Sunday, August 31, 2008

Sunday Reading

Where’s the Dough? A lot of Florida homeowners are wondering why their property taxes haven’t gone down.

Gov. Charlie Crist promised Floridians that their tax bills would ”drop like a rock” if they voted for property-tax reform in January.

Now, with prospective tax bills in hand, disillusioned South Florida homeowners and investors say the decrease is more like a soggy bag of Styrofoam packing peanuts.

”I was expecting a lot more than this,” said retired shipping manager Alfonso Llanes of Palmetto Bay.

Llanes is one of more than 400,000 South Florida homeowners who are discovering that taxes are going down — but not by much, and not nearly as much as the dramatic dives in real market values over the past two years.

That’s because the assessed value of their primary residences — the amount that counts for tax purposes — still rose this year. It’s one of the key consequences of a property-tax system that rewards longtime homeowners while penalizing those who bought when real-estate prices soared, as they did a few years ago. That law, called Save Our Homes, prevented taxes from skyrocketing in lock step with market values, but now that home prices are falling, it is undermining efforts to ease the tax burden.

Even the reform plan’s staunchest supporters admitted at the time that it wouldn’t solve the property-tax crisis. Some relief, they argued, was better than none.

New rules doubled the exemption on most homesteaded properties to $50,000 and created a way for some homeowners to transfer up to $500,000 in tax-shielded value to a new one.

While property owners like Llanes expected more tax relief than they are likely to get, it’s a start, said Crist spokesman Sterling Ivey.

”We’re seeing some reductions across the state,” Ivey said. ”Just because your [tax] notices aren’t going down, we believe that they are going down across the state.”

Voters, Ivey noted, may have the opportunity to reduce their tax bite further if a proposal to replace property taxes to fund schools with a sales-tax hike gets a green light from the state Supreme Court.

Llanes, the retiree from Palmetto Bay, is facing a scenario that will be quite common across Florida during this fall’s budget season.

The market value of the 2,800-square-foot home that Llanes acquired when his wife died four years ago plummeted by $157,000 between last year and this year. Yet, the taxable value increased by $15,000.

Llanes paid $9,464 in property taxes last year. Depending on a number of variables, he’s looking at a proposed tax bill ranging between $8,861 and $9,110 this year.

Meanwhile, the public schools are losing funding to the point that they are laying off more teachers and support staff. So much for “tax reform.”

How Things Have Changed: In some ways, the nomination of Sarah Palin marks progress for the GOP. The last time a woman was on the ticket, they called it an “affirmative action hire.”

In August 1984, an editorial in the National Review mocked Democrats for choosing Geraldine Ferraro to run with former Vice President Walter Mondale. “The Democrats will attempt to project the issue as ‘whether a woman can be Vice President,’ a point the Republicans can cheerfully concede, returning to the question of whether this woman in particular should be the Vice-President … Mrs. Ferraro is manifestly an affirmative-action nominee. She has been in the House only since 1979 and cannot be said, on the record, to be as qualified to be President, if necessary, as, say John Glenn, Fritz Hollings, Mo Udall, or — George Bush.”

Looking back on the Ferraro nomination, another well-known conservative wrote: “I believe that someday we are going to have a woman president, possibly during my life, and I’ve often thought the best way to pave the way for this was to first nominate and elect a woman as vice-president. But I think Mondale made a serious mistake when he picked Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate. In my view, he guessed wrong in deciding to take a congresswoman that almost nobody had ever heard of and try to put her in line for the presidency … I don’t know who among the Democrats might have been a better choice, but it was obvious Mondale picked Geraldine Ferraro simply because he believed there was a ‘gender gap’ where I was concerned and she was a woman.”

Those are the words of Ronald Reagan in his 1991 memoir, “An American Life,” pouring scorn on the nomination of a woman who had served six years in Congress working on foreign policy issues. In retrospect, he had a point. Only this Palin gambit could make the Ferraro mistake look responsible and wise.

It’s not really progress, though; it’s another case of IOKIYAR (It’s Okay If You’re A Republican).

Obama vs. the Bloviators: Frank Rich on The Speech and Sarah Palin.

STOP the presses! This election isn’t about the Clintons after all. It isn’t about the Acropolis columns erected at Invesco Field. It isn’t about who is Paris Hilton and who is Hanoi Hilton. (Though it may yet be about who is Sarah Palin.) After a weeklong orgy of inane manufactured melodrama labeled “convention coverage” on television, Barack Obama descended in classic deus ex machina fashion — yes, that’s Greek too — to set the record straight. America is in too much trouble, he said, to indulge in “a big election about small things.”

As has been universally noted, Obama did what he had to do in his acceptance speech. He scrapped the messianic “Change We Can Believe In” for the more concrete policy litany of “The Change We Need.” He bared his glinting Chicago pol’s teeth to John McCain. Obama’s still a skinny guy, but the gladiatorial arena and his eagerness to stand up to bullies (foreign and Republican) made him a plausible Denver Bronco. All week long a media chorus had fretted whether he could pull off a potentially vainglorious stunt before 80,000 screaming fans. Well, yes he can, and so he did.

But was this a surprise? Hardly. No major Obama speech — each breathlessly hyped in advance as do-or-die and as the “the most important of his career” — has been a disaster; most have been triples or home runs, if not grand slams. What is most surprising is how astonished the press still is at each Groundhog Day’s replay of the identical outcome. Indeed, the disconnect between the reality of this campaign and how it is perceived and presented by the mainstream media is now a major part of the year’s story. The press dysfunction is itself a window into the unstable dynamics of Election 2008.

At the Democratic convention, as during primary season, almost every oversold plotline was wrong. Those Hillary dead-enders — played on TV by a fringe posse of women roaming Denver in search of camera time — would re-enact Chicago 1968. With Hillary’s tacit approval, the roll call would devolve into a classic Democratic civil war. Sulky Bill would wreak havoc once center stage.

