Tuesday, November 29, 2005

New York City's view from 1955 of itself in 2005:
"Times Square dies but Second Avenue has a subway"

The Times looks at a survey of the state of the city it undertook in 1955 focusing on changes expected to arrive in the next 50 years...

"A Palace of Progress devoted to world trade atop a reconstructed Pennsylvania Station ... A Second Avenue subway would replace the elevated rail line that still loomed over Third Avenue ... a prosperous period of shipbuilding at the Brooklyn Navy Yard..."

It also reprints 19 stories from the 1955 series covering different aspects and geographical areas of city life, and what was to come.

Apart from the obvious lesson about never buying a crystal ball without and ironclad money-back guarantee, the history is interesting.

"Where have all the blacksmiths and elevator operators gone?
"Gone to be laywers and social workers every one..."

Monday, November 28, 2005

Monday morning musing.

The kiss that kills...
An autopsy will be performed on the body of a 15-year-old girl in Quebec's Saguenay region who officials believe died from an allergic reaction to her boyfriend's kiss... [CBC]

Who would want to hide their own inner beauty?
Actress Cameron Diaz has slammed plastic surgery in a recent interview, saying that beauty comes from the inside. "Why would they want to destroy their own character?" the actress said... [RTE]
Well, it depends.

Do we event want these people as allies in an intergalactic war?

Paul Hellyer, former Canadian Minister of Defence and Deputy Prime Minister ... in a startling speech at the University of Toronto [warned] "I'm so concerned about what the consequences might be of starting an intergalactic war, that I just think I had to say something ... The United States military are preparing weapons which could be used against the aliens, and they could get us into an intergalactic war without us ever having any warning..."

Hellyer’s speech ended with a standing ovation...
[Yahoo news]
Surely he means intragalactic. Such carelessness can compromise one's credibility.

No, I'm sorry, not even for a British TV show.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Holiday stuffing.

I'll ask again this year: Anybody having beer can turkey for the holiday?

One of the things about being a parent in NYC is that sooner or later you wind up taking kids up to see all those balloons of cartoon characters being inflated by Central Park the night before the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade. They're all tied down and sort of flopping over each other ... and if one has a diseased mind ... well, it might kind of look like face-down Ronald McDonald is being violated by that Japanese anime Pikachu, and enjoying it. But one can't say this to a five-year-old riding on one's neck. Should have brought the digital camera.

About a year back a rather gruesome local crime story led to the question here, "When the CSI team is done, who cleans up the bloody mess?" Now we know.

Mr. Pitt goes to Washington.

"Six degrees of infidelity", or of advice books about it, or some such: That New York Magazine article mentioned two posts back on The New Rules of Cheating points us to 32 Signs That He's Cheating ... which points to 180 Telltale Signs Mates Are Cheating and How to Catch Them ... which is purchased at Amazon by persons who buy Is He Cheating on You?: 829 Telltale Signs ... both of which are bought by persons who also buy How to Have an Affair and Never Get Caught! So there are your stocking stuffers for the modern young couple. Though personally I doubt I ever could have remembered 829 things not to do, at any age.

Monday, November 21, 2005

"Pass the lemon", that popular game among principals in NYC public schools.

Nearly 40 percent of all public school principals in the city acknowledged "passing the lemon" — urging incompetent, tenured teachers to relocate to another school instead of trying to have them fired, according to a new study released yesterday. The practice has been a convenient way for principals to bypass the lengthy firing process for teachers outlined in state law and teachers' contracts.

According to the New Teacher Project, a nonprofit consulting firm that helps school districts recruit and train teachers, 37 percent of the 434 principals surveyed last year admitted trying to push off poor teachers to other schools. Michelle Rhee, CEO of the organization, said the practice "may be a rational response to the inability to remove tenured teachers for poor performance." ...

Nearly a quarter of principals surveyed reported losing at least one handpicked beginning teacher to a senior teacher because of the transfer rules...

Principals union president Jill Levy, who's in contract talks with the city, acknowledged that principals have tried to pass off inept teachers to other schools. But she said they only did so because the system did not support efforts to fire them.

Teachers union president Randi Weingarten called the report "anti-teacher"...
[NY Post]
This brings to mind a former NYC public school teacher who wrote a good deal more detail about this.

The NYC Schools Chancellor claims the new labor contract will alleviate this problem. We shall see.

