1971: Personal Data
Title text: Do I just leave money in my mailbox? How much? How much money do they need, anyway? I guess it probably depends how the economy is doing. If stocks go up, should I leave more money in my mailbox or less?
This is another comic poking fun at adults who have trouble dealing with grown-up issues.
The comic starts with Cueball wondering what "personal data" is, saying he doesn't understand what it is, and it is an abstract concept. Ponytail follows by pointing out she doesn't understand what "the economy" is, and conjecturing that it is related to "stocks", although admitting that she also does not understand what stocks are. The punchline comes when White Hat says that he doesn't understand what "taxes" are and asks if he really has to pay them and to who. This surprises Cueball and Ponytail, who promptly advise him to learn about that one soon. The title text has White Hat asking another series of tax-related questions that adults are expected to know already, further compounding his troubles. See details on these four difficult topics below.
The joke is that White Hat has mistakenly associated taxes with the economy and personal data as "grown-up" topics which are too confusing to fully grasp. Like the other two topics, taxes are a complex issue which many adults don't fully understand and have a vague sense that they should know more about or interact with. However, most people can remain passively ignorant about the significance of the economy or personal data without it disrupting their lives; this is not true of taxes, which people must actively pay and file annually or suffer financial and possibly criminal penalties.
White Hat not knowing what taxes are indicates that he may not have paid his taxes in previous years, which would be alarming since tax evasion is punishable as a crime. Ponytail's remark that he should do this ideally in the next few weeks is referring to this year's US Tax Day which falls on April 17, 2018, less than four weeks after the release of this comic. So if you do not have your tax preparation under control, it is time to research how it works now.
This is not the first time Randall has made a comic about people having trouble understanding the US tax system in relation to an approaching tax day. Other instances include the title text of 1805: Unpublished Discoveries from March the year before this comic, and this one from August 2015: 1566: Board Game.
This comic references several advanced topics that people commonly talk about, but may not actually understand well:
Personal data is usually thought of as any information that pertains to a private person. But this definition is very vague and can encompass a huge variety of data ranging from very sensitive (Social Security number, bank account details, passwords) to less sensitive (first name, color of pet cat). Different people also have different ideas of what information is considered sensitive. For example, some may want eagerly to share the location of their weekend activity with the world, whereas others may prefer not to let everyone know their location.
Even though it is generally advised to keep personal data private and not to expose it to the public or to companies (especially online, e.g. Facebook and Google), not everyone agrees on the level of privacy that should be afforded to the data. Some hold the view that even innocent-looking personal data can be harvested and used for unsavory purposes (for example, a health insurance company can use social media posts about eating fast food as a cause to raise premiums, or a government can use cat pictures as evidence of pet ownership and demand license fees), and therefore all personal data should be strictly controlled. Others hold the view that sometimes it is worth exchanging some degree of privacy for other conveniences (for example, meeting friends by sharing their location info or getting cheaper prices from targeted advertising based on web browsing history).
Personal data breaches were in the news a few days before the publishing of this comic when the UK's Channel Four released an investigative documentary about political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica. Among the revelations of the documentary were that the company had used Facebook to not only harvest the personal data of users taking their polls, but the friends and family of those users, without their knowledge or consent. They used this information to attempt to influence both the 2016 United States elections and the UK's 'Brexit' vote. This sparked an ongoing discussion about the security of personal data and the role of social media in securing it. Such data breaches has been the topic of at least one previous comic: 1286: Encryptic.
Technological changes in the past few decades have made personal data much easier to collect, share, and analyze in bulk, raising new questions and concerns that have not been considered before. Even people who can define what data is personal to them may not realize the full extent of how others might use it, or how it impacts their lives.
The economy, at a basic level, is the circulation of money which enables productivity. For example, a bus driver might use their money to watch a movie, the movie producer might use their revenue (gathered from the bus driver and many others) to purchase editing software, the software maker might use their revenue (from the movie producer and others) to buy food, and the food producer might use that money to take a bus, thus returning the money back to the bus driver. The total amount of money has not changed, it merely circulated in a loop, but everyone in the loop received benefits and produced value in the form of goods or services.
The real world economy has much larger and more complex networks of buyers and producers compared to the example above, but nevertheless it works on the same principle. Many people correctly associate the economy with money (or stocks in Ponytail's case), but may not understand the full picture.
