Showing posts with label taxes. Show all posts
Showing posts with label taxes. Show all posts

Saturday, January 12, 2013

My Scoop: "Turkey 2000-2010: A Decade of Transition - Discussion Among Experts"

Sena Eken, PhD
describing macroeconomic changes to
Turkey's economy
Today at the Professional American Women in Istanbul (PAWI) luncheon, the North American ladies were the very first people in Turkey to get a personal presentation from Turkish economist Dr. Sena Eken describing the recent decade in Turkish history that is widely viewed as transformative.

Dr. Eken partnered with Susan Schadler to create three one-day workshops in Istanbul, Brussels, and Washington D.C. which brought together 15 experts at each workshop from the fields of macroeconomics, international finance and business, plus social and education policy to describe, debate, and finally document exactly what Turkey has gone through during that decade. Their main focus was to look at issues that had economic impact on the Turkish economy and ask "what old problems were addressed? Which weren't?"

Dr. Sena Eken
Sena Eken, a graduate of Uskadar American Academy, Robert College, University of Essex in the UK, with a final PhD from the University of Pittsburgh, is currently an independent consultant. Her professional experience includes senior positions at the International Monetary Fund and as an advisor to the Governor of the Central Bank of Turkey. Susan Schadler, her partner on this project, was unable to be at the presentation. She is the former Deputy Director of the IMF's European Department. The study was done under the auspices of the Foreign Economic Relations Board with outside corporate funding.

I've tried to transcribe her language as closely as I can so the following should all be considered direct quotes:

Macroeconomic Overview:

The macroeconomic policy overview highlighted the stability brought about by significant financial reform. The significant achievement of the era was the taming of inflation from 100% to single digits which stabilized the exchange rate. Government debt was halved. Experts felt that the growth actually was not as high as it could have been. Turkey grew at a 4.2% rate from 2000-2010, up from 4.0% the previous decade; still, other developing countries were achieving 6% growth at the same time.

What led to the perception of high growth was a 7% growth rate from the years of 2002-2007. The lira was stronger, so people could buy more imported goods. Also, the growth was more inclusive and spread among more people.

Turks have not suffered a lost decade, post-2008 crisis, because there was all kinds of policy flexibility due to the significant reforms that had taken place before. New vulnerabilities exist: the current account rate is high, the savings rate is declining (with most savings decline happening in poorer households). This is a problem because countries where the savings rate is high continue to achieve growth because small and medium firms are more likely to get access to financing to expand.

One of the things that also has helped Turkey bounce back post-crisis is that it doesn't have many of the opaque financing instruments that brought so much trouble to other countries.

Labor overview:

Only 40% of the people eligible for work in Turkey (defined as those over 15) are currently working.

While other countries around the world were increasing in income inequality, Turkey's income inequality was lessening. Surprisingly, this didn't change Turkey's place in the overall income inequality standings.

While literacy rates have improved, education during this decade focused on nation building. It did not focus on increasing critical thinking skills.

Experts felt the social goals of the government were not as well known and defined as the fiscal and monetary policy goals during this era.

More inclusion increased in three areas: less poverty, more education, and more social and religious expression.

Key fault lines in education that remain are quality, the continued focus on memorization and nation building rather than critical thinking (a long-standing problem), politicization of education, and equity.

The current government continued the economic reforms that were occuring before they took power, but what they have proved is that open expressions of Islam can operate in a liberal market economy. Capitalism is changing the face of Islam in Turkey though, with more emphasis on frugality and hard work.

Fault lines in the labor market continue to be 1) lack of inclusion of women, 2) lack of inclusion of ethnic minorities, and 3) lack of focus on creativity.

Globalization overview:

There was a major diversification of export markets during this time.

The EU process speeded reforms, although it stopped in 2006. Right now, things are at a standstill. It can be restarted.

Two last facts:

70% of taxes come from indirect taxes such as value-added sales taxes, which proportionately hit the poor and middle class harder.

17% of the population is considered poor. (Eken, 12/01/2013)

My conclusion after listening to Dr. Eken:

It was fun and exciting to get to hear Dr. Eken's presentation first on Turkey's decade of transformation. There is a written report available that goes with her presentation. She is beginning a week of presentations to groups around Turkey with technicality varying depending on the audience. I would urge anyone interested in a greater understanding of Turkey's economy to find one and attend. She said what she most enjoyed about the process was hearing new perspectives beyond the narrow economic perspective.

