Thursday, March 29, 2012

Taxes on the Rich

I have not posted a blog for weeks. My life is terribly complicated right now. I hope things calm down in a week or two. I will return!

Meanwhile, although bogged down in my personal life, I still maintain interest in what is happening outside this insulating retirement community where I live. This week, reading the New Yorker during dialysis, I came upon an article, “Tax Me if You Can,” subtitled, “The things rich people do to avoid taxes.”

You read my rails against the super rich, who exploit the tax code to become richer and richer. Then I read this New Yorker article and learned the rich are even richer than I knew. The millions collected by ball players are peanuts compared to what some others are taking out of the economy.

This paragraph astounded me:

“The Internal Revenue Service discloses detailed statistics for the four hundred highest-earning taxpayers in the country. In 2008, the most recent year available, those taxpayers had an average adjusted gross income of two hundred and seventy million dollars each. Thirty of them paid less than ten per cent in federal taxes, and a hundred and one paid between ten and fifteen per cent. On average, the group paid 18.1 per cent – a lower rate than taxpayers who earn between two hundred thousand and five hundred thousand dollars.”

For me the basic fact is: No one deserves an income of two hundred and seventy million dollars.
For the entire article, find the New Yorker for March 19 and go to page 46. After reading that, turn to page 72 for a piece on Mitt Romney’s business career.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Dijon without Mustard

After lunch in Dijon, David and I went up and down a street of little shops but couldn’t find any Dijon mustard in Dijon.

I had read about the tomb of Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy. I wanted to compare it to the grandiose plans of his son-in-law, Maximilian I of Hapsburg, which David and I saw in Innsbruck., with all those life-size figures (including Duke Charles himself) standing around like a bronze court.

We found the Duke of Burgundy’s tomb sculptures in the museum in Dijon, a marble sarcophagus held on the shoulders of life-size marble mourners. The hooded figures symbolized death with their bent shoulders and drooping drapery. These marble masterpieces of Medieval sculpture are very different from the militant figures in their bronze armor intended for Maximilian’s tomb.

The two monuments are not only use different materials – marble for the duke, bronze for the emperor – they illustrate the changing points of view as Europe moved from Medieval times towards the Renaissance. In Germany the work of Tilman Reimenschneider were all devoted to religious themes, statues of saints and altarpieces telling Bible stories. The duke’s sarcophagus conveys the Medieval attitude of death as the end of a powerful life, while Maximilian’s plan was wholly secular. Those bronze kings and dukes had nothing to do with religion. They were meant to perpetuate the image of Max as a powerful ruler.

In their time both Charles the Bold and Maximilian von Hapsburg were powerful men. Both men ordered elaborate tombs. Maximilian died in a far country and those figures planned for a big monument ended up in a dusty museum seldom seen even by Austrians. David and I were alone when we visited there.

Charles the Bold’s monument, intended for a cathedral, also ended up in a museum. Tourists – except for nuts like me – don’t go to museums. Tours to Burgundy go to vineyards.

Did David, at 13, get the significance of all this? I don’t know. He always responded enthusiastically to beautiful art.

Photos give us an approximation of what paintings are like, but nothing adequately portrays a statue. Last year a few small auxiliary figures from the Duke’s monument came on loan to the Meadows Museum in Dallas, but they gave only a hint of what the complete tomb is like.

Pictures never do justice to a statue. You must walk around it and enjoy how the artist uses his/her material, marble or bronze or wood, smooth or rough, incised with patterns or folded into drapery. It is like seeing someone’s photo on the internet and then meeting them in person. It is not just the face but the whole “body language” that shows you a person.

For David the trip was a totally new experience. I read dozens, perhaps hundreds of books and articles about Europe before our trip, and I thought I knew what to expect. Yet I was surprised and learned something everywhere we went. In Dijon I began to understand statuary, not just as beautiful art, but as expression of a particular time and culture.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

On the Road to Paris

Whenever I mention something that happened in Europe, a woman I know launches into telling about a 12-day, 6-nation trip she made with her husband. “We had a tour guide who told us all about the places we visited.” She thinks she saw all of Europe and knows all about it.

She also told me, “Those countries are so small, you can see four or five countries in one day.”

There are places in Europe where this is possible. In the U.S. we can do this, too. In the East, you only have to drive a few miles to go from Maryland to Pennsylvania to New Jersey and end up in Delaware.. There is a plaque on the ground at the Four Corners where New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and Colorado come together. You can “tour” all four states in 20 seconds.

David and I were in five countries in one long, hard day in which we crossed one small corner of Germany at night and saw nothing. It took another long day in France to go from Colmar to Paris.

France is smaller than Texas, but it is bigger than all other U.S. states. I admit we made a couple of stops along the way.

The first detour was to a mountain-top village of Vezelay. a little town of less than 500 people. I had read about its very old church, where in 1148 St. Bernard preached a dynamic sermon which inspired Frenchmen to go on the 2nd Crusade.

(George W. Bush referred to our invasion of Iraq as a “Crusade”. This angered Muslims. After 1,000 years they still remember when Christian Crusaders invaded their countries. I still hear Texans say we fought for “Iraqi Freedom”; the Iraqis considered us foreign invaders trying to subvert their religion.)

As a student of architecture, I was thrilled to see the church at Vezelay with its triple doorway, each door embellished with elaborately carved Gothic arches, a fine example of Medival architecture. Stepping inside, I was awe-struck by its quiet, holy atmosphere. The Church of the Madeleine was built here at a Benedictine abbey to house the supposed remains of St. Mary Madeleine. Pilgrims still come to this remote place today. It was awesome to stand on the stone floor inside that old church and feel the ghosts of thousands of Christians who have worshiped there since the 10th Century.

From our brief stop in Vezelay we reached Dijon, capital of Burgundy, in time for lunch. What fun to eat beef bourgeron in Burgundy! Can’t remember if I had a glass of Burgundy wine.

Our brief visits in Vezelay and Dijon were no better than my friend’s glimpses of cities on her 12-day, 6-city tour. It is like eating one cracker with a bit of cheese on top and missing the six-course meal. On that trip with David, I got a taste of Europe and wanted more. I returned many times, and I never did “see it all.” That’s impossible.

Taking David with me was accidental. We saw amazing art and architecture (my fault as art is my passion). Another case of going to see one thing and learning something more important. My 13-year-old kid learned there is a world outside of Illinois and the U.S. where friendly people live contented lives. All are not eager to come to America. We can learn from the Europeans.