Tuesday, January 31, 2012

"We are all one magical thunderclap away from some really ugly shit."

Over on Sequart, the new installment of my continuing look at Alan Moore's Miracleman is up.

Monday, January 30, 2012

"She could feel it, like she’d never died."

Over at Martian Lit, the fifth chapter of my serialized sci-fi fiction The Many Years of Yelena Moulin is up.

If you want to start at the beginning, here's the link to chapter one.

Each chapter is accompanied by original art by Doug Smock.

Monday, January 23, 2012

More Miracleman and New Martian Lit Material

The fourth installment of my analysis of Alan Moore's Miracleman is out on Sequart. In it, I look at the powerful depiction of super-hero sexuality in the opening of chapter three ("When Johnny Comes Marching Home").

Over at Martian Lit, the first piece of fiction by someone other than me is up. It's called "Life, Limb, and the Devil's Dissent," by Mark Rapacz, with original artwork by Chris Coffey. It's simply beautiful and well worth reading.

Martian Lit is the publisher of my own free serialized fiction, The Many Lives of Yelena Moulin, as well as two books by me that are currently available on Kindle for 99 cents, and free to borrow for Amazon Prime members: Watching People Burn and The Slave Factory. Martian Lit will also shortly be publishing my transgressive novel Nira/Sussa. These are excellent works that are just begging for your attention.

That is all.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

On Flat Taxes, Reaganomics, Progressivism, and What Capitalism Means

There's a reason people are sympathetic with flat tax proposals. They're simple, and they seem fair.

Economically, this simplicity comes with a big advantage. Everyone knows the U.S. tax code is vast and unwieldy. Each citizen spends far too many hours, which might otherwise be used in productive endeavors, handling their taxes each year. Multiplied across the entire population, that adds up to a tremendous loss -- one both substantial and very real.

And all these deductions and loopholes are disproportionately manipulated by the wealthy, who have the resources and the financial interest to devote to ferreting them out. As a result, many feel that the tax code is a labyrinth that can be navigated only by the rich, who typically pay an effective tax rate that's far less than their stated marginal rate. We've created a vast, opaque, and bureaucratic system that requires huge amounts of time and money to navigate, none of which goes to investing in new businesses or anything else productive. Simplifying the tax code would free up these resources, stop people from gaming the system, and also have unpredictable benefits like lowered stress for the population.

Of course, flat taxes also have a huge disadvantage. The U.S. tax code has always been progressive, meaning that the rich pay far higher percentages of their income -- at least, before all those deductions. In fact, it's far less progressive today than at any other point in modern history. In 2012, the highest marginal rate is 35%, applied to incomes over $388,351 -- not including capital gains, gifts, estates, deductions, etc. During World War I, the top rate was a whopping 79%, on incomes over $5,000,000 ($80.7 million in 2011 dollars). The lowest bracket at that time was only 4% -- far lower than today. The top rate peaked in 1944 at 94%, applied to incomes over $200,000 ($2.54 million in 2011 dollars).

If you think these rates were only due to war efforts, you'd be wrong: in 1954, the top rate was still 91% (still applied to incomes over $200,000, though that had dropped to $1.67 million in 2011 dollars). During the Reagan administration, the top rate dropped, over a series of tax cuts, from 70% to 28%, and by the last cut, this rate applied to everyone making over $29,750 ($56 thousand in 2011 dollars) -- the lowest, most anti-progressive top bracket in U.S. history.

The top U.S. tax bracket (marginal rate) by year.
A few things are worth noting immediately about these statistics, besides the obvious fact that the U.S. tax code has always been progressive -- and historically, far more progressive than it is today. The first is that the top bracket, until Reagan, was set at far greater levels than it is today. This is important, because it essentially means that there's a flat tax above this level, beyond which everyone's treated the same. The highest bracket peaked in 1936 at $80.7 million in 2011 dollars. This compares to today's highest bracket of $379,150. In other words, the more filthy rich you were in the past, the more likely you were getting hit with a higher rate. Today, someone making $1,000,000 or even $100,000,000 is treated just like someone making $379,151. There's no additional tax penalty above that top bracket, and that has a lot to do with how the very top American earners have grown disproportionately with the rest of us.