I listened to her macroeconomic overview with a bit of awe for Turkey's macroeconomic achievements. Everything she described seemed like a system that worked for the people, not just the elites: inclusive growth, lowered inflation, rigorous reform, and halving the debt! WOW. My Turkish friends have boundless pride in this rigorous financial sector reform that occured at the start of the decade, as well they should. I do not see the political will to do it in my home country.

What I most admired in Dr. Eken's presentation was that she articulated problems in Turkey that are particularly obvious to Americans: the education system focusing on nation-building rather than critical thinking, and the lack of inclusion of ethnic minorities into the economy. Once problems are defined, they are easier to solve.

When you look at the low rate of labor participation, the fact that people haven't yet unleashed their full potential economic power through education focused on drawing out their creativity, and that ethnic minorities have much more economic ability to contribute than they currently are, Turkey seems like it has an incredible upside.

Dr. Eken is precisely the kind of woman from an Islamic country that does not show up on American television screens: elegant, learned, worldly and an expert. Next time an American news organization needs someone as an expert on the Turkish economy, it would be nice to see this sophisticated woman explaining to people, as she did to us, Turkey's accomplishments and opportunities for improvement.

Printed text shared at the meeting that was also the basis for this talk:

Sena Eken and Susan Schadler Turkey 2000-2010: A Decade of Transition Discussion Among Experts Turkey: DEIK Publications, 2012.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

What's there to do in Wichita, Kansas? Why not see breathtaking art?

No matter where I go in the world, I swear I could find the most interesting things to do in any given town. Wichita, Kansas was no exception. In fact, there were so many interesting things to do around Wichita, I couldn't fit them all in.

Walt and Mary, my couchsurfing hosts in Columbia, Missouri, had recommended two attractions nearby in Mary's hometown, of Hutchinson, Kansas.

I didn't get around to seeing: the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center or the Kansas Underground Salt Museum. Why, you'd have to go all the way to Poland or Austria to see something similar to this salt mine! I didn't get it done. Next time.

I ask you, however, what is something really wonderful in your neighborhood you haven't yet experienced? The problem isn't finding interesting things to do - it's actually doing them! What are you waiting for? Go see it! There may never be a next time.
I am mesmerized with this Modernist view
from the main lobby in the Wichita Art Museum.
These pictures make me giddy!
One of the fun things my friend from Prague, Gulnara, and I did while I was visiting her in Wichita was go see the Wichita Art Museum. I love the surprise of finding this modernist museum in the middle of the prairie.

I was enthralled to find two fantastic exhibits there: the Harmon and Harriet Kelley Collection of African-American Art and another exhibit called "Visions of Mexican Art."
Surprise matters.
a Dale Chihuly glass sculpture
in the main lobby or entrance foyer
has become an American art museum cliché.

I say that respectfully, because I recognize
the energy, power, and majesty of his pieces.

Please surprise me, curators.
Is there a new way his works could be exhibited?
From the visions of Mexico exhibit:
a new representation of Chac Mool,
the ancient Mayan God.
Another artist's homage to Frida Kahlo.
Love her!
These paintings were from Mexico's innovative art-for-taxes program that allowed Mexican artists to pay their taxes with their creative output.

The African-American collection represented works from three centuries. I love African-American art and music, especially jazz. Two of my favorite American artists are Romare Bearden and Jean Michel-Basquiat. Romare Bearden is represented in the collection, yet there were many drop-dead gorgeous works new to me. How proud these collectors must be to have assembled this collection of extraordinary works on paper. Thank you for sharing it, Dr. and Mrs. Kelley.
Sharecropper, 1952
by Elizabeth Catlett
"Jitterbugs III," ca. 1941-42
by William Henry Johnson
"Dance Composition, #35," 1981
by Eldzier Cortor
"Anyone's Date," 1940
by Ernest T. Crichlow
"Thistle," 1966
by Walter Williams
an expatriate artist who lived in Denmark
during the 1960's.

You can see the Scandinavian influence
in the background, yes?
"Boogie Woogie"
by Charles Louis Sallee, Jr.

I loved the energy communicated
in just these few simple lines.
"Street Car Scene," 1945
by John Woodrow Wilson

What do you suppose he's thinking?
"The Carpenters," 1977
by Jacob Lawrence

Do you know any carpenters?
Lawrence completely captured
their stance, their energy, &
the dignity of their work.
I love this piece.

What I deeply appreciated about the Wichita Art Museum's mounting of these two shows is their highlighting of the best of the America's minority populations (here assuming that Mexican culture carries over into America).

All over the world, institutions are in crisis for breaking their social contracts with their publics, but I've noticed museums have really stepped up to help their citizens cope with change, prepare for change, and accept change.

