Thursday, December 9, 2010

Death and Taxes

DI: I’m still trying to find a good balance for these interviews, so I’d like to talk to you about two things, one personal, one political, both inevitable: death and taxes. What do you think of the new compromise reached by the President and the Republican leadership?

B: It’s… not as bad as I expected.

DI: Damnit. I was hoping for a “No, sir, I don’t like it” Ren and Stimpy quote. You know, the horse who tests out cat litter? Don’t stare at me like I’ve just escaped Arkham Asylum. Explain your response a little more fully.

B: Well, I think they do some things right. A temporary extension of the tax cuts, to help stimulate the economy is not a terrible idea- though as Krugman notes the multiplier isn’t great there. The unemployment benefit extension is good- though how they could trade two years of tax cuts for a thirteen week extension is beyond me- someone isn’t very good at math. And they managed a payroll tax holiday, which I had pretty much given up on. Practically speaking, it’s a stealth stimulus, put on the nation’s tab- only this time you won’t hear Republicans screaming about it because it gets them their precious upper-income tax cuts.

DI: You don’t sound particularly enthusiastic- particularly for someone who’s just been told they’re getting millions of extra dollars next year.

B: I’m not. It’s a stimulus, sort of, but it’s not a particularly well designed or implemented one. The unemployment benefits, easily the best part of the package, won’t last long enough to get the job done, and the rest of it is largely money spent that shouldn’t have been. Even the payroll tax holiday isn’t big enough at 2 percent. It could have been 3. It should have been 5, or even the whole 6.2 percent. That’s money the American people would notice- and spend. Median household income is $50,000, so ballpark a week’s wages at $1,000. A 2 percent payroll tax holiday is $20 bucks more a week; 5 percent would have been $50.

DI: Okay, cool, now shut up about politics. We’re on to death: you have AIDS. We’ve mostly been sidetracked for a long time, but I wanted to get that back into the fore. You’re dying. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow. But sooner than maybe otherwise. Have you read White Noise?

B: Yes. Have you?

DI: I… perused the SparkNotes.

B: It’s not particularly applicable. I don’t really fear death- at least um, I’m not preoccupied with it the way that that novel is, or DeLilo, or Becker, whom the author relies upon heavily.

DI: Because not all of us went to Harvard, or wherever-

B: You ooze journalistic integrity-

DI: could you sum up for us Becker.

B: He’s most famous for The Denial of Death. It was a book theorizing that society is largely based around an attempt to refute our mortality. It’s sort of the polar opposite of the Freudian obsession with procreation, and by extension, the creation of life. Both have some points that they make, and I think both are a useful study in fixations- because I don’t think being too focused on life or death is helpful when there’s work to be done.

DI: But your work, and I’ll include your time in the underpants brigade as well as your philanthropy, isn’t that a way of combating death? I mean, you’ve discussed how your parents died pointlessly in an alley. That’s got to be one of the more brutal confrontations with mortality that exists.

B: That’s true. When I was young, my parents’ death weighed heavily on me. Life was fleeting- and the fragility of it made life at the same time more and less valuable to me. That’s why I was willing to put my own life in danger to protect other people. And at the same time, I think having that purpose gave my own life more value.

DI: And most importantly, you were cheating death.

B: Only slightly. There’s only a handful of times where I’d say I cheated death. Mostly, I studied death, came to know it intimately, and learned how to skirt the edges of its territory without trespassing.

DI: That sounds awfully purple.

B: Maybe. But what I’m getting at is that it isn’t cheating death knowing that an untrained criminal with a gun will panic and fire wildly, that the slightest distractions and misdirection can turn a decent threat into a quivering puddle. I played the percentages, that’s all. There were a few times where, say, a ricochet took an ear off my cowl, instances like that, where the devil may have been due, but cheating, no.

DI: But philosophically. Every life you saved, was a life snatched away from death, added to your tally, added to your mythos. You could be hit by a truck tomorrow- probably the least climactic death possible- and the world would remember you for years.

B: I hope not. I’m leaving my fortune to my sons, Tim and Dick. I’m leaving my costumed legacy in the hands of others, who I think in time are capable of so fully eclipsing my accomplishments that I’ll be lost to time. At least, that’s what I hope.

I’ve fought death, I think you can say that. But I’ve also always known you can’t win. Just this last year, losing Clark, that became that much truer in my eyes. If even Superman can’t escape death, what chance would I have?

But like you said. I’m not dying today. I’m not dying tomorrow. I may not even die from this- there’s a very real possibility that I’ll live long enough for a substantive medical breakthrough, or at least to be killed by something more conventional. Like a clot from any number of old bone breaks dislodging and catching in my brain or heart. Or a plane crash.

I think for me death was always an adversary, from the day my parents died, always on the opposite side of a chess board. And I relished every time I could take away one of his pawns, and I mourned my every failure. But I think I’ve always known that at the end of the game, no matter how well I did, death and I were walking away together.

DI: Do you think in death you’ll be reunited with your parents?

B: I don’t know; I don’t think I think so. But I hope so.

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