Sneaking Suspicions

Archives-- May 5-11, 2002 (Week 18)


Commentary from a practical perspective

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This page includes posts from May 5-11, 2002 in the usual reverse order. Each week's postings on the home page are perma-linked to these pages.

May 11, 2002

A Restored Sense of Mission?

The pundit community has not been kind to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC").

Sometimes the ridicule was deserved.

For example, during the Clinton Administration the Atlanta-based agency caught a lot of justified grief for its continual sponsorship of firearm studies that attempted to support the gun control lobby.

The news yesterday that the CDC issued updated guidelines for the treatment of Sexually Transmitted Disease is a welcome signal that in at least some respects the agency may have a restored sense of its core responsibilities.

The report updates the CDC’s 1998 edition, and makes some new recommendations that could produce beneficial effects, such as

[A]nnual screening for HIV, chlamydia, syphilis and gonorrhea for gay and bisexual men - plus vaccination against hepatitis A and B.

The agency took note of recent incidence studies:

"There has been an increase in awareness of the level of risk behavior of men who have sex with men," said the CDC's Dr. Stuart Berman. "There really haven't been recommendations before."

The news story quotes the primary writer of the report about the additional recommendation that doctors attempt to determine the sex-partner gender of their male patients:

"It's important for them to provide educational messages about what's important in terms of safe-sex behavior," said lead author Dr. Kimberly Workowski. "A lot of times providers have reticence in asking their patients these questions."

The agency also made recommendations for changes in treatment and screening for women with chlamydia, which it decribes as "the most commonly reported STD," and also warned California doctors of the limits of certain antibiotics in treating some West Coast strains of gonorrhea.

Delaware has an unfortunate record with respect to STDs, and the CDC’s new guidelines should be helpful.

I’m also glad to see the agency return to its primary purpose .

May 10, 2002

Expectations and emotions

The emotional response to traffic depends in large part upon one’s expectations.

Last week our older daughter finished her first year of college, so on Friday morning my wife and I left Rehoboth Beach in our station wagon for the 3-4 hour trip to Virginia to bring her home.

The weather was just gorgeous—sunny, mid-60s.

The ride down was not bad either, especially compared to other times we’d made the same trip. We hit the usual blockage at the Mixing Bowl, the giant construction project at the Washington Beltway, where I-95, I-395, and I-495 come together.

After a mile or so of bumper-to-bumper conditions, we saw that the HOV lanes were set up in our direction. We reached the special lanes, shot down south, and made it to the campus in very good time.

My reaction? No big deal.

My wife’s primary concern was to avoid the Washington rush hour traffic on the way back. Fortunately our daughter anticipated her mother’s keen wishes. She had everything stacked up and was ready to go.

We filled the car quickly (I am a packing genius) and headed north on I-95. As we neared Washington, we could see the regular and HOV lanes of the Interstate heading south, packed with slow-moving traffic.

We worked our way through the Mixing Bowl once more, and drove toward the Woodrow Wilson Bridge over the Potomac River. Traffic came to a dead stop about three miles from the crossing, just as the overhead message boards warned us.

For the next 20 minutes or so, we never exceeded 10-15 miles per hour, when we moved at all.

This sort of blockage happens at the Wilson Bridge every weekday afternoon.

My reaction? No big deal.

We returned to normal freeway speeds just before the bridge, and continued on the beltway to U.S. 50, heading east.

Route 50 is an Interstate-style expressway. We bombed along for a few miles until we hit yet another clump of traffic. This stoppage soon recreated the Slinky Effect, however, where the clogging eventually dissipates without leaving any clues why it bunched up in the first place.

My reaction? No big deal.

The next backup occurred at the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, about a half-mile from the tollbooths. Two hundred yards from the booths, the dedicated E-ZPass lanes opened up, and we zipped past a few hundred cars and trucks.

My reaction? No big deal.

Our 70-mile drive across the Delmarva Peninsula continued without incident, until we reached the Five Points intersection in the early evening about four miles north from our home.

