Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Educational Funding Policy

Proposals for Changes in Educational Funding

Related image

In a discussion on my facebook, we're talking about what we'd like to see in a Democratic party platform. As some of you know, I'm kind of a tax policy nerd, and I was asked for details about how I'd restructure educational funding. It got long, so I'm putting it here. If you are not a wonky nerd, this post will have nothing of interest. OTOH, I've tried to keep this readable with minimal background knowlege, so some bits are a little over simplified. Feel free to ask questions, or for more details, in the comments! If you're my friend, and want to join the discussion, you can do so here: . I've done my best to verify all the facts and figures in here, but if something is wrong, please let me know and I'll fix it.  Almost all stats here come from the dept of education.  I live in Pennsylvania, so when I talk about "state level" that's what I'm talking about.  I live in the Woodland Hills school district, which is a national embarrassment currently under federal investigation for civil rights abuses, but I won't go there in this post.  Across many measures, PA is generally considered to pretty average educationally.  I'm mostly going to talk about K-12 education.  I don't know enough about preK education to say anything relevant.  I'll write a separate post about financing post-secondary education.

Intro: What is the shape of the current market for education in the US?

In the current 2018-2019 school year:

  • There are about 57 million school-age children in the US, who are the consumers.
  • There are about 3.6 million teachers, who are the producers.  
  • Total spending on K-12 ed is about $650 billion (about $13K per student).  
  • About 3.6 million kids graduate from high school each year, 92% from public schools.

In general, the government has four tools to intervene in a market, including the market for education:
  1. Purchasing power: For example, negotiating prices for prescription medications purchased by Medicare.  Many agricultural and other commodity subsidies are implemented this way, with the gvt buying up "excess" production to artificially inflate prices.Single-payer systems (such as "Medicare for all") are an extreme case of this where the gvt is the ONLY purchaser (this called a "public monopsony").  There are not many public monopsony markets in the US.  You would think that military systems SHOULD be an example of this, but US companies sold more than $56 billion dollars of weapons of war to purchasers other than the US gvt (both private mercenaries like Blackwater and foreign governments).  
  2. Taxes: Taxing "bad" stuff and subsidizing "good" stuff with rebates or deductions.
  3. Regulation: Restricting the sale of "bad" stuff and requiring the purchase of "good" stuff.  For example, we regulate the sale of tobacco and require the purchase of health insurance.
  4. Public Provision: Some stuff, the government is the sole (or majority) provider of.  For example: national defense, emergency services, infrastructure, and education are all primarily, but not exclusively, publicly owned.  (that is, to say, the means of production are public)  
All of these mechanisms are at play in education.  Going backwards up the list:
4) About 90% of current K-12 students are in public schools.  Of people currently enrolled in post-secondary education, about 3/4 are in public colleges.  These percentages have been roughly stable over the last several generations.  Of private K-12 education, 36% of students are in Catholic schools, another 39% in other religious schools, and 24% are in secular schools.  About 3% of school-age children are not enrolled in school (most of these are home schooled).  Another way to say this:  Of 1000 kids ages 6-18, roughly 900 go to public school, 53 go to religious schools, 17 go to non-religious private schools (mostly fancy prep schools), and 30 are not in school at all.
3) Private education is very regulated, although regulations vary greatly between states.  PA is among the more restrictive states. 
2) This is the least used tool in K-12 education policy.  Many people think private K-12 tuition is subsidized or tax deductible, but largely it is not.  OTOH, tax subsidies are very much in play for preK and post-secondary education.
1) Publically funded grants and scholarships, such as private school vouchers or Pell grants are examples of this.

I don't feel like we need to either incentivize or discourage private vs public school decisions.  I think that arguments about whether or not we should funnel money "away" from public schools and "to" private ones, and also arguments that families should be able to choose "the school that's best from them" are distractions from the more relevant point that everyone is entitled to the best education we can give them, and decisions about what kinds of education are best are better handled by licensing than tax policy.  In what follows I'm going to talk about how to fund the 90% of K-12 and 75% of post-secondary education that is publicly produced.  I don't know much about preK education, so I'm not really going to talk about that at all.

What do we spend on public education?

