John Lewis sponsors a bill providing low income taxpayers some relief

The news …

U.S. Representative John Lewis, Democrat of Georgia, appears to have some bipartisan support for a tax bill he announced earlier today.  The chairman of the House Ways and Means Oversight subcommittee along with the ranking member, U.S. Representative Mike Kelly, introduced the Taxpayer First Act.   Mr. Lewis and Mr. Kelly appear to have done a good job of putting together bipartisan sponsorship getting 26 other Democrats and Republicans to give their support.

The bill seeks to do or improve the following:

  • Improve the independent appeals process;
  • Limit the capacity of private debt collectors to target low income citizens by not allowing collection activity by private debt collectors against taxpayers whose income does not exceed 200% of the poverty level;
  • Prohibits collection of fees associated with the filing of an offer-in-compromise on taxpayers whose income does not exceed 250% of the poverty level;
  • Excludes from collection under qualified collection contracts taxpayers whose income consists substantially of disability insurance benefits; and
  • lengthens the time to pay taxes under an installment agreement from the current five years to seven years.

My initial thoughts …

I’ve visited the Internal Revenue Service office on West Peachtree Street in Atlanta a number of times.  Mostly the non-affluent are there trying to work out our tax issues.  Life happens and when you have to make decisions between paying rent and caring for a family or sending the IRS a check, family and rent will take precedent.

Under all the glitter of “The Real Housewives of Atlanta”, the movie and music production scene, and the high-end cars you may see whizzing around the city is a population under stress.  By one account the poverty level in Atlanta is approximately 22.4% meaning that almost 100,000 people in Atlanta live under the burden of poverty. You can hear the stress on the buses and trains as poor people head to work.  You can hear the financial stress in consumers’ voices as they express their concerns about food prices and the choices between one item and the other.

I don’t believe the bill goes far enough.  If Mr. Lewis is really concerned about the stresses of tax payment on the poor, he would add language that gets rid of the interest that accumulates on tax bills.  Poor people will never get from under the stress of late tax payments of they have onerous interest being added to their tax bills.  This only compounds the stress from owing student loans, taking care of sick family members, or trying to put children through college.

What’s next …

This is the second go-round for the bill. An original version of the bill (H.R. 1957) was passed by the House last April but issues regarding whether the IRS could dismantle a Free File Program caused an impasse in the Senate and a decision was made to remove the bill from Senate consideration and re-introduce a bill without the Free File Program.

 

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A philosophy of “political” engagement for the individual anarchist

Navigating the path to a good life in the realm of politics …

The good life is one where the individual pursues her self-awareness without the encumbrance of mass tyranny.  An individual anarchist that places personal liberty above all else will have as a goal near non-existent contact with government.  She will do what is practical to keep government off of her back.  She will, for example, file her tax returns and pay her taxes, taking advantage, of course, of any means of reducing her tax obligation that keeps her at the same time off of the government’s radar.  She should keep herself in a position to keep government at bay.

Does this mean that the individual anarchist must involve herself in politics?  That may depend on how you define politics.

The politics of human interaction …

I am a realist.  I acknowledge that 245 years ago, a bunch of well-financed strong men wrestled control of this jurisdiction from a strong man sitting in England.  I acknowledge that these strong men created a government for the day-to-day exercise of administration of this jurisdiction’s resources, and that if I am to navigate this environment in order to maintain myself and my family, then there will be some minimal exchange of information or currency between me and this government and the people who exercise non-thinking obedience to its policies.

Does this mean that I have to engage in the institutional practice of the administration of public affairs?  Does this mean that I have to vote in an election or run for public office?  Does this mean that I have to fund political campaigns and take bets on a better candidate?

The answer to the above is no.  Acknowledging the State’s existence creates no requirement that you feed the Beast.  Rather you should call the Beast out through constant critique.  To borrow from Emile Armand, “the work of the anarchist is above all a work of critique.”  The individual-anarchist, in order to enhance her chances of optimizing individual liberty, must live and need be agitate from the outside.  What “political” mechanism, then, should she use?

