Monday, April 30, 2007

Movie starring my three cats

I'm not expecting it to be made any time soon, but if it is, and if we can ransack the last 60 years of U.S. film history, casting won't be a problem.

Shadow would obviously be played by Spencer Tracy. Ursula, by Audrey Hepburn. As for Buddy, a.k.a. The Rascal and a Half (call him a rascal and you have told 2/3 of the truth) - I'm sorry to say this, fella, but while my wife suggested Jim Carrey, I am currently thinking more in terms of Frank Gorshin. You know, played the Riddler on the Batman TV show. Also a memorable performance (whether you want to remember it or not) in Where The Boys Are, a trasho early 60s beach blanket movie.

Frank's, I mean Buddy's, latest antics related to some tulips that a relative brought to a family gathering tonight. Buddy likes tulips - the greens, actually, i don't think the flowers do much for him. This time, I knew what to expect because I had brought home tulips (as a change from roses) on Valentine's Day. That time, it was just a big misunderstanding, really - I think he simply believed I had brought home the flowers for him, although told repeatedly by word and gesture, admittedly in a cooing tone of voice, that this was not in fact so.

Round Two to me, I think, based on where I put the tulips this time. But we will see tomorrow morning. Although they're in a hard-to-reach place he has the guts of, well, a cat burglar.

Of course, when he starts rolling around with his paws up in the air, it's hard not to agree to give him that extra close-up.

UPDATE (the following day): Upon further review, I think I need to withdraw that comment about Round Two going to me. Upon coming downstairs this morning, I observed a tulip on the floor, a second tulip still in the vase but with its stem broken, and signs of extensive gnawing on the tulip greens. Buddy had also upchucked some greens. This is so regularly the result of his gnawing on them that I wonder if it is the aim. (Does the neoclassical model apply to cats?)

Apparently a 3-1/2 foot jump onto a 4 inch landing proved less of an obstacle to ol' Budzo than I had anticipated. So the corrected tulips score is Buddy 2, Shaviro 0.

Monday, April 23, 2007

2008 Tax Policy Colloquium

My co-convenors for the 2008 Tax Policy Colloquium are now set. I will be conducting the colloquium with Kevin Hassett of the American Enterprise Institute for the first seven weeks of the semester, and with Mihir Desai of the Harvard Business School for the last seven weeks. Both will be fun and exciting, as well as very different, colleagues for myself and everyone else who is involved with our colloquium.

Time to accessorize?

Some very nice quilts are available here.

In offering this plug, which reflects my having actually seen the pictured items, I admit I'm biased, but no more so than Paul Wolfowitz, and raising, I think, fewer ethical issues than his actions have.

AMT maneuverings

According to today's Washington Post, the Democrats are planning to provide AMT relief through a package that would exempt from the AMT people earning less than $250,000, reduce the bite in the $250,000 to $500,000 range, and reclaim the lost revenues from people earning more than $500,000. (Importantly. how this would be done is left unspecified.)

Talking points in hand, the Democrats speak of restoring the original focus of the AMT, providing tax relief on a more progressive (or "middle class") basis than did President Bush, and getting rid of the AMT's "parent penalty."

Republicans respond that taxing rich people is a "job killer" and that the AMT is too esoteric for anyone to care, especially as it hasn't really hit yet, etcetera.

This probably isn't a problem for the Democrats, however. If they are thinking strategically, as I would think they must be, the idea has to be to pass the AMT relief, let Bush veto it, and then blame Bush when the AMT tsunami really hits. Sounds like a feasible political strategy to me.

Unfortunately, it's just one more example of the decline of U.S. politics, from a system that could actually address problems to one simply based on blame-shifting and chicken games.

It's hard to blame the Democrats for this, as they really have no alternative with the Bush Administation in place. But if things don't get better under the next Administration, which depends on both parties, things could get pretty grim.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Final NYU Tax Policy Colloquium of 2007

Yesterday (Thursday 4/19) was the final NYU Tax Policy Colloquium of the spring 2007 semester. We went out on a good note with a paper by Christina Fong of Carnegie-Mellon University, concerning reciprocity norms and the welfare system. (See the April 19 date here.)