In total, the US spends about $640billion on K-12 education, but only $24 billion of that is federal.  
Nearly all educational spending (about 80%) goes to labor costs, of which nearly 60% is spent on teacher salaries.  Teaching is not currently very automatable, and there is nearly overwhelming evidence that says less students per teacher is better, almost no matter what.  For this reason, we cannot substantially decrease the amount of labor needed.  Since we have a growing national teacher shortage, which in some fields (including secondary math and science) is reaching crisis levels, in the absence of radical reforms in teacher training, recruitment, and retention (which I will talk about some below) or dramatic changes in retirement, health care, and other benefits, we should expect per teacher labor costs to continue to rise.  That means that education costs should be expected to continue rising for the foreseeable future at substantially greater than inflation rates.

The national median per-pupil expenditure per student for public K-12 education is about $11,750 per year, but this caries VERY dramatically state to state and school district to school district, from a low of $7000 in Utah to a high of about $22,400 in New York.  Within each state, this also varies excessively among districts.  PA spends about $15K.  Some examples from the greater Pittsburgh region: City of Pittsburgh: $23K.  Woodland Hills (my local district):$17K.  Upper St. Claire (a rich white district): $18K.   Differences in spending do not strongly correlate with differences in performance, until you control for the demography.  MOST DIFFERENCES IN PER PUPIL EXPENDITURE ARE BECAUSE SCHOOLS ARE FORCED TO OPERATE OUTSIDE THEIR SCOPE OF PRACTICE TO PROVIDE  STOP GAP BACKUP FOR SHITTY SOCIAL WELFARE PROGRAMS.   It is much, much cheaper to educate students who are homed, safe, healthy, and well-fed, than it is to educate kids who need more substantive extra-educational support.  Policies on how to make a dent in this problem below.  (We cannot fantasize that changes in school tax policy are enough to address our nation's shameful childhood poverty problem.  I'll talk about some ways I think education CAN address the problem below.)

The overwhelming majority of educational funding happens at the local level.  In almost all places, including here in Pennsylvania, schools are funded almost entirely via property taxes.  This has the effect of ghettoizing schools.  HOWEVER, the federal government has many mechanisms by which it can help fund schools more equitably. 

My proposals below are all more or less revenue neutral:

Expanding the net investment income tax to income earned in S corps and lmt partnerships.  This affects only those who earn more than $200K per year from investments.  That should raise about $13 billion in the first year after implementation.  With that $13 billion, I would spend:

approx $3 billion on teacher housing subsidy grants.  These grants would be ONLY for teachers who live in the same neighborhoods as the students they teach, and would focus on low-income neighborhoods.  That is, the less money the average student has, the more money the school has to spend on housing grants.  It's hard to calculate how much this would cost, because I can't get reliable data on how many teachers live in their catchment area, and I do not know how to predict how much this would change those numbers.  This would help to "level the playing field" by making low-income schools more competitive in attracting quality teachers, and also allows them to hire more of them.  It also encourages schools to be run by the people they serve, and strengthens community investment in the school.  When teachers live in the same communities as their students, they are better able to directly address those student's needs.  Additionally, it strongly incentivizes people in low income neighborhoods to consider teaching as a career.

$10 billion to hire about 150,000 new social workers and medical professionals in low-income schools.  I would weight this aid toward the lowest income schools.  I'd like about 1 new person for every 125-500 low income students (depending on how weighted it is).  I don't have more specific policy on this, but would be interested in talking about it.  I would like the social workers and nurses to be eligible for the same housing subsidies I proposed above.

Implement a financial transaction tax similar to the DeFazio-Harkin.  This would barely impact anyone except extremely wealthy financial speculators, and would raise $50billion, which I would spend to hire 300,000 new teachers of Civics, Economics, Statistics, and Entrepreneurship, again weighted toward low-income schools.  That's one teacher for every 15 students; ie enough to give EVERY student in the country a teacher in those fields every year.

Impose a new progressive estate tax, starting with 1% at estates over 1 million and scaling up to 35% for estates over 5 million and capped at 60% for estates over 10 million.  This would raise about 50 billion per year. 

I would spend that on before and after school child care, mentoring and enrichment programs in foreign languages, sports and fitness, arts, crafts and trades, music, computers, nutrition & cooking, gardening, and other recreation in low income schools.  This is give every low income student in the US an after-school mentor. (assuming those mentors cost about $45K per 20 students) . Since, presumably, not all families will choose to enroll their students in these programs (I can imagine a lot of churches will run their own competing programs, for example) there should be enough.