In Wichita, it was these very visible celebrations of two ethnic groups that will make up a larger segment of American life in the future.

In Prague, I saw the City Museum of Prague put on a terrific exhibit explaining Vietnamese culture to the Czech population, because Czechs have a hard time relating to their new Asian immigrants.

In Istanbul, the Istanbul Modern Art Museum mounted a show celebrating all of the Armenian-designed buildings in Istanbul, generating recognition for Armenian contributions to the beautiful city people experience today.

I admire the work of these museums. Our globe thirsts for this level of strategic engagement. Acceptance of "the other" can't happen fast enough. These institutions, probably operating with very small budgets, are engaging their publics beyond the museum's artistic mission, to an even larger mission of cross-cultural understanding. Bravo!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

A Birthday Hike in the Belgrad Forest

 The entrance to the
Belgrad Forest
Back in Istanbul, after a week in France, I was excited to see that a Turkish friend was organizing a hike in the Belgrad Forest.  It was scheduled to be on my birthday.  As nature can often seem far, far away in Istanbul, I loved the idea of spending my birthday meeting new people by going on a hike.

Aren't you grateful for friends that take the time to organize things? They always deserve a little extra appreciation, don't they? Yasemin, my Turkish friend who put this together, hadn't hiked here before, but she did all the work of finding out what bus to take, where it leaves from, how often it leaves, etc. When someone has done all of that work, it makes it so easy for the rest of us to go out and discover new places and opportunities, doesn't it? If you're one of those people who are always connecting others by organizing events, thank you!

To give you an idea of what a commitment it is to get to an event in Istanbul, I took a bus to Taksim Square (50 minutes), and then got on the 42T bus to go to the Belgrad Forest (another 50 minutes).  That second bus has a route all along the Bosporus, so it often seems like I'm getting a sightseeing tour at a municipal bus price! The scenery was fantastic, and since another hiker from France and I guessed we were each going to the same hike and started talking, so was the company.  The 50 minutes flew by. We got to the end of the line of the 42T and there was the forest!  After paying a 2.25 TL entrance fee ($1.27) we were in.
 It's not every forest
that has a cafe
with checkered tablecloths
 Or horses and bicycles to rent
Paths were wide enough
for all kinds of traffic:
foot, hoof, or wheeled
 Yasemin, our organizer,
is the tall woman in green
in the middle.
Fun folks I met:
Jackie, a fashion designer from Ireland
and Ibrahim, an importer/exporter from Turkey
Beautiful, isn't it?
We were surprised the park was so deserted.
It was the middle of Ramadan though.
Anyone fasting couldn't even
take so much as a drop of water.
Not good conditions for locals to go hiking.
Another view of the beautiful lake
in the middle of the park.
The forest paths were so beautifully maintained
it was as if we were the first people to use them.
It turns out we were.
We came across a maintenance crew laying down
rubber backing (like under carpet)
and then covering it with this natural material.
If you are a runner,
this would be a very healthy place to run.
The path was springy and easy on the joints. 
 The majority of our group
headed back to Istanbul.
I finished our hike around the lake
with Misty and Kristin,
two fun American women
I was meeting
for the first time.
A last calming view of natural beauty.
What a terrific resource this forest
is for the urban dwellers of Istanbul!
The view as the municipal bus starts back to Istanbul.
 This is an Ottoman-era grove of trees. 
In France and in Turkey, I kept coming across these
magnificent tree groves planted under
authoritarianism forms of government.
I kept wondering if democracies
could create such gorgeous groves
for future generations.
  Are there any where you live?
Planting groves like this
requires a long-term view,
doesn't it?
 In my country,
people often don't seem to want to invest tax money
for those living alongside them,
let alone those who aren't even born yet.
On the bus back,
Kirstin and Misty talked up Mehmet's,
their favorite kebabci in the
Istanbul neighborhood of Ortaköy
with such gastronomic fervor
I had to try it for myself, no?
We ate fabulous Turkish comfort food
(mine was chicken shish kebab).
They introduced me to "ezme,"
which they described as a Turkish version of salsa.
On the hike,
these two hip, happening, can-do women
mentioned that they were organizing
a trip to Bulgaria...

