Sneaking Suspicions
Archives-- November 24-30, 2002

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This page includes posts from November 24-30, 2002 in the usual reverse order. Each week's postings on the home page are perma-linked to these pages.

November 30, 2002
The Doctor is in

Amid the furor over the selection of Dr. Kissinger to head an official inquiry into national security problems, with former Senator George Mitchell at his side, I’d like to note a few things.

First, much of what passes for debate and controversy in Washington centers on process politics. By this I mean that huge emotional and political fights focus on questions of form rather than substance, such as who will be appointed to what position, or who will be confirmed. 

It’s a common trap for the unwary. For example, the creation and appointment of “official commissions” is a time-honored way to create a record on which political campaigns can be run. More often than not, these commissions exist to create the illusion of substantive action, while focused on the reality of political chit-building. Reviewing the facts and current laws and devising a non-partisan set of recommendations on the commission’s subject matter is a distant second in priority. (By the way, the official commission technique is used at all levels of government.)

Second, I believe President Bush gave Senate majority leader Daschle a real warning over a year ago, when he reportedly said, "I hope you'll never lie to me." It appears that Daschle did not heed the warning.

In the intervening months, Bush and his Administration essentially played the Democratic leadership like a fiddle. On many occasions, they have co-opted the Democratic position and made it into their own. On other occasions, such as this September 11 commission, they found a way to neutralize a transparent political procedure ploy to create a document or two helpful to Democrats for the 2004 campaign.

Given the intent behind the Democrats’ original demand for the official commission, from a political perspective I can’t really fault the Administration for selecting someone like Dr. Kissinger to head this September 11 commission. Once again, they’ve managed to out-maneuver the current Democratic leadership. 

Third, who else would the Bush Administration have selected for this fundamentally procedural appointment? It’s not as if the Republicans were in power from 1993 through 2000. Those available from the most recent Republican president’s term are already in the current Administration. Therefore, they went back to the Nixon-Ford era and brought forth the Doctor, whose own history is pretty interesting and the subject of significant debate.  

From a policy perspective, however, I remain disappointed at both parties on this issue. Unfortunately, it was probably too pollyannish to expect either party to search for a neutral assessment of the intelligence and structural failures of the last decade or so that may have played a role in the surprise attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. With so much perceived political risk at stake depending on the answers, I do not expect this official inquiry to produce anything more than what the usual official commissions do. 

Figuring out what went wrong and why will be left to those outside the official channels. Fortunately, the results of those unofficial inquiries will eventually make their way to the Internet and elsewhere. Perhaps, but only just perhaps, the two parties will find a way to quietly adopt some of the necessary changes identified by the "unofficial" commission of reporters and researchers.

Dr. Kissinger's accent is a distinct part of American political culture.

Peter Sellers did a great German accent, didn't he?

The Doctor

The Doctor

On a much lighter note, here's this week's golf column, describing some Christmas golf gifts I'd rather not receive.

November 29, 2002
Unjustly accused

This holiday marked our first full family trip since the Land Rover nailed our station wagon and totaled it last August.

We were bringing the dog in addition to the four of us, and debated the relative merits of buying a cage that would fit inside the trunk of a Pontiac Grand Am. Eventually we decided to just let him sit between the girls in the back seat.

Rocky is a smallish border collie mix with a great disposition. He handled the ride north with total aplomb.

On the way home, however, there was a tense moment.

As we drove by one of the industrial areas along the Delaware River between Philadelphia and Wilmington, our older daughter blurted out, "Oh my God. Rocky! That smells so awful!"

My wife replied, "That's not him, it's the stuff outside."

A quick lowering of a rear window, followed by an even faster raising of it, confirmed her defense of Rocky.

Close call.

November 28, 2002
A Thanksgiving cooking tip

Please remember to add the sugar to the custard mixture when making pumpkin pie.

Leaving it out of the recipe won't change the pie's appearance, but it will definitely affect the flavor.