The dual highway’s southbound traffic lanes were both full and completely stopped, just a few hundred yards past this locally famous crossroads.

My reaction? Instant depression:

"Aw, geez."

"That’s just not right."

"It’s too early for beach traffic--it’s only May 3rd."

"Aw, come onnnn."

My bride pointed out that we could have turned off the highway and taken a short cut, but I had already decided to take the main road so I could buy a newspaper.

The next 15 to 20 minutes were the saddest part of the whole trip.

It’s all a matter of expectations.

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

May 9, 2002

More tales from the Bizarro World;
or, why I love reading Reuters

I have way too much fun reading the Reuters’ web site.

Hardly a day goes by that the hardworking folks in the worldwide news organization don’t produce a story that looks like serious reportage, but which makes me laugh just the same.

It’s not really their fault. I think it has more to do with the fact that they’re reporting from the Middle East quadrant of the Bizarro World.

Today’s story, for example, noted a report in the official Iraqi newspaper that the country plans to hold a referendum for the post of president sometime this year.

The reporter explained that there just might be an outside influence affecting this decision:

The plan for the vote coincides with increased rumblings from the United States about the need for a "change of regime" in Iraq.

Several other aspects of this story called to mind the Bizarro imperative—whatever would be expected in the real world will be the opposite in their world.

The Iraqi newspaper discussed the election activities now underway as Hussein’s current seven-year "term" comes to an end:

The newspaper said the supreme voting committee, chaired by Vice-Chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council Izzat Ibrahim, had discussed "means to make the referendum, which will be held this year, a success."

The committee also discussed procedures to hold the presidential referendum in an atmosphere of "freedom and democracy to show the world the unity of the Iraqi people," al-Iraq added.

However, it did not give a date for the vote.

The last election, in 1995, met an Ivory Soap percentage standard for both turnout and preference:

Government figures showed Saddam won 99.96 percent of more than eight million valid votes cast on a turnout of 99.47 percent.

Translated from Bizarro-speak, here’s what all this means:

  • Hussein rigged a bogus election 7 years ago.
  • The results would have made Khrushchev-era members of the Soviet Duma smile in recognition.
  • Bush’s insistence on the need for changing the Iraqi regime will be countered by another fraudulent election, in which a new regime will be selected. It will just be Hussein winning another *term*.
  • In other words, we got your new regime right here, pal.
  • The committee will make sure that the same level of turnout and vote totals reached in 1995 are produced in this year’s referendum, thereby giving Hussein a *mandate* from a *unified* populace to continue his regime.
  • Similar *freedom-loving* peoples, such as some of our other Middle East friends, will then formally recognize the bogus election results.

Thanks, Reuters. With your Middle East reports, every day brings a Bizarro reason to smile.

May 9, 2002

Thanks, Sarge

Sergeant Stryker is moving out and moving on.

On his web site this morning he explains his departure from his assignment from Andrews AFB, his preparations for his next detail, and his thoughts on halting the universal access to his Sgt. Stryker blog. From what he writes, it looks like it will be converted to a limited access personal site.

I appreciated his commentary on military matters, because he always brought a blunt dose of realism to the excessively brave and the unusually timid alike. His pieces about life at Dover AFB generated some very pleasant correspondence between us.

Thanks very much, Sarge. Good luck in your career and in your next moves in life thereafter. My best wishes to your family.

May 8, 2002

Gremlins

Sometimes gremlins can muck up the development and implementation of public policy, or at least make a valiant effort toward that goal.

Gremlins are the mischievous invisible goblins that actively work to divert, subvert, and sometimes pervert the decisions made by those in charge. Gremlins are often permanent civil servants, with a greater interest in preserving their own policy preferences than in following orders.

On occasion my executive-level clients have used far more colorful terms to describe these persons, but this site is PG-rated.

Last weekend I posted an essay about gremlin problems in the Defense Department. At the time it appeared that Army Secretary Thomas White’s tenure was at risk, because of the actions of some within the organization who oppose Secretary Rumsfeld’s efforts to eliminate the controversial Crusader artillery program.

