»  The Straggler, No. 63

February 11, 2008

  Gripe Homeostasis


Not my favorite time of year. Taxes, for one thing. As a freelancer, working from check to check, the nearest I get to the sly painlessness of the salaryman's withholding tax is quarterly "estimated" payments. Figure out how much income you will have next year (Ha!) Compute federal tax payable. Divide into four equal parts. Write checks: April, June, September, January. Repeat for state tax, unless you are wise enough (I'm not) to live in one of the nine states that don't tax ordinary income. That four-month gap from September to January is a nice touch. I suppose the authorities feel that to have a due date ten days before Christmas would cast too much of a pall over our holiday spirits. So instead they set the date at twenty-one days after Christmas, just as all the credit card bills are coming due. I seethe, I fume, I groan.

Then, health insurance. Once again, the strong preference of the authorities that we all be corralled into salaried employment so that they can more easily watch us, record us, and harvest our labor, shines through the arrangements. If you yoke yourself to a corporate employer, some modest portion of your paycheck will be gently, unobtrusively snipped away to cover yourself and your family. Live by your wits, however, and monstrous demands from a health insurer thump into your mailbox every month. Worse, that phrase about "escalating costs of health care" that newspapers have set up permanently in type becomes all too real to you every January, as the annual rate hike takes hold. My monthly payment went from $857 to $973 this year, an "escalation" of fourteen percent — quite modest, actually, by comparison with previous years. This, as credit cards and estimated taxes fill the mind. I groan, I seethe, I fume.

It is all wrong, all wrong. Income tax is, as Murray Rothbard said, "undoubtedly the most totalitarian of all taxes." Health insurance is the Antarctica of the consumer economy: vast, frigid, and wellnigh empty of humanity. My own insurer seems to reject all claims on principle, waiting to see whether we care enough about the item to spend three hours on the phone justifying it to rule-driven bureaucrats in distant call centers. Our most recent claim (child stung by wasp, allergic reaction, emergency room visit, allergist called in) was turned down because the allergist's filing had not included a "provider license number." A letter informing me of this very nearly arrived in the same post as notice of the rate hike. After finally, on my fourth attempt, getting all the way through their labyrinthine call menu, I confronted the call-center penguin: "How am I supposed to know the doctor's darn license number? Why are you telling me this? Why don't you just call the guy and ask him?" Sorry, they don't do that. This is the service I get for a thousand bucks a month. I fume, I groan, I seethe.

Plainly reforms are needed! Politicians, in this election season, make appropriate promises. Mrs. Clinton will shift more of the tax burden to the wealthy. John McCain will abolish the Alternative Minimum Tax. Mitt Romney will let me save interest and dividends tax free. Barack Obama will simplify the tax code down to "five minute filing." Mike Huckabee will replace the income tax with a national sales tax. Fred Thompson will make the system "simpler and fairer." Ron Paul will channel Murray Rothbard. And yes, they all have health-care plans, too. Clearly the future will be better than the present.

The past was also better than the present. I don't recall anyone griping about health care thirty years ago, when I first came to these shores. People griped about taxes, of course, but the system was a good deal simpler, though admittedly with a top rate of seventy percent. There were then still old people around who could remember there being no income tax at all.

It would seem, therefore, that the present moment is some nadir of misfortune for the struggling middle-class citizen. Confirmation comes from the TV evening news: the Speaker of the house, meeting with the Chairman of the Fed, sobs that: "Americans are having trouble meeting everyday expenses." Later I catch the Lou Dobbs show. Lou is railing against "corporate elites," and their cruel insensitivity to that same beleaguered middle class. (At least, I think that's what he's doing. It's always a challenge to figure out what Lou is actually saying through the four different speech impediments he seems to be afflicted with simultaneously. "Whut-ah in the wordled uh-air they ngr-thinkling uh-hov? …")

And yet … the streets of this middle-class suburb are clogged with late-model SUVs. The local mall is thronged with shoppers. Neighbors are off on ski trips. Mrs Straggler is contemplating cosmetic surgery. The kids now both have cellphones. Struggling? Beleaguered? Well …

There is a phenomenon found in many complex systems, called homeostasis. This is the seeking of some familiar equilibrium following a change of circumstances. Automobile drivers go at certain average speeds, suffer a certain rate of accidents. Seat belt laws are introduced. Now feeling safer, drivers go faster, generating a higher accident rate, though at no more harm to themselves. This is "risk homeostasis."

My January fumings are most likely a case of gripe homeostasis. I probably griped just as much in my salaryman days, but about different things. The middle classes have likely always felt beleaguered, but by different foes. Outside dire catastrophes like the Great Depression, the general level of human contentment has, I suspect, varied very little since the founding of the Republic.

Actually, life is pretty darn good in 2008, and society wonderfully well-ordered. My kids may get bee stings, but they won't be getting polio. These checks I am writing will be honored even if the bank goes bust. My sump pump just gave up the ghost, but at least the Creek won't be burning my house. The presidential candidates are offering us "change"? Perhaps we'd be smarter to seek someone who promises to leave things the heck alone.

How small, of all that human hearts endure,
That part which laws or kings can cause or cure!