Doma: My Greatest Gift

Supplementary essay: “Please tell us about a gift, given or received, that was particularly meaningful to you. What was the gift, and why was it meaningful? (150 words max)” Doma & Niran after SLC Graduation

Doma wrote:

Birthday gifts, Christmas surprises and other presents are not what I am thinking of.  My greatest gift is the education my mother gave me.

My mother had no schooling and was married at fifteen.  My father abused her and soon left us.  Since then mom struggled to support us by working as a hotel maid. Somehow, she managed to keep me in a good school.

For Class 11 and 12 mom wanted me to go to Budhanilkantha School (BNKS) because it is one of the best. I was scared because most of its students are from rich families.  What I learned in that world is there is no limit to the future I can create.

My mother’s gift allows me to make a future so much better than her own life:  it has made me what I am, and what I can dream of to become. What an amazing gift!


Comments by Martin:

I wrote the following comments when Doma was admitted by Randolph College, the first of five excellent colleges.  I explain her decision to accept Hampshire College’s offer on the Doma Ghale page.

The picture is from when Doma graduated from Amrit School in what we call High School sophomore year.  Doma and her mom, Niran, are dressed in Tibetan style because Norkyel, her first education sponsor, had just honored them for Doma’s graduation in the “First Division with Distinction”.

We were thrilled then by what Doma had achieved, which Niran sacrificed so much to make possible.  Our hopes for Doma’s future were high.   Would she be accepted at Budhanilkantha School for Junior and Senior years?

Two years later, our hopes are again high.  Will Doma be able to come to the US for a college education?

There are some differences this time.  Doma is not afraid as she was about Budhanilkantha: she is excited about the far more different world here.  And for Niran, no sacrifice is possible to make US college affordable: one year at a good US college costs the same as two houses where she lives.

Doma may succeed and be accepted but we might fail to establish enough funding.  Nonetheless, I said, Doma and I will, in different aspects of the process, try our utmost.  And we did.

Doma has been accepted with enthusiasm by Randolph College.  Their academic scholarships range from $6K – $20K.  They granted Doma the maximum and will consider her for their Presidential Scholarship which covers all tuition costs.  The gap will be $26K annually if Doma does not get the Presidential Scholarship, $13K if she does, plus her travel and incidental expenses.

Randolph College is a fine institution where Doma would thrive.  She has also applied to 15 other colleges, some of which have substantially larger endowments than Randolph.  One of them could even cover all her costs including two fully paid trips home each year.

But so many factors go into admission decisions: there is no way to predict what choices Doma may have, or their net cost.  What we do know is I would not be able to provide all $30K-ish a Randolph education may cost.

I mention this because if Doma does need more financial aid than I can provide, I will invite everyone to help.  I would establish a dedicated bank account for Doma’s education, set up a Paypal link or equivalent to facilitate donations, and provide accounting and other updates.

April 2014 Update:  Details about the dedicated bank account and a Paypal link to donate to it are now on the Doma Ghale page.   There is also a Paypal link to donate to it on the Donate page.   Details about financial aid, donations and expenses are on the Accounting page.  Other updates are on the News page.

Doma: One Woman to Converse With

Pick one woman in history or fiction to converse with for an hour and explain your choice. What would you talk about? (250 word limit)


I want to talk with poet and novelist Parijat, whose real name was Bishnu Kumari Waiba. My principal at Amrit School is a low-caste Tamang woman like me who established that school thirty years ago when only high-caste men started schools. She is Parijat’s younger sister.

Parijat’s mother died when she was very young. She was raised by her strict father and grandparents. She said, “I did not get any inspiration from my home and I had to cheat my family to be as I am today.” I want to ask her who did inspire her and how did she develop the courage to overcome family opposition?

Born in Darjeeling in 1937, she came to Kathmandu when she was 17 and earned a BA degree.  She had fallen ill when she was 13, became paralyzed when she was 26, and my principal supported her after that. She says Parijat’s physical weakness never dampened her spirit. How did Parijat do that?

Parijat rebelled against anything that diminished women’s freedom. She wrote to change how people think, she started a women’s literature movement, and she supported many other social causes. Nepal still is among the most unfair societies for women. What would she say I should do now?

Most of all I want to ask Parijat what it was like in those days when the authoritarian regime of the king was at its height. Nepali society still presents obstacles to people like me.  I could learn so much by talking with Parijat.

About Doma

DomaI promised to write more about Doma, the Nepali girl for whose USA college applications so many of you gave such helpful advice. She submitted the last of 16 applications a couple of days ago and just got her first acceptance!

Doma has amazed me in the six years I have been her education sponsor. Her low-caste, very poor background is a great handicap in Nepal, especially for females. She has made extraordinary progress and will go far beyond what she has already achieved.

