported, in its most recent financial statements, that the EITC improper payment rate, comprised of both intentional fraud and unintentional filing errors, was nearly $18,000,000,000 for fiscal year 2014. In an effort to reduce intentional fraud and unintentional filing errors in refundable credit programs intended to help taxpayers, the Department of the Treasury is directed to ensure that the same eligibility questions are being asked of taxpayers whether they are preparing their returns with a paid tax preparer or via do-it-yourself methods such as paper forms, preparation software, or online preparation tools. Implementing uniform eligibility questions for refundable credit filers is a common sense step that will help alleviate confusion over eligibility and better establish qualification for these credits. The Department of the Treasury shall ensure that all EITC eligibility questions included on Form 8867, such as questions 1 through 19 and the eligibility questions used to meet the requirements of question 24, will be included on the Schedule EIC. The Department of Treasury shall implement this for tax returns filed after January 1, 2016. The Department of Treasury shall ensure that eligibility questions for all other refundable credits, such as the Child Tax Credit, American Opportunity Tax Credit, or the healthcare premium tax credit, are the same for all taxpayers regardless of filing method and that it utilize existing forms for refundable credit due diligence programs instead of creating additional forms or worksheets as it did with the proposed Form 8967.

Sounds reasonable doesn’t it? It’s not:

The proposal, included in the recently passed Senate Appropriations bill, adds a battery of questions regarding eligibility (“Is the taxpayer’s investment income more than $3,350?”; “Is the taxpayer’s filing status married filing jointly?”) currently included in a form that tax preparers have to fill out. The idea is to force tax preparers to double-check their work; most EITC errors are the fault of incompetent tax preparers, not individuals. But adding the questions to the individual return makes no sense, as they’re already answered elsewhere. The return will obviously already state if the taxpayer is married filing jointly, for instance.

There is no good policy rationale for this change. H&R Block CEO William C. Cobb has attempted to justify it as a way to reduce improper payments, but there’s little reason to think it would have that effect. Again, taxpayers already have to supply all this information, and the real misreporting problem is from paid preparers like H&R Block, not individuals. A recent IRS study found EITC-claiming returns from paid preparers were more likely to result in overpayments than self-filed returns. That’s right: People who fill out taxes for a living are, on average, worse at it than taxpayers who do it themselves (and, by the way, the IRS’s volunteers do a better job than anybody).

The only possible reason to change the form, then, is to confuse taxpayers enough that even more of them will pay companies like H&R Block to prepare their returns.

No, I think the reason to change the form is that Republicans just want to make the life of the poor worse–if that helps out H&R Block and Intuit, who donate a lot of money spend a lot of money lobbying Congress, that’s a bonus.

Of course that’s not the only interesting bit. There’s also this:

The Committee recommends a total of $10,475,000,000 for the Internal Revenue Service for fiscal year 2016. The Committee agrees with GAO, the National Taxpayer Advocate, and TIGTA that the IRS needs to ensure available resources are utilized as effectively as possible by identifying opportunities to improve services while offering the best possible mix of services to taxpayers. The Committee stresses the importance of achieving program efficiencies and cost savings. As the GAO observed, ‘‘Additional funding is not the only solution to performance declines across IRS. Although resources are constrained, IRS has some flexibility in how it allocates resources to ensure that limited resources are utilized as effectively as possible.’’ The Committee believes the formation of IRS’s Planning, Programming and Audit Oversight office is overdue and hopes this office assists the IRS in strategically managing its operations under current funding levels as is expected of all Federal agencies.

This represents a cut of $470 million. As I note here, this is triple bonus for the Republicans: it will make the IRS reduce their personnel so interactions with the IRS will take longer–this makes people more likely to dislike the IRS; it reduces the amount of enforcement against the rich and corporations; they can claim they are helping to reduce the budget when they’re actually increasing it (for every dollar that goes to the IRS, they collect more than $1 because of increased collection)–they don’t really care about the deficit after all.

And then there’s this:

Unfortunately there continues to be evidence of a culture that is simply out of touch with taxpayers and their concerns. When the IRS singles out certain groups for disparate treatment it should not be surprised by the lasting impact such actions have on taxpayer attitudes.

