The Kaibab Journal - Commentaries from northern Arizona

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Northern Arizona commentaries celebrating the concepts of free markets, limited government and individual liberty.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

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Today's Random Fragment

Best of Random Fragments:

A Cry for Help

A Weak Will

Where ya' from?

Cruz' Gambit

The Gutfeld Plan

Ballots & Bullets

Signs of the Times III

Snow(den) Job

Justice Roberts - Crazy Genius?

Monkey Wrench the IRS?

Survival Overload

Power Disconnect

Passing of a Giant

Begging, Inc. or LLC?

Ode to a Second Term

Nixon v. Reagan v. Romney

dem bones

Incentives matter ... even in badminton

Romney 335?

It's Retarded

Dubious 28th

O'Neill Spring

Maintaining Stupidity

Electoral Fools

History as a Consumption Good

The Ruins in Bright Angel Wash

Advice for Ron Paul

Why Do We Read?

On Storage

Post-Thanksgiving Workout

Random Fragments

Hiking the Gems in GC

The Civil War @ 150

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Commuter

Backcountry Plan 2¢

Wilderness Bull

Good Copter, Bad Copter

Atlas Annoyed

Woods at NAU

Banning Campfires

Random Fragments

TSA - The Stupid Agency

Biased "Inside NAU"

The LCD Bumper Sticker

Fire as Failure

Atonement and Fear

We Don't Need No Stinkin' Mules

Free (Market) Health Care

Ken Burns' Avatar

SCOTUS for Free Speech!

In Search of Dreamers

Hollow Avatar

The GC Permit Shuffle

Flagstaff Tea Party

Is It Health Insurance?

NAU Parking Newspeak

Of Mules and Men

Shamans' Gallery

Dismantling Our Heritage

Klaatu Goes PC

Snowmaking Immoral?

The Character of Flagstaff

Taxes and Morality

STS-124 Launch

Let the Mountain Line Die

Bravo for the Auto!

There They Go Again

Nobel Peace Politics Prize

When the Poor are Fat ...

The Unimportance of Education

Paycheck - Sci Fi Econ

Smug Localism

Plenty of April Fools at Grand Canyon Trust

In Markets I Trust

Hiking Grand Canyon - Trip Journals
Antarctica Trip Logs


Grand Canyon Parking Ideas
Grand Canyon Management Critique
Virtual Editorials - Flagstaff
Canyon Forest Village

What I'm reading:

 I have the real distinct memory that I saw the Russian film based on this book back in 1972.  I mostly remember being confused a lot, which is to be expected.  I just purchased the film on blu-ray and watching it hasn't struck any familiar chords.  Still, I wanted to read the source novel and came to find out that the original Polish wasn't translated into English until just a couple of years ago...
 read more

Archive - What I'm Reading

Sidebar Reading

~    Jeffrey Friedman's "Capitalism without Romance" is a bit uneven.  But, his synopsis of why we had the financial crisis (the first half of his essay) is right on target.

~    John Stossel is one of my favorites.  He has a great comment on "The Idiocy of Energy  Independence" at RealClearPolitics.

~    "Eat cows," writes Ben Shapiro, over at Town Hall, in his laugh out loud essay, "What I'm Doing To Stop Global Warming."

~    Want to put a lot of things into perspective?  Read Peter Huber's excellent essay titled, "Germs and the City," posted up over at Town Hall.  It is long, but you'll never worry about global warming again!

Sidebar archive

 

Blog Links:

   

Comments are welcome.

Send an e-mail to the address at the bottom of this page.

   

Other major topic areas:

Antarctica, Grand Canyon & Canyon Forest Village 

Recent & Best of Random Fragments:

Thursday, March 27, 2014

   A Cry for Help? -  Earlier this month the National Park Service released a "study" detailing the adverse economic impacts the government shutdown last October had on "gateway communities" near federal parklands.  Really?  Thank goodness they were able to go back to work and expend time, energy, effort and money on this project.  The "study" was widely circulated and picked up all across the country showing these effects in Utah, Maine, Colorado, Montana, and in the areas around Yellowstone and the Great Smokies.  Of course, the Grand Canyon figured prominently in this issue and the local paper ran a story put out by the AP.  [I haven't seen it posted on the Daily Sun web site, but here is essentially the same story from the AZ Republic.]  So, I penned a letter to the editor, and they ran it on March 19:

   The government’s closure of the Grand Canyon this past October was costly?  Didn’t we already know that?  Of course the need to “close” public lands was nonsensical and I think most of us realized that at the time.  So I was puzzled about why the Park Service would take the time to calculate the actual dollar value of the harm they caused and issue a report.

   But, now I get it.  This report is really a desperate cry for help.  Officials at the Park Service must feel tormented by the pain and suffering they have caused.  In their typically awkward way, they are asking for our forgiveness.  Upon reading this report I think any reasonable person would come away recognizing that the NPS is also asking us to find ways to insure that visitor services are beyond the reach of park officials so that we can avoid this problem in the future.  Indeed, this report reads like a subtle request for the crafting of a new compact between the NPS and the public.  I think we can all agree that the park service’s mission begins below the rim.  I think that the NPS might even embrace a proposal to restore all the land on the rim to state control.  Or, dare we dream, even to private control.  That would be the truly sustainable option.

     As it happened, I was on the North Rim at the time the park was shut down.  The morning of the 1st (of October) I sat on the balcony of the Grand Canyon Lodge and watched the sunrise, along with a few other visitors.  We pondered what it really meant to "close" the park.  After all, the park isn't going anywhere.  The views are still here, and that's what most people come for.  Additionally, the services are mostly provided by private companies (lodging, meals, grocery, gas, showers), and they were unaffected by government budget problems.  Someone did post a sign in the window of the Visitor's Center announcing that it was closed (see photo above).  That makes sense - close the government offices, but why would you close the park?

     Well, we all know why.  It was to make a political point.  The GOP took a hit in this, but the blame lies squarely on the President and the Secretary of the Interior.  They didn't need to literally close access to the park.  Indeed, the NPS let lodge guests stay for many more days, and they didn't pull hikers out of the canyon, nor rafters off the river.  But, they wouldn't let anyone else start those activities.  [Including me, as I had a hiking permit for the first week in October that got scrubbed.]  When I left the park at about noon it was eerie to see the increasingly empty facilities.

     And, so, we have this report from the park service showing how much damage closing the parks did to the local economy.  That wasn't news.  And, the point of the report seems to be to further a partisan agenda against the GOP.  Sadly, nobody is holding the NPS to blame for this.  So, as I ask in the letter, why not just pull these places out of the park?  Make the South Rim Village, Desert View and the North Rim lodge areas subject to state/county jurisdiction.  Then, when the feds squabble, any shutdown wouldn't affect them - visitors could still come and see the Grand Canyon.  My letter got a number of comments on-line and I wrote replies that may help keep this issue alive.  [Or, not!]

Monday, March 3, 2014

   A Weak Will -  The big hullaballoo recently was Arizona’s SB 1062, passed by the state legislature, that affirmed a business owner’s right to refuse anyone service based on their “sincerely held” religious belief.  The issue is yet another example of our inability to see first principles and our willingness to live with contradictory beliefs.  Of course, anyone should be able to decide with whom and how to associate.  We do this all the time with regard to our friends and lovers.  Yet, there is this view that somehow that doesn't apply to business owners, and it just doesn't make any sense.

     Presumably we have private property rights.  If I don't want to work for you, I don't have to.  If I don't want to let you into my house, I don't have to.  If I don't want to stand beside you in line at the McDonald's, then I don't have to.  But, when it comes to business, the state compels me to serve you.  Is there any greater example today of how tenuous our property rights are?

     Now, that's not to say that smart business owners do discriminate, nor that they would in the absence of the law.  It's just bad business to turn away any potential customers, and it seems to me that most business - large and small - can ill afford to do this.  Indeed, when people jump up and down and claim that SB 1062 harkens back to the days of Jim Crow, they must certainly be joking.  Jim Crow is the term that applied to state-required discrimination.  But, the state shouldn't do either - require discrimination nor prohibit it.

     I first encountered the notion that the state shouldn't interfere in these matters when I read Milton Friedman's Capitalism and Freedom.  He noted that "the development of capitalism has been accompanied by a major reduction in the extent to which particular religious, racial, or social groups have operated under special handicaps in respect of their economic activities."  The person who engages in discrimination pays a price - a real price.  They pay more for the goods and services they acquire and receive less for what they sell.  In a free society, "the appropriate recourse is for me to seek to persuade them that their tastes are bad and that they should change their views and their behavior, not to use coercive power to enforce my tastes and my attitudes on others."  For example, the famous sit-ins at a segregated Woolworth lunch counter in 1960 showed of the power of peaceful protest.  The chain (and others) bowed to the pressure of the protests and boycotts and ended their policies of discrimination.  It didn't take a law.

     This issue came up due to a recent case in New Mexico where a photographer refused to take on a job of photographing a same-sex marriage ceremony.  The potential client sued and the New Mexico Supreme Court ruled against the photographer.  And, so the Arizona legislature sought to prevent a similar case from occurring here with the passage of SB 1062.  And, then it was a national discussion, or, rather, a national outrage.

     Which finally brings me to the point of my story.  This past Sunday, George Will was talking about this issue and, rightly, lambasted the LGBT community as "sore winners."  That is, they are winning the PR campaign, so what is the point of suing the photographer.  Just go and find someone else.  But, then he said, "fifty years ago this year, in one of surely the great legislative achievements in American history, we passed the 'public accommodations' section of the Civil Rights Act, saying, 'If you open your doors to business in the United States, you open it to everybody."  In other words, your right to free association ends when you take steps to earn a living, feed your family and provide for your children.

     He just doesn't get it.  We can all agree that discrimination is bad, but why use the power of the state to impinge on private property rights?  Indeed, Will's attitude is akin to saying that it is the state that has granted us the right to life, to liberty, to the pursuit of happiness and to run a business.  It's not a god-given right, nor a natural right, although that is my understanding of what Jefferson meant when he wrote the Declaration of Independence.  I have my students take a look at the Arizona sales tax law to see that it is actually called the "Transaction Privilege Tax."  How does it make any sense that if one does business in the state of Arizona (or, any state) it is a privilege?  Why isn't it a natural right to produce goods and services and trade them with others?  Of course, it is.  But, the state has usurped these natural rights and made them their own.  In the bad old days you could only do business at the sufferance of the king.  Now it is at the pleasure of the state.  So, how far have we come, really?  To further the cause of liberty, we need people with strong backbones, not ones with weak wills.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

   Where ya' from? -  I stumbled across this web site where you are quizzed about your word usage and pronunciation.  For each question, a small map will pop up showing you what sections of the country are most closely associated with your reply, shown in red.  [Those "least" close, if that's the right way to put it are shown in blue.]  At the end, you get a map that shows where you're from based on your replies.  My map is shown to the right (click on it to see a bigger image).  It zeros  in on three cities.  For me it was Denver, Aurora and Colorado Springs, all in Colorado.  Wow.  I'm impressed.  I was mostly raised in Denver (1st grade through the end of high school), so that makes sense to me.  I wondered how I would fare given that I was born back east, but didn't likely pick up on any particular word usage, and spent more that a decade in Hawaii while on the slow track in graduate school, where I must have already been set in my ways.  Anyway, you can find out for yourself at the U.S. Dialect Map.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

   Cruz' Gambit -  Texas Senator Ted Cruz got lots of flak from the usual suspects when he launched into his filibuster opposing ObamaCare.  And, he got flak from some members of his own party who just seem clueless.  Yes, Cruz wasn't going to get ObamaCare overturned.  But, the common complaint, from presumably sympathetic Republicans was that his tactics were flawed.  At the time, I thought they were wrong.  Now, a little over a month later, I think that its time for his friendly critics to reassess.

     That is, we have now begun to see the flaws with this horrendous health care "reform."  Some argued that the best strategy was to let it fail on its own.  Wrong.  There needs to be a strong voice of opposition to collect those who become increasingly disenchanted with this law.  And, that's where Cruz has positioned himself in this affair.  If he hadn't challenged the law so vocally, how would the GOP capitalize on the shortcomings [flawed web site, high prices and dropped coverage] we've seen so far?  Quite simply, they couldn't.

     But, everyone knows that Cruz put himself out there in a Don Quixote-esque role, tilting at the health care windmills.  When these windmills start coming off their rails, he'll be able to say, "I told you so."  Or, better yet, he'll be able to say, "OK, now let's kill this beast."  The worse the effects of this new law, the more Cruz will benefit.

Monday, August 26, 2013

   The Gutfeld Plan -  Lovable late night talk show host Greg Gutfeld, if that’s his real name, came up with an audacious plan that kills two birds with one stone.  Not literally, of course, as that is quite hard to do.  Hit two birds with one stone that is.  Unless, the stone is enormous, like the size of a house.  And, lifting it up in the air is certainly going to take all the pool boys you can round up.  Knowing Greg, he probably can round up a lot.

     While his plan is audacious, it is also quite simple.  Well, we are talking about Greg Gutfeld after all, and not the president of the Red Eye fan club (that would be John Bolton).  Indeed, if the plan was any simpler, Bill Schulz would have come up with it.

     OK, OK, so here’s the plan – let all the illegal immigrants in the U.S. stay here (and more are welcome to come) if they move to Detroit!  We can give them some property and let them work hard to turn that awful nest of socialism into a paragon of capitalism.  I would suspect that within just a generation the per capita income there would rank among the highest in the U.S.  [It probably wouldn’t top the suburbs of Washington D.C. where crony capitalism and corruption flourish.]

     In fact, I would extend this plan to include any area declared a “national disaster.”  Like New Orleans back during the days of Hurricane Katrina.  Then, we can be more relaxed on whether or not to let some local official (a governor, I guess) declare such an emergency.  That is, now there are costs as well as benefits.  Under the current system there really isn’t any downside to asking for such a designation.  [Our own governor of Arizona was recently turned down for such a request following the wildfire in the Prescott area that killed 19 firefighters.]

     Maybe we can call my plan, “Gutfeld Plus” although I might be talked into "Gutfeld Extra Strength."

Detroit's population bombs!

We can give it opportunity!!

Fallback option - Robocop!!!