I've had this experience several times before over the years - we invite someone not personally known to our group and who also does not start out knowing anything about our group (or mixed law school / public economics types generally), and it works out very positively for everyone, with more of a sense of moving forward than you can get with old friends. Christina is a serious and thoughtful economist with strong interests in behavioral economics, decision theory, reciprocity and other non-monetary goals, etc., much in the spirit of work in the tradition running from Herbert Simon to George Loewenstein (who is also at Carnegie Mellon).

This was the Colloquium's twelfth year, and the second full one since the tragic death of David Bradford. What's exciting for me is the feeling that we've built an ever-changing yet somehow stable community that is serious but open-minded and permeable, as well as strongly opposed to any rigidity or orthodoxy, even (or especially) those consonant with our own views. Many thanks to Rosanne Altshuler and Alan Auerbach for their efforts in co-teaching it with me this year. They were both delightful colleagues and made great contributions.

Every year is different, but I am confident that next year will be great as well. I hope shortly to have word on whom I will be doing it with.

Alternative minimum tax

As per an earlier post, Lee Sheppard was kind enough to quote me in her article in the 4/16/07 Tax Notes concerning the AMT. So why don't I repay the favor, or alternatively add to it, by quoting her.

"'Given how irresponsible the Bush tax cuts were, it is just as well that they were not all realized,' commented Daniel Shaviro of the NYU School of Law. 'We're paying for the Bush tax cuts in installments.'

"Shaviro's comment is important. The panelists agreed that, to a great extent, the revenue from the AMT is masking the true cost of the Bush tax cuts ...

"'Should we have just one tax system? Should we repeal the regular income tax?' Shaviro asked rhetorically. He emphasized that what matters is not what the system is called but what it looks like. [Note: This is my rebuttal of Michael Graetz's in my view misconceived talking point about how we should repeal the regular tax rather than the AMT.] Shaviro pleaded guilty to having worked the technical aspects of the AMT while at the [Joint Committee on Taxation] during the 1986 tax reform. The drafters did not expect that the inclusion of personal exemptions, credits, and miscellaneous deductions in AMT preferences would become so important.

"'What do you do with the big items?' he continued. Shaviro, a Manhattan resident, argued that while personal exemptions, credits, and miscellaneous deductions should not be limited, there was a case to be made for the AMT's 'partial indirect repeal' of the state and local tax deduction. Other big items that require further consideration are the mortgage interest deduction and the exclusion for employer-provided medical coverage - both of which the president's tax reform panel had to propose cutting back to repeal the AMT and preserve the Bush tax cuts."

Monday, April 16, 2007

Moth-eaten comments

Until today, "moth-eaten" was a word I mainly used metaphorically. But today, it became startlingly literal.

I was getting dressed in my hotel room for the AMT panel on C-Span 3 that I mentioned in my previous post, just 20 minutes to go and with a 5-minute walk to get there, when I realized that my suit pans were, well, no longer feasible to wear in public. They're from a summer suit I had't worn since early last fall, and evidently I didn't check before hanging them in my garment bag. Certainly a grim moment when one is on the road, about to be televised, and has no time to go to a men's clothing store.

Luckily, as it turned out, we did the panel seated at a table that left viewers none the wiser that I was wearing rumpled jeans. And, for what it's worth, a co-panelist told me that William Bennett has been known to do panels looking splendid from the waist up and decidedly less so below. (Maybe he lost his dress pants at the craps table?)

On the panel itself, I tried to be lively enough to hold the TV viewership (all 30 of them). I suppose the word "moronic" doesn't frequently turn up on televised PowerPoint slides, but it did this time, in reference to having a tax system with gratituously built-in instability. (I used it to describe a situation, not any particular actors.) And I did not stint on the pessimism about our political system's capacity to respond to problems these days - this not to be lively, but because it's how I currently see things.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Cheap publicity stunt

Get your TIVOs and DVD recorders primed and ready now, if not sooner. It turns out that the AEI conference on the alternative minimum tax, at which I will be appearing, is going to be televised on C-Span 3. That's Monday, April 16, at 9 am. I am the second speaker, after Len Burman, and should be on at around 9:20 or 9:30, complete with Power Point slides. My remarks will include some reasonably lively bits.