Expand the National School Lunch Program (which feeds about 30 million kids for about 13 billion dollars, which is about $2.40 per meal) to also include breakfast.  Fund this with a 1.5 cents per ounce tax on sweetened beverages.  (similar to the Philadelphia soda tax).  Assuming that the average American drinks only half as much soda as the average Philadelphian, this would raise about 9 billion dollars or $1.60 per meal for 30 million kids.

My fantasy capital gains tax

My Proposed Capital Gains Tax Policy

In a discussion on my facebook, we're talking about what we'd like to see in a Democratic party platform.  As some of you know, I'm kind of a tax policy nerd, and I was asked for details about how I'd restructure the capital gains tax.  It got long, so I'm putting it here.  If you are not a wonky nerd, this post will have nothing of interest.  OTOH, I've tried to keep this readable with minimal background knowlege, so some bits are a little over simplified.  Feel free to ask questions, or for more details, in the comments!  If you're my friend, and want to join the discussion, you can do so here: . I've done my best to verify all the facts and figures in here, but if something is wrong, please let me know and I'll fix it.

What are capital gains, and why do we tax them differently from other income?

Skip this section if you can already formulate a coherent answer to that question.  "Capital gains", roughly, are profits made from the appreciation (increase in value) of an investment.  These gains are realized when you sell the asset.  The archetypal example is real estate.  If you buy a piece of real estate for $100,000 and then sell it 10 years later for $180,000 (which is about 6% appreciation per year; VERY reasonable for urban real estate), you have made a capital gain of $80,000.  (NOTE: As I will discuss below, there are special rules for primary residence homes).  It would be problematic to tax that at the same rate as income, among other reasons because the "gain" involved occured over 10 years, but the income all happened at once.  Also, because there wasn't significant labor involved in the profit.  To tax capital gains at the level of normal income would STRONGLY disincentivize long-term investment, which is a recipe for disaster that would rapidly concentrate wealth, property, and especially the means of production in very few hands, and encourage such ownership to be largely hereditary. (which is the direction the current policies push us toward, IMO)

When our capital gains policy was invented, almost all capital gains investments were infrastructure (the is "means of production") that the government had a clear interest in subsidizing, things like people buying homes and businesses buying new machines for their factories.  However, over the last century, it has become the case that most capital gains are on much more abstract things like stocks, mutual funds, and other securities.  To my mind, this clouds the waters as to whether or not we actually want to subsidize all capital investments at the same level.  (you'll see below some policies to address this)

To greatly over simplify, capital gains tax policy is about balancing two opposing forces:
High capital gains taxes slow growth.
Low capital gains taxes concentrate wealth.

How do we currently tax capital gains?

Again, if you already know, skip this section.  Right now, the US tax code splits capital gains into two categories: short term (investments held for one year or less) and long-term.  short term capital gains are currently taxed (more or less) as normal income.  Long term capital gains are (broadly) taxed as follows:  If, as a single person, you make less than about $38K in total income, they are not taxed at all.  Most taxpayers pay 15%.  Single people with an income over about $425K pay 20%.  These rates have dropped very significantly in the last 20 years.  In 1997, the top rate was 28%, and the lowest 15%.  Obamacare is largely financed by an additional tax on capital gains: People who make more than $200K per year pay an extra 3.8% on the lesser of (capital gains + dividends) or (earned income).

There are many weird details:  Under most circumstances, the first $250,000 per person profit from the sale of a primary residence are not taxed at all.  "Collectible" or "luxury" assets like coins, precious metals, art, and etc are taxed at a higher rate (around 28%).  There are lots of other details to this, particularly in how the brackets work for married couples. Google can provide WAY more details if you want.

What's the problem with our current system?

Many people, particularly republicans, like to argue that higher capital gains taxes slow economic growth.  The data does not support that claim.  About 70% of all capital gains are accrued by people in the top 1% of income.  this is largely because normal people build almost all of their long-term wealth in their primary residence and in retirement accounts, like 401Ks, that have their own tax rules.  People who live off of income (trust fund kids, hedge fund managers, etc) end up paying only 20% tax, which is disgracefully low.  For comparison, that is significantly lower than someone making $39K per year (national median income is about $55-60K).  Further, the non-graduated nature of the long-term vs short-term categories incentivizes flipping property on short scales; there is no benefit to incentivize long-term tending of property.  Finally, current policy does not distinguish between investments with relatively immediate public good (such as home ownership and factory expansion) and investments with very little direct benefit to the public (such as mutual funds).  