Also, there used to be a lot more tax brackets than there are today. That's another feature of progressive tax codes, because it allows for more gradations based on income. The first permanent income tax, in 1913, had seven brackets. In 1917, there were 21 brackets. This increased to 55 brackets in 1932. From 1942-1981, including the entire post-war period until Reagan, there were 24-26 tax brackets. That's was cut down all the way to two brackets in 1988, and it's since increased back to six. Still, that's an incredibly low number, and multiple tax brackets allow for a nice progressive gradation, rather than suddenly hitting people with far greater taxes when they hit certain thresholds.

For some, this progressive quality to the U.S. tax code, present all along and mostly far greater than today, is unfair. It certainly seems so, superficially, when one hears that someone making $379,150 will pay 35%, compared to the lowest tax bracket of 10%. Many right-wingers have called this "redistribution of wealth." Which, of course, it is: that high rate of 35% allows for the low rate of 10%, which helps the poor.

What everyone seems to miss, while complaining about "redistribution of wealth," is that the alternative is basically unthinkable. It's been this way since the first permanent income tax in 1913. The progressive tax code helps with income inequality, by not taxing the poor at the same rate as the rich. The poor save a little on taxes, and that means that they'll have a better quality of life. The little the poor are taxed means a lot more to them, since they're trying to make ends meet, than the high rates do to the rich, who have far more money to spare.

Progressive tax policy also allows for upward mobility. America's proud of the American Dream, in which people can rise from poverty into great wealth. That happens far more rarely today in the U.S. than almost ever before, and the U.S. is now lagging behind perhaps 10 other nations in upward mobility. (The exact number of other nations depends on the study and the method of its calculations.) The bottom line is that America's now lagging behind other nations in, of all things, the American Dream.

That's not merely an emotional argument. It's also an economic one.

Reaganomics, then a fringe idea dismissed by the Republican establishment, centrally believed that the economy was stimulated best by giving more money to the rich, because the rich are the ones who do the hiring. Give more money to the rich, and they'll use that money to hire more people.

Or so the theory went. But it hasn't worked, no matter what Republicans claim. In fact, the economy has grown at a slower rate, since Reagan began radically diminishing the progressive features of the tax code. True, the economy took off under Reagan, especially at the end of his first term. But that came as part of a recovery from a recession, in which the economy was undergoing a natural upswing as part of normal business cycles. By the end of Reagan's anti-progressive reforms, the stage had been set for the recession under Bush, which included a massive bailout of the Savings and Loans.

That natural recovery after recession, under Reagan, has confused matters ever since. But Reaganomics got a second go -- albeit a less extreme one -- under George W. Bush, and the result was a period of slow growth that should have been much faster, followed by the disastrous collapse of 2007 and 2008.

This gets us into why Reaganomics doesn't work. It presumes that the rich, given more money, will invest that money in ways that "trickle down" to the rest of the population. And certainly, this happens to some degree. But most of the rich already have more than enough money and ability to borrow to fund their plans to finance business expansion. And if the rich put that money under the mattress, or into overseas operations, it doesn't produce any American jobs. Most of that added money to the rich ends up getting put into financial investments, as the rich try to earn a return on all this money. This could be stocks, which supplies extra money to companies, which in turn might get invested. But supplying the rich with giant pools of money that crave somewhere to go is also a dangerous thing, because it creates demand for investments beyond the traditional stocks and bonds. Thus, the growth in hedge funds and bizarre financial instruments that ended up packaging mortgages into bundles that could be traded and insured -- which helped contribute to the 2007-2008 crisis.

In short, creating giant pools of money seeking investment opportunities can produce all kinds of unexpected and destructive side effects, which we've painfully and recently seen can wreck the global economy. And very little of this goes into creating jobs, much less manufacturing or anything beyond moving money around.

Now, consider the alternative: making the tax code more progressive. Instead of using tax reforms to give huge amounts of money to the already privileged few, we give far smaller amounts to a far greater number of people. We don't know that the rich will use their windfalls to employ more people. But we do know that those struggling to make ends meet will spend the dollars they get. This doesn't directly employ anyone, but it's spread throughout the economy. It goes to pay for delayed home improvements, for dinner at local restaurants, for extra Christmas gifts, and for making payments on credit cards.

