Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Tiger Woods and the difficult path to 19 Majors

Tiger Woods set the goal of breaking Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 majors. For 14 years, he has been on track to do just that, with each of his major victories coming earlier than Nicklaus', but late last month Tiger did something he rarely does. He fell behind. If Woods wins his 15th, he'll be older than Nicklaus was when he won his 15th.

Tiger needs four more Major wins to tie Nicklaus, and 5 to pass him. How hard will that be? 5 Major wins alone would give a player the 20th best career total. So, he now needs to have the 20th best Major golf tournament career in golf history - starting at 38. He needs to win more majors from this point than Ernie Els has over his career. Starting now, he needs to have Byron Nelson's entire Majors career. Not easy.

There have been only 10 major winners over the age of 43, and none of them have repeated. If Woods is limited to the same total,  he needs to win 4 majors over the next 5 years. Early in his career that would have been easy, from the time he was 19 until he was 29, there was never a 5 year period where he failed to win 4 majors. But that was 8 years ago. This is the real testament to what Nicklaus did - not that he won 14 by the time he was 38 (though that is still an incredible feat, only matched by one person) but that he then went on to win 4 more. Even if Woods does do that, then he still needs to win one more over the age of 43. The oldest major winner in history was 48. So the window closes in about 10 years.

If Woods can't win 4 over the next 5 years, then he needs 2 wins over 43. That would be a first.

So, in order to break Nicklaus' major record, he will likely have to break other records, like oldest Major winner, most Majors over 40 etc...He's still the tour's top player - last year's Player of the Year with top 5 finishes in two majors, but his injuries and the steady march of time are working against him.

I think 10 years ago I would have bet on Woods to break the record, but now I'd bet against it.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

DC's Tax Reform still leaves us taxing the wrong people and the wrong things

The tax reform that Council Chair Mendelson rushed through last week represents a very large change in DC's tax code. In addition to being rushed through quickly, it also contains several flaws.

The District of Columbia has perhaps the most progressive tax system in the United States, nonetheless one of the goals of the commission in the authorizing legislation was to make it more progressive as the tax rate for the bottom 20% (6.6% of income) is higher than for the top 1% (6.1% of income). The commission therefore takes several steps to make DC's taxes more progressive, such as expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and reducing the tax on income between $40,000 and $80,000. But other changes, like raising the threshold for the estate tax and lowering the tax rate on high income earners, counteract those changes. DCFPI points out that the cuts for high earners are a "minority" of the total cuts, but what isn't clear - in either the tax commission's proposal or the budget that the council voted for last week - is whether or not it will actually be more progressive once all the changes are considered, and if so, by how much. The chart below is from the commission's report and shows the current DC tax paid by income group, with the middle 20% paying the highest rate. What would such a chart look like under the bill approved last week? That's a question that isn't answered.

Some of the counter-progressive proposals don't even make much sense when the justification is considered. The tax rate on income above $350,000 is lowered to a rate below Maryland's to send "a positive signal about the District's commitment to controlling taxes." That's an expensive signal and not one of the committee's goals.

In addition, the threshold for the estate tax is raised (meaning people inheriting large sums pay less tax) not to keep the wealthy from moving away (it will, after all, lower tax receipts), but to simplify the tax code and make auditing easier - also not a goal. When Congress voted to raise the threshold for the "death tax", DC's lone voice in Congress disagreed with it, but now DC is following Congress' lead, even though a reduced estate tax works against the goal of making the tax code more progressive. Even if cutting taxes for the wealthy is a good idea, an argument for cutting taxes on work is easier to justify than one on inheriting is.

The new budget doesn't even eliminate the exemption for out of state bonds even though the commission admitted that they struggled "to find a policy justification for the exemption," noting that it mostly benefits high-income residents and that, because DC gives a blanket exemption instead of reciprocal exemptions, it "not only represent substantial lost revenue for the District, but such broad relief eliminates an incentive for residents to purchase District bonds over those from other jurisdictions. In other words, it essentially subsidizes investments outside the District."

In addition to the inclusion of these bad ideas there were several ideas that were not considered at all, ones that would make the system more progressive, while also reducing the total federal burden of DC tax payers.

For example, if DC were one taxpayer, their accountant might recommend that they pay as much of their local tax in the form of property tax and either income or sales tax, since that money would then be deductible on federal returns. Instead DC assesses all three taxes on citizens and charges some fees that aren't based on property value, but could be.

DC could reduce or eliminate the sales tax. Many DC residents are unable to deduct this tax, and eliminating it would make the DC tax system more progressive while making DC businesses more competitive. It's at least as positive a signal about the District's commitment to controlling taxes as lowering taxes on the wealthy is. This could be offset with an increase in property and/or income taxes or with a tax on pollution.