According to today’s paper, however, White successfully convinced his superiors that while gremlins certainly exist within the Army, he’s not among them:

Bush and Rumsfeld appeared to absolve White of wrongdoing after an investigation into Army lobbying of Congress against Pentagon cancellation of the artillery system.

"The president has confidence in Army Secretary White. He thinks he's doing a good job in his post,'' White House press secretary Ari Fleischer told reporters.

"No. My goodness, no,'' Rumsfeld added at the Pentagon when asked if he would seek White's resignation. He said White assured him he had not been involved in last week's back-door bid to enlist lawmakers to keep the new self-propelled Crusader artillery gun alive.

"I certainly have confidence in Secretary White,'' Rumsfeld told a news conference. "There is no question but that some individuals in the Army were way the dickens out of line. It was not Secretary White.''

To underscore the importance of reminding the gremlins about who’s the boss, Rumsfeld made a related executive decision about the continued dialogue with Congress about the program.

Rumsfeld said earlier on Tuesday it would be up to the Pentagon to convince Congress to support the plan to end funding for the mobile, long-range 155 mm Crusader artillery program....

"I think there's a strong probability that the Department of Defense will be commenting on that tomorrow or the next day,'' Rumsfeld told the Senate Appropriations Committee....

Some might even call an Army representative's testimony a near-certainty, if not a dead cinch.

Apparently, the search for the not-so-innocent will continue in the meantime.

May 8, 2002

Jefferson Davis

Several bloggers recently returned to a long-standing historical debate about the legal status of Jefferson Davis, the former President of the Confederate States of America.

Among others, Glenn Kinen and Susanna Cornett exchanged rhetorical gunfire over whether Davis fit the definition of the term "traitor." John Braue also weighed in on the topic.

My undergraduate work centered on the period between 1865 and 1914, but I did take a graduate course in the Civil War.

Personally, I don’t think of Jefferson Davis as a traitor.

I tend to think of him as a cross-dresser.

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As some might say, not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Note—When captured in May 1865, Davis was wearing a shawl. In the tradition of accuracy so common to editorial cartoons, however, his mild attempt at disguise received some artistic license in the depiction.

The winner writes the history, after all.

May 7, 2002

The Socially Optimal Gasoline Tax

Max Power says that at a recent dinner he attended with Eugene Volokh and a passel of law clerks, they came up with a scintillating conversation topic: what would be the socially optimal gasoline tax?

The group discussed various potential elements for the rate setting, such as pollution, the Saudis and their ilk, the health effects of automobile accidents not already factored into insurance premium-setting, and other factors.

Max wrote:

My guess is $3 to $5/gallon (or an equivalent amount levied on oil imports). In terms of policy, the government could levy this tax, and make it revenue-neutral, which would have the additional beneficial effect of reducing taxes on income. But I have nothing to back up that raw number. Anyone have credible data?

I’m glad you asked, Max.

A gas tax of $3 to $5 per gallon would raise $440 to $733 billion dollars, respectively.

From those estimates I conclude there can be only one additional question:

How socially optimal did you want to be?

Here’s how I calculated these revenue projections.

The Federal Highway Administration recently studied the attribution and apportionment of federal transportation tax revenues.

In 2000, the federal fuel tax was 18.3 cents per gallon. Of that amount, 12 cents was attributed to the Highway Account; 2 cents went to the Mass Transit Account; and 4.3 cents went to the General Fund.

According to the FHWA, the money raised during 2000 and distributed into the Highway Account solely from gasoline totaled $17.579 billion dollars. Dividing that number by 12 cents yields a $-raised/penny tax revenue of $1.465 billion per penny. That translates to $439.5 billion at $3/gallon, or $732.5 billion at $5/gallon.

This estimate does not include the additional revenue that would result from an equivalent increase in the federal fuel taxes for diesel, LP, LNP, or gasohol, the favorite fuel of Archer Daniels Midland.