So if what we want is to create incentives for increasingly bizarre financial investments, Reaganomics is a great idea. If what we want to do is to increase sales to U.S. businesses across the board, trusting consumers to make the best decisions about which products and services are worth their dollars, progressivism is where it's at. It's actually far more likely to unleash the magic of capitalism than lining the silk pockets of the super-rich.

That's not to say that tax relief for the rich and for businesses has no positive effect, merely that helping the poor and middle-class is a lot more direct way of stimulating the economy. And it has the added benefit of being more humane, because those small amounts can make big differences in the lives of struggling people.

This is actually an entirely intuitive result. The #1 reason why people aren't buying more isn't that the stores need more money to employ more people and get new products out. It's that the consumers don't have enough money to spend.

If you trust capitalism, you trust consumers, over time, to choose the stores and the products that deserve to succeed or fail. Giving consumers more money gives them more ability to pick these winners and losers. Giving more money to the game's current winners -- the rich -- isn't remotely as good at encouraging future winners. If you've got a new product, you should want customers empowered with the money to buy it, not a governmental stimulus based on the success of your last product.

It's here that income disparity becomes far more than a theoretical or moral argument. As income disparity becomes more extreme, the poor and increasingly the middle class can lose their ability to purchase goods and services. That means that businesses increasingly don't have customers -- the one thing a business absolutely needs. Sure, businesses catering to the rich might continue to thrive -- as they have, in the current economy. But all the other businesses feel the pinch, as their customer base feels the pinch.

There's one other thing to consider, when it comes to the argument that "redistribution of wealth" is somehow anti-capitalistic. Capitalism works best when people have equality of opportunity. That's why we break up monopolies: the capitalistic game breaks down, when someone has a monopoly that's powerful enough to prohibit competition, because it's competitive forces that make capitalism work. If someone can't get an innovative product to market, we all suffer. Equally, we want innovative Americans to have the economic freedom to create new products and new businesses. We don't want our young innovators trapped in a cycle of poverty, because they'll spend all their time trying to survive, rather than having the time and the financial freedom to experiment with a new product or service or business model.

Nothing represents a worse loss to a capitalistic economy than a kid who might build the next Apple or the next Google instead trapped in a cycle of minimum-wage jobs, toiling for 60 hours a week to support himself and exhausting his mental and physical energy simply to pay the bills. I'm not saying that he shouldn't have to work while putting together his potentially economy-changing innovation, but he shouldn't have to work so hard, and in such a hopeless cycle of debt, that he never ends up innovating in the first place.

A progressive tax structure isn't punishing success. No one's going to fail to implement a great business idea because he might, if successful, have to pay an extra five percent in taxes. This extra revenue should go to pay for the costs of capitalism's playing field, such as the roads and police and schools and trash pick-up that allow businesses to transport goods, their employees to be literate, and their customers to get to stores. This extra revenue should also go to leveling the playing field of capitalism, so that customers have a little more money to spend, and thus vote with their dollars for the businesses that deserve to win or to lose. And this extra revenue should also go to creating the circumstances by which the next guy with a great business idea has a shot at implementing it, so he too can become successful.

So a progressive tax structure is indeed "redistribution of income." But it's not really a Robin Hood-like, quasi-socialist scheme. It's actually thoroughly capitalistic. It's part of the cost of maintaining capitalism. And without it, just like without the breaking up of monopolies, capitalism itself can grind to a halt, descending into a system of haves and have-nots that not only slows the economy (because customers have less money to spend) but also deprives that economy of the wonderful free-market innovative power lying unharnessed in those have-nots.

Of course, anything can go too far. I don't think anyone credible wants a return to a 94% tax bracket. We certainly don't want a tax code that's so progressive that it paralyzes businesses that become successful. Or removes the incentive for successful people to try new things and grow more successful. No one sane would wants that.

But we also can't afford, as believers in capitalism, to have anything other than a progressive tax structure.

And if you look at the rise of income inequality in the United States, it's clearly tied to the current economic downturn. True, there's instability and fear in the marketplace, which can cause businesses to play it safe. That's all the more reason not to infuse businesses with cash, because this uncertainty about the future will prevent them from hiring as much as they otherwise might. The key is to get consumer spending up, as fast as possible. Only this will reassure businesses: if business picks up, hiring will follow. The reason consumer spending has been so sluggish isn't because the average American is hoarding his money, the way the banks are, in response to this uncertainty. Most consumers don't have this luxury. The reason is because they don't have enough disposable income, and that's intimately related to income inequality. The most direct way to help the economy is to get cash into consumers' hands.

