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Weddings & agriculture go hand-in-hand like carpentry & surgery

To The Daily Sun,

After reading Gail Ober's front page article (Daily Sun, Jan. 13) and also a letter which mercilessly berated Timber Hill Farms' abutter, I would like to make the following points.

In the article, I thought the words of John Moulton of Moulton Farm ("as long as there is a strong farm-to-agriculture connect" and "there needs to be a true farming enterprise") pretty much summed up whether or not Timber Hill/Beans and Greens' ambitions to hold a commercial wedding venue on their residentially-zoned property could ever fall within the parameters of any definition of agritourism that anyone could conceivably come up with now or in the future. To illustrate my point, let's examine what Moulton Farm does on their farm: they grow produce, they have a large indoor and outdoor farm stand, a bakery; a garden center, greenhouses, a farm kitchen, and corn mazes. They run periodic cooking classes and also host Farm-To-Table (or as they say, "Field-To-Fork") events throughout the growing season. All of these functions and activities are conducted on the same grounds. In other words, the Moultons seem to have truly defined agritourism: they actually bring people to the farm. When they serve their Field-To-Fork brunches, they are served within a stones-throw of where the crops are actually grown, as is the food actually cooked, the breads actually baked, the preserves actually preserved, the plants actually started ... etc., etc.

In the article, when Mr. Moulton further states, "doesn't change a heck of a lot" in reference to legislators Boutin and Horner's efforts in sponsoring their proposed bill; what Mr. Moulton is saying, in my opinion, is a total understatement. In fact, it will change nothing. There was one Supreme Court justice dissenter on Forstner v. Town of Henniker (which addressed commercial wedding venues on farms under the umbrella of agritourism) and in seven pages of argument he was still unable to get over the hurdle of: "the accessory use be minor in relation to the primary use and that it bear a reasonable resemblance to that use." In other words, commercial wedding reception venues have as much to do with agriculture as carpentry has to do with brain surgery.

It's interesting to note too that Forstner also tried to sway the justices by arguing, "there are all these other farms that are having weddings, why shouldn't I?", but the argument fell flat, because the other farms were either zoned properly and/or were careful not to alienate and anger the abutters by considering their privacy and rights to enjoy their own property in a reasonable manner. Exactly. It would seem, what Timber Hill/Beans and Greens has neglected to do with their abutter.

Anyway, I was thinking after reading the article that if the Legislature needs a definition of agritourism, they simply need to visit Moulton Farms, because there, it would seem, they are not working within any inflated, exaggerated or forced definitions of agritourism to fit their agenda, they are in fact by the very nature of what they provide and how they provide it ... defining it. Agritourism is a great tool for agriculture, and I support it. However, like any tool, if used improperly, it can have regrettable consequences.

Al Blake

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Many areas where middle class subsidizes the benefits of the wealthy

To The Daily Sun,

In 2016, what does a person making $118,500 pay into Social Security? $7,347, or 6.2 percent of his or her salary. What does a person making 10 times that amount — or $1,185,000 — contribute?, $7,347 — or 0.65 percent of his or her salary, i.e., less than 1 percent. The reason for that is that under the Social Security Act (FICA, or Federal Insurance Contributions Act), the maximum contribution is $7,347.

And what about that very lucky person making $11.85 million pay into Social Security? Once again, $7,347. For that person, the contribution represents 0.06 percent, less than a hundredth of his or her salary. For that very, very lucky person, most likely a hedge fund manager, there are also undoubtedly lots of additional forms of compensation that do not even get figured into salary, such as stock options, deferred compensation, and bonuses. In fact the base salary of the manager is likely to be only one-third or less of the total compensation package.

If the person making $118,500 were to pay into Social Security at the 0.06 percent rate applicable to the very lucky hedge fund manager, then that person's total yearly contribution would be $71.10.

A flat tax is generally a percentage tax that applies to everyone at the same rate at all income levels. A progressive tax has a higher tax rate for higher earners. And a regressive tax is one that imposes a higher rate on lower income earners, and a lower rate for the most highly compensated. The Social Security maximum contribution, or tax-max as it is called, is an extremely regressive tax that provides huge benefit to the very highest earners only for no apparent reason. It is not linked in any way to job creation or any other possible societal benefit. On the contrary, these lions of Wall Street are essentially making money from money, as opposed to producing or creating anything.

In case my figures of possible compensation seem unreasonably high, note that in 2014, the top 25 hedge fund managers (all men, by the way) made $11.6 billion, yes, billion — or approximately $464 million each. (Washington Post, May 12, 2015). That translates to over $1 million a day, if we include weekend days in the mix. The kind of person who makes a salary in that range may very well be the same type of person who talks about the 47 percent of Americans who are viewed as "takers" dependent on government entitlements, in contrast to our benevolent hedge fund manager above, who is viewed as a "maker." There is some accuracy to that last claim, as the hedge fund manager does, in fact, make something, and that something is money. Not goods, not jobs, not art or science, but money. That same fund manager is also very likely to hate the thought of the democratic socialism of Bernie Sanders.

Martin Luther King Jr., speaking only months before his assassination in 1968, said that America "has socialism for the rich, rugged individualism for the poor." The regressive Social Security tax-max system is but one of many examples of that. When a person making 100 times the salary of another pays the same (and, to him, minuscule) amount into Social Security, that is socialism for the rich.

The Social Security tax-max problem is just one of innumerable examples of ways in which our tax system is profoundly unfair It provides those at the highest levels of wealth and income with endless ways to shield their income from taxation, opportunities unavailable to working and middle-class Americans. The capital gains tax, for example, has a maximum tax rate of 15 percent, as opposed to the maximum ordinary income rate of 35 percent. The capital gains tax subsidy is available to all, but it is only those at higher income levels who truly reap its benefits.

Think of what Anatole France said many years ago: "The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread." Other areas of unfair taxation that are skewed in favor of the wealthy are the carried interest special tax treatment, deferred income benefits, mortgage interest deduction on second (vacation) homes, and severe limits on the estate tax. It should be noted that the problem has been getting worse, not better over the years. According to IRS data, 20 years ago the 400 highest-earning taxpayers paid nearly 27 percent of their income in federal taxes; by 2012, the figure had fallen to less than 17 percent.

These are all areas of unfairness, in which the ordinary, middle class taxpayer essentially subsidizes the benefits of the wealthy. The type of democratic socialism favored by Bernie Sanders would address these problems and attempt to make the playing field a little more level.

Bernie Sanders is not trying to have the U.S. government own the means of production or take over corporations. His goal is to create a system that helps the most vulnerable and that requires the billionaires at the top to contribute their fair share. This would require changes in the tax system, changes in the Social Security tax-max, and changes in the political system to bring all of us into the democracy on an equal footing, with one person, one vote, and without the undue influence of Super PACs and the fossil fuel and pharmaceutical industries.

The Fairness Doctrine.

Ruth Larson


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