Sunday, September 14, 2008

Shame On America Sunday: Celebrity Cars.

Each time I post one of these, each time I point out that somewhere in America, some rich person who is selfish and doesn't care about others is spending money frivolously, money that could be used to help others -- and should be used to help others, I get, out of the many comments and emails, at least five of each of these responses:

First, someone (or someones) will say But they do a lot for charity.

Then, someone (or someones) will say It's their money to do what they want with.

Let me address those both briefly, taking the second one first:

What do you mean, it's their money to do what they want with? What do you mean by that? do you mean that whatever they choose to do, it's okay? If it's their money, it's okay no matter what they do?

Here's how to point out the flaws in an argument like that : take it to extremes; by doing that, the flaws in an argument will be exposed. So let's do that with it's their money to do what they want with. Let's expose how dumb that argument is.

Suppose, instead of pointing out that Cindy McCain shows disdain for human beings by wearing a $313,000 outfit, prompting people to say it's her money to do what she wants with, suppose instead of that I said Cindy McCain spent $313,000 paying surgeons to extract kidneys from kittens so that she could turn them into her own personal anti-wrinkle cream.

Then, I'm sure, everyone -- even those it's-their-money people, would say that's horrible. Even the it's-their-money people suddenly say well, we can't let her do that. Suddenly, even the it's their money people are with me: let's limit what can be spent.

So we can agree, then, that there is a limit on what people can and should do with their own money. If we all agree that Cindy McCain should not be allowed to buy kitten kidneys, then we all agree that it is perfectly acceptable for society to draw a line on what people can spend money on, even if it's their money. We just disagree on where that line should be drawn. (And while my argument was absurd, it's also true: we already as a society tell people there's limits to what they can buy. You can't buy human beings, or parts of human beings. You can't buy endangered species. So don't give me it's their money unless you are out lobbying Congress to allow people to traffic in endangered species and organs, in which case I'd just as soon not hear from you at all.)

So don't say it's their money. If you feel it's okay for Cindy McCain to wear an outfit worth six years of your hard-earned pay and show how little regard she has for human beings, then just say that. Say I and Cindy McCain feel it is appropriate to rub people's noses in how little they have and how much SHE has.

On the other, harder question, I have the same response. To people who say well, they do a lot for charity, let's take the same argument. If Cindy McCain's charity does a lot for people, then is it all right if Cindy McCain uses what's left of her money to buy kitten kidneys?

No, of course it's not. Doing something good doesn't then make it okay to do something bad. It just means that you've done something good and something bad. Giving money to charity is good; but it doesn't make it okay to then go spend $313,000 on an outfit. That's wrong, no matter how much money you give to charity. It's wrong for Bill Gates to own an island and I don't care how much money his foundation gives to charity. It's still wrong for him to own an island.

Celebrities, though, are almost revered for owning things; instead of our society properly pointing to celebrities owning foolish things because they have so much money they don't know what to do with it, and because it's beyond them to think Instead of spending it foolishly, I should help someone. So instead of helping someone, they spend it foolishly. Like on cars.

Celebrities love their cars, and most of America loves celebrities for it. We smile and nod approvingly when Miley Cyrus does what all 15-year-olds wish they could do and buys herself a car, and only I wince when it's reported that the car she bought cost more than $75,000.

Why does anyone, celebrity or not, need a $75,000 car? How much nicer is a $75,000 car than the Saturn Vue ($13,995 used) I drive? Do CDs sound better in a $75,000 car? Does the exhaust smell like chocolate chip cookies?

I guess the only reason you'd want a $75,000 car is so that it wouldn't look out of place among the 20 cars-- all Porsches, apparently -- you park in your $1.39 million carpeted garage, isn't that right, Jerry Seinfeld? Or should I say: what's the deal with people who park their cars on cement? Don't they know luxury cars are meant to be pampered? Pampered, it seems, at the expense of neighbors, who had to have jackhammers going for a year in their building so that Jerry's cars could have a luxury garage, complete with kitchenette.

It is apparent to me that once one becomes rich, one also loses the ability to ever be more than 10 feet from a kitchen. I look forward to winning the lottery and then creating the first mobile kitchen (with 24-hour staff) so that I, too, can be constantly within rich of some Brie cheese.

But 20 cars isn't all that much, when you stop to think about it. Why, you couldn't even drive a different one every day for more than 3 weeks. Jerry can't -- one of his cars, one worth $700,000, can't even be driven on the street (because it can't be emissions and crash-tested; Porsche wouldn't release any for testing, so they created a whole line of cars costing $700,000 each that can't be used.)

You certainly couldn't, if you only had 20 cars, feature them on a website that allows us, the commoners, to marvel at your collection, like we can with Jay Leno's car collection, which Jay Leno (America's buddy!) helpfully features on its own website, which I'm not going to link to because he doesn't need the help.