What do I propose?

For long-term gains accrued on investments held for at least 10 years

  • No tax at all on the first $50,000 of capital gains for a single person or married persons filing separately, $150K for a couple filing jointly. (I think there is significant social benefit to incentivizing married couple to jointly own their primary residence)
  • Thereafter, exclude an additional 5% per year.  That is to say, if you bought a house for $100,000 20 years ago, there would be no tax unless you sold it for more than $271K.  
  • Exempt the first $50K of capital gains on business equipment and real estate held for more than 10 years.
  • 0% for the lower half of all incomes (currently, that means less than about $55-60K)
  • 12% for incomes up to $200K
  • 18% for income $200-500K
  • 25% for incomes $500-5 million
  • 30% for annual incomes over 5 million

For gains accrued over more than 3 but less than 10 years

  • 0% for the lower half of all incomes (currently, that means less than about $55-60K)
  • 13% for incomes up to $200K
  • 18% for income $200-500K
  • 25% for incomes $500-5 million
  • 33% for annual incomes over 5 million
For gains accrued over more than 1, but less than 3 years:
  • 0% for the lower half of all incomes (currently, that means less than about $55-60K)
  • 15% for incomes up to $200K
  • 20% for income $200-500K
  • 28% for incomes $500-5 million
  • 35% for annual incomes over 5 million
At all levels, impose an additional 8% tax on capital gains from hoarding, ie "collectible" assets.  

Monday, November 12, 2018

Ask the Witch: Working in Cemetaries

All photos are from Allegheny Cemetery

Today, in a sorcery group I participate in, a question was asked about where in a cemetery to leave offerings.  I've written some on cemetery work before, but I haven't talked about the Queen Grave before.

I was taught that every cemetery has a Queen or King grave. Leaving offerings there is leaving offerings for the all the inhabitants of the graveyard. To find the Queen grave, wander the graveyards paths, with a trash bag, bottle of rum, some dimes, and a corncake (or your local substitute).  Pick up trash as you go.  Sing a child's song under your breath about the queen of the cemetery. Just make it up, and you will, eventually, feel it "click" in to being the right song. The one you always knew, but couldn't remember. Keep singing the song, and watch carefully for the Queen (or King) grave.

It will likely meet most of the following criteria:
1) Have a large impressive monument.
2) Be on top of a hill, likely at the highest point in the bone orchard.
3) Be among the oldest graves.
4) Be of a person notable, in life, as a leader. (for good or ill)
5) Have a large tree close by.
6) Be ostentatiously occult in appearance.  The best way to become King of the Boneyard is to want it.

Of these criteria, the ostentatiousness of the monument is the most important, but not the only criteria. For example, the King Grave of Allegheny Cemetary is not the very modest stone of Ebenezer Denny (among the oldest inhabitants of the boneyard, a revolutionary war hero, and the first mayor of Pittsburgh), who is buried with a simple headstone, but rather the Wainwright family, brewers who are buried with this (now illegible) pyramid + book monument built in 1850.

You'll know it when you find it, because your song will come to a natural end. Large cemeteries, particularly those with many hills or trees that break up sight lines, often have multiple Queen graves.
Once you've found the Queen (or King) grave, what should you do there?  these instructions are for the first time you "meet" the grave.  I will later give "follow up visit" instructions.  

First, pick up any trash, dead flowers, faded/ripped flags, etc that are littering the grave and her immediate area.  You can sing while you do this if you want.  Make sure you take the trash off the grave, at least as far as the path, and ideally back to your car.  Once you are done...

Back onto the path, and face the grave.  Introduce yourself, out loud.  Give your full use name, and whatever magical ancestral, or etc names/titles you like.  Use an honorific title for them (Lord of the Graveyard, Keeper of the Stones, Queen of these Dead....whatever feels right)  Explain why you have come.  Bow/curtsey, etc.  Pour the libation, and leave the dimes on the headstone (small stones are also good) . Then, sit with the grave as long as you like, and listen for the will of the Queen (King). When you leave, bow again, and (if it is true) say that you would like to return again.

