Italian Lawmakers Are Not Stupid

Say what you want about the Italian Government and their proposal for a “Google tax”, but I find it very unlikely that they are stupid.Google Italia

I recently read an article on the Forbes website entitled “Italy Proposes an Entirely Illegal Google Tax”. Normally, I wouldn’t have thought twice about legislative malfeasance in Italy, but this was from Forbes, the corporate cheerleading, Europe bashing publication that manages to survive only because of its silly annual list of rich people. As suspected, the story of the Google tax is a bit more complicated.

Italy, like many other European countries, are trying to figure out a way to collect taxes from large companies that operate in one European country but do business in the others. As the article points out, there is a problem with this in that the direct collection of taxes violates the single market principle. This is why some articles refer to this revenue collection as a “tax” with quotations.

Companies like Google have found a way to avoid paying national taxes by setting up subsidiaries and shell corporations wherever the taxes are the lowest while at the same having access to the large European market. Many consider this a tax loophole, so Italy’s Partito Democratico is proposing a loophole of its own. In order to advertise in Italy, a company must go through a registered Italian ad agency. The Italian companies would therefore see an increase in revenue which would increase the amount taxed by the government.

Can this work? Probably not. Is it legal? Probably not. So then the Forbes article is right? Absolutely not.

Italy does not exist in a vacuum. It is not the only country upset about the tax loopholes exploited by tech companies. France, which is where the idea of the Google tax was born, is calling for a Europe-wide Google tax. Surely this would satisfy critics who claim that national Google taxes are illegal. The point is, even if the law gets passed, and eventually struck down, it can have an effect on public sentiment throughout the continent.

The proposed Italian law is said to be able to raise €1 billion in tax revenue. This is nothing – about one tenth of one percent of the government’s budget. In other words, Italian lawmakers are testing out the waters and seeing how much leeway they have within the existing European structure.

Criticizing continental European economic policies is a favorite pastime for American and British conservatives who wish to parody that which they disagree with. But to say that Italian lawmakers don’t understand their basic laws is ludicrous. Which explanation seems more plausible?

  1. Italians are stupid and don’t understand their own laws.
  2. Italian lawmakers understand that they are in a difficult situation in terms of national interests and regional law and are pushing the envelope so as to establish new precedents and/or provide exposure for a new regional tax policy.

To call Italian lawmakers stupid is lazy and teaches us nothing about the situation.


The Group of Death by Ranking

 The group-stage draw for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil is out and, as usual, many fans and commentators around the world have begun lamenting how their country’s team was dealt a spot in the “group of death”. The Guardian was quick to proclaim “England to kick off ‘group of death’ in the jungle”. Not so bloody fast mate.

There’s plenty of talk about which is the group of death but hardly any about the consolidated rankings within each group.

world cup draw rankings 2014

 If rankings mean anything, it’s clear that two of the groups are a level above the rest. And if we had to pick a true group of death, it would be Group G (Germany, Portugal, USA and Ghana), which has an average rank of about 11. Rankings aren’t everything, but when the numbers are so clear, they’re a good place to start.

It’s easy to say that your own competition is the most difficult. In a way, it tempers expectations and provides a preemptive excuse in the event of elimination from the tournament. But if history is any indication, expectations for England and the USA should already be tempered – no need to blame it on the group of death.

November 2013 in Review

This past month, two of the greatest music videos in history were put out – Bob Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone gets a multi-channel video 48 years after the song’s release and Pharrell gives us a 24 hour video to Happy. In other music video news, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is featured in a music video which kinda feels like’s 2008 Obama video.

Researchers at Cornell University accidentally destroyed more than $200,000 of horse semen by using a defective cryogenic storage tank. According to the US government, you do not own your smartphone upon purchasing it. There is a high school football team in Arkansas that never punts. Compton has a cricket club, and they even had tea with the Prince of England. Officials in Beijing are fighting air pollution by destroying barbeques.

The ACLU of Colorado released a documentary on Sam Mendez, a man who wrongfully spent half his life in prison (15 in solitary confinement), for a murder that he supposedly committed when he was 14 years old. More than 70% of Walmart’s employees will be working on Thanksgiving. Walmart decided to help out its less fortunate employees by holding a food drive. Americans are driving much less, and it’s not because of the economic downturn. Seattle elected a socialist to its city council. A sperm whale exploded.

The General Synod of the Church of England voted in favor of ordaining women bishops by 2014. Islamists in Turkey think about sex – a lot. People living in diverse communities do not trust one another. Rihanna rocked a doobie at the American Music Awards.

J.P. Morgan agreed to pay the US Government $13.1 billion in the largest settlement in US history. Magnus Carlsen of Norway becomes the new world champion of chess and attains the highest international rating ever. After learning that an ad of theirs featuring a man in a turban had been vandalized with racist graffiti, GAP placed his image as their new Twitter background.

Thanksgiving and the first day of Hanukkah fell on the same day, and this is supposedly bad for Jews and everybody else. Toronto Mayor Rob Ford might smoke crack (only when he gets wasted though) but his city still loves him, or maybe not.





