By Steve Kelman
Yes, it's (possibly) true. Many who like me have lived more or less our whole lives in the large cities of the Northeast feel we are sophisticated and global, but sometimes we may know and understand London, Paris, or even Beijing better than we understand parts of our own country outside the coasts.
I have been reminded of this inconvenient truth the last few days visiting the Martin School (public administration and public policy program) at the University of Kentucky, in Lexington. I realized that this is only the second time I have ever visited Kentucky at all –- I was in Louisville once around 25 years ago to look at the GE Appliances customer call center -– and that my knowledge of Kentucky culture or traditions is minimal. The University of Kentucky is an important part of the city, but this is not a university town –- its population is around 300,000 (three times the population of Cambridge, Massachusetts).
I guess a lot of my impressions fall under the rubric of seeing that many of the elements of coastal "sophisticated" urban culture have made their way to a mid-size city with a substantial base of highly educated people that is in Kentucky, not on the coasts. Two dinners to which I was invited by faculty colleagues at the Martin School were truly superb. One was at a wine bar outside the city that served its own local wine, where the rare duck was actually some of the most tender and flavorful I've ever had. (I will confess that the wine was only a good try, but still.) The other was at a bistro downtown, quite crowded on a weeknight, where I ate -– again superb -– seared tuna with a chile plum sauce. In addition to that, the downtown and campus areas had at least one Thai and at least one Mexican restaurant.
So what else? Longtime faculty members told me that over the past 25 years the regional accents of their Kentucky students (half the class) had softened noticeably. The public administration program is now filled with Asian students, mostly from China and Korea, and the university now does a training program for Korean mid-level government officials. I was surprised to see the airport gift shop prominently advertise their selection of New York Times Bestsellers, with the Times logo. A last surprising similarity with my own area of the country was that housing prices were not cheap, perhaps only 20 percent (if that) below those in the nice Boston suburbs.
So is anything different? Yes. There are horse farms everywhere. The most famous house in the city is owned by the university basketball coach. The downtown -- Lexington is a very old city -- had a strange feel to me, with old buildings (both commercial and residential) that were neither renovated and yuppified, the way similar buildings often are in old midsize northeastern cities, nor dilapidated and collapsing, like so many urban cores 30 years ago. They were somewhere in the middle, and downtown did not hang together but rather seemed more like a collection of random structures. (It didn't help there was a grassy empty area in the center of town, the result of some historic buildings having been torn down for construction of a Marriott Hotel, which then got waylayed by the 2008 economic crisis.)
And -- on the nice side -- it seems as if the large majority of public administration students go to work for government or nonprofits. Often to the state government, but sometimes to federal agencies where the school has connections (mostly GAO it seems).
Oh, and by the way, I felt a lump in my heart when I saw flags at half-staff at the entrance to the university, and even at a local McDonald's, in honor of the Boston victims. Yes, we are one country.
Posted on Apr 19, 2013 at 12:43 PM1 comments
Whether it's Silicon Valley or a New York yogurt factory, the vitality and energy immigrants bring to the U.S. economy are tremendous assets.
Many, especially in the tech world, are familiar with the contributions of immigrants to high-tech business in the United States -- according to some estimates, some 40 percent of NASDAQ-listed tech firms were founded by people not born in the United States. But a fascinating and inspiring article recently appearing in the Financial Times of London about Hamdi Ulukaya, the Turkish immigrant who brought Greek-style yogurt to America, reminds us that these contributions to our country are not limited to the high-tech sphere.
Ulukaya came to the United States in 1994 to study English, started working on a farm in upstate New York, and in 2002 opened a small plant making a Turkish-style cheese. He started his yogurt company, Chobani, in 2007 when he bought a yogurt plant that had been shut down by Kraft Food. His idea was to bring a more-natural, less-sugared yogurt onto the market. (And it's worth noting that he got a $1 million loan from the Small Business Administration to buy the plant.)
Several years later, Chobani yoghurt sells a billion dollars a year of product, and the company employs 2,000 people. It all started by getting one supermarket on Long Island to sell his yogurt.
There is an important message here, which seems to be becoming more and more accepted in political debate: Immigrants are a source of amazing vitality and energy in the U.S. economy. We should be lucky they want to come here.
With the sad news coming from my hometown of Boston this week, Ulukaya's story is something to cheer us up about the human spirit and about the United States.
(By the way, I'd like to thank all the friends, former students, and others who contacted me either on Facebook or by email to express sympathies for our loss here in Boston.)
Posted on Apr 17, 2013 at 9:43 AM2 comments
Like other procrastinating Americans, I have been working the last few days trying to finish up my taxes. (Although unlike many Americans, I tend to be in the "taxes are the price we pay for civilization" camp.) I use H&R Block software to do my taxes, and as I was checking the 1040 that emerged from my efforts to answer the various questions the software prompts, I noticed something strange.
I own a number of stocks in foreign companies, where the government of the country deducts local income taxes on the company's stock dividends. In such cases, U.S. tax law allows taxpayers to take a tax credit corresponding to the taxes deducted by the foreign government. So, for example, if the foreign government deducts $100 in taxes, the taxpayer can take a $100 credit on his or her own taxes. (The taxpayer reports the dividend payment as income and pays U.S. taxes on it.)
The foreign tax credits are entered in the H&R Block interview system where you give the various items on 1099 forms for dividend payments. I dutifully entered these where relevant, on the line labeled "foreign tax paid."
However, at the end of the process I discovered to my surprise that the H&R Block system hadn't transferred these credits from the interview form to line 47 on the 1040, which shows foreign taxes paid, so they can be credited. My 1040 showed foreign tax credits of zero dollars.
So I called the company's customer service. To make a long story short – and this was a very long story, as I was on the phone probably for 45 minutes about this one problem, and I felt like I was educating the customer service representative on U.S. tax law as I was going along – there was a problem with the H&R Block software. They said they would share my problem with their tech team, but it would likely not be fixed for several weeks (well after April 15). I could bring in their live tax-filing helpers, but that service cost money. Also, they told me that if I changed any of the forms myself from what came out of the interview process, I wouldn't be able to e-file.
I have written before about problems that exist in the private sector as well as government but often get more attention when they are created by government. Frankly, I think a lot of people notice them more when they occur in the context of a government experience, because they correspond to the preconceptions most people have of what service from government vs. the private sector is like. Once that perception gets established, it gets confirmed by selective attention.
And that perception in turn is influenced by media coverage. This is another example of a problem that, had it occurred in government, would get covered by the media.
To be fair to H&R Block, there was one difference: the customer service rep told me that next year I could provide my call reference number, and H&R Block would provide me with next year's tax prep package for free.
Posted on Apr 11, 2013 at 3:13 PM5 comments