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Hanging out the with Expat Harem at the Istanbul Simulcast of the TEDGlobal 2011 Conference

 Me with fellow expats
Catherine Bayar and Anastasia Ashman

This week I attended the Istanbul simulcast of the TEDGlobal conference live from Edinburgh, Scotland. If you're not familiar with TED, I can't recommend it enough. The original organizational idea behind TED was to bring together innovative thinkers to share ideas worth spreading from three worlds: technology, entertainment, and design. There is a yearly TEDGlobal conference, offshoots like TED Women, and local versions organized by locals held globally called TEDx. Every year, one exceptional individual is chosen and awarded $100,000 to make happen "one wish to change the world."

Our simulcast was held in a beautiful facility, complete with a gigantic screen, provided by Turkcel, a local Turkish telecom. The day's events were a wonderful opportunity to meet up with American expats living in Istanbul whose work I have long admired: Anastasia Ashman, internationally bestselling author of The Expat Harem, and Catherine Bayar, a former product line designer for Nike and Adidas, who is currently deeply involved in Turkish handicrafts, especially those made by Turkish women.

Anastasia was profiled just this week in the Istanbul Daily Newspaper, Today's Zaman. She always has some project going.  During our short break for lunch, we headed down the street to the Istanbul Culinary Institute where the students of the Institute test out their cooking creations on the public. While dining over grilled octopus, she told us about the current book she's writing, a forensic memoir.  Sounds intriguing. You can watch her blog for details.

I was especially interested in comparing notes with Catherine about her old blog, Tales from Turkey, on the Google blogspot domain.  I say, old blog, because like mine, her blog was censored by the Republic of Turkey. Since the censorship went on for what seemed like months, Catherine moved her blog to Wordpress, named it Bazaar Bayar, and she is presenting some of the most exquisite photography of Turkish handwork on her site for you to enjoy. The work featured really is breathtaking and it helps local women.

I could tell you all about the talks I heard and how intellectually stimulating it was but I can't do that better than another fabulous blogger whose work I love: Bulgarian Maria Popova. Maria has built a mammoth following with her Brainpickings Blog, and here is her rundown of Day #2 of TED Global, the day of talks I heard through the simulcast.

If I had one criticism of the conference, each presenter could have enhanced their talk by deciding what it is they wanted us to do with the information. What is their "call to action" for the listener? Even if a scientist is sharing her exciting news that she has been able to double the life of an organism, why not tell us who the funding body is and ask us to support continued scientific research? I bet people would be able to see the value of increasing taxes if they knew it helped support research that could double the length of life of living organisms!

You can access all of these talks through the TEDGlobal website as they are loaded. I thought the presenter who did the best job of sharing an idea (and frankly, scaring the heck out of me) was a young scientist from Tasmania named Elizabeth Murchison who is working to prevent the Tasmanian Devil from being the first species on the planet to become extinct through contagious cancer.

The moment that touched me the deepest was Cambodian anti-torture activist Karen Tse, who broke down why torture happens in over 90 countries.  It's not just what we all assume (the presence of evil), and when you hear her talk, torture all of a sudden seems very solvable.

The moment that made me most proud was when the Chinese founder of the "China Lab" and the "India Lab" at MIT, Yasheng Huang, was explaining why China was the Michael Jordan of economic development and India, as a nation, was not quite to superstar quality like China and Michael Jordan.  India, as a nation, was still amazing in terms of economic development, though, because they were still able to "make the NBA" (metaphorically speaking).

"It comes down to literacy. Literacy in China is defined as being able to read 1500 Chinese characters.  Literacy in India is defined as being able to write your own name in whatever language you speak." If you compare the literacy rates of China and India (mid 60s% vs mid 30s%), especially of Chinese women compared to Indian women, it makes the difference."

Literacy rates helped bring about twenty years of double digit growth for a billion people. I am so, so, SO proud of being a librarian. Here then, is my call to action.  Wherever you may live, I'd like to ask you  if your nation is helping school and public librarians help citizens achieve literacy and economic growth? Please support the work of your local libraries and librarians with enthusiasm.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Visiting Sweden: If This is Socialism, Sign Me Up!

Sweden wowed me when I visited for one week last November.  I was stunned by the general prosperıty of the population, and to be honest, I didn't quite understand it.  For example, I spent time in Örebro, the 7th largest city in Sweden.  It's the same size as a city I lived in America whose downtown had been hollowed out and decimated by the move of manufacturing from America to China. Why hasn't Sweden had the same trouble competing?

