Commentary from a practical perspective
page includes posts from the site's seventeenth week, April 28-May 4, 2002 in the usual
reverse order. Each week's postings are perma-linked to these pages.
Limited loyalties can produce limited tenures
A NYT/AP article about the potential removal of Thomas White as the Army Secretary over a weapon program and Congressional relations was at least as intriguing for what was missing from the story as for what was in it.
According to the report,
Victoria Clarke, Rumsfelds spokeswoman, made her bosss sentiments about Whites potential responsibility fairly obvious, as reported in the breathless prose of Beltway-speak:
White ran into trouble after Deputy Secretary Paul Wolfowitz told him to produce a plan to close out the Crusader program and use the freed-up money for other programs.
It looks like somebody in the organization didnt like receiving the memo:
Clarke then made a comment that one would think military folks in particular would understand:
This story is missing a couple of related elements. Perhaps it was a simple matter of space limitations for the deadtree edition. (Thats not a problem here, is it?)
From my perspective, the story brings up a few additional points.
For example, on numerous occasions in both state and city government, I have seen the same bureaucratic mindset on display in this case.
Some have expressed the sentiment to me directly, along these lines: "Cabinet secretaries come, and cabinet secretaries go. I aint going anywhere, and Im not gonna stop doing things the way I want."
Others simply show the same attitude by what they do, or sometimes dont do, to slow or stop the implementation of a new approach to doing the publics business.
Anyone in the Defense Department who read Rumsfelds Rules, particularly the segment dealing with the DoD, could have predicted that attempted endruns of the Secretary could have ugly consequences:
In a segment on serving in government, Rumsfeld told anyone working for him how he viewed his responsibility to carry out the Administrations efforts at reforming the militarys programs:
On the personnel side of the issue, its not as if Rumsfeld and the Bush Administration hadnt previously tried to make the Army understand who was in charge, in a fairly pointed fashion.
Recall, for example, the March 6 resignation of Mike Parker, the short-tenured head of the Army Corps of Engineers, after his departure from the Administrations script.
As I wrote in a previous post, the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Public Works set himself on fire when he gave his loyalties to his former fellow Congressmen a greater priority than carrying out the responsibilities delegated to him in his new role.
Youd think that by now some folks would pick up on a brutally obvious hint or two about the likely results of disloyalty, now wouldnt you?
Those who work in government in the executive branch often have the opportunity to influence policy choices by the elected leadership and their appointed officials. Theres nothing wrong with that effort, and much good can and does result from it.
On the other hand, if your position doesnt carry the day, you have a few options: Carry out the policy choice made by others, vote with your feet, or run for office yourself.
If you also want to keep your job, deliberately screwing around with a decision with which you dont agree is not among your alternatives.
Who's in charge here?
A NYT piece today indicates the potential for a really interesting backlash from Massachusetts residents.
Among the collection of targeted tax hikes are increases in the cigarette tax and the capital gains tax rate. It also reduces personal exemptions for singles and married couples, and alters the deduction for charitable donations.
The most intriguing part of the package, which would "freeze a voter-approved income tax rollback," seems designed to infuriate.
I can well imagine those who successfully pushed for the voter initiative having a field day with that decision.
Look for commercials on Boston television channels, shouting something like "What part of cut our taxes didnt you understand?"
Ways and Means Chairman Rep. John Rogers, a Democrat (surprise!), issued a Claude-like statement:
Massachusetts has a well-deserved reputation for being a high-tax state. The vote for the increases seems to be enough to override the promised veto. The ultimate veto, however, may come from voters who may remind individual House members about the consequences of not taking them seriously.
I plan to keep tabs on this story. Looks like it could be fun to watch--from a distance.
This gesture's for you.
From a news report at MSNBC:
In response, Id like to make my own two-fingered salutethe British version, in which the back of my hand is facing Arafat.
My salute is not a V-for-victory sign. It has its own, special meaning.
I feel better already.
I didnt mean it.
A while back I wrote an essay for this site that proposed a whole new set of taxes for state governments, based on the original seven deadly sins.
Among the proposals, for example, I suggested the following:
It looks like someone took the idea seriously, at least for a while, anyway.
Im not sure how else to say this, so here goes:
It was a joke.
I didnt mean for this idea to be taken seriously.
Im flattered, but really, you shouldnt have.
May 1, 2002
As we sat in church in Philadelphia on Sunday afternoon, the familiar sound of the Mr. Softee theme warbled through the open stained glass windows. My wife and I looked at each other and smiled, both thinking back to our childhood.
She said, "Its been a long while since I heard that."
I said, "That, and the Jack n Jill truck. Well have to explain it to Julie [our daughter]. Im sure shes never heard it before."
Apparently a group of Connecticut citizens would prefer to never hear Mr. Softees sound ever again.
Community activists in Hartford are trying to eliminate the musical announcements that for decades have successfully drawn kids to the ice cream trucks like, well, kids going for ice cream.
