Dynamist Blog

Tax Day Lament: Bring Back Income Averaging!

It’s April 15, a day that reminds us that the difference between December 31 and January 1 is enormous. Or, in my case, the difference between December 31 and January 24--the date in 2013 on which I received a book payment I was supposed to receive in 2012. That delay doubled my book income for 2013 while leaving some of the offsetting expenses, as well as a large charitable trust contribution, in 2012. It also meant that all of my book payment, instead of part of it, was taxed at a higher (though far from the highest) rate.

In other words, I wound up paying extra taxes on the same amount of money.

The difference between one year and the next wouldn’t matter so much if all income were taxed at the same rate. Before the 1986 tax reform flattened rates, people with fluctuating incomes could in fact average their incomes across years for tax purposes. Abolishing averaging went along with a simpler, less-progressive tax system.

But the tax system has gotten more complex and progressive in recent years, making the arbitrary distinction between this year’s income and last year’s all the more unfair. (Year-to-year fluctuations don’t make a significant tax difference for the relatively few people who are always taxed at the top rate.)

One special class of people still gets to escape the tyranny of the tax calendar. In 1997, Congress restored income averaging for farmers and ranchers. It’s even more galling to be taxed extra for Simon & Schuster’s slow payment knowing that if I were growing corn instead of writing books I’d be able to offset the good years against the bad ones.

Great Moments in Damage Control: A 1903 Store Owner Learns Not to Insult Female Employees

The following correction ran in the April 18, 1903 issue of the Dry Goods Reporter, a retailing trade publication:

In an article by Mr. J. F. Phelan of the Phelan Dry Goods Company, Galesburg, Ill., under the head "Ladies' Ready-made Garment," that appeared in the "Reporter" some weeks back, Mr. Phelan desires the following corrections: The expression "women do not attend so carefully to their business as do the men" is an error. The remark that "women get married when valuable as salespeople" is also incorrect. The words "married men are even more reliable and usually more respectable than single men" should have read "I believe they are more reliable and more responsible."

Thinking that the correction might be satirical, I found the original article, which ran January 3. The correction was no joke.

Regarding help, I find that men are much more satisfactory. Ladies do not attend so carefully to the business, I find, as do the men. Men folks seem to be more reliable. The girls are often interested in outside matters, and they are not able to concentrate their minds on the business so closely as are the men. They are getting married when valuable. Married men are better help than unmarried, as I believe they are even more reliable and usually more respectable.

I'd love to know what transpired in the three months between the article and the correction.

The Washington-Hollywood Nexus: Talking Glamour and Politics with Brian Lamb

In this one-hour C-SPAN video, I answer Brian Lamb's questions about relations between Washington and Hollywood and, I hope, dispel the notion that rounding up some over-the-hill movie stars equals glamour, at least anywhere but Washington.

For a fuller discussion of glamour and politics, see my talk at the John Locke Foundation here.

THE POWER OF GLAMOUR Will Change How You Think About the World: Why Should I Give You a Copy?

POWER OF GLAMOUR small cover
Why should you win this book?

“It’s impossible to walk from this book not thinking differently about things.”

That's what Weston Cutter of Corduroy Books said in his review of The Power of Glamour, and it's a theme that comes up again and again in comments about the book. “Reading this book made me look differently at the role glamour has played in my own life,” wrote Leslie Camhi in The New York Times Book Review.

Reading the book gave Kate Bolick an explanation for why she loves the Vermont Country Store catalog but never wants to visit the real store. It gave Autumn Whitefield-Madrano insight into a beauty puzzle: "If women’s magazines make women feel so bad about themselves, why do we continue to buy them?" For Ken Silber it crystallized a unifying theme in what he likes "to write and read about, what sorts of art and design I tend to enjoy."

It might change how you think too. And to celebrate the new year, I'm giving away three signed copies of The Power of Glamour. To enter, post a comment telling me why you should win one. I'll pick winners on January 10. My decisions are final and they may be arbitrary or random. You do not have to be a U.S. resident to enter.

UPDATE: Since Facebook comments don't give me your email address, please be sure to check back on Monday to see if you've won. Also, I will choose one winner using Random.org so everyone has a chance.

"The Secret Life of Walter Mitty:" A Classic of Comic Glamour

The New Yorker has put online James Thurber's classic 1939 short story "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," once a favorite of elementary and middle-school literature anthologies but now largely unknown by younger people. In an earlier draft of The Power of Glamour, I included the following passage about the story, which is all about the protagonist's glamorous, but ridiculous, daydreams.

Just as a single glamorous object may evoke different desires, different objects may reflect the same underlying yearning, as illustrated in the comic 1939 short story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” Author James Thurber contrasts a series of glamorous daydreams with the protagonist’s real life as an infantilized, bumbling husband. The story opens with a scene pieced together from movie clichés. Though technically ridiculous, its dialogue makes emotional sense. We meet Mitty as the brave and competent commander, respected and obeyed by his crew.

