Commentary from a practical perspective
page includes posts from the site's third week, January 20-26, 2002 in the usual reverse
I've enjoyed reading the comments of several bloggers on marital relationships, including Andreas, Natalie Solent, Shiloh Bucher, Moira Breen, and Joanne Jacobs. They've discussed sharing household duties and the ways in which men and women describe their marriage to others.
I'll just chip in with this short note.
One thing that's always annoyed me is when guys refer to "the wife."
That phrase really grates on my ear.
To me, it just doesn't show the proper respect for their wife or their marriage. I don't believe that saying "my wife" displays a misguided possessiveness. I consider it an appropriate measure of love and consideration.
Referring to "the wife" often seems to be an indicator of eventual difficulties, and even divorce.
Unfortunately, it's happened often enough that I think there's something to it.
Here a penny, there a billion or two
From a political perspective, fuel taxes are among the least painful ways to raise billions of dollars. Out of each $1.00 paid at the gas pump, about a third is actually state or federal tax money. Every so often the petroleum industry tries to remind us of that fact with little stickers at the pumps, but it usually goes unnoticed.
For all you gas-guzzling SUV drivers out there--thanks very much!
This user-pays system works pretty well, until theres a recession. Although the rate of the fall in fuel tax revenues is rarely as steep as other taxes, such as sales or income taxes, it still falls. In addition, the states depend on federal fuel taxes for a sizable portion of their transportation dollars, and so they face a double whammy.
The U.S. Treasury Department issued new estimates yesterday that will hit hard:
Note that the $9.1 billion is just in federal funds. There will likely be similar drops in state fuel taxes in the coming year or so. These revenue losses will have an immediate impact on the states ability to keep up with the demand for road improvements and other transportation projects.
According to the WaPo story, for example, Virginia projects a loss of $211 million in federal funds, and Maryland estimates it will take a 150 million dollar hit. My own client, DelDOT, will lose between $20 and $30 million the state planned to have available in federal money for its program for next year.
To give you a sense of proportion, DelDOT spends about $1.5 million per day on all aspects of transportation, in capital funds, debt expense, and operating costs. The loss of federal funds alone is about equal to about three weeks out of a full years expenses. At that level, the agency staff are staring at delays in critical projects and other painful choices.
Another way to think about this issue is to figure out how much the state gas tax would have to be raised to make up for the $9 billion loss in federal assistance. For Delaware, its about 5 or 6 cents per gallon. Your own states estimates will vary, but Id be surprised if it didnt equal at least 4 cents per gallon for each state.
For several years, most states have been reluctant to raise their own gas taxes. The money was rolling in with the good times, after all. In addition, in some parts of the U.S., the states dont usually want to raise their tax rate unless they see that their neighboring states are joining them. Theyd catch too much grief from the gas station owners near the borders.
That reluctance may change, for two reasons. First, there have been wide swings in gasoline prices at the pump, especially in the last two years, compared to the relatively stable prices of about 10 years ago. If this market environment continues, a tax increase of a few pennies will be harder to notice. Second, when the loss of federal funds is this large, the state legislators may discover that their brethren in the next state are having similar ideas about where to find the money.
Watch the next fifteen months or so. You can say you read it here first.
The Fifth Dimension shows us how it should be done*
Virginia Postrel quoted approvingly from More Than Zero's recent discussion of the derivatives market and the limited utility of some forms of financial regulation. The essay correctly points out the difficulties of successfully writing a regulation to compel either the market or its investors to act according to a widely accepted notion of financial propriety. The better option is to adopt the time-honored methods of the SEC:
Full disclosure can work in other beneficial ways to help drive public policy. Because it provides easy access to information, the Internet is a great tool to bring the real results of political choices out into the open, and potentially alter the debate. Todays story in the Washington Post concerning farm subsidies is a great example.
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) developed a database showing exactly who received how much in farm subsidy payments from 1996-2000. They published the list on their website, and they claim that to date the database has received well over 14 million hits. I took a look today at the Delaware segment of the report, and the money paid out is startling.
The EWG database is having an effect:
This kind of story shows that theres no need to have "cooked the data" in order to support a political argument.
Sometimes the facts just sit there, waiting to be discovered and shared with everybody.
*I refer, of course, to one of their greatest hits,
"Let the Sunshine In."
So its the thought that counts? I dont think so
Glenn Reynolds brought up the Bellesiles controversy again today, referring to a lengthy Chicago Tribune piece. Staff reporter Ron Grossman reviewed the developing story about the Emory University history professor who cant seem to back up his claims that Colonial-era gun ownership was a rarity, as well as the separately compelling saga of a psychology professor caught faking her data.