I met Doma’s mother, Niran, at the Kathmandu hotel where I began visiting in 2003. She had been working there since soon after her husband brought her from her village in the high hills. It was an arranged marriage and she was only 15 when Doma was born. She had no schooling, spoke only Tamang tribal language, and her husband soon abandoned her. The only job she could get was as a hotel maid. She learned Nepali and the hotel owner, Norkyel, helped her get a divorce. Her first few years were extremely difficult, especially because although she earned barely enough for necessities, she was determined to give Doma a good education. Remarriage is not an option for a Nepali woman with a child.

I chatted with Niran each time I visited because by then she had taught herself English. She also speaks Hindi and was learning Tibetan from a book left by a guest. When Nepal’s civil war ended in 2006, the Maoists began unionizing. I was friendly with Norkyel and he told me he had been giving Niran extra money for Doma’s schooling but he must stop. His staff was unionized now, so he must treat everyone the same. He asked if I would like to take over.

My wife had met Niran and was also attracted by her intelligence, humor and good work so I took over and began getting to know Doma. She was very shy. Tamang are close to the low end of the caste structure, her mom had only ever worked as a maid and Doma expected her future would be the same. I told her she could do better and must try because her mother had made great sacrifices to get her an education.

Doma did try, she slowly gained confidence, and her exam results improved. From her usual place in the middle, she reached 6th place, then 3rd. She said she could never do better because the top two students were wealthy and had tutors. The next year she came 2nd. That made a decisive difference. She had succeeded to a degree she hadn’t believed possible. Now she knew she might surprise herself still more.

Doma was 2nd again in 10th grade then transferred to a new school. Norkyel took her to several of the best ones, including Budhanilkantha (BNKS), the traditional choice of Nepal’s kings. Math was her strongest subject but she preferred arts and did not want to go to BNKS because they teach only science. We told her she should try. At last she told me: “I realized I am not a child now, so I should not be stubborn. Everybody says I should do this. Probably they are right.” She did try, and she was accepted.

How would she get on with high-caste kids from wealthy families who live in a way she had never imagined? It took a lot of courage at first, but she did fine. The only problem, she said, was her friends always had to pay for her when they went out from school. The school didn’t let kids out very often so it wasn’t a big problem.

Doma’s 10th grade results had been 85% in English and in the mid-90% range for math and science. In Junior year, she was 10th in her class of 40 with a mix of As and Bs despite having to navigate a very new environment. Then she grew over-confident and greatly over-committed to extracurricular activities. She was also sick during her final exams.

In Senior year, Doma led many cultural programs and did much volunteer work for school clubs. She was also selected for the annual ‘Quanta’ competition at City Montessori School, Lucknow, India. While taking part in the math competition, she led students from other countries in Nepali dance performance.

What Doma discovered about herself and her potential in two intensive years at BNKS is great preparation to overcome challenges she will meet in college and later.

Doma’s Math SAT 2 result is 730. Her spoken English is excellent but even the best Nepali schools do not provide good training in written English. Her best results so far are 89 for TOEFL, 490 for reading SAT and 410 for writing. While we wait for more admission decisions, she will continue to improve her written English and track her progress with more TOEFL tests.

In college, Doma will learn how to succeed with her dream. The Vice-Principal at her school before BNKS told me, “Doma is relentless. If she doesn’t understand something she will keep coming back with questions, more and more questions until she’s certain she does understand.” Her aspiration is to build a business in Nepal to provide good jobs for people like her and good services for customers. Nepal has very weak infrastructure in government, law and utilities. Doma believes that building a business will enable her to make the greatest contribution to transform her country.

Doma choreographed this dance shortly before she graduated from Budhanilkantha. It is, she told me: “Like Sherpa but not exactly. It’s a dance for people who live high in the mountains.” Sherpas and Doma’s Tamang people both came from Tibet long ago. Doma is the shorter of the two girls in red tops who enter from the left. She then dances in the center.

Over the next few weeks I will post some essays Doma wrote as part of her college applications. I’m so lucky to have found someone who is so worthwhile to help.

College for Doma

I`m in Kathmandu helping Doma apply for college next Fall.  I`ve been supporting her education for six years and will tell you her heart-warming life story another time.  Right now, I`m looking for feedback on 15 colleges where I think she should apply.

Doma`s strongest subject is Math – she got 750s in SAT practice classes – she`s almost equally strong in Physics, her comprehension and fluency in English are excellent, she considers her greatest strength to be creativity and she was a popular and effective leader in High School.  Her exam results got her into the school attended by the children of Nepal`s kings.

Doma`s goal is to build a great business in Nepal and she wants to prepare by studying in a US college. It`s an ambitious and important aspiration, especially for a woman.  Nepal is a very poor country where women are greatly disadvantaged: It ranks 121st of 136 nations in gender equality.