If you'd like to learn more, I teach a seven lesson course on Working With the Dead, the first lesson of which is free.  More details here:

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

What is Myth?

I recently cut this from the Introduction to my Orphic Hymns book (gods, I hate editing!). It's a short essay on the nature of myth.

What is Mythology?

As with so many things of real value, defining what exactly we mean by “myth” is a tricky thing. Myths are, of course, a kind of story The ancient Greek word μῦθος (mythos), from whence we derive our English “myth,” meant originally only “story” unencumbered by the complicated connotations of our modern usage. And yet, as we use the term today, not every story is a myth. I understand there to be, roughly, five criteria which distinguish myths from other stories:

They derive their “authority” from tradition and “for this reason they are not subject to rational examination by the audience”. They are not intended to be empirically verifiable, and do not try to make falsifiable claims about the world.

They are teaching tools, and provide actionable information about cosmology. They are often stories that have “morals”; however, unlike fables, they are not only rhetorical devices for those morals, but rather include complex descriptions of truths about the nature of people, the world, and the “proper” relationships between them. Myths have a clear point of view, and they want you to have it too. They are “capable of surpassing any form of rational persuasion.”

They take place in an extra-historical setting, once upon a time, although they are sometimes presented as historical. This distinguishes myth from legends, which are (possibly fictionalized) tellings of actual events and real people. Myths, however, do place themselves, as stories, in a historical context of older stories. They “go back to older, explicitly indicated or implied, real or fictional oral sources.”

They include supernatural elements, such as gods, magic, or archetypal heroes. This too distinguishes them from legends, which are largely “realist” in tone.

They have a special sacred character, and are not purely entertainment. They are often ritually re-enacted, and it is believed that just telling them can have impact on the world. This distinguishes myths from folktales, which are, effectively, secularized myths, often beginning as the remnants of a conquered culture’s myths. For example, Jakob Grimm wrote extensively on his belief that the folk tales he collected contained hints at pre-Christian Germanic myth.

Myths answer questions like “Why....?” far more often than questions that begin “How...?” In Homer, the word μῦθος (mythos) is used almost interchangeably with λόγος (logos) to mean, simply, “that which is told”. However, when they are distinguished in Greek epic poetry, “logos denotes not rational argumentation, but rather shady speech acts: those of seduction, beguilement, and deception.... Mythos, in contrast, was the speech of the preeminent, above all poets and kings, a genre (like them) possessed of high authority...”

And here we find what is, to my mind, the central idea necessary for understanding myth: “Myths are things which never happened, but always are,” says Sallustias, a fourth century Latin poet and counselor to Emperor Julian the Philosopher, and he speaks what we all know to be true. The way we understand a myth to be true or false is very different than the way we understand the truth of other kinds of speech. I wish I could unwind this special kind of truth for you briefly, but I do not think a brief discussion of it is even possible. In modern English, we often use the word “myth” to mean something that is completely false, a fabulist lie. However, just as often, we treat myth as a sort of primordial story which is truer than true. “...[P]rimeval philosophy, or rather the wisdom that preceded it, did not grow out of the negation of myth, but was born from its depth. Unfortunately, the development of philosophy did not lead to continually more perfect cognition and penetration of wisdom, but to the contrary--to its degeneration...Wisdom takes its root from madness.”

Greece, a highly literate culture, produced no “sacred texts” in the way we understand that term. The holy stories and myths were known to all, in a multiplicity of forms, constantly retold and rewoven by nursemaid and poet, dramatist and priest alike. Perhaps the most archetypal of all Greek writers, Plato, engages in just this sort of retelling. Plato tells traditional myths, often in greatly modified forms, but he also invents new myths as both teaching tools and rhetorical devices. And yet, not all of Plato’s story telling is myth: “The myths Plato invents, as well as the traditional myths he uses, are narratives that are non-falsifiable, for they depict particular beings, deeds, places or events that are beyond our experience: the gods, the daemons, the heroes, the life of soul after death, the distant past, etc. Myths are also fantastical, but they are not inherently irrational and they are not targeted at the irrational parts of the soul.”

