Sneaking Suspicions
 
Archives--May 16-22, 2004


This page includes posts from May 16-22, 2004 in the usual reverse order. Each posting on the home page is perma-linked to these archive pages.

May 22, 2004
Carpe Crab

We bought a boat this spring, and launched it this week.

Here's a picture of it tied to a floating pier about a mile from our house.

It's a 22-foot Crest Family Fisherman model, with a 75 HP Honda 4-stroke outboard. We bought it from our friends at Pontoon Express, who outfitted the boat and oversaw the launching and initial tie-up.

We haven't come up with a name for it yet, but Carpe Crab and Seas the Fishes are in the running.

My bride is an accomplished crabber, who uses the chicken-neck-on-a-string method, combined with an surprisingly quick net hand. She will now be able to maintain these skills on a regular basis.

Heh-heh.

If it weren't for the fact they taste so good, I'd almost pity the crabs.

May 21, 2004
What fools must they think us tax-paying mortals be?

I have a longish commute to work. It’s nothing like some folks, but it’ s about 50 minutes each way, usually with the car radio tuned to a talk station. When I’m not listening to the local version, I listen to New York City outlets such as WABC and WFAN.

Thanks to this arrangement, for the last few weeks I’ve been subjected to repeated playbacks of a political advertisement run by New Jersey Democrats pushing Governor James McGreevey’s alleged FAIR tax scheme.

[BTW, I really despise the increasing use of acronyms to push legislation. This time it stands for Fair And Immediate Relief. It could have just as easily been titled Seeking Higher Income Taxes, which would have had the distinguishing benefit of being true-Ed.]

As described in a recent Opinion Journal editorial slamming the proposal, the New Jersey governor is seeking authority to increase property tax rebates to thousands of “middle-class” taxpayers and, of course, “our senior citizens.”

All well and good, except for the way the Democrats propose to pay for this beneficence:

The McGreevey proposal would raise the top marginal income tax rate to 8.97% from 6.37%, and he defends it by claiming it would apply only to 28,000 people, or 1% of all Jersey taxpayers.

At one level I should be pleased. Proposals such as this, coupled with the Garden State’s extremely high property taxes, help drive Jersey residents to move to Delaware. Many of these folks are very pleasant neighbors, in part because they’re so appreciative of my little state.

Nonetheless, what mostly bothers me about the radio advertisement is the dishonesty that infects it.

  • The advertisement argues that the proposal is, of course, “good for all of us.” [I’m paraphrasing by memory here.]

I think about 28,000 current Jersey residents might just disagree with that statement.

  • The advertisement argues that all the proposal does is take some of the money that these same folks will come back to them courtesy of the alleged huge Bush tax cuts.

Leave aside for the moment the technical question about how the proposal’s advocates can tell that the Bush tax cuts for these same specific 28,000 will equal the money to be gained from a state income tax rate increase. To me the objectionable part of this advertisement is that the New Jersey Democrats are so cavalier about their blatant appeal to the politics of envy.

After all, what’s the limiting principle behind a so-called “millionaires’ tax,” especially when the tax increase would already shoot way past that limitation to those making half that amount? What’s the next income level for those paying for the state’s next give-away --$50,000?

The webpage advertisement for the proposal is no better. Besides repeating much of the radio shtick, it also makes this claim:

A new millionaires tax will ask the wealthiest 1% of taxpayers to re-invest a small portion of their windfall from the Bush tax cut back into our state - to help relieve New Jersey’s property tax crisis.

If that’s what the FAIR proposal actually did, then I’d support it wholeheartedly. Asking someone to contribute more taxes than they would be required to pay is perfectly legitimate. As a money-raising method, however, it doesn’t work all that well, as the budget folks in Arkansas and Massachusetts could affirm.

“Ask” is hardly the proper word to describe how a mandatory tax increase will operate.

I’m under no illusions about why this proposal is made, or how its proponents use dishonest, focus-group-driven code words to push for its adoption.

It’s just bothersome that these folks hold the rest of us in such contempt that they insult our intelligence this way.

UPDATE: More on this subject can be found here.

May 20, 2004
Cost benefit analysis and highway construction

Virginia Postrel wrote an interesting NYT column about the economics of highway construction. Citing the work done by two economists published in The Journal of Urban Economics, Postrel noted the following:

Infrastructure spending does indeed lower inventory and logistics costs, increasing productivity. But the rate of return plummeted over time, from more than 15 percent in the 1970's to less than 5 percent in the 1980's and 1990's. (These figures are corrected for inflation.)