DC could replace vehicle registration, license and inspection fees with a revenue-neutral annual vehicle property tax based on the value of the car similar to the excise tax. Such a tax would then be tax deductible, with the added advantage of being more progressive.

A Pivgovian tax on pollution, as referenced earlier, could help make the city cleaner while raising revenue. One way to to that would be to raise the gas tax. Last year, DC modified the gas tax to index it to inflation, but DC's gas tax is still lower than Maryland's and in the bottom half nationwide. Raising the gas tax would do more to capture the negative externalities associated with gasoline use, and make those who use gasoline responsible for paying those costs.

Or DC could tax carbon. Adding carbon to the atmosphere causes global warming and ocean acidification, and a tax on this would pass the cost of these side effects on to polluters. Though DC doesn't have any coal burning power plants left, DC could still join Maryland and eight other states in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and use the allowance proceeds to cut the sales tax. For example, Maryland has made $190 million on its proceeds over the last 4 years.

DC could also increase the impervious area charge

Do some councilmembers support such changes and modifications over the ones in the budget? Possibly, but we'll likely never know. Because no one got a chance to discuss it.

DC Tax reform and cuts should not be rushed through without debate

A couple of weeks ago, the DC council held an initial vote on the District's 2015 budget that includes tax reform that was recommended by the District of Columbia Tax Revision Commission.

As part of the fiscal 2012 budget, the District of Columbia created a Tax Revision Commission to analyze the District's tax system and propose innovative approaches to meet future revenue needs. In February the commission completed its work and produced a set of recommendations that it hopes will make taxes more progressive, while attracting more business and ensuring future revenue. After the proposals became public in December, Mayor Gray only supported a few of them and it looked as though the proposals would not become law. But then, starting Memorial Day weekend, Chairman Mendelson announced that he would attempt to implement many of those recommendations.

While the commission's plan has much to admire and gets kudos from outside groups like the Tax Policy Center and the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, these reforms are very complex, and Mendelson's attempt to enact them at the last minute has left almost no opportunity to debate them. A final vote on the package is set for June 17, and Mendelson says it will be difficult to make any changes to it before then. I think this is all by design. In fact, I hate to say it, but I agree with Marion Barry. Mendelson is behaving like a “tyrant” for arranging the last-minute vote on the tax package and for limiting debate.

Now, normally the "going to fast" claim is one made by NIMBY's who want to stop a change, and I normally oppose it. But this is different. The equivalent would be for DDOT to put together a committee to redesign 16th street and then after that committee submits its recommendations for DDOT to decide not to implement them, but then for DPW to announce that they were creating a final design based on the recommendations that they would make available for approval the next day (with limited debate) and then implement two weeks later. The committee part went at a normal speed, but the end was rushed. Legislation shouldn't move this fast from recommendation to implementation.

There are three problems here:

1. Once Gray made it clear that he was not going to implement the recommendations of the commission to which he appointed half of the members, everyone quit paying attention. This is why the yoga tax has now become such a big deal. But this budget modifies dozens of taxes, in ways that have not been studied, and people need time to consider that.

2. There might be an argument for moving quickly on this if the Council is just going to rubber stamp the committee's recommendations, but there should still be some time for debate on the actual law proposed, not just the recommendations. Nonetheless, the Council really shouldn't act as a rubber stamp for a commission that most of its members had no say in selecting (only the Mayor and Council Chair picked members).

3. The council isn't even acting as a rubber stamp. They've made several critical diversions from the recommendations, and so this pacing is particularly inappropriate then.

Among the recommendations that Mendelson ignored, this most critical was to make the tax reform into a tax cut. This tax cut is a result of the decision to ignore commission recommendations to raise the sales tax (an increase I oppose) and to levy a "local service fee" on employers that is designed as a proxy to the commuter tax. The only way to fund this cut was to cut future funding for the streetcar.

Mendelson dismissed criticism of the late addition of these changes, and the limits he placed on debate, "saying the recommendations of the tax commission had been public since December." This is true, but he never let it be known that he would pursue these recommendations. If he done that in December, instead of the day before the vote, the public and the council would have had adequate time to consider and debate them. Such a radical change at such a late point is all-too-reminiscent of the District's controversial last-minute settlement with Jeffrey Thompson's company in 2011.

As an example, the yoga tax isn't actually mentioned in the recommendations, and the word yoga is nowhere in the report. Instead it is a tax on health clubs. So it would be reasonable for the public to not realize that yoga is to be taxed. Add to this that a specific function of the commission was:

"To identify economic activities which are either beneficial or detrimental to the District's economy and which should be either encouraged or discouraged through tax policy."

and one can see how yoga enthusiasts were caught off guard, despite the recommendations being out since December.

The tax reform represents some pretty big changes. Ones that I'm sure that many on the council oppose. Such large changes, some submitted at the very last minute, deserve more debate than the council of residents have been afforded.

In my next post, I'll discuss flaws in the proposed tax reform.

