Sneaking Suspicions

Archives-- April 14-21, 2002 (Week 15)

Commentary from a practical perspective

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This page includes posts from the site's fifteenth week, April 14-21, 2002 in the usual reverse order. Each week's postings are perma-linked to these pages.

April 20, 2002

Signs that one lives in a small place

Every so often I receive a reminder or two that I live in a small place--and that’s not a bad thing.

Last weekend my back left molars started feeling fairly awful. They felt different and worse than a toothache, and I’d receive a pretty vicious reminder it was a mistake to drink anything hot or cold.

I saw my dentist on Tuesday. The x-rays showed no cracked or missing fillings, but the pain was too diffuse to confirm which tooth was the real trouble spot. The dentist prescribed a painkiller, gave me the sad news that I would need a root canal, and also said I had to wait until it "localized" before he could do much about it.

The pain centered on the next to last lower left molar on Thursday night, so I called him at home on Friday as he suggested. His office was closed for renovation, but he said to meet me there anyway. We walked past the wall hangers and carpet layers to one of the stations, and after a big dose of Novocain took hold, the dentist went after the problem.

As the procedure came to a close I told him I really appreciated him seeing me on his day off, because my wife and I were to go to a black-tie event on Saturday. He said "No problem," and explained what could have developed if I’d waited until Monday. (abcess, swelling, fever, etc.).

Then he said, "Wait a minute. A black-tie event Saturday?"

"Yeah. It’s at the community college where she works--the annual spring fundraiser."

"I think we’re going, too. My wife was setting out my tux earlier today. Do you think it’s the same event?"

I looked at him sideways.

"Where we live, I really doubt there are two black-tie events taking place on the same evening, don’t you?"

"Yeah, you’re right," he laughed. "Now please make sure you go, because I’d hate to not see you there. I’d think it was my fault."

I tried to laugh with him, but with half my face still numb I don’t think it came out quite right.

I’ll bet we have tables near each other.

April 19, 2002

At least 4 Claudes

This one is just for the headline, which caused immediate chuckling as soon as I saw it:

Labor Dept. Questions Enron's Truthfulness

The story is pretty routine, as Enron pieces go, and especially as reported in the NYT.

Apparently everyone’s favorite Chapter 11 filer has a little conflict with the U.S. Labor Department over an agreement on how to pay a pension trustee to handle the company's pension plans.

Funny headline, though; it’s worth 4 Claudes, easily.

Click here for this week’s golf column, if you’d like.

April 18, 2002

The real risks for American women are the men they know

I read a court decision many years ago that used an impressive analogy to explain the pitfalls of assuming causation from a correlation.

As I recall, the judge pointed out that a statistically significant relationship could be shown between (1) the number of Smokey the Bear anti-forest fire advertisements on New York subway cars and (2) the absence of forest fires in New York City.

Of course, the problem with assuming that the subway ads helped reduce forest fires is that there are no forests in New York City.

A Reuters story today reminded me of this continuing problem in policy analysis.

American women and girls are five times more likely to be murdered than women in other industrialized nations, according to a study released on Wednesday by the Harvard School of Public Health.…

Nearly half of all murdered American women were killed with a gun, said David Hemenway, the study's lead author….

"Guns are often bought for protection, but the U.S. has the most guns, and, clearly, we are not doing a good job protecting American women,'' Hemenway said....

Hemenway's study did not examine why American women were more likely to be murdered than their foreign counterparts, but noted the U.S. homicide rate is closely tied to levels of gun ownership.

In the press release available at the Harvard web site, the study’s author seemed to recognize the limits of his analysis, even if the Reuters reporter didn’t:

"The circumstances of male and female homicides tend to be quite different," said Hemenway, "at least in the United States. While men are typically killed away from home by a non-intimate, women are more likely to be killed at home by a spouse, ex-boyfriend, or other intimate acquaintance."

Hemenway emphasized that a cross-sectional study cannot prove causation, and that factors other than firearms explain some of the differences across nations. "After all, slightly less than half of all American females who are murdered are killed with a firearm." Nevertheless, the results of this study are consistent with other studies of women that indicate a gun is an important risk factor for homicide.

With all due respect, I don't believe anything meaningful can be gleaned from that last sentence.

Guns can kill. That is what they are designed to do. Therefore, guns present an obvious "risk factor" that they will be used for that purpose.

This study does not prove that guns cause homicides, other than in the same way that a knife, one’s bare hands, a car, an axe, or some other handy tools are used for the same evil purpose.

For example, I can’t determine the differing rates of gun ownership among the 25 or so countries included in the study, from either the press release or the Reuters story. Anecdotally, however, the table accompanying the press release indicates that of the 284 Japanese victims analyzed in the study, only 4 were killed with a gun. Those who killed the other 280 Japanese women were obviously not deterred by their relative lack of access to firearms.

Should I assume from this study that the total homicide rate among Japanese women would rise with more widespread gun ownership? Or is it more likely that the stark differential in the means of committing murder would be the only variable to change? Can I even make that assumption?

