Monday, April 27, 1998

Week of 04/27/1998

The Tobacco Gimme Bill
Trust Congress? What are you, nuts?
- by David Matthews 2

I remember my college theatre debut. It was 1984, and the play was Agatha Christie’s "Ten Little Indians." My character was Judge Wargrave, an elderly member of the judiciary. In the play, Wargrave smoked. In fact, the script called for Wargrave to walk across the stage while describing a case he presided over and get a cigarette from over the mantle. The very motivation for Wargrave to be on the other end of the room was to get a smoke.

Problem was, I don’t smoke, and I wasn’t planning on starting just to satisfy the momentary requirement of my character. So instead of a box of cigarettes, I had the stage hands place a jar of candy mints on the faux mantle.

Mind you, those were different days. Back then, non-smokers weren’t rabid health crusaders who were trying to make life smoke-free so they can make sure they

can see their cup of cappuccino laced with Prozac. Back then, the two sides of the ashtray lived in uneasy détente, recognizing each other exists, but otherwise agreeing to disagree.

Of course, today’s smokers are considered to be worse than child molesters according to the paranoia of anti-smoking crusaders. Forced by laws and regulations to sit outside buildings like modern day lepers for them to enjoy their puffs of tobacco. I think there’s nothing more absurd in California right now than to see adult smokers being forced to decide which "evil substance" they must consume - alcohol or tobacco. That is thanks to a new law enacted this year that bans smoking from inside all public places, including bars and restaurants.

Or worse, smokers are treated like innocent victims, unwillingly seduced into a life-threatening addiction by the evil tobacco industry. Of course, it’s hard to come up with any kind of defense against the tobacco companies given the public shellacking they’re getting thanks to the media. And that is, I believe, the intent by the anti-smoking forces.

Yet, the same time, I believe that the anti-smoking forces may have finally pushed too far.

For decades, they were on the losing side against the big tobacco companies. Tobacco has been a mainstay in America long before this country was born. It made the landowners of the mid-south rich, and funded both sides of the American Revolution. The halls of Congress are still adorned with tobacco leaves, and both houses still have spittoons and snuff boxes. Until recent decades, nobody went after the tobacco companies.

Then came all the medical dangers of cigarettes, and the tide slowly turned away from the tobacco companies. Suddenly, the big companies that would rather fight than switch began settling cases out of court. Whole states jumped in what can only be seen as the great tobacco money giveaway.

So instead of trying to settle with forty or so various class-action lawsuits, each promoted by high-priced law firms that make a fortune off this kind of legal action, the tobacco companies offered a combined settlement. They would voluntarily agree to regulations by the Food and Drug Administration; they would voluntarily agree to advertising restrictions in public events like auto races and tennis tournaments; and they would voluntarily agree to pay hundreds of billions of dollars not only in restitution but to also contribute to the decrease in the number of teen smokers.

This was, for the anti-smoking forces, a huge victory for them. They managed to get the tobacco companies to agree to do what they’ve been fighting for. All they had to do was to get this comprehensive agreement past Congress for approval.

And that’s where their plans fell short.

You see, the anti-smoking crusaders who hammered out this monumental tobacco settlement ran into the biggest highway robbers in the world - Congress. They see any national settlement monies as THEIR money, to be spent with as THEY see fit. Oh, the states might get a pittance of the money for some of their health costs, but in the eyes of Congress and President Clinton, the money was not only theirs, but it was already spent for their social programs!

So it should be no surprise that when Congress got finished revamping the proposed settlement, the tobacco companies said "SCREW YOU!" After all, they forged the initial settlement out of good faith that Congress would simply agree to it and that would be it. Instead, they got draconian limits placed on advertising that barred everything except the black and white type seen on generic foods, crippling payments up to $500 billion dollars instead of the proposed $350 billion, no immunity from future lawsuits, and increased penalties to the tobacco companies if teen smoking isn’t reduced.

Now, you may think this is nothing. After all, we’re talking about "big industry" here. The new form of evil in the world, replacing communism and liberalism. They’ve got oodles of money. They’re old money. And they’re not attacking smokers directly. After all, they’re just innocent victims.

These people forget one of the oldest laws of business, be they big or small - always pass your overhead into the price of your product. You don’t think that the tobacco companies won’t pass on their burden to the smokers through higher prices? And that’s not counting the crippling tax the Gods of Mount Morality want to pass on top of that!