ESPN borrows my idea

I actually very much doubt they got the idea from me. But this post on how Mack Brown's leaving Texas rippled through the college coaching world is similar - if broader in scope - to mine.



Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Winning the Show: Malcolm in the Middle

With Godzilla out, I thought I would do Malcolm in the Middle, Bryan Cranston's old show. Cranston is the star of Godzilla, FYI. Anyway, I watched the show and liked it. There a quite a few great jokes from it that I quote and it was a show that did a great job with the call-back (like the gerbil in his plastic ball that would periodically show up). The two-shows-in-one (one about the family and one focused on Francis, with two rarely meeting) was, and still is, unique in television; it isn't talked about as much as one would expect and was never emulated, but I could see how it would make the writing easier.

If you were a fan of the show, then you probably expected Jane Kaczmarek, who played Lois the mom to break out. She got an Emmy nomination every year the show was on. But it hasn't worked out that way. Bryan Cranston landed on Breaking Bad one of the best shows of recent times, for which he won four Emmys and a Golden Globe. He's had steady work and shown up in several hit shows and the movie Argo. Clearly he has won Malcolm in the Middle. How do the rest stack up? It gets tough with child actors, but I'd rank them thus:

1. Bryan Cranston (4 Emmy wins and 3 other nominations, 1 Golden Globe win and 3 other nominations, 1 big hit show, 2 hit movies, and steady work)
2. Jane Kaczmarek (steady work)
3. Frankie Muniz (steady work)
4. Christopher Masterson (sporadic work)
5. Justin Berfield (1 role, some production work)
6. Erik Per Sullivan (4 roles)

It gets tough between Kaczmarek and Muniz, but the former has been on a few series and the latter has not.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Winning the Show: A recurring feature

A friend of mine and I have this stupid game we've played since we were kids called "winning the show". The basic idea is to take a television show that has been off the air for some amount of time and to then decide which of the featured actors on the show has gone on to have the best career. So, for example, if the show were Family Ties, the winner would be Michael J. Fox.

Sometimes it's easy to pick the winner (ER, Moonlighting, Alias). Sometimes it's hard to come up with one (Webster) and sometimes it's hard to pick from a few very solid possibilities (Cheers or The Mary Tyler Moore Show).

The rules are that:

1. The actor has to be featured for at least one year, no guest appearances. So Leonardo DiCaprio can, and does, win Growing Pains, just as Ralph Macchio wins Eight is Enough, but Kurt Russel's one appearance does not win him Gilligan's Island.

2. Anything can be considered in their career. So Ron Howard can win Happy Days, even though he went into directing (whether he does is debatable) and Gopher can win The Love Boat because he went into Congress.

3. But in general, a featured role on a hit TV show (one that lasts more than 2 years, or preferably 5), leading role in a hit movie, or awards are what really seal the deal. Steady work and good guest appearances can also factor in.

4. Only work AFTER they leave the show counts. Katherine Heigl will get no credit for Knocked Up when Grey's Anatomy finally goes off the air.

4. No looking at your phone/the internet. You have to go from memory.

If we really want to push it, we might try to rank the cast from winner to loser. So for Friends, that might look like this (I confess that I went to IMDB to help with this. It's for education):

Jennifer Aniston (Meet the Millers, Marley and Me and one Emmy nomination)
Matt LeBlanc (Episodes, one Golden Globe win, two other Golden Globe nominations, and two Emmy nominations)
Lisa Kudrow (Web Therapy and three Emmy nominations)
Courtney Cox (Cougar Town and one Golden Globe nomination)
Matthew Perry (The Ron Clark Story, one Golden Globe nomination and one Emmy nomination)
David Schwimmer (The Madagascar movies)

It's actually a tough one to rank. LeBlanc and Kudrow haven't worked as much as Cox or Perry, but what they have done has been more successful and they've been noticed for it. Perry and Schwimmer have both landed basically one good role, but Perry gets more work and Schwimmer hasn't been nominated for any awards. Aniston wins because she's still a legitimate leading lady in movies. The whole cast has basically bunched up and more time is needed before someone breaks out from the pack the way Julia Louis-Dreyfus did from her Seinfeld cast mates. Before Episodes, LeBlanc was clearly losing, for example.

Anyway, there you go. You now have a new bar game. Expect to see semi-regular editions of this as I declare who has won certain shows from time to time. The grand-daddy of them all will be SNL (which obviously is still on the air, but I'll make an exception. Spoiler alert: the winner is Robert Downy Jr.)

Friday, April 18, 2014

Northwest Angle: How the US gambled with Canada and lost a South Carolina

I once lost a bet with someone about the northernmost point in the US that is not in Alaska. I thought it was in Maine, but it's actually in Minnesota, in a little area called the Northwest Angle. Now the guy I lost the bet to was from Minnesota and when I asked him how they had acquired such an odd appendage, he didn't know. Over the years I asked many Minnesotans and none of them have seemed to know or to be interested in it at all. Which I find odd, but not as odd as the way it which this little accident of geography happened. It all has to do with, appropriately, a small gamble between the US and Canada and one that the United States lost.

