Expatriate Owl

A politically-incorrect perspective that does not necessarily tow the party line, on various matters including but not limited to taxation, academia, government and religion.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Earth Hour on My Own Time

It is now Earth Hour 2009, and we have just turned on the lights in our house. Most of the lights in our house HAVE, in fact, been shut off for the past 25 hours on account of our religious Sabbath. No dishwashers have been running, nor the washing machine nor the dryer. But with the conclusion of Shabbat, I recited Havdalah and we are now back to the regular days of the week. I have just turned on several lights in the house, and have switched on my computer, and am now composing this posting.

Understand that I was environmentally concerned long before many of the environitwits who are now pushing Earth Hour. Our family was one of the first to get on with the recycling of paper, glass and metal (and indeed, long before the familiar curbside recycling, my grandfather was a scrap metal dealer, that class of people who were the original metal recyclers).

I was composting the vegetable wastes from my kitchen long before many of the environitwits were even born. Where I live, there is an ordinance that prohibits the storage of waste on one's property. A number of years ago, one of my neighbors, Frau Himmler, reported me for having the compost pile, and I received a citation under that code provision (I don't know what she was complaining about; every year she has her landscapers literally spread bovine feces all over her lawn). I moved the compost pile to another corner of my yard and haven't heard anything further.

And, significantly, our household electricity usage is below the neighborhood average.

But amongst the environitwits who are aboard the Earth Hour bandwagon are some hard core enviroterrorists.

A few queries regarding the EarthHourlings:

* How much energy was expended in publicizing and promoting Earth Hour? How many of them jetted around the nation or the world in the promotional activity?

* How many of them recycle their cans, bottles and papers?

* How many of them require supercool air conditioning in the summer?

* In short, how many of them who are talking the talk are walking the walk?

Yes, we do need to cut down our national energy usage. But having someone who has no idea of my household energy needs dictate to me what I must do with my household energy usage is a far, far scarier notion than dependency on foreign energy resources. Because ours is not a welfare recipient household, the family budget seems to be the best determinant of our energy usage.

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Friday, March 27, 2009

An ATM for the ATMs

One principle for which I developed great appreciation when I was with the Internal Revenue Service is the notion that any time money changes hands, information also is transferred. The information might be something as simple as the date and time on the receipt from the cash register, or it could be a whole series of legal documents, or anything in between the two extremes. Without going into the nitty gritty details at this time, suffice it to say that during my stint with the IRS, many a seemingly mundane document or scrap of paper or account entry led me to a past money transfer of more significant proportions. In fact, even after I handed back my badge and went into private practice, those skills I learned from my IRS days served me well, and continue to do so.

Just as information can lead one to money, so, too, can money be part of the trail to information. More to the point, money itself can constitute information, and therefore, evidence. In a city the size of New York, then, it is natural and logical that the police will have frequent occasion to take cash and currency as evidence of a crime. Thus, there are a number of rubberstamps which imprint legends such as "NYPD Evidence" and the like.

As the law enforcement people can surely confirm, police departments and prosecutors take great pains to document the chain of custody for their evidence, and to impose security measures to ensure that the evidence presented at trial is the same, untampered evidence that was found during the investigation. Even the IRS people do likewise; one rule was that we would never remove a staple from a tax return document without documenting when, how and why we did it -- so that there would be no issue over whether the tax return document presented by the IRS as evidence was the same tax return filed by the taxpayer.

So what does the NYPD do with its money evidence when the evidence is no longer needed? It had been exchanging it for regular cash with Chase Bank, with the understanding that Chase would, through the appropriate Federal Reserve channels, have the "NYPD Evidence" cash destroyed, along with other retired currency.

Well, it turns out that within about a month's time, two Chase ATMs, each in a geographically distant (by NYC Metropolitan Area standards) neighborhood, were reported to have dispensed some of that NYPD Evidence cash to ATM customers. The two ATM customers were quite credible: A retired FDNY dispatcher and a retired NYPD cop.

Seems that Chase, in addition to its Federal bailout, has now found another source of funding.

Chase spokespeople say that Chase is investigating. I say that the IRS should also be investigating! Someone ought to be chasing Chase!

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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Andy Cuomo's Little List

I have never particularly been gung-ho for ex-New York Governor Mario Cuomo, nor for his son, ex-Kennedy in-law and now New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo. Having said this, it now must be acknowledged that Andy Cuomo is the public official who, perhaps, is coming through this AIG executive bonus brouhaha looking the best, and on that particular score, he has my full applause and admiration.

His 17 March 2009 letter to Congressman Barney Frank, excepts of which have been quoted in the media, is very telling, and is available at Andy's own official website here.

There is little I can say that has not already been stated by Andy Cuomo. I will observe, however, the following:

A. As this post is being written, Edward Liddy, AIG's Chair & CEO who was installed in his position by the US Government, is now being grilled by the House Financial Services subcommittee.

B. Everyone who is anyone in Washington is now expressing outrage, shock and revulsion at the bonuses. This, of course, is in response to the popular sentiment; many of them were the very ones who set up the current AIG bailout scenario in the first place.

C. Operationally speaking, the simplest resolution to this political problem would be for all of the recipients of the AIG bonus bonanza to simply return their bonuses (or, as a face-saving ploy, be allowed to retain, say, $100,000).

D. Recall that during the recent move to fill Hillary Rodham Clinton's seat in the Senate, Andy Cuomo effectively stepped aside so as to avoid a mudslinging contest with his ex-cousin-by-marriage Caroline Kennedy. There is little doubt that Andy has higher political ambitions, but he wisely recognized that a better opportunity is likely to present itself in the future, and that he can build upon his public good will by kicking butt in his current position as NY AG.

