Mrs. MacGregor, Paying My Taxes, and Greed Gone Mad

Helen MacGregor

Helen MacGregor, Wife of Rob Roy, in Conflict at the Pass of Loch Ard by Siegfried Detlev Bendixen.

Good_GovernanceEvery year during tax time, I find myself empathizing with a fearsome ancestress of mine, Helen Mary MacGregor (aka Mrs. Rob Roy MacGregor), for at least a moment. While the male head of the ancient Scottish clan was fiercely protective of his kin and an incorrigible and wily attacker of outsiders, his wife was simply terrifying, at least according to Sir Walter Scott’s account in Rob Roy. His story describes the fate of an English government agent sent to the Highlands in 1715 to deliver monies for the King’s soldiers attempting to subdue the locals. Unfortunately, after being robbed of his gold by Mr. MacGregor, he attempted to find a way to get it back and was captured by highlanders led by Mrs. MacGregor. The “Wife of MacGregor” (described by the fictional Rob Roy as “an incarnate devil when her bluid’s up”) had no sympathy for the man of a government trying to kill her husband and ruin her clan and country, and had the poor agent bound, weighted with a “large heavy stone in a plaid,” and thrown into a nearby loch.

Fortunately for government agents in this day and age, they have much more effective and far less dangerous ways of wringing money out of us.

And we all hate it. It seems horribly unfair that we should have to pay so much after working so hard. We worry that the money is misspent (and much of it is) or going to people who have learned how to “work the system” (and some of it is) or going towards projects that are either useless (the infamous Bridge to Nowhere) or that we don’t agree with (i.e., developing new weapons systems or protecting endangered newts).

It’s just hard to sit down every year and watch all that hard-earned money go right back out of your bank account. So there are millions of people who will try to help you keep as much of it as possible using all the tricks of the trade.

But lately some of those tricks have evolved into a whole new way of avoiding taxes and especially so for the already well off.

It turns out that (gasp!)  many wealthy individuals and companies doing business internationally have been hiding large sums of money (up to $100 billion in missing taxes according the U.N conference on trade and development) in offshore tax havens. One reporter observed that the tax havens which we all suspected are hiding massive amounts of money, really are hiding massive amounts of money!

And because most of us do try to pay our taxes in full and on time, this causes a feeling probably not all that dissimilar to French revolutionaries contemplating displacing the heads of the members of the court of Louis XVI from their bodies. Or Massachusetts residents disguised as Indians dumping boxes of tea into Boston Harbor. Or methods such as Mrs. MacGregor’s (the Highlanders were almost always poor) effective means of gaining and holding gold.

As the heads roll in the current Panama Papers crisis (fortunately metaphorically this time as various government officials have simply stepped down), the rest of us are left to contemplate the consequences of these revelations.The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists

One of the major points of contention has been that although these monies were hidden from tax authorities all over the world the people doing the hiding have not done actually done anything illegal. (Note that some countries do have different laws about taking money out of said country (i.e., China), however, and will probably be pursuing a different route. Also, a lot of the money may have been generated using illegal means such as the sale of stolen assets including a lot of fine art apparently.)

However, almost everyone agrees that although it may not be illegal to hide your money in such a way it is definitely immoral and especially so if you are a Third World president/prime minister who is stealing tons of wealth out of a country whose people are starving (especially poor hard-working women who do pay their taxes). And we are not much more sympathetic to those of more modest means but who still dwell in the Realm of the 1% living in wealthy countries but taking money away from developing ones.

Even for those of ordinary means, this is just wrong. Almost every country is currently reviewing their laws on off-shore wealth and I applaud them wholeheartedly. (We may in fact be entering a brave new era not unlike Norway which goes to the extreme of publishing everyone’s income publicly. Yes, everyone. You can check on your neighbors.) We’ve known for a while now that the 1% is growing in a ridiculous manner and the possibility that this growth might be even slightly slowed down deserves a big round of applause.

Women entrepreneurs at The Hunger Project-Uganda's Iganga epicenter in 2008 with their hand-crafted baskets.

Women entrepreneurs at The Hunger Project-Uganda’s Iganga epicenter in 2008 with their hand-crafted baskets.

A lot of people mistakenly believe that capitalism is fueled by greed but it’s not. Ensuring your family/clan’s financial future in a fair monetary system is not greed. Hoarding gobs of wealth far beyond what you actually need in a corrupt and opaque system that only protects the rich and powerful is greed gone mad. Greed is not good.

Rampant greed is also not going to help make a better world. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that as the stories of the Panama Papers are told over the coming years, and some of that wealth is recovered by tax and law enforcement authorities, that those authorities think to designate a portion to those who need it most, namely those at the bottom of the 99% who dutifully, legally, and painstakingly pay their taxes every year. I think Mrs. MacGregor would agree.

Now back to my regularly scheduled program of filing my own taxes….