How to breath new life into a staid old dead-tree publication.

Bruce Wasserstein's, CEO of Wall Street's prestigious Lazard investment bank, is drawing kudos for "getting ad pages up an impressive 11.6 percent at New York magazine this year".

What's the sophisticated technique he's used to breath new life into this aging, declining publication, after so many others have failed?

In this issue: "The new rules of cheating, what teens do in bed, the first lust drug, the porn hunter and more."

Who but a Wall Street wizard could have come up with such a strategy?

Well, it may not still be the same magazine as the one for which Tom Wolfe and Jimmy Breslin were the founding staff writers ... but heck, Tom's writing about sex these days too.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Tax Thursday I: Marginal tax rates on labor income.

This originally was going to be the more alliterative "Tax Tuesday", but after driving 1,300 miles with a teenager one needs some recovery time before rejoining life. More on that later, maybe.

For now, fun with marginal tax rates...

For more fun with marginal tax rates, see the new CBO report on the subject.

Tax Thursday II: Why every Republican vote for the new Medicare prescription drug benefit was a vote for a new national Value Added Tax, if we're lucky.

Bruce Bartlett, conservative economic commentator and Treasury deputy assistant secretary for economic policy during the Bush I regime (who recently apparently fell on his sword for telling truth to power) was interviewed this week at Tax Analysts. It's behind a pay wall, but here are some interesting excerpts...

TA: You've been a vocal critic of a national retail sales tax. Meanwhile, interest in the idea seems to run quite strong, especially among conservatives. Can you tell us why you oppose the idea? And given its apparent popularity, do you think it still has some life left in it?

Bartlett: I oppose the sales tax almost entirely for administrative reasons. It simply won't work. The people who support it know nothing whatsoever about the actual operation of the retail sales tax or why every country that has ever looked into the idea has adopted a VAT [Value Added Tax] instead.

The VAT is a form of sales tax that overcomes all the administrative problems inherent in retail sales taxes. Yet the sales tax people oppose a VAT because it won't allow for abolition of the IRS, which is their primary goal. All their economic arguments for a sales tax are mere window dressing. All they really want is to get rid of the IRS. I think this is moronic.

TA: Many conservatives abhor the VAT, but you've endorsed it. Can you explain your thinking?

Bartlett: In the past, I was a strong critic of the VAT primarily because I feared that it would become a money machine that would lead to higher taxes and spending.

I changed my mind when I realized that there is really no hope of significantly cutting entitlement spending. Republican support for the Medicare drug benefit convinced me that spending in the U.S. is eventually going to rise to European levels and not much of anything can be done about it because it is being driven by programs with broad political support and a rapidly aging society.

Therefore, I concluded that if we are going to have European levels of spending, then we needed a European form of taxation. The alternative is to raise taxes in ways that would be much more damaging to growth than the VAT.

TA: How can you square your support for a VAT with your vigorous opposition to the estate tax? Granted, the estate and gift taxes don't raise an enormous amount of revenue, but they still brought in more than $24 billion in fiscal 2004. Can we afford to sacrifice that much money in our current fiscal climate?

Bartlett: Revenue from the estate tax is negligible and it imposes a heavy burden on capital formation.

But I really oppose the estate tax because it is driven by envy, yet does nothing to equalize the distribution of wealth. The ultra-wealthy avoid the tax through tax planning, so that the burden of the tax falls most heavily on those with modest wealth.

One reason I favor a VAT is because it would finance things like the abolition of the estate tax so that we can improve the structure of our tax system to make it more growth-friendly. I believe that our current system imposes a large deadweight cost that we can no longer afford.

As we move from being a low-tax country to being a high-tax country, we must work rigorously to reduce the deadweight cost of the tax system so that the tax burden reduces growth and productivity as little as possible...

The man is right on all counts.

Tax Thursday III: IRS stonewalls the courts on $9 billion of telephone tax refunds.
When a party presents the question whether “and” means “or,” it is tempting to be dismissive of the claim or, worse, to make a crack about the demise of the rule of law. -- OfficeMax, Inc. v. U. S.
In the last year and a half at least eight federal court decisions (I'm losing count) have held the federal tax on long-distance telephone service as commonly collected by the IRS to be illegal. Most of these decisions have been on summary judgment, meaning the court felt the IRS didn't even have a case worth arguing at trial.