This need for a progressive tax structure is the reason why a flat tax would be a disaster. It might seem fair. It might seem like a pure, capitalist approach -- a level playing field. But it's not. It's profoundly anti-capitalist.

Yet there's no denying, as previously explained, that simplification of the tax code would also be good for a capitalist economy. A streamlined tax code would eliminate the loopholes that pervert capitalist decisions, encouraging behavior that wouldn't make sense normally. It would also cut down on the time and money spent navigating the tax code, energies which should be available for proper capitalist endeavor.

What's needed, then, is a radically simplified tax code -- but one that's at least as progressive, if not more so, than what we have now.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Superman's a Fascist Fantasy... a Huge Twist... and More Self-Promotion

Over at Sequart Research & Literacy Organization, my analysis of Miracleman's second chapter goes live today. It's good stuff, during which I call Superman a fascist fantasy. Because he is. Hey, I like him too, but he is.

If you know anything about comics, you know how important this landmark series by Alan Moore is -- and how rarely discussed, in any depth. Check it out.

Over at Martian Lit, the fourth chapter of my The Many Lives of Yelena Moulin is also up, illustrated with original art by the great Doug Smock. This chapter has a huge twist in it -- two, actually. How huge? PRETTY GODDAMN HUGE.

If you haven't been following this biweekly experiment in serialized, illustrated, wild, sci-fi fiction, you owe it to yourself to start from the beginning. If you don't like it, there's something wrong with you. Seriously, go read Twilight or something. But then, if you weren't smart, why would you be here to begin with?

Did you know I have three books available on Kindle for 99 cents each? Yep, that's how desperate I am! Years of my life, for the price of a telephone call!

If you like comics and comics movies, there's Improving the Foundations: Batman Begins from Comics to Screen. Terrorism and dead kids more your style? Then there's Watching People Burn, the real-life story of the worst school massacre in U.S. history that you didn't know about. Systematic oppression like slavery more your speed? Then check out The Slave Factory, literary historical fiction in 12 short and beautiful chapters.

As we march towards the release of my novel, Nira/Sussa, it's now got a page up on Goodreads. Go rate it five stars, even though you haven't read it. Then spam all your Facebook friends about it, because that's what they'd want you to do.

Then if you do all that, go buy yourself a flagon of ale. You deserve a break today.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Boy with Manic Depression on His Sleeve

Over at Goodreads, I'm running a contest to give away three print copies of Watching People Burn. This is part of a transparently desperate attempt to drum up support for the book, which has everything going against it: it's a screenplay, not a novel, and it's smart. It's also not a heartwarming subject: it's about the greatest school tragedy in U.S. history, which no one knows about.

The book is also out on Kindle today. For the usual 99 cents, because I really, really just want people to read it. Someone. Anyone. Free to borrow / read for Amazon Prime members.

This whole lack of readers thing has gotten me quite depressed. I think all writers want their work to stand on its own, although they surely all recognize the importance of marketing. In my case, I happen to think Watching People Burn and The Slave Factory are pretty goddamned brilliant, and I'd like to think that I've got some credentials to say so: the whole, y'know, Ph.D. and having written hundreds of pages each year for 20 years. But the truth is that quality doesn't matter, if no one knows your product exists. And the other truth is that poorly-written vampire love stories sell a lot easier than, say, dissections of the psychology of the slave trade, or cinematic exegeses of horrific acts of domestic terrorism.

That leads me to this awful feeling, looking at my listings, on places like Amazon and Goodreads. Seriously, The Slave Factory and Watching People Burn? Those have to be among the two most somber titles imaginable. How much of an emotional masochist do you have to be, at least when it comes to art, to say, "Oh, shit, The Slave Factory? That's something I'd like to read more about!" In fact, I've started to look at those listings and laugh, thinking that they're telegraphing the author's severe manic depression.