Saturday, August 17, 2013

   Ballots & Bullets -  Earlier this summer the Supreme Court struck down certain provisions of the Voting Rights Act.  This lead to immediate breast-beating by liberals that we were regressing into an era of rampant discrimination.  Nonsense, of course.  The Supremes ruled that the 9 states that had been required to get federal approval before changing voting laws (and redistricting) no longer needed to do so, unless the Congress comes up with suitable measures showing that the problem still exists.  And, despite the hue and cry from the left, all this does is make these states (Arizona included) just like the other 41, which is how it should be.

     This is some of the backstory behind the efforts of various states to pass so-called voter I.D. laws.  Of course, it isn't just these nine states affected by the Voting Rights Act.  The governor of North Carolina recently signed into law new rules that require photo ID for voting, reduce the early balloting from 17 to 10 days and eliminate same day registration.  It seems to me that this is all quite reasonable, and I totally buy into the argument about trying to reduce voter fraud.  [Critics claim there is no evidence, but I think that is just in the nature of how corrupt the system really is; the potential is enormous and I tend to think this goes all the way up to the top, for example the presidential election of 1960.]

     But, let's back off this issue a bit.  On Fox's Special Report, commentator Juan Williams said, "[V]oting is a constitutional right and that you shouldn't have any impediment to pursue your constitutional rights ... This really is an effort to suppress the vote."  Now, Williams seems like a reasonable guy and I'm willing to listen to reasonable criticism.  But, this fails the smell test.  There are three logical flaws in his argument:

Suppression has no meaning  If reducing the early balloting days from 17 to 10 is "voter suppression," then it must be true that 17 days is suppression relative to 18 days.  And, 19 days.  And, 20 days.  And on and on.  There is no solution to such a "suppression" problem!!  Therefore, it has no meaning.

We live in a world of scarcity  In the real world, resources are scarce and we have to find ways to best use them to maximize our well-being.  We can extend the criticism of the suppression argument to include the fact that it ignores scarcity.  Getting every single person of voting eligibility registered and having them vote is not worth the resources.  Indeed, some have argued (and, I think, persuasively) that voting shouldn't be easy.  The easier it is, the more uninformed voters will be.  That's a law of human nature.

Apply this reasoning to other constitutional rights  What got me started down this path was the lack of consistency in this argument relative to other constitutional rights.  If requiring a voter to have a photo ID (which the state will do for free) is an unconstitutional burden, then let's revisit the second amendment.  In part it reads, "[T]he right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."  Seems like a pretty definitive statement.  So, why do we tolerate gun laws?  Why do we require gun registration?  Why do we even tax gun sales?  It seems to me that taxing guns suppresses our ability to exercise our constitutional rights.  Can we get libs to sign a petition that asks for the government to roll back voter ID laws and gun laws?  Well, of course not!

     One of the real good voices on the issue of voter fraud is John Fund.  His book, Stealing Elections, is a great read.  Well, OK, it is a terrible read!!  Because the system is so corrupt.  I read the first edition when it came out and couldn't put it down.  If you want to look at something more recent, check out these two articles of his:
     The Reality of Voter Fraud  (5/2/2012)

     The Voter Fraud That ‘Never Happens’ Keeps Coming Back  (2/8/2013)

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

   Signs of the Times III -  Yes, I still do collect these odd displays of life on earth and it's about time I got around to adding in another group on my web site.  To wit...

What the public wants.  While on a trip back east I spent my first night in Weatherford, Oklahoma.  I got gas at the Conoco station right near the hotel and on their big road sign read the message, "Our fuel has no ethanol."  What a great way to poke their finger into the eye of the government!  Unfortunately, I often had to buy gas with ethanol in other states on my trip.  [Click on photo to see a larger image with a bigger view.]

The price of all beer!  In April I drove a couple of buddies up to a Grand Canyon trailhead on the north side of the canyon and we stopped at the Vermilion Cliffs establishment for lunch.  On the menu was this blurb extolling the virtues of their Happy Hour.  It seems like deal that is too good to be true - you can get all Mexican beers for a measly $2.  I'm sure I couldn't drink but maybe three or four, but that still would only work out to fifty cents a glass!

The New Deal.  Also in the cafe at the Vermilion Cliffs was this old timey sign from the NRA.  Now, most people will think of the National Rifle Association in this regard, but it stands for the National Reconstruction Act (or, Administration).  This was a license plate used by truckers to show that they complied with the industry's code of conduct.  I had never seen one before.

I like Texas!  On my way back from traveling back east, I decided to visit an old school chum who lives near Houston and to visit Carlsbad Caverns as my final stop before reaching home in Flagstaff.  Driving through west Texas was quite charming as you can tell from the posted speed limits in the interstate highway.  I felt . . . free!

How to cut costs!  Earlier in the year I was visiting my sister in Kingman, AZ and we went to lunch in nearby Laughlin.  Across the street from where we stopped was the "old" Ramada Express Hotel & Casino.  But, now it is the Tropicana Express.  We noticed that the signage looked funny and Sue nailed it - they saved all the old letters that they could and all the brighter letters were the new ones they had to buy.  That is, the R, A, A are from Ramada and EXPRESS is the same, while the T, O, P, I C, and N are new!!  LOL.  And, since the name is now longer it looks like they jammed the letters closer to one another.  I'll have to dig though some old photos to see if this is the case.  I visited Laughlin often in the early 1990s when they were going through their major building boom.

The past as prologue.  I recently re-watched the entire Prisoner series.  That probably sounds like a big deal, but it only ran for one season, back in the 1960s.  Starring the late Patrick McGoohan, it is something of a cult classic and one of my all time favorites.  One of the episodes featured a "speed learning" program that the villagers were all taking.  It just cracked me up because so many in the education establishment say similarly silly (or, stupid) things with a straight face.  In this scene, there is a poster advertising for this program.  It reads:
"our aim
one hundred per cent entry
one hundred per cent pass"  - the general
speed learn
a three year course in three minutes
it can be done.
trust me  - the professor

If you track the trajectory of our system of education, in the future this will be exactly what we will be promised!

Thursday, June 27, 2013

   Snow(den) Job - I just happened to catch Dick Cheney on Chris Wallace's Fox Sunday show a couple of weeks ago and I just cringed.  He said that Edward Snowden, leaker of NSA secrets, was a traitor.  As a general rule I like Cheney.  But, on this score he was absolutely out in left field, or right field, depending on your tastes and preferences.

     So far as I can tell, Snowden hasn't really said anything that we didn't already know or suspect.  And, certainly, nothing new that our adversaries didn't know or suspect.  What's the big deal?  The Guardian reports that the NSA (National Security Agency) holds phone records for possible use in later investigations.  I am opposed but I am not shocked.  Does anyone besides me watch 24, or Person of Interest?  I pretty much assume that the capabilities depicted on those shows are being used by every government.

     But, this story baffles me.  I hear General Alexander, director of the NSA, claim that Snowden's leaking has compromised our security and endangered American lives.  How?  Nobody seems willing to explain this point.  Perhaps it would reveal too much to actually prove this.  Anyway, I'm not buying it.  We have heard that Snowden took off with loads of documents.  So far, it isn't clear that anyone has seen them.  Maybe the reporter for The Guardian, but even then it is unlikely that he has copies.  We got the news of the NSA spying in early June and Snowden was revealed about a week later.  It strikes me that the NSA had plenty of time to figure out what happened, how serious it was and take steps to prevent exactly what they claim is the result.  That is, for example, if Snowden knew of a safe house in Istanbul (which seems doubtful), then shouldn't the NSA have already shut it down?

     And, what exactly does Snowden know?  His claim, made in the famous interview, that he could listen in on anyone's phone calls, or monitor their computer usage (and read their e-mails, I think), has been denied by General Alexander.  Well, if Snowden can't do those things - or, couldn't do them in his job - then why all the fuss?  Is Snowden claiming he has more information than he really does?  Of course, right now most people seem to be believing Snowden and think that our public officials are just lying to us, or as James Clapper said, telling us what is the "least untruthful."

     I have three scenarios that might be playing out here, at least until I learn something new:

Snowden doesn't know very much.  Everyone seems surprised to learn that Snowden had such wide-ranging access to secret material given his sparse background.  So, maybe he didn't.  Maybe he just knew some of the broad outlines and then puffed up the story to help get him some attention in this matter.

Snowden is playing out an NSA long game.  Ala John le Carre and his fictional spy George Smiley. Maybe Snowden is just doing the rounds, plying his so-called secrets to see who will bite and by how much.  As I've mentioned, there can't be anything that we have learned that is news to foreign intelligence agencies.  And, some have puzzled over his leaving a well-paying job, in Hawaii, with a beautiful girlfriend.  The prospect of spending the rest of his life in Cuba, or Ecuador, or Venezuela seems like a poor alternative.

Does Snowden really exist?  I started to realize that we suddenly knew a great deal about very little.  Virtually every photo we see of Snowden is from the interview.  He can't be found in Hong Kong.  He was missed, as best as I can tell, on his route to Moscow.  And, then there was the famous empty seat on the plane bound for Cuba.  His father spoke to Eric Bolling on Fox, if that really was his father.  We haven't heard from the girlfriend, except for some Facebook postings.  While I was searching for more on this, I came across a nicely-written commentary on this point on the Washington Post blog site.  Although a bit tongue-in-cheek, it is an interesting notion.  The question is, "Why?"  The conspiracy theory inside me says that the reason is to raise the level of uncertainty among our adversaries about what our intelligence capabilities actually can do.  That is, if low-level analyst Snowden found these secrets, just think of all the secrets he didn't find!  Well, it will be cool to see the movie - I'm rooting for Brad Pitt in the starring role, despite the age difference.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

   Justice Roberts - Crazy Genius? -  Last year, when the Supreme Court upheld the ObamaCare legislation I was quite dismayed.  The ruling hinged on the surprising vote of the Chief Justice, John Roberts.  How could one of the staunchest of conservatives on the court agree to enforce the individual mandate?  It just went against his whole nature and character.  Indeed, at the time there were stories circulating that he was voting the other way and changed his mind at the last minute, to the enmity of others on the court.  It has also been pointed out that the various written opinions read as if the case actually went the other way.

     As the dust settled, the prevailing view that emerged was that Roberts was trying to protect the court's reputation from a political controversy that would ensue if the law was ruled unconstitutional.  Never mind that the whole purpose of this exercise is to determine the law's constitutionality; i.e., that is their whole purpose for being.   To make the Supreme Court just one more strategic piece in the game of governance/politics seemed unworthy of the Chief Justice.

     OK, that view is naive.  I get it.  The history of the Supreme Court is not one of careful and cautious decision-making by learned men and women bearing witness to their oaths to uphold the constitution of the United States.  My formal introduction to this problem goes back to a talk I heard by Robert Levy about his book, The Dirty Dozen, about which I blogged some years ago.  The Supreme Court makes bad decisions all the time.  And, to add to the problem, the list of supposedly conservative justices that waffled in their decisions, or switched sides entirely, is long.  Perhaps Roberts was just the latest example.

     Is Justice Roberts just a clone of Earl Warren, Harry Blackmun and David Souter?  I hope not.  And, with the growing list of scandals and controversies enmeshing the Obama Administration, I am starting to see some wisdom in Roberts decision.  For starters, consider what would have happened if the Supremes had overturned ObamaCare.  The left would have had a strongly dogmatic rallying cry for the 2012 election.  Mitt Romney would certainly have gotten totally creamed in the election and there is a more than 50% chance that the Dems would have retaken the House of Representatives.

     Then, during this second term, not only would we have gotten a rewritten health care reform law, ObamaCare II, but we would have gotten deluged with tons of other progressive legislation that would further erode our individual liberties, for who knows how many generations to come.  But, that didn't happen.  Obama won, but doesn't control the Congress.  With scandals falling like manna from heaven, I think that the GOP has a better than even chance to retake the Senate in 2014, and certainly will see little/no change in the House.  All because of Roberts' ruling.

     Now, some have argued that Roberts did rule with the majority in rejecting the premise that the government can force us to buy stuff.  What he did was to argue that the "individual mandate" was, in fact, a tax.  [Never mind that the Obama Administration vehemently rejected this idea!!]  That notion rang more than a little hollow to me, as it seems that the government can do absolutely anything it wants as long as it calls it a tax.  Maybe that makes it harder for the government to do things, but I'm not holding my breath on that one.

     Which brings us back to the current political situation.  The IRS scandals have a lot of folks reluctant to give enforcement powers to them for ObamaCare.  The mini-scandal of the Secretary of HHS soliciting funds to promote ObamaCare from firms that she regulates is likely to grow.  And, the plan is so overwhelmingly complex that even those that championed this legislation now say it is headed for disaster.

     Taking a step back, can we see that ObamaCare just couldn't be sustained?  The way in which it was constructed shoved implementation off into the future (which we are fast approaching), thus staving off criticisms that it wouldn't work.  Instead, we were arguing about whether it should be done, not about whether it could be done.  Now we are beginning to see that it cannot be done.  Did Justice Roberts see this last year?  Did he reason that upholding this controversial legislation on narrow tax grounds was the best way to kill it?  Did he recognize that this awful policy had to fail in the political arena and not in the judicial one?  Is Chief Justice Roberts a crazy genius?  Hmm ...

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

   Monkey Wrench the IRS? -  Last week I gave a presentation to the Flagstaff Republican Women's group during their monthly luncheon.  My topic was title, "Limited Government: An Economics Perspective."  I told them that I was going to call it, "Why we need a limited government," but that such a provocative title might attract undue attention from the IRS.  Funny, and, of course, sadly true.  The IRS scandal is all over the news right now.  It centers around how they targeted conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status for closer scrutiny.  Well, presumably.  Since the net effect was to keep these groups from achieving tax-exempt status for up to two years, maybe it wasn't about scrutiny at all.  Yesterday, there was a semi-organized series of protests at IRS offices around the country.  Maybe that will continue.  This leads me to three observations...

Can we "monkey wrench" the IRS?  I started wondering whether there was something we could do, in the spirit of non-violent protest, that would have an effect on the IRS and the politics of this.  And, I came up with an idea that would seem to fit the bill.  What if people just didn't file tax returns?  Not that we wouldn't pay our taxes, but just that we wouldn't fill out the forms.  In my case, I'd want to boost my deductions so that less tax is taken out of my paycheck since I always get a refund and I'd just as soon not give that up.  The IRS gets some 230 million returns a year.  If 10% of those dropped off, then I suspect that their prosecution of miscreants would be "taxing" to them.  And, if such a movement gained adherents over time, then it may be enough to bring down the whole mess.  Of course, then we'd have to rely on Congress to fix this mess, which is another problem.

