Friday, August 31, 2007

Retired from squash

Upon reflection, I think I'm genuinely done with squash. Tennis is just much easier on my various joints and limbs.

"It's okay, Dad - you've had a great career, but you just have to stop now," is how one of my kids put it to me before I finally decided. Ah, the impressionability of youth.

On a related theme, we all went to the U.S. Open yesterday. My wife and I have been going annually, with only one exception we can recall, since moving to NYC in 1995. But this is the first time we took our kids. This actually was double the fun, although we had to shorten the day somewhat. Most controversial moment involved translating for their benefit some of the mouthing we heard from Sebastian Grosjean when he got mad at himself during the course of his (eventually successful) match with the towering Max Mirnyi. Mauvais-this-or-that was no big deal, but I also felt compelled to enlighten them when he said something-or-other putain.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Sunlight in Vermont

The title of this post is a Captain Beefheart reference - let's see who's the first to identify it.

I spent most of the last 4 days in Woodstock, Vermont (not THAT Woodstock), attending a conference that has been run by Al Warren of the Harvard Law School for many years (approaching twenty), and that is genuinely an important institution in the tax legal academy. This both in the sense that it can have important effects on people's stature and reputation in what I like to call the biz, and in that numerous subsequent publications may be strongly influenced by it. E.g., my forthcoming article in the Stanford Law Review, which I have previously linked here, changed significantly, reflecting the input of Jeff Strnad (my discussant last year) in particular.

The Woodstock proceedings are confidential to the participants (unlike my colloquium, which is open to the public). If I published inside details about it here, I not only would be in hot water, but would deserve to be. But if I may throw in another far-fetched cultural reference, it's a bit like a much less racy version of the movie Brief Encounter. Many of the same people get together every year, and the thing evolves over time. Indeed, to a serial attendee the way it has evolved over the years is genuinely sociologically interesting.

It's in part a generational story, featuring three distinctive age cohorts, my own being the one in the middle. Needless to say, in my version we're the heroes. Other versions may differ. And it's also a story about various pairs who have had fights over the years, but who at some point couldn't quite keep a straight face about it any more. From drama to schtick, which certainly qualifies as a benign evolution.

Throw in two and a half hours of outdoor tennis, an hour on the elliptical machine made tolerable by Squeeze's "Cool for Cats," and numerous desserts steadfastly avoided, and the only downside was that I missed my family.

Gonzalez resignation

Who will be named to replace Gonzalez? A friend e-mailed the suggestion that perhaps it will be Harriet Miers. But I have an even better idea - Lewis Libby.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The surge is working!!!

Not in Iraq, of course. But it's doing really well in Washington.

Friday, August 10, 2007

The great escape

Narrowly skirting disaster can be exhilarating.

Okay, let's be a bit less hyperbolic here. Narrowly skirting major inconvenience, annoyance, discomfort, and waste of time can leave one with a feeling of relief and release.

Yesterday afternoon I headed to LaGuardia Airport to take the 5 pm shuttle to Washington DC, where I was planning to attend a meeting early this morning. Economists at the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) are doing a whole lot of interesting research projects that are funded by the Social Security Administration, so they have a meeting where outside commentators, including several prominent law profs who share my interest in Social Security, give their thoughts and suggestions about the list of new research proposals that are being funded. Many on the list were quite interesting - e.g., Kent Smetters has a very intriguing one on the political economy of Social Security privatization and pre-funding around the world (not to suggest that the other proposals are less interesting).

Anyway, I was supposed to be at the outside commentators' meeting early this morning, but when I got to the airport last night, I realized that I was looking at many, many hours of delay. Best estimate was that we would board an hour late, sit on the runway for 2-3 hours waiting in line, and then POSSIBLY actually fly to D.C., which I gather was racked by storms.

I was discussing this with an English bloke who was waiting for the same flight but had heard more about what was happening, and who was unhappy because it looked like he was going to miss a Squeeze concert (I saw Squeeze in NYC last Friday but haven't posted about it). "You're screwed," he said amiably, but I realized I actually wasn't. I could simply go home.

How often, when you run into one of those awful travel days at the airport that any regular traveler has from time to time, can you simply check out? As in, not wait at the airport, not try to get to the train station, not try to find a hotel, but simply declare defeat (or victory) and leave. Never when you're on the road, and usually not even when you are trying to leave home. The stakes are often higher, e.g., a meeting you really have to be at, or a conference where you're presenting a paper. But this time I could simply say that I wasn't going to be there - others would anyway, and I could still participate in the meeting by phone.

So I had a pleasant evening at home with The Fam, did the meeting by phone early this morning, and am now idly wondering, as I type at my desk, what exactly I would be going through if at this moment I were trying to return from DC to NYC on the shuttle. In New York it's been raining all morning.

