Archive for December 31st, 2010

Breaking New Ground

When Kenneth Feinberg was appointed to politicize oversee the BP restitution process, many of us were worried that even under the best of circumstances, the government was forfeiting confidence in the process to gain some expediency.  Now, it turns out that Feinberg was worried, too:

BP money is being used to pay $950 an hour to a law professor who has declared the administrator of the $20 billion claims fund for Gulf oil spill victims independent of the oil giant.Fund czar Ken Feinberg said Thursday he has agreed to pay New York University professor Stephen Gillers for his advice. Since being hired, Gillers has written a letter stating that Feinberg is neutral and not subject to BP’s direction or control.

“Is he being paid by BP money? Yes,” Feinberg said. “Who else is going to pay for the entire cost of this program? You can’t ask claimants to pay, you can’t ask states and federal governments to pay. The buck stops with BP and BP has agreed to pay the entire cost of the infrastructure of this program.”

Actually, Mr. Feinberg, the buck doesn’t stop with BP.  It stops with you, and it started stopping with you the moment you took on the role of sole arbiter of these claims.

BP is one of the parties to the arbitration and has no business paying an extortionist ethicist to determine the ethical behavior of the arbitrator.  Histrionics and legal theatrics aside, why on earth should the people putting in claims have any faith in the results of his “analysis?”  Which means that the government hasn’t even gotten Feinberg the appearance of ethics.

Of course, courts are considered honest brokers, with appropriate levels of review, without having to pay extortionist rates to college professors to tell them how to behave.

All of this could have been avoided if the administration had played against type and decided to follow existing law, rather than making it up as it goes along.

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Remind Me Again, Who Paid For This House?

The Denver Post reported earlier this week that someone who bought a house – and the land it sits on – managed to retain the right to demolish it and build a new house.  Gary Yourtz bought a nice, mid-century modern house at 825 S. Adams St. for $1.1 million, planning to raze the place and build a house he wanted to live in.  Using a law designed for historic preservation, neighbors filed an application for landmark designation on his home 15 minutes before the deadline.  Now, Yourtz’s lawyers are $18,000 richer, but he has the right to do what he wants with his property.

Of the two complainants, one, Susan Livingston, lives in Belcaro, the neighborhood where the house is.  The other, Mitch Cowley, doesn’t even live in Denver County, yet asserts a property right over a house he likes to look at.  By his logic, I have at least some right to go around dynamiting the vast majority of Denver’s public “art.”  (Actually, come to think of it, some sort of citizen petition process on these eyesores wouldn’t be a bad idea.)  Denver has hundreds, perhaps thousands of these houses, and I’m sure if Mr. Cowley is driving miles and miles out of his way to see this one, there are others he can learn to love.

I say this as someone who believes in historic preservation, loves the look of mid-Century architecture, and thinks that having the designation makes sense.  But this fellow paid for his house, neither of the complainants did.  To sandbag a guy after he’s bought a house and tell him he has to live in it as is or re-sell it is absurd.  Property is more than the dollar value assigned to it.  It’s the right (externalities aside) to use it as one wishes, to not use it at all, and to prevent or permit others to use it as one wishes.  It is also – painful though this may be – the right to destroy it and replace it with something better.

There’s a principle in historical research that thing used are not preserved, while those preserved are not used.  There’s no reason to believe that what holds for households shouldn’t also hold for houses.  Eventually, these preserved buildings will appeal to a narrower and narrower slice of owner, until they turn into museums.  Again, I have no problem with preserving some of these buildings.  I’m not a big fan of HOAs, but if Belcaro homeowners want to get together and sign off on never changing their homes, they can do so.  It’s their own rights they’re signing away, and anyone buying the house can do so knowing the rules.

According to Assistant City Attorney Kerry Buckey, “Some of these structures, in a way, are owned by the whole city.”
Ah, no.  No, they’re not.

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