Where are they learning this stuff? Oh…

It’s a story that deals with higher taxes, government largess, and an agency that broke it’s promises.

Is it the current budget battle?  The raging debate over Obamacare?  The rallying cry for state public sector unions?  No, it’s Spring Concert at my alma mater, UMass.  This year, for the first time ever, students will have to pay to attend.

In light of the current debate over the size and scope of government spending, this tale is sort of interesting.

Some background: UMass’s annual Spring Concert dates back to at least the 1960s.  It used to be an outdoor event on the vast expanse of  space right in the middle of campus; since 1999 it has been held in the Mullins Center (which also hosts basketball, hockey, and other concerts).  The money to put on the concert comes from the student activities fund, which is charged along with tuition and other fees to each student on their bill each semester – essentially, a tax that funds student government activities.  The article points out that the fee is now $94 (it was in the $70 range when I was there) and includes a good description of the funding process and the way the Spring Concert is put together.

Controversy and disappointment are nothing new for the Spring Concert; the 1998 show (during my freshman year on campus) was scrapped because the agency in charge couldn’t scrape together enough funds after running other concerts throughout the year.  This year, the problem is that the $200,000 special fund that was set aside specifically for the concert (an outgrowth from the ’98 cancellation) isn’t enough to cover the talent and other costs.

In other words, a government agency is having trouble paying its bills, and is looking for taxpayers to make up the difference.

Especially telling is explanation offered by the advisor for University Productions and Concerts, the group in charge of the event:

“One of the problems is that we are a very spoiled campus,” said Lloyd Henley, associate director of the Center for Student Development and faculty advisor to the UPC. “We are used to such top-caliber artists, and so one of the things I said to UPC and the SGA is, ‘Something’s got to break.’”

Met with the dilemma of the high costs of talent and a budget which sounds big but probably goes quick when running an event of this size, Henley’s advice was apparently to charge more on top of what people were already paying – because the students/taxpayers are “spoiled” and the Spring Concert has to be a great show rather than a good free concert.  It’s not surprising; despite the “faculty” advisor moniker Henley’s position within the office that oversees campus activities gives him away as an administrative/bureaucratic figure.  In fact, some folks are calling for increases in student activities fees so that the shortfall doesn’t happen again in future year.  Because why shouldn’t a state school raise its fees to accommodate a really big concert?

It’s both sad and fortunate that the voice of reason comes from a student:

This past year, fees did not increase and, according to Josh Davidson, chairman of the SGA’s Ways and Mean Committee, they should stay the same until the budget process is modified.

“I really feel that we can spend the money a whole lot better,” he said. “The way that we allocate money to groups can be much more effective. I would like to see those things happen before we raise the fees.”

That’s a good philosophy, no matter what level of government you’re in.


Finally, Larry David can rest easy

Far be it from me to cast aspersions on a man in a cape, but I think Larry David’s New York Times column “supporting” the extension of the current tax rates might have been facetious.  (For David, of course, a higher tax rate would have minimal impact thanks to the residual checks that keep rolling in every time a rerun of Seinfeld is replayed.)

Well, now David and other folks who feel like they are earning too much can give back thanks to GiveItBackForJobs.org.  The site helps you calculate how much the government is allowing you to keep thanks to the extended tax rates, and lets you donate that money to a charity:

Americans who have the means should refuse to surrender to Senate Republicans. We should act, together, to give back our Bush tax cuts, by making donations to organizations that promote fairness, economic growth, and a vibrant middle class. GiveItBackforJobs enables joint action, by all visitors to this site, to redirect our Bush tax cuts to the wise and just programs that our government would promote if it had not been hijacked. As more and more Americans do so, GiveItBackforJobs will begin to replicate good government policy, outside the government and free from the grip of Senate Republicans.

You tell ’em!

Digging around the site, one thing stuck out to me (and also to the Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto): the organizers are all Ivy Leaguers, either professors or graduate students.  Clearly, these are smart people who understand that the economy will only grow if the people who are getting these tax cuts do something with the money they receive.

As a humble, state-educated supporter of their efforts, I submit the following suggestions for how the super-rich fat cats can help give back their tax cuts to create jobs and/or advance the social good:

1.  If they own a business, hire more people for crying out loud!

2.  Spend money on goods and services.  This will create more jobs for the people who produce them.

3.  Whatever you do, don’t give your money to some willy-nilly, inefficient group with poor oversight and accountability that wastes billions upon billions of dollars each year.

