Monday, July 23, 2012

Catch-29 Million

Post Stockton, post Solyndra, post GM, you'd think we had pretty much plumbed the depths of rapacious government.

Sorry, but no. From today's International Herald Tribune:
What is the fair market value of an object that cannot be sold?

The question may sound like a Zen koan, but it is one that lawyers for the heirs of the New York art dealer Ileana Sonnabend and the Internal Revenue Service are set to debate when they meet in Washington next month.

The object under discussion is “Canyon,” a masterwork of 20th-century art created by Robert Rauschenberg that Mrs. Sonnabend’s children inherited when she died in 2007.

Because the work, a sculptural combine, includes a stuffed bald eagle, a bird under federal protection, the heirs would be committing a felony if they ever tried to sell it. So their appraisers have valued the work at zero.

But the Internal Revenue Service takes a different view. It has appraised “Canyon” at $65 million and is demanding that the owners pay $29.2 million in taxes.

Lemme see if I have this right. Its purported value is $65M, but it is worthless, so cough up $29M. Which, presuming my précis is correct, makes me feel somewhat delusional, despite being completely sober and compos mentis.

But wait, there's more. This, err, valuation comes despite "IRS guidelines [saying] that in figuring an item's fair market value, taxpayers should 'include any restrictions, understandings, or covenants limiting the use or disposition of the property.'"

In this instance, the 1940 Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act make it a crime to possess, sell, purchase, barter, transport, import or export any bald eagle — alive or dead. Indeed, the only reason Mrs. Sonnabend was able to hold onto “Canyon,” Mr. Lerner said, was due to an informal nod from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service in 1981.

Now, as it happens, the heirs probably fuel their hot-tub with mounds of crispy Benjamins whilst pondering how best to grind the lower orders under the diamond studded soles of their Maniks.

But let's change the facts a little. Let's say I did something particularly noteworthy for Mrs. Sonnabend -- whatever that might be I'll leave to the reader as an exercise -- and I inherited this thing.

I couldn't sell it, and I couldn't afford to keep it.

Framed in this way, the solution practically hurls itself onto the page. Perhaps my artistic values are somehow wanting, or the picture doesn't do the work justice, but if that thing showed up on my yard, I'd burn it.

That would be a win-win. First, it would provide the perfect opportunity to very publicly present the single-digit salute to the IRS. But wait, there's more. By getting away with not paying my taxes, I could for once, and that's about the limit for a lifetime, prove AOG wrong.

Excuses, Excuses

Even beyond my perplexing and exasperating writer’s block, this summer has been particularly antagonistic to the annals of the not so Daily Duck.

Just to be clear, I am in no way claiming the kind of busy that afflicts AOG. Quite the opposite, actually. So while it is true that I have been flying more than usual, I have developed quite the talent for relentlessly wasting entire days in hotel rooms. (Example: reading the comments thread attached to an NYT article about the Boy Scouts reaffirming their ban on openly gay scouts. Even my dog, more anon, wouldn’t require that much time to conclude that the paper had completely, and their readers nearly universally, had managed to completely miss the point at hand.)

But stuff beyond that kind of heroic dithering has been actually been going on. Following are the highlights, aided by visual aids to help hide unhappy lapses in content, organization, and writing skill.

We Build a Fence

I grew up in Southern California, where everyone’s back yard is fenced in. The other SWIPIAW grew up in the northeast, where yards are never fenced. I have no idea why this is.

When we moved to our current neck of the woods, hardly a yard was fenced. Now most are, and TOSWIPIAW decided that we would join that trend. Not that there is anything particularly, or even slightly, earth shaking about a fence. But we (I) decided to build the thing, rather than write a check to someone else.

I think this runs afoul of Bret’s observation that by doing so, I am trespassing upon specialization. (We did pay to have the posts put in: the boulder laced glacial till upon which we sit is absolutely antagonistic to any digging means I would even be remotely qualified to employ.) Perhaps this is so, but after it was all said and done, we saved $1200 after material costs, which worked out to about $20 per family person hour. The man-child, who was quite taken by his high school Econ class, asserted that our DIY approach, we were hurting the economy. To which I replied “Son, there are two women in this family. That money is already spent.” After a gratifyingly brief moment, I could see the light come on. “Oh, I get it. No GDPs were harmed in the making of this fence.”

TOSWIPIAW Getting Started

Worker and credible supervisor

There is some backstory. Rusty the Alaskan Wilderness Adventure Dog (RAWAD) thinks he is supervising; in that role, he was as good as most. However, RAWAD is the genesis of our enclosure. He is a doggy role model: doesn’t bark, dig, chew, jump on people or the furniture. Unfortunately, he is not quite at the apex of houndom. The AKC papers say he is a Golden Retriever. I really must get around to correcting them on this point, as in practice he is a resolute Won’t Retriever. Also, he very occasionally goes walkabout, nearly always when I’m gone. This is a problem in the winter, because between snow and darkness, he is impossible to see when out doing his constitutionals.