I also gather that Monday's Tax Notes Magazine will have an article by Lee Sheppard concerning the NYU panel on the AMT on which I spoke last Tuesday. Lee features a couple of things I said in the middle of the piece and at the end. Bad form to thank her, I suppose, but I like how her article comes out although we're not 100% in agreement. (Then again, maybe not far below 100%.)`

He's gotta dance to keep from crying

Received earlier today from a friend:

"This is one of the best lines I’ve ever seen in a review about an aged rocker (from the NY Times on 4/11):
'How [Iggy Pop] re-enacts fear, rage, sex, abject boredom, universal love and lethal cynicism, while dancing with originality, remembering lyrics and maintaining the delicate middle-state between having pants on and not having pants on, is why he is he, and you are merely you.'”

Hey, it's a thankless job, but someone has to do it. Evidently Iggy is soldiering on notwithstanding the brutal 1.0 (on a scale from 0 to 10) that gave to his reunion album with the Stooges.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Shakespearean sonnet

For no particular reason, I'll take this opportunity to post a Shakespearean styled sonnet I wrote as a joke many, many years ago about a friend. (Some friend, huh? But it was all meant in good fun. Or else as a formal exercise.) To protect the guilty (myself), I have changed the individual's name to "Johnson," which bears no resemblance to the actual name. So any actual Johnsons out there, please don't tell me you think I wrote it about you.

I find the Johnson tedious and slow
If his wit sparkles, why then, so does mud
His glance is vacant, and as if to show
His foolishness, he sounds like Elmer Fudd.
His ignorance is like the vasty deep
And yet presumes he far beyond his ken
Resentful is he, envious and cheap
He slobbers more than ordinary men
He is morose, and gloomy as a Turk
The women find him duller than a stone
To talk with him is hard and joyless work
Speak fair, and he will answer with a groan.
And yet the sight of Johnson brings me bliss
For, next to his, how great MY happiness.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Alternative minimum tax discussions at NYU and AEI

This afternoon at 4, I'll be participating in a panel discussion at NYU Law School, with economists Len Burman and Rosanne Altshuler along with colleague Lily Batchelder, concerning the alternative minimum tax (AMT). Then Len and I, among others, will be discussing the AMT at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington next Monday (April 16) at 9 am.

One of the points I plan to make across the two sessions (where my remarks will be quite differently focused) is that there actually is a case for having an AMT, but only in what turns out to be an alternative political economy universe. I wrote about this back in the day (1987 in Taxes Magazine, and a 1989 U of Chicago Law Review article called "Selective Limitations on Tax Benefits"), making the following two points:

(1) If a provision like the AMT mainly denies tax benefits that ought to be disallowed generally, one would have to be craxy NOT to want to trade it in for straightforward base-broadening and no special rule or back-up tax system. E.g., if the AMT denies half the tax benefits from stupid provision X, replacing the AMT with straightforward, across-the-board 50% reduction in the scope of X is likely to be much better policy.

(2) If such a trade-in for the indirect base-broadening effects of the AMT is not politically feasible, then having it might be better than repealing it, depending on the relative magnitude of the distortions it reduces by cutting back X and the new ones it creates via its specialized method of operation.

At the time, I thought it plausible that this line of thought might make a decent case for having some sort of AMT, albeit based purely on the political economy problem of trade-in's unfeasibility. But 20 years later the AMT doesn't seem to be functioning that way, except via the historical legacy of its denying itemized deductions for state and local taxes. Its denying the full benefit of, say, the 2001 rate cuts is not quite the same proposition. Its hit on personal exemptions and on the so-called miscellaneous itemized deductions makes the effective composite tax base worse, not better.

The question now is simply how to get rid of it without making the fiscal gap even bigger or overall distribution less progressive. And here the answer is simple: there is no way to do this until we have two responsible political parties capable of bargaining with each other, reasonably and in good faith and with a shared commitment to solving problems. 2009, anyone?

Musical oldies and newbies

I recently sprung (via an Amazon affiliated seller with a good price) for the 3-disk expanded reissue of "The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society," released in 1968 and long since renowned as the Kinks' best album notwithstanding its initially being a flop. I had resisted this record for a long time, and then bought only the basic disk, on the view that nostalgia about meat pies and apothecaries isn't really my thing. But apart from its musical merits, which are very strong in the mid to late 60s hard-driving folk-rock vein, it's really not an exercise in insular English nostalgia as most accounts would have it, but rather a portrait of nostalgia's failure to make the narrator (Ray Davies) feel any less miserable. This certainly makes it more interesting than it would otherwise be, and the reissue has about a full CD's worth of good additional material that was not otherwise widely available.

