Friday, October 28, 2011

Keypunched Confessions of an Untaxed Millionaire

I was a millionaire who paid next to nothing in taxes. I used to laugh it off. But when my president began chastising millionaires for not paying more in taxes, my conscience and my patriotism forced me to regret my greedy ways.

It did not help that Warren Buffett was cheering on President Obama and the White Whine Party to oppose Tea Party millionaires who want to keep their money. The pendulum had swung.

My saga began in late November 2010, when the Social Security Administration notified me that my 2009 income was $1,967,732.00. This amount is wrong; I will explain why later. But wouldn't you know? The SSA picked the one year of my tax-paying life that I didn't make more than a million dollars to say that I did!

(Serious readers take note: The previous sentence contains a wild exaggeration.)

I thought a fool's thought. I thought it would be a simple matter to correct SSA's records.

I went to the SSA website, downloaded Form 561-U2, and filed a request for reconsideration on Dec. 9. I even attached information from my tax return to make SSA's job easier.

I did not hear a word from SSA until March 9. Then, SSA replied that the error was due to incorrect information sent to them by the Internal Revenue Service. The letter also instructed me that it was my responsibility — not the SSA's — to contact the IRS and have it correct the error.

This is government at its finest. You wait three months only to be redirected to another government agency.

My next step was to call the IRS to seek advice. After explaining the situation, I was told that the error was mine; that I had keypunched the wrong number when I e-filed my return. The blame game ended, however, when I told the agent that I only file paper returns. Therefore, if it was a keypunch error, it was an IRS keypunch error — not mine.

After considerable study, the IRS called back and advised me to file an amended return. I asked how I could file an amended return when there was nothing to amend. My return, after all, was correct.

The agent then recommended that I dump the problem on the Kansas City office. That's where I had filed my paper return, and perhaps the Kansas City office could override the IRS computer.

It was May 23 when I wrote the Kansas City IRS office. They acknowledged my letter with their standard "45-day letter", which means "Don't expect any action for 45 days."

I got another 45-day letter.

I had the feeling that I was locked in a Twilight Zone curiosity shop that sold grandfather clocks. And for the worse, the clocks chimed but once every three months.

On Sept. 7, the IRS informed me that it had corrected the error. However, the agency failed to send me a transcript that I could forward to the SSA office. To get a copy of the corrected transcript, I had to call an agent. The waiting time alone was 45 minutes, and it took as long for the agent to correct the IRS computer record.

The SSA advised me on Oct.7 that their records had been corrected. It took 10 months and probably 50 hours of my time to correct a split-second keypunch error.

At the outset, I was amazed that the IRS data input system would allow such an obvious error. A clerk had entered a line item ($19,143.00) without inserting the decimal point. Thus, my income was inflated by $1,914,300.00. Bells and whistles should have gone off when this happened.

In this age of precision scanners, why is the IRS relying on keypunch clerks? It's not like Google hired monks to keypunch all of those library books!

The SSA and IRS computers obviously talk to each other. Why couldn't the SSA initiate my request? The SSA should have forced the issue if for no other reason than to discover how junk data from IRS corrupted its database.

Between the SSA, IRS and yours truly, at least 100 man hours were spent correcting this mistake. Maybe even 200 man hours. Maybe 300 man hours.

Like the taxpayers, the IRS and SSA workers are every bit as overwhelmed. It's no wonder. What I went through this year is a case study in poor management of both data and personnel.

To President Obama (and Warren Buffett), I would offer this advice. Before you criticize taxpayers at any level, you should go to the IRS and look under the hood. The search engine that you rely on needs repaired.

Friday, October 14, 2011

In a Colorful World, Sometimes Black and White Tells the Best Story

Netflix has changed its mind again!  Netflix had planned to offer streaming video and then create a new service (Qwikster) to offer DVD rentals.  Now the Qwikster plan has been shelved.

When Netflix went wobbly last month, I switched my movie rental business to a startup company called  Bliter only offers Black & White films.  But even Bliter has undergone a change. 