Taxing creatively to subsidize creativity

A government report in France has proposed taxing internet advertising to subsidize creativity:

France could start taxing Internet advertising revenues from online giants such as Google, using the funds to support creative industries that have been hit by the digital revolution, a newspaper reported on Thursday… The levy, which would also apply to other operators such as MSN and Yahoo, would put an end to “enrichment without any limit or compensation,” newspaper Liberation quoted Guillaume Cerutti, one of the authors of the report, as saying.

The reasoning, apparently, is that internet giants provide a bridge between users and free content – reaping  rewards through advertising dollars while content creators are left out in the cold.  While those content creators should have the right to control access to their products, this scheme doesn’t come close to doing that; it does, however, limit internet platforms that more creative artists might use to gain exposure.

Google has it’s problems, but no one can debate that their business model is creative.  Google monetizes free stuff – from search to email and calendar applications to information tracking – by collecting information at every step of the way and using it to fuel a highly targeted and personalized advertising platform.

The ill-conceived subsidy outlined in the report, on the other hand, taxes that money to funnel money to the music industry.  In other words, the report lays out a system that rewards content generators who aren’t creative enough to figure out a way to monetize their product.

Catching up with John Galt

From CNN this week came news that the capitalism-themed works of Ayn Rand are in high demand.  As politicians on the right form their messages, this is worth paying attention to.

The only Rand book I’ve read is her most famous volume, Atlas Shrugged.  A 1200-page brick of a book, it was nevertheless a page-turner – and despite the set of beliefs and philosophies behind it, it was first and foremost an extremely well-written story.  Rand’s characters are interesting and her plot is compelling.

That’s exactly why big screen rumors have persisted for years – and there’s no time like now.

The genius of Rand’s social commentary is in its separation of the seemingly synonymous concepts of free market capitalism and “big business.”  She skewers lobbyists for large corporations who seek control of the cogs and wheels of government – in other words, she would have no sympathy for the automakers, banks, or other large companies parading, hat in hand, to Capitol Hill.  In Atlas Shrugged, as is the case today, big businesses are often the first to call for government involvement in the economy because they have the resources and influence to frame the policy.

And there couldn’t be a better way to deliver these messages than through compelling entertainment.  Inside-the-Beltway conservative talking heads just aren’t going to get it done.

And that may be the biggest impediment to a silver screen adaptation for Atlas Shrugged.  Despite a riveting and topical story, its core philosophy isn’t exactly in lockstep with the prevailing Hollywood liberalism.  Don’t get me wrong – there won’t be a conspiracy.  But if I’m a liberal studio executive, and all my friends are liberal studio executives, and most of my political conversations are with other liberals, it won’t take much to convince me that the only audience for Atlas Shrugged would be packs of black-clad anarchical-capitalist “Randroids.”

Perhaps a small, independent studio will take a chance on the product despite the paralyzing group think of industry leaders.  Given the story, that may be more appropriate.

Yes We Cantor

A running theme of the early Obama Administration has been “process.”

When will the President make good on his promise to pull troops out of Iraq? How will the President handle the suspected terrorists at Guantanamo? When will the government pass an economic policy to make everything better? White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs has frequently referred to each situation as a process – giving the Administration a chance to delay and diffuse questions.

And as Mama Eltringham pointed out to me today, one Republican is turning that back on the Administration. Faced with a harmful economic stimulus bill, Republicans are looking to delay and diffuse too – delay (or destroy) a harmful bill and diffuse criticism that they are suffering from sour grape syndrome since November. So Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia used the same language:

“The House is set to vote on the legislation as soon as tomorrow… Cantor said the House vote on the legislation ‘is only the first step in the process.'”

Gibbs later credited Cantor with successfully pushing to publish the stimulus package online for public scrutiny – a tactic which not only delays the bill’s passage, but forces the Obama Administration to explain spending $800+ billion in tax dollars during a time when working folks are pinching every penny to get by.

But don’t accuse the Republicans of trying to sink the stimulus. They’re just letting the process play out.

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Party of the Rich?

Barack Obama promised to raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans. But according to Mark Penn’s exit polling data, those Americans helped put Obama in the White House: 49% of those voters making over $100,000 voted for Obama. (To compare, Bill Clinton got 38% of that vote in 1996.)

This isn’t surprising. Despite accusations that Republicans favor the wealthy, Democrats have a recent history of high-dollar support. Naturally, those who can afford to pay the higher taxes probably have no problem with a “progressive” tax reform plan.

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