The key issue is that the decades old provision of the Tax Code that creates the tax specifies that it is to be imposed on long-distance calls that are billed individually by both time and distance, while few long-distance services bill calls that way any more. When calls are billed any other way -- by minutes used only, bulk rate, negotiated rate, "friends and family", or whatever else --- the courts unanimously have held them to be not subject to tax, and ordered taxes paid to be refunded. (Refunds can be claimed for taxes paid up to three years back).

The IRS's answer has been that the "and" of the law should be read as "or", since that is what's needed for it to be able to keep collecting the tax as the industry changes. But the courts haven't bought it. (More analysis, background, and case citations have been posted previously).

While the decisions were piling up against it the IRS decided to not pay any refunds while hoping to win on appeal. But this strategy took a big hit when the first appeals court decision not only came in solidly against it but also overturned the only decision the IRS had won at the trial court level. American Bankers Ins. Group v. U.S. (.pdf), 408 F.3d 1328, 11th Circuit.

In response to which the IRS has just issued a formal statement (Notice 2005-79) saying it won't appeal American Bankers to the Supreme Court -- but won't heed it either. Because ... well ... just because. It says everyone has to keep paying the tax and it won't be issuing any refunds.

Promptly after which, a second court of appeals weighed in against the IRS position, OfficeMax, Inc. v. U.S. (.pdf) November 2, 2005, Sixth Circuit.

So the situation becomes interesting. The Circuit Courts of Appeal are the final arbiters of the law for the states within their respective circuits, unless and until the Supreme Court overrules them. Two circuits determining the law for seven states (Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee, Sixth; Alabama, Florida, and Georgia, Eleventh) now have struck down the telephone tax. The IRS is not appealing those decisions. Yet it is continuing to collect the tax, and refusing refunds, even within those circuits.

Its hope at this point seems to be that either some other circuit will reach a contrary decision creating a conflict between the circuits that the Supreme Court will resolve in its favor -- although it isn't appealing to the Supreme Court in the meantime -- or that Congress will enact a tax law retroactively reasserting the tax.

Yet the unanimous and one-sided nature of the decisions against it to date make the former seem unlikely, and it seems even less likely that the Republican anti-tax increase Congress will make any move re-impose the tax retroactively, should the courts maintain their position. To the contrary, a bill with 176 co-sponsors to repeal the telephone tax is pending in the House today. (The House voted by a bipartisan 420-2 to repeal the tax in 2000, but the Senate didn't act.)

In the meantime the amount of tax at stake has risen to $9 billion according to the IRS, and continues to grow.

Something's got to give here sooner or later. Absent the unlikely bailout by the Congress or the Supreme Court, even the IRS can't defy the courts forever. But the Washington politicians aren't eager to write out $9 billion in refund checks in one year either, not with the sudden resurgence of interest in fiscal responsibility. So all parties continue to stall for now.

But they won't be able to stall forever.

It's remarkable how little attention this whole story has gotten in the general press, considering how many people and businesses it could affect. So tell your friends. They may be entitled to a tax refund -- and if they are willing to wait a little while after filing for it, they may get it.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Driving across the New England and the Northeast ...

... taking the eldest kid to visit various colleges so he can make an informed choice about which one he's going to use to bankrupt me.

Thus the sparse blogging. The computer's being used instead basically by the Garmin GPS system.

Now this is a new experience to me. One can't read the computer screen as one drives -- as the first screen that pops up warns one -- so the thing talks you to where you are going as you drive. It does this in an insinuating feminine voice that might be that of the niece of Hal 9000...

In 6 tenths of a mile turn north ... that wasn't north ... in 4 tenths of a mile make a U-turn ... proceed 97.4 miles then exit right ... ha, ha, I've taken you to Montreal...
I'll give it credit for one thing, when the kid decided he wanted curry it found an Indian restaurant in Binghamton.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

How much of an advantage do Democrats need to win in New York City?

Democrats hold a 5 to 1 edge over Republicans in registered voters in New York City, but it hasn't been enough to keep Republicans from winning the mayoralty for 16 years in a row now. In fact, it hasn't even been enough to keep the elections close, as Michael Bloomberg won by a full 20 points on the Republican line yesterday.

Indeed, polls showed Bloomberg would actually have won the Democratic primary by almost as much.