It's all a matter of your baseline. A pointless roundtrip to the airport may seem costly compared to not going in the first place. But it means one got off lightly indeed, compared to going through one (or perhaps more likely two) of those horrible, endless travel days spent sitting at the airport or in a parked plane.

Now that I've learned how to pick the cheery baseline, perhaps I should be making long-term federal budget projections.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Better than the alternative

The heading to this post is what my father always used to say is the great thing about aging - it sure beats the alternative. A good thing for me to keep in mind today.

I've played tennis twice since returning from Asia, but today was my first time playing squash in 5 or more weeks. I was a bit worried about my sprained knee - I couldn't do all the exercises, without my heavy gear, while traveling, and it definitely is still subpar. Even with a strong brace, my knee particularly dislikes, and sometimes complains about, the sudden changes in direction you can need to demand of it while playng squash, and I didn't want to injure it again.

No need even to mentiion here that I still sometimes dive for balls. That doesn't actually seem to be the problem.

I needn't have worried about my knee. Early in the second game, expecting a deep ball but then wrenching forward suddenly to fetch a drop shot, I threw out my back and had to quit. I have been stiff and in a fair amount of pain ever since.

Maybe my body is trying to tell me something? I am prepared to be rational about this, but perhaps with stretching and patience, after I've healed a bit, I can still go.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Fantastic news

Word has just come out of Washington that Ed Kleinbard has been named the new Chief of Staff of the Joint Committee on Taxation. In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that Ed is a personal friend, which naturally colors my views. But our being friends reflects, among other factors, my admiration for the abilities that he will bring to the job. So I don't think it should induce any skepticism about my endorsement.

JCT chief is unquestionably a very challenging role. Friends with inside-the-Beltway knowledge about tax politics have gone so far as to call it the single worst job in America. Hyperbole perhaps, but they have a point. I hope I'm not breaching confidences if I say that I am among the people who was asked about possible interest in seeking the job. I rapidly, indeed instantaneously, concluded that I did not, even though the suggestion was flattering to one with my background as a former JCT staffer, due to what I know about the position and (perhaps more importantly) what I know about myself. This would not have been the right job for me, particularly in terms of my temperament but also my skill set, even if I otherwise wanted it.

Some people who know Ed are not convinced that he has the right temperament for it either. In the NYC practice world, he is not famous for genially tolerating stupidity or sloppy thinking, both of which one can expect to encounter frequently around Capital Hill. But he has spent more than thirty years working with clients, colleagues in the Bar, and government officials, among others, all with great success. His charisma and charm will carry him through so far as the world is concerned - I'd be more worried that his high standards will affect his enjoyment of the job than his success and effectiveness.

A couple of downsides to the job these days. First, JCT has been all but wiped out as a real player in recent years. This reflects a host of factors, including the growth of other tax staffs, more rapid turnover on the Hill with consequent loss of institutional memory and commitment, and the fact that lobbyists have such enormous power these days and have gotten so far inside the process. (As I'm currently reading Harry Potter 7, this brings to mind Voldemort's penetration of the Ministry.) The only recent JCT chief who could really overcome this was Ken Kies, but that reflected his personal connections and influence, much more than anything institutionally rooted. Second, this is not a propitious time for significant tax legislation, given the gridlock arising from the Democrats' thin majority (and Republican obstructionism of substantive measures in all areas) plus the character of (or should I say in) the White House. But perhaps 2009 will be a propitious time - there certainly will be plenty to do (whether or not Congress is able to do it), what with expiring provisions and the rising threat of the fiscal gap. Hard to tell what to expect before the 2008 elections.

On the positive side, I can't see why Senator Baucus and Congressman Rangel would have named Ed to the job, rather than someone blander and safer, unless they wanted to make use of his energy and knowledge. There certainly is room for an energetically run JCT to take the lead in analyzing issues, identifying legislative options, and so forth. Take the carried interest debate. Under Ed, I could well imagine the JCT having taken the lead in offering a comprehensive analysis of the issues and competing views, developing and evaluating proposals, etcetera. Not playing a partisan role but teeing up the issue properly so it can be better discussed and understood, and so that realistic options of all sorts will be on the table. Obviously, no JCT chief can do this, even assuming adequate staffing levels and time, if the committee chairs don't want it done. But their picking Ed strikes me as hopeful evidence that perhaps they do want it done. Again, why pick him otherwise.

So I'm very glad about this appointment from the standpoint of the public interest, and more guardedly glad about it from the standpoint of a friend and fellow member of the NYC tax policy community (which will have to do without Ed for a while).