In Örebro, every downtown shop was rented and many were selling magnificent fashion. There was one fashion boutique after another.  Imagine the best brands: Hugo Boss, Ralph Lauren, Burberry, etc. all being on offer in the downtown of an American manufacturing town.  I can't. I could only assume the wealth hadn't 'trickled up' enough to move out-of-town.
 Surely I would find poverty in the public library.
Where are the homeless people
trying to stay warm?
 They weren't sitting in the cafe
all day either
Wait...nope just a sculpture.
I went into the public library of Örebro to count how many homeless people I could see.  If it matched a downtown library of an American manufacturing city on an equally frosty day, I would estimate in advance, that there would be about 20 homeless people.  I couldn't find one. NOT ONE! I went through every nook and cranny of that library too from the top floor to the basement.

I couldn't take my eyes off of Swedish old people over the age of 70.  I wish I had thought to take pictures.  Swedish old people are aging beautifully.  I saw person after person looking 10 to 15 years younger than their actual age. The Swedish universal health care system meant that the entire population was better cared for their whole life and they must have had the faces and bodies and teeth and health they deserved.  Not only did the old folks look great they were dressed fashionably in stylish clothes.  As I was chatting up one older gentleman in Sweden who told me he was seventy, he said with a mischievous twinkle "yes, but if I start speaking French, I'm a mere 60!"

Human beings aren't the only part of Sweden that looks great.  So does the land.  In Turkey, every ounce of topsoil and all the trees are gone from my neck of the woods - quite understandable given 8,000 years of continuous civilization.  In Sweden, the forests went on for miles and miles and the air and water were very clean.  Swedes say they are very lucky because they didn't pay the price other European countries did during WWII, but they aren't giving themselves enough credit for being incredible stewards of the environment.

When I would compliment Swedes on their nation, I would hear "oh, but we have terrible problems with income inequality [the link shows they really don't, at least compared to everyone else, Swedes must be comparing internally]. Plus, it gets dark too early in the day and it is cold." Now would a statement like that about income inequality come out of an American's mouth? I don't think we would even think such a thought.  Yet, our nation has more income equality than at any time since 1928.

I didn't actually get to see this but a friend in Stockholm told me there was an extensive series of tunnels underneath the City of Stockholm so that no neighborhood had to have a multi-lane highway going through it.  Just the idea of being willing to spend tax money on underground highways so as to not impose that on anyone (in America, above-ground multi-lane highways would get imposed on poor neighborhoods) stunned me.

Visiting Sweden I couldn't help but think of American intellectual Cornell West. He has a phrase for our current American experience: "we have become well-adjusted to injustice." If Sweden represents the socialism that is so often derided back home in America, sign me up!

Related posts:

A Week in Sweden

There is No Need to Save Face in Sweden

Daydreaming at Stockholm City Hall

Visiting the Nobel Museum

The Swedish Tourist Attraction that Didn't Attract Me

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The United States Government Saved My Life

I moved to Prague in November of 2008. It was the day after the Presidential election so I left full of hope and excitement for my country's future. The preceding month, however, with the credit crisis and the bank bailouts pretty much drove American belief in the fairness of our system out the window. It would have been so, so easy to give up in cynicism. I was grateful to be in Prague where I would be avoiding the continual depressing drumbeat of economic calamity in American news.

When I came to Prague, I discovered Czechs had their own cynicism about democratic politics. I'm not talking about before 1989, but after. Immediately after the Velvet Revolution, Czechs felt all of the assets of the country were stripped away in a big "grab" by politicians and carpetbaggers.

I don't want to be cynical. It's not my nature and cynicism never advanced the cause of humanity. So as I made my transition to living in a new country, I vowed to celebrate one wonderful thing about my government and the Czech government so that I could keep cynicism at bay. In my next post, I'll talk about one wonderful thing I admire about Czech government, even though there are actually many things (just as there are for America). Today, I'd like to celebrate my own government's actions. It actually ended up saving my life.

A typical sign
that conveys how socially unacceptable
smoking is in America.

I am grateful to the United States government for providing leadership in my country on the elimination of smoking as a socially acceptable practice. This wasn't a grass-roots movement from the people pushing up but a top-down campaign from the Surgeon General of the United States (our top public health official) to the people.

In 1964, the Surgeon General declared that "smoking causes cancer." That took real courage to say back then because 46% of American smoked. They smoked in cars, elevators, planes, offices, and their homes. The 1964 report was issued on a Saturday, so great were the worries about what it would do to the American stock market.

The news that smoking causes cancer finally sank into my brain in 1991 when I was 31 years old. Up until that point, I smoked more than I care to admit (okay, I'll admit it: 3-4 packs a day).