On TV, each of these hot-air balloons was inflated nonstop right up to the moment they were punctured by reality, at which point the assembled bloviators once more expressed shock, shock at the unexpected denouement. They hadn’t been so surprised since they discovered that Obama was not too black to get white votes, not too white to win black votes, and not too inexperienced to thwart the inevitable triumph of the incomparably well-organized and well-financed Clinton machine.

Meanwhile, the candidate known as “No Drama Obama” because of his personal cool was stealthily hatching a drama of his own. As the various commentators pronounced the convention flat last week — too few McCain attacks on opening night, too “minimalist” a Hillary endorsement on Tuesday, and so forth — Obama held his cards to his chest backstage and built slowly, step by step, to his Thursday night climax. The dramatic arc was as meticulously calibrated as every Obama political strategy.


The latest good luck for the Democrats is that the McCain campaign was just as bamboozled as the press by the false Hillary narrative. McCain was obviously itching to choose his pal Joe Lieberman as his running mate. A onetime Democrat who breaks with the G.O.P. by supporting abortion rights might have rebooted his lost maverick cred more forcefully than Palin, who is cracking this particular glass ceiling nearly a quarter-century after the Democrats got there first. Lieberman might have even been of some use in roiling the Obama-Hillary-Bill juggernaut that will now storm through South Florida.

The main reason McCain knuckled under to the religious right by picking Palin is that he actually believes there’s a large army of embittered Hillary loyalists who will vote for a hard-line conservative simply because she’s a woman. That’s what happens when you listen to the TV news echo chamber. Not only is the whole premise ludicrous, but it is every bit as sexist as the crude joke McCain notoriously told about Janet Reno, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton.


None of this, any more than the success of Obama’s acceptance speech, guarantees a Democratic victory. But what it does ensure is that all bets are off when it comes to predicting this race’s outcome. Despite our repeated attempts to see this election through the prism of those of recent and not-so-recent memory, it keeps defying the templates. Last week’s convention couldn’t be turned into a replay of the 1960s no matter how hard the press tried to sell the die-hard Hillary supporters as reincarnations of past rebel factions, from the Dixiecrats to the antiwar left. Far from being a descendant of 1968, the 2008 Democratic gathering was the first in memory that actually kept promptly to its schedule and avoided ludicrous P.C. pandering to every constituency.

Stratford Redux: It turns out that Charles Isherwood, the Times‘s theatre critic, and I were in Stratford, Ontario, at the same time this year and saw many of the same shows.

“My way hither was the way of destiny,” the man says, standing awestruck before the great stone paws of the Sphinx, the black silence of a great desert providing an appropriately cosmic backdrop. “For I am he of whose genius you are the symbol: part brute, part woman and part god — nothing of man in me at all.”

The high-flown oratory belongs to Bernard Shaw’s Julius Caesar, in a rare moment of rapture, and here it is delivered by a man possessing his own wondrous attributes, the great actor Christopher Plummer. Mr. Plummer, returning to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival for the first time in six years, plays the mythic conqueror stripped of his legendary dressing in Shaw’s “Caesar and Cleopatra,” the climactic event in the company’s impressive current season.

The Canadian-born Mr. Plummer has himself become a more or less historic figure at this renowned festival. His résumé here stretches back more than half a century, to the early years of the founding Tyrone Guthrie regime, when he made a seismic debut as Shakespeare’s Henry V in 1956. Mr. Plummer’s career at Stratford could be said to have reached a climax in 2002, when he played King Lear, a role he reprised in the same Jonathan Miller production on Broadway. His return this summer provides what one hopes will be the first of many codas to that classic performance, in Des McAnuff’s sumptuous staging of one of Shaw’s more rarely seen major plays.

For the occasion the company has spared no expense in splashy stagecraft. Mr. McAnuff, the Canadian-born director of Broadway’s “Jersey Boys” (and a planned “Guys and Dolls” revival) and now the festival’s artistic director, surrounds Mr. Plummer with enough kitschy ornament and hieroglyphically posing figures to supply a major mounting of “Aida.”

But the eye-popping scenery could be dusty old flats from a stock opera production. The memorable magic here is provided by Mr. Plummer, who embodies the role of Caesar with an ease that is surely deceptive. (Mr. Plummer is now 78, and the role is the dominant one in the play.) Shaw’s Caesar was consciously written as a rebuke to the glorifying impulse that often coated celebrated heroes in wax on the stage. His Caesar refuses to act in a manner befitting an august figure. Weary of the games of imperial politics, he relies instead on wit, a hard-won knowledge of human nature and simple common sense in trying to settle the fate of a mischievous queen (Nikki M. James, lovely and amusingly petulant but lacking sparkle), a country and a people with minimal loss of blood and self-respect.

An odd, complicated figure — rhapsodizing when we meet him, wisecracking a few minutes later — Caesar is made to seem a wholly natural man in Mr. Plummer’s richly layered performance. He presides over the squabbling Egyptian court and his bellicose allies like a suburban dad trying to keep the peace at a children’s birthday party. Caesar has seen through the false glory of his own achievement and has no more taste for violence or pomp or the animal satisfaction of vengeance.

Mr. Plummer movingly conveys Caesar’s heart-sore disgust at the story of his rival Ptolemy’s murder, and his summary speech denouncing the cycles of revenge — “And so, to the end of history, murder shall breed murder, always in the name of right and honor and peace, until the gods are tired of blood and create a race that can understand” — brings the play to a stirring climax. As always, one need look no further than current headlines to register the idea’s sorry, eternal truth.

Doonesbury: Your Lordship.

Opus: The circle of life.