On a more contemporary note, I'm seeking more information about whether Blonde Redhead's newly released "23" is worthwhile.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Interesting tidbit

ABC News is reporting that the U.S., for the last two years, has been advising and funding a "Pakistani tribal militant group responsible for a series of deadly guerrilla raids inside Iran." The group "has taken responsibility for the deaths and kidnappings of more than a dozen Iranian soldiers and officials." Their preferred M.O. is to kidnap people, then execute them on camera, though it's unclear whether they did this in a recent slaying of "at least 11 members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard riding on a bus in the Iranian city of Zahedan." All in all, they sound like really nice fellas.

This means that the U.S. is a state sponsor of terrorism. It also means that the U.S. has committed acts of war against Iran, predating and so far as we know exceeding anything the Iranians have done in Iraq.

I doubt it will be more widely reported or kept in mind, however.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Shadow's fifteen seconds

Thanks to my wife's efforts, our cat Shadow is now enjoying (?) his moment of Internet stardom.

Silly-ass McCain

After his stunt at the Baghdad market, John McCain is certainly America’s premier buffoon, at least outside the Bush Administration. He has all the moral seriousness of Bertie Wooster without Jeeves. He’ll soon be challenging Bello for top billing at the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus. Or maybe he’ll end up touring county fairs, biting the heads off chickens and sitting on the ducking post. Remake of “The Blue Angel,” perhaps? He’d be good as Emil Jannings in the final scene.

At least this stunt is just farce, albeit not at all funny to the Iraqis who regularly spend time in the market he proclaimed safe after visiting it for ten minutes with his body armor, 100 soldiers in Humvees, 3 attack helicopters, 2 Apache gunships, and sharpshooters stationed in the buildings all around (all on top of the pre-dawn sweep and diversion of traffic). McCain only recently did much worse than farce, back in fall 2006 when he pretended to negotiate with the Bush Administration about the torture legislation and then promptly caved on the whole thing, thereby betraying his own personal history and anything honorable that he had ever seriously stood for.

The saddest things about McCain are twofold. First, despite all the hype about the “Straight Talk Express” and such, I think he actually had some integrity at some point. It simply has all been consumed by his ambition and desperation. I am reminded of Hubert Humphrey, who embarrassed himself in the 1972 Presidential campaign, trying halfheartedly to do George Wallace Lite, because the ambition and desperation had eaten up everything else, like one of Sauron’s victims bearing a lesser Ring of Power. Second, if you sell out and torch your integrity and honor in order to win, it kind of helps if you actually do win – at least that saves you from being ridiculous. To sell out and still lose badly, as I suspect McCain will, is to lose everything. I wonder, once it is all over, if (unlike Bush or Cheney) he will actually be able to grasp the totality of his humiliation.

I actually met the man once, in circumstances that certainly embarrassed me more than him. It was probably the year 2000, and I had a book out recently (probably Making Sense of Social Security Reform). I was halfheartedly trying to get it media exposure. (The problem is that I’m always more interested in writing my new project than promoting my old one.) I got a call from a booker on Good Morning America, ostensibly giving me a chance to appear on a segment with Senator McCain and to mention my book. The booker, some sort of junior intern who (it turned out) was just trying to get 60 people or so to agree to show up in Midtown NYC before 6 in the morning, told me that I would definitely get to ask him a question. She would have said yes if I had asked whether, by showing up, I would get to host the show for a few weeks.

When I got there, it transpired that I was just one of 60 people who could submit a question on an index card, about 3 of which (the more vacuous the better) would be read by the host to the Senator. But by the time I realized that I should just leave I had already been herded with the rest into the studio for the live gig. I did get to look anonymously disgruntled on national television for a second or two when the camera swept past me a couple of times.

When it was over, McCain worked the crowd shaking hands. Somehow it transpired that, although I had already shaken his hand once, he was heading towards the exit and I was still standing nearby. Thinking that I wanted a second go, he said to me angrily: “I already shook your hand!”

I ended up with a Good Morning America t-shirt plus a story to tell my Tax class a few hours later.

Payback is sweet, Senator, even if it wasn’t your fault.