When I came to Prague, I had never seen so many smokers! Not even when I was 17 years old and thought smoking was cool. Just walking down one of Prague's very lovely streets, one has to be careful not to get a cigarette burn in one's coat because people are actively walking and smoking at the same time! I once talked to a young Czech college student who was smoking and he was astonished by the idea that anyone would want to quit. "It relaxes me." I don't even think he knew it could kill him. And it's not just Czech young people who smoke.

Most educated people in the USA have educated themselves about the danger.  In America, the majority of smokers left have less than a high school education. I've entered salons frequented by Prague intelligentsia where nearly 100% of the people had a PhD. But they are uneducated about the dangers of tobacco. The air was so thick with smoke you could see it move!

I  was mystified by how unlikely it would be that my country led on this and the Czech Republic lagged on this. After all, in a socialist health care system, wouldn't the government want to eliminate preventable chronic disease because it would eliminate expense? Wouldn't Czech people resent their neighbor's smoking if that drove up national health care costs and their taxes? Isn't it in a socialist government's fiscal interest to change this smoking culture?

Maybe the taxes raised on cigarettes more than cover the cost of the increased disease and people who smoke are used for financing public budgets. I don't know. I will occasionally razz, with a joking smile, my smoking friends who are huddled outside for warmth where they've been banished nationwide in America: "hey taxpayer, thanks for paying more than your fair share through your smoking. You make it easier on the rest of us. But you don't have to kill yourself in the process - why not just mail in the money if you're so insistent on paying these extra taxes?" One of my young coworker has taken to calling his smoking breaks "paying everybody's taxes."

Why did my country lead on curtailing smoking culture when we had a giant tobacco industry that was hugely powerful, created tons of jobs, and lots of export income? The government continually, over and over again, did the right thing despite all that. We have all kinds of industries back home that sway the government from doing the exact thing in the best interest of the public as a whole. I would love to understand why the American government was so terrific on this issue when the government didn't even bear the health care costs of increased smoking, insurance companies did. What do you think, Americans? How could this sort of extraordinary leadership on an issue be reproduced? We sure could use an awful lot more of it.

I am so grateful to the Surgeon Generals of the United States for saving my life. Thank you for continually reminding the public that we were killing ourselves. And since all movements have a drum leader, I would like to take a moment to honor the individual human beings who have led this movement in my country. Thank you!

American Surgeon Generals from that period onward:

Leroy Edgar Burney (first federal official to state that smoking causes lung cancer)
Luther L. Terry (commissioned landmark 1964 report on smoking)
William H. Stewart
Jesse L. Steinfeld
Julius B. Richmond
C. Everett Koop (led a campaign to create a smoke-free society by 2000)
Antonio Novello
M. Jocelyn Elders
David Satcher
Richard H. Carmona
Regina M. Benjamin

See, it's not so hard to keep cynicism at bay! Next post I will talk about what I most admire about the Czech government:

How Czech Government Delighted Me As a Consumer

Saturday, May 23, 2009

My First Taste of Czech Village Life

The waffles are cooking!
In early Spring, my friends Jana and David invited our TEFL class out to see their home in a village outside of Prague. Little did we know our class was soon to scatter to the winds due to our visa problems! We're now in the States of Oregon and Wisconsin in the USA, Croatia, and Istanbul, Turkey. What a wonderful day we had though. It was the first time I had ever visited a Czech village, heard about buying a home in the Czech Republic, learned about how Czech taxes work (it's so interesting!!!), and just generally hung out to a non-city Czech vibe.

Jana and David had bought their home and remodeled it to take advantage of a fantastic pastoral view of the valley outside their kitchen. The original walls of their home are so thick! I admired how strategic they were to purchase right on the railway line. Gas prices may be cheaper today but it won't always be so. Jana and David have their own well water, pay a minimal price for garbage pickup (like 500 crowns or $25 a year), and also have minimal property taxes.

The idea of minimal property taxes was a new one for me. Here's what I love about it. The Czech government instead has a consumption tax of 20%. I know, if you're in America and you hear 20% sales tax, your hair stands on end. But the delightful thing is, I never notice paying it! It's included in the price of everything and since everything is cheap it's not a big deal. And isn't that futuristic and capitalistic to tax people on what they consume? Not their creativity in what they earn?

Home Sweet Home
with a
beautiful and typical Czech tile roof

Here's three HUGE advantages of the Czech way of doing things as far as I can see: when property taxes aren't so high, people don't feel compelled to sell their home immediately just because the kids grew up and moved away. Indeed, these village homes are often lived in for life and passed on to the next generation. Now how carefully do you think people are going to take care of a home if it's going to last their whole life and part of their children's? Czech tile roofs are expensive but they frequently last for 80 years.