The only way to "fix" the problem is to end the IRS.  As usual, politicians are braying about "finding out why" so that we can "fix" this problem.  I think one of the advantages of growing older is that such arguments hold absolutely no water for me.  I know from experience that government doesn't solve problems.  It doesn't fix anything.  They aren't magically going to "get things right" now that we have exposed this particular problem.  The only solution is to eliminate the IRS entirely.  But, that doesn't mean we have to eliminate taxes, although I wish it did.

A universal flat tax is a start.  How can we have taxes without an IRS?  Simply make it a flat tax.  It might be on income or it might be on purchases (i.e., a sales tax).  We could have states administer the collection on top of the tax they currently collect, noting that some states don't have income taxes and some don't have sales taxes.  Still, it would seem a relatively simple procedure.  The huge advantage is that everyone pays, giving everyone an incentive to vote for the rate that best balances our wants for government.  As I told my audience last week, it just boggles my mind that nobody seems bothered by the inherent conflict of interest when someone who doesn't pay taxes votes for an official, or a bond proposition, that will raise taxes on others.  A universal flat tax would go a long way toward remedying this conflict.

In digging around, I find that the origin of "monkey wrench" is older than I thought; I associate it with Edward Abbey.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

   Survival Overload -  Yesterday I took my first hike of the season on nearby Mt. Elden, with my dog Scout.  Last year we were hiking to the top and back in about 3 hours, covering some 4.6 miles and 3000 feet in elevation.  I decided to take it easy on this first hike, so we did the "Fatman's Loop," which is about 3 miles long.  As we descended along this rocky trail we came to a spot where an elderly Navajo woman had slipped and fallen, apparently tumbling in the process.  I had seen her, and her companion, earlier - they had hiked up the relatively more gentle slope on the north/east side of this loop and were hiking back down the same way, avoiding the steeper part of this trail.  There are a lot of exposed boulders to hike over, and if there is some grit on them it is very easy to take a fall.  A young Latino couple that were ahead of me arrived at the accident site first and the young woman was making a 911 call.  Because the elderly woman had hit her head, it was thought to be prudent to seek some assistance; she had also banged her knee which was starting to swell.  After the call was made, I volunteered to stay with the two women awaiting help and the young couple continued on down to the trailhead, hopefully to meet up with the paramedics.

     The two women - Rose, who had fallen, and Eloise, her friend - were taking a hike after work in preparation of an upcoming hike at the Grand Canyon.  So, we chatted about the canyon and hiking.  Rose had fallen a year, or so, ago and had a metal plate in her wrist.  She had consciously avoided using her hands to stop her fall and that seemed to work out well, at least for her wrist.  We waited for about 45 minutes (5:25 pm to 6:10 pm) and decided to try and walk down the trail.  Rose had a bump on her head, but no bleeding and no problems seeing.  I lent her my hiking pole and off we went.  Within just a few minutes we came upon two paramedics from the fire department, who quickly assessed Rose's condition and then accompanied her down the trail.

     So, what is interesting about this story is what followed.  Within another 15-20 minutes we had an entourage of at least a dozen SAR folks, most from the fire department, but some were from elsewhere (I think volunteers).  They had brought a stretcher, with a wheel attached, just in case.  And, at the parking area there were two ambulances, a fire truck and at least four other vehicles associated with this group of folks.

     Why so many?  Well, clearly it is because this is mostly a government effort and allocating resources is not their strong suit.  I imagine that in a more market-friendly setting, one person, properly equipped, would make contact and then call/radio for the appropriate amount of resources to respond to the situation.  I am quite satisfied that the young woman who made the 911 call, despite repeating herself about a dozen times on every point, made clear the nature of the "emergency."  Even with some uncertainty on the other end of the call, this response sure seemed to me to be a case of "survival overload."

     I suppose one could argue that these resources are available because the situation may warrant such a response.  As such, if they aren't already doing something else, it is relatively costless to respond to this call.  And, it provides some training - the folks maneuvering the stretcher around (it had a wheel under the middle of it) on this trail treated this as an exercise of sorts.  But, then I thought about the "market" type of outcome.  This is one of the most popular trails in Flagstaff - indeed, when I arrived at 4:45 pm the parking lot was jam-packed.  Why isn't there an emergency responder in the area?  Why would you centralize these people in buildings around town when you know that this trail gets quite a number of these kinds of calls?  Even at the Grand Canyon, not known for being market-friendly, rangers generally make a late day sweep of the popular So. Kaibab and Bright Angel trails to deal with anyone having problems.  [Noting that cell phone service is unavailable as of now over most of these trails.]

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

   Power Disconnect -  This week I received my 2012 annual account summary from the electric company, Arizona Public Service (APS).  I like to get these summaries as I use them to make casual assessments of my power usage and associated costs.  But, on the front page of the summary, I read this:

Congratulations!  ... [Y]ou used less energy in 2012 than in 2011.  We encourage you to continue your efforts since even small reductions in energy use can add up to noticeable savings.


     This makes me scratch my head.  Why would the power company congratulate me for using less of their product?  I don't get notes from REI or Amazon or Mobil or Safeway saluting my efforts to spend less money with them.  In fact, they are always trying to get me to spend more!

     So, let's sort this out.  As a consumer with a limited income, I expend time, energy and effort to try and use my funds to maximize my satisfaction through my many purchases.  So, I do want to track my purchases and expenditures.  Well, I don't want to spend too much time, energy and effort, but I am willing to spend some.  And, so I do review my bank account statements, my credit card statements and my various utility bills.  So far, so good.

     Now, what is going on with APS?  Unlike the other businesses I mentioned, they are heavily regulated by the government, especially with regard to their prices.  There isn't any real competition.  If there was competition, then I would expect the APS to be honestly trying to find ways for me to save money, since that would win my business.  [Sort of like DirecTV versus Dish.]  But, they don't have competition.  Their praise for me must be just a sop to the regulators, which tells me that their cost structure is bloated.  Guess who pays for that?!

     There is also some hypocrisy here.  Since APS is regulated, one of the consequences of this is that they are guaranteed a profit.  So, what would happen if all their customers used less electricity?  The regulators would allow them to raise their rates!  I saw this very thing happen back in the 1970s when living in Denver.  At the time, the effects of a recession reduced consumer use of electricity and the state regulators allowed rates to rise to compensate!  Real, competitive, businesses can't do this.

     Finally, consider this - our power consumption is a pretty good proxy for our overall standard of living.  The higher, the better.  Now, I'd like my power to come cheaply, and without pollution.  But, as a general rule, we should celebrate higher power usage, not lower usage!

Saturday, January 19, 2013

   Passing of a Giant -  Last week, on January 9, Economics Nobel Laureate James Buchanan passed away.  I came across a pretty good commentary from Robert Higgs which was also posted up on the Mises site.

     I had the pleasure and privilege of meeting Professor Buchanan shortly after he won the Nobel prize.  He was invited to make numerous presentations at the University of Hawaii, where I was a graduate student.  He gave a couple of public presentations, spoke to an econ undergrad class, gave a seminar, had a dinner with the faculty, and had breakfast with graduate students in the econ program (including me).  I especially remember the public presentation at the East-West Center on campus.  After his remarks, he took questions and one student made a critical remark about how low wages were destroying American jobs.  Buchanan replied something like this: "You clearly don't understand the fundamentals of comparative advantage since your question is meaningless."  I think he also said something to the effect of not asking questions unless he knew what he was talking about.

     At our breakfast, he regaled us with stories of his post-doctorate research that lead him to the field of public choice.  I found it interesting enough to find a book on the topic.  I'm pretty sure it was Dennis Mueller's book, but I can't be sure.  At the time I had been working on my dissertation about user costs and urban mass transit.  Following this new interest, I decided to completely put all of my work aside and retool my dissertation into a public choice analysis of urban transit policy.  I capped off my work with a seminar that was well-attended by both students and faculty.  But, there wasn't really much excitement about my new direction, so I went back to my original work, eventually published as "Congestion and Bus Frequency."

     I went to his presentation to a principles class and afterward asked him about the Keynesian policy of running budget deficits during a recession in order to mute the effects on unemployment and production.  Buchanan argued that it didn't matter if Keynes was right or not - run deficits during depressions and surpluses during a boom.  He argued that you just couldn't rely on politicians to actually balance the government's budget over the course of a business cycle.  That's really at the heart of Public Choice - incentives in the political arena, and their effects.  When politicians waste millions of dollars building a bridge to nowhere, we may be appalled, but we shouldn't be surprised.  At the time I thought he was a bit too cynical in his views about politicians.  Now, of course, I think he was being too charitable.  I am pretty sure that this marked the beginning of my own questioning of the Keynesian viewpoint.

     When I first arrived at Northern Arizona University, I lobbied for a public choice class.  But the staffing was pretty tight, with probably 80% (or, more!!) of our teaching load devoted to core business classes (micro, macro, stats).  There are a couple of upper division classes that are always offered, that have broader appeal than to just econ students.  [For example, my Money and Banking classes are overwhelmingly made up of Finance major, because it is a required course for them.]  So, the upper division class offerings were thin, and tenured faculty had first crack at these.  Indeed, the retirement of a senior faculty member put their class in limbo.  When our Public Finance guy retired, so did his course.  Well, twenty years after I arrived, I finally got my shot.  When a faculty member who taught "Comparative Economic Systems," i.e. socialism, retired, it opened the door for me to insert a Public Choice class into our curriculum.  It has been offered three times in the last two years and I have thoroughly enjoyed the experience, as have the students that have taken the course.  In fact, I assign them to watch this short video of Walter Williams interviewing Professor Buchanan.  [Both were on the faculty at George Mason University.]

     As one final note, one of my former students choose to apply to George Mason University for grad school (in economics).  I was happy to write a letter of recommendation for him and he ended up in their program.  I visited with him in the summer of 2011 he mentioned that Professor Buchanan was still active in helping to select their doctoral students.  Engaged to the end!

Monday, December 31, 2012

   Begging, Inc. or LLC? -  I traveled to Denver for the Christmas holiday and had a few experiences with beggars that I thought worth commenting on.  The first was a guy trying to bum some gas off me at the Love's station in Gallup, NM.  This is the third time I have encountered such a scam, for it cannot be anything else.  He had a story, kind of convoluted and, I think, too well rehearsed.  He lost his wallet, needed gas to go back down the road to find it, blah, blah, blah.  I politely listened and then said no.  The ploy seems to me outdated.  Who could possibly believe any such nonsense?  Now, if someone had lost their wallet, and, say, their phone, and wanted me to call up their mother, brother, friend, then I'd be inclined to think about helping them.  But, the plea for gas money is just pure theater.  More on this later.

     Then, while in Denver, I was visiting up in Boulder, which is the preeminent "college town."  Up and down the main mall there were people panhandling for "bus money," or "lunch money," or just plain "help."  The temperature was in the mid 20s, and I thought that this must just be their jobs.  Otherwise, who in their right mind would be out on such a cold day?  And, I remarked to my brother-in-law, it must earn a decent return.  Could any of these people be in real need?  I absolutely think not.

     Now, that is not to say that I haven't seen people that are homeless and in somewhat dire straits.  I've seen them here in Flagstaff.  But, their situation is not without recourse.  There is public (ugh) and private (yeah) assistance available to these people.  They choose not to seek it out, or accept it, or whatever.  [Indeed, here in Flagstaff we have the unbelievable rationale that public assistance needs to be provided not because the private assistance is insufficient, but because it's too religiously-oriented.  Bleech.]

     And, while in downtown Denver for dinner a couple of nights later, there were still beggars trolling the streets.  Some people call them transients.  I think Greg Gutfeld prefers to call them "hobos," but I think that seems too dignified.  They are more like parasites.  And I mean that in a bad way.  They not only feed off the productive members of our society, they feed off of the good will that people have.  Helping one of these beggars probably means someone who really needs help doesn't get our time and attention (and money).  I see them here in Flagstaff, especially in the summer.  Funny how they manage to travel here during the pleasant season.

     Back to the guy in New Mexico.  So, I'm coming back to Flagstaff exactly a week later.  And, I stop for gas at the Pilot station about ten miles east of Gallup.  While I'm filling up, a guy drives by trying to bum some gas off me.  It was the same guy!!!!  I knew it was a business!  He probably lives in the area and I can't help but wonder if he doesn't get away without buying any gas all year long.  Alms for a poor ex-leper?

Sunday, December 30, 2012

   Ode to a Second Term -  The flurry of activity this fall, a bout of bronchitis and an unusually heavy harvest of tomatoes and hot peppers (the latter of which require time to turn into jelly) have left me unable to adequately keep up with my blog, but finally I can do so.

     The race for the presidency was, of course, the issue of the year.  Before election day I was asked to participate in a post-election panel discussion, basically to provide a debrief type of commentary.  I was asked to provide some economic content in what would otherwise be an exercise in political perspectives.  [There were six panelists - four professors and two students.]  My economic analysis was pretty straight-forward - we're in big trouble and it didn't matter who was elected.

     Then, I took the liberty of offering up some political commentary, making the following observations:

It's hard to beat an incumbent.  While I think there was great hope that Romney could win (including my own overoptimistic prognostication), a cursory look at elections since WWII shows how hard it is to beat a sitting president.  It has only happened twice - to Jimmy Carter and to George H. W. Bush.  And, both had one common feature - a strong challenger other than the winning opponent (i.e., other than Reagan and Clinton).  In 1980, Carter faced Ted Kennedy in the primaries, which is almost unheard of for an incumbent.  Indeed, Kennedy didn't give up his quest to usurp Carter until the Democratic Convention!  In 1992, H. Ross Perot mounted a very strong third party effort which I am quite sure took away more votes from Bush than from Clinton.  Perot took almost 19% of the popular vote (and, much less in 1996).  Incumbents may look vulnerable (e.g., Truman and the second Bush), but without a strong third challenger, it is hard to beat them.