Police issued noise ordinance citations to Felix Rios, the local Mr. Softee operator, but the soft serve ice cream sellers lawyer defends the practice on eminently conservative grounds:
Keep playing that song, Mr. Rios; but first, give Ms. Yennie a pair of earplugs and a free cone--with jimmies.
April 30, 2002
When discussing tax policy, choosing what to call something is as important as when contemplating any other emotionally charged political issue.
One persons tax credit is another persons tax dodge, for example.
As someone once said, a rose would smell as sweet regardless. However, any proposed change in the tax law wont go anywhere unless it can be sold. Although the lame titles often given to potentially unpopular legislation may cause smirks among the cognoscenti, the power of effective marketing cannot be denied.
(For a brutally funny parable on public policy wordsmithing in legislative titles, trade association names, and otherwise, read Christopher Buckleys Thank You For Smoking.)
In any event, the issue for government finance is never limited to the relatively simple question of how much revenue a tax will produce. That question is persistently and inevitably tied to two additional political questions: who will pay it, and what to call it.
Two recent posts remind us of these fundamental limits.
On April 27 the financial guru at More Than Zero Sum wrote a useful explanation of company-owned life insurance policies (COLIs), in reaction to recent negative news stories about these products. As "Mr. Dreck" noted:
Mr. Dreck takes a perfectly understandable position on the use of the term "subsidy," but it is not one shared by all, as he certainly knows.
Bruce Bartletts piece posted April 29 on National Review Online took issue with the increasing impact of the AMT on an ever-widening group of taxpayers.
He recalled the testimony of LBJs Treasury Secretary Joseph Barr in January 1969, just before Nixon took office, discussing
Bartlett credits Barrs testimony, which described how a few citizens took completely legal and extremely effective advantage of the tax codes provisions, with the eventual creation of the AMT:
Compared to its original intent, the AMTs reach is now spreading to lower income brackets. As Bartlett explains, the net result is simply another version of an old story:
Bartletts policy prescription is not one that I would wholeheartedly support, but I can see why he feels this way:
My own position about the AMT, as previously posted, is that it is both misnamed and misdirected. It is only concerned with restoring some taxation upon the relatively few in the upper income brackets who legally pay little or no tax. The AMT does nothing to address the fact that many more millions of citizens pay no income tax at all. Therefore, the AMT is not really a minimum income tax. At best, it is a flawed attempt at one particular form of the politics of envy.
So, we have a misnamed "minimum" tax. Dreck refers to tax "exemptions" and "subsidies". Bartlett refers to "tax preferences" and "tax expenditures".
Can we at least agree on the real meaning of these terms?
Probably not, unfortunately.
Nonetheless, I found a very interesting site to help keep in the forefront a useful understanding of at least some of these potentially loaded turns of phrase.
Under Delaware law, every two years the Finance Departments Division of Revenue must produce a report on the effect of tax preference laws. (29 Del.C. Section 8305(6); the report's online edition requires an Adobe® reader.)
The report details the actual fiscal impacts of the various tax exemptions and protections that affect the State's revenue stream from a whole range of tax laws, from corporate and personal income to fuel taxes. (I did not find an online version of a similar tax preference reporting law in other states, and I'll be happy to update this post with any citations sent to me.)
As defined in the Delaware statute, however,
From my perspective, even this definition is flawed, although I certainly understand the political dynamic that kept it from being universally applied to all such laws. Here are the critical missing parts of the definition:
The online edition of the report also quotes from a federal law on the same subject, whose definition is a bit more complete:
From the perspective of a state budget or revenue office, "tax preferences" are interchangeable with "tax expenditures":
Heres another fairly blunt admission:
That is exactly my point about the AMTs insufficient reach, at least by analogy. Thanks for agreeing.
As one reads this 94-page report, the truth keeps floating to the surface:
If you are interested in government finance (and most taxpayers should be, if only to protect themselves) read this report. It's not only a handy guide to tax terms with political overtones; it's also an honest assessment of the real impacts of tax policy choices.
Ill discuss a few other terms the preference report defines, such as horizontal and vertical equity, in a future post.
A celebration of service to an ever-changing community
Its been a long while since I felt so rewarded for going to church.
We traveled to the big city yesterday to attend the 100th anniversary Mass for Most Blessed Sacrament Roman Catholic Church in southwest Philadelphia.
My wife graduated from the parish elementary school there, and before they moved to the suburbs west of town in the early seventies, her family had been part of MBS (as its called) for over fifty years.
Her identification with MBS is shared by tens of thousands.
In the early 60s, MBS became the largest Roman Catholic school in the nation, with over 3,800 students enrolled. Classrooms holding 90-100 first graders each were typical. Up 40 nuns from the Immaculate Heart of Mary resided at the MBS convent and handled the primary teaching load. Nine priests were needed each Sunday to handle the crowded Mass schedule.
All this served a parish only 8 blocks long and 12 blocks wide.