Wouldn't minimal property taxes attract tons of foreign investment to the Czech Republic? Tell me if I'm not understanding something here. If you knew you could buy property in the Czech Republic and wouldn't have to pay $4000-5000 or more in yearly property taxes for a detached home, but you would have to do so in America, where would you buy a home if location wasn't the issue? An apartment building? An office building?

The third advantage of consumption taxes that I can see is that the money goes in one big pot and is distributed EVENLY for education. The quality of your schools doesn't depend on whether or not you're parents can afford to live in a great school district. I find that admirable. Isn't that a children-centric way of doing things? What do you think, gentle readers?

Enjoy our beautiful brunch and then we're off to catch a train for our afternoon road trip -- wait, it's not a road trip, -- it's a TRACK trip!

Is it just me,
or does Czech glass rock?
I loved this chandelier!
The original wall to the house
before David and Jana
added on - it's so thick
The view from the new kitchen window
Jana and David
Three gal pals:
Gulnara, me, and Anna

Justin knows how to entertain little girls.

Two ladies who don't need tiaras
to claim princess status
Jana shares her art work with us
Racing to catch the train that comes every half hour.
Yes, America, you read that right.
And no, the Czechs have no idea what outstanding service that is.
They take it completely for granted.

If you're Czech and reading this, I used to live in an
American city of 150,000 who would have loved train service
to Chicago (around 3 million people) - no train yet.

There are probably less than 1,000 people in this village
and the residents can walk to the train station
which comes right through their town.
Czech train infrastructure is INCREDIBLE.
Cost to Prague and back -
less than $2
for a half-hour ride each way.

You might also enjoy the rest of the adventure:

July 7, 2012
A postscript to this post:

The producers of the TV show House Hunters International were looking for an expat family to be featured in their show about Prague housing. As I had lived in a mere apartment, I thought "who do I know in Prague that has TV charisma. They should get this opportunity. David and Jana! The two of them are sooo funny and say the kind of things that have you silently giggling -  they are complete and total hams. I thought they'd be perfect." I asked David and Jana if I could forward this post to the producers and they said yes. Voila! It's now a TV show with over 9,000 hits on YouTube. Who knows how many people watched it on TV. 

House Hunters International, Country Houses Outside of Prague - Part 1

House Hunters International, Country Houses Outside of Prague - Part 2

The third episode is blocked. Jana and David probably would not recommend going through this process to another couple. They felt it was contrived as the show needs to set up he wants/she wants scenarios for dramatic tension. It also is contrived because in David and Jana's house, they themselves did the remodeling. It's a good reminder not to believe everything you see on TV.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

"You Americans Are Obsessed With Communism"

"You Americans are obsessed with Communism!" one of my students said in exasperation. I giggled. I can't even remember what we were talking about that brought out her observation but I giggled because I knew it was true.

"We can't help it!" I said. "Our parent's generation and our generation's tax dollars went to fighting it. For years we heard how awful it was. When Mikhail Gorbachev ended the Cold War, it was like we could breathe a giant sigh of relief and could then spend all that money on something else."

"So then you went to Iraq!" she said with a laugh.

"Touche." I couldn't stop giggling cause I knew that was true too.

But she made me think about why we're obsessed with learning about Communism when we come here. An awful lot of my generation "fought communism" in Vietnam and I knew what it cost them.

I realized another reason we're obsessed: we want to see if everything our government told us about how awful communism was as a system was really true.

I'm happy to report my government didn't lie to me. It's much worse than they said. Here's what I didn't realize about communism until I got here - under communism, it's not just the government being mean to people, but the government forcing people to be mean to each other. You should hear the stories. They're awful.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Teaching English to Koreans

School District Revenue Alert: Koreans are so hungry to learn English and compete personally in their marketplace, which is competing with our marketplace, that they are sending their children overseas to learn English in a native-speaking setting.

According to the New York Times (link to the story via the title), usually Mom and child go overseas by themselves, leading to the term "penguin fathers" to describe the Dads left at home. "Eagle fathers" get to fly over a couple of times a year to see their families.

What an unconventional source of revenue and culture infusion this could be for American school districts! Imagine a school district with declining enrollment slipping a Korean student or two paying cash for their education into each classroom. School districts could avoid raising taxes. Wouldn't all members of the American education establishment get more respect when the locals see how highly valued their product is by the world? This practice would even help the balance of trade. Civic entrepreneurship! I love it.