Glenn Reynolds noted her column, and added the following additional commentary:

To which I'd add that I often wonder how long it takes for the time saved by improved highways to make up for the time lost due to delays during the construction phase, especially if you discount to present value.

In her blog post highlighting her column, Postrel said that her piece “looks at a question politicians and pundits don't ask but should…”.

I think she’s certainly correct about the punditocracy, who rarely subject transportation funding to more careful analysis than simply highlighting the boondoggle projects that often plague this area of domestic spending. In my experience, however, many politicians are keenly aware of the economics of highway construction spending.

For example, several years ago my clients made extensive presentations to the General Assembly's joint finance committee of the analysis they conducted about pavement replacement scheduling. This study supported the notion that repaving well before failure created significant cost savings, compared to the prior practice of essentially waiting until pavement failure or its near-equivalent. Road user costs and benefits were part of that analysis, both on the long-term basis on which Postrel focuses, and on the short-term construction delay issue that intrigued Reynolds.

Most DOTs make extensive use of road user cost/benefit analysis on more complex projects, for several reasons. First, in order to clear environmental hurdles for such projects under the National Environmental Policy Act, these costs must be calculated in order to determine the eventual alignment of any major new highway. Second, during the project prioritization process the roads that promise greater economic payoffs tend to rise in the competition for public dollars. Third, road user cost analysis is used to help determine the best detour routes for projects that close off existing roads during reconstruction. Finally, these kinds of economic projections are also applied to the decision about whether to use incentive/disincentive clauses as a spur toward speedy construction. The calculated road user benefit is a major component of the bonus money paid for early completion, and the charge against the contractor's final payment for finishing late.

There are other economics issues relating to transportation funding that are well-known to the political leadership. At the micro-economics level, for instance, there’s the pressing problem of gaining or maintaining political support from the construction industry.

In addition, the intrastate competition for these dollars, for example between Northern Virginia and that state’s Tidewater Region, often seems to be based on the perceived value of the new construction for the sake of the local economy. Surely all those folks are not wrong to assume that their little part of the Commonwealth would be far better off with new construction than to be left without it.

From my perspective, I’m not surprised at the findings made by the economists mentioned in Postrel’s column. As any significant new investment matures, such as the Interstate system, the potential paybacks from continued investment almost always diminish compared to the initial period. For many transportation investments in the more fully developed portions of the country, however, the question should not be so limited. It seems to me that the inquiry should also determine the net economic effect of avoiding the continued investment of maintenance and reconstruction, and to add that figure to the payback analysis.

It’s also hard to overlook the fact that for some aspects of transportation spending, the economics of the expenditures are essentially beside the point. The cost of building noise walls is incredibly expensive, for example--$1.5 million per mile in Minnesota. While MNDOT also uses cost-benefit analysis to help decide whether and when to build these walls, for many politicians that kind of cold economic analysis is nowhere near as important as quieting down the complaints of their constituents.

And as Postrel and Reynolds know very well, those kinds of calculations sometimes override any long-term view about the right way to spend other people's money.

May 19, 2004
Quick hits

Not much time for blogging tonight.

I covered the downstate high school conference golf championship for my golf column, and then had to write it up.

Before finishing the column, though, I took a break to join my family as we went to see Shrek 2.

Nicely entertaining, with some very funny segments that would have caused major spewing if I had been drinking anything at that moment.

More blog stuff tomorrow. I even have plans for what to write about, surprisingly enough.

May 18, 2004
Will Rogers was right

I wrote a post a year ago about squabbling among Democrats, and cited the famous quote by Will Rogers:

I am not a member of any organized political party. I am a Democrat.

Two more bits of proof came out this week that showed again how Rogers' remark remains true.

Yesterday the Eleventh Circuit upheld the dismissal of a civil rights lawsuit brought by five Georgia Democrats seeking revenge of a sort for the election loss of their preferred candidate, former Rep. Cynthia McKinney.

The plaintiffs argued that Georgia's open primary system unfairly and illegally permitted Republicans to cross over and support McKinney's opponent in the Democratic primary, Denise Majette. Majette won the primary and the eventual election, and the plaintiffs sought a court order overturning the results.

In their amended complaint, the plaintiffs made the additional startling allegation that

the State of Georgia’s adoption of the open primary system was done intentionally and for the purpose of discriminating against African-American voters, whose membership includes the Plaintiffs.

Considering that Congresswoman Majette is also an African-American, this claim didn't go any farther than the rest of their case.