I asked Doma: “What must change so Nepalis can make a good future?”  “Better government and successful Nepalis in other countries coming back to build businesses.”  “Maybe you should work in government?  “Other people must do that.  I want to do business.”  So the criteria for colleges where Doma should apply are:

  • Good business program, ideally with a focus for entrepreneurs
  • Diverse majors for other students from whom Doma can learn
  • Preferably within 300 miles of Brunswick, Maine where I live
  • Residential campus
  • Offers sufficient needs- and merit-based financial aid for international students

The most attractive choices look to be Hampshire College, Providence College, Randolph College and NYU Abu Dhabi.  Hampshire was great for my son who is similar to Doma in important ways, it has a program for entrepreneurs and is networked with UMass and three other colleges.  Randolph looks almost equally good but is in Lynchburg, VA.  It`s on my list because, like Hampshire, I have a friend there.  Both colleges are enthusiastic about Doma.  Another friend`s brother teaches at NYU Abu Dhabi and it offers extremely generous financial aid.   Providence has strong business and other schools, offers generous financial aid and its Dominican culture should suit Doma`s Buddhist values.

Not many colleges offer financial aid to international students and among them, only a few offer need-based aid, which Doma will need as well as merit-based aid because her mother can provide none. If Doma is accepted at Hampshire with the maximum aid it has given any international student, the net cost will be $20K plus travel and incidentals, the high end of what may be affordable.  That maximum is 185% of their average grant.  I estimated the maximum for other colleges using a lower multiple, 100% for Providence because their average is so high and 150% for Randolph and most others.  That makes the estimated net $12K for Providence and Randolph.  It could be zero for NYU Abu Dhabi.

The next most appealing set is Elmira College, Fairfield University, Hartwick College, Quinnipiac University and Ramapo College.  All look to have good business schools and diverse other majors, all are within 300 miles of my home, the first four could offer enough aid to bring the net below $10K, Ramapo`s should be below $20K and it`s a popular choice for students from Doma`s High School.

College of St. Rose, New England College, Saint Michael`s College and Albright College are all popular choices for business majors and all offer a range of other majors, but they are less appealing because they have less capacity for financial aid.  Saint Michael`s may be too Catholic. Cornell University offers generous financial aid to international students but its only business major is Hotel Management.  That may be fine because tourism is an important part of Nepal`s economy but it is restrictive.  Worcester Polytechnic Institute grants enormous aid to international students and it has a range of business majors, however its chief focus is engineering, which is one of Doma`s interests but has limited applicability in Nepal.

Those 15 colleges range widely in selectivity but Doma`s potential Math SAT result is substantially above the high end of the requirement for all except Cornell (she should be way above their minimum).  She has done better than required by 9 colleges on SAT Reading and should also do for 5 others.  The requirement for Hampshire, Cornell and WPI is probably beyond her reach within the next two months and the SAT Writing minimum may be out of reach for almost all 15 as it likely is for most students whose native language is not English.  I expect Doma`s TOEFL (English proficiency) result to count for more and, based on her conversational skill, I expect her result will be high.

Do you or your friends know any of the colleges where I don`t have contacts, are there others we should consider, should I change the selection criteria, do you have other feedback?

Identity, Independence and Kindness

Although everything is in every instant changing, which means everything flawed can be perfected, that’s not what Mr. Ego sees.  He’s afraid if he relaxes even for an instant, bad things will come to pass.  He is a deluded Jeeves devoted to caring for a Bertie Wooster whose nature exists only in his imagination.  That he exists only in mine does not make his activities less real.

Mr. Ego and I have been together so long and he is so very diligent; he usually has me believing I am what he imagines.  On rare occasions I do wake up and tell him I’ll be OK, he can go on vacation, but he doesn’t because if he does, I will no longer have an identity.  He thinks that would be very scary.

Psychotherapists say Mr. Ego manifests soon after we are born and develops well into adulthood.  “Saying ‘NO’ is one of the earliest signs of individuation”, according to GoodTherapy“It is a statement that I am separate from you and want something different … individuation is … learning what we want to say NO or YES to [and] acting according to what we want and do not want.  It is a statement of who we are (ME) and who we are not (NOT ME).”

Mr. Ego starts by teaching us to say NO and unless we’re very lucky, it’s all downhill from there.  He teaches us to want and not want, to see everything as ME or NOT ME and to reject everything that is NOT ME.  He teaches us, in other words, to be selfish.  Therapists consider individuation normative, meaning something that should happen.

In fact, our belief that we have an identity, are part of a group and should have a home makes us unhappy and unkind.   Our imagined identity, “I am the kind of person who…”, says we are solid and we should make our situation more so, more dependable.  We should instead rejoice that nothing is solid because that means everything really can become more perfect.