Second terms are problematic.  Incumbents that win a second term seem to be especially cursed.  Except for Eisenhower, you'd be hard pressed to find a successful second term in the bunch (besides Ike, they are Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, and Bush).  Every other one had impeachment hearings against them in the House of Representatives - Nixon and Clinton.  President Reagan suffered greatly from the Iran-Contra scandal, but avoided impeachment.  President Bush was the most "successful" of the bunch, but he started his second term with a bold proposal to privatize Social Security, which went nowhere, and he lost Republican control of both houses of Congress during the next mid-term election.

If you like Obama, celebrate now.  I don't think history will be any kinder to Obama then it has been to earlier presidents.  The "Fast and Furious" scandal has yet to fully play out.  The debacle in Benghazi can, I believe, lead to impeachment hearings (especially since Republicans still control the House of Representatives).  There still may be fall out from the many failed loans to so-called "green" businesses.  And, the fiscal cliff problems, which could lead to another recession, would seal the deal.  Even if the fiscal cliff is avoided, the debt issue is so enormous that I think it will continue to gnaw at the reputation of Obama's tenure.

     The panel discussion was interesting.  The other profs were all left-leaning, and as the time passed, they tended to wear their opinions on their sleeves and our interactions got more ... lively.  The two student reps, leaders of the campus Dems and GOP, were probably less strident than the rest of us! 

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

   Nixon v. Reagan v. Romney -  As the election fast approaches I am starting to think about whether a President Romney would more closely resemble President Nixon or President Reagan.  The former would be mostly awful while the latter would at least hold out the hope for a path to a better future.  And, here is my reasoning.

     President Nixon was quite the compromiser in my opinion and did not seem rooted in any particular political philosophy, much less in a conservative one.  He is famously quoted as saying, "I am now a Keynesian in economics," which means that we can't trust markets, government is responsible for boosting employment and that activist policies will be the norm.  He took us off the last vestiges of the gold standard, made a mess of extricating ourselves from bloody foreign conflict and nearly propelled us into a nationalized health care system, not to mention establishing the EPA and signing off on banning DDT, which has since cost millions of lives around the world.  A spotty record, to be sure.

     President Reagan championed smaller government, lower taxes and less regulation.  His record is also spotty, but at least he had a set of well-defined principles and I think did his best to "nudge" the country in a new direction.  Awful deficits and an unwillingness to cut defense (of course, quite the contrary) were some of the consequences we still are living with.  Also, a timidness (and, failure) in dealing with Social Security and Medicare continue to haunt us.

     So, what kind of president would Romney make?  So far he strikes me as having few (if any) bedrock political beliefs.  His willingness to compromise is disturbing and his record of creating a state-run health care system in Massachusetts continues to be more than a little problematic.  [Sure, he was the governor of a very blue state, but still it makes me think he is not serious in his embrace of conservative principles.]  He seems to talk more like Reagan than Nixon, but I have no confidence that he wouldn't be willing follow a path more like the latter than the former.

     Still, armed with a Republican House, and hopefully (keeping all my fingers crossed) making Supreme Court appointments that look more like Alito than Sotomayor, wouldn't Romney still be preferred to a second Obama term?  It is a good question.  If the GOP holds onto the House, then another Obama term may lead to the emergence of a Republican candidate in 2016 that is more in the spirit of Reagan, which may have better consequences for us in the long run.  [Hmm . . . would Rand Paul be ready to take on this challenge?  I am already anxious to see a Paul/Rubio ticket sweep into the White House!]  The Supreme Court aside and counting on the House to put up roadblocks to ObamaCare, we may well be better served by extending Obama's presidency.

     Conclusions?  Well, maybe I will vote for Gary Johnson after all!

Saturday, August 11, 2012

   dem bones -  An announcement appeared in the local paper from the Smithsonian Institution about the repatriation of human remains to the nearby Hopi Tribe.  [Here it is in the publication Indian Country Today.]  This raises an interesting issue - is it the case that our ethnicity determines who owns our bones after we die?  That seems rather farfetched.  And it begs the question of which ethnicity should count - I descend from English, Scottish, French, Welsh and even Native American blood lines.  Who owns my bones?  I would say that it would be whoever wants to maintain them, or to whoever has acquired the appropriate property rights (to the ground, I suppose).  How else could it be?  If native Americans want to maintain ongoing custody, and the tribal members are fine with that, then so be it.  But, as you move further away in time, a break in the chain of custody would seem to invalidate any claim to "ownership."

     And, that is pretty much what we have here.  The Smithsonian has determined that the "human remains ... have been found by a preponderance of evidence to be culturally affiliated with the Hopi Tribe."  The remains come from the nearby Elden Pueblo site and were gathered up in 1925.  They date back about a thousand years.  And, they are "owned" by the Hopi Tribe?  I can't imagine that is the case.  Maybe these people were outcasts from the tribe.  Or, maybe they despised the tribal leaders.  We have no clue.  Or, maybe they were cannibals.  Or, maybe not.  But, apparently, your DNA will determine the fate of your remains.

     Consider an extension of this case involving remains from Canyon de Chelly, in northeastern Arizona and within the Navajo Reservation.  The Navajo tribal government seeks to obtain the remains found here, even though they mostly predate the arrival of the Navajo.  Well, isn't this the slippery slope that we started down with all this?  The further in time apart are the human remains from our current time, the less clear it seems to me that they "belong" to anyone.  If scientists find them and want to study them, then that is fine with me.  But, it also is fine with me if they decide to bestow these remains to someone else, be it a museum or a tribe.

     Consider the even more bizarre case of the Kennewick Man, pictured above.  These remains were found in an eroding riverbank in 1996, and despite being dated to between 5,000 and 10,000 years old, are being claimed by a host of native tribes.  The ensuing legal wrangling pitted the scientific community against these various tribes.  The court eventually ruled in favor of the scientists, but I doubt that this case is really resolved.  [Indeed, the reconstruction shown above leads me to think that the bones should be returned to Ben Kingsley for disposition!]

     The law as it currently exists means, simply, that the state owns your remains.  It is, perhaps, the ultimate indignity.  The libertarian homesteading principle would seem to apply as I have outlined above.  And, if not, then let's take this repatriation nonsense to its logical conclusion.  If you accept the theory that native Americans arrived here from Asia via a land bridge to Alaska, then the bones belong to some Asian communities.  And, if you accept that humans originated in Africa, then I suppose that the bones must go back there somewhere - perhaps the Great Rift Valley in Kenya.  [Like our president, in the final analysis, it seems that we are all Kenyans!]

Friday, August 3, 2012

   Incentives matter ... even in badminton -  This week scandal rocks the Olympics as we learn that certain doubles teams in women's badminton purposely sought to lose their matches.  The horror!  But, wait.  Let's think about this one for more than just a knee-jerk minute.  These players weren't trying to lose out on the gold, silver and bronze metals, were they?  Of course not.  They were, in fact, employing a strategy that they felt best gave them a chance to win these coveted symbols of excellence.  They weren't trying to throw a game for money, like you sometimes hear about in boxing, baseball or even football.  They were, in fact, employing a perfectly sound strategy to maximize their chances of winning the gold medal.  And for that, they were disqualified.

     Why?  Well, the rules for the competition were such that good teams early on would get matched up against each other in elimination matches in the middle rounds, threatening their ability to advance to the final round.  Consequently, players tried to lose early matches so that they would have a better chance to advance through these middle rounds.  Their incentives seem to be exactly what we'd like them to be - try to win the gold.  But, the organizers have set up the rules so that player strategy is at odds with what we would like to see - hard fought games every step of the way.

     Notice how this doesn't happen, for example, in the NCAA basketball tournament.  There, teams are ranked according to their play over the season.  The best teams are seeded in the tournament so they they are most likely to meet each other in the finals.  Their incentives are aligned with our desire to see good play throughout the tourney.  Indeed, recall a few years ago when fans dreaded the onset of the "4-corner" offense, when players of the leading team would try to stall out the game, hoping time would run out while they were still ahead.  Were they cheating?  Of course not.  But, the rules changed in response to fan dissatisfaction, and the shot clock was introduced to prohibit the extreme of this kind of play.  [Even so, a team that is leading in the final minutes will still employ this tactic using up precious seconds or getting fouled and likely scoring free throws to maintain their lead.]

     Or, consider perhaps the greatest football game ever played - Super Bowl XXXII.  Between Green Bay and Denver.  OK, as an ardent Broncos fan, I admit to a boatload of bias here!  In the closing minutes of that game, Denver was driving to the goal line.  With only 1:47 left in the game, and the Broncos with a first-and-goal on the one yard line, Green Bay put up token opposition, letting Terrell Davis pretty much walk into the end zone.  The Packers' coach felt that they had a better chance of winning by letting Denver score and then come back and score themselves.  If, instead, they had put up a stiff defense, they would likely have run out of time, Denver would have scored a field goal and still won the game.

     OK, the bottom line here is that incentives matter.  In the case of the badminton teams, they were using a strategy to try and win the gold medal.  To make a rule that states, "You must try hard" means that incentives are poorly aligned.  But, badminton is not a complicated game.  Extend this problem to how government functions to regulate the economy.  Do you think that they ever get incentives properly aligned?  [Hint - Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac buy up mortgages, bundle them together and sell off MBS - mortgage-backed securities.]

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

   It's Retarded -  A couple of months ago a front page article in the local paper was titled, "No more R-word."  The accompanying photo showed a couple of high school girls addressing a middle school assembly.  Well, I was definitely puzzled by this and at a loss to figure out what the "R-word" was.  It must be such a hateful and despised word to have elicited such attention, and yet I am clueless.  It turns out that this venal word is "retarded."  Say, what??  This is going to fall into the same league as the "N-word" and the "F-word?"  What's next?  Will we eventually have such a prohibition for every letter in the alphabet?  It makes you wonder whatever the "J-word" will be!

     So, I was immediately remembering how, as a child, my mother used to drill into us the phrase, "Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me."  I took it for granted that everyone knew that.  But, am I the only one?  Well, me and my sisters.  The idea of some kind of word prohibition not only infers the intent of some speaker/s, it also gives it even greater weight!  That would seem to be self-defeating, at best.  Why can't I say that someone is retarded in a purely objective, value-free, manner?  Apparently, I can't.  And, so, I began to think that this whole issue - of "banning" words - is totally bogus.  I am quite accepting of societal norms in this regard, and notions of polite behavior, but it can't be important enough to get this much attention.

     Just think about it.  The uttering of particular sounds through our vocal cords can constitute some kind of hate crime?  Is that the issue?  And, of course, it isn't a hate crime to those that don't speak the language.  To them, it is just so much gibberish.  I can't think of a better definition of insanity than a proscription against particular sounds.  Indeed, the whole point of that childhood rhyme is to ignore the absurdity of words (or, sounds) in favor of focusing on actions.  That is, if someone does attack me physically, that is cause for legal involvement, not if someone's words offend me.

     I was also reminded of an incident in college.  During one of the many false fire alarms we had to put up with, the Resident Assistant for my dorm got into a bit of a verbal dust-up with one of the residents.  I don't recall the exact nature of the argument, but the student resident was "charged" with some violation and "tried" before a university judicial council (made up in part, if not in whole, by students as I recall).  Well, during the "hearings" the RA claimed that he was being assaulted by this student.  When asked how that was so, he replied, "He verbally assaulted me."  That sounded ridiculously absurd at the time, and still does.  Yet, that is exactly the same mind-set that this "R-word" issue rests on.

     Recently, I was watching a comedy special featuring Louis CK, who can be rolling-on-the-floor funny.  He was expressing his distain for people who use the phrase, "the N-word."  That is, he said (Google it on your own to find it), because we are all saying the actual word in our heads!  Exactly!  Either we know what it means - so why use the euphemism - or, we don't - so, why do it at all?

     Maybe what we really need to do is force people to say these words every day, so that they will lose their negative connotations?  Or, maybe we should just repeat the childhood rhyme about sticks and stones.  Otherwise, this whole debate is . . . well, retarded.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

   Retooling the KJ -  Over the last week I have been doing some fix up work on the Kaibab Journal.  That includes a new format for the Grand Canyon Hiking home page, with trip blogs now arranged by area of the canyon.  I have also taken some of the blogs that appeared just in the main section of the Kaibab Journal (usually, the newspaper stories I sometimes write) that were about my hiking trips and put them in the Hiking section.  Short blurbs still appear in the KJ, with links to their new web pages in the hiking section.  You'll also see some new posting over there, which don't always make it into my main blog site.

     Also, I have finally finished my daily blogs for my Antarctic Journal.  Well, that only took years and years!  Actually, I only had the last two days, spent in Hobart, Tasmania, to wrap up and I just kept putting it off.  Until just yesterday.  So, that story is now wrapped up.  Or, is it?  I still have movies I have been meaning to include but . . . 

     Lastly, at least for now, I have added a new section, called The Grand Canyon Essays.  This is an index page to all of my various essays that have to do with the Grand Canyon.  Essays of a political, economic and philosophical nature, that is.  All the essays were already here and many had links to others, but this will help me better keep track of this major area of interest to me.  I ordered them from newest to oldest, for lack of any better idea in this regard.  The very first entry (i.e., the oldest material) is actually the paper I wrote for the Goldwater Institute.  It is the only one that doesn't appear in the Kaibab Journal.  I have added a link to this section in the center column.  I do have some other canyon related sections listed there and I may yet retool some of those pages at a later date.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

   Dubious 28th -  In late April there was a blurb in the paper about how the city council was going to have a session to consider a resolution backing a proposed 28th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would prohibit corporate contributions to political campaigns.  This issue has been brewing since the Supreme Court's Citizen United case a couple of years back.  At that time, I penned a letter and a blog (SCOTUS for free speech) in response to an editorial slamming this decision.  Well, I guess the opponents of this decision have been busy as I thought that this issue had gone away.  I wrote a letter but it seemed to have fallen through the cracks.  The city council did pass this resolution and I resubmitted my letter, which ran in the paper last Sunday:

To the editor:

I have read that the city council has passed a resolution to support the so-called 28th amendment to curtail free speech.  Funny, I didn’t think that one of the problems our country faces, much less our city, is an overabundance of free speech.  Apparently, the first Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which reads, in part, that “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech” is just too generous and what we really need is less free speech.

Perhaps the council will also consider a resolution to make burning the flag a crime.  After all, the members of the council can’t possibly be for burning the American flag can they?  And, let’s also ban the printing of the names of our fallen military heroes on t-shirt protesting the war.  Who could possibly be in favor of that speech?