And all this is under the assumption that the number of tobacco users remains the same. At last count, smokers only represent 25% of the public, and steadily decreasing. You think that the added costs of cigarettes, not to mention being treated like societal lepers, won’t have an effect on those remaining smokers? What happens when the number of smokers go down to almost nothing? Who will generate the tax revenue then to pay for all those precious social programs? You can’t tax the smokers of other countries, only those smokers in THIS country.

Let’s be brutally honest here - the biggest mistake the anti-tobacco crusaders made was to agree to a comprehensive settlement instead of working one state at a time. They should’ve known that Congress and Big Bubba Clinton would NEVER have allowed such a settlement to go past them without bastardizing it to the point where the tobacco companies would balk at it. And balk they have. Any kind of settlement from this point on will be next to impossible to make.

Of course, there are those even in the media that say that they don’t need the consent of the tobacco companies to enact the measures of the McCain Bill, which I think should be renamed the "Shut up and give US the money" Bill, or simply the Tobacco Gimme Bill. They feel they can pass all sorts of restrictions against the big tobacco companies with ease, which would be typical behavior for the Gods of Mount Legislation. But it won’t be easy. What the tobacco companies once voluntarily agreed to will now be fought hard in the courts. The restrictions on advertising and the content of advertising can be shot down with just two words - First Amendment. Since we’re not talking about obscene material, the Department of Justice will have a much harder time trying to justify a clear and present danger to the justices of the Supreme Court.

Then there are the political repercussions. You don’t think that the tobacco farmers are going to sit back and allow the destruction of everything they and their forefathers have made go up in smoke? (No pun intended.) Big Babysitter Clinton hasn’t felt the true ire of the tobacco farmers yet. Wait until they start losing farms and losing jobs, then we’ll see how casual the Big Bubba gets about sticking his head out in that area. And don’t think that his heir apparent, Al "I’m Not A Tree, I Just Act Like One On TV" Gore, will get any support in his own home town. By the way Al, how’s the family tobacco farm doing?

In short, the crusade against tobacco may turn into something these crusaders don’t want - a War on Tobacco. Because whenever the federal government turns a social program into a war, they fail miserably. Remember Prohibition? The War on Poverty? The War on Crime? The War on Drugs? You think we’re winning those wars? Well then, you’re going to love the War on Tobacco! When the number of smokers skyrockets back up to sixty or seventy-five percent of the populace, most of it against federal regulations, these anti-smokers will have nobody to blame but themselves.

Monday, April 20, 1998

Week of 04/20/1998

Limiting The Unlimited
Unlimited access? What were they thinking?
- by David Matthews 2

I once knew this guy who opened up an all-you-can-eat restaurant. For $3.75 per person, you could belly up to the buffet and get some of the best southern food in the area and all the soda or sweet tea you wanted. Business was good for him, at least for the first few weeks.

Within two months, he had to close his doors and declare bankruptcy. It seemed news of his "bottomless plate" buffet reached a rather large family.. in girth and in numbers. They literally ate him out of business.

The despair seen in that bankrupt restaurant owner when he saw that extremely oversized family of ten show up.. with their relatives.. is similar to the despair I now hear from every Internet Service Provider that offers unlimited access and are now regretting that decision.

Back around the end of 1996, America Online changed their pricing plan from $9.95 a month for ten hours to $19.95 a month for unlimited access. AOL’s changes came in response to the service providers who offered similar unlimited access. They thought it was simply being competitive in a wave of rising competition.

But there was something AOL didn’t think about - all those users who used to watch their time now took full advantage of unlimited access. They kept the servers occupied, and the lines busy. AOL lacked the hardware to handle all those users, and the new subscribers from their infamous, aggressive advertising campaign, and ended up knee-deep in lawsuits and legal inquiries by various state attorney generals.

Now that same rumbling is being heard by some of those service providers.

In May, AT&T, one of the first providers to offer unlimited access, will go back on that offer, and charge only $19.95 for the first 150 hours per month, and 99 cents per additional hour. This decision, they say, is because of the "abuse" of users who are staying connected 24-7.

I just have one question to the original bellheads: What were they thinking when they first offered unlimited access with a flat rate?

Much like that restaurant owner watching the oversized family of ten show up on a regular basis, providers like AT&T probably never took into consideration that people might take the word "unlimited" literally. They didn’t think about it, because they were thinking about how much money they would make getting people signed up. They never considered what would happen when those users remained online as long as possible.

Make no mistake, offering unlimited access has changed the scope of the Internet. The whole concept of "push" technology would never have been considered if not for unlimited access. Information-gathering software like PointCast and the Microsoft Investment Ticker would have never existed without the means to gather that information at any time.

