Horseless Carriages And Taxes

I noticed that the White House unveiled today its proposal for many changes in US taxes. I don’t normally comment on current political controversies and am not going to do so now, whatever my private views are on the policies.

But, as someone with an interest in 21st century technology, I did take notice of one thing about the proposal that I’ll comment on– admittedly something not as important as other aspects of the plan, but something that seems so outdated.

It is another example of how, for all the talk about technology and change, far too many people – especially public officials – are still subject to what the media expert Marshall McLuhan called the “horseless carriage syndrome”. When automobiles first getting popular a hundred years ago, they were seen as carriages with a motor instead of a horse. 

Only much later did everyone realize that the automobile made possible a different world, including massive suburbanization, increased mobility for all generations, McDonald’s and drive-ins (for a couple of decades anyway), etc. Cars were really more than motorized, instead of horse-driven, carriages.

Similarly, tech is more than the sometime automation of traditional ways of doing things. Which brings me back to taxes.

In pursuit of a goal of simplifying the tax system, the White House proposed today to reduce the number of tax brackets from seven to three. 
(This image is from the NY Times.)

And that brings me to a question I have previously asked: why do we still have these tables of brackets that determine how much income tax we’re supposed to pay?

The continued use of tax brackets is just another example of horseless carriage thinking by public officials because it perpetuates an outmoded and unnecessary way of doing things.

In addition to being backward, brackets cause distortions in the way people make economic decisions so as to avoid getting kicked in a higher tax bracket.

But we no longer have to live in a world limited to paper-based tables.  Assuming that we don’t go to a completely flat single percentage tax – and even the White House today doesn’t propose that – there is nothing in a progressive tax that should require the use of brackets. Instead, a simple system could be based on a formula which would eliminate the negative impacts of bracket-avoiding behavior that critics of progressive taxation point to.

And all it would to implement this is an app on our phones or the web. An app could the most basic flat tax formula, like “TaxOwed = m * TaxableIncome” where m is some percentage. It could also obviously handle more complicated versions for   progressive taxes, like logarithmic or exponential formulas.

No matter the formula, we’re not talking about much computing power nor a very complicated app to build. There are tens of thousands of coders who could finish this app in an afternoon.

Again, the reduction of tax brackets from 7 to 3 is not among the big issues of the proposed tax changes. But maybe we’d also get better tax policies on the big issues from both parties if public officials could also reform and modernize their thinking – and realize we’re all in the digital age now.

[OK, I’m off my soapbox now 😉 ]

© 2017 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

Why Do We Still Have Tax Brackets?

We’ve just passed the tax deadline and reflecting on it I was vexed
again by this question: why do we still have these tables of brackets
that determine how much income tax we’re supposed to pay?

I can
understand there was a time, many decades ago, that the government
wanted to keep things simple so each person could easily determine the
tax rate that would apply.  And I know that the continued use of tax
brackets is not the biggest problem around.  However, tax brackets are
just another symptom of government’s failure to see the widespread
deployment of technology in the public and its failure to use basic
technology for simple improvements that are appropriate in this century.

Brackets
cause some problems.  Politicians who advocate a single flat tax rate
often start with the argument that their approach would be so simple
people could just send in a postcard.  Putting aside the merits or
demerits of a flat tax, for the moment, there is something retro about
telling people to use a postcard in 2016.

image

From 2000 to 2015, postcard usage dropped by more than two thirds, an
even greater drop than in first class envelope mail.  The Washington
Post even had a story last year with a headline that asked “Are postcards obsolete?

Where would we even find these postcards?  Would the IRS mail them to us?  🙂

Those
who argue for flat taxes or lower taxes in the higher brackets
implicitly say that people will work less if it means an obvious jump in
tax rates by shifting into a higher bracket.  There are also those who
advise people how to avoid this problem, as did a Forbes magazine article
last month which started out saying that

“the key tax challenge facing
retirees: being helplessly catapulted into rising tax brackets [because
our] tax code is progressive.”