Bill Quicks comments on the Grossman article highlighted this quote:
I'm sometimes accused of being cynical, and often reply that Im just being a realist. Even so, Im having a hard time believing that a law professor would actually say that, especially when the data relate to an interpretation of a constitutional amendment. The quote is so far removed from any standard of intellectual honesty, so blatantly wrong, Im just stunned.
In an update to his original note, Reynolds said:
Even if Finkleman was quoted out of context, and he was actually trying to make a distinction between false data and the "nonquantitative" parts of Bellesiles' argument, I still have a problem with his position.
Consider, for example, some of the rules of intellectual honesty that lawyers must obey.
Heres a relevant and straightforward requirement, for which disbarment is a possible punishment:
Thats taken directly from Rule 3.4 of the Delaware Lawyers Rules of Professional Conduct, which are based on the ABAs Model Rules.
In addition, theres a common intellectual honesty standard in the rules of civil procedure. Its called Rule 11 in Delaware court rules, Federal rules, and in many other jurisdictions. Its quite a bit wordier than Rule 3.4, but it stands for the same principle:
The University of Tulsas student code of conduct would also seem to differ from whatever was intended by this odd little quote:
From everything I've read about Bellesiles' book, including Reynolds' articles, it seems to me that the whole point of Bellesiles' research was to find a documented historical basis to support a particular position about gun control, by looking at the societal context in which the Second Amendment became part of the Bill of Rights.
If Bellesiles "cooked the data," how could his work possibly remain useful or "important," even for a "non-quantitative" argument about gun control? Why wouldn't the questionable data infect whatever merits may be found among the rest of the book?
Finkleman's statement, however he's explaining it, just doesn't make sense. It too easily brushes aside a fundamental requirement for intellectual honesty for both historians and lawyers.
Cohen, Roberts, and Schranck agree on taxes
Its not often that one sees noted newspaper columnists Richard Cohen and Paul Craig Roberts agreeing with each other. Its even more rare that I find myself in agreement with both of them.
But it can happen, and did.
The Washington Times published Roberts piece on Diminishing Property Security on January 21. Roberts makes the following relevant points:
Todays Cohen column in the Washington Post continues in this vein, concerning our friends at Enron:
So, Richard Cohen argues that its not fair that some people pay no income tax, while others must pay.
And, Paul Roberts argues that its not fair that some people pay no income tax, while others must pay.
Their arguments help buttress my modest proposal, appearing here on January 18, suggesting a new Alternative Minimum Tax, in which everyone pays at least 1% of Adjusted Gross Income, no matter what.
Adopting the new AMT would alleviate the fundamental fairness concerns so gracefully described by Cohen and Roberts, now wouldnt it?
Megan McArdle, whose Live from the WTC blog is a delight to read, took off after Cohen a bit about his column, largely because she felt his ire was primarily directed at corporate income tax avoidance. Last week McArdle posted a fine rant about the corporate income tax, arguing for its total abolition.
I'm not challenging the strength of McArdle's arguments about corporate taxation. I just can't help noticing that Cohen's points are far more broadly stated than the question of whether or how to tax business entities.
I take Cohen at his word when he says he resents "anyone who manages not to" pay federal, state, or local taxes. The term "anyone" is not usually limited to corporations. I also take Cohen seriously when he says,
Roberts taxpayer/voter data more than proves Cohens point that the current income tax code is
So lets come up with an income tax system in which everyone pays. Shall we?
Environmental Group Irresponsibly Frightens Parents
Apparently things are getting back to normal, what with the current success of the war effort making people relax a bit. Thats not necessarily a good thing.
Todays Washington Post carries a story for an environmental group about school siting and toxic wastes.
I use that verb deliberately.
The storys opening paragraph is instructive. It follows a model used far too often in the past:
Well. That ought to make mom and dad spew their morning coffee. Good job!
Lois Gibbs, who first made headlines with the Love Canal fiasco, is now part of a new environmental coalition called the Child Proofing Our Communities Campaign. The group published a study that linked school locations to Federal Superfund or state-identified contaminated sites. According to the story, they seek
Im all for being careful about school siting decisions. Ive worked on them a bit. A "level one" environmental evaluation is done, similar to every routine business or commercial lending requirement nowadays for land acquisition. The decision process goes on from there. The fact that there might be a contaminated site nearby is only one part of the analyis. That one fact simply shouldnt be used as an automatic veto of any school siting decision.
