Sneaking Suspicions
Archives-- May 18-24, 2003

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This page includes posts from May 18-24, 2003 in the usual reverse order. Each posting on the home page is perma-linked to these archive pages.

May 24, 2003
Creating a new market

When the State of Delaware went out to bid for a new contract to print its vehicle license plates, it probably didnít expect to create a new market for collectors. 

Thatís whatís now happened, although itís a little early yet to set any significant value on the newest prize for those with more money than, shall we say, other qualities. 

Many of my fellow Diamond State citizens are extremely interested in owning low-digit license plates. Unlike most states, Delawareís typical car plate uses only digits. The plate numbers havenít reached one million yet, because the plates are recycled. 

Car owners can keep their plates by transferring them from car to car if they want to, however, and there is now an active market in the low-number plates.

In addition, if both sides agree you can buy the car and the plate can come with it. When itís a two-, three-, or four-digit plate, the car is usually worth far less than the official symbol stuck on the back bumper. A single-digit plate now fetches six figures at auctions on the rare occasions when they go on the market.

Thereís even a demand for reproduction porcelain black-and-white plates.

The State recognizes these unofficially-issued plates as valid as long as they meet certain standards, including a requirement that the plate number stays below the highest official plate number issued in that design.

Last July Delaware began using a Canadian company to create the regular license plates, replacing a local contractor now out of business whoíd had the contract for many years.

Almost immediately people began bitching about the appearance of the new plates:

[M]any people complained about the 1/4-inch smaller and thinner characters Waldale Manufacturing began printing on standard-issue plates last summer.

Tag purists last year called the new plates "cheap-looking" and an assault on tradition.

"It was like the University of Delaware saying, 'You know what, we don't like the Blue Hen. We're going to use those little brown, puffy birds,' " said Antonio Goicuria III, a Newark resident who reluctantly registered his car with one of the first-version tags last fall.

This is a very small state, however, and its officials tend to be very responsive. The DMV folks went to the company and had them change the font to something much closer to the design used over the last thirty years. 

News-Journal reporter Chip Guy wrote today that about 110,000 of the first design were produced before switching fonts, not all of which will remain in circulation:

[DMV Director Michael] Shahan said there are no plans to recall the earlier-version tags because they are easy to read, and they still work.

"But if somebody absolutely hates their plate, we would be happy to replace it for them," Shahan said.

From a collectorsí standpoint, thatís a great decision. It means that the number of thin-font plates will diminish over time, increasing their perceived value.

Itís goofy, but true.

Donít you just love the law of supply and demand?

The News Journal/GARY EMEIGH
The new Canada tag with the thin font.

The News Journal/GARY EMEIGH
The latest design uses a thicker font, much more like the ones issued over the last thirty years.

May 23, 2003
A RAW deal for Californians

I have been to 30 states. Thus far the only place I visited that I would give serious consideration to relocating would be the Monterey Peninsula in California.

Based on stories such as the one that appeared in the Los Angeles Times today, however, I should probably rethink that assessment. (note: registration required for web access).

The Golden State's budget process is so screwed up that California finance officials are now seeking Revenue Anticipation Warrants (RAWs) to cover the state's shortfalls through summer:

The $11-billion, short-term loan ó like using one credit card to pay off another ó is needed to keep the state solvent through summer. Because California's credit rating is so poor, more than a third of the borrowing cost ó up to $100 million ó is expected to be paid to Wall Street firms just so the state can piggyback on their financial standing to obtain a lower interest rate.

This nine-figure additional credit enhancement cost is based on the Stateís wretched financial situation and, to be blunt, the California legislatureís apparent incompetence, intense partisan bickering, and complete unwillingness to face reality.

That's a toxic combination, reminiscent of the advice Dean Wormer gave Flounder in Animal House.

In one of the more remarkable understatements in the piece, State Finance Director Steve Peace gave this quote about the continuing fight over the budget:

"[The credit rating agencies] recognize what's left to do is the more difficult stuff," he said. "They, as well as the banking community, are obviously watching the Legislature very carefully.

"I don't know that the significance of the situation is fully appreciated in the Legislature," Peace said.