A way to dispel the illusion is to recast our identifier from noun to verb.  That makes Martin Sidwell not an explorer destined always to be an explorer and implicitly never doing anything else, but an exploration taking place at this moment.  Thinking of ourselves as verbs eliminates a big part of the harm we cause by believing we have an identity.

Believing we are part of a group is also a problem.  If I think of myself as Buddhist it seems I am different from Christian but if I am practicing techniques that helped others grow more kind even to those who are abusive, I am practicing how to love and turn the other cheek.  The program that helps me is different but the goal is the same as Jesus taught.  I am not different from Christians, Muslims or others.

Keeping the goal clear is especially hard if our group’s identify is that of a people defined by its religion.  A dear friend who recently gave up her long standing role as spiritual leader at her synagogue said:  “What I realized is important is my values.  People I’m close to have the same values.  My rabbi’s are different and we’re not close.  Trying to lead those with his values to a different way can never be helpful.”  But being Jewish informs so much of what a Jewish person does, thinks and feels.  Recognizing what my friend did must have been very, very hard and acting on the recognition must take so much discipline and courage.

The recognition my friend came to may be even tougher for Tibetans whose identity is so deeply associated with not only religion but also their homeland.  Home is our idea of the ultimate refuge.  As Robert Frost wrote: “Home is where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in”.   My Tibetan friend who only ever wanted to be a nun was expelled from the nunnery by the Chinese government after the Beijing Olympics.   A third of all Tibetan monks and nuns were forced out then after Western journalists reporting the Tibetan protests went home.

Jews whose ancestors were driven from their homeland milennia ago now have Israel.  The homeland Tibetans always had began to be destroyed just as Israel was established.  No wonder Tibetans yearn for that lost world  even though there can be no such place of safety.  It is so hard for any of us to recognize that and the idea of nation makes it so much harder.

China’s rulers always try to control the lands to their north and west because invaders from there have always swept in.  The dynasty that ruled from 1644-1911 was established by invaders from Manchuria.  As soon as the Communists won China’s civil war in 1949 they set out to control all China’s peripheral territories.  Tibetans lost not just their independence as a nation but increasingly also their culture.  The monasteries were destroyed, monks imprisoned, Chinese-language schools set up and masses of Han Chinese settlers imported.  The Tibetans were to become Chinese to make China safe.

We think nations help us to be safe because nations have armed forces for defense.  By identifying with a nation, however, we feel separate from people in other nations.  We think they are different and we become afraid or jealous of our fantasy of what they are.   Our struggle for independence in fact makes us fearful.  The Chinese rulers’ treatment of Tibetans is motivated by fear, as is exiled Tibetans’ yearning for a Tibet they may never have known and that no longer exists.

There are two Tibetan words for independence.  “Rang btsan” means not dependent on anything else and signifies the freedom we associate with independence.  “Rang mtshan” means an independent self and signifies what we associate with being an individual.  Both are pronounced rang tzen, are usually spelled rangzen in the West, and both suggest more than they mean.   Nations are not truly independent and neither are people truly individual.  Geography does not define a people nor is any man an island.  Borders are just ideas that create suffering and limit our compassion.

Opening our hearts to feel the terrible suffering of Tibetans and others can lead us to feel compassion both for them and their abusers whose delusions lead them to their terrible actions.  Then we can try to help both, for only in that way can suffering be ended.  We really can do this if, as in this beautifully rendered Imagine There’s No Rangzen, we think independently.

So many ideas.  We have this relentless urge to get things identified, situated and dependable.  We’re determined to define who we are and take action against what we are not.   But it can’t work.  How could such a program succeed when nothing can be fixed, when everything is arising in every instant from an ever-changing assembly of causes?

One of the first great Tibetan teachers in the West said it this way:  “The bad news is our airplane is crashing and we have no parachute.  The good news is there is nowhere to land.”  Mr. Ego got us into a vehicle he said would take us somewhere safe, if it didn’t crash.  His fear of crashing distracted us.

That’s why it’s so hard to recognize that in fact we are crashing right now precisely because we imagine we have a fixed identity, we belong to a group whose rules are sacrosanct and we will be protected from those who are not like us by the nation where we live.  We are creating our own fear.

We could instead accept the good news, train ourselves to dispel habitual reactions that grew from our misunderstanding, and grow more happy and, more importantly, more kind.

Earthquakes, Jewels and Zombies

Last night’s earthquake (September 2011) was the strongest in Nepal since 1934.   The epicenter between eastern Nepal and Sikkim was 6.8 on the Richter scale.  I barely felt it.

As G and I came out of a tea shop into light rain, I felt momentarily as if I was a little drunk.  The ground felt a little bit unstable but it passed so quickly it didn’t really register.  A little later, the street filled with people clapping, shouting and cheerfully jostling all across the road.  Was there a huge wedding?   Surely it couldn’t be part of today’s ceremonial offerings to continue getting blessings from their tools by those who work with metal even though that now includes taxi drivers, kitchen workers and many others?  G asked.  There had been an earthquake and people thought there could be another one.