What's going on? The Democratic organization here has become so blatantly tied into race politics, special interests, and promises to increase spending and taxes (in the highest spending, most heavily taxed city in the nation) that it's lost all credibility even with Democratic voters.

The base strategy of the Democrat's candidate, Fernando Ferrer, was to campaign with the ever-attractive Al Sharpton to combine the Hispanic and black vote ... while the locally very powerful health workers union endorsed Ferrer only after offering its endorsement to Bloomberg in exchange for his putting 25,000 union jobs on the city payroll -- a ploy that backfired when Bloomberg revealed the offer to the public while rejecting it, which resulted in the union head standing by Ferrer saying "we don't get mad we get even" (New York may be a union town, but even Democrats don't like to see unions purchasing elections outright) ... and Ferrer promised to raise billions by taxing the stock market ... the list goes on.

Meanwhile, Bloomberg continued the Giuliani program of reducing crime, increasing the performance of the public schools (instead of just handing them more money), pushing fiscal responsibility, and making the city more friendly to business and job creation.

Result: An electorate that is 83-17 Democratic voted 59% Republican.

The irony is that Bloomberg is a Democrat, or was one until he switched over to the Republican line to run for mayor. And he made that switch only because it is now totally impossible for a centrist like himself to get past the Democratic special interest machine to obtain the nomination.

Ever since the days of Al Smith and Franklin Roosevelt, New York's Democrats have led the way for the national party. Now one looks at the Deaniac radicalization of the national Democratic leadership, the loss without replacement of formerly influential Democratic centrists (Moynihan, Breaux, Nunn, S. Jackson ...), the loss of the Democrats' once significant lead in national voter registration, the rise of a self-described conservative plurality among voters as the national Democratic leadership moves leftward, and one can't help wonder, are the New York Democrats still leading the way?

16-Year-Loser Dems Must Try To Retake 'Center' Stage To Save Party

If the Democratic Party wants to end its 16-year losing streak at City Hall, political experts and party leaders say it must drastically redefine itself.

It has to become a more centrist party that appeals to the middle class, focuses on job creation and is concerned with protecting the public, many insiders told The Post.

"The perception is that there's too much division and too much relying on old ideas," said veteran political consultant Hank Sheinkopf. "They ran a campaign for a city that is no longer."

Rep. Anthony Weiner, who lost the Democratic primary, said, "We can't expect that a criticism of the incumbent is enough. We have to have forward-looking ideas that focus on the middle class."

Many experts said Fernando Ferrer's attempted appeal to racial and ethnic groups typified the stale, wrong-headed approach that has shut the party out of power."He ran a 'favorite son' campaign as if he were saying, 'I'm the Hispanic candidate — vote for me,' " said veteran consultant Joe Mercurio.

"They played the ethnic card — that 'it's our turn,' as if they had a right to it. Ferrer got it backwards, though, because voters are generationally beyond that. It's like, 'Enough, we got it.' "

Many Democrats said it's high time — after losing four consecutive mayoral races — that the party moved to the center to win...

Former Mayor Ed Koch was one of many Democrats who supported Bloomberg and urged the party to become more moderate.

"The problem is that the people who speak for the party actually are far more liberal than the members of the Democratic Party," Koch said.... [NY Post]

Monday, November 07, 2005

Russian reality TV: Survivor New York City
Instead of facing bread lines, 13 Russian-speaking 20-somethings have been dumped in Queens with no food or money and left to fend for themselves in a country where they can't speak the language.

That's the premise of the smash-hit Russian reality show "Hunger"...

Every week, two contestants face off head-to-head and are sent out into the streets in desperate bids to get jobs, money or food despite not being able to communicate. And they use every tool at their disposal.

At one point, 22-year-old contestant Kristina Kalinina [left] — an outgoing brunette who says her only flaw is that she doesn't "see any flaws in myself" — jumped in front of men screaming: "Give me money and I'll take off my clothes and dance for you!" The stunt netted her $112.

In another scenario, Kristina and another contestant, Natasha Rubtsova, a 21-year-old stunner, offered to wash a man's car. He in turn took them out to dinner and a $250 shopping spree — for a total of $500, a record take for the show.

Those left in the house eagerly wait for their counterparts to return. If the players fail, everyone goes hungry...

According to the New York Mayor's Office of Film, Theater and Broadcasting, the show's producers assured officials that all safety rules would be followed and no one would be allowed to starve...
[NY Post]
Don't tell the audience, it would sap the drama.