Microsoft has advertised with Internet Explorer 4, and the future release of Windows 98, that users would not be able to tell the difference between information their hard drive and information gathered from the Internet. I don’t know about anyone else, but if that time starts getting costly, I certainly would want to know when I’m online!

Ironically, by offering unlimited access, it has resulted in the boom of additional phone lines. That means more money to the phone companies, the very groups who are complaining about all the additional service. Here in the northern Georgia area, the 404 area codes has been joined by 770, and now includes a third area code, all in the span of five years. Callers now have to dial all ten digits instead of just seven, even if the number being called is just across the street. This explosion of communication wouldn’t have existed without the demand provided by things like unlimited access to the Internet.

When you do the math, the 150 hours per month that AT&T would now define as "unlimited" is actually about 5 hours a day. I realize that may be a lot of time for people, but consider some of the things users do in the course of that day: Checking the news, taking part in chat events, reading E-mail, reading newsgroup messages (especially if you subscribe to a large newsgroup), listening to streaming music or live radio broadcasts from around the world, checking your stocks, downloading software, doing extensive searches, playing interactive network games like Quake.. All of these things, while not all handled every day, can certainly deplete those 5 hours rather quickly, never mind when those events are spaced out in the course of the day!

What’s worse has to be the characterizations of those who take up that offer for unlimited access seriously. They’re often referred to by the media as "net hogs." Hogging presumes that people weren’t invited to spend as much time as desired.

Let’s go back to the buffet analogy. Walk up to a buffet table and you’ll know how much food is out there and what kind is available. You know that if you take all the food at the serving table, that it might be a while before anyone else will have some. You know that if you camp out at the buffet table with a fork and spoon, that would be considered hogging.

But online, you never know how big that buffet table is. You’re on your computer at home, dialing into a server that could be hundreds of miles away. You don’t know if your provider can handle five lines or fifty lines or five thousand. How are you to know that they can’t handle a few users who get second phone lines just to stay online 24-7? You’re just told that it’s $19.95 a month to stay online as long as you want.

Worse yet, this is a demonstration that perhaps the old bellheads aren’t really prepared for the changes in technology. Instead of planning ahead, they are trying desperately hard to maintain the status quo, milking our continued dependency of "their" phone lines (paid for at least in part by our tax monies) in a continuing government-regulated limited monopoly.

The eventual trend of the Internet is not limited time online, but rather being online indefinitely for things like television programming, online mail, research, home security.. This is the kind of future predicted by leading software and network visionaries. These are the people who are looking ahead, not just where they’re at right now like AT&T is apparently doing.

In short, this is a bonehead decision by the bellheads. Instead of spending time fretting about those long-term users, they should follow the lead of AOL and expand their systems to cover the additional need. Then, if they need to explain a modest hike in monthly fees to offset the costs, they can point to those 24-7 users as an explanation that would be at least honest and credible.

The moral of the lesson is simple: Don’t advertise what you can’t back up!

Monday, April 13, 1998

Week of 04/13/1998

Target: The IRS
Reforms Won’t Work
- by David Matthews 2

It’s tax time again, boys and girls. Time, once again, to fill out those pesky 1040 forms, sign your W2 statements, and spend more money going to H&R Block, or the local accountant, or just to your local post office to mail out those 1040 forms, or their extension forms.

For those international readers out there, you’re probably clueless as to this annual madness that we call April 15th.. otherwise known as Tax Day. Let me take the time to explain it you folks why we Yanks are so angry at our government right now.

Before America took part in World War II, we had to pay all of our taxes by April 15th in one lump sum. Uncle Sam would tell us we owe "X" amount, we’d write a check to Uncle Sam and that would be it. But then we got into the war and the government needed some fast cash to finance the war. They couldn’t wait until April 15th for the money to come in, so Uncle Sam decided he’ll take it out of our paychecks a little at a time. Our employers had to take "X" percent out of our paychecks, match it out of their own funds, and send that money in. End of the year, we get a statement (the dreaded W2 form) from our employer stating how much money they sent to the government. Then WE have to fill out the forms to state how much we "paid" and if the amount is equal to what the government says we owe. These forms have to be postmarked by April 15th, or we get penalized.

Now, I hope my fellow Yanks have been paying attention as well, because that is how our tax system works. The next time someone asks you how much you pay in taxes, all you have to do is check your pay stub and do the math. Don’t lie to yourself and the person you’re answering and say that you "didn’t pay anything" if you are getting a refund check. Because that’s all that you’re really doing - lying to yourself.