Other than confirming the commonplace notion that America is a violent place, and not just for men, as noted above the study also showed that American women are more likely than men to be murdered by an intimate acquaintance such as a husband or ex-boyfriend.

I think that issue is worth far more study and careful consideration, instead of focusing on the means by which less than half of these twisted souls carry out their crimes.

April 17, 2002

Very still photography

Now these are a pair of sick puppies.

An Ohio jury convicted a photographer and a deputy coroner of abuse of a corpse last October, and sentencing took place this week.

The coroner let the photographer take pictures of dead bodies in the county morgue.

Thomas Condon, the photographer, received a two-year prison term. The coroner, Dr. Jonathan Tobias, was rewarded for his misconduct with a mix of jail time and required community service.

The judge called the pictures "the worst form of invasion of privacy."

Condon has said he was attempting an artistic portrayal of life and death.

Prosecutors said Condon posed bodies with sheet music, a key, an apple and other objects.

According to the AP story, the defense claimed Condon was allowed to take pictures of an autopsy "for training purposes," and that "no one had told Condon he could not take pictures of bodies."

I suppose that was the best defense they could come up with, under the circumstances.

In essence, Condon’s attorneys argued that society may no longer presume that people will maintain a sense of decency. Instead, adults must be directly told what is forbidden.

It’s one thing to take clinical still shots for training purposes. Even then, one would expect a release or two to be obtained. Condon is allegedly a professional photographer, who would therefore know about that basic requirement.

It’s an entirely different matter and, to be blunt, simply evil to produce a portfolio featuring a "Still Life with Apple and Gunshot Victim," or "Death in B Flat," or "Unlocking the Secrets of a Head-On Collision."

I give credit to the photoprocessing business that tipped off the authorities to this outrageous misconduct.

It’s intriguing to contemplate the appropriate community service for the deputy coroner. After all, the usual tactic of shocking the miscreant into the realization of the impact of his crime might not work here, given Dr. Tobias’s career in pathology.

Perhaps as an alternative, Dr. Tobias should be the official new-baby photographer for the local public hospital. For someone so inured to death that his sense of propriety diminished to this criminal level, a daily reminder of the joy of new life might help.

April 16, 2002

Thinking about the flat tax

Doug Turnbull wrote an interesting Tax Day piece about the flat tax.

As he sees it, arguing for the flat tax based on its simplicity, compared to the current complexities of the graduated tax, is illogical:

The difference between a flat tax and a graduated tax is in how, given a certain taxable income, you compute the amount of income tax owed. But that is the last, and simplest step in the tax filing process. One hundred percent of the complexity in the current system is in determining what your taxable income is. ... The only thing a flat tax would do would be to change the numbers in that look-up table.

Turnbull recognizes that many proponents of the flat tax augment their proposition with other suggested changes in the overall tax scheme, and that the true merits of the proposal may lie there:

It’s like those old breakfast cereal commercials that would tout Frosted Flakes as being "part of this balanced and nutritious breakfast." Of course, the balanced nutrition wasn’t coming from the frosted flakes. Similarly, any streamlining of the tax process in a flat tax proposal is coming from ancillary parts of the proposal and not from the flat tax itself.

I agree with Turnbull, but not completely. As I see it, any change to a flat tax scheme actually requires general acceptance of a very different mindset toward tax policy than the current arrangement.

(I was going to call it a system or structure, but that would do violence to the meaning of those two words. The current income tax law is a "system" in the same way that Jacob Marley dragged along his "system" of chains and boxes behind his ghostly presence.)

The appeal of the flat tax is not based on simplicity; it’s more likely a matter of equity.

My home state is remarkably dependent upon the personal income tax as a prime source of government revenue. There is no state property tax, nor does the state collect a general sales tax, as that term is understood and applied elsewhere.

Delaware’s income tax law is piggybacked onto the Federal system, and formerly included steeply graduated tax rates. In 1974, the top rate on taxable income above $100,000 was increased to 19.8%.

Several government leaders were then surprised to learn there were limits on public acceptance of that policy. Business leaders complained about their troubles recruiting people to move to Delaware, and others simply threatened to leave. In 1979, the legislature and the governor showed signs of listening, with a cut in personal income tax rates to 16.65%.

Over the next 22 years the General Assembly reduced general tax rates at least ten more times, along with a host of other changes in the tax code. The current maximum rate is now 5.95% on taxable income in excess of $60,000.

Despite the current troublesome revenue estimates, there is no mistaking the fact that Delaware’s fiscal outlook is far brighter than it was 30 years ago. It’s also generally accepted that the state’s conversion to a far flatter income tax rate structure played a major role in the improvement.

I am no economist, but I think the Delaware experience shows that there are real limits to a graduated tax rate system that have nothing to do with their relative complexity, and everything to do with a sense of fundamental fairness.

Sometimes the argument between flat and graduated systems is couched in terms of "ability to pay," a weaselly concept when discussing what someone else should do with their money.