It all starts with the Treaty of Paris, the treaty that ended the American Revolution and defined the boundaries of the United States. That treaty set the border of the United States in the area of the Northwest Angle as such:
Thence through the middle of said Long Lake and the Water Communication between it & the Lake of the Woods, to the said Lake of the Woods; Thence through the said Lake to the most Northwestern Point thereof, and from thence on a due West Course to the river Mississippi
Right up to the "Northwestern Point" part, it describes the current border. The problem is (for anyone who knows their geography) is that the Mississippi River doesn't go that far north. So, you can go west forever from the Northwester Point of the Lake of the Woods without coming to it.  The reason for this mix up is that in 1783 no one really knew the geography of that area very well, and so no one knew where the Mississippi River was.

By 1794, people began to become aware of this problem. So when the Jay Treaty was signed that year they addressed it.
Whereas it is uncertain whether the River Mississippi extends so far to the Northward as to be intersected by a Line to be drawn due West from the Lake of the woods in the manner mentioned in the Treaty of Peace between His Majesty and the United States, it is agreed, that measures shall be taken in Concert between His Majesty's Government in America, and the Government of the United States, for making a joint Survey of the said River, from one Degree of Latitude below the falls of St Anthony to the principal Source or Sources of the said River, and also of the parts adjacent thereto, And that if on the result of such Survey it should appear that the said River would not be intersected by such a Line as is above mentioned; The two Parties will thereupon proceed by amicable negotiation to regulate the Boundary Line in that quarter as well as all other Points to be adjusted between the said Parties, according to Justice and mutual Convenience, and in Conformity, to the Intent of the said Treaty.
So, they punted.  By 1803, Great Britain was able to prove that the Mississippi did not go north far enough and the United States was preparing to draw the line south from the Point to the Mississippi River. But then they bought Louisiana and the whole border debate had to be reopened, since the location of the Mississippi River was somewhat moot.

Even when the location of the Mississippi River was determined, there was another problem. Nobody knew where the Northwestern Point of the Lake of the Woods was, but they figured it was somewhere near the 49th parallel. In 1807, negotiations were heading towards setting the 49th as the border, but other issues got in the way of an agreement. And then there was a war.  So at the end of the War of 1812 in the Treaty of Ghent, both sides decided to appoint some Commissioners to deal with it.
The said Commissioners shall by a Report or declaration under their hands and seals, designate the boundary aforesaid, state their decision on the points thus referred to them, and particularize the Latitude and Longitude of the most North Western point of the Lake of the Woods, and of such other parts of the said boundary as they may deem proper.
Now at Ghent, the British had tried to push the boundary way south claiming, rightfully, that the area west of the Ohio River was mostly populated by Canadians. But the US resisted such efforts. There was also a problem from the 1783 Treaty that referred to something called "Long Lake." No one knew what that was. So it was still a mess.

By 1818, there was still no one who knew where the North Western point of the Lake of the Woods was or what Long Lake was and people were starting to settle the area of the border west of there. They needed to know if they were in Canada or the United States. So, this is where they decided to gamble. At the Convention of 1818 they signed another treaty, one which defined the current border, sort of
It is agreed that a Line drawn from the most North Western Point of the Lake of the Woods, along the forty Ninth Parallel of North Latitude, or, if the said Point shall not be in the Forty Ninth Parallel of North Latitude, then that a Line drawn from the said Point due North or South as the Case may be, until the said Line shall intersect the said Parallel of North Latitude, and from the Point of such Intersection due West along and with the said Parallel shall be the Line of Demarcation between the Territories of the United States, and those of His Britannic Majesty, and that the said Line shall form the Northern Boundary of the said Territories of the United States, and the Southern Boundary of the Territories of His Britannic Majesty, from the Lake of the Woods to the Stony Mountains.
I say sort of because no one knew whether the 49th Parallel was north or south of the Point. Instead of continuing the line west of the Point, which had been the original border, the US agreed to go to the 49th parallel. And then in the Treaty of Oregon in 1844, the border was extended from the Rocky Mountains (or Stony Mountains) to the Straits of Georgia.

7 years after the border was set, British astronomer Dr. Johann Tiarks determined where the Northwest Point was. It was about 26.58 miles north of the 49th Parallel. If the US had continued to insist that the border go due west from the point, then the US would have gained a territory pushing 26.6 miles north running for 1269.5 miles. That's an area of 33,744 square miles, which is larger than the state of South Carolina. Among other things, this would mean that the entire city of Vancouver, British Columbia, would actually be in Washington state.