Peaceís frustration is perfectly understandable, as exemplified in the last two paragraphs of the story:

As finance officials sought to persuade bond raters that action was being taken to balance the budget, lawmakers in Sacramento were moving to restore more than $1 billion in spending that lawmakers cut only weeks ago.

So far, the state has been able to make only $6.9 billion in budget reductions. With the July 1 constitutional deadline for approving a spending plan looming, the Legislature still has a $30-billion problem on its hands.

Californians frequently lead the nation in many other areas. Based on where theyíre headed on this budget fiasco, however, I donít know why any sane person would follow them now.


Somehow I don't think I'll be moving to Monterey anytime soon.

Story link via

May 22, 2003
Altering perceptions

Two recent pieces now available on the Internet are well worth reading for the change in perceptions they may cause in some of their readers.

One can always hope.

First, last week Eric Alterman wrote an essay in The Nation supporting John Fund against the sordid allegations that arose last year about the WSJ columnist's personal life.

The very liberal Alterman makes no secret of his political opposition to Fund. To his great credit, however, Alterman put aside those differences to defend Fund from the nasty claims that led to a whole pile of troubles for the conservative writer.

Unfortunately there are far too many people, on both sides of the political spectrum, who would not be so even-handed.

Second, in yesterday's WSJ Donna Brazile and Timothy Bergreen administered a welcome reality check to fellow Democrats to wise up and support a strong national defense, or face increasing marginalization in national politics.

This is something that's been needing to be said, especially by folks who remain influential national party activists.

That's because sometimes a message's acceptance depends not just on the content of the message, but on who's the messenger as well.

These two examples may just help prove that point.

May 22, 2003
Just a bit too much foreshadowing

This morning's Drudge Report linked to a piece in the British Daily Telegraph about the upcoming G8 meeting.

What's notable about this pre-meeting story is how both the headline and the lede exhibit somebody's actual desires more than actual fact or likely results:

Chirac to embarrass Bush at G8 conference

President Chirac is preparing to embarrass President Bush at the forthcoming G8 summit in France by laying out an agenda heavy on environmental, development and economic issues and light on the fight against terrorism.

From most everything I've read about M. Chirac and his struggles to keep France relevant despite his government's international political antics, I'm sure that this report would have been accurate insofar as it discussed the French President's intentions.


Even so, the one thing some folks don't yet understand about the Bush Administration is that if you really want to surprise and upset them, you don't provide any foreshadowing of what you're about to do.


These guys and gals are extremely adept at finding ways to co-opt their opposition, seize the opponents' ideas as their own, and take all the credit.


It's among the reasons that President Bush drives some Democratic activists into frothing at the mouth. It's the same technique that was used with similar success by the Clinton Administration, time and time again, creating the same apoplectic rage among Republicans.


Over the last year or so, M. Chirac showed repeatedly that he is unable to comprehend this fundamental element of the Bush Administration.


Perhaps he's still among the foolish ones who think Bush is the fool.


Perhaps he'll learn.

May 21, 2003
Oh well

Last night was the first round of the state high school girls' soccer tournament, and our Cape Henlopen team lost, 2-0.

In the statewide newspaperís rankings issued the day of the game, Cape was ranked 10th, while the Padua High School team from upstate was ranked 9th.

Thatís about how close the game was, too.

Padua was just a little bit better with its passing game, and did a good job of bottling up Capeís best offensive players. 

On the other hand, if two of Capeís shots were just a few inches lower, they wouldnít have clanged off the top cross-bar, and Cape would have had a real chance.

After the game some tears were shed, and not just by the players. This was a really nice bunch of kids. Several of us have watched them play for their entire high school career. Many of the girls are deeply talented in other areas besides soccer, and thereís good reason for optimism as they leave high school for their next experience, be it college or something else.

A certain right fullback handled herself very well, and sheíll be among the few returning varsity players for next year.

The Cape coach gave a great quote to one of the newspaper reporters covering the game, with which many of the teamís fans would agree:

"They're a fantastic group of girls," [Randy] Redard said. "I'd rather lose with this team than win with a bunch of other teams."

May 19, 2003
Finding the money by banishing the blues--Blue Sundays, that is.