Once they have finished deciding how much speech we should have, the city council can move on to religion and assembly, and, perhaps, work their way through the whole of the Bill of Rights.  Or, they could take on less weighty issues like finding a way to fix the potholes that are cropping up all around town.


     Another letter on this subject ran just a couple of days prior and was getting lots of discussion on the web.  Mine ran on a Sunday, but has elicited only a few comments.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

   O'Neill Spring -  Back in 1999 I did a day hike down the Grandview Trail, in the Grand Canyon, in part to find O'Neill Spring.  It was reported to be dried up, but I found it was full of water.  Years have passed since then and I decided to make a return visit to see if there was still water in here...

Read the full story, A Return to O'Neill Spring
in the Hiking Grand Canyon section of the Kaibab Journal

Sunday, April 15, 2012

   Maintaining Stupidity -  The city has been kicking around the idea of a property maintenance ordinance for some years, as a way to force deadbeats into shaping up.  A draft version got before the city council in recent weeks and it looked like they were set to approve such a micromanaged monstrosity.  But, some well-organized opposition, especially from Flagstaff's budding libertarian community.  See Elisha Dorfsmith's excellent blog on this issue.  Lots of people showed up to council meetings and the issue has been tabled for the time being.  Although a bit late to the debate, I did pen a short letter that appeared in the local paper:

To the editor:
     For years Flagstaff has been informally described as "poverty with a view." With the proposed property maintenance ordinance (PMO) perhaps we can finally shed that slogan and replace it with, "Flagstaff -- It's not for everybody!" I am hopeful that the city council will follow this up with a "personal maintenance ordinance" as well that will deal with some of the other eyesores that can be seen around town, especially downtown.


 
    I was thinking about calling my proposal PMO-2 and even taking a swipe at pets with a PMO-3.  But, I think I made my point.

Monday, April 2, 2012

   Electoral Fools -  It is the day after April Fools and there is a topic that I have been been meaning to get to for some time.  Back in October (of 2011) the Daily Sun ran an editorial from the Los Angeles Times titled, "A president by popular vote."  They claim that Al Gore, in 2000, "won the popular vote" and was "denied victory" because of the archaic nature of the Electoral College.  Nonsense.

     There is no such thing as a "popular vote."  There is only the artifact of adding up the vote totals for each candidate.  But, since the system doesn't work as a popular vote, the total is meaningless.  Neither candidate was striving to win a "popular vote."  They were campaigning in a way to win the vote of the Electoral College.  So, the contention is false, and yet is repeated ad nauseam.

     The editorial goes on to call for the abolition of the Electoral College so as to make the election "more democratic."  It is perhaps the best example of shallow thinking that I can come up with right now.  All voting schemes suffer from inconsistencies, paradoxes and inefficiencies.  Even majority rule.  That's why we have certain rights that majorities can't take away.  Even if a majority vote to throw you in jail for burning the American flag, the courts will say that is unconstitutional.  So, there are limits to majority rule.

     Which brings me to the reason for my deferred reaction to this editorial.  I had written a letter years ago in response to another like-minded editorial.  I hunted around for both off and on since last October and have finally found them.  In November of 2000, right after the election, the Daily Sun ran the editorial on this subject, written by Steven Hill and Rob Richie, titled, "Bush, Gore should scrap Electoral College."

     In that editorial, Hill and Richie pour on absurdity after absurdity.  How "will we explain to young people" that Gore won more votes but lost?  Well, granted that young people are rather stupid and superficial, you could just try and explain how the system works.  Further, they likened this process to declaring the loser in the Super Bowl as the winner.  Well, that's what got me onto my computer.  In part, here's what I wrote (published as a letter at/about November 21, 2000, about two weeks after the Hill and Richie commentary):

A second mistake the authors made was to claim that this result is akin to the “loser” in the Super Bowl being declared the winner.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  The election as it now stands is almost exactly like a football game.  The winner of the Super Bowl (presidency) is not necessarily the team that had the most offensive yards (“popular vote”), although that team (candidate) is more likely to have won.  Instead, to win the game, a team has to score points (win states).  Sometimes they get a big score with a touchdown (New York), sometimes a smaller score with a field goal, safety, or a conversion (Arizona, Maine or Wyoming).


     I think it is funny that people think that sports outcomes are free from these same deficiencies.  They aren't, and as I pointed out, they often reflect even more complexity than this voting system.  Can you imagine a winner of a chess match that hasn't taken more pieces than his/her opponent?  Or, that a baseball team loses a game in which it had more base hits?  Or, that a player with a weaker opening hand can win at Texas Hold-Em?  Or, that a movie that is a box office smash doesn't win an Academy Award?  [Now, there is a travesty!]  Of course we can!  It is the nature of how we construct rules.  And, so, here are a few more observations about voting:

The election of senators.  The LA Times editorial made a point of saying that if we can directly elect senators, we should be able to directly elect the president.  I suppose that is a reasonable comparison, but there is probably no more important cause for our out-of-control federal government than the direct election of senators.  The consequence of this Constitutional Amendment was to take a major party to the federal compact - the states - and toss them out the window.  That's why the feds can criminalize marijuana, withhold highway money and require national standards in education.  Senators, acting on behalf of their states, would not have let these powers flow to the federal government.

Democracy is overrated.  The point was made above - even majorities can't take away rights that are constitutionally protected.  There are limits to the mob.  Indeed, the founders crafted a system that was quite separate from a democracy, not that there weren't democratic elements (the direct election of representatives, for instance).  Gordon Tullock, in discussing the paradoxes that imbue the political system, writes in Government Failure that "there are few strong positive arguments for democracy."  He doesn't claim there is a better system, but we shouldn't be blinded in our adoration of such a flawed system.

Who should vote?  It may seem like a ridiculous question.  But, one has to look at conflicts of interest here.  Should people who pay no taxes be allowed to vote for bond issues that affect taxes?  Isn't that a conflict?  If you pay no tax and are asked to vote on an issue where there are only benefits to you, and no costs, how surprised can we be that you vote to raise someone else's tax?  So, should you be allowed to vote?  Maybe not!  I am wondering whether government employees should be allowed to vote at all.  And, I am one.  Don't we have a vested interest in perpetuating our situation?  Of course.  A candidate for mayor (here in Flagstaff) a few years ago said that he couldn't really talk about cutting the staff of the city government because he'd lose 500-1000 votes (employees plus their family and friends)!  There is something definitely wrong with this picture!

Make all elections subject to a 50% rule.  That is, no election is decided if less than 50% of the registered voter base votes in favor.  Not just 50% of those voting.  So, if 30% don't vote, but are registered, a winner would have to get 71% of the vote in order to win.  Otherwise, the election goes to nobody.  Isn't that really a better reflection of voter attitudes than to say that these non-voters get no voice?  Well, it's an idea.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

   History as a Consumption Good I like history.  Well, probably not everything, but you know what I mean.  I especially like reading about Grand Canyon history.  And, my interest has led me to gather information that is not widely disseminated.  In other words, I am something of an amateur historian.

     So, following my presentation at the 3rd Grand Canyon History Symposium this past month, John Stark, manager of the local public radio station KNAU, asked me about the importance of history - i.e., what this symposium is all about.  My answer was, "It's not important."

     Got your attention?  It may seem a bit suspect, and, of course, totally politically incorrect.  After all, there is Santayana's well-known phrase about how those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it.  Or, my favorite version comes from John Brunner's book, Stand on Zanzibar, that the only thing we learn from history is that we don't learn from history.  So, how can I assert that history isn't important?

     Well, it just isn't.  It is a consumption good and I like it just like I like shrimp scampi.  Umm . . . I could really go for some right now!  Anyway, the point is that we "do" history because it interests us, just like all the other things we do.  These activities aren't, per se, important.  Not like meeting the basic needs of providing food, clothing and shelter.  My presentation was on the Charles D. Walcott expedition in the Grand Canyon over the winter of 1882-1883, about which very little has been written.  I find it fascinating, and you can hear me say so in Stark's interview for KNAU (click on the "Listen" button).  I also got a brief shout out from the Grand Canyon News.  But, if nobody ever heard of Walcott, it wouldn't really matter would it?

     I have encountered this before.  I remember watching an archeologist on the local cable channel doing a presentation on some dig sites around Flagstaff.  He was remarking about how his research was helping to "answer important questions" about the ancient inhabitants of this region.  At the time I asked myself, "What important questions?"  I couldn't come up with any.  Because there are no "important" questions, only interesting questions.  And, I for one, am interested.  But, I don't pretend that they are "important."  But, when your job depends on getting money to conduct this research, I guess you have to say that these questions are important.  I think the emperor with no clothes is probably a suitable analogy here.

     Indeed, this past week I have been watching a show that details what the filmmakers call the top ten discoveries of ancient Egypt.  Absolutely fascinating, from Khufu's ship found next to the big pyramid at Giza to the huge statues built into the cliffs guarding the temple at Abu Simbel.  But, are they "important?"  Of course not.  Well, that is, they aren't important unless Stargate is real!  Then, of course, all bets are off.

     So, this brings me to something of a epiphany - that's probably an overstatement, so whatever word can be used that would mean a "small epiphany" will suffice.  Of late, I have developed an avid interest in the so-called Austrian School of Economics, as manifest by Ludwig von Mises, et al., and I spend a lot of time perusing the Mises.org web site.  I have taken 6 or 7 on-line classes through them and have started to read some of the major works that are associated with this school of thought.  I haven't yet read Mises' Human Action, but it has come up in a number of classes.  As I understand Mises' perspective, he argues that we can learn about the way the world works through the use of our rational faculties (starting with the axiom that human action is purposeful) and we don't need to resort to anything else.  That is, while there may be "lessons from history," we don't need history in order to learn these lessons.  Of course!  I thought so.

Monday, January 2, 2012

   The Ruins in Bright Angel Wash -  It is the end of 2011 and the weather has improved over the last ten days or so.  We've had temps in the 50s in Flagstaff and I have been jumping back into some serious efforts to get into shape.  A few days earlier than this hike I went up to the top of Mt. Elden, here in Flagstaff, which is just a tick under 9,300 feet in elevation (from 7,000 foot Flagstaff).  It felt good and the trail was fine.  So, I decided to do a hike down the Bright Angel trail.  I knew that the trail would be icy, and I was not disappointed.  But, I also knew that it would be a nice warm day down in the canyon and that there wouldn't be too many folks on the trail.

To read the full hiking blog, go to The Ruins in Bright Angel Wash
located in the Hiking Grand Canyon section of the Kaibab Journal.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

   Why Do We Read? - I was having an interesting conversation with someone about how we just don't remember the things we read.  Especially, the books, et al., that we read for pleasure.  I can often say whether a book was good or not, but can't ever recall any specifics to back up those opinions.  So, what was the point?  Good question.  Yet, I have always liked to read and still do so.  I have lots of books, and plenty of them I will never read despite my best intentions.  Very few have I read more than once.  The short stories of Philip K. Dick come to mind, and I have read parts of the Lord of the Rings more than once (but, I've seen the 3 movies more than that!).  But, those are exceptions to the general rule.  However, I have a hard time giving them up.  I always look at them and think that I might read them again.  But, why?  Well, because I don't remember any of the details.  And, therein lies the dilemma I am wrestling with - why do we read?

     Years ago I read John Kenneth Galbraith's autobiography, A Life in Our Times, which I really liked.  But, why?  Well, I remember it as being well-written (which is true of his books anyway) and full of details about being raised in Canada and ending up at Harvard and working for the price control agency during WWII, as well as doing a study of the value of our strategic bombing during WWII (or, was that in another book?) and working for the Kennedy administration.  But, I clearly don't recall any but the barest of details - the kind you could write out in a paragraph not unlike the one you are reading!  I do remember one specific comment of his that has stuck with me for years (yes, I read it a long time ago).  Once he finished reading a book he would sit down and write up a page, or two, of comments and notes about it so that he wouldn't forget what he had read!  To this day, I do the same with nonfiction books.  In fact, I can't read something of substance without a pen and pencil, pad of paper and sticky notes at the ready.  Consequently, it takes me a long time to read these books, but I have notes to refer to so that I can recall what I learned.

     For books I use in my teaching that is not the case.  Forgetting what I read, that is.  I read them over and over, if not in their entirety, then at least major sections/chapters.  I take voluminous notes and often have put together PowerPoint slide shows to draw out the details for my students.  Of course, what my students do is read them once and don't take notes and forget what they've read pretty much as soon as they put the book down.  But, that's not really their fault, is it?  And, clearly, our educational establishment would never think to require the level of effort necessary to insure that students actually understood what they have read.  But, that is the topic for another blog.

     As I noted in my previous blog (On Storage), I have a lot of DVDs.  And, I watch them.  Frequently and repetitively in some cases.  And, I am sure that I remember more from a movie (even one I have only seen once) then I have from the most recent novel I have read.  And, that got me to thinking about whether we could have a world without a written language, or perhaps only one we use infrequently.

     For example, the signs on the highway almost always have a picture of an airplane when the airport exit is coming up.  I suppose we could say that signs posting numbers don't count anyway (speed limits, highway numbers, etc.).  But, in the far off future, we may be doing everything by voice anyway . . .

Ed stepped into his car, a new 2075 Phantom.  It started up and Ed detailed his itinerary for the day.  "First stop is at Barton's, my lawyer.  Then, I want to go to the archives at the USGS.  After that, lunch at Maroney's."  The afternoon itinerary didn't matter.  The computer voice in the car acknowledged Ed's destinations and asked if he had any special requirements for the trip other than speed, which he answered, "No."

As the car entered the street, Ed flipped through some news channels on the state-of-the-art entertainment system he had specially installed.  After a few moments he decided to order up a refined news summary.  "Give me a five minute summary of current financial news that affects the North American Union going back 24 hours."  He leaned back and listened to the report.  At the end, he said, "Two more minutes on the current unemployment rate data and implications.  Add to that one minute on how the Democrats and Republicans are likely to interpret this situation."  And, so it went as he traveled to his lawyer's office to leave a DNA scan on a recording of his updated will.  Since lawyers had to now require all parties to a dispute or contract to view the contents spoken to them, a lot of the "party of the first part" rigamarole was eliminated and - no surprise - people actually understood what they were agreeing to.