Ah yes, conservatives were singled out unfairly. They’re still going on about that.

China and chemicals

So there was a bit of a problem with the storage of chemicals in China (and a smaller one earlier today). In a follow-up article we get this:

Chinese regulations forbid facilities with hazardous chemicals to operate less than one kilometer (two-thirds of a mile) from public buildings and major roads.

The consequences of an accident at such a storage site can be disastrous. The blasts in Tianjin killed over 100 people, injured hundreds more and turned the surroundings into wasteland. Experts said it was possible that some of the sodium cyanide had combined with water to form a toxic vapor.

The plant’s apparent violation of distance rules reflects China’s difficulties in enforcing safety standards during a time of rapid industrialization. In May, the Ministry of Environmental Protection issued draft guidelines for improving environmental protection in industrial parks, noting that some had “expanded recklessly.” Such parks “create serious pollution and severe environmental hazards that are affecting social harmony and stability,” the guidelines warned.

The bolded part makes a strong assumption–that the government is actually trying to enforce the standards. All the evidence of the past 10-20 years points to the dominance of crony capitalism in China. The only time that the government takes action, such as here, is when they’re forced to by circumstances and public opinion. At some point the anger from the people might become so strong that the situation changes, as it did in the US in the first part of the 20th century, but it hasn’t happened yet and it doesn’t appear to be imminent.

Dione and a heron

I’m not sure which of these pictures is more unlikely:

1, A heron on the Malden River near the end of the above ground portion:

11895202_885174794863423_459132824010958673_o

2,  Saturn’s moon Dione, as captured by the Cassini spacecraft (those are Saturn’s rings that cross behind the moon; Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute):

PIA19650

W00093666

We have to torture animals

So, it looks like Massachusetts might get a ballot question about the welfare of farm animals:

Top state and national animal welfare groups on Wednesday launched a 2016 ballot initiative that would prohibit Massachusetts businesses from selling some meat and eggs from animals kept in small crates and cages.

The measure would mandate that, starting in 2022, Massachusetts farms and businesses produce and sell only eggs from cage-free hens; pork from pigs not raised in or born of a sow raised in a small crate; and veal from calves not raised in a very tight enclosure.

Advocates, including the Humane Society of the United States, framed the effort — which goes beyond their successful referenda on the issue in other states — as establishing modest standards to protect farm animals from cruelty. But the food industry warned it would raise prices and hurt family farmers, and the National Pork Producers Council called it an effort to advance a “national vegan agenda.”

That’s right, if we mandate that pigs be kept in spaces large enough so they can lie down prices might go up. And having minimal standards for the treatment of animals is advancing a vegan agenda.

I always assume there will be this kind of pushback about treating animals well (they’re only animals why should we care?). It’s why we really need a new word for caring about other living things–humans really are not ‘humane’. But this did surprise me a bit (the part bolded):

Dave Warner, a spokesman for the National Pork Producers Council, said the initiative would result in financial damage to local hog farmers and, potentially, less availability of a “safe and sustainable” source of food.

The effort, he said in a statement, was about the national Humane Society using Massachusetts, a state with little pork production, “to gain momentum for advancing its national vegan agenda regardless of the negative impact it would have had on the health and safety of the animals and the farmers who care for them.”

Really, Dave, you’re worried about the health of animals?  I’m sure you are:

“So our animals can’t turn around for the 2.5 years that they are in the stalls producing piglets,” Dave Warner, spokesman for the National Pork Producers Council, once remarked in a National Journal interview. “I don’t know who asked the sow if she wanted to turn around.”

By the way that link has the type of lifestyle of farm animals endure:

Gestation crates are tiny cages that confine pigs so restrictively they can barely move an inch during their entire lives. The crates, about two feet wide by seven feet long, are roughly the same dimensions as a pregnant sow’s own body, preventing her from even turning around.