Recently, Bliter’s subscribers made it clear that this genre of films is actually White & Black, not Black & White.  So Bliter, bowing to pressure, changed its name to Whackster.

“The Third Man” and “Citizen Kane” are considered by many critics to be the best films ever made.  Both are B&W; both also feature Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten.  Had they been shot in color, these films would be failures.

There is something intriguing about B&W cinematography.   “Gaslight”, a thoroughly scary thriller starring Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman, relies on the mysteriously dimming gas lights in Bergman’s town house.  B&W film accents the low lighting.  Color film just can’t do this.

Thanks to B&W, Joseph Cotten is even more evil as a serial killer in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Shadow of a Doubt.”  Can you imagine Hitchcock’s “Psycho” in color? 

Not all B&W films are murder mysteries.  Gary Cooper played Marshall Will Kane in the western, “High Noon.”  Cary Grant played an overwhelmed nephew in the comedy, “Arsenic and Old Lace.”  Humphrey Bogart stayed one step ahead of the Nazis in wartime “Casablanca.” 

David O. Selznick won Best Picture Oscars in 1939 and 1940 for “Gone with the Wind” and “Rebecca”, respectively.  Selznick obviously knew his media.  GWTW had to be filmed in color; “Rebecca” had to be filmed in B&W.

B&W films add a touch of grit to the plot.  Compare “The Bedford Incident” (Richard Widmark) to “The Hunt for Red October” (Sean Connery) or “Crimson Tide” (Gene Hackman).  “The Bedford Incident” (B&W) keeps you on edge throughout; you feel the chill of the North Atlantic in this Cold War submarine chase.

Elmore Leonard’s short story, “3:10 To Yuma”, was first made into a movie in1957.  Starring Glenn Ford and Van Heflin, the movie evolves as a morality play which is accented by B&W cinematography.  The 2007 remake of the same name is in color, and not surprisingly, it is gunplay for gunplay’s sake.  Russell Crowe and Christian Bale are sadly diminished by the relentless carnage.

Blood really shows up in color.  Maybe that’s why directors avoid B&W nowadays. 

Color film has its place.  I cannot imagine “Lawrence of Arabia” or “Bridge on the River Kwai” not being filmed in color.  Yet, Sir David Lean, the director of those masterpieces, shot “Oliver Twist” and “Great Expectations” in B&W.

Steven Spielberg did choose B&W for “Schindler’s List”.  Can you imagine a color version?  But for the life of me, I cannot understand why he didn’t rely on B&W for “Jaws” and “Saving Private Ryan.”  The choice is so obvious.

David O. Selznick would have used B&W.  So would have Sir David Lean.  There, the “Davids” have it!

The studio system ruled the B&W era.  For all of their faults, the studios gave us some interesting pairings of leading men and leading ladies (Claude Rains and Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, et al.)  If the studio system still ruled, there would be five “Meryl Streeps” instead of one.  However, I am not sure that any of today’s leading men could match even Fred MacMurray (“Double Indemnity” with Barbara Stanwyck), let alone Clark Gable. 

From the 1930s through the 1950s, actors knew how to act.  They acted with their eyes, facial tics, and hand movements as well as with the way they delivered their lines.  Eli Wallach was 92 when he appeared in 2010’s “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.”  Though he has few lines, he is constantly acting—flinching and using his walking stick—while the rest of the cast just spouts rhetoric.

B&W also brought us the horror genre.  Claude Rains was the “Invisible Man” (by H. G. Wells.)  John Barrymore, Frederic March and Spencer Tracy have all starred as “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (by Robert Louis Stevenson.)  Wells and Stevenson understood that the true horror is the evil lurking inside of us, not an otherworldly creature.  B&W film allows for the transformation in ways that color cannot.

B&W rules!

Ten recommended B&W films:
  • The Night of the Hunter (1955)
  • Lured (1947)
  • Deception (1946)
  • Ball of Fire (1941)
  • Sunset Blvd. (1950)
  • Grand Hotel (1932)
  • Our Man in Havana (1962)
  • Advise and Consent (1962)
  • The Big Heat (1953)
  • Hobson’s Choice (1954)