Since Koreans consistently score at the top of the globe's measures of academic performance, bringing in a family so motivated that they travel half way around the world to learn can only be a good influence on fellow American students. Telling Americans they are falling behind isn't changing behavior. They are not yet shutting off the television or putting down the video game. Showing them, in their own classrooms, could possibly do so.

Since the Korean moms are prevented from working due to visa restrictions, here is a source of parental classroom support a teacher could rely on steadily. Tiny rural American school districts could expose their children to the diversity that often makes their learning environments too sheltered for the kid's own good.

According to this article in the New York Times, Koreans are so clamoring to learn English that the prime minister has promised to hire 10,000 English teachers immediately so that families can live together in the home country. TEFL certification, while appreciated, isn't required to teach in Korea. That's how hungry they are for native speakers. What Koreans could teach the world is how to foster an atmosphere that reveres education that much.

I've thought a lot about whether or not to go to South Korea or the Czech Republic to teach. In researching various possibilities, I've gained great respect for what the South Koreans have accomplished with their country in one generation. I keep coming back to my love of Czech culture, as I know it so far, and my trust that the Lord will provide.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

American attitudes about taxes

Reading about European taxes makes me think a lot more about my own. People complain that my community in Illinois is a high-tax environment but I wish more people would do a cost/benefit analysis of what they get for their money. I find it’s always an INCREDIBLE value.

For example, the airport here charges me approximately $130 a year for tax support. Every-time the three of us fly to Denver directly from my airport, I save $30 each bus fare to O’Hare International Airport in Chicago. Our 3-4 hours involved riding the bus is also time that could have been used a different way. That’s worth money. Using my own airport, I can leave my home and be on the plane sitting in my seat in 20 minutes. Extraordinary!

The airport manager’s goal is to have the airport so busy, we don’t even pay taxes to support it. It becomes self-sustaining. My airport tax cost-benefit calculations do not even count the benefit to me of all the jobs that are created by having a terrific airport in my community. There are a lot of those jobs. So I easily get my money worth on that investment.

I pay approximately $130 for my local public library. I try to get at least quadruple the investment back every year. That’s just with my use, not even counting my children’s use of the facility. That is so easy! It allows me to avoid the cost of cable TV (currently running $70 at a minimum in my community) or a membership to Blockbuster or Netflix. I see books I want to buy in the bookstore and then go to the library and borrow them. I read and check out magazines and newspapers that I enjoy but don’t want to subscribe to yearly. Does it really matter if I read Architectural Digest in the month it’s issued? I think not.

Again, those calculations don’t include my children’s use of the library (I especially appreciate the local scholarship database) or all of the other people in my community who are uplifted to a higher, better place by the use of the facility. Surely less taxes are consumed overall when more people become self-sufficient.

Today I was thinking about what an incredible value the school system is. My children’s school system gets horrible press. What urban system doesn’t? One has to proactively choose a school system and a program within a school system just the way one would choose a melon at the market.

I choose to move to my community specifically for these schools. Within the larger system, there was a tiny gifted program getting by on funding scraps because it’s not particularly valued by the community. My children have received incredible individual mentoring from these teachers. Mostly, because they were open to it.

If I had sent my children to a gifted program in a university town, everyone would want in and everyone would be eligible. But in an industrial town, rigorous academics aren’t as highly valued because that’s not where the money has been made in the past. Money, for both the owners and the workers, has been made in manufacturing. All of that manufacturing has now moved to China. That’s another topic.

The high school my children attended had the schizophrenic distinction of being named one of 1700 “drop-out factories” by John Hopkins University (for the last twenty years only half of the freshman class went on to be sophomores) and “one of America’s 500 best high schools” by U.S. News and World Report all within the same quarter.

The little tiny gifted program my children are in turns out ACT scores in the top 1% of the nation. My oldest daughter left there with enough Advanced Placement credit to save $16,000 in tuition (one university semester). One boy I know of was able to start his college career with so much advanced placement credit he was classified as a second semester sophomore when he started college!

If I add up all of the money saved through advanced placement credit, scholarships obtained etc. and hold it up what I’ve paid in property taxes over the last five years for all services (school, airport, city, library, etc.), I’m still money ahead.

Of course, no one is out “selling” parents on this gem of a curriculum. Most people just see how rough the neighborhoods are. It can be a very rough place. I’ll never forget one young man’s joy when he saw his passing Constitution test grade. Passing that test was his last to-do item before graduating. He could not stop shouting with joy “I’m out of the ‘hood! I’m out of the ‘hood! I’m going to graduate!” I still tear up when I think of him. That too is an education for my children.
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