Sneaking Suspicions
 
Archives-- March 16-22, 2003

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This page includes posts from March 16-22, 2003 in the usual reverse order. Each posting on the home page is perma-linked to these archive pages.

March 22, 2003
Victory sign

This morning showed signs of impending victory in the war against Hussein.

Some folks are already using e-mail spam to try to make money from it.

Tucked in among the usual body part enlargement enticements were two pieces tied to very current events.

One piece tried to convince me to apply right away for a low-rate mortgage, due to the interest rate spike that the war would surely cause.

Another one was even more blunt:

Make Money in Iraq War Rally

Of course, this wasn't a straightforward stock tip. It was an ad for an investment newsletter subscription.

In breathless prose, it explained the publisher's theory of timing one's buys and sells at the predicted peaks and valleys of the market. (Gosh, what a new concept.)

The publisher wanted to make sure I had the opportunity to subscribe to his tout sheet and take advantage of the tremendous opportunity to participate in the inevitable market upsweep that would surely come with the start of the war.

Thanks very much, but his timing was a bit off, waiting until March 21 to send out this spam. There's a whole lot of run-up that's already occurred.

Then again, the people who use this noxious advertising method depend on finding those few customers who help prove the adage about what kind of folks are born every minute.

Just seems a bit ghoulish to me.

March 21, 2003
Going where the money is

Like the famous Willie Sutton, the IRS is now going where the money is.

AP Tax Writer Mary Dalrymple reported on an IRS announcement that they’ve stepped up their audit activities aimed at high-end taxpayers with a colorful sense of responsibility for compliance with the tax laws.

Going after the folks with the most money—hmmmn. Now, there’s a thought:

The number of audits targeted at individuals who make more than $100,000 went up more than 22 percent, reflecting the beginning of a new enforcement strategy focused on those most likely to evade tax collectors. That includes companies that promote or use abusive tax schemes, individuals who hide money in offshore accounts and filers who abuse low-income tax credits.

Dalrymple’s piece shows that the effort appears to be paying off. She wrote that the IRS collected $32.6 billion in unpaid taxes in Fiscal Year 2002.

There’s certainly something to be said for expanding audit efforts among the tiny percentage of individuals who are very well off and with a strong inclination to hide significant money they would otherwise owe toward the cost of government.

And that something would be “Keep it up!”

March 20, 2003
Keep watching on the home front

Earlier this week Glenn Reynolds posted an apt warning at his new MSNBC site, entitled “Keep an Eye on Your Rights.”

Reynolds is not pleased with the Patriot Act, and is concerned that some bureaucrats would try to slip another such law past Congress while most people are focused on the war.

As he put it,

Keep your eye on the civil-liberties ball, and don’t be distracted.

The need to watch out for one’s interests extends well beyond civil liberties, of course, for essentially the same reasons Reynolds cites.

The list of those who need to be watched also extends beyond bureaucrats. Here are two examples from the current Delaware General Assembly.

Under current law, a Delaware public school teacher may obtain a leave of absence for up to one year or the period permitted under that school district’s collective bargaining agreement, in order to try his or her hand at teaching at a charter school.

House Bill No. 72, introduced this week, would instead force any such enterprising teacher to resign from the regular school district to work at a charter school, and eliminate the leave of absence provision entirely.

It's similar to the "resign-to-run" laws that are sometimes passed to discourage elected officials from trying their luck at another elected office while still serving a term in their current role.

This bill doesn't exactly support alternatives to the traditional public school environment, now does it?

On a less serious note, in January I discussed Senate Bill No. 29, which would forbid dogs from riding in the beds of pickup trucks and similar open vehicles.  At the time I described this bill as reflecting the two cultures that predominate in the State. Most of the bill’s sponsors are from urban and suburban districts upstate, while none of the rural senators or representatives are on the bill.

I therefore predicted this bill would go nowhere in a big hurry.

At least one upstate Senator seems to be trying to push the issue, however. This week he introduced a new amendment. It would allow the dogs to remain in the back of the truck, as long as they were locked inside a cage.

If this bill ever reaches the House floor, I know exactly what some downstate legislator will say: “This amendment is fatally flawed because it does not require the cage to be tied down to the vehicle. That would be tragic if there was an accident, and in fact presents a far worse safety risk than the poor dog alone. Mr. Speaker, I therefore ask that this bill be tabled.”

That bamming noise will have nothing to do with the war. It’s just the sound a gavel makes as a bill is moved to the table to die.

March 19, 2003
Never-used Old Bay® in the cupboard? How is that possible?

Today’s Bleat by James Lileks discussed the labeling practices of several brands of items available at his local grocery stores.

The piece was enjoyable, as usual, but it did include this startling segment:

Some small brands get icon status just by hanging on long enough to look hip- Old Bay seasoning, for example. It looked like Grampa's cigarette pack for a few years, then it looked Retro enough to leap out at the consumer and say "buy me, put me in the cupboard, never use me but feel clever that you have some."