In fact, the open space thats needed for a school can be a good use for a Brownfields initiative. At some former industrial sites, what I refer to as the ones contaminated with a 19th Century chemical soup, the only effective means of dealing with the parcel is to cap it with an impervious material. Topsoil or other material can go on top of the cap, and the parcel is then restored for other purposes, such as park space or other open space needs. A school athletic field is not necessarily out of the question, because of the impervious cap, and the areas former status as a wasteland is returned to something useful for the community.
In place of this balanced approach to land use, we now have this study, with its careful use of inflammatory language and misguided use of statistical information.
Heres what Im talking about.
Ms. Gibbs announced,
Fine. Whats your point? My kids brought home various ills from school all the timeusually viruses from other kids, and the occasional lice infestation. They are at far greater risk from their fellow students than any scuzzy substance 10 feet underground and a half-mile away.
Deep into the story we see this:
Well, that certainly makes sense. Why bother looking at each site, carefully considering the particular situation to see if theres any real risk? Its so much easier to assume that each child is being sprayed with lead and mercury compounds as they walk past every Superfund site.
The group also showed a keen sense of actual risk, by its selection of a wildly inappropriate zone to establish a false area for concern:
Interesting choice of terms, "reasoning." The group didnt consider any of the facts about any of the sites other than their existence and location, and offered no evidence of a link between location and student health problems. So how could they use a half-mile radius with any statistical confidence that it would serve as a proxy for risk? If reality is not as important as pushing an agenda, it makes perfect sense.
The story made this stunning, unintentional concession:
Could someone please tell me where kids spend their time when they are not at home, not at play, and not at school? After I take into consideration those three locations, whats left? Riding in the car with mom, perhaps near a Superfund site? Shouldnt we therefore move all roads at least a half-mile from these locations, to eliminate the risk? Geez.
The Coalition made a valiant effort to create a sense of guilt:
With all due respect, to needlessly frighten parents about alleged environmental risks to their children, by simplistically linking location to harm without any evidence of real risk, is therefore irresponsible.
The defense can't rest, at least not during the trial
The Washington Post takes a shot at the State of Texas today regarding a butt-ugly capital murder case. The editorial barks at the states request for U.S. Supreme Court review of a 5th Circuit decision to grant habeas corpus relief to Jerold Burdine, because his counsel, Joe Cannon, slept during portions of Burdines trial. As the Post put it,
The facts in this brutal murder case arent quite so starkly favorable to the defense as the Post editorial might make one assume.
On a few occasions, Burdine sometimes nudged Cannon to stay awake during the six-day trial. Cannon managed to stay awake long enough to argue vehemently about his clients confession, and remained active in other critical respects during the trial. Despite Cannon's efforts, the confession was admitted into evidence.
Neither the judge nor the prosecutor noticed Cannon nodding off while the prosecutor was putting on his side of the case, but the clerk of the court did, along with a few jurors. Nonetheless, Burdine complimented Cannon for the quality of his representation as the trial concluded.
Eleven years and several appeals after his original death penalty sentencing, Burdine changed his mind about how good a job Cannon did, by finally making an issue about Cannons sleeping. Even then, Burdines new counsel managed to wait until the 5th Circuits panel decision ruled against him before he let it slip that Burdine knew all along about Cannons lapses into dreamland. During the en banc argument thereafter, Burdines new counsel had to deal with that particular inconvenient fact.
Even so, the 5th Circuits en banc decision was correct, even as they hastened to limit it to the peculiar circumstances of Burdines case. Judge Benavides noted:
Judge Higginbotham, concurring in the judgment, made a practical assessment:
Judge Barksdale and three other judges argued in dissent that this was one of those "Bad facts make bad law" situations. In addition, they suggested the decision created a new requirement:
Well, yes. This is a capital case, after all.
When trying to execute someone for a heinous crime, the State has to make sure the trial is fair. The Court and the prosecutors should both make sure that the defense counsel meets the obligation to provide a zealous defense.
Its obviously annoying that Burdine could gain another chance to avoid the ultimate penalty because his own counsel nodded off the first time. Just dont let it happen again.
If the judge and the prosecutors pay more careful attention to whats going on in the courtroom, Mr. Burdine should eventually find himself nodding off, this time with the States injected assistance.
Official small print disclaimer: This is, after all, a personal web site. Any opinions or comments I express here are my own, and don't necessarily reflect the official position of my work as a government attorney or any of my clients.
That fact may become obvious later on, but it needs to be said here anyway.
© Frederick H. Schranck 2002