This came to a head last Christmas eve. He went out, but didn’t return. A half hour later, we got a phone call from a house a street over and down. They had very kindly collared him for us. When the man-child went over to get him, he learned that RAWAD had scarfed a half dozen créme brulees cooling on their back deck.

Which I learned about the next day, in great detail, and with some vehemence.

Unfortunately, there is no way to really recover from this sort of thing, but I cherish the hope that by personally delivering a couple of $40 bottles of wine I at least successfully acknowledged the depth of our shame.

You would think that something as mundane tossing up a fence so simple as to be within easy reach of any but the most mentally idle. Okay, granted, it isn’t rocket building. Yet to avoid attaching the terms “ramshackle” and “temporary” to its every mention, there are a surprising number of things for a fence neophyte to ponder: accounting for slope; how the various elements align and attach; keeping the gap between boards and the positioning of screws (necessary, without a nail gun) uniform.

I could go on, but not usefully. And this is where Bret would step in with the specialization toldjyaso. Okay, point taken. But half the fun of this sort of thing is the head scratching that goes into it. On second thought, that must be all the fun because, as I explained to my son above, I didn’t save a penny doing it myself.

I could go on, but not usefully. And this is where Bret would step in with the specialization toldjyaso. Okay, point taken. But half the fun of this sort of thing is the head scratching that goes into it. On second thought, that must be all the fun because, as I explained to my son above, I didn’t save a penny doing it myself.

I have OCD issues that, like the hair on my ears, are getting worse with time. This fence needed a gate that, at 6’ wide, isn’t small. Gates sag. A sagging gate is not a straight gate. I hate sagging gates. I have never built a gate. I would hate myself if my gate sagged. Must not build saggy gate.

You can see how this will fill an entire day with an hour-long task. Obviously, it needs a diagonal brace. Lap joints would make it stronger. And screws. And glue. So would a diagonal guy wire. And 3/4” ply gussets at each corner with their own lap joints and screws and glue. And measuring the thing to a fare thee well, so even if it preferred sagging, it couldn’t, because when closed it would rest against the house.

Some people are belt and suspenders types. According to SWIPIAW I raise that to at least the third power.

Man-child, RAWAD, and so far not sagging gate

In the Conch Republic with a Retrograde Pack of Bigots

Well, according to the NYT, anyway.

Eight Scouts, one being the man-child, and four dads, one being your humble and obedient servant, went down to the Florida Keys to get open water SCUBA certifications, then spend a week doing a live aboard dive trip.

Our certification dives happened as TS Debby was passing by roughly a 150 miles to the west. The conditions weren’t exactly Victory at Sea, but no one was about to confuse them with a mill pond. At the end of our first day's dive, we surfaced in the midst of a violent thunderstorm and six foot waves. Getting back aboard was quite the adventure.

The next day didn’t threaten rain, but by then there was a cross sea running that provoked a pitching cork-screw motion that had more than half the divers (of which our contingent was only a part), including YHAOS, in prolonged conversations with Davy Jones. Some conversations were sufficiently voluminous to keep their conversants, not including YHAOS, completely out of the water. On this dive, there was a fish-feeding, which must be quite famous in that district. It is interesting enough to be mobbed by sea kittens, but the boys were particularly thrilled with petting sharks.

The Man Child

We slept under the stars

Between the visuals and a cup of coffee, not a bad way to wake up.

Between dives

During our live aboard portion of the trip, we did 15 dives, one at night, all of which introduced the scouts to a world completely alien to their own. They learned to function as part of a crew on the sea, and to watch out for each other under it.

I’m not sure what any of that has to do with sex of any kind, but the NYT editorial board assures me it does, so it must.

It has been a heck of a ride

I got back from Florida just in time to go back to work, and got back from work just in time to go on a trip, this time to celebrate twenty immeasurably lucky years of being married to the other SWIPIAW. As it happens, she likes to travel, and is not particularly conventional in her choice of destinations.

So within an hour after walking in from a red eye, we were on our way to Kennecott, Alaska. As vacation destinations go, it is more than average remote. You can drive there, but the last 60 miles are on a dirt road.

WiFi Hotspotless

Not much changed since 1911. The building, that is.

Re-kindling our love affair and our appreciation of asphalt.

Flightseeing. Glaciers make a hash of scale, but the smallest chunk of ice is about the size of a car.

More flightseeing

Abandoned mine works

We spent one day with a guide on the Root Glacier:

Spot the tourists

The view from inside

Just a few words about glaciers. They are fascinating and beautiful. Also virtually devoid of life; even bacteria largely shun the things. They are mercilessly destructive, reducing mountains to rubble fields that nature requires centuries to remediate. Thanks to global warming, they have been receding for the last forty years. Just as they had done for at least the preceding couple hundred years, thanks to some other thing entirely.

Okay, the whinging is over.

Now maybe I can spend burn less time reading NYT (and Volokh, Lileks, etc) comment threads and get back to more regularly scheduled programming.