What did he mean, "never use"?

How is that possible?

Perhaps Lileks was only referring to the natives of fashion-conscious neighborhoods in Minnesota. Perhaps he forgot about the years he lived and worked in the District of Columbia. Surely Lileks took advantage of his tenure in the Mid-Atlantic region to eat several dozen steamed crabs, complete with OB and the necessary beer accompaniment.

After all, some of us native Mid-Atlantic types use Old Bay for all sorts of meals. Here are some examples from the last few months of dinners:

  • Steamed shrimp, using the recipe posted here a year ago.

  • Dust pork chops on both sides before broiling.

  • Sprinkle on ham steaks.

  • Shake OB on a chicken, and put more inside the body cavity before roasting.

For Midwesterners and others who haven’t yet enjoyed this great mix of spices and flavors, there are many other options, listed at the Old Bay website.

OB never-users simply don’t know what they’re missing.

A pity, really.

But he's right about the label.

March 19, 2003
It looks like splitsville for the tenants of Stiltsville—but not on the Audubon Society’s timetable

Yesterday the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals issued a 41-page opinion that puts the onus on the National Park Service to finalize plans to do something about Stiltsville—unless, of course, Congress or the courts step in to call a halt to the process once again.

The plaintiffs in this lawsuit, the National Parks Conservation Association and the Tropical Audubon Society, literally lost their case. Nonetheless, their efforts may have helped spur the government to finish its work on this intriguing issue.

Stiltsville is an eclectic collection of buildings sitting on stilts in Biscayne Bay, off Key Biscayne, Florida. Here’s a picture of them, as shown on a Park Service website:

There used to be a bunch of these places, but thanks to certain local natural phenomena called hurricanes, only seven remain.

Private owners built the structures many years ago, but beginning in the 1960s the State of Florida asserted its control over the submerged lands on which they sat. The Natural Resources Department issued annual leases for several years, but in 1976 Florida granted the leaseholders a 23-year term arrangement, ending in 1999.

In the meantime, the Federal Government began taking over thousands of acres in the area for the Biscayne National Monument. By 1980 Congress enacted new legislation that converted the area into a National Park, and included the Stiltsville properties into expanded Park boundaries. Florida deeded over its interest in the submerged lands, reserving to the Stiltsville leaseholders their remaining interests in their sites. 

As the 1999 deadline approached, the Stiltsville tenants decided not to go quietly. Congress passed legislation on their behalf, and the courts also imposed injunctions preventing the Park Service from taking action to evict them. The renters even tried unsuccessfully to have the shacks placed on the National Historic Register.

The Park Service didn’t hear only from the Stiltsville tenants, of course. Local environmentalists also challenged the Service from the other side, pushing for the elimination of the shacks or at least the termination of any further private interest in the structures. When their original efforts failed, the Audubon group and the Conservation Association sued in May 2001.

The District Court sided with the Park Service.

On appeal, the Circuit Court essentially upheld the lower court, but for different reasons.

First, the record showed that the Park Service was in fact trying to do something with Stiltsville. It’s in the middle of the Environmental Impact Statement process, considering a range of options, none of which include the continued private use of the buildings. The Service told the Court that it expected to make a final decision by mid-May 2003. From the discussion in the opinion it’s pretty clear from the Court’s perspective that the Service should consider that a hard deadline.

Second, it’s not as if the Park Service could have done much when Congress and the courts stepped in to block any such action. It was fundamentally unfair to go after the Park Service for inaction on evicting the Stiltsville tenants, when the culpable parties were actually some highly influential Members of Congress.

Third, while the plaintiffs had standing to make an Equal Protection claim, that claim failed when subjected to the normal “rational basis” test:

[T]he current Stiltsville leaseholders or their predecessors-in-interest have served as caretakers for the structures for over 25 years, and the temporary continuation of this arrangement is a minimally burdensome means of ensuring that such caretaking continues pending the implementation of a particular prospective management plan. Given this conclusion, our equal protection inquiry is at an end.

If the material available on the Web is any indication, there will be continued fights over who should control the Stiltsville shacks. I doubt that the filing of the Park Service “final plan” will completely end the debate. As I read between the lines of the Eleventh Circuit opinion, however, it looks like the leaseholders of these colorful shacks should not expect too much assistance from the legal system in their fight to hold onto rights they really no longer have.

It will be up to Congress to deal with this balancing act, in which the claims of these few are matched against environmentalists and others.

Then again, a couple more of those natural 110-mile-per-hour phenomena could end the debate pretty quickly.

March 18, 2003
Homestead sweet homestead? Not.

Sometimes there's something to be said for sheer cussedness--but not always.