Thanks for stopping by,

Heather McC

Sports vs. Violence

PeaceI started working on this post weeks ago and had a different opening focused on gun violence in the U.S. Then this happened: a Honduran soccer player who played a couple years ago for my favorite team, Glasgow Rangers, was shot dead on his way into a mall in La Ceiba to do some Christmas shopping.

It’s not clear whether or not the murder was premeditated but Arnold Peralta had stood up to the drug gangs that currently rule Honduras before, tweeting, “Our country is facing difficult times with so many criminals killing so much, as though killing is fashionable! These sorts of people don’t deserve to be alive.” Honduras-flag

(Honduras has one of the highest murder rates per capita in the world. In 2012, with a rate of 90.4 intentional homicides per 100,000 people, it was at the top of the list of 218 countries.)

Soccer itself comes with its share of violent behavior but rarely does this involve murder. More often, the beautiful game can be an outlet for the anger, fury, angst, and frustration that can show up in life and, for whatever reason, seems to especially in young men. A few years ago, a Rangers manager commented that if it hadn’t been for the team’s 140-year-old rivalry with crosstown rivals Celtic in the 1970’s and 1980’s that the city would have fared far worse in the violence wracking Glasgow at the time. The exercise of going to the game and cheering, singing, and sometimes, yes, bemoaning your favorite team’s exploits on the field, provided a release valve and tamped down the violence in the streets. There were still a lot of brawls but there wasn’t a war.

RFCThe Rangers Charity Foundation, despite some massive financial turmoil over the past few years in the parent club, has stuck with their partnership with Unicef which runs Soccer Aid, a program to promote sports the world over. So that’s why and who I’m giving to today. RIP Arnold Peralta. UnicefThanks for your contribution to the beautiful game and for your stand against the violence.

Here’s Peralta doing what he loved most:

Thanks, Mr. Peralta, for your fighting spirit both on and off the field.

Thanks for stopping by,

Heather McC

Bringing a Ray of Hope to the Girls of Afghanistan

Empowering WomenAlmost six months ago, I published my first novel, An Invisible Woman in Afghanistan. I began working on the book in June of 2001 just before 9/11 and finally published on June 1 of this year. An-Invisible-Woman-in-Afghanistan-thumbnail

A lot of people have asked why I chose Afghanistan. There are many and varied reasons but the main one has always been that Afghanistan at the time was (and still is) one of the toughest places to be a woman or girl. I needed to put my character in the country and find out if she could do anything at all to help the women there because this series, although fiction, was always meant to focus on international women’s rights issues. (And if you want to know what she does and how that works out, you’ll have to read the book!)

While doing the research for the book and discovering the many and truly horrific adversities Afghan women have faced, I also found that there are equally extraordinary, strong, and powerful Afghan women fighting hard every day to bring their country out of its recent Dark Ages and back into the light.

One such woman is Razia Jan, Razias-Ray-of-Hope-imagean Afghan-born American woman who was profoundly moved to do something, anything, after 9/11. She began by organizing her American community to send blankets to rescue workers at ground Zero, then care packages to soldiers in Afghanistan, and then shoes to Afghan children. And then she got on a plane and went there. Right into a war zone. She hadn’t been back in over 30 years.

Razia wasn’t sure at first what to do to help but eventually it became clear: help to ensure that the girls in her homeland had the same educational opportunities as the boys. She founded Razia’s Ray of Hope to fund the Zabuli Education Center for girls which opened in March of 2008. The school now has 440 students, is increasing this number every year, and Razia has set a new target – building the first  women’s college in rural Afghanistan. The Razia Jan Technical College is scheduled to open in March of 2015.

Empowering women and girls in a country that just a few years ago seemed committed to their complete and total dis-empowerment is no small task. But Razia Jan and the founders of this school (including the male elders of the community who she enrolled in the project and who now support it 100%) believe that the education of all the children of Afghanistan is key to bringing positive peaceful change to their country.

Girls across the world are going to school as never before. I can’t help but think that this “Girls’ Revolution” will have some very profound, positive, and peaceful effects as they grow into women leaders in Afghanistan and beyond.

Thanks for stopping by,

Heather McC

P.S. For more information on Razia’s Ray of Hope, you can also watch this short video trailer of the upcoming film documentary, WHAT TOMORROW BRINGS (3 min trailer) from Principle Pictures on Vimeo.

Maximizing Our Human Potential

EmploymentI’m back after taking an incredibly long break to move across the country as well as work on another project dear to my heart, my first novel, An Invisible Woman in Afghanistan which I am about to publish. (More on this soon!) I’m living near the New England seacoast, a place I lived many, many years ago and am very fond of.

I’ve missed this blog. It’s great to be writing again, trying to fit the pieces together and maybe even getting a glimpse of the larger puzzle. But this particular blog entry has also proven far more challenging to write and think about than any other I’ve done, maybe because it’s so close to home for so many of us. 

There have been a lot of people falling by the wayside in the world of work lately. Many “old” jobs are disappearing here in the U.S. and in Europe, war and natural disasters are taking their economic toll globally, and despite all our fancy new gadgets, we still have huge numbers of both unemployed and underemployed people across the planet.