This morning’s newspaper says there was almost no physical damage but more than 60 people were hurt jumping out of buildings and three were killed when the very old brick wall round the British Embassy collapsed.  This was not the “massive earthquake” D’s teacher said is necessary (but far from sufficient) for Kathmandu to get a better than third world road, water supply, sewer, electrical grid and other infrastructure.

G and I walked today in another area where it’s likely no Westerner ever went before.  There’s no temple or historical site, just very poor villages that you get to via an hour-long walk through the “jungle”.

We stopped at a tea shop where locals gather.  The proprietor was excited to find an American in his shop.  He said: “America is the richest country in the world”  then proposed to sell me a jewel that he took from a naga, a snake deity that lives in rivers.  They produce one jewel from their body during their incalculably long life.  They use it to hunt for food at night because it casts intense light 21 feet in every direction.  You can keep it if you can take such a jewel when the naga is not looking, the man tells G, but if the naga sees you, it will bite and you will die instantly.  It will not be after one minute or one second, it will be instantaneous.  That’s why such jewels are so rare.

The man said he would show it to me if I would like to buy it but it would cost eighty thousand million rupees.  That’s a little over one billion dollars.  G said I did not have so much money in my pocket today.  The man said in that case he could not show us the jewel.  G told him he had read about these jewels but never imagined he would have the good fortune to meet someone who possessed one.  The tea the man’s wife prepared was exceptionally tasty but it had no magical properties as far as I can tell.

On the way back G said when he was studying philosophy and reading Socrates “and it was the time when I must decide who I am, I realized I am a citizen of the world”.  He also realized he could not say he is a devotee of any religion.  His wife, however, is Hindu.  She knows that while not everyone is Hindu, those who are not are either Muslim or Christian and since her husband is not Muslim or Christian, he must be Hindu.  That means he must do what a Hindu man should do.

Yesterday was a day when all Hindu men must get their hair cut.  G forgot.  Last night Mrs G was very concerned because she believes dead men will now start to follow him around.   G does not want her to be distressed, so he will get his hair cut this evening.  She is afraid that will not be effective because today is the wrong day.  G says she will relax after a couple of days when she sees no dead men following him .

Observations from Kathmandu

First observations from Kathmandu, September 2011:  “I typed this into Notepad for when I could get wifi access.  Extreme lack of electricity really is a problem.  The official explanation for 18 hours a day of load shedding made no sense.  Now I’m amazed at my naivete.  There’s a 200% customs duty on imports which means an imported generator brings twice its value to the government, i.e., the politicians.  Also, since they have a monopoly on fuel imports, they make money on every liter of generator fuel.  The politicians have powerful incentives to minimize the supply of electricity, therefore they do.

The Kathmandu real estate bubble has deflated because banks are not lending.  Everyone imagines lower land prices to be a temporary problem but Nepal’s economy depends on tourism, which is much lower this season, and remittances from family overseas.  There is almost no industry and none of the infrastructure, physical or cultural, that industry requires. There’s no fundamental reason for Kathmandu to be a large city.  It became the center because it’s at the crossroad for China/India trade.  Not much of that these days.  Villagers moved here en masse when the Maoist guerrillas made rural life too dangerous.  Now they don’t want to go back to village life.  They survive for now in what feels like the pre-recession US economy, i.e., one not based on anything real.

G. and I continue to talk about small scale businesses we could try to kickstart so villagers in the hills around Kathmandu could support themselves but we no longer believe it makes sense.  It just goes against our nature to give up.  The bright spot we found yesterday is villagers in the hills above Buddhanalikantha do not need to sell their land.  They are doing quite well selling illegal home-brew down in the city.   Because the rainy season isn’t quite over, it’s very humid.  Hill walking is pretty tiring in these conditions so we often stop for tea which provides opportunities for chatting, a double benefit.

Many of the few tourists this year have always-on iPad-type devices but the internet is usually off for lack of electricity.  It’s a dramatic illustration of the need for infrastructure and why the libertarian ideal is not viable.”

Some questions in response: “The corruption answer makes sense but I’m still surprised.  I suppose not having an immediate assumption of corruption is part of growing up in a culture where corruption is supposedly policed.  From your descriptions of Nepali politics it doesn’t seem like it’s possible for Nepal to succeed; do you think there’d be a way to arrange things so there was more benefit in their politicians doing what was good for the people they supposedly represent?  Something where the politicians could still benefit (they’d have to, or they’d never go for the policy changes.)

If Kathmandu has no real reason to be a city, and can’t seem to support being a city, does it follow that it will eventually have to stop being a city, or will there being a dense collection of people mean enough jobs that people will be able to stay?”