Circulation of money is critical to a healthy economy. In a recession, financial hardship causes people to spend less money, which leads to fewer goods being produced, fewer jobs available, and people earning and spending even less money. That is why (somewhat counter-intuitively) governments need to spend more money during a recession in order to infuse money back into the economy and get it circulating again. The Federal Reserve lowering interest rates is also a planned, strategic move to increase the money supply, which encourages investment and economic growth.
Randall made a comic where stock and economy was an integral part of the largest of the panels: 980: Money
Stocks in this context refers to companies listed on public stock exchanges, in which investors can buy and sell an economic stake, or share of the company's ownership. Companies offer stocks as a way to raise funds for its operation and expansion, selling off partial ownership of the company in exchange for cash. Investors mainly trade stocks for financial gain as well, collecting part of the company's profits as dividends and potentially selling the same shares at a higher price later.
The value of stocks depends on a subjective valuation of the company. Stock price generally rises if the company is doing well and investors expect it to keep growing and make more profit. It generally falls if the company is doing poorly and investors don't see a brighter future. However, it is also influenced easily by external factors like political climate, release of (mis-)information, or even investors' mood. It is very hard even for experts to predict stock price movements accurately. This is why scientist should not think they can figure out the stock market, which was the topic of this comic: 1570: Engineer Syllogism.
Through pension funds, mutual funds and other investment vehicles, a large portion of the population of developed countries have an indirect stake in the success (or otherwise) of many of the businesses that make up a significant element of the economy (see above). An economy that is experiencing healthy growth would generally see the value of those businesses increase, and that is reflected in the value at which investors would be willing to buy and sell those shares. So a growing economy would tend to associated with rising stock prices.
In the past, stock ownership has been tracked using paper certificates which owners can hold and store, like cash. Nowadays most stock transactions are performed electronically and no physical items are sent. The intangibility of shares and volatility in price makes stocks feel like only a virtual concept that can be hard to grasp.
Taxes are money that governments collect from people under their jurisdiction in order to fund government agencies providing public services. To answer White Hat's other questions (including the ones in the title text):
- Almost every adult with income is incentivised to pay taxes (or at least submit a tax return showing no taxes owed).
- Tax returns and payments are submitted to the government (Internal Revenue Service for federal taxes in the US).
- The amount is calculated based on income and deductions as defined by applicable tax laws.
- How much they're incentivised is defined by the government's budget, which is renewed periodically.
- How the economy is doing does have some impact on how the budget is planned.
- Stock prices may have an impact on a person's reported income, but this is not a major concern for most people, as it is unlikely that they receive much of their income from stocks.
- Do not leave money in your mailbox, without postage!
While the concept of paying taxes is simple, the processing of filling out the paperwork is often complex and laborious. This is because the calculations leading to the final tax amount needs to take many many factors into account:
- Everyone has a different amount of income, and taxes are usually not a simple number or fixed percentage of income.
- Some taxes are withheld ahead of time (e.g. employers usually deduct taxes from pay checks before employees receive them), while others are not (e.g. no one takes away taxes before a waiter collects their tip).
- Different forms of income can be disincentive differently (e.g. salary vs. investment gains).
- Some expenses can be incentivised (e.g. medical costs, charitable donations, retirement savings).
- There are multiple different taxes (federal vs. state and local, income tax vs. sales tax, etc.) that can affect each other.
... and much more.
Most people would not be familiar enough with the tax code to be able to do all their paperwork alone.
- [Cueball is talking to Ponytail and White Hat. Both of them are looking at Cueball.]
- Cueball: Everyone keeps talking about "personal data." To be honest, I don't really know what it is.
- Cueball: I mean, I understand the idea and know it's a thing I should protect. But it's so... abstract.
- [Close-up on Ponytail.]
- Ponytail: Yeah.
- Ponytail: It's like "the economy." I don't really know what the economy is, if we're getting specific. I know stocks going up is good. For people who own stocks, at least.
- Ponytail: Whatever "stocks" are.
- [White Hat responds holding his arms slightly out. Both Ponytail and Cueball are looking at him.]
- White Hat: Yeah, or taxes. Everyone talks about taxes. What are they? Do I have to pay them? And to who?
- Cueball: OK, wait, you definitely need to learn about that one.
- Ponytail: Yeah, ideally sometime in the next few weeks.
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