At no point in Greek history until the coming of Christianity, would a Greek have understood what was meant by a question such as “Is this a true myth?”. All of the great stories were known in several versions, and this variety of forms continues to this day. The goal of this book is to neither revise nor to reconstruct ancient myths, but rather to add new tellings into the tapestry that is Greek myth. As the Orphic Rhapsodic Theogonies have it: “Take the fragments scattered in the texts of those who unwittingly hid them. Arrange their content in a mighty poem, easy to understand for the pious, yet obscure to the profane, that it might give solace once again to the souls of virtuous mortals, of yours and future generations, who are able to perceive the beauty concealed within the story it tells.” It is for this reason that I have chosen to use the word “mythopoet” (μυθοποητιᾰ) for myself, and for my ancient colleagues, rather than the Greek ῥαψῳδός (“rhapsode” or “stitcher of songs”) or the English “bard.” A rhapsode was a professional performer of epic poetry, a wandering storyteller. While they performed other works, including those of Hesiod, they were often also called Homeridai, because Homer’s epics were their main recitations. Rhapsodes were primarily performers rather than authors, although most noted rhapsodes (like Hesiod) also composed original works. Moreover, both rhapsodes and bards sang their recitations, rather than simply speaking them, although the differences between singing and what we would call “spoken word” were not as distinct in the ancient world. As must be evident from the fact that you are reading a book I’ve written, I understand myself primarily as an author, rather than a performer, and so I have settled on mythopoeia to describe the activity in which we’re currently engaged.

The English word “mythopoesis” comes from the Greek μυθοποιία, and literally means “myth-making”. The second part of the word, “poeia,” is the root of our English word “poetry” but in the ancient word, the line between poetry and prose was a fine one. Historically, “mythopoesis” was an obscure technical term, describing, as Victorian historians would tell it, that period of time when humans made myths “instead of science” to explain the world around them. However, in 1931, J. R. R. Tolkien popularised the word with a poem titled Mythopoeia, which was a direct response to his frenemy and Oxford colleague C.S. Lewis’s skepticism about the value of myth. Lewis (at the time, although his views softened with the wisdom of age) believed that myths are "lies and therefore worthless, even though 'breathed through silver.'” Tolkien replied in verse:

You look at trees and label them just so,
(for trees are `trees', and growing is `to grow');
you walk the earth and tread with solemn pace
one of the many minor globes of Space:
a star's a star, some matter in a ball
compelled to courses mathematical
amid the regimented, cold, Inane,
where destined atoms are each moment slain.
He sees no stars who does not see them first
of living silver made that sudden burst
to flame like flowers beneath the ancient song,
whose very echo after-music long
has since pursued. There is no firmament,
only a void, unless a jewelled tent
myth-woven and elf-patterned; and no earth,
unless the mother's womb whence all have birth.

Like Tolkien, I believe that Creation is an ongoing affair, that moment by moment, word by word, we each breathe ideas into being. Tolkien was a male, nominally Christian, British aristocrat writing in the 1930s, and his view of the world, like our own, was heavily shaped by his lived experience of it. I write as a pagan Jewish-Greek-American feminist, witch, and all-around freak, and I’ll go even further than he did: I say that the mythopoet, like the bard or the rhapsode, speaks for those who have tongues only of flame, and writes for those whose hands are the bare winter branches. For me, mythopoeia is an essential part of my relationship to the gods, the Land, the ancestors, and the World, both here and in the Other Place. It is my great hope that the hymns and commentary I will share with you here will help you to find your own voice and tell your own stories.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Ask the Witch: Mythopoeia

Whenever I find myself writing something on social media that's longer than a few paragraphs, I like to put it here, so it's easier to find in the future.

Recently, in a sorcery group, someone asked: "Has anyone with clairvoyance/clairaudience ever tried to summon spirits to chat with them? I don't mean in a mundane way, but there are accounts of shamans and poets telling myths and things like that while posessed, and these stories later helped develop rituals, moral codes, whole pantheons and the like. I thing this would be a good practice to develop."  (not super relevant, but I want to quibble a little bit: for the most part, rituals and practices do not develop out of myths.  Rather, myths arise later to explain, contextualize, and teach rituals and practices.)

As regular readers probably know, this is a topic I have thoughts on. :) Here's my answer:

A more technical and specific name for "telling myths and things like that while possessed, and these stories later helped develop rituals, moral codes, whole pantheons and the like" is mythopoeia.  You can read pages and pages of me talking about mythopoeia here.  (skip to page 4) . I do A LOT of that kind of work, in a variety of contexts and methods. 