My response to the questions: “I haven’t yet figured out a system of carrots to incent politicians to do what is good for the people.  The stick, however, is a vigorous and independent judiciary determined to stamp out corruption, which Nepal does not have.  Politicians need to fear consequences of abusing their position.

I also haven’t yet figured out Kathmandu’s future.  D.’s social studies teacher told the class it would take another massive earthquake to make sufficient change possible.  He is almost certainly correct.  I don’t see how else it would be possible to establish the infrastructure necessary for a viable city.”

Social Security Tax and Fairness

Do we really need Social Security?  Is it fair that it is mandatory or that high earners contribute more but get relatively less benefit?   What is the best way to keep it financially sound?  What guidance does it offer to make our overall tax and budget management system better?

Do we need Social Security?  It is different from other government programs in that its costs are matched by dedicated taxes.  Hoping to stimulate consumer spending, we recently cut them temporarily.  Should we eliminate them altogether?  It would be time-consuming and costly, but we could in theory unwind the program and for example, switch to a system like Nepal’s where families traditionally support each other.

That thought experiment highlights the parallel between contemporary Nepal and pre-industrial USA.  Both are family farm economies where when you retire, your kids take over and support you.  In a society where generation after generation works on the same farm, if you are unable to work when your kids are young, a relative can take over and neighbors help when family is not enough.   In an economy of jobs, however, workers create no family asset to take over, people keep moving, families become dispersed and communities exist mainly in virtual space.

Nepal’s situation is thought-provoking, too, because its traditional support system is collapsing.  The 1996-2006 civil war made villages too dangerous so people abandoned their farms and moved to the cities.  They now need jobs but Nepal has no industry because there is insufficient power (no electricity 14 hours a day), insufficient access to market (no railroad and extremely weak roads), a corrupt legal system and no government.  So Nepalis go overseas for jobs and send money to their families.  That is currently a quarter of the entire economy.  But they send less as they form new attachments.

In the USA we have a job-producing infrastructure but we are vulnerable to losing our job, our family is probably far away, and few of us save enough for retirement.  Like other Western societies, the nature of our economy makes us dependent on social security when we cannot support ourselves.

Is it fair that Social Security is mandatory?  It seems so in a society like ours.  We simply don’t save enough voluntarily – 7% or more of every $ we ever earn, invested to earn at least 3% above inflation, as noted here: Our Ridiculous Approach to Retirement.  And we don’t have enough disability insurance.  The result?  “Almost half of middle-class workers, 49 percent, will be poor or near poor in retirement, living on a food budget of about $5 a day”.  That’s even with social security benefits.

Is it fair that high earners contribute more but get the same benefit as those who contribute less?  We all contribute at the same % rate but the higher our income, the more we contribute in total.  The more we contribute, the higher our monthly benefit, but those who contribute more get proportionately less.  We get 90% of the first $X (currently $791) of our average monthly earnings, 32% of the next $Y of earnings (currently the the amount between $791 and $4,768), and 15% of the remaining $X  (currently the amount over $4,768) – see Social Security Benefit Amounts.  Is that fair?

That question may be the most contentious.  Should those with higher earnings pay taxes at the same or a higher rate?  I will return to this when I explore income tax.  Here, I’ll just make an observation in this context.  Everyone’s work adds assets to our economy.  If it is reasonable to consider those with higher earnings to be getting a higher return on those assets, it is reasonable they should contribute more to the ongoing development of the assets.  I can’t be the first to have this thought.  I’d be grateful for a discussion of its merits, if any.

What is the best way to keep Social Security financially sound?  Social Security will take in roughly $40B more than it pays out in 2013, so it is not contributing to the problem I noted in FY2010 Revenues, Expenses and Liabilities: “Federal revenue last year was $2.2T while expenses were $3.5T.  We therefore increased public debt by $1.3T.”  Although the Social Security’s trust fund is growing now and will be around $2.8T in 2013, that will not always be the case.  As I noted in Social Security “Social Security taxes [were sufficient] to pay current recipients … until 1975 – 1981 when expenses exceeded revenue every year.  Average benefits were then cut approx 5%, tax rates for individuals were raised approx 2.3%, and the full retirement age was raised 3%, which created an annual surplus until 2009.”  Another update will be necessary.

“The fundamental problem”, I wrote, “is that while 100 workers supported only 6 Social Security beneficiaries in 1950, 100 workers in 2010 must support 33 beneficiaries.  When the Social Security full retirement age was set at 65 in 1935, USA life expectancy at birth was 62.  The retirement age is now 67 but life expectancy is 78. “  In Social Security – Past and Future Changes I explored our options.