“We’re going through!” The Commander’s voice was like thin ice breaking. He wore his full-dress uniform, with the heavily braided white cap pulled down rakishly over one cold gray eye. “We can’t make it, sir. It’s spoiling for a hurricane, if you ask me.” “I’m not asking you, Lieutenant Berg,” said the Commander. “Throw on the power lights! Rev her up to 8,500! We’re going through!” The pounding of the cylinders increased: ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa- pocketa-pocketa. The Commander stared at the ice forming on the pilot window. He walked over and twisted a row of complicated dials. “Switch on No. 8 auxiliary!” he shouted. “Switch on No. 8 auxiliary!” repeated Lieutenant Berg. “Full strength in No. 3 turret!” shouted the Commander. “Full strength in No. 3 turret!” The crew, bending to their various tasks in the huge, hurtling eight-engined Navy hydroplane, looked at each other and grinned. “The old man will get us through” they said to one another. “The Old Man ain’t afraid of Hell!”. . .
Suddenly Mitty’s real life breaks the reverie, as Mrs. Mitty berates her husband for driving too fast, then nags him to buy overshoes and wear his gloves. Over the course of the afternoon Mitty imagines himself as a series of glamorous masculine archetypes, with each daydream broken by some mundane, ego-deflating interruption. He’s a world-renowned surgeon operating on a millionaire banker and able, in mid-surgery, to repair a broken anesthetizer with a fountain pen. He’s a crack shot on trial for murder, shocking the court by destroying his own alibi—an injured right arm—when he declares, “With any known make of gun, I could have killed Gregory Fitzhurst at three hundred feet with my left hand.” He’s a gallant British aviator, taking his bomber up over Germany against impossible odds. Finally, he becomes a spy being led to his execution: “erect and motionless, proud and disdainful, Walter Mitty the Undefeated, inscrutable to the last.” None of these scenes has a coherent plot. They are all glamorous snapshots, portraits of yearning fulfilled. And all reveal the same longing—for competence and respect. Each allows Mitty to escape a reality in which he is constantly reminded of his failings: “He was always getting something wrong.”
As varied as these daydreams are, however, they not only express the same underlying desire but do so in a relatively narrow way. They are all masculine, and several of them are martial, not surprising in a story published in 1939. We could imagine many more archetypes with the potential to express the same longings—and to be punctured with the same glamour-deflating humor. In another era, a similar character might picture himself a sports star winning the championship with a well-placed shot, a scientist rushing to intercept an Earth-destroying asteroid, or a CEO doing multi-billion–dollar deals from his private jet. The desire for competence and respect could express itself in daydreams of Martha Stewart–style domestic perfection or in that common fantasy, the Oscar acceptance speech. Depending on their personalities, and cultural contexts, different people will respond to different glamorous objects reflecting the same desire.

The passage made the chapter drag too much, but I do like the example and am glad The New Yorker (and the new movie) have given me an excuse to share it. Go read the story now.

Glamour, Identification, and What Star Trek Can Teach Feminists about the Appeal of Fashion Magazines

Star_Trek_NewWorlds_Tobias_Richter One of the first and most interesting reviews of The Power of Glamour is this article from The New Inquiry, where author Autumn Whitefield-Madrano applies my analysis to her own concerns about how "idealized media images of unattainable beauty" affect women. It was a pleasure to see my work intelligently applied to produced a more nuanced understanding of this controversial subject, especially since one of my quirkier examples proved key to her conceptual leap:

Postrel cites Star Trek as an example of something glamorous, which might strike many as absurd, given its distinct lack of glamorous tropes. But it was this example that cemented for me the relationship between glamour and the viewer—and if you had memories of your 11-year-old loner brother sitting on the couch in his Star Trek ensign uniform, staying up late to finish his own handwritten Next Generation scripts, you’d understand too. A bit of an outcast at that age but with a longing for community and quiet appreciation of the skills he had to offer the world, my brother couldn’t wholly identify with life aboard the starship Enterprise, but he saw enough of its world in himself—and he saw enough of himself in the values of that world—that it became far more than mere entertainment to him, even if he couldn’t spell out why. Star Trek wasn’t remotely glamorous to me, but it was to him.

