Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

Sunflower and more

with 30 comments

From Twin Lakes Park in Cedar Park on September 24th, here’s a backlit back view of a sunflower (Helianthus annuus) with out-of-focus silver bluestem seed heads (Bothriochloa laguroides) beyond it. On one of the sunflower’s rays I noticed a tiny insect. Once I did, I brought my macro lens as close as possible to what turned out to be a true bug (as opposed to the common English use of bug to mean any kind of insect). Naturalist Ken Wohlgemuth says it might be in the genus Harmostes (which I showed a member of in 2015). Click below to truly enlarge the true bug.


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Discussions of taxes focus mostly on income taxes, property taxes, sales taxes, and other overt forms of taxation. Many people don’t realize that low interest rates are a form of tax. For much of my life, and as recently as 2008, people who lived within their means could save some money and put it in a bank to get interest of 4% per year. As decades passed, compound interest would let a person’s savings grow to a nice nest egg for later in life. Since the financial crash of 2008, however, governments around the world have kept interest rates artificially low, so low that 1% has often been the best deal available. A big reason why governments have done so is that they continue borrowing extravagantly, and lower interest rates correspond to lower repayments of debt.

Another tax that often isn’t thought of as a tax is inflation. People in recent months have begun to notice it because so many prices have been rising. Among the most conspicuous are the prices of staple foods—have you been to the supermarket lately?—and of fuel. The price of natural gas has risen 100% in the United States this year, and 280% in Europe, as winter approaches and the demand for heating homes heads for its annual peak. According to one website, “The annual inflation rate in the US eased [!] to 5.3% in August from a 13-year high of 5.4% reported in June and July.” So even as thrifty people struggle to get pitifully little interest on their savings in a bank—the best rates are currently running at about half of a percent—the value of each dollar keeps going down.

Not only is inflation a hidden tax, but it’s the kind of tax economists classify as regressive. That means it disproportionately affects people who are the least able to afford it. A wealthy person doesn’t care if gasoline is $3 a gallon or $6 a gallon, or if a loaf of bread this year costs a dollar more than it did last year. But for a person who is living on the margins and who needs to drive to work, the dollar-a-gallon rise in the price of gasoline over the past year is painful, as is paying noticeably more for a cart of groceries to sustain a family.

Several years ago I would occasionally ask someone out of the blue: “Have you got your $60,000 ready?” That was the share of the national debt owed by each person in the United States, from newborn baby to centenarian. By 2019 the per-capita share had risen to around $69,000. By 2020 it had soared to almost $81,000. As of two weeks ago, the amount every single person in America owes was calculated to be $85,424.

I bring all this up now for a couple of reasons. One is that it’s distressing to watch helplessly as the money we’ve dutifully saved by living within our means is worth less and less each month. Another reason is that the current administration in the United States is pushing to “spend”—which means borrow—$3.5 trillion more than the trillions it has already borrowed. That will drive the national debt even higher; soon I’ll be asking you whether you’ve got your $100,000 ready to pay your individual share. Profligate borrowing will also further incite inflation, which, as noted, most affects the people least able to cope with it. To use a word that’s in vogue, all this is unsustainable. Our representatives in government have to find ways to begin paying down the national debt, not driving it ever higher. In short, just as individuals have to live within their means, so do governments.

(And let me head off potential criticism by adding that I was against the large increases in the debt under both Obama and Trump. Inordinate debt is bad no matter which party is responsible for it.)

© 2021 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

October 6, 2021 at 4:27 AM

30 Responses

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  1. Scary thought…..

    picpholio

    October 6, 2021 at 4:30 AM

  2. Out here on the margins, things look exactly as you’ve described them. Wealthy legislators who play the “Aw, shucks” game to pretend they’re just like any old citizen are contemptible: much like those who sugggest defunding police from behind impenetrable walls patrolled by private security teams. As for interest rates, I’m old enough to remember 12% interest on savings accounts. To quote the old song, those were the days.

    Thank goodness for sunflowers, bluestem, and bugs! I especially like that bluestem background: shimmery, but not too busy.

    shoreacres

    October 6, 2021 at 6:14 AM

    • How well I remember that song. What I didn’t remember was how long ago it was popular: 1968, so I would’ve learned it in Honduras. Mary Hopkin seems to have been a one-hit wonder. I just checked and found that she’s still alive at age 71 (aren’t we all?).

      One way to summarize your first paragraph is that a synonym for politician is hypocrite. We can think of many others, all negative.

      The 12% interest on savings accounts you remember must have been from the high-inflation (stagflation) of the Carter era in the late 1970s.

      Steve Schwartzman

      October 6, 2021 at 6:37 AM

    • I wanted to do a picture of the backlit silver bluestem in its own right but I couldn’t find an angle that would give as good a picture as the one I made a few miles away from there last fall. Instead, I settled for using it as the shimmery but not too busy background you described.

      Steve Schwartzman

      October 7, 2021 at 7:07 AM

  3. Nice

    Ayi Ariquater

    October 6, 2021 at 8:19 AM

  4. Truly cool shot of the bug! 😎

    Robert Parker

    October 6, 2021 at 8:53 AM

  5. On the bright golden sunflower petals, anything dark is clearly visible. I spotted the insect right away. The fall weather remains mild and sunny here in BC. And our sunflowers are still blooming and are attracting a lot of bees and hoverflies.

    Peter Klopp

    October 6, 2021 at 9:26 AM

    • And I hope the sunlit wildflowers are enticing you to hover over them, too.