The best way is to increase the payroll tax ceiling and raise the tax rate.  I won’t repeat the analysis here, just add that Social Security finances are far more predictable than other government programs.  We can model population trends, which change relatively slowly, and accurately forecast future spending.  Revenue is relatively stable because contributions are collected automatically and are pre-tax.  Income tax revenue fluctuates more with the economy (and is easier to illegally evade).

What guidance does Social Security offer for a better overall tax and budget management system?  We need better presentation of Federal government finances.  Social Security spending is usually presented in the context of total spending not in relation to its revenues, so we don’t connect the two.  Payroll taxes feel like an onerous burden on every pay check.  Social Security benefits seem like a burden adding to our public debt.  Social Security looks like just one more unfathomably costly activity of an out of control government.

As JohnK commented about an earlier post: “I always grind my teeth when I see social security benefits lumped in as part of our federal budget.  For instance, in your “The Purpose and Performance of Our Tax System” post, you have a pie chart showing Social Security benefits as 22% of the federal budget.  That amount, and others like it, should be lumped under something like ‘Repayment of Borrowed Money’.”  Folks getting Social Security checks are simply getting back contributions they made when they were working, plus the [notional] investment profits.

TonyP commented on another confusing aspect: “I believe it was Al Gore who proposed a “social security lock-box” in order to stop the federal government from looting the social security trust fund to improve cash-flow.”  Social Security contributions are not invested as a regular pension fund would in marketable securities, but are used to fund overall Federal spending.

John replied: “As per the Budget Enforcement Act of 1990, the social security trust funds are NOT a part of the federal budget.  By law, income accrued by the social security trust funds is invested in securities GUARANTEED as to both PRINCIPAL and INTEREST by the full faith and credit of the U. S. Government.  When the government spends the money obtained from these debt obligations or any debt obligations such as Treasury bonds, it is spending “borrowed” money.  When it is required to redeem these securities, the amount redeemed should be labeled something to the effect: “Loan Redemptions” and not “Social Security”. 

So from one perspective, the Social Security trust fund is a fiction because the money put into it has already been spent, but from another, the money is no more fictional than any other ledger entries representing loans.  What was borrowed from the Social Security trust fund is secured by US Treasury bonds that will be repaid.  John added:  “The official SS history is at:  Social Security ADMINISTRATION costs are on the federal budget as are administration costs of all federal agencies, but that amount is relatively miniscule, and is not what was represented on Martin’s pie chart.”

Fully absorbing that official history is headache-making but scanning it gives a sense of why presentation is so important.  The way our government finances are presented now makes it impossible for most of us to evaluate what’s going on.  We don’t know where our tax dollars go.  We imagine half is wasted and the other half is spent on things that benefit other people.

In summary:

  1. We do need a Social Security system
  2. It is financially sound but if unchanged it will not remain so
  3. The options to keep it financially sound for at least the medium-term future are not hard to understand
  4. We are easily misled about all the above because Social Security revenues and spending are usually not presented together, and
  5. If Social Security finances were presented more clearly we’d be better able to debate what’s most fair to those contributing now, those needing support, and future generations.

But as I’ve said before: “The greatest challenge is … an accelerating reduction in the number of jobs as more and more is done by computers and robots”.  That could be a much deeper challenge than for Social Security alone so I will return to it at the end of this series.  Next up, Business Tax and Fairness.

The Beauty of Impermanence

Yesterday was the last of six days at a Tibetan Buddhist retreat.  Fifty years ago was the end of eight years at Richard Hale’s Free Grammar School for the Deserving Sons of Impecunious Gentlefolk founded in 1608.

Half a century ago my six hundred fellow students and I processed down the long school driveway, past the Hart rampant at the center of town, past the friendly pub where I sometimes soothed my spirit, through the cemetery and on into the great stone church.  Half an hour later I ascended the pulpit to read what was read at every school year’s dissolution, Ecclesiastes Chapter 12 Verses 1 to 12. 

I spoke the words with an actor’s conviction: “Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth, while the evil days come not, nor the years draw nigh, when thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them”.

It was fortunate I wasted so much of my school years acting because although I was feeling apprehensive, it was not about my performance in the pulpit.  That day felt like the end of my youth.  “In the day when the keepers of the house shall tremble”, I continued.  That was not a day to look forward to.  Nor was the mysterious one when “the doors shall be shut in the streets”.  The voice in my head joking about ecstasy if I lay with them on the day when “all the daughters of music shall be brought low” failed to lighten my gloom.

I almost believed the summation: “Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher; all is vanity”.  I paused, dramatically, to let that sink in.  Vanity when those words were written meant futility.  Now existentialist philosophers were saying the same thing – everything is futile.  Then I intoned the preacher’s message:  “The words of the wise are as goads … be admonished: of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh”.