     Well, that illustrates the idea.  It just seems to me that written content will become increasingly obsolete.  Funny thing for me to claim, since I like to write!  So, from books-on-tape, to pictures on the McDonald's cash register, I can easily imagine that the written word will get scarcer and scarcer.  When we can just verbalize our requests for information and get it back in a spoken, or visual, manner, what will be left to write?  And, will we still read?

Friday, December 23, 2011

   On Storage - As I gaze over my rather extensive collection of DVDs, I keep thinking about the future of storage.  I know, it doesn't seem very interesting, but it is to me.  [So is how aluminum is made, but that will have to wait for a later time.]  I can remember the days before we could tape TV shows and there was no such thing as a movie rental business.  I can still remember wanting to watch a new show that was called "Star Truck."  But, I missed seeing it because it was either on too late or it didn't command a sufficient vote to allow watching on our small black and white TV.  It was only years later, when I saw reruns of this show, that I realized it's title was "Star Trek"!  But, with just four channels (plus or minus), shows appearing as reruns wasn't all that common.  So, if you missed something, you just missed it.  Then, along came video tape.

     I missed the Betamax wave, thank goodness.  [I also pretty much missed 8-track tapes, too.]  But, eventually a VHS player/recorder was cheap enough to buy, as was the tape.  Now, you could actually tape shows, and buy (or, rent) copies of movies.  And, thus began my video collection.  I taped mostly movies and mostly I never watched them!  Well, in economics we talk about something called a "reservation price," which is what you'd pay just on the off chance you might want to "consume" some good.  So it was with these movies.  I didn't do much insofar as TV shows goes except for the Babylon 5 series.  I taped the original airing (at the slowest speed; 6 episodes to a tape!), and then I taped the reruns on TNT when they picked up the fifth season.  Then I taped them all again when the shows went to the Sci Fi channel and they were aired in letterbox.  Now, I did watch the whole series a couple of times, but not the Sci Fi version.  Of course now I own the DVDs (and have watched them all the way through at least twice).

     The advent of the Laserdisc interested me a lot, but was way too expensive for my tastes.  I can remember another student in grad school musing about being able to buy a multi-disc set of Lawrence of Arabia.  I am pretty sure that was before the restored movie was re-released to theaters in 1989 (which I saw twice within a week).  And, during a film festival on campus one year that featured movies by Orson Welles, I caught a session with Roger Ebert who was using a Laserdisc to go through Citizen Kane practically frame by frame.  Too cool, but still too pricey.

     So, I was quite enthusiastic about the DVD revolution and started to build quite a library of movies.  When blu-ray came along (I decided to give HD DVD a pass) I was leery of replacing my DVDs.  So far I haven't really done that, with a few exceptions.  The blu-ray player does a good job on DVDs - in fact, if you couldn't play a DVD on the blu-ray I am sure I would not have moved that way.  Now, I pretty much only buy blu-ray discs to add to my DVD collection.  [If you click on the picture of my videos, above, you'll see a larger image and can see my copy of the Lost series on blu-ray next to my DVD copy of Repo Man.] 

     But, I wonder why.  It seems to me (and, probably everyone else), that the whole "on-demand" market is just going to get better and better.  Why not just pay $1 every time you want to see your favorite movie rather than pay $20 to own a copy.  I do like the extra features on the discs, and the on-demand services will have to find a way to include that if I am going to switch sooner rather than later.  Still, it makes me think that my lifelong quest to obtain these movies has been for naught.  As it is, I already get sucked into watching a movie on my satellite service even though I own a copy!  Just last night - an hour of Battle: Los Angeles.  I suspect the current generation doesn't feel as compelled to acquire and store movies, books, and music.  My book collection is also too large, although I am loathe to give up any of my really old Grand Canyon tomes.  And, while my music collection isn't that large, there was a time when I had lots of vinyl, and even 45s before that.  Now, you just skip out to iTunes or Google Books and find everything you could want.  Maybe in another 20 years, you won't find home libraries, or video and music collections.  Everyone will just have electronic access and our days of personal storage will be over.  Sort of like in Fahrenheit 451, but in a nice way.  Insert smiley face here.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

   Post-Thanksgiving Workout - A couple of days after Thanksgiving, I did a day hike in the Grand Canyon with hiking buddies John Eastwood and Bill Ferris.  [The photo to the right shows John and Bill hiking over the Tonto trail as it leads to Indian Garden.  Click to see a larger image.]  I decided to ask the editor of the Daily Sun if he'd be interested in a story for his weekly Outdoors column, which runs each Tuesday.  He was enthusiastic and I penned something quite quickly ...  Finally, the story ran on Tuesday, December 20 ... 

Read the full story, 

South Kaibab to Bright Angel:
Looping past the site of Cameron's Tent Cabins near Indian Garden

 in the Hiking Grand Canyon section of the Kaibab Journal.

Monday, September 19, 2011

   Random Fragments - I should probably do more of these, but so it goes . . .

If it's not a choice, it's not a problem.  I recently bought a Samsung Galaxy Tab, WiFi only.  I got it because I got my dad the same thing, but with 3G service so he could connect to the web through something other than his obsolete dial up modem and laptop with Windows 95!  I spent a couple of days learning how it works and then drove up to Denver and spent a couple of days with him going over features (he really likes to do on-line banking).  OK, insofar as it goes.  But, when I ask him about it, and he tries to explain what happens when he makes certain selections, I had trouble following him, even though its Android system is quite similar to my smart phone.  So, I got one for me, but I don't need the 3G so I just got the WiFi model.  Turns out to be a bit of a mistake.  Some operating differences, and, as I have come to find out, some connection problems.  Apparently, when my wireless router has to make some IP changes, the Samsung won't figure that out and it gets hung up trying to connect.  From what I have read on the web, I might have to do a factory reset, or I might have to find some special software that will allow me to detect and delete the cached file that the Samsung is storing the IP address in, or something else.  Anyway, after reading about this in three, or four, on-line forums, I went to the Samsung site to see if there was info out there.  Nothing!!?!  So, I decided to fill out an e-mail from their help section.  It required me to identify the type of item, make, and model number.  But, when I chose mobile device and wifi tablet, it wouldn't give me a choice for model number nor let me enter one.  Consequently, it wouldn't take my e-mail!!!  Aargh!!!  So, I chose a Sprint smart phone instead and in my message I wrote that "This is not what I have!!!!  But, you won't let me choose what I have!!!" and so on.  We'll see.  Seems like I should be able to do a work around, but maybe a pain in the  . . . Samsung!

NAU 9/11 flag flap.  Some of my students were handing out small American Flags at the University Union last Friday, in commemoration of 9/11.  They had a permit to set up a table outside for this.  Then, it started raining and they moved inside, staying out the way and continuing with their activity.  Then, the powers that be descended upon them.  The quick-witted organizer filmed it and put it up on YouTube.  The story was picked up by Drudge and showed up in a Fox News blog as well as a Townhall blog.  The local paper ran a front page story on it as well.  Much of the local response is both predictable and inane.  This shouldn't even have been an issue.  The school officials should have just found a way to accommodate this group of students - did I mention that there were 3 of them?  Just looking around, there were more students congregating in ad hoc groups than these three.  And, did I mention that these were small flags that you can hold in your hand, or maybe tape to your pencil?  Clearly, they represented a threat to the public order.  I haven't checked recently, but I thought that at Tiananmen Square, the rule was to break up groups of five or more.  Perhaps, officials at NAU can relax their standards and adopt the more liberal Chinese rule?  But, that's not how bureaucrats think.  And, certainly that's not how they think when it comes to conservative students.  It's too bad we can't just have a "Use Common Sense" rule!  Later, I was talking with a student about this issue and was told that in the morning there are usually 20-40 students lined up in this very space, at the Starbucks, blocking the doors and congesting the whole area.  Nobody ever comes out to ask for their permit.

Katrina made me do it!  I was watching John Stossel's most excellent show, Stupid in America.  He raised the point that there are now more kids in charter schools in New Orleans than in public schools.  The reason?  Hurricane Katrina.  It wiped out so much infrastructure that the city was pretty much forced to allow for competition (i.e., capitalism) in order to meet their education needs.  Hmm . . . quite a lesson here, but nobody else seems to be talking about it!  Indeed, he had one commentator remark about how we tend to reinvent ourselves after such natural catastrophes, and he cited the San Francisco earthquake and the Chicago fire as additional examples.  But, of course this is disingenuous.  It misses the point that it takes a natural disaster to finally allow us to throw off the shackles of corrupt government and give the market a chance to bloom, reinvigorating our lives.  If only we could learn that lesson without having the natural disasters!!

Thursday, August 25, 2011

   Hiking the Gems in GC - I have hiked the Grand Canyon for over thirty years and covered some pretty spectacular terrain.  Yet, I had never done the so-called "Gems" hike, which is hiking along the Tonto Trail between Boucher Canyon and the South Bass Trail.  This past spring break, I got a chance to do this hike, in no small part due to my continued recovery from an operation to replace my torn ACL.  If you hit this just right, as we did, it can be a magical and pleasant trek that offers lots of grand scenery, brushes with history and ample water.

To read the full hiking blog, go to The Gems:  South Bass to Hermit
located in the Hiking Grand Canyon section of the Kaibab Journal. 

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

   The Civil War @ 150 - I was visiting family back in the Washington, D.C. area and, as I am wont to do, I made sure to see some Civil War sites.  As luck would have it, this year marks the beginning of 4 years of events commemorating 150 years since that time, and the biggest kickoff was going to be a re-enactment of the Battle of Manassas/Bull Run.  Over 8,000 re-enactors were participating in this event, and I was able to go.  We arrived early - 

Click on any photo to see a larger image. 


Early morning arrivals at the Union Camp. 


Dawn breaks over the Union camp.

a bit after 6 a.m., caught a shuttle to the grounds (about 2 miles from the actual 1861 battle, but relatively close to the the site of the 1862 battle).  There were bleachers and standing room areas and the place was packed to the gills.  It was a hot and humid week in the nation's capitol, and free water was being constantly distributed.  Since this was the real start to many more such commemorative events, I decided to ask the editor of my local paper if he'd be interested in a story.  He was, and it ran on Sunday, August 7.  Here is the article, along with some of my photos:

The Civil War: Let the re-enactments begin
Dennis Foster

     In the early afternoon of July 21, 1861, Captains Ricketts and Griffin marshal their artillery batteries into position to attack the unsupported flank of Colonel Thomas Jackson’s brigade.  The thunderous roar of the Federal cannon fills the air.  The Confederate cannon respond in kind.  Smoke covers the field as the first major battle of the Civil War rages on over the plains of Manassas.


Confederate forces (foreground, left) trade gunfire
with Union troops in the early morning battle. 


Confederate forces are outnumbered and are
soon to retreat from Matthews Hill.

     During a scorching week this past July, over eight thousand participants have come to a small town in Virginia to help commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Manassas, the first large scale conflict of the Civil War.  They have come to re-enact the battle, wearing period clothing, armed with period weapons and giving the tens of thousands that have come to watch a brief glimpse of life during that turbulent time.  They are living in camps on the grounds and spend time practicing battle formations.  As we walk around the encampments in the early morning hours, you can half close your eyes and feel as if you have been transported back in time.  Some soldiers are starting to get up, while others stoke small fires.  Others are practicing drills, while a blacksmith is already hard at work.

     We marvel at the bravery and courage of men thrust into war.  We know that there are no bullets, and that the cannon fire blanks, but still we feel some of the realism of the actual event.  We follow the successes and failures of both sides, as this is a war among ourselves.  We can extol the virtue of men fighting for what they believe in, for a cause that unites them, even if the reasons for war, as is so often the case, are flawed.

*****
     Earlier in the day Federal forces, commanded by Colonel Burnside, marched around the Confederate left and crossed the Bull Run nearly undetected.  They were slowed down when Generals Bee and Bartow rallied their men to make a stand on Matthews Hill.  With the entry of Colonel Sherman’s brigade, the Confederate lines crumbled and they retreated to nearby Henry Hill, where Colonel Jackson had just deployed his men.  Jackson’s Virginians stopped the Federal forces, earning him the famous nickname of “Stonewall” Jackson.


Last of the Confederate forces engaged in
battle before giving up Matthews Hill. 


Following the Union success at Matthews Hill,
a lull was punctuated by an artillery duel.

     Of course the issue of slavery is unrelentingly entwined into the birth of the Civil War.  Clearly, it was the driving force for secession in the seven states of the deep South that left the Union before President Lincoln even assumed office.  However, this motivation becomes more complicated for four other slave states that refused to secede until hostilities broke out and President Lincoln called for the raising of an army to quell the rebellion by force.  And, even with one-third of the states in secession, there still remained four other slave states that remained with the Union.

     Likewise, when it comes to the personalities involved, the issue of slavery was convoluted in a way that today we can hardly understand.  The sitting Vice President under Lincoln owned slaves at the outset of the war.  General Grant had owned at least one slave in the late 1850s.  Confederate General Longstreet owned no slaves.  General Pickett, who led a futile charge at Gettysburg, not only didn’t own slaves, but was vocal in his opposition to this execrable institution.

     Indeed, if the Civil War had ended with a Federal victory that day near Manassas, it isn’t clear that slavery wouldn’t have persisted for years, or decades, to come, as Lincoln had no initial intention of challenging slavery in the existing slave states.  It wasn’t until the fall of 1862, with the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation that abolishing slavery became a formal goal of Union efforts in winning the war.

     Today, we have the luxury of knowing how the Civil War turned out and that the terrible price, paid in blood, bought an end to slavery.  Consequently, we can be more detached and relive the battles, immerse ourselves in the tactics and strategies of the two opposing armies, while acknowledging Robert E. Lee’s famous words, “It is well that war is so terrible lest we should grow too fond of it.” 

*****
     The battle seesawed throughout the afternoon, but the arrival of fresh Confederate troops tipped the balance and broke the Federal attack.  As their lines came apart, the retreat turned chaotic and Major Stuart led his cavalry in pursuit.  This attack was met by Major Sykes’ U.S. Regular Infantry, which formed an “infantry square,” a defensive formation that ended the attack and allowed the Federal forces to withdraw.  


The battle for Henry Hill with Confederate forces
(under Jackson), on the left, hold off Union advance. 


Union lines begin to break as fresh Confederate
forces are thrown into battle.