Indeed, with the current set of progressive tax rates, your percentage of tax goes up as your income goes up.

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But we no longer have to assume we live a world limited to paper-based tables.

There
is nothing in today’s world that requires the use of brackets in a
progressive tax system.  Indeed, a system based on a formula instead
would eliminate the negative impacts of bracket-avoiding behavior that
critics of progressive taxation point to.

There are a few possible
formulas that might work.  The most complex would be a logarithmic or
exponential curve, which a computer can nevertheless easily compute.  If
you want to make it even simpler, another formula would set the
percentage tax rate as a percentage of income.  (Remember school math?  
TaxRate = m * Income where m is some small fraction.)

No matter
the formula, computers can handle it.  The IRS could make a formula
available on line or over the phone — just enter your taxable income and
it will tell you what you owe.  It can be built into the calculator
function of cell phones.  There are tens of thousands of coders who
could finish this app in an afternoon.

Of course, the IRS says that it now offers an app, but it doesn’t take advantage of the computing power of the mobile device nor help you figure out the amount you owe.

image

While
we’re at the effort to bring government into the modern technological
era, let’s also consider where those taxes go.  Why do we still have
fixed budgets?

The budget reform of the 1920s was developed in a
world that did not have the ability to dynamically make calculations.  
So every year, government officials make their best guess on the
condition of the economy, the demand from an unknown number of
potentially needy citizens and other factors that determine the ebb and
flow of public finances.  Since the budget process is lengthy, they make
this guess well ahead of time so they could be trying to predict the
future more than 18 months ahead of time.

A rolling budget would
work better by automatically adjusting each month to the flow of revenue
and the demands on government programs — and all you need is a big
spreadsheet on a not-so-big computer.  However, the budget makers would
have to decide what their priorities are.  For example, for every
percentage of unemployment, we need to put aside $X billion dollars for
unemployment insurance payments.  It would take work to do this for each
of the promises the government makes — although maybe not as much work
as trying to guess the future.

(Of course, the real obstacle to a
rolling budget model is that policy makers would be forced to make more
explicit their priorities.)

I could go on, but you get the idea.
Buying billions of dollars of technology products is not enough.  
Government needs also to bring technology into its thinking and design.

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© 2016 Norman Jacknis, All Rights
Reserved

[Note: this is an update of my blog
post in 2012]

[http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/143790789669/why-do-we-still-have-tax-brackets]

Beyond The Craze About Coding

In last week’s post on the Coding Craze, I referred to the continuing
reduction in the need for low level coding – even as what is defined as
low level continues to rise and be more abstract, more separated from
the machines that the software controls.  I even noted the work in
artificial intelligence to create programs that can program.

All
of this is a reflection of the fact that pure coding itself is only a
small part of what makes software successful – something that many
coding courses don’t discuss.

Many years ago in the programming
world, there was a relatively popular methodology named after its two
creators – Yourdon and DeMarco.  While it has been mostly been
remembered for its use of data flow diagrams, there was something else that it taught which too many coders don’t realize.

There
is a difference between what is logically or conceptually going on in a
business and the particular way it is implemented.  Yourdon asks
software designers to first figure out what is essential or as he put it:

“The
essential system model is a model of what the system must do in order
to satisfy the user’s requirements, with as little as possible (and
ideally nothing) said about how the system will be implemented. … this
means that our system model assumes that we have perfect technology
available and that it can be readily obtained at zero cost.  [Note: this is a lot closer to reality today than it was when he wrote about zero cost.]

“Specifically,
this means that when the systems analyst talks with the user about the
requirements of the system, the analyst should avoid describing specific
implementations of processes … he or she should not show the system
functions being carried out by humans or an existing computer system. …
these are arbitrary choices of how the system might be implemented; but
this is a decision that should be delayed until the systems design
activity has begun.”