Oil bubble redux.

Mentioned here previously have been some facts and theory consistent with the notion that it's time to short oil, the recent big hike in oil prices is just a bubble.

The president of BP has similar ideas...

The price of oil is grossly inflated and due for a tumble as fresh supplies come on stream and users switch to other forms of energy, BP warned yesterday.

Lord Browne, BP's chief executive, said crude was likely to fall from its current level of around $60 a barrel to nearer $40, and even lower in the long run.

"Our view is the price of oil is unsustainably high and will come down," he told an energy forum in Singapore...

Lord Browne said business was adapting fast to higher prices by examining other forms of energy, while consumers are cutting back on fuel use....

Lord Browne ridiculed claims that the world is running out of oil.

"The 'scare stories' of shortage and crisis may sell books and newspapers but they are not based on facts, and they shouldn't form the basis for any serious policy making," he said...

Russian Unreality TV: The Simpsons reconsidered and condemned.

Back in April I noted this ...
A Moscow court spent several days watching episodes of "The Simpsons" before rejecting claims the show is "morally degenerate" and could lead kids to drugs and violence...
... and optimistically observed: "Putin hasn't taken things back all the way, yet. And once Bart and Stewie start having their effect the popular culture over there, he'll never be able to..."

My mistake. Spoke too soon. The Putineestas are indeed taking things backward...

Russian MPs have given a final warning to TV stations to cut back on violent shows like the Simpsons if they want to avoid censorship.

State Duma deputies overwhelmingly voted for a motion warning television channels to cut down on the amount of violence they show...

The resolution ... was approved by a 417-1 landslide. It called on television companies to more strictly adhere to a voluntary code of conduct signed in June by the chief executives of six leading national channels to avoid promoting a "cult of violence and cruelty".

The move came after the Simpsons was given a hard core adults-only rating and blamed for corrupting Russian schoolchildren and degrading family values...
Russia's got a long way to go. Heck, even the Arabs are happily taking the Simpsons these days.

Time to check the kid's blog again.

The teenager's been sulky lately, might be a good idea to read what's going on there...
A high-school girl has been arrested for gradually poisoning her mother to the brink of death and keeping a blog of her progress ... the Japanese girl recorded her mother’s horrific daily sufferings in a matter-of-fact internet diary.

The girl’s blog has been removed from the internet but extracts apparently copied from it survive on other Japanese websites.

“It’s a bright, sunny day today, and I administered a delivery of acetic thallium,” the girl wrote in August....
[Timesonline, hat tip Tim Worstall]

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Earth is exporting manufacturing jobs.

"In fact, between 1995 and 2002, China lost 15 million manufacturing jobs, compared with a loss of 2 million manufacturing jobs in the U.S."
Paul Solman

"...manufacturing jobs have been disappearing all over the world. Economists at Alliance Capital Management in New York took a close look at employment trends in twenty large economies recently and found that since 1995 more than 22 million factory jobs have disappeared...

"Between 1995 and 2002, we lost about 11 percent of our manufacturing jobs ... the Japanese lost 16 percent of theirs ... Brazil suffered a 20 percent decline... Here’s the real surprise. China saw a 15 percent drop. ..."
Robert Reich
Either this is good news for us here on Earth -- productivity is increasing in manufacturing just as it did formerly in agriculture, so more goods are being produced at less labor cost, so we are becoming much richer in goods as well as food relative to the labor needed to obtain them -- or it's at last time to throw up protectionist barriers against the Gamma Quandrant and finally stop those bastards from underpricing us.

Why Miers lost.

Short form explanation in a couple of blog comments made while the contest was still on ...
GWB has proven time and again that he is one step ahead of his opponents politically. I'm betting that this plays out the same way....

The only reason GWB has outwitted political opponents in the past is because they were liberals who are even dumber than he is. This time, the opposition to GWB's nomination of Miers is led by true conservatives...

God wants the physical sciences taught at divinity school.
Texas pastor electrocuted while performing baptism

WACO, Tex. - A pastor performing a baptism was electrocuted inside his church yesterday after grabbing a microphone while he was partially submerged, a church employee said.

The Rev. Kyle Lake, 33, was standing in water up to his shoulders in a baptismal at University Baptist Church when he was electrocuted...

Egad! I'm a eunuch!