My personal practice in mythopoeia is founded on a lifelong relationship with the gods of Greece, who provide a constant, exhausting, and endlessly fascinating stream of ideas for mythopoeia and ritual (primarily, but not exclusively, with the spirits of the cultures eastern Mediterranean) These days, I mostly channel this into professional mythopoeia. You can order my soon-to-be-published inspired translations of and commentary on the Orphic Hymns here, for example.   Here are some random bits of mythopoeia I've published here over the years.  Check the dates, and you'll (hopefully) see them improving:  Sarai.  Hekate & Artemis.  The Fairy Widower.  The Arcadian Hymn to Hermes.  Grandfather Ohio.

I'll talk about my own practice some at the end, but I suspect you actually want to know how YOU can do it.  So, here's a collection of my previous public teachings on it.  This is a skill I've been working on for about two decades.   IMO, learning to be a better mythopoet centers on working on three separate skills, and then combining them.  Like almost any skill, it is partly about natural talent, but its very, very improvable through a combination of quality teaching and continual practice.

1) Storytelling. I strongly recommend Ursula Le Guin's Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew.  However there is absolutely no substitute for telling stories, out loud and on the fly, to a live audience, ideally audiences including both children and adults.  You will NEVER learn mythopoeia without doing that.  A lot.  Like shamans, mythopoets work for, with, and in service to community.  If you don't have a community who wants a mythopoet, then you're going to have to find or create one.

2) Spirit Communication.  I've written about how to learn this before.  The first method I learned wa automatic writing.  I wrote about that here.  I think this is the easiest method for beginners.  I wrote more on how to get spirits to want to talk to you here.  Also, a small tip for clairaudience: just like a big cloud of smoke, or a bowl of ink, or clouds, or a wavery candle flame in a dark mirror, help provide a chaotically dynamic medium in which for spirits to visibly appear, if you want to hear them, you're going to want a similarly chaotically dynamic sound.  Drums, rattles, rain, wind, and rivers are all traditional means for this, but noise machines also work.  Recordings are harder, because they can't adapt, but they can still suffice.  I REALLY like this website of noise machines.  Crowded restaurants or other places where there's a lot of people talking all at once are great.  Heavy traffic noise also works well.  I often use my dishwasher.

3) Trance Descent.  I think these skills are MUCH MUCH better learned from a person rather than from a book.  Personally, I learned two different kinds, and I think both serve me well.  First, I learned shamanic journeying.  I learned this in a two-year training program with Caroline Kenner of Gryphon's Grove Shamanism School.  She has since retired from teaching, however, several of her students (including me) teach her methods.  If you cannot find an in-person teacher, my teacher recommends her teacher's (Sandra Ingerman) book: Shamanic Journeying: A Beginner's Guide

I also do a kind of kabbalistic trance descent called Merkavah, which is taught in the Book of Ezekiel.  Honestly, unless you're not both Jewish and already deep into kabbalah, I don't recommend trying to learn it.  It's basically a much, much harder to learn version of shamanic descent.  It's powerful and amazing, but only if you're going to keep it in the cultural context in which it lives.  If you strip out all the weird idiosyncratic bits that distinguish it as a living tradition embedded in a specific cultural context, you're going to get more or less exactly the soccer mom shamanism I talked about above.  If you want to learn a beginner's version, try the novel The Seventh Telling: The Kabbalah of Moeshe Kapan.  Ignore the stupid nonsense in the middle with the girl.  You'll know the part I mean when you read it.  I occasionally teach this, under the title "Kabbalah: You're Doing it Wrong".

I combine those practices with a kind of Norse oracular descent called Seidhr or Spae.  Basically, you trip down to the underworld, and then post up and ask questions of the ancestors and gods. It's not a solo practice; you do it with and for an audience. In its modern form, it was reconstructed by Diana Paxson, Laurel Mendes (from whom I learned it), and several others in CA about 30 years ago. While I learned it in a traditional Norse context, my personal practice is extremely idiosyncratic and non-traditional.  If you can't find an in-person class, I know Diana has two books on the topic:  The Way of the Oracle and TrancePortation.  However, I have not read them.  But, I assume they're similar to what I learned in class.  Since Seidh cannot be practiced alone, I wouldn't bother learning it until you have a regular audience.