      In these pictures the backlighting made it easier to spot the bug.

      Steve Schwartzman

      October 6, 2021 at 11:50 AM

  6. I never tire of what you see and how you present it.

    lulu

    October 6, 2021 at 2:59 PM

  7. The sunflower + bug came out really nice. I could not agree more about National debt and the need to spend less than what is earned. I think no administration wants to be the one to actually make the necessary cuts. It’s not popular.

    Alessandra Chaves

    October 6, 2021 at 10:38 PM

    • You got it: no administration wants to be the one to “bite the bullet.” Cutting back means enduring complaints from everyone who profited—and often profiteered–from the now-to-be-cut-back programs.

      Steve Schwartzman

      October 7, 2021 at 6:53 AM

      • Which was the last administration to leave a debt-free nation? Talking about inflation, in my 20s, the inflation rate in Brazil was 40% a month at some point. Yes, a month. Now, imagine living like that!

        Alessandra Chaves

        October 7, 2021 at 8:00 AM

        • I can’t really imagine it, even though I know that countries have endured hyperinflation, like the Brazil of your 20s and Germany after World War I. Most Americans probably think “It can’t happen here,” but there’s no reason to assume that. I think the highest inflation here during my life was in the Carter era of the late 1970s, when it was in the range of 15%–18% per year.

          I don’t know the last time the United States had no debt. The last time we balanced the budget and even had a budget surplus was after Democrat President Bill Clinton worked with Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich:

          Fiscal Year 2001: $128 billion surplus
          Fiscal Year 2000: $236 billion surplus
          Fiscal Year 1999: $126 billion surplus
          Fiscal Year 1998: $69 billion surplus

          Steve Schwartzman

          October 7, 2021 at 8:18 AM

  8. It seems to be the American way for the majority to spend beyond one’s means. It’s not only the government but a large percent of the citizenry carry credit card balances that probably mirror the indebtedness of our government. People are encouraged to spend rather than save. When young, saving was taught to us as a way to guarantee a good future. But the economy suffers if we don’t spend what we have. Then when we have something expensive in mind out comes the plastic money. I imagine that higher interest rates would encourage savings, 0.5% does not.

    Photography equipment is a good example. Almost every periodical stresses new equipment. The magazines are filled not only with ads for it but articles about what’s new and articles about shooting with an emphasis on using new equipment. I watch a few different YouTube channels and many of the pros are changing systems like they are giving them away…which is the case for the pros but not for us. On Facebook photographers share images made with brand new cameras on a regular basis. People feel the need for a new model car every so many years. Upward mobility requires new homes too. It is exceedingly easy for the average person to accumulate debt quickly.
    It’s always good to take a look at the other side of things, like with your sunflower.

    Steve Gingold

    October 7, 2021 at 2:34 AM

    • You’re sure right that lots of Americans spend beyond their means. “On average, Americans carry $6,194 in credit card debt, according to the 2019 Experian Consumer Credit Review.” I just checked and found the annual credit card interest rate currently averages 16%. I’ve never used a credit card as anything but a convenience, especially when traveling. Each month I pay off the full amount that’s due so no penalties and interest accrue.

      Your words “when young” reminded me that in elementary school we were offered the chance to open a savings account at the local bank (Franklin National Bank). We could deposit as little as 5¢ at a time (which an online inflation calculator says would be about 50¢ now).

      I know photographers who are big into equipment. I’m not. During my 3-D period in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I used Stereo Realist cameras from the 1950s. I’m now into year 7 on my Canon 5DSr. I’ll upgrade when I can get more megapixels and better dynamic range—which will apparently also mean I’ll go mirrorless, ’cause that’s the route Canon has taken.

      As for cars, we’re split between old and recent: a 1998 Toyota Avalon and a 2018 Subaru Outback. I use the old car for most of my nature photography, which as you know can be a grungy business, especially in the Texas heat; if a 23-year-old car gets a little dirty, who cares? The Subaru’s great for traveling (if we ever get to travel again!).

      Steve Schwartzman

      October 7, 2021 at 7:36 AM

      • I had one of those 50¢ accounts too. I wonder how much it is worth now. I am impressed that you are still driving a 23 year old car but then Toyota does make a good one.

        Steve Gingold

        October 8, 2021 at 5:00 AM

        • We bought the Toyota used from the original owners in 2003 with I think about 85,000 miles on it. It’s up to around 215,000 now, the highest I’ve ever gotten on any car. We haven’t had to put much money into it during all those years. It leaks a little oil now but getting that repaired would cost more than the book value of the car.

          Steve Schwartzman

          October 8, 2021 at 5:18 AM

  9. Just to throw some extra light on the subject, government debt looks sunnier if viewed via the debt to GDP matrix. Unfortunately that doesn’t make my personal finances look any brighter. https://www.visualcapitalist.com/government-debt-in-2021/

    Gallivanta

    October 7, 2021 at 7:42 PM

    • As you said, looking at the ratio of debt to GDP doesn’t make your personal finances any brighter; nor does it change the fact that over here each person still owes more than $85,000, with that amount continuing to rise.

      Steve Schwartzman

      October 7, 2021 at 9:59 PM

  10. It is

    miriareports

    October 12, 2021 at 6:46 AM

  11. […] Six weeks ago I wrote a commentary pointing out that inflation is as much of a tax as any that a legislature imposes on you. Inflation […]


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