Something that just jumps right out at me, though, as I look around that website and think what kind of a jerk needs this many cars AND a website to show them off? -- something that jumps out at me besides the fact that it is a really awful kind of jerk who can't just collect cars but who has to also show them off-- what jumps out at me is the "Community" link. What community is Jay talking about, I wonder. The community of superwealthy losers who can't conceive of helping people and who instead have to show off how superwealthy they are? The community of people who would, if they could, engineer their cars to run on kitten kidneys simply because they can afford to do so?

It can't be our community, I think, can it? It can't possibly be a link to our community, the community of people who don't collect cars because to us a car is a major purchase, one that will probably be the second- or third-most expensive thing we'll buy in our life. So I click on it...

And it's not! I wasn't wrong. Jay isn't thinking about our community -- he's linking to ways you can tell him he's more awesome. You could, if you want, share a photo of your car. I thought about sending in a photo of "Bluey," the car we let the kids drive. It's a 1997 Ford Taurus with about 115,000 miles. It's been in the shop twice this year. It has no hubcaps and the license plate is held on by screws we got from my toolbox. The power locks have stopped working but in our house, we only repair those car parts that are necessary to keep it running -- which is why my Saturn Vue glove compartment is held closed by duct tape. I thought about sending in a picture of Bluey; I bet Jay has a car just like it.

In fact, I could even ask him. I could ask Jay a car-related question! and check back soon for his answers!

So I did; I submitted a question. Here's what I asked Jay, verbatim:

Jay, how can you justify owning all of these cars and wasting all of this money when there are people in the world who have to scrimp and save simply to get bus fare so they can get to work each day? Don't you think it would be better if you would donate all of these cars to a worthy charity, like the Rawhide Boys Ranch, which you can find at Sorry-- that was actually two questions. But I'll check back soon for your answer!

Let's keep tabs on what Jay says, okay?

It's hard to understand why Miley Cyrus needs a $75,000 car. It's hard to understand why Jerry Seinfeld needs 20 pampered Porches. It's hard to understand why Jay Leno needs God-only-knows how many cars. (According to the most recent report I found, it's 80 cars, 80 motorcycles, and a fire truck -- for "the kid in him," Jay Leno jokes.)(And isn't it great that Jay Leno has a funny little quip about how he owns a fire truck for the kid in him? Doesn't that show how compassionate Jay Leno is?) It's hard to understand why celebrities need these fleets of vehicles.

It's not hard, though, to understand why the Rawhide Boys Ranch needs cars, though. The Rawhide Boys Ranch is a ranch in central Wisconsin that serves as a residential care facility for troubled boys. It's been around for 40 years, and is supported by Bart Starr, among others. It gets in funds, in large part, through donations, and one of the donations suggested is cars and other motor vehicles; at the Ranch, they have the boys work on these cars and refurbish them, then the cars are sold to help provide funds for the Ranch.

The cars donated can be written off as a tax deduction, so in addition to getting a good feeling about helping others, you could actually save a little on your taxes by helping others. And only 16% of the funds Rawhide takes in are used for operating expenses; the remaining 84% goes to the programs.

Imagine, if you will, how well Rawhide could be doing if, say Miley Cyrus had bought just a $30,000 car, and donated $45,000 to Rawhide. Or if Jerry Seinfeld donated, say, 13 of his Pampered Porsches. Or if Jay Leno gave up all but seven of his classic cars and motorcycles. Would their lives be different in any meaningful way? Would they be suffering, driving a car that is only worth $30,000? Or having only one car per day of the week?

Imagine how much good could be done if Rawhide could sell off 153 cars and motorcycles, a fire truck, and 13 Porsches!

I guess we'll never know, though. Nor should we care, I guess. I guess we shouldn't care that there is a massive amount of money, money that could be helping people, instead being used to store cars in carpeted garages for childish billionaires (at least Miley has an excuse for being childish) who want us to laugh at them but who appear to be laughing at us. I guess we should care, because it's their money, right?

The Fix: There should be a tax credit for charitable donations, a credit that increases inversely compared to your income. That is, if you earn less than $100,000 gross income per year, charitable donations should earn you a $3 income tax credit for each $1 you donate. At $100,001-$500,000, it should be 2-1. From $500,000-$1,000,000, it should be 1-1, and then dropping correspondingly above that to a low of 1-4. At the same time, the marginal income tax rate should be increased to a high of at least 50%; estate taxes should be significantly increased, as well; estate taxes could be offset by a 2-1 credit for charitable contributions that the contributor chooses to make and defer -- that is, Jay Leno could make a $100,000 charitable contribution now, but opt to defer it to use it as a 2-1 credit against estate taxes instead of taking a reduced credit now.

What you can do until it's fixed: Refuse to buy any product created by or endorsed by a celebrity who spends money foolishly. You'll save a lot. And donate money or goods to the Rawhide Ranch for Boys; click this link to find out how.

The Trouble With Roy firmly believes that no adult should be allowed to earn more than $200,000 per year, that health care is a basic right that should not be denied anyone, that celebrities are grotesquely overpaid, and that America can do better.

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