Political ‘string theory’ ….

The relationship between elected officials and the electorate is based on an exchange of a politician’s position and and a voter’s perception.  This exchange creates an equilibrium that is maintained where a politician conveys to a voter necessary and sufficient information that meets or guides a voter’s perception as to how well the environment of the political economy is doing.  For example, Donald Trump conveys to his constituency that his policies are leading to job growth.  His base, after consuming available data, continue to perceive that things are going well.

But the individual-anarchist may see Mr Trump’s policies as impeding her ability to, say, develop and use her own private energy resources.  At this point she may have two alternatives. She can be silent and allow Mr Trump’s policies and the electorate’s erroneous perception to crush her, or she can engage in a temporary strategic partnership with like-minded individuals to critique Mr Trump’s policies.  This is where the political string theory comes in.

Under this theory, the equilibrium between elected official position and voter perception lies on a fabric of data flow between both parties.  Warp the fabric by introducing surprise; by introducing information, and this relationship changes.  The goal of the temporary, strategic partnership of individual anarchists should be to publish accurate, data rich “surprise” that disrupts the inertia in the political system.

This type of agitation cannot occur from inside the system for two reasons.  First, the system’s core has in place editorial roadblocks that will dilute, eviscerate, eliminate the messaging.  Instead, the messaging should aim to pick off elements of the mass electorate who may be more susceptible to independent thought, those who may be sitting on the fence. Those who doubt the efficacy of the political elite.

The second reason for agitating from the outside is to ensure that the messengers are not co-opted.  Take for example the Libertarian Party.  Their policies or positions have yet to take hold with a significant amount of the American population. By operating within the mechanics of the electoral system, they have morphed into nothing but closet Republicans.

Conclusion …

“Political” engagement for the individual anarchist must be temporary and purposeful.  Prolonged engagement runs the risk of creating organizations that eventually exist for the sole purpose of maintaining existence.  Prolonged engagement means diluting your individuality. To be the effective critic, the new data introduced must be a surprise, truly new information that makes disruption all the more effective.

 

Congress hasn’t determined the artificial intelligence behavior it wants to regulate

Congress’ attempt at AI legislation

The 116th Congress has three bills or resolutions of note sitting in a number of committees that attempt to address the use of artificial intelligence in American society.  H.Res. 153 is intended to support the development of guidelines for the ethical development of artificial intelligence.

Meanwhile,  HR 2202 seeks to establish a coordinated Federal initiative to accelerate artificial intelligence research and development of the economic and national security of the United States, while H.R. 827 is concerned about training and retraining workers facing employment disruption by artificial intelligence.

The bills and resolution are more exploratory versus regulatory in nature.  They don’t expressly get at any behavior that needs to be regulated.  The nascent characteristic of artificial intelligence development along with government’s inability to keep regulation at the same pace as technology development may be in part the reason for the “let’s see what we have here” stance of early regulation.  In other words, Congress may just be getting a feel for what AI is while taking care not to interfere with the innovation needed to further develop the technology.

On the other hand, these bills could help Congress get ahead of the issue of labor disruption. Workers read about AI’s capacity to replace jobs that are more pedestrian or mundane; jobs currently occupied by lower income workers.  The prediction about labor disruption won’t leave certain higher-waged jobs untouched either as AI platforms, data mining, and machine learning threaten professions such as accounting or law.  By determining the data needed to thoroughly analyze the impact and growth of artificial intelligence; identifying the industries that will benefit most from or be harmed the most by AI; and comparing today’s existing job skills with the job skills that will be needed in order to work alongside AI, Congress contribute to alleviating labor force disruption.

The Human-Machine Relationship

Unlike a number of dire predictions of the emergence of “SkyNet” and terminator-like machines subjecting humans to slavery or worse, most analysts and commentators see AI as a tool that augments human capabilities, making humans better or more productive.  The emphasis will be on collaborative intelligence, with human and machine working together.  And how well that relationship works depends on how well humans program the machine.