Why did they choose that Bible lesson?  Perhaps it had resonated in 1944 when the school was absorbed into the state system a decade before I came there.  Many of my teachers rejected the present, retaining traditions from a world of privilege very different from mine on the far side of the tracks.  They yearned for the past, I felt unprepared for the future, but we had more in common than I imagined.  We were both living not where we were but in worlds we imagined.

Buddhism is training to live in the present, the only time we actually are alive.  It offers folks of every temperament ways to practice being and doing with graceful acceptance and joy.  A wise man speaking not about Buddhism but business leadership offered the same insight about our all too common absorption in a stew of regret and hope: “Living with one foot in the past and one in the future will only hurt your crotch”.

That everything is impermanent and every act has results led the preacher to an entirely different conclusion from the Buddhist and the businessman.

The preacher tells us to fear a day in the future when an external deity will pass judgment on our every past act, “whether it be good, or whether it be evil”.   Buddhism teaches not fear but that we can overcome our habits and illusions, not repeat our mistakes, learn to become truly happy, cherishing and selfless in every instant.

That everything is impermanent with no intrinsic tendencies means we need not repeat what we did before.  We need no deity to know what is good and what is not.  We know which makes us happy and which causes suffering.  We can recognize that nothing compels us to do what is not good.

We can purify the working of our mind.  We need not worry about, for example, the theory of my biology teacher who escaped from Hungary after the 1956 invasion by Soviet Russia.  We are doomed by our biology, he thought:  “The huge growth of our frontal lobes is cancerous.  It allows us to create imaginary worlds where we can do terrible things, things that in the real world we could never do, things no other animal could imagine.”

We do too much thinking.  The breath I am taking right now probably is not my last but there definitely will be a last one and I probably will not recognize when it starts.  Those radiant daffodils outside my window, the translucent new leaves, the heron so still at water’s edge, the sun sparkling on the ocean, they probably will not be the last thing I see but there will be a last scene for me.

It makes sense to relish every instant.  If I continue to practice this simple truth, I will waste fewer moments seeking safety by treating life as improvisational theater.  If I really, really try and I live long enough, maybe I can shake off dreams for a whole day.  I shall do it the same way I quit cigarettes, just breathe fresh air for the next hour.  I will aim to awaken just for this moment.

We imagine false choices.  At the T-junction, we cannot turn both left and right but in this instant, we can both think and feel.  We can vibrantly feel the joy or pain this instant brings and also prepare for future moments when we may no longer be present and whose circumstances we cannot know.

Walking while chewing gum may be beyond me, I have not tried, but I can relish the fragrance and complex taste of this Wicked French Roast at the same time as I figure out a better tax system without worry if the one we have can be changed.  Everything changes, anyway.  That’s the beauty of impermanence.

Love and Birthdays

One of our kids’ favorite books many years ago, “A Birthday for Frances”, movingly captures the complexity of love.  “Happy birthday to me is how it should be”, Frances sings.  She announces she is not going to get her sister a birthday present, then dissolves into tears because she is the only one not getting her a present.  We love ourselves, we love others, how can we love both at the same time?

But do we even have a self?  “Writers aren’t exactly people,” according to F. Scott Fitzgerald, “they’re a whole bunch of people trying to be one person.”   I remember that feeling.   Every reflective adolescent goes through the same existential scare.  For me, it was exacerbated by the then-recent publication of “Three Faces of Eve” about a woman with three separate personalities, by Colin Wilson’s more intellectually respectable “The Outsider” and by the fact that one of my closest friends whose father was a psychologist was deeply expert about schizophrenia and dissociative personality disorder and saw evidence of them everywhere.

A few years later, it seemed to me I did have a self even though it had an unusual combination of interests.  Most of us come to that conclusion.  We start work to support ourselves, maybe do some self-actualizing in the process, perhaps start a family, in any case become very busy – too busy to consider whether our self has any fixed properties.  We might notice our interests and behaviors changing, that we react the same way our parents did, that we’re looking increasingly like someone else in our family, but we don’t consider what those changes indicate.

Only recently I came to realize there’s actually nothing at all fixed about “me”.  Now, I see that more and more of the pieces of what I used to think of as “me” are the result of genetic and experiential memories.  I see they’re continuing to change, and I haven’t identified anything at all that is fixed.  I’m lucky to have lost that delusion of “self” because it helps me resolve Frances’ dilemma, the selfishness I’ve tried for so long to overcome.

That’s why I had Facebook show today as my birthday.   It’s not the anniversary of when my mother gave birth to me but the day I began life in the USA.  It might better be termed my rebirth but that whole way of thinking – birth, death, rebirth and so on – just leads to confusion.  There have been so many days, before and after my physical birth, that gave birth to what still feels like “me”.

Knowing deeply that “self” is an illusion will require a lot more work.  That’s work worth doing – a good birthday resolution.  How fine it would be if every one of us could wholeheartedly celebrate every instant as everyone’s birthday.