Thinking this way about the world operates
and how you want it to operate is the start of software design.  
Software design really has two, related, meanings – like C++
overloading.  

First, there is the design of the architecture of
the software and overall solution.  Diving into coding without doing
this design is what leads to persistent and embarrassing bugs in
software.  The internal design is also necessary to avoid spaghetti code
that is hard to fix and to improve performance, even in these days of a
supposed abundance of compute resources.

image

Second, there is the design of the interface that the user sees –
with all the things to worry about that we associate with the “design
thinking” movement.

(One way of planning software is to imagine
the software designer is a playwright, who is responsible for all the
parts of the play aside from one, the user’s part.  I guess this is more
like improv than a play, but you get the idea 🙂 )

So maybe in
addition to the coding class, the wanna-be software developer should go
to improv or drama school.  That’s a more likely path to knowing how to
generate the WOW! reaction from users that makes for software success.

image

© 2016 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

[http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/141545808566/beyond-the-craze-about-coding
]

Has Apple Design Lost Its Way?

Jony Ive, who is credited with the design of many of Apple’s greatest products, was promoted to the position of Chief Design Officer last week.  The company’s announcement seemed to say that Ive would now be bringing “design thinking” to all of the company, not just its products.  Some pundits said this was a graceful way to ease him out of the picture.  Others said it freed him to spend more time on the “next big thing.”

Maybe he should indeed be refocusing on product design, since for me, his promotion renewed the question as to whether Apple has lost its way in the design of tech products.  

Apple can still create nice feature improvements in its products, but they seem to missing the larger aims of design.  Specifically, think back to Apple’s showing of the iPad 3 in 2012.  Its video introduction of that product began with these words:

“We believe technology is at its very best when it’s invisible. When you’re conscious only of what you’re doing, not the device you’re doing it with.”

This is as good as it gets in describing the role of design in technology products.  Yet over the last couple of years, Apple’s products have gotten mostly bigger and more obvious.

The iPhone 6 grew bigger than the iPhone 5, mostly it would seem to catch up to the competition.  The iPod Nano, a useful and small device, was discontinued and replaced by a larger version.

So now, instead of seeing someone holding an Apple product like this …

image

people go around absurdly armed like this.

image

The Apple Watch is another example where Apple did anything but hide the technology.  This is all the more perplexing when you look at what they could have designed, something more like the Neptune Hub that is an attempt to create an elegant new product category.

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Given its small size and dependency on crowdfunding, there’s every conventional reason to question how long Neptune can last.  

Given its marketing power and reputation, there’s no reason to think that the Apple Watch will not be at least a conventional, moderate business success.  But, whatever success the Watch has and will have cannot mostly be attributed to design – which Apple used to claim to be among its chief differentiators.

I’m not predicting the demise of Apple, which has been heralded ever since Steve Jobs’ death.  It’s very hard to drive a company, with $150 billion in the bank, to extinction any time soon.  And Apple’s products are not bad at all.  (I suppose that’s faint praise 😉

It may seem churlish to criticize the largest company in the world, one that seems headed toward being the first with a trillion dollar stock market valuation.  But money is not the measure of all things, as the old line goes and Jobs himself inferred.

What Apple perhaps is facing is a kind of typical corporate maturity – with solid products, but a greater emphasis on sales/marketing and management processes, rather than on design and the user’s needs.  It was exactly that kind of shift that Steve Jobs criticized in Robert Cringely’s Lost Interview with him.   Jobs’ target was IBM and HP.  But no company is immune, as he knew.

The observations that Jobs made about what it takes for both small and big companies to make great leaps are even more relevant today than twenty years ago when the video was recorded.  Those of us who consume new technology can only hope that somewhere out there is another Jobs who has learned his lessons– and who will ensure newly designed products that get closer to being invisible, after all.

© 2015 Norman Jacknis

[http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/120610921392/has-apple-design-lost-its-way]