This wasn't the only bit of courtroom action involving Democrats this week. In Texas, Congressman Ciro Rodriguez filed an appeal from an adverse decision in a lawsuit seeking to overturn the results of last March's primary against Henry Cuellar. As noted in a prior post, the bitter South Texas fight was set up  by Texas Republicans, who forced through a redistricting that forced the two Democrats to fight for the one remaining seat in their area. The recounts trimmed Cuellar's margin of victory, but not enough to hand it to Rodriguez.

Congressman Rodriguez sounded almost statesmanlike in explaining why he was continuing the fight:

"The issue is greater than who wins this election," Rodriguez said outside the Bexar County courthouse. "It is about ensuring that we have fair, clean and open elections."

I have some trouble believing he would say this under any and all conditions.

May 17, 2004
Ramping up for more litigation

My clients are nearing completion on a sizeable addition to their headquarters building in the State Capital.

This morning, for example, a work crew glued a 2-foot deep by 6-foot wide swath of vinyl truncated domes into place onto a new wheelchair ramp. The ramp leads to the sidewalk between the building and the parking lot on the western side.

The work they completed today seemed just a tad ironic, considering the limitations that the Supreme Court's Tennessee v. Lane decision may have recognized on the state’s obligations under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Based on my reading of the majority opinion by Justice Stephens, it’s not at all obvious to me that my state government clients must build such wheelchair ramps under the ADA for all new construction.

All around the state's courthouses, sure--but for every street and sidewalk, no matter how remote? I'm not nearly so positive.

The five votes against Tennessee’s Eleventh Amendment immunity claims were based on the factual limitations of the case, involving as it did “the fundamental right of access to the courts”.

It appears that obtaining the critical fifth vote depended on an agreement to limit the potential scope of Title II of the ADA to the greatest extent possible. That’s the best explanation I can give for footnote 20:

Because this case implicates the right of access to  the courts, we need not consider whether Title II's duty to accommodate exceeds what the Constitution requires in the class of cases that implicate only Cleburne’s [473 U.S. 432 (1985)] prohibition on irrational discrimination. See Garrett, 531 U.S., at 372.

On the other hand, I hesitate to suggest that the limitation recognized in this case will be kept in place the next time. In addition, there are the political considerations to be kept in mind when deciding how hard to press a perceived legal advantage. I frankly doubt that many elected officials will rush out to cancel contracts for retrofitting wheelchair ramps and other infrastructure improvements for the disabled community, based on the Lane decision.

On the off-chance my politico-legal analysis is not shared by others, however, state agencies that don’t continue to follow ADA regulations should expect a ramping-up of new litigation, aimed at pressing for a more detailed understanding of the limits of Congressional power on this issue. 

And yes, that’s a bad pun, but I'm in that kind of mood.

May 16, 2004
Family pride

Older daughter went the extra mile today.

Actually, she went the extra 13 miles and change.

She entered and completed the Lower Delaware Autism Foundation's First Annual Half-Marathon Race for Autism Beach Classic today.

She also raised well over $1,100 in donations for the LDAF at the same time.

Older daughter plays club and intramural soccer in college, and was a captain of her high school team, but she hadn’t run any track event in several years. Adding to her challenge was the fact that in her training for the event since January, she had not run further than about 8 miles.

The long distance was a real struggle at times for her. Nonetheless, she told me after the race that as she heard the volunteers along the way tell her she’d passed the 9-, 10-, and 11-mile marks, her spirits perked up and her determination to finish increased.

Did I mention I am very proud of her?

Over 140 runners ran in the LDAF half-marathon. A few hundred others also participated in a 5K race and fun walk.
The race course took the runners from Cape Henlopen High School, past the Cape May/Lewes Ferry Terminal to Cape Henlopen State Park, and back again. This picture shows a few runners as they headed east past the Ferry Terminal.

The concrete tower in the background was used during World War II as an artillery lookout against Nazi submarines off the Delaware coast.

By the way, you can still make contributions to the Foundation, if you'd like.

May 16, 2004
Shameless self-promotion

This afternoon I posted my latest golf book review—The Chief Inspector St. George Mysteries, by Peter Jamesson.

The first book in the series came out in 2002, but after a publisher buyout the author's next offerings weren't picked up. Undaunted, he's now using a publish on-demand method to keep the series going.

The novels are fun to read, and it looks like this method of staying in touch with one's audience can work.


   

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.

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© Frederick H. Schranck 2002-2004