And yet there are jobs. And there is a ton of work to do.

We need doctors and other healthcare professionals like never before. We desperately need every possible variety of engineer. We need teachers, professors, and other educators. We even need more lawyers in some places to represent the poor and disenfranchised.

However, there is an insidious underlying assumption among all this need, and that is that we should only have so many of certain types of worker. So many doctors, engineers, etc…

This is wrong. And with so much need, why do we cling to this outmoded belief? I’m not sure and I’m also not sure I want to look too closely at the “why’s” of this situation.

But I do know we can fix it. We just need to change our minds. That’s the tough part but we can do it. A lot of people thought we couldn’t go to the Moon and yet, there’s proof positive at the top of this page that that belief was unfounded.

If we’re going to do this, though, we need to provide more and smarter support for our work force, top to bottom. If a kid in inner-city Baltimore wants to be a doctor, then we should be giving him every bit of help that we can. And if a Nepalese girl wants to be a structural engineer, then it would be very smart of her government to support her however they can. Or a Honduran day laborer wants to be a lawyer in his country, that country would do well to support his dreams.

Wounded_Warrior_ProjectFor whatever reason, the military often seems to be on the cutting edge of trying new things.  In the U.S, we have a huge number of veterans returning home, many without much prospect of a solid job once they leave the service. Many of these people have ended up on the streets of our towns and cities over the last few decades battling terrible mental and physical illness, as well as enduring the cruel scorn, disgust, and neglect of a civilian population that should know better.  The U.S. Veterans Administration, although incredibly efficient in some ways, has in many others, fallen down.

So the vets decided to fix it themselves.

One such organization among many large and small, publicly funded and private, is the Wounded Warrior Project. Among the services they provide are extensive resources and even financial aid to help veterans who want to further their education do so.

As a country and as a world, we need to be doing far more to train and educate our population, and that means everyone, most especially the ones we might be prejudiced to believe are “irredeemable.” There is absolutely no reason why we can’t do this. We went to the moon, right?

Thanks for stopping by,

Heather McC

The Internet and Monoculture

Internet Access

As access to the internet rapidly spreads across the planet (Cuba just added its first high-speed connection; even the remotest islands want in – with one notable exception mentioned below; and even the deepest regions of the Brazilian Amazon are getting hooked up), one obvious side-effect is access to cultures and social norms which differ from your own.

American and Western culture have long been dominant in this arena with the good, the bad, and well, rock n’ roll, distributed globally courtesy of a powerful mass media machine, intent on driving sales in markets, whether emerged, emerging, or submerged.

This has been a mixed blessing for aforesaid markets. Democracy, jazz and the blues, personal computers? Pretty good all round. McDonald’s, Grand Theft Auto, and reality TV? Hmm.

There are a lot of people on both sides of this equation who are more than a little uncomfortable with these cultural exports. (See China’s Great Firewall, Nigeria’s Boko Haram, and the entire country of North Korea.)

(Then there is North Sentinel Island in the Indian Ocean whose inhabitants have just decided that, nope, sorry, we’re not having anything to do with you. Period. End of discussion. And any more attempt at discussion will result in lots and lots of arrows fired at your helicopters, boats, etc….)

But the connections continue nonetheless and what is actually happening is not the feared monoculturization of the planet. Yes, there are definitely some not-so-great examples out there. But there is also a burgeoning mixture of culture that is producing some remarkable, for lack of a better word, “super-culture” where two cultures mix and produce something completely different:

  • Music, as the universal language, is at the edge of this wave, and this is nowhere more apparent in the blockbuster Youtube hit, Gangnam Style which although borrowing from Western tropes, has a definitely Korean stamp; a few other interesting and less well-known  include heavy metal in Baghdad; Mongolian rap music; and a young South African falling in love with Italian opera;
  • Languages are being preserved as well but changed, and even taken up by people not originally of the culture; and the English language is adding words at an unprecedented rate including many borrowed from other languages. (Whenever someone in the U.S. complains about immigrants not speaking English, I always want to ask what the English words are for “taco,” “sushi,” and “falafel.”)
  • Manga comics, Bollywood, African smart phone apps, and Carnival in Rio, and I’m sure you can name even more examples — all are contributing to a vibrant myriad of changing and mixing cultures that shows every sign of further diversifying, fusing, and then changing again. And definitely not slowing down even despite some massive and occasionally effective efforts to control the process. (See Ai Weiwei.)

So I’m not worried about one dominant monoculture — it seems we’re all smarter and more creative than that. And I’m looking forward to whatever cultural fusion I could never have imagined will show up next. Which reminds me I have to go try to track down that Swedish/African fusion band I heard recently….

Thanks for stopping by,

Heather McC

PS. This is not to say that we aren’t losing some cultures, traditions, and languages. This has always happened and will continue. (Some of those traditions, such as slavery, can’t be discarded fast enough.) But we have also never been so capable of “saving” some elements of these disappearing cultures by using modern technology and there are hundreds of anthropologists involved in exactly that.