Therefore, $440 billion is a conservative estimate.

Reducing the income tax to make the money raised from Max’s fuel tax rates revenue-neutral would be fun to watch, but I don’t see it happening--ever.

The tax incidence shift from such a maneuver would be political suicide.

Here’s why:

There were 127.1 million U.S. individual returns filed in 1999, contributing a total of just under $880 billion.

Just over 94.5 million of these filings showed income taxes paid. Approximately 28.6 million tax return filers sent in their returns for a complete refund (and for some even more, under the Earned Income Credit program).

In January, Robert Samuelson wrote about the tax incidence of the current income tax system. He noted that 167 million voters owe little or no income taxes, and only 32 million taxpayers pay 83 per cent of the total income tax.

The total number of U.S. car owners far outnumbers the 32 million taxpayers that pay most of the income tax. Therefore, any transfer of half or more of the total federal personal income tax liability to those paying at the pump would also vastly increase the number of taxpayers making significant contributions to the cost of governance.

Hence the enormous practical difficulty with setting a $3 gas tax.

It just wouldn’t be optimal—socially or otherwise.

May 6, 2002

Priorities

It would be a pleasant surprise if the United Nations committed itself to improving the lives of innocent people who need help, instead of primarily coming to the aid of those who create their own problems.

The contrast between what the U.N. chooses to focus upon and the good it could do if it were so inclined was in sharp relief in the last few days.

For example, the NYT reported today on the results of a U.N.-sponsored study:

A senior U.N. official on Monday estimated that Israel's military offensive in the West Bank caused between $300 million and $400 million damage to Palestinian property and reconstruction would take at least a year.

[…] Tim Rothermel, the special representative of the U.N. Development Program responsible for the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, … said representatives from the United Nations, the World Bank and the European Commission would complete their damage assessment by May 15 and draw up a plan for reconstruction.

My first reaction was to wonder if the U.N.’s additional assessment of the physical damage in Israel caused by the Palestinians’ human bombing campaign would be completed on the same schedule, and when we might see a U.N.-financed plan for reconstruction.

Not bloody likely.

I also couldn’t help noticing the apparent lack of reaction from the U.N. or similar entities about the most recent ferry disaster in Bangladesh.

A 105-foot long ferry on the busy Meghna River sank during a storm Friday night. The death toll is at least 278, according to a private television station.

The government is still trying to figure out how many people were on board at the time, as bloated bodies continue to float to the surface. Here’s why:

Ferries in Bangladesh do not keep complete passenger records because many people buy tickets on board.

The most telling point in the article appeared near its end:

Ferry accidents are common in Bangladesh, an impoverished country of 130 million people crisscrossed by many rivers.

Many countries depend on ferries for the movement of passengers and freight. In low-lying deltas such as in Bangladesh, ferries are an absolute, unavoidable necessity. The expense of building an alternative road and bridge network is simply beyond the country’s abilities.

Since 1986 at least eight other major ferry disasters have taken place in Bangladesh alone. Dozens of similar catastrophes in water-borne transportation have occurred throughout the Third World. On many of these occasions, the death toll is higher than expected because of horrific overcrowding or other unsafe but preventable conditions.

The U.N. could provide significant capital assistance for ferry construction and maintenance in these countries, to make sure there are enough ferries in good working order to meet the need. It could also support the construction and maintenance of bridges to replace ferries in some locations, eliminating some of the threat of mass drownings.

I doubt that any developing country would turn down the chance to use U.N. funds to enhance its transportation infrastructure, which would both save lives and enhance the local economy.

I’d be happy to be proven wrong, but it surely seems that the U.N. would rather spend its time and money on furthering the politics of hatred, instead of helping to address practical problems of preserving human life and potential.

May 6, 2002

You can lead a horse to water, but….

The following is the true and complete text of an e-mail I received today from the training branch of the human relations section of a government agency. The source is not disclosed, for obvious reasons:

Good Morning!!