Truth is, the average working American is getting A LOT of money taken out of their paychecks to pay for Uncle Sam and his fifty spoiled brats. Most of us don’t know this because it’s not only taken out in piecemeal, but before we even see one penny of our own money. And in addition to that, there’s also state income tax as well.. unless you live in New Hampshire or Florida. That means you have to repeat this same procedure all over again for the state equivalent.

Well, every year, we hear the same thing over and over again. Taxes are too much. The forms are getting too complicated. We don’t like having to do our taxes. And every year, our politicians keep talking in 100% pure methane about what they’d like to do about taxes. They promise to make the tax forms simpler, and instead they get more and more complex. Then we keep electing the same yahoos into office because we’re told that the alternative to them would only make matters worse for us, which they become anyways thanks to those aforementioned yahoos. (By the way, we have a word for this outside of the Washington beltway.. it’s called hypocrisy!)

But now things are a bit different. This past year, we’ve been hearing all sorts of horror stories about the Internal Revenue Service, the agency in charge of all those nifty tax forms. Not just stories for the media, but for congressional hearings! Apparently enough people have complained for Congress to demand changes. And, equally apparent, changes are forthcoming!

Breathe a sigh of relief, right? I mean, the monster has been tamed, right?

Guess again!

The plan, as proposed by Congress and the Clinton Administration, would involve establishing an "advisory board" to oversee the IRS and hear any complaints about their tactics. That and a few "taxpayer rights" would supposedly turn the IRS into a "kinder, gentler" monster.

And if you believe that, I’ve got prime real estate at the bottom of Lake Lanier to sell you!

Let’s get brutally honest here - the proposed "reform" of the IRS is nothing more than more bureaucracy with a candy coating to quell the public outrage. Washington has no intention of really fixing the IRS, they just want some means there to appease us!

You want real reform? Let’s start with holding the IRS to the same burden of proof as any other agency has to. Hold them to the legal belief that the taxpayer is considered innocent until proven guilty in a court of law! You think they’d be so flippant about seizing funds if they had to take their claims to a judge and jury first?

While we’re at it, let’s not forget that the IRS doesn’t deserve the full and complete blame in this situation. They may be a monster, but Congress made them so. Who do you think came up with the increasingly difficult tax levels so that the more money you make the greater percentage of taxes you have to pay? Congress. Who were the ones who made the concept of income redistribution real? Congress. Who do you think gives all those tax breaks to both the rich and the middle class like they’re Christmastime gifts? Congress. Who do you think created the "marriage penalty?" Congress. Who do you think is responsible for making the tax codes into the literal reincarnation of the Gordian knot; so complex that not even ten accountants can fill out the exact same tax forms and get them to match? Congress! Guess who elected Congress? We did, either through our vote, or our non-vote! (Don’t think you apathetic non-voters get off so easily!)

You want real reform? Let’s get off this self-centered notion that there’s a group of people who aren’t paying "their fair share," especially if you’re covering yourself by some deduction or tax credit yourself. Guess what Blinky? YOU’RE not paying your "fair share" either! You want to know the only people in the whole USA that are paying their "fair share" of taxes? Try those folks who are single, without kids, don’t make $100,000 a year, don’t own a home, don’t own their own business, and aren’t full-time students. In other words, the folks who can’t claim any deductions, dependants, or tax credits. I know they’re out there, because I’m one of them!

Once we get off this crackpot notion of people not paying "their fair share" of taxes, let’s talk about setting up a tax system that is equitable for all parties. There are two being proposed - a flat tax or a national sales tax. While either of them won’t get rid of the IRS in its entirety, it will cut down the need and scope of much of that agency to where cases of abuse of power will be kept to a minimum. There wouldn’t NEED to be an ineffective "review board" instituted by politicians then.

Libertarian candidate for president Harry Browne once offered the American people if they would be willing to give up their favorite federal program if it meant never having to pay federal income taxes again. I give you this offer - would you be willing to give up your favorite tax deduction if it means paying less in taxes? I think most of us would. One of the reason why the tax system is so convoluted and penalizes people for making more money is because of the number of tax deductions and tax credits out there. People complain about taxes, they get more deductions. More deductions mean less money. Less money in the coffers mean they need to put more taxes on "the rich." More taxes mean people complain about them. See how that works?

There are plenty of reasons why things are the way they are in terms of taxes. I’ve pointed them out here and in previous articles. But just because our tax system has seemingly taken a life all its own, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to fix the problem. The problem we have is not just with the IRS, but with how we look at taxes.

You want real reform? That’s where we have to look!

Monday, April 6, 1998

Week of 04/06/1998

Target: Sex in Society
Part 2 - When Sex Is Abused
- by David Matthews 2

"Screw or get screwed!"

Did I get your attention?