In 1998 Larry Kenneth Alexander filed for bankruptcy under Chapter 13, the individual version of the more famous Chapter 11. As provided by Minnesota law, he claimed a homestead exemption for property he owned on Laurel Avenue in St. Paul.

The Chapter 13 trustee objected to the exemption, however, and the bankruptcy court agreed. The judge not only disagreed with Alexander, but also converted the bankruptcy proceeding to Chapter 7 (the total dissolution kind).

Over the next several years Alexander began a extensive series of appeals and new lawsuits, most of which seem to be centered on trying to hold onto the Laurel property.

By my count he took his claims up the 8th Circuit at least four times, with stops along the way at the U.S. District Court.

After losing his prior appeals, Alexander then moved for an order to remove the new Chapter 7 Trustee and for an order telling the trustee to abandon the Laurel parcel. In reaction, the bankruptcy court not only dismissed Alexander's motions, it also took the extraordinary step of

enjoining the Debtor from filing any further motions or proceedings related to the Trustee’s administration of the Debtor’s bankruptcy estate and/or the Laurel Property and from filing a motion for reconsideration of such order.

Naturally, Alexander appealed this order.

He fared no better this time:

The Debtor’s motion ... lacks any merit and is yet another thinly veiled attempt to exempt the property despite numerous prior failed attempts by both the Debtor and his non-debtor wife to prevent the Trustee from performing her duties and administering this estate asset.

The basic problem was that the Laurel property was worth far more than any homestead exemption would protect from creditors' claims. The trustee estimated the property as at least a $300,000 asset, burdened by only a $30,000 mortgage. Even if Alexander's wife was somehow entitled to the statutory $200,000 homestead exemption, there was still $70,000 in value remaining to pay back creditors.

As for the injunction, the appellate court found good reasons for its imposition:

[T]he Laurel Property is property of the Debtor’s bankruptcy estate and ... the Trustee is entitled to administer the asset. The court considered the fees and costs continuing to accrue as the Trustee is forced to relitigate the same issues with the Debtor and his wife and the negative impact thereof on the estate and its creditors. The court limited the injunction to any further proceedings in the bankruptcy court....

[T]he court narrowly drafted the injunction to prevent yet another attempt by the Debtor to assert an exemption in the Laurel Property and thus relitigate issues which have been previously decided by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals and are now governed by the law of the case.[citation omitted]. The bankruptcy court did not abuse its discretion in entering the injunction.

Call me crazy, but based on this record I doubt this latest decision will end the controversy.

March 17, 2003
Bush's Ultimatum Speech

A few thoughts on tonight's speech:

  • That was one of the most serious speeches by a deeply serious President that I've ever witnessed, ever since the Cuban missile crisis.

  • There is no wiggle room outside of the 48-hour window, which is still sufficient for those willing to avail themselves of the opportunity to join in the effort to remove Hussein from power.

  • If Hussein and his sons don't take advantage of this one last chance to leave Iraq and its people, then let the right actions be taken, at a time of our choosing.

  • I'm sure our military forces are ready, as are the coalition forces aligned with them.

  • I'm sure the President and his Administration is ready.

  • I'm ready.

March 17, 2003
Next time, put some variety into your tax cheating

It’s time for yet another tax-related Circuit Court opinion, as April 15 approaches.

The last post about this intriguing tradition dealt with the civil side of tax evasion, in a case from the First Circuit.

Last week the Fourth Circuit upheld a criminal tax conviction whose successful prosecution relied in part on the defendant’s distinct avoidance of any variety in his tax cheating.

Warren Monroe Hayes added to his other sources of income by doing tax returns for relatives and acquaintances.

His customers gave him various documents from which their returns would be completed. The only problem was that Hayes apparently decided that his clients’ tax forms wouldn’t necessarily be limited by the information he was given. Instead, Hayes applied a certain amount of ingenuity in filling out the details.

Unfortunately, Hayes’ creative talents stopped once he hit upon two primary methods of boosting his clients’ tax refunds—large deductions for medical expenses and charitable deductions.

When the IRS discovered this focused tactic, it became a relatively simple prosecution, helped along by Hayes’ clients:

The customers testified, however, that the returns prepared by Hayes substantially overstated some of their deductions, primarily for charitable contributions and medical expenses. The customers further testified that they did not review the returns before filing them; thus, even as they recognized that they were receiving larger refunds than they were accustomed to, they did not become aware of the overstatements until contacted by investigators from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).

Hayes was eventually found guilty of preparing 24 tax returns with fraudulent deductions.

On appeal, Hayes argued that most of the convictions were improper under the three-year statute of limitations. Unfortunately for him, however, the particular federal tax crimes he committed were actually subject to a six-year limitations period, and the Fourth Circuit upheld the trial court’s decision on that issue.