One thing Andy can do in order to motivate the AIG bonus boys to return their remuneration is to announce that he is furnishing the list of them to the Internal Revenue Service and to the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance, for whatever actions the respective taxation authorities deem appropriate.

Unlike Treasury Secretary Tim "Tax Cheat" Geithner, Andrew Cuomo still has the moral authority (or at least the appearance thereof) to play that card.

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Sunday, March 08, 2009

Don't be Ecstatic!

The posting of 30 April 2008 highlighted the propensity of many residents of the more insular religious Jewish communities to trust those who dress like themselves. This phenomenon is, of course, hardly unique to the religious Jewish community; other close-knit ethnic communities have been stung by swindles by those ostensibly of their own kind.

Such also seems to have been the dynamics of the case involving the three yeshiva boys from Bnei Brak who were arrested when they entered Japan with lots and lots Ecstacy pills in their baggage. They claimed that they didn't know that the antiques they had been asked to deliver were in fact receptacles for the contraband.

I do not know the three young men, and therefore, don't really know how to call that one. It is, however, entirely possible that they were in fact duped by someone whom they blindly trusted. Indeed, recent arrests by the Israeli police of two alleged accomplices tends to corroborate the young mens' story.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Shafran, who recently testified as a character witness on behalf of the young men, is now appealing for financial aid for their criminal defense. His appeal is being carried out through an organization called American Friends of Kupat Ha'Ir, in insert fliers in various Jewish newspapers. AFKH (and indeed, Kupat Ha'Ir itself in Israel) is in the more insular corner of the religious Jewish community; they do not seem to have an Internet presence, and many of the rabbis behind it have been known to take very insular stances on various issues. I myself am somewhat skeptical of AFKH, but this is a function of my general skepticism towards anything and everything; if truth be told, I do occasionally contribute money to AFKH (and, when in Israel, to KH itself). But I do respect Rabbi Shafran, and give much credence to his report of the situation for the young men in Japan.

When I walked the streets of Bnei Brak, as I have done on more than a few occasions, I was given "that look" because I wear a leather kippah and not the black fedora hat or fur shtreimel which is de rigueur for men of the insular religious Jewish groups. When I walked unaccompanied by my wife's uncle or cousins, who do wear the black fedoras, the suspecting stares were all the more frequent and intense. Many in Bnei Brak do not have computers in their homes (and few have t-e-l-e-v-i-s-i-o-n-s). Having seen Bnei Brak with my own two eyes, I can be persuaded to believe that the young men were in fact clueless and naive enough to trust the guy with the black hat, and thus go on their ill-fated trip to Japan.

[Please do not get me wrong. I have enjoyed my visits to my wife's relatives in Bnei Brak, and did in fact meet a fair number of friendly people on its streets. I fully expect to revisit the city at such time as I return to Israel.].

My analysis of the situation in Japan: On one hand, individual rights do not play the overarching role in Japanese culture as they do in the American legal system. On the other hand, the Japanese are bigger on deterrence than we in America are (and the low crime rate in Japan is one result of this). Even if the young yeshiva men are in fact innocent, the Japanese legal system is more prone to view them as exemplars for a lesson in deterrence than to be in any hurry to set them free. And Japanese prisons are not summer vacation resorts as the prisons of America are.

Accordingly, these young men are likely to be sitting in prison in Japan for a while. Their best hope will include a good dose of quiet diplomacy from Israel. This has a number of complications. For one thing, many (read "all") of the insular Jewish social groups are at odds with the secular aspects of the Israeli government. As an example, my wife's relatives will not refer to the big international airport in Lod as "Ben Gurion Airport" because they do not wish to glorify the late Prime Minister David Ben Gurion, an ardent secularist. So now, the rabbinical leaders are now in a position of having to appeal to the same governmental offices which receive large dollops of opprobrium from the ranks of the rabbis' followers (if not the rabbis themselves on occasion). This means that the three yeshiva boys may be a bargaining chip (though likely a very small one) in the current political negotiations to form a government in Israel.

The troublesome bargaining chips, however, are the aforementioned two older guys who were arrested as suspected accomplices of the three. Jewish law and tradition has some very, very strong taboos about turning in a Jew to the non-Jewish authorities. But many respected rabbis have approved of the punishment by secular authorities of Jews who are in fact guilty of serious crimes, especially where innocent Jews have been their victims. The well respected Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetzky reportedly green-lighted some Jewish U.S. customs agents who asked about the propriety of hunting down a ring of Jewish smugglers, for example.

The prospect of trading three small and possibly innocent fishes for two bigger fishes (Suspect Bentzion Miller does, after all, resemble a whale) might play well to the appropriate crowd in Tokyo. If indeed there is ironclad evidence to link the two to a smuggling ring, then Japan gets to avoid world criticism over the conditions to which it is now subjecting its three current defendants, they get to punish a wrongdoer, and they would still be able to send out a stern cautionary message of deterrence to the world.

The way I'm calling it, the great rabbinical authorities in Israel and elsewhere are now occupied with the pros and cons of whether Bentzion Miller and/or Yisroel Eisenbach ought be traded for the three guys in Japan.

As for me, I have already placed in the envelope a modest remittance to "Kupat Ha'Ir - Pidyon Shevuyim" and addressed it to 4415 14th Ave., Brooklyn, NY 11219.
If these three young men are in fact innocent and were in fact unaware of the nefarious motives their dispatchers, then I wish to see them released soon. And if, in fact, the two others arrested in Israel did send unsuspecting and innocent boys as mules to Japan, then they ought not be walking free.

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