Usually, when you hear about sexual harassment, there’s usually an image of some leering, slimy boss pawing over some young nubile girl in a short skirt and tight blouse being asked for sexual favors if she wanted to continue working. No doubt there are some instances that meet the stereotype even today, but for the most part, what is perceived as sexual harassment is now becoming a question more of perception than a crime.

For instance, what constitutes sexual harassment? This is a question that I first raised two years ago with a story called "Is a kiss just a kiss anymore?" (available by request in the archive section). Clearly, the issue of what denotes sexual harassment has been muddied by knee-jerk reactionaries, limelight-addicted lawyers, and extremists who consider anything remotely sexual in nature to be sexual harassment. In some cases, even displaying the picture of one’s spouse could be considered "fostering a hostile environment" if the spouse in question is seen in a bikini.

At the core of sexual harassment is not sex, but power. The stereotypical lecherous boss does what he does not out of sexual gratification, but out of the abuse of power he has an employer. He knows that if he didn’t have that kind of power, beautiful women wouldn’t even give him the time of day. So he abuses his power and gives the ultimatum to the women who need their jobs: screw with me or get screwed by me!

But that little fact gets ignored by the more ambiguous facets like defining what is a "hostile environment." In reality, such a debate fosters more harm than good. In too many instances, normal relations between men and women are persecuted looking for those rare instances.

Case in point is the case of Paula Corbin Jones Vs. William Jefferson Clinton. On April 1st, the presiding judge in Arkansas, Susan Webber Wright, dismissed the charges against the President of the United States on the grounds that there was no case of sexual harassment. While certainly not expected by either supporters or critics of Bill Clinton, the decision has been spun by Camp Clinton to suggest complete vindication.

Not so fast Hillary. The judge dismissed the case because the core of the allegation - sexual harassment - was missing. That does not mean it didn’t happen, only that what went on didn’t meet Judge Webber Wright’s definition of sexual harassment.

While the case is far from being closed, the allegations have certainly caused more than enough damage to a group of women involved in the allegations of sexual impropriety against the president. Kathy Willey, whose husband committed suicide on the same day she was propositioned and groped by Clinton, is now being branded as a liar. Monica Lewinsky is a virtual prisoner by the media and attorneys, including her own, until either she is asked to testify, or until any and all charges against Clinton are dropped (which is rather unlikely). Every aspect of her life, right down to and including what she purchased in a Washington bookstore, is right now under a microscope. Every boy she dated, every teacher she studied under, what she wore as an intern in the White House, is all under scrutiny by the media and special investigators. If the case did go forward, even Paula Jones’ life would have been placed under a microscope. A former boyfriend already sold topless pictures of her to Penthouse Magazine, which published them twice. And Clinton attorneys actually contemplated to expose every aspect of Jones’ sexual history, a despicable defense tactic that was used in old rape trials.

Recently, a new name has been added to the list of lives ruined by Clinton - Elizabeth Ward Gracen. Gracen, a former Miss America, is an actress on the syndicated series Highlander. Now, she has been put on the defensive on her former relationship to the once-and-former governor of Arkansas. She is currently out of the country, and plans to stay in self-imposed exile until the whole mess dies down to avoid being dragged down any further than need be. But the damage may already be done to her.

In the intellectual bastion of politics, having your primal side exposed almost seems to be the kiss of death. With some notable exceptions, namely Senator Ted Kennedy and Rep. Barney Frank (both of Massachusetts), the realization that a particular person doesn’t live in some Stepford Pod existence is the subject of scorn. Sex is supposed to be kept behind closed doors, unless, to appease the appetite of religious zealots and anti-sex crusaders, they must delve into the subject just long enough to outlaw it. James Petersen, the author of Playboy’s History of the Sexual Revolution, conducted a tour of Washington DC that pointed out all the various and sordid secrets of politicians gone by, including the histories of the FBI building and the new Ronald Reagan Building. The press made little notation of the tour, even though their attentions were on the Paula Jones case. (Remember, of course, that the media is also an intellectual institution, and as such find it difficult to deal with reality, even though it is their job to report on it.)

Worse yet seems to be the only way to regain acceptance in this intellectual bastion - to join the ranks of the anti-sex crusaders. Donna Rice, the attractive model who was seen sitting on Gary Hart’s lap in 1988, is now Donna Rice-Hughes, a born-again anti-sex crusader.

Make no mistake, the denial of our primal side by intellectual institutions such as politics are no different in nature than the motivations behind sexual harassment. It is an abuse of power by those who can abuse it. In short, they tell us the same message - "screw with us or get screwed by us."