A story in the NYT about state revenues and new laws opening liquor stores for Sunday sales was a bit startling. 

Itís not every day that one sees the liquor store closest to oneís Delaware residence prominently featured in the Times.

The picture and story discussed reactions to the first Sunday in which liquor stores were permitted to open for business, under new legislation recently signed by Delaware Governor Ruth Ann Minner. 

NYT Reporter Peter Kilborn talked to folks shopping at Atlantic Liquors, just outside Rehoboth Beach. (Slick move on his part, BTW, in convincing his editors into letting him go to the beach for a straight news story.)

That store is only a mile from my house.

Itís a very good place, by the way. As the piece noted, the store does a high-volume discount trade. In addition, they carry some of my favorite beers, and also maintain a large selection of wines from all over the world.

Thanks to recent French diplomatic activities concerning the former Hussein regime, Iím told the store did especially well selling its Australian and Chilean vintages.

Several years ago the owners told me they take their cues about what to stock on their shelves from customers visiting the beach from New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and DC.

This approach to market research has been a very successful business formula for them. The store is now undergoing a major site expansion, in fact.

The State of Delaware doesnít mind at all. As with other states that repealed the blue laws that formerly kept liquor stores closed on Sundays, Delaware expects to pick up additional tax revenue as a result:

For Delaware, a small state, Sunday sales would raise the state's annual alcoholic beverage tax revenues $960,000 to $1.2 million, William R. Latham, an economist at the University of Delaware, reported in a study that the big stores commissioned. Mr. Latham also concluded that the sales would raise all state and local tax revenues $1.7 million to $2.1 million.

I wonder about these cheery figures. The state's official estimate of alcohol taxes for the current fiscal year totals $12.6 million, without taking into account the new law's effects. I'm sure there will be a net revenue gain, but it's hard to imagine a ten per cent increase in tax revenue simply due to Sunday sales, considering how many Delawareans previously timed their total alcohol purchases on a six-day schedule.

From a political perspective, of course, the nice thing about this new law is that it generates a tax increase without openly voting for it.

As hinted above, the change will also eliminate a long-standing cultural feature of Delaware social life. Now there wonít be any reason to rush out on Saturday night to pick up that bottle for Sundayís dinner.

I donít think too many folks around here will be singing the blues over the demise of that particular tradition, however.

May 18, 2003

Hot about HOV abuse


The Washington Post today has a good story about a traffic enforcement problem that is emblematic of the me-first attitude too many folks share:

In a region notorious for some of the country's worst traffic, drivers sailing by alone -- and illegally -- in the HOV lane have become a target of loathing.

Maryland police say the problem has grown so bad that they're paying state troopers overtime to patrol the carpool lanes. In Northern Virginia, highway officials announced last week that they are forming a task force to come up with immediate ways to reduce violations, which could include raising fines and adding points to driver's licenses as a penalty.

At stake, highway officials and police say, is the survival of a traffic-fighting tool that the Washington region has come to rely upon to encourage ride-sharing and to reduce smog.

Staff writer Katherine Shaver noted that some violators accepted the current system of fines as a simple cost of doing business, with one person admitting that her employer paid the HOV penalties. At $50 to $70 per ticket, that's a charge some of the area's highly compensated but selfish drivers are willing to risk for the sake of fulfilling their own desires, regardless of the effect that violating HOV rules can have on others.

The problem of the insufficient penalty reminds me of a solution adopted by Texas several years ago concerning truck weight violations.

As with most jurisdictions, Texas had a recurring problem with truckers willing to pay the modest fines for traveling its highways with loads that were too heavy. The financial incentives for violating the law outweighed the perceived need to comply.

The adopted solution to this nagging problem worked. The state began suing repeat offenders and obtaining special injunctions against them. Violating the court orders resulted in daily five-figure contempt citations instead of tiny traffic fines. After a few of these cases led to hefty court penalties, compliance improved.

If the Maryland and Virginia officials adopted a similar $10,000/day contempt citation approach with their repeat HOV offenders, that might put a dent in the problem.

It could also help reduce the two states' budget woes.


Contact Information:

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


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© Frederick H. Schranck 2002-2003