Another consideration is artificial intelligence’s ability to self improve.  The goal of AI development is to build an artificial intelligent agent that can build another AI agent, preferably with even greater capabilities.  The vision is to move from AI’s narrow, single-task capabilities to a more general AI, a concept that sees AI exhibiting greater abilities across multiple tasks, much like humans.

Possible targets of legislation or regulation

If legislation or regulation is to target the machine-human relationship, elected officials and regulatory heads will have to consider their policy initiatives impact on:

  • the ability of humans to train machines;
  • the ability of humans to explain AI outcomes;
  • the ability of machines to amplify human cognitive skills;
  • the ability of machines to embody the the human skills necessary that lead to the extension of human physical capabilities;
  • the ability of artificial intelligence to self-improve;
  • the difference between “safe” AI (the ability to maintain consistency in AI outcomes) versus “ethical” AI (ensuring that AI platforms are not a threat to human life.

Conclusion

Just like the application of artificial intelligence, Congress’ foray into regulation of AI is nascent.  This is the time for AI’s stakeholders to either begin or maintain efforts to influence all levels of government on AI’s use in the commercial sector.

 

Capital. The true digital divide

A couple early morning thoughts on the digital divide.  So far the digital divide narrative has occupied two schools of thought that are not necessarily opposed to each other.

Race and the Digital Divide

The first school of thought revolves around race.  Given that within the black American community there is a higher level of poor households, affordability is keeping blacks from accessing the internet via high-speed broadband infrastructure.  If blacks do not have the income to sustain a broadband business model, then internet access providers are less likely to deploy facilities in poor neighborhoods.  Lack of deployment in these neighborhoods may result in a barrier to valuable information that may lead to greater economic opportunities, according to advocates seeking to close this gap.

Rural Communities and the Digital Divide

The second school of thought revolves around rural communities.  The argument is that lower population density as compared to urban areas makes deploying broadband access facilities in rural areas more expensive.  In addition, terrain, such as that faced by internet access providers in mountain states, has traditionally added to the problem of higher costs to provide broadband access facilities.

An Overlooked Divide

There is another divide, one that is often overlooked and it has to go to what is known as “first-mover advantage.” The real value generated by the internet is the ability to extract, analyze, package, and distribute information, and have that information be available digitally forever.  The focus on a gap between facilities deployed in black neighborhoods versus facilities deployed in white neighborhoods or the gap between rural community deployment versus urban community deployment goes to seeking out new suppliers of information.  The civil right veneer that has been placed over the broadband racial divide hides this supply-side characteristic from the policy debate.  It has also created the opportunity for the political left to craft an electoral package that can be sold to voters.

It is the other side of the equation, the production side, that, in my opinion holds more value.  When we look at the history of the internet, particularly the period when the internet was commercialized, its players included white venture capitalists; Web 1.0 internet service providers, i.e. AOL, CompuServ, Mindspring, etc.; and dial-up access providers such as BellSouth.

Black Americans could always access information from analog sources, i.e. television; print media; or word of mouth, but the efficient extraction, cataloging,  indexing, aggregation, and distribution of information via the internet were the domain of companies invested in and managed by whites.  As whites continued to level their first-mover advantage, this gap between producer/owner of capital and consumer continued to grow.

Capital not only seeks a vacuum, it also seeks a return.  Returns from investing in black or even rural communities were not going to be as high as returns invested in affluent neighborhoods, neighborhoods whose residents probably owned shares in the very companies that commercialized the internet in the first place.  Closing the “digital divide” means first closing the capital divide.

What will Government Do Next?

Government will do nothing from a capital perspective to close the digital divide. The Federal Communications Commission has a number of universal service funding initiatives designed to encourage mobile and fixed broadband deployment in rural areas; to facilitate the delivery of health care via broadband; and to reduce the costs incurred by low-income consumers for accessing and maintaining high-speed broadband service.  By subsidizing the consumer demand for broadband services, the Commission hopes to encourage the delivery of broadband services.  But again, the focus is on consumer demand, not bridging the capital gap.