It doesn't help that I know my upcoming novel, despite the ambiguous title Nira/Sussa, while profoundly ambitious, is pretty goddamn dark. Or that the novel after that, while actually much lighter, has a title that would feel right at home with those two apparently depressive ones.

That's not to say that these aren't towering works of literary prowess. I certainly think so, or I wouldn't be publishing them, much less using them to lead this venture into making my creative work available in a big way, after all these years of writing.

That's also not to say that these are really all that dark. Sure, there's plenty of darkness there. But like the best transgressive writers, like Vladimir Nabokov or Bret Easton Ellis, I see a lot of hope underneath even the darkest aspects of my stories.

They're filled with a palpable sense that this darkness is man-made. That it lies within all of us, yes. But that it's not God or fate that fills the world with suffering and terrorism and slavery: there's just humans, in particular circumstances, acting in ways that not only hurt others but in fact hurt ourselves. That are counter-productive and self-destructive. And that, because of this, we can change. Not eradicate, perhaps -- I'm no utopian hippie, pretending that peace and love are simple alternatives. They're not, and they're not in my stories. But this doesn't mean we can't untangle the knots that tie us together in exploitative and self-destructive ways. And seeing how those knots work is the first step to fixing them.

The few people who read this blog probably won't care about these things. I have written this only for me, at this frightening and unsettling moment, when my adult life and all my education and all my writing experience will either propel me to a place I can live with... or crash into some very hard realities that suggest a trajectory I'm not psychologically prepared to deal with. That's surely a binary point of view that doesn't reflect reality -- and I'm certainly not expecting overnight fame, I assure you. But when I see zero sales at 99 cents, despite strong reviews, I shudder, and the prospect of no one caring, of everything being for naught, begins to loom in a very real way. Such, I suppose, is part of the price of doing new and bold things.

And obviously, whatever happens, the novel after I'm through with my present work simply must be a Care Bears murder mystery. Preferably with a love plot and some Christian vampires, who kneel like Tebow before chowing down. Because that's what the Kindle bestsellers list wants, and it must be fed. ;)

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Two Books by Me for Just 99 Cents Each

Sequart has made my book on Batman Begins a mere 99 cents on Kindle. I'm very excited to have this full-length book, which has been taught at NYU, reaching an expanded audience. If you prefer iPad or NOOK, the book's also available for those devices for just $1.99. (Here's a full list -- in particular, check out the Goodreads reader, which looks just beautiful... and be sure to fan me on that site too!)

And in even more exciting news, Martian Lit has also made my "The Slave Factory" 99 cents on Kindle. This one is a short book, more like a long short story, but still comprising 12 brief chapters. It's historical, literary fiction about the Atlantic slave trade, and it means a great deal to me. It's exclusively available on Kindle, where it's 99 cents to buy and free to read if you have an Amazon Prime membership.

Thank you very much in advance for any support you can offer these two labors of love. Anything you can do to spread the word means a great deal to me.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Tons of My Writing That's Important for You to Read and Tell Your Friends About and Use to Build a Shrine to Me

1. In Sequart News, My Look at Miracleman Starts Today

Today, my introduction to Miracleman, "Why Miracleman Matters," is up on Sequart Research & Literacy Organization! It's the public beginning of something I've been working on for maybe half a decade: a major, book-length analysis of Miracleman. If you don't know why this is such a big deal, please read and find out. I hope you'll enjoy it and tell strangers about it.

If you haven't heard, I also hosted Sequart's first podcast. The second podcast, in which I'm a mere guest, went live yesterday (New Year's).

One week ago, I continued my look at Frank Miller's Holy Terror (though I haven't mentioned, on my blog, this third article yet).

2. In Martian Lit News, More The Many Lives of Yelena Moulin

Over on Martian Lit, the third chapter of The Many Lives of Yelena Moulin went live today as well. It's aggressively punchy, uber-smart sci-fi accompanied by original art from the great Doug Smock. How fucking cool is that?!? You owe it to yourself to check out this great work of new fiction.

Also my book Watching People Burn, which examines the Bath school disaster, is now available on CreateSpace and Amazon. It's the brutal true story of an act of domestic terrorism by an anti-tax extremist in rural Michigan in 1927. Oh yeah, and it blew up a grade school. What the fuck? Yep, all true. And the book's only $9.99.