     The events commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War will continue for the next four years.  They will offer innumerable opportunities for us to study and contemplate this period of our history.  And, at the end of the day, we can recall these words from President Lincoln’s second inaugural address, “With malice toward none, and charity for all . . . let us strive on . . . to bind up the nation’s wounds.”

*****
Dennis Foster has lived in Flagstaff for more than 20 years, but was born in Washington, D.C.  He has maintained a strong interest in the Civil War and has visited many of its battlefields. 

For more information:  

The National Park Service maintains most of the Civil War battlefields and will be offering many commemorative events.  Find out more on their web page:
http://www.nps.gov/civilwar150/ 

You can find a more comprehensive listing of Civil War activities here:
http://www.civilwar.org/150th-anniversary/ 

Perhaps the most notable re-enactment will occur at Gettysburg, in 2013.  Keep up with this event through their Visitors’ Bureau:
http://www.gettysburg.travel/

To read more on the Civil War, James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom is an excellent place to start.

To learn about the individual battles of the Civil War, The Civil War Battlefield Guide, published by The Conservation Fund is an indispensable resource.


Cavalry on parade.

The 2nd So. Carolina String Band.

A small unit of Union infantry do
some early morning drilling
in preparation for the
coming battle.

Hard not to root for both sides!

Stonewall Jackson statue.


 
    A few additional comments . . .

Jackson a general.  I relied on the official program for military rank - Burnsides & Sherman were both colonels at this time.  But, later I read that Jackson had been promoted to general a month before the battle.  So, I missed that.  Also, I identified Bartow as a general, although he was a colonel at the time of battle.  He died shortly after being wounded during the battle and was the first brigade commander to die in the Civil War.  He was posthumously made a general, so I thought it fitting to refer to him that way.

Slavery.  As I point out in my article, slavery was an undeniable motive force in inciting the Civil War.  Yet, today Confederate re-enactors, and those that embrace their southern heritage, would have nothing to do with slavery.  Instead, they focus on other aspects of what is often referred to as the "War of Northern Aggression."  And, I for one, am glad they do.  While some deride Confederate symbols as synonymous with slavery, others have pointed out that slavery existed for more years under the "stars and stripes" than it did under the "stars and bar."  Additionally, if slavery is the one single criteria for judging the moral worth of the cause of the Confederacy, consider that such a criteria would tend to make our victory in the Revolutionary War regrettable.  After all, Britain abolished slavery in the 1830s, and if we had lost that contest in 1776, perhaps slavery would have ended earlier for us.  Food for thought.

Blacks were in attendance.  There were some blacks at this event, and some even participating in period costumes.  Not in large numbers, to be sure, but I think more than you would see at a NASCAR race, or at the Grand Canyon.  At the battle re-enactment site, and for the overall commemoration, there were a number of events that focused on blacks during the Civil War, whether slave or free.  One fascinating story in this regard involves "Gentleman" Jim Robinson, a free black man living on his farm at Henry Hill.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

   The Loneliness of the Long Distance Commuter - I recently returned from a trip to the Washington, D.C. area.  I go every few years to visit family.  I usually try to plan some activity that will take me to some Civil War battlefields and this trip was no exception.  But, more on that later.

     While there, I took two metro trips into town.  That's the map to the right.  It seems reasonably efficient and I don't mind riding it.  I don't want to think about how much it cost and whether or not it was worth taxpayer money.  And, I don't want to think about the fact that the government runs this operation.  Indeed, there is a proposal to add another line - the Purple Line - and quite a bit of opposition to it.

     But, what I noticed, once again, was how solitary the riders were.  Virtually everyone, especially during the rush hour commute to work, was a sole rider.  And, while the car was jam packed with people, everyone maintained his/her own distinct eco-vironment (that's probably not a word, so when it is, remember I coined it!).  That is, people were engaged in their own personal activities - reading a book, reading a paper, reading a Kindle,  or doing games, reading, or e-mail on their phones.  And, kept their eyes averted from making contact with anyone else.  It was really quite bizarre.  Apparently, it is a violation of common courtesy to look around at people.  Which is what I did.  But, not that much.  I tended to look out the window a lot.  When you get to the tunnels, that is pretty boring!

     So, why is it that in this place of socialization, people do not socialize?  Sure, there must be some unsavory folks here, but I suspect most are OK people.  I guess it is because people feel like they are forced to socialize because of their need for this transportation.

     You do see a difference during the off-peak hours when there are more tourists.  They are in bigger groups and tend to be much more chatty.  You also see this at the shuttles up at the Grand Canyon (where everyone on board is a tourist!).  So, it must have something to do with how voluntary the experience is - the less so, the more one isolates themselves.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

   Backcountry Plan 2¢ - The National Park Service was soliciting comments for their revision of the backcountry management plan for Grand Canyon.  I previously blogged on the bigger picture here, Wilderness Bull.  But, with the deadline finally arriving (Monday, June 27), I did post off the following comment on-line:

Grand Canyon Backcountry Management Plan
Comments submitted on 6/27/2011

First and foremost, the park needs to reassess its wilderness policy.  Rim access to remote parts of the canyon should not be made more difficult, as has been the case for many years.  For example:

1. Motorized and non-motorized access to Cape Solitude.  Maybe some parts of the year can be reserved for hiking only, or for hiking & bikes only, but some accommodation should be made here.  It would be insane to hike out here in the middle of July, so why not allow vehicles then?

2. Motorized access along the boundary road.  It used to be open to the public, and getting to it is not especially easy, so why not leave it open?  Paying $25 to drive through 1.5 miles of Havasupai lands is just extortion.  Superintendent Alston told me that the park was considering clearing the old road from Dodd Tank to Lauzon Tank to Pasture Wash.  That would be an improvement, although the whole boundary road should be open.

3. Years ago I got a permit to camp at Francois Matthes Pt., on the north rim.  My dad and I drove out there and had a great time.  Today, you can't drive out there.  Why?  You also can't drive out to Tiyo Pt. (so I am told).  Why?  What is the point of closing off these roads?  By keeping people away, what have you accomplished?  Explain this!  And, don't say you're doing this to preserve the park for future generations, because it seems clear that the intent is to close these areas off permanently, so nobody gets to enjoy them.

The new plan should do more to create and maintain mid-level use area in the canyon.  A full-fledged campground at Hermits would be a start, along with some major improvements to camping sites between there and Indian Garden.  Cottonwood campground is often "sold out" during popular times and could be easily expanded.

All the inner canyon campgrounds should be market priced, and probably the best way to do that is by privatizing their operations (with different owners!!!!).

Current party limitations in more remote areas are absurd.  Letting two solo hikers monopolize Nankoweap is untenable.  It would be better to impose and number limit, than a party limit.  This past spring, my 3-person group was permitted for the same areas along the gems as an 8 party group and guess what?  We were on exactly the same itinerary for 3 days, with all of us camping together in Ruby and Slate (the third day, we decided to camp atop the Redwall on the Boucher trail rather than at Boucher creek).  I would also allow people to buy up slots if they really want a solitary experience (maybe on a rising scale; say $5 for the 1st slot, $10 for the 2nd, and so on).

Toilet facilities can be dramatically improved in a lot of sensitive areas, and that doesn't mean the awful tank toilets.  From Glen Canyon Dam to Lees Ferry there are fantastic facilities, maintained by the concessionaire.  It seems to me the same could be done in Grand Canyon at many crucial places - South Canyon, Nankoweap, Little Colorado, Tanner, Hance, Clear Creek, to name but a few.  Given that they are along the river, those users (and hikers) could have a fee that goes to their maintenance.  Also, for areas away from the river, or where hikers predominate, charge more for camping and provide better facilities (Horseshoe Mesa, Hermit, et al.).  The addition of the toilet at the 1.5 Mile house on the BA Trail many years ago still strikes me as having taken a remarkably long time to accomplish!  The ones at the 3 mile house and at the river were long overdue, and make for that much better of an experience.

With regard to backpacking permits, I would suggest consideration of a three tiered system, as follows:
Tier 1:  Permits for designated camping spots in the Corridor and Threshold use areas.
Tier 2:  Permits for open camping in Primitive areas.
Tier 3:  No specific permits necessary for Wild areas.  Require that backpackers file an itinerary with the park (obtaining whatever permits are needed for Tiers 1 & 2).  If use rises dramatically, a wild area can be changed to a Primitive area.

Revise the permitting process.  The fact that it has devolved into a random draw based on fax arrival times is a signal that something is terribly wrong here!

Finally, some have suggested the introduction of predators into the wilderness areas of the Grand Canyon - wolves and bears.  Please, don't do it.  Then, I'll have to start hiking with a gun, and I don't want to have to do that!  It is an example of the "law of unintended consequences."

Thank you for considering my comments.


     Yes, I do use too many exclamation marks.  But, since they mostly ignore whatever I have to say, I suppose I feel like the added emphasis might actually pay off.  OK, probably not.

Wednesday, June 18, 2011

   Wilderness Bull - The National Park Service is beginning the process of revising its Backcountry Management Plan for Grand Canyon.  They held a "scoping" session on the campus of NAU and I went to look over their material.  As I was considering their proposals (which are only tentative as of now), I was struck by how convoluted and contorted their plans were and I realized that this was all due to one key issue - most of the land in the park is "proposed" for wilderness designation in accord with the 1964 Wilderness Act, and the NPS manages those lands accordingly, even though Congress hasn't made any decision in this regard.  So, I asked the editor of the local paper, the Arizona Daily Sun, if he would be interested in a guest editorial on the issue of wilderness, as opposed to me writing something about the backcountry plan itself.  He was, and I did.  Surprisingly, I sent it off a bit after noon on Wednesday, June 8 and he ran it the very next day, and he used my title, which is unusual.  Here it is:

Is “Wilderness” Necessary in Grand Canyon?
Dennis Foster

Imagine biking along the road from the iconic Desert View Watchtower to Cape Solitude, stopping periodically to soak up the vast panorama of the Grand Canyon from atop the Palisades of the Desert.

Imagine driving along the Boundary Road, west of the Grand Canyon Village, in order to hike out to Mescalero Point or Piute Point or to the natural arch at Jicarilla Point.

Imagine driving out to Francois Matthes Point in order to camp overnight on the north rim overlooking Cheyava Falls, the highest waterfall in Grand Canyon.

Imagine all you want, but none of these activities is permitted at Grand Canyon National Park.  That’s because park officials want some 94% of the canyon’s 1.2 million acres to be considered as “wilderness” and managed according to the requirements set out in the 1964 Wilderness Act.

That probably sounds pretty benign.  After all, who could be against wilderness?  Well, I am.  Such a designation requires an act of Congress.  It mandates virtually no human presence, and certainly nothing permanent.  It prohibits any kind of mechanical conveyance, including bicycles.  And, any changes would require another act of Congress.

Congress has not voted to make any of Grand Canyon “wilderness.”  No president, since Nixon, has forwarded a recommendation to Congress asking for Grand Canyon lands to become wilderness, nor has any Interior Secretary make such a recommendation to the President since 1971.  Both of these steps are part of the protocol established by the Wilderness Act.

Yet, the park service has determined, as part of its own internal policy, that “proposed wilderness … will be managed to preserve their wilderness character and values undiminished until Congress acts on the recommendations.”  The fact that Congress has not acted on these proposals for nearly 40 years has become irrelevant to this management decision.

But, that means the park service can really operate beyond the law and treat lands as wilderness just because they want to.  Even if Congress rejected such a proposal, I suspect a new proposal would be made and they’d continue with business as usual.

Applying wilderness designation to national park land is excessive.  These lands are already well protected.  While the Wilderness Act includes national parks, it seems more focused on other lands.  Indeed, there are numerous wilderness areas astride the Grand Canyon, including Kanab Creek, Saddle Mountain and Paria Canyon.  Near to Flagstaff there are the wilderness areas of Kendrick Mountain, Kachina Peaks, Munds Mountain and Sycamore Canyon.  Altogether nearly 5% of the United States is in wilderness areas.  Arizona has some 90 such wilderness areas.  The Grand Canyon does not need to have a “wilderness” designation in order to meet its mandate to preserve its character for future generations.

In July, the Grand Canyon is getting a new Superintendent, Dave Uberuaga.  It appears that he may be at the canyon for many years to come.  He also appears to be receptive to the idea that we don’t need to close up the canyon to preserve it.  I would encourage Superintendent Uberuaga to consider having the park withdraw its recommendation for wilderness designation and return us to an era of responsible management where we can accommodate the visitor experience without loss of the park’s values.

Perhaps then we can do more than imagine camping overnight on an isolated north rim viewpoint, or access remote parts of the canyon without having to hike across miles and miles of forests, or riding a bicycle out to Cape Solitude.  Perhaps we may even come to do more than imagine a reestablished Hermit Camp, catering to hikers as it did a century ago.

Dennis Foster has a Ph.D. in Economics and has many hiked thousands of miles in the wilderness areas of Grand Canyon since 1977.


     I was able to do pretty much all I wanted with this editorial.  I probably could have made a stronger pitch to the new incoming superintendent, but he hasn't even gotten here yet!  The web responses were interesting and many were supportive.  I was kind of surprised that some people get the idea that the park doesn't need wilderness designation to be managed that way.  And, I really hate the idea that it would take an act of Congress to allow bicycles on the Cape Solitude road.

     To the right is the current map the park is using that shows their proposed wilderness areas.  It is linked to the 2010 update on their proposed wilderness document.  The map doesn't show the existing wilderness areas around the park and only identifies some of the other lands without any context.  For example, the lands to the east are Navajo and the tribe doesn't allow any development there.

     A few readers took issue with the fact that I am an economist.  It shows how little most people know about the subject.  Perhaps that will be the subject of a later editorial?

     My editorial triggered a responding guest editorial, "Grand Canyon a deserving wilderness," authored by some local environmentalists.  Their editorial lays out some of the facts and issues surrounding the wilderness issue, but didn't address my contention that it is unnecessary in order for the park to manage these lands in this way.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

   A Quiet Mt. Humphreys? - This past weekend, hiking buddy John Eastwood, his new dog, Buddy, and I took a trek up Mt. Humphreys, the highest point in Arizona (12,600+ feet).  We could see snow on the peaks, but thought we'd make it to the top without much trouble.  I did bring along a pair of Kahtoolas, and, in retrospect, John should have as well.  We mostly encountered snow along the shady, northerly-facing part of the trail that winds its way through the forest.  There, we were often trekking across packed snow that was 3 to 4 feet above the trail.  It was cold, and everything was quite solid on the way up.  We left the lower parking area at the Snowbowl Ski Area at 7:45 a.m. and headed up alongside the chair lift, until we reached a road.  From there, we followed a ridge up until we met the trail.  So, we cut off some snowy sections, but we still had quite a bit to cover before popping out onto a southerly-facing section that then climbs above the tree line and to a saddle, between Humphreys and Agassiz, where there is a good resting spot out of the elements.

