Over-taxed

From the Agoraphilia blog, Glen Whitman ridicules those who ridicule Americans who feel over-taxed:

Sub-headline from an article about a survey on taxes: “An MSN-Zogby poll says that many Americans think they’re paying too much in taxes even though research shows the average tax burden is light compared with other developed countries.”

Interesting. I’ve also heard that for some reason, paraplegics would like to get the use of their limbs back, even though other people are totally paralyzed from the neck down. Oh, and people who have lost an eye would like to get their 3D vision back, despite the existence of blind people. What is wrong with these people?

RomneyCare: Becoming Less Universal and Less Affordable All the Time

Yesterday, Massachusetts’ new “Connector Authority” unanimously voted to exempt 20 percent of the Bay State’s uninsured from the requirement that all residents purchase health insurance.  The Connector Authority determined that health insurance was not affordable for those folks. 

They also made RomneyCare less affordable overall.  The Connector Authority voted, again unanimously, to increase subsidies to low-income residents by $13 million, bringing the total cost of such subsidies to $483 million this year.

Santa Newt

On Wednesday, David Boaz blogged about how Newt Gingrich is dispelling the notion that he is a small-government, Reaganesque conservative.  That very day, Gingrich offered even more evidence that he is no fan of limited government.

In an op-ed for The Washington Times, Gingrich urged Congress to limit the ability of insurers to use genetic information when setting insurance premiums, calling that proposed price control a “gift” to the American people:

Protecting every American from genetic discrimination is a long overdue gift to the nation. After 12 years of debate, Congress is at last poised to deliver this gift.

Gingrich makes it sound like Congress can play Santa Claus, pulling a big, shiny windfall out of his sack.  Of course, like all subsidies, this one would be a gift to some people at the expense of others.  That is, it would reduce the premiums of those genetically predisposed to certain diseases by increasing premiums for those without such genetic markers. 

And what types of genetic discrimination would Gingrich like to prohibit?  Just DNA testing?  What about the genetic information adduced by questions like, “Does your family have a history of cancer?” The broader the definition of prohibited genetic information, the more we will drive good risks out of the health insurance market.

Are there no big-government politicians brave enough to propose explicit — rather than hidden — health care subsidies?

The Nation’s Worst-Managed Transit Agency

For years, Washington, D.C. has been considered by many students of government to have the nation’s worst city government. Similarly, the Washington area transit system, Metro, is in contention as the nation’s worst-managed transit agency.

The Metro Rail system was built with federal dollars, with the understanding that local governments would pay for its operation. But no one was prepared to pay for rail reconstruction, which is needed every 30 years or so and which costs a substantial fraction of the original construction cost. Now, some of the system is approaching 30 years of age and is breaking down with increasing frequency.

But Washington’s Metro is not the nation’s worst-managed transit agency — not by a long shot. That dishonor goes to San Jose’s Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA).

VTA persuaded local taxpayers to raise sales taxes to construct billions of dollars worth of rail transit lines. But it failed to budget enough money to operate those lines. Even as it opened new light-rail lines in the early 2000s, VTA was forced to severely cut bus and rail service on its existing lines. The result was a 34 percent decline in transit riders.

A few weeks ago, a consultant hired by VTA released an audit blaming the system’s board of directors for its failures. “The Board has approved capital projects that were political solutions to address the needs of certain local neighborhoods at the expense of regional congestion management,” states the audit. “As a result, VTA has built transportation systems that have low ridership and are also expensive to operate and maintain.”

After the audit was published, VTA’s chief financial officer resigned. Unfortunately, none of the board members followed. Instead, they hired a temporary chief financial officer for the munificent sum of $13,600 per week for 39 weeks. That’s a total of $530,400 and more than three times the weekly pay of the previous CFO.

It gets weirder: The new CFO has no history in the transit industry. Instead, he is a former mining company executive who oversaw a shell game of companies taking over other companies. “He has a lot of experience with projects and a lot of our money is tied up in projects,” says VTA’s general manager. There are so many similarities between digging gold and sapphire mines and building transit lines — like none.