Do [sic] to lack of interest, the Interpersonal Communications class scheduled for June 5 & 6, 2002, has been canceled.

Thanks

I am not making this up.

Click here for my latest golf book review, The Dewsweepers, if you’d like.

May 5, 2002

The buried lede

Many participants in the blogger community are professional journalists, such as James Lileks, Matt Welch, Ken Layne, and Jeff Jarvis.

A few are experienced editors in the media, including Joanne Jacobs and the Media Minder, now blessedly back from one of the shortest cups of coffee ever recorded among the blogging community.

Thanks to the journalists’ postings, blogging amateurs now know the meaning of certain terms of art in the trade.

Yesterday’s Reuters story about Iraq gives an example of what Welch and the crew might call "burying the lede," in which the truly newsworthy portion of the report appears far below the first paragraph.

The headline wasn’t quite Claude material, but the lead sentence was:

Iraq's most influential newspaper said Saturday that any U.S. attack on Iraq would fail to overthrow the government of President Saddam Hussein and tear apart the country as Washington sought to do.

That one earns a few Claudes. Who would expect an Iraqi newspaper to take a different slant?

The second "graf" (ooh, I feel so journalistic) notes that this particular newspaper, Babel (I’m not kidding!), just happens to be run by Saddam Hussein’s son, Uday.

Defending one’s dad, especially when he’s the dictator, is not news. Open rebellion by a prominent member of the Hussein family would be news, but highly unlikely. Understanding and forgiveness are not among Saddam’s strong suits.

The third graf tells us that the commentary appeared as a front-page editorial

signed by Omar al-Kadhimi, a nickname believed to refer to Uday.

This is "believed" to be Uday’s nickname the same way that the nickname "Babe" is believed to refer to George Herman Ruth.

The fourth paragraph finally touches upon the most interesting part of the story:

However, the paper said the article "reflects the writer's point of view and not necessarily the newspaper's.''

My first reaction was a wide grin, followed by intense curiosity.

What does this statement tell us?

Perhaps even Iraqi newspapers feel they must give the appearance of being non-partisan, in the same fashion as the NYT or the New York Post. Maybe that’s all this disclaimer was doing.

Then again, it could be an indicator that all is not well in the Hussein clan.

If Uday wanted to signal the U.S. or others that he’s not a complete toady for his father, a disclaimer such as this appearing just below a standard sucking-up piece could do it for him.

It might also be a sign that someone on the paper, probably a copy editor, combined a subversive sense of humor with a death wish.

If Uday didn’t know about the disclaimer until after it ran, I can well imagine what the next staff meeting could be like.

Whatever the real intent of the attempt to sever the connection between the paper and the editorial writer, there’s no question that noting its presence was the most compelling part of the entire Reuters story. Reporting the who, what, where, when, why, and how of that short sentence could have been a great lede.

Note: By the way, I intentionally buried the lede for this essay. Sneaking Suspicions is not a newspaper. In writing essays, there’s nothing wrong with setting a tone prior to hitting the 5 W-1H combination.

And yes, this site includes a disclaimer. This one, however, means what it says.

May 5, 2002

Webheads

We watched Spider-Man last night. Now, that was fun!

Our 9:25 p.m. showing was sold out, as was the 9 p.m. screening at the local stadium-seat multiplex.

It looks like we’ll be part of a record-setting opening weekend for the film.

The movie deserves it, especially for its faithful depiction of the comic book experience championed by Marvel in the Spider-Man series and many others.

For example, Stan Lee and Steve Ditko understood that there’s a place for humor among the usual dramatic elements of the superhero story. Sam Raimi, the director, did a great job in recreating that part of the Spider-Man saga. J.K. Simmons’ performance as J. Jonah Jameson is a particularly fine example.

If I were a stickler for detail, I might quibble over the variations from the original, such as the movie’s depiction of Peter Parker’s webshooting--but I won’t.

Go see it. Now.

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Contact Information:

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

fschranck-at-sneakingsuspicions.com


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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