Even at 19.8%, people had the "ability" to pay state income tax. Nonetheless, the unfairness of that rate caused its eventual undoing.

The flat tax proposals that I have seen actually make the same initial assumption about "ability to pay" contained within the graduated tax scheme. The more I make, the more taxes I pay, because I have the fiscal "ability" compared to my lesser-compensated fellow citizens.

On the other hand, with the flat tax I don’t face the additional assumed obligation to pay an even greater percentage of my earnings simply due to my increasing success. That is the true appeal of the flat tax, and not the argument based on simplicity.

Millions of taxpayers recognize it is impossible to argue for the current graduated tax scheme as a fair system. The IRS Code we now use is certainly politically achievable, especially as more and more people are exempted from its operation. Nonetheless, that doesn’t make it equitable, and changing to a fair, flat tax won’t be simple.

April 15, 2002

Some people should resist the urge for self-expression

The Supreme Court did the State of Missouri a favor today, by refusing to enter the morass of judgment calls first created by someone's bright idea to sell official motor vehicle vanity tags.

In Fisher v. Davis, the Court denied the Show Me State's request to appeal a Circuit Court decision that found fault with attempted censorship of messages such as the one successfully obtained by Mary Lewis.

She managed to force Missouri to issue her an official tag proclaiming herself as "ARYAN-1," a dubiously decorative element of self-expression.

The AP article noted that all states' motor vehicle codes now provide for vanity tags. They produce a nice little bit of cash for starving state coffers, especially when the legislators are reluctant to impose across-the-board fee increases. For example, Missouri made more than $2 million last year from these tags, and the Delaware Transportation Trust Fund earned nearly a million last year from the same source.

From a legislative perspective, it's much better to "target the audience" and still make the money, rather than impose a wide-ranging fee increase and catch hell.

Most of the tag names are completely harmless, such as IMAQT or TRPSFN. Other tags, such as Lewis's, are clearly intended to provoke or annoy.

Missouri's effort to block certain messages intended to be conveyed by vanity plates ran afoul of current legal interpretations of the First Amendment, now considered applicable to states by the "incorporation" doctrine.

The Missouri law ... says plates cannot be "obscene, profane, inflammatory or contrary to public policy.'' Twenty-five states ban "offensive'' messages, and other states have varying standards.

Missouri went too far by adding the "contrary to public policy'' standard, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said. A public official with "even marginal creative ability'' could come up with reasons to turn down choices under that vague term, the court ruled.

The appeals court also said that fears about reactions from other drivers were not enough to censor Lewis' speech. "The First Amendment knows no heckler's veto,'' the court said.

Which is the point, after all. There's nothing wrong with resorting to time-honored traditions, such as shunning or assuming a righteous air of superiority, when faced with the undeniable fact that the owner of the car in front of you has a vanity tag crudely intended to provoke.

It's really no different than the bumper stickers or other adhesive messages stuck on vehicles that also proudly announce the owner's origins from the shallow end of the gene pool.

The vinyl stickers that show a leering young boy peeing are among my favorites in good taste.

If you see one of these offensive vanity tags while mired in traffic, just take a moment to mentally rearrange or replace the letters that cause offense. It's good clean fun, and you're guaranteed to feel better almost immediately.

Besides, some of these SFNKTRs and NMBNTs deserve it.

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April 14, 2002

Chilling out at the back side of sport science

A long time ago, I was a three-sport athlete. I ran cross-country, winter track, and track, in both high school and college.

A nasty bit of chondromalacia in both knees eventually sidelined my athletic career, which due to fundamentally mediocre talent was headed nowhere special in any event.

My athletic pursuits now center on golf and sailing. They don’t affect my creaky joints, and to my middle-aged mind are more appealing than a casual 13 miles at 6:00 per mile.

Nonetheless, as a former jock I still occasionally keep up with the current research in sports science.

Today’s AP story on new techniques to help distance runners sent a chill up my, er, spine.

Researchers studied a method called precooling to reduce the body's internal temperature prior to running.

By driving down core temperature, precooling gives an athlete a bit more time to work out or compete in aerobic sports before overheating. "You now have a capacity to store this heat that you didn't have before,'' said researcher Emily Haymes of Florida State University. "That allows you to go longer.''

The practice requires careful monitoring, however, due to the risk of hypothermia. Thanks to the Polar Bear Plunges, I know something about potential harm from excessive cold.

The article’s discussion of this issue includes a classic bit of deadpan reporting:

A person can cool to 97 degrees or a bit lower without becoming hypothermic, but temperatures have to be monitored closely, Lawrence said. That's where the rectal thermometer or some similar way of monitoring core temperature is needed. The experts think an under-the-tongue or on-the-ear thermometer is not accurate enough.

This may limit the popularity of precooling. "Not many people are going to use the rectal thermometer,'' said researcher Allen Parcell of Brigham Young University.

Gee. Ya think?

I’m just glad this new practice technique has nothing to do with how to hold a putter.

Contact Information:

Fritz Schranck
P.O. Box 88
Nassau, DE  19969

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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