Rubbing salt in the wound, the Circuit Court also agreed that the trial made a mistake in failing to consider evidence of 63 other tax returns Hayes prepared, but for which no indictments were filed. On remand, the district judge will have an opportunity to correct that error, which could lead to an enhanced sentence beyond the 30 months’ concurrent time Hayes will already serve for his 24 convictions.

Sometimes it’s a shame that some folks limit their imaginations. In this case, it’s probably a good thing. Hayes' limited approach to cheating methods certainly improved the government’s chances for his eventual tax conviction.

March 17, 2003
A LULU of a Claude-Deserving Headline

This one is a classic, easily worth four Claudes:

Plans to expand landfill opposed

News-Journal reporter Jeff Montgomery rounded up a collection of quotes from folks not happy with the proposed expansion of the Cherry Island landfill, northern Delaware's primary resting spot for up to two-thirds of the entire state's solid waste.

The Solid Waste Authority faces the daunting task of any agency responsible for this kind of LULU (Locally Unwanted Land Use)--what to do when space is running out.

One of their managers summed up the problem nicely, along with the reason why this solution is under study:

"There's no change in traffic, and no impact on virgin soil. It would be hard to go out and find a 500-acre farm in New Castle County."

According to the story, the Authority has to have a solution in place by 2006.

It's probably even money that it will take two years past that point to finalize any resolution of this controversy. That's because Delaware problems often seem to require Ivory Soap® standards of consensus before action can be taken.

In the meantime, there's always hope that as this story develops the newspaper's headline writers will be just a little more creative than this incredibly dull thing.

March 16, 2003
A sign that the development pendulum is beginning to stop and reverse direction

William Booth and Kimberly Edds wrote a fascinating piece in today’s Washington Post about an aspect of the environmental movement that doesn’t receive as much attention as the usual attacks against Big Auto, Big Industry, or Big Government.

It’s about what happens when the Sierra Club and similar groups take off after agriculture.

Not the normal family farm, mind you. This involves a slightly different set of sons and daughters of the soil—wealthy northern California grape growers.

The environmentalists have targeted lovely and touristy Napa, where a chapter of the usually staid Sierra Club is raising Cain -- through lawsuits and ballot initiatives -- to stop winemakers from clearing trees and planting vineyards along the valley's steep hillsides and rocky streams, activities they allege foul the drinking water and threaten steelhead trout, spotted owls and a creature called the vernal pool fairy shrimp.

The environmentalists' attacks are coming just as the California wine industry is reeling from flat sales, a glut of product, and intense competition from newly popular, inexpensive imports (Can you say Australian Shiraz? Sure you can.)

The Napa region is a great place to raise grapes. With its proximity to the dot com millionaires and others with money to burn and fantasies to fulfill, the area has also undergone a huge boom in real estate price appreciation to go along with vineyard expansions into evermore tricky terrain.

Previously, most of the grapes from Napa were grown on the valley floor. But beginning in the late 1980s, vineyards began to pock the steep hillsides, which also happen to produce the kind of intense grape that can become a cult wine.

But there are problems with hillsides. They are often covered by forests that must be chopped down to plant grapes. And they can be unstable.

On at least three occasions, reservoirs were fouled by vineyards. In one instance recounted in the article, the vineyard simply slid down a mountain side and into a lake that’s the prime source of drinking water for a nearby town.

The WaPo article notes that the Sierra Club and other activists managed to force a land use initiative on the 2004 ballot that would limit tree-clearing on mountain slopes and require streamside setbacks, which are the agricultural equivalent to setback requirements for buildings under most zoning codes.

Naturally, some folks aren’t happy with the attacks on the Napa way of life:

What really rankles the wine growers is the assertion that their grapevines are not welcome, and that the growers, who consider themselves people of taste and sophistication, are no better than strip-mall developers in the eyes of the environmentalists.

"Yes, we have some problems. Yes, we need to work the land reasonably, which I argue that we have," said Stuart Smith, the founder of Smith-Madrone Winery. "But this is not an environmental crisis and if these people are not careful, they will cripple this industry."

Frankly, it looks like the industry can cripple itself very nicely without any help from the Sierra Club. Even without the environmentalists carping about mudslides and rare shrimp, the Napa Valley shows the usual signs of a boom/bust cycle tied to natural resources. That not uncommon in Western states, now is it?

I think this story is a good example of how environmental challenges act as a sign that an area’s development patterns are about to slow down, if not change direction.

When land uses intensify to the extent that people pay ridiculous dollars per acre, some folks plunking down all that money decide that the size of their investment means that they can and will do what they want with it. These people then go too far, and there are environmental consequences. After one or two such incidents, the activists come out to rescue the entire area from the excesses of the few. The environmentalists are joined by others who are bothered by the pace of development. New measures are adopted to retard further growth and potentially reduce the risk to the area’s natural environment.

It’s a bit like watching a pendulum.


   

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© Frederick H. Schranck 2002-2003