When I think of my brother’s longing today, I’m struck by how much he yearned to truly identify with that world (even though, like all chimera of glamour, it was a world that couldn’t exist). In a certain light, his obsession with Star Trek becomes heartbreaking: a child wanting so badly to live in a world where he’d have a place that he literally wrote it himself when the prewritten fantasy ran out. But I also see it as an indicator of the ways he was thriving. He took up trombone because that’s what Commander Riker played. He learned how to save his child’s income in order to buy entrance to Trekker conventions once my parents became exasperated with the constant ticket requests. He was writing entire hourlong performance scripts—a passion that stuck around long enough for him to host a radio theater show today. You could say Star Trek held up an unattainable ideal that he’d never be able to join—or you could say it spurred him to better himself. Both can be fallouts of glamour.
As a feminist writer who wants women to feel as emotionally whole as possible, I’ve spent my fair share of time fretting over idealized media images of unattainable beauty. But in writing about beauty and in talking to dozens of women about the role looks play in their lives, my mind-set has slowly shifted over the years. I can no longer believe that women are such passive, robotic consumers as to continue to buy women’s magazines if they just make us feel like crap—nor do I naively believe that women bathe in these images because we feel fantastic while doing so. Looking at the question of idealized images through the lens of Postrel’s articulation of glamour, there’s a more satisfying conclusion here: We are drawn to images of idealized beauty not out of self-loathing but out of longing; we are compelled by images not only because we compare ourselves to them but because we identify with them. If we didn’t identify with those images to some degree—even a whisper of one—they would cease to have any resonance with us. Yet if we identified too much, we’d have less to strive for.

Read the rest of the review here. Beauty Bytes blogger Meli Pennington linked to the review with her own Star Trek memories: "As a fellow Sister-to-a-Trekkie myself, I never thought of this before, but it fits in with the glamourous dream worlds that I do know: fashion, old Hollywood movies, and pop stardom. And as each of these worlds holds up a different ideal, each can inspire us (or frustrate us in our inability) to change in different ways."

Interestingly, to get a Star Trek image that captured the glamour the show holds for fans I couldn't just use a still, since as Autumn notes the look and feel of Star Trek isn't obviously glamorous. I went instead to a fan, although one who produces digital imagery for a living. The image above, which I licensed for reproduction in the book and related materials like this post, was created by Tobias Richter of The Light Works. (You are not free to reproduce it without separate permission.)

Veterans Day: How World War I Changed the Meaning of "the Glamour of Battle" and Made Pacifism Glamorous

Pershings_Crusaders_WWI_posterMilitary glamour is among the most ancient forms. From Achilles, David, and Alexander through knights, samurai, admirals, and airmen, warriors have been icons of masculine glamour, exemplifying courage, prowess, and patriotic significance.

In the half century leading up to the end of World War I, warfare was also one of the first contexts in which English speakers used the term glamour in its modern metaphorical sense. (The word originally meant a literal magic spell that made people see things that weren't there.)

“Military heroes who give up their lives in the flush and excitement and glamour of battle,” opined a U.S. congressman in 1885, “are sustained in the discharge of duty by the rush and conflict of physical forces, the hope of earthly glory and renown.” A 1917 handbook on army paperwork was “dedicated to the man behind the desk, the man who, being away from the din and glamor of battle, is usually denied popular favor, yet who clothes, feeds, pays, shelters, transports, and otherwise looks after the man behind the gun.” (Whether in warfare or business, logistics is the quintessential “unglamorous” but critical support activity.)

European nations began World War I with a glamorous vision of war, only to be psychologically shattered by the realities of the trenches. The experience changed the way people referred to the "glamour of battle," treating it no longer as a positive quality but as a dangerous illusion. In 1919, the British painter Paul Nash wrote that the purpose of The Menin Road, his bleak portrait of a desolate and blasted landscape, was “to rob war of the last shred of glory[,] the last shine of glamour.” Briefly conscripted in 1916, D. H. Lawrence lamented “this terrible glamour of camaraderie, which is the glamour of Homer and of all militarism.” An American writing in 1921 asked fellow veterans of the Great War, “Are you going to tell your children the truth about what you endured, or gild your reminiscences with glamour that will make them want to have a merry war experience of their own?” In the 1920s, pacifism, not battle, became glamorous.

In her ground-breaking 1939 book America at the Movies, Margaret Thorp recounted one example of the era's glamorous pacifism:

Deanna Durbin is a pacifist. She showed a reporter her school history book with a paragraph which she had underlined with red pencil. “It was Nicholas Murray Butler’s estimate that for the money spent on the World War every family in ten countries could have had a $2,500 house, $1,000 worth of furniture, several acres of land [and so on]. ‘Isn’t it dreadful?’ said Deanna. ‘Not so much the money, as the millions of people killed.’” Ten years ago such a statement would not have added to the glamour of a youthful star, but at least it is safely away from present conflicts.

Within a few years, Durbin was a favorite of British troops and reportedly of Winston Churchill as well. Just as World War I punctured the glamour of battle, the Nazi advance largely did away with the glamour of pacifism.

[Most of this text, except for discussion of Deanna Durbin and the glamour of pacifism, is taken from chapter one of my new book The Power of Glamour: Longing and the Art of Visual Persuasion. Pershing's Crusaders poster from Library of Congress.]

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