The life cycle of a confined breeding sow is as such: the animal is locked inside a gestation crate and impregnated. For the four months she is gestating, the sow lingers in the cage, essentially immobilized, day and night. As she prepares to give birth, she is transferred to a different — albeit similarly restrictive cage — called a farrowing crate. She spends a few short weeks weaning her piglets there, is re-impregnated and put back into a gestation crate. The cycle repeats for nearly four years, after which the animal is sent to slaughter.

Bezos has plausible deniability

So Amazon.com is in the news:

At Amazon, workers are encouraged to tear apart one another’s ideas in meetings, toil long and late (emails arrive past midnight, followed by text messages asking why they were not answered), and held to standards that the company boasts are “unreasonably high.” The internal phone directory instructs colleagues on how to send secret feedback to one another’s bosses. Employees say it is frequently used to sabotage others. (The tool offers sample texts, including this: “I felt concerned about his inflexibility and openly complaining about minor tasks.”)

“You can work long, hard or smart, but at Amazon.com you can’t choose two out of three,” Mr. Bezos wrote in his 1997 letter to shareholders, when the company sold only books, and which still serves as a manifesto. He added that when he interviewed potential hires, he warned them, “It’s not easy to work here.”

Every aspect of the Amazon system amplifies the others to motivate and discipline the company’s marketers, engineers and finance specialists: the leadership principles; rigorous, continuing feedback on performance; and the competition among peers who fear missing a potential problem or improvement and race to answer an email before anyone else.

Each year, the internal competition culminates at an extended semi-open tournament called an Organization Level Review, where managers debate subordinates’ rankings, assigning and reassigning names to boxes in a matrix projected on the wall. In recent years, other large companies, including Microsoft, General Electric and Accenture Consulting, have dropped the practice — often called stack ranking, or “rank and yank” — in part because it can force managers to get rid of valuable talent just to meet quotas.

Amazingly, you get things like:

Michelle Williamson, a 41-year-old parent of three who helped build Amazon’s restaurant supply business, said her boss, Shahrul Ladue, had told her that raising children would most likely prevent her from success at a higher level because of the long hours required. Mr. Ladue, who confirmed her account, said that Ms. Williamson had been directly competing with younger colleagues with fewer commitments, so he suggested she find a less demanding job at Amazon. (Both he and Ms. Williamson left the company.)

Molly Jay, an early member of the Kindle team, said she received high ratings for years. But when she began traveling to care for her father, who was suffering from cancer, and cut back working on nights and weekends, her status changed. She was blocked from transferring to a less pressure-filled job, she said, and her boss told her she was “a problem.” As her father was dying, she took unpaid leave to care for him and never returned to Amazon.

A former human resources executive said she was required to put a woman who had recently returned after undergoing serious surgery, and another who had just had a stillborn child, on performance improvement plans, accounts that were corroborated by a co-worker still at Amazon. “What kind of company do we want to be?” the executive recalled asking her bosses.

The mother of the stillborn child soon left Amazon. “I had just experienced the most devastating event in my life,” the woman recalled via email, only to be told her performance would be monitored “to make sure my focus stayed on my job.”

Jeff Bezos responds here:

Here’s why I’m writing you. The NYT article prominently features anecdotes describing shockingly callous management practices, including people being treated without empathy while enduring family tragedies and serious health problems. The article doesn’t describe the Amazon I know or the caring Amazonians I work with every day. But if you know of any stories like those reported, I want you to escalate to HR. You can also email me directly at jeff@amazon.com. Even if it’s rare or isolated, our tolerance for any such lack of empathy needs to be zero.

The article goes further than reporting isolated anecdotes. It claims that our intentional approach is to create a soulless, dystopian workplace where no fun is had and no laughter heard. Again, I don’t recognize this Amazon and I very much hope you don’t, either. More broadly, I don’t think any company adopting the approach portrayed could survive, much less thrive, in today’s highly competitive tech hiring market. The people we hire here are the best of the best. You are recruited every day by other world-class companies, and you can work anywhere you want.