Why Filibuster Reform Matters

Harry Reid, Chuck Schumer, and Dick Durbin on the unprecedented use of filibusters under President Obama (J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press) via The Atlantic
Harry Reid, Chuck Schumer, and Dick Durbin on the unprecedented use of filibusters under President Obama (J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press) via The Atlantic

Imagine for a moment that the US Senate is like a train with 100 people on board. The majority party gets to appoint the conductor, but in extraordinary situations, any one of the passengers can pull the emergency brake and stop the train. As one would expect, use of the emergency brake would be reserved for emergencies. If the emergency brake gets pulled once every few years, it probably means that the passengers are not abusing their responsibilities and can be trusted with it. If they pull it on 70 percent of trips, then we have a problem and it should be obvious to everyone that these yankers are simply trying to prevent the train from getting to its destination. Last week, the Senate agreed to limit the use of this emergency brake.

Like most stories in the news cycle, the Senate’s recent filibuster reform was a big deal for a day or two, and was then promptly forgotten. It’s worth taking a moment to think about what it means for the future of American democracy.

So what is a filibuster? It’s a procedure by which one senator can stand and speak for as long as he/she wishes in order to postpone/prevent a vote on a piece of legislation or a confirmation (not unlike an emergency brake on a train). It effectively gives all 100 senators the power to veto anything. In order to override a filibuster, 60 senators must come together and invoke “cloture” which basically forces the rambling senator to shut up. The filibuster is featured prominently in the 1939 Hollywood film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (sound familiar?) in which a young senator uses the tactic to prevent the passage of an unjust law.

Is a filibuster good or bad? A filibuster is good because it’s a check on the power of the majority party; in extraordinary situations, the minority party can stand in the way of something they feel very passionately about. A filibuster is bad because it gives the minority party the ability to filibuster every little thing, even in non-extraordinary situations, effectively preventing the majority party from governing.

This bad scenario is exactly what’s been going on for the past five years. Both parties are guilty of abusing the filibuster, but the under the Obama presidency, this tool has been abused to an extent unprecedented in American history. Just about everything requires 60 votes to pass now.

This is not the way to run a government. It’s one thing to oppose a president. It’s reckless, however, to stand in the way of routine business and prevent the president and his party from governing. And that is why Harry Reid (Senate Majority Leader) went nuclear last week.

What’s the nuclear option? This refers to the recent vote in the Senate, which passed by 52-48, that eliminated the filibuster for all executive branch nominees and federal judicial nominations (other than the Supreme Court). On the surface, it doesn’t sound like much at all, let alone nuclear.

But why is this a big deal? The vote itself is not as remarkable as the fact that it became necessary. Let’s not pretend that government dysfunction is new. In some ways, bipartisanship is a myth that never existed. Conflict and hatred are old, but the current level of obstruction is new. The reason the recent “nuclear option” is such a big deal is that it’s an open admission that our polarized political climate is irreconcilable – one side will have to win.

In some ways, this is the end of congressional propriety, and it’s not because Washington is divided. It’s because the country is divided. It’s not as if filibustering Republican senators are scorned by their constituents for getting in Obama’s way. They’re treated like heroes. Every society must deal with the contradictory forces that pull it apart and keep it together. This contradiction is currently manifesting itself in ways not seen since the civil rights era. There is no consensus on how to govern. And this speaks to a larger problem. There is no consensus on what it means to be an American.

How to Play Video Games as a 30-Year-Old Non-Gamer

Temple Run DeathStep 1: Read New Yorker article about Canabalt and the long-lost “endless runner” genre of video games and think for a moment that since they don’t require headsets and 10-button control pads, you might actually be able to play and enjoy a smart phone game.

Step 2: Realize that $2.99 for Canabalt is $2.99 more than you’re willing to spend on a game and settle for the free Temple Run which was described in the article as also good.

Step 3: Get killed by band of crazy monkeys in 10 seconds.

Step 4: Get killed by band of crazy monkey in 15 seconds.

Step 5: Turn off smart phone and go back to reading the New Yorker while lamenting the passing of Sega Genesis and complaining that video games these days just aren’t as good as they were when you were a child.

Is Edward Snowden a Hero?

In my previous post, I argued that Edward Snowden is the storybook character that the world has been waiting for. Most folks already assumed that the NSA was involved in nefarious snooping, but with a potential hero on our hands, the leaks and the Government actions they pertain to suddenly seem more interesting. But is Snowden a hero?

Luckily, the New Yorker’s John Cassidy  and  Jeffrey Toobin have provided us with articles arguing for and against Snowden’s hero status.  I’ve broken down their main points below to see how they stack up against one another.

Hero (Cassidy)

Criminal (Toobin)

  • Revealed important info the public deserved to know about
  • Put his career and life in jeopardy
  • Leaks contain nothing sensitive that threatens national security
  • PRISM tracks Americans and our allies more than terrorists
  • Revealed that senior intelligence officials misled Congress
  • Potentially seeking publicity
  • Potential messianic complex
  • Broke the law
  • He had other options

When you see it like that, the answer seems rather clear. At the very worst, Snowden is an opportunistic young charlatan who for personal gain, helped the country out. There’s no denying he broke laws, but by doing so, he exposed a problem much larger than his crime – we’re talking violation of the Constitution level of problems. As Cassidy points out:

Just a couple of months ago, at a Senate hearing, Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden…asked Clapper (Director of National Intelligence), “Does the N.S.A. collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?” To which Clapper replied: “No, sir.” (He added, “Not wittingly.”) At another hearing, General Keith Alexander, the director of the N.S.A., denied fourteen times that the agency had the technical capability to intercept e-mails and other online communications in the United States.

Toobin claims that Snowden had legal options to pursue his grievances, but if the heads of our national intelligence apparatus are willing to lie to Congress when confronted with questions on domestic surveillance, what chance does a 29-year-old techie stand? From what we currently know, this guy looks pretty heroic to me.