     And, elements we did have!  The saddle is at about 11,500 feet and John had seen a weather forecast for 50+ mph winds at that elevation, with a daytime high of only 35 degrees.  It was very windy over the whole trip and especially so as we neared the summit.  That got me to thinking about the whole "natural quiet" issue, about which I just blogged with regard to the Grand Canyon.  You see, that phrase does not mean quiet, even though advocates imply that to be the case.  It really means that all the noise you hear is not man-made.  And, today we had lots of noise.  So much so, that it was hard to hear each other even when yelling.  At the summit, we guestimated that the winds were blowing upwards to twice has hard as we had been experiencing.  Maybe that would make it about 70 mph.  It felt like we could easily blow over the side, which causes one to crouch down low and take steps with great care.  I determined that if the wind is able to blow your hiking pole sideways, it's blowing too hard!  We stayed at the top for hardly ten minutes.  I was reluctant to taking off my pack and dig around for something to eat.  I just didn't trust that something might blow away, into the Inner Basin.

     I did get a chance to pull out my phone and send a photo to friends and family.  But, even just taking off my gloves for a couple of minutes practically gave me frostbite!  Not the cold so much as the wind.  I wore my balaclava from the saddle to the summit, and then back down to the saddle.  Brrr.  Once back to the saddle, we grabbed a spot that is always leeward here and had something to eat and rested for the better part of an hour.

     Coming back down, we decided to make an earlier departure from the trail, to avoid all the snowpacked sections, or, at least, many of them.  So, we reached a switchback and started down.  We were quite successful at this, and hardly had to cross any snowy areas.  Indeed, we were usually following some multi-colored ribbons that someone had strung up in the trees, perhaps to mark this more direct route through the woods.

Click on any photo to see a larger image. 

Starting hike from Snowbowl. 

"ASU 1962" along short cut way down. 

Snowpacked trail in shady spots. 

Past the saddle, bundled up! 

From the summit to Agassiz 

John & Buddy at the summit.
A view into the Inner Basin.  Dennis & Buddy at saddle. Agassiz and the ski runs.


     It was a long day.  We started at 7:45 a.m., reached the summit at about 12 noon, were back down to the saddle at 1:15 p.m., where we rested until 2 o'clock.  Then, we packed up and headed down the trail, reaching John's truck at about 4:30 p.m.  It was a nice hike for me, even if it did take all day.  It is the first significant hike I have done without my neoprene knee sleeve in over a year.  It felt good and I look forward to more hikes this summer.

Friday, May 13, 2011

   Good Copter, Bad Copter - The National Park Service has released an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) with regard to overflights at the Grand Canyon.  This process has been going on for years, and I wrote a blog, Noisy Grand Canyon?, in 2006 in response to their original scoping session.  I also wrote an editorial during one of my stints with the local paper on natural quiet, which is the driving force behind this effort to restrict overflights.  The EIS release was accompanied by some open houses on the topic, and, as usual, Flagstaff was included.  So, I went.  At the time I was wrapping up a hiking story for the paper and asked the editor if he would like an editorial on this overflight issue.  He was interested and, in fact, had already received an editorial blasting the park service's proposal as being woefully insufficient.  It took a few weeks to get this one done, due to the crush of my other obligations, but with a comment period open until June, it wasn't necessary to rush.  I submitted it in early May and it ran, side-by-side with the other editorial, on Wednesday, May 11:

Flights promote access, diversity
by Dennis Foster

The National Park Service is currently considering new overflight rules for Grand Canyon. In general, the proposals are intended to constrain and regulate the air tour industry in ways that will do little to improve and enhance the experience of visitors to this scenic place.

Indeed, considering the wide array of human interactions with the Grand Canyon, you would be hard-pressed to find any activity that has less of an environmental impact than do these overflights. Less than the visitors to the rim, the hikers below the rim or the boaters on the river. And, certainly less than the NPS helicopters that fly below the rim, whose impacts are excluded from this proposal.

However, the Park Service has been charged by Congress to restore "natural quiet" to most of the Grand Canyon. Exactly what this means is contentious. It doesn't necessarily mean quiet as you and I would understand it. And, while I would consider humans as part of nature, that's not what they mean, either. Suffice to say it really boils down to competition among various special interests and how they want to control the Grand Canyon experience.

Among those special interests are my brothers and sisters in the backpacking community. You may be surprised to learn that they are a selfish and greedy lot, who would like to have the Grand Canyon all to themselves, without the inconvenience of other people intruding on "their" special place. It would be a huge mistake to assume that they have some singular insight about the canyon. If that was true, then my 30-plus years of hiking the canyon would give me more influence than I have, assuming I have any. I do more than tolerate the fact that other people will want to experience the canyon in ways different from me; I embrace this diversity of experiences, and consider them all equally valuable to the human condition.

I do not envy the balancing act that the Park Service has to maintain. I agree with much of what they have already done - no air tours over the corridor area, nor over the developed areas of the rims, nor at the beginning and end of the day. There should be separation as well as accommodation.

But, their current proposal goes too far. They want to create seasonal shifts in the two overflight corridors, closing each for half the year. And, they want to expand the daily curfews to 15 hours a day, in the summer, and 17 hours a day, in the winter.

These particular restrictions will have the effect of increasing the congestion along the overflight corridors, potentially doubling the traffic on those routes when they are open. When I quizzed an official at the open house about this point, they seemed surprised by this simple math.

Further, the imposition of a daily cap and the raising of the minimum elevation level in the flight-free zones appear to be solutions in search of a problem, and without any but the most arbitrary of reasoning.

More troubling is the bureaucratic mandate of so-called "quiet technology" within 10 years. Wouldn't it be nice if the government could just wave a magic wand and make aircraft quiet? I don't know anyone who is opposed to such technology, but the question is always going to be one of costs and whether the tradeoffs make it a worthwhile proposition. I am content to let the market determine the extent and pace of the introduction of such technology, rather than some bureaucracy.

In the Draft Environmental Impact Statement, Alternative A is identified as the "No Action" alternative. That is a bit of a misnomer, as it leads to "substantial restoration of natural quiet ... over ... 53 percent of the park." That meets the Congressional mandate and should be acceptable to everyone until we revisit the issue again in 2021.

Dennis Foster has a Ph.D. in economics, has hiked the Grand Canyon since 1977, has testified before a congressional committee on Grand Canyon management issues and has taken two helicopter tours of the Canyon.


     I think that my commentary speaks for itself and doesn't need any elaboration.  The other editorial, by Deanna Wulff, really seemed to make my point.  She was all about banning helicopters because they intrude on her ability to enjoy solitude in the canyon.  Her tone and opinion didn't surprise me, but I will make a few comments nonetheless:

Solitude at night.  She relates her experience of being ill-prepared for her first hike in the canyon and spending a night "under the gentle moonlight" in "quiet solitude."  OK, I get it.  And, I have lots of cool experiences with the quiet that fills up the space at night.  But, that isn't going to change.  There are no overflights (of the touring variety) allowed from one hour before sunset to one hour after sunrise.  [The current EIS wants to push that to a couple of hours.]

The entitlement problem.  She writes that she "moved to Flagstaff, so I could hike in the Grand Canyon . . . Unfortunately, I discovered the assault of a flyover zone."  So, we can establish that these overflights came before Ms. Wulff arrived, yet she seems quiet comfortable imposing her view of what is acceptable, and unacceptable.  Although I have labeled this the "entitlement problem," perhaps I should have labeled it the "arrogance problem."

The flyover zone.  The uninformed reader will probably think that helicopters fly over the entire canyon all the time.  Of course, they don't.  They have two specific flyover zones and Ms. Wulff doesn't acknowledge that one can seek out fantastic hiking opportunities elsewhere in the canyon out of earshot of these helicopters.  But, not necessarily out of earshot of all helicopters.  Pictured to the right is a park service helicopter flying way outside of these zones which we encountered on our recent hike through "the gems."  It was searching for an ultralight vehicle and its pilot that went missing a couple of days before our hike began.  We saw it fly up and down the canyon once, or twice, each of the first three days of our hike.  [Go see a map of the areas searched by air!]  This kind of noise is not included in the EIS.  At the open house I attended, an official told me, "It is a matter of health and safety."  Well, I can't argue with that, having been the recipient of just such a health and safety visit.  But, I think it is disingenuous to restrict the "noise" of the commercial overflights when there is noise from these NPS flights.

The world is full of noise.  Well, sure, but she infers that there is no quiet anywhere.  Quite absurd.  Here in Flagstaff, a short drive can take you to innumerable quiet locales.  And, with great scenery to boot.  And, that is true even in the big city.  I used to live in Honolulu.  On the weekends I would hike up the Manoa Falls trail and it didn't take long to feel like you were light years from civilization.  That has been true pretty much anywhere I have lived.  Ms. Wulff's characterization is just exaggerated ranting and raving.

The wishes of the one versus many.  You couldn't find a more apt example of the desires of the few (hikers) trying to overwhelm the desires of the many (tourists).  Yet, Ms. Wulff asks, "Should an individual have the right to fly over the Grand Canyon at the detriment to everyone else?"  She has the question phrased backwards.  It should be, does she have the right to an absolutely quiet Grand Canyon to the detriment of the thousands that also want to see its majesty and beauty?  Apparently, the answer is, "Yes."

An arrogant philosophy.  She ends by claiming that, "[t]he park should be approached with reverence."  Says who?  Says her, and others of her ilk.  And, does that make her right?  No, it only makes her arrogant.  She can enjoy the park in solitude if she is willing to work at it.  She is being accommodated by the current rules imposed on overflights.  But, that just doesn't seem to be enough for her.

Wednesday, May 5, 2011

   Atlas Annoyed - I don't know if it is some kind of cosmic joke.  If it is, I just don't get it.  I have seen Atlas Shrugged twice and been sorely disappointed both times.  Not by the content, but by the presentation.  I saw it in Phoenix and couldn't believe that the movie could be so dark.  Not in a figurative manner, but really hard to see.  It was like taking a picture at dusk with your flash turned off.  The outdoor shots were OK, but all of the interior scenes were just hard to see.  I pored over the reviews on the web and came to the conclusion that it wasn't the film, since nobody else commented on that.  Instead, I figured, it must have been the movie theater.  Seeing as how there was only the one place showing this movie in all of Arizona, it seems like a shame.

     So, I was prepared to wait until the DVD comes out and then see a well-renditioned copy of the film.  But, then, a local entrepreneur managed to make arrangements for the film to come to Flagstaff for a single showing.  I went, hoping to get a better presentation, but, alas, I am starting to shrug something fierce.  I can't say that it was too dark, but being in the second row may have something to do with my perceptions.  But, it was not sharp and clear.  All of the wide shots were made up of fuzzy little objects.  The drive to Wisconsin looked like a silver smudge moving across the screen.  The close ups of the actors were fine, as the distorting effects were minimized as a consequence.  But, everything else was blurred.

     And, then there was this distracting effect of cutting off the tops of people's heads.  In at least a half dozen scenes, there is a speaking character whose head, above the nose, is completely off screen.  Yikes!  Is this just a bad joke?  I sure hope it isn't some kind of artsy-fartsy attempt to make a statement.  If so, it doesn't work.  And, I really don't believe that was the intent.

     What am I to conclude?  Well, even though there were only 300 copies of the film distributed for theatrical release, I must have seen a bad copy.  I am quite sure that the one I saw in Flagstaff must be the same one shown in Tempe.  And, the theaters compound the problem with poor projection equipment and lax oversight with regard to the quality of the product.  This isn't the first time that has happened, but I couldn't be more aware of the seeming irony given that this film is about how smart and driven people, who make our lives better in a thousand different ways, are constantly being degraded and torn down by shallow and incompetent fools.  Apparently, these shallow and incompetent fools are responsible for producing, distributing and showing this movie.  We have seen the enemy and he is . . . pretending to be one of us!

     On the other hand, this morning I watched a movie I had recorded on my DVR.  It was called, "Hunter Prey," came out just last year (I had never heard of it) and was being shown in high def on Showtime.  With a budget only 3% as large as Atlas, it was crystal clear, easy to hear and light years better than what I had just seen on the big screen.  And, at 53 inches, watching on my TV is a very acceptable alternative to the big screen at the theater.  Maybe it is just time for me to totally give up on "going to the movies."  Granted there is the socialization element, and the sound, but there is so much quality variation that I am just not sure it is worth it.  Better to wait a few months and watch a really good copy of the film.  Maybe it is time for me to return my Harkins loyalty cup!

     I think that a well-lit, well-framed copy of Atlas Shrugged (Part I) will be great to have and to watch.  The theatrical version was a total blow out.  If they really do Parts II and III, I am pretty sure I'll wait for the DVDs.  But, after watching a second time, I do have one other complaint about the film - Dagny Taggart's heels were too tall.  It took me a while to realize that her clunky style of walking was due to this fact.  But, there is a scene where we get a close up view of the heels (did I mention that I was in the second row?) and they must have been 6 inches.  Maybe the intent was to make her real tall and tower above everyone else.  Maybe.  But, it really is just impractical for her, and not at all consistent with how I remember her character from the book.  More suitable for going out clubbing than for a crisis manager.  Is this really any way to run a railroad?

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

   Woods at NAU - I first encountered the work of Tom Woods when I read about the "Great Depression of 1921."  [Or, watch the excellent video posted up on YouTube, or read Bob Murphy's account in the Freeman.]  I liked it so much, I used some of this material as part of my annual contribution to the Economic Outlook Conference, organized by the business college at Northern Arizona University (NAU).

     Then, I fell into the Mises Academy, an on-line series of courses with an Austrian bent.  Although I had heard of its most famous member - F. A. Hayek - I knew next to nothing of this school of economic thought.  Over the late spring, summer and fall of 2010, I signed on for six of their courses.  One of the first