This holiday cooking tip is based on a bit of old family folklore. It's a true story, and the party responsible will not be named.

I have keen instincts for self-preservation.

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving!

November 27, 2002
Thank you, Martin Short

Among other things, Terry Oglesby and I share an appreciation for the comedic talents of Martin Short--at least, in his near-mythic role as Ed Grimley.

After receiving an e-mail from the Master of Possumology that made several funny references to the high-waisted character, I figured I should just go ahead and call Oglesby.

Glad I did. Great conversation, meandering over a whole range of topics, as Terry described in his own post.

Writing is fine, but sometimes just calling the person directly is better. This certainly was, I must say.

November 27, 2002
A curious sense of proportion

In his book review of Keith Bradsher's High and Mighty in yesterday's NYT, Jay Rosen wrote the following:

The S.U.V., it turns out, is a vehicle of aggression, a machine to menace other people with.

I am not a huge fan of sport-utility vehicles, but not because of the machines' actual characteristics. I don't care much for SUVs because many of their owners seem to leave behind dozens of IQ points just as they enter the driver-side door.

Even so, I think it would have been preferable if Mr. Rosen maintained a better sense of proportion:

This is not a "vehicle of aggression"

This is a "vehicle of aggression"

November 26, 2002

Not much blogging today; I am officially 343 in dog years, and I have to retrieve our older daughter for the Thanksgiving college break. I have now caught up to two other boomer bloggers, both of whom will probably wince upon seeing that label.

November 25, 2002
A little more sensitivity might have helped

In 1927, Sam and Amelia Burton purchased five lots at the corner of Columbia Avenue and Grove Street, out near the western edge of Rehoboth Beach. Over the years they put in a few tiny cottages for summer rentals on the parcels. Otherwise, the Burtons just let the many trees on the lots mature. The combined parcel eventually formed part of a nicely wooded section of Rehoboth, across the street from a small commercial area.

When the city adopted a zoning code, these parcels were zoned C-3, a commercial category like the neighboring lots. Residential zoning began a short distance away.

After the couple passed away, their children continued to own the lots and rent the cottages, much like other long-time area residents. They remained involved in their community as well. In fact, John Burton was a recent unsuccessful State Senate candidate.

Recently, the City of Rehoboth Planning Commission began working on a new Comprehensive Development Plan (CDP), as required by state law. They met on several occasions, and finally went public with a draft plan for review and comment.

Without any real warning to the Burton family, however, the Commissioner’s CDP expressed the direct intention to downzone the Burton lots from C-3 to R-2.

8.222    City Operational and Enforcement Actions for Residential Land
a. The zoning of the following areas will be changed from C-3 to R-2:
· The north side of Columbia Ave. between Grove Ave. and Felton St.

This change in zoning was not wholesale throughout the city, however. Only a relatively few pieces of land were singled out for this special treatment.

Once the Burton family caught wind of this proposal, they took action on two fronts.

First, they came to the public meetings and complained bitterly about the lack of notice, and the effect of the downzoning on their potential plans to develop the parcels. The city is undergoing a building boomlet, and the Burtons had plans for an 80-unit development that would comply with their existing zoning.

Second, they brought in the necessary equipment, and began cutting down the trees that filled their property.

The locally expressed outrage was predictable:

  • “What they’ve [the Burtons] done appears to be vindictive and spiteful without reason. It’s unfortunate that they’ve taken this tact. To me it’s like the father that kills his kids to deprive the mother of them,” [Rehoboth Mayor Sam] Cooper said. “Clearly it has set the stage for consensus that the comprehensive plan is necessary.”
  • Planning Commission Chairman Mary Campbell noted … “Now you see what can happen and how important it is to consider our trees. I hope at least that this helps to encourage adoption of an ordinance and educates the public of the need for preserving our trees.”
  • Fellow planner Harvey Shulman, … said “It’s an outrage that the city laws would allow this to happen….”
  • Nancy Martin from Henlopen Avenue … said “Columbia Avenue is a beautiful tree-lined residential street, a beautiful entry to the Pines, a beautiful entry into Rehoboth. We should protect this treasured status.”