One wonders what the new CFO might do. Merge VTA with Washington Metro? Bull the stock with rumors of an untapped source of transit riders? Corner the market in light rail?

Meanwhile, everyone is trying to ignore the gorilla in the corner, which is that VTA’s board wants to spend $4.7 billion to connect the San Francisco BART system to San Jose. The agency only has enough money to build to the edge of San Jose, but even if it had all the money for construction, its general manager admits “we clearly do not have the money to operate the system.” Nevertheless, the board recently voted to spend $185 million — more than half of VTA’s annual operating budget — on preliminary engineering.

Meanwhile, VTA is still short on operating funds, so it is contemplating “eliminating or consolidating” service on more than a quarter of its remaining bus lines.

Almost every Bay Area transit group opposes the BART line. But the audit (which itself cost $500,000 — I would have done it for $5,000) barely mentions the BART line, and the Silicon Valley Leadership Group (formerly the Silicon Valley Manufacturers Group) strongly supports it.

Last June, San Jose voters angrily rejected VTA’s request for a further sales tax increase to build the BART line. VTA’s board members are hoping they can convince taxpayers that they are fiscally responsible enough to deserve a tax increase anyway. But spending $530,400 for less than one year’s work by a temporary CFO hardly seems conducive to gaining the taxpayers’ trust.

Fun with Copyright

A Southern California law firm … claimed that Noland’s on the Wharf [in Santa Cruz] was violating a trademark by printing the words “Surf City USA” on a $17 T-shirt. The rights to that combination of words belong to the Huntington Beach Conference & Visitors Bureau, the letter said…. Huntington Beach, with its warm weather, sandy beaches and steady waves, has long argued that the Surf City title is its exclusive property, granted to it by the 1963 Jan & Dean song hit “Surf City.”

Jan and Dean may have been surfer royalty, but who knew they had the power to grant patents and monopolies? You never know what you’ll learn in the Wall Street Journal.

Topics:

The Josh Bell Busking Backstory

If you’re not aware of the fascinating experiment conducted in January and published this week by the Washington Post, this story (and especially the videos) are really worth a look and a listen.

To convert this general-interest item into something relevant for this blog, I give you the backstory. From WaPo’s online chat with the author:

I set up an interview with Jack Requa, who was at the time Metro’s acting director. Requa listened to the proposal, agreed it was an appealing use of public space for a potentially revealing urban behavioral experiment, and that it would be a nice thing to do for the citizenry of Washington. Then he said:

“I don’t think we can do it, because it violates our rules.”

I said: “I know. That’s why we’re coming to you. We’d like you to loosen the rules, just this once, for 45 minutes, for a worthwhile reason.”

Requa said: “Well, also, it might look as though we are giving preference to one news organization over all others.”

I said: “Uh, well, The Washington Post would have no objection if you made the same concession to any other news organization that happens to be proposing placing a world-class violinist in one of your stations as a sociological experiment!”

Requa said he would investigate the possibilities. A day later he called to report it was looking problematic, and urged The Post to pursue other possibilities. But he said he wanted to discuss it with his security personnel. Days passed.

Finally, a verdict: No. The regulations were complicated, Requa said, but under one interpretation, busking in the Metro was not only against the rules but against the law, and he did not feel jurisdictionally empowered to authorize a breach of law. If Bell performed, Requa said, he would be arrested. Metro would do nothing to stop it.

Total time elapsed to get a “no” answer: Eight days, four hours.

Things were looking bad. Time was running out. I started traveling the Metro and getting off at every downtown stop, seeking adjoining indoor areas. Eventually, I hit L’Enfant Plaza, which was ideal. The indoor arcade was at the very top of the Metro escalator, and had three exit doors: Two to the outside, and one to a retail mall operated not by government, but by a private management firm called The JBG Companies. JBG managed the arcade area, too.

I laid out the proposal to Amanda B. Kearney, JBG’s senior property manager.

“Sure,” she said.

“No one can know anything about this in advance,” I cautioned. “No one other than you. A single breach in security and the whole experiment is compromised. “

Amanda said: “I won’t even tell my husband.”

Total elapsed time to get a “yes” answer: Six seconds.