Hundreds of former parishioners converged on the old building on Sunday, all seeming to seek a reaffirmation of their fond memories of a life centered around MBS.
The church sits at the corner of 56th Street and Chester Avenue, an imposing presence among streets filled with modest rowhouses and corner storefronts. Many of the homes have seen far better days. A check-cashing store sits diagonally across the street. One house opposite the church entrance serves the local Pentacostal community.
The former meeting hall of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, where local girls first learned to step dance, sits a few blocks away. Its now home to yet another small church.
The shift in the communitys demographics eventually caused a steep decline in MBS school attendance. This year only about 170 students are enrolled, and according to a report earlier this year, two-thirds are not Catholic. The archdiocese was forced to make a painful cut in its education support, and the MBS parish school will close its doors in June. At least one other parochial school in southwest Philadelphia will also close.
The convent now serves the community as a home for chemically dependent women. A Philadelphia Police Department substation uses one of the school buildings.
Sundays celebration set aside all these changes, and recalled once again the glory days of MBS several decades ago.
A project to restore the interior of the church to its former splendor finished just in time. We were frankly stunned at its quiet beauty. Sixteen stained glass windows on the sides were separated by huge paintings of the Stations of the Cross. Beautiful paintings graced the lightly colored walls and ceilings. The statuary of the Baby Jesus and the Blessed Virgin stood watch on either side of the altar, as they always have.
My wife excitedly told our younger daughter and me about going to Mass at MBS as a child, staring for hours at the religious artwork.
Our hosts, the current parishioners, were clearly pleased to see the church fill up with former members and their guests. The white-gloved ushers gently guided the participants to their seats, as the choir and pianist readied for the mass.
The celebrants for the Mass included Louis De Simone, an auxiliary bishop for Cardinal Bevilacqua; Roland Slobogin, the pastor; and at least fifteen other priests. Several of the concelebrants graduated from the MBS school during its heyday.
The choirs musicianship was inspirational. Most of the attendees joined with them for nearly every song, such as He Arose, How Great Thou Art, and Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee. The choirs only solo performance was limited to a truly exceptional version of Handels Hallelujah Chorus, which the rest of us simply enjoyed.
The participants during the Offertory illustrated the continuity of the parish over its century of existence. These included a couple married at MBS fifty years ago; a woman who graduated from the parochial school in 1922; a beautiful little girl from this years kindergarten class; and a young lady from this years final graduating class.
During the homily, Reverend Slobogin reminded the assembly how many thousands of people living in Philadelphia could successfully identify themselves to other Philadelphians simply by reference to the local parish, as in "Im from MBS." It didnt matter if the residents were Catholic, Methodist, or Jewish. The influence of the Catholic Churches in these neighborhoods was simply a fact of life recognized by all.
When MBS was founded in May 1901, it served the needs of the burgeoning immigrant population then filling the neighborhoods rowhouses. According to the churchs website, the tradition of helping immigrants continues, with parishioners now coming from Korea, Liberia, Trinidad, Barbados, and Sierra Leone.
With all the loving effort put into restoring MBS as it adjusts to the changes in the community, there is every reason for hope that the areas current residents will continue to be able to use that phrase successfully.
April 28, 2002
Rachel Zolls report leads with the results of a nationwide survey the news organization conducted:
The reporter was careful to note that this figure had its limitations. Some of the cases involving discipline were from many years ago, and the recent disclosures have obviously caused many dioceses to ramp up their enforcement. Dioceses in 18 other states are using different approaches than removal or suspension. In addition, several dioceses did not cooperate with the review and did not disclose the number of priests they suspended. Therefore, it cant be concluded that the number involved since January reflects a sort of "steady state" of priests at risk of discipline for this awful conduct.
Zoll wrote that Patrick Schiltz, an attorney whos defended several dioceses in abuse cases, felt that the number developed in the AP review seemed low to him.
The story also reminded readers of the relative scale of the problem, relative to the total number of priests in the U.S.:
Its easy to say that one predator priest is too many. Nonetheless, with that many people in the "candidate pool," one would be hard-pressed to argue that there would be no such crimes committed, even with a zero tolerance policy in place. Given the human predilection for evil, and the opportunity presented in routine diocesan work, at least a few of these incidents would be bound to occur.
I was also intrigued by the sidebar story that listed the number of cases by state:
This state-by-state listing would be far more informative if it also provided the total number of priests in each state. The population distribution of Catholics (and therefore the number of priests available to serve them) varies tremendously from state to state, in the same way as many other religions.
Even so, some of these numbers leap off the page.
What is going on in New England, for example? Or, more to the point, what was not going on in the Church hierarchy there?
I can readily imagine that in the aftermath of the recent Rome meeting, Church officials will pay very close attention to where these cases crop up. Even with this flawed survey, its pretty clear that failures in management were not spread evenly among the American Catholic leadership. A few interesting and targeted reassignments, retirements, or even resignations should result from the increased emphasis on dealing with this scandal.
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