There’s no question that this little part of Rehoboth just experienced a wrenching change in its appearance.

On the other hand, it’s a bit far-fetched to blame the Burtons for this state of affairs.

Sometimes the folks who do the planning for small towns (and other places, too) forget a basic principle of land use politics--don’t surprise people with what you have in mind for their property.

They might not take it well.

Leaving aside the question of whether a downzoning acts as a compensable taking, it would have been much smarter for the Commissioners to contact the Burtons and similarly situated landowners well before the publication of the draft CDP. By asking for the property owners' views on the potential for revisiting the zoning classification, the trees might have had a chance to grace the area at least a little while longer.

An unintended side effect of folks announcing plans for other people's property.

November 24, 2002
More fun with tax policy

Yesterday was pretty quiet, so I decided to stir things up a bit and ask Max Sawicky to take a look at my November 7 three-part tax simplification proposal.

I was also genuinely curious to see how someone with his experience and political outlook would react to the ideas.

Sawicky cheerfully agreed, and posted his analysis fairly quickly.

In addition, from the comments he received, it looks like I achieved both goals.

On the other hand, it also appears that I didn't make some aspects of my proposal as clearly linked as I intended.

For example, Sawicky appears to have concluded that the Freedom Fee suggestion was to be considered as a stand-alone concept. (It calls for a 0.5% tax on AGI for all persons, with no offsetting credits other than income taxes actually paid.) Max noted that millions of taxpayers contribute to the general fund through FICA and fuel taxes.

He also made the funny but true point that if folks wanted to contribute to the defense effort, the Federal government would and does take such money. If the contribution was mandatory, folks might not feel so warm and fuzzy about it. (That response produced a grin and a "touché.")

Nonetheless, the tie-in between the Freedom Fee and the Social Security tax cut I also proposed is a critical part of the overall policy change I suggested. I intended that the Freedom Fee would to some extent replace the revenue lost by the proposed 2% cut in FICA tax rates. I did not recommend the Freedom Fee should be adopted in addition to the existing FICA tax rates.

Sawicky is certainly correct that the Federal government taps specialized taxes such as FICA and fuel taxes for general fund purposes. That was one of my points in making the Freedom Fee/FICA tax rate cut suggestions. As the November 7 post notes, I don't think it's good policy to use such taxes or user fees for the general fund. I would rather make the overall tax scheme more directly tied to the eventual use of the money.

If taxpayers understood exactly who pays for the total cost of government and how, they might decide to make some changes.

Sawicky also seems to have assumed that I wanted the money freed up by the FICA rate cut to be placed into mandatory retirement accounts. Actually, I suggested that the money could be put into 401(k)-like investments. As part of the tax change, folks could make such tax-deferred investments if they wanted to, but they wouldn't be forced into it.

I think the voluntary aspect of that change makes a difference. Otherwise, Sawicky's point about the extent to which some folks desire to control other's lives would be valid.

As for the third part of the proposal, relating to changes in the AMT, Sawicky's preference is to deal with the failure to index the AMT for inflation by altering the deduction side of the equation. Sawicky's suggestion would "target" the manner in which AMT would affect certain taxpayers. My proposal, to raise the AGI income floor above which the AMT would be calculated, changes the overall potential taxpayer universe in which AMT would apply.

Both ideas would reduce the overall number of those affected by AMT. In either event, the Freedom Fee would make sure that everyone pays something toward the general cost of government. After all, the AMT was initially passed out of indignation with the fact that some high-income folks managed to arrange their affairs so that they paid no income tax.

I enjoyed reading Sawicky's analysis. If you have other comments on these proposals, let me know.

NOTE: Geez. What a policy wonk. For those interested in something far less wonkish, here's this week's golf column, if you'd like.


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