The philosophical underpinnings of the American economy, where capital is to flow freely to its best use may prohibit government from taking any concrete action for closing a capital gap.  If blacks or rural residents had sufficient capital to purchase, construct, or maintain broadband access facilities, using their intimate knowledge of their communities to distribute services, we might see a decrease in the gap.  We should expect that government will stay on a path of incentivizing capital investment in infrastructure development versus trying to repair capital discrepancies via a capital transfer.

Does Facebook’s business model disrupt the political information markets?

Facebook is engaging in a war against misinformation and divisiveness in the United States as perpetrated via social media, according to published reports by Bloomberg and The Atlanta Journal Constitution. Having done a 180 degree turn from its position last year that its platform was not used to cause a disruption of public opinion leading up to the 2016 presidential election, Facebook is using artificial intelligence tools to identify inauthentic posts and user behavior.  With teams comprised of data scientists, policy experts, and engineers, Facebook is blocking fake accounts and vetting news stories posted on its site.

Critics doubt that Facebook’s attempts to thwart future social media influence will outweigh its incentives to distribute fictional political stories that keep people glued to Facebook while providing advertisers with millions of pairs of eyeballs.  Facebook, according its 10-K annual report, garners almost of its revenues from advertising.  In 2017, advertising made up 98% of Facebook’s revenues.  According to Facebook’s 10-K, at the top of the list of factors that could adversely impact advertising revenues: decreases in user engagement, including a decline in the time spent using the company’s products.

Having used Facebook for eleven years, I witnessed the increase in the use of the platform as a tool for political engagement.  Facebook has expanded opportunities for voters to vet politicians and their policies.  I have seen a significant number of posts, including memes and video, that got the facts wrong; that showed no knowledge of process, politics, or economics.  Cynicism, fear, passion, inaccuracies, sincerity, patriotism, anarchy, and indifference all run rampant on Facebook.  But do I buy the argument that messages placed on Facebook by Russian agents spread so much misinformation that America became suddenly divided overnight? That “Russian interference led to a Trump victory?

No.  The divisiveness was already there.  Giving a couple hundred million Americans the ability to quickly share their thoughts, accurate or not, on the political news of day simply tore away the scab.

Further evidence of divisiveness in American politics: print, broadcast, and cable media.  American media is meeting the demand of a divided public, with Fox News occupying the Right and MSNBC and CNN serving the frenzied Left.

What Washington may truly be afraid of is that politicians have less control over the channels through which they are vetted.  On the one hand, Jeffrey Rosen, president of the Constitution Center, shared the following with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg:

“Twitter, Facebook, and other platforms have accelerated public discourse to warp speed, creating virtual versions of the mob.  Inflammatory posts based on passion travel farther and than arguments based on reason.  We are living, in short, in a Madisonian nightmare.”

On the other hand, Americans may be taking to Facebook, YouTube and Twitter in search of alternative opportunities to criticize the political packages and action plans that politicians offer in exchange for votes and increases in taxes.  The divisiveness may be stemming from an increased lack of enchantment with democracy itself.  After all, according to Professor Yuval Harari, democracies are “blips in history” depending on “unique technological conditions” and losing credibility as democracy faces more questions about its inability to provide for and maintain a middle class.

Democracy is hard up to explain why almost all the nine million jobs created post recovery from the 2007-2009 recession have been “gig work” paying little to no benefits.  Democracy has yet to come up with a solution to a wealth gap that the Left invests time in describing, laying blame at the feet of the rich yet coming up with no solutions for a society that prides itself on equal access to the ballot but still comes up short on adequate access to capital.

To the question whether Facebook’s business model has disrupted the political information markets, I would, for now, answer yes.  Facebook has contributed to bringing unreasonable, uninformed voices into the arena. I for one do not want to be lead or have policy fed by impassioned, unreasonable voices, no matter what part of the spectrum they fall on.  What the political class may have to look at for in the near term is that democracy may be less of a facilitator of a peaceful transfer of power between its factions as the mob continues to peel away the scab.