Jeff, is shocked, shocked to find this type of thing is going on. Here’s what I wrote about Abu Ghraib:

My impression when I first heard about it was that the President and higher officials in the army probably did not endorse any specific interrogation techniques, instead they put a lot of pressure to get results and gave mixed messages on what level of interrogation was acceptable. They knew what would then happen–exactly what did, torture. Long experience and psychology experiments (such as the Stanford Prison experiment and the Millgram experiment) have shown this.  That’s why the army, police, and prison guards are traditionally given very explicit instructions and guidelines.

It’s also obvious why the officials were not explicit, that way they could deny responsibility (as they did).

It’s the same thing here. Also, Amazon treats its lower wage workers even worse.

Cry wolf

I haven’t heard from James O’Keefe for a while, I wonder what he’s up to?

It all started in August 2014, when O’Keefe donned green fatigues and an Osama bin Laden costume and sneaked across the U.S. border to Mexico and then back into Texas, a stunt cited by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in congressional hearings. O’Keefe said in an interview Wednesday, that his point was to “show that our elected officials were lying to the American people” by saying the border is secure.

But he may have messed with the wrong bureaucrats, because the powerful DHS — the third-largest Cabinet department — controls border security. Ever since the bin Laden stunt, O’Keefe said, he has been stopped and questioned at length by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers each of the five times he has tried to reenter the United States. The questions, he said, have been overly intrusive, covering his business operations, what his next investigative project will be and his political views.

And he has audio tapes to prove it! Ok, he has a history of manipulating video to make to fit his agenda and ok, he also manipulated his US border crossing, but this time it’s all on the up and up. Really!

Anyone who believes any story that James O’Keefe is selling is an idiot. If he’s actually being harassed for his political views that would be bad, but he has only himself to blame if most people don’t believe him.

Teacher shortages

Hmm, it seems there’s a shortage of teachers:

Across the country, districts are struggling with shortages of teachers, particularly in math, science and special education — a result of the layoffs of the recession years combined with an improving economy in which fewer people are training to be teachers.

I wonder why?

But educators say that during the recession and its aftermath prospective teachers became wary of accumulating debt or training for jobs that might not exist. As the economy has recovered, college graduates have more employment options with better pay and a more glamorous image, like in a rebounding technology sector.

And perhaps sentiment like this which is seen to some degree in all the Republican candidates for president?

Anybody who has followed the career of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie knows that he has an anger management issue when it comes to teachers and their unions. The antipathy was evident on Sunday, when he was asked by CNN host Jake Tapper who deserves to be punched in the face. Christie responded, “Oh, the national teachers union, who has already endorsed Hillary Clinton 16, 17 months before the election.”

The linked article has an article by a long-time teacher who notes (bold added):

No doubt Christie’s spin doctors will be out today declaring that he has no animus toward teachers, just teachers unions. Christie, Scott Walker, Jeb Bush, Andrew Cuomo and others seem to forget that a teachers union is made up of teachers and that while individual teachers may not agree with every action of their unions, those unions represent the desires and aspirations of millions of hard-working teachers across the country — imperfectly perhaps, but emphatically for the better of teachers and children and public education overall.

Kansas, with its gung-ho Republican governor, is the nation in microcosm:

Teachers can’t hotfoot it out of Kansas fast enough, creating a substantial shortage expected only to get much worse. Why?

Well, there’s the low pay. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average teaching salary in 2012-2013 (the latest year for which data were available, in constant 2012-2013 dollars), was $47,464, lower than the pay in all but seven states (Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota and West Virginia), though not by much in most of them.

Last year, job protections were cut by state lawmakers, who have also sought to reduce collective-bargaining rights for public employees.

Then there’s the severe underfunding for public education by the administration of Republican Gov. Sam Brownback, so much of a problem that some school districts closed early this past school year because they didn’t have the cash to keep operating. This story by Huffington Post, quoted Tim Hallacy, superintendent of Silver Lake Schools, as saying:

“I find it increasingly difficult to convince young people that education is a profession worth considering, and I have some veterans who think about leaving. In the next three years I think we’ll have maybe the worst teacher shortage in the country — I think most of that is self-inflicted.”

Gee, if you continually insult teachers and don’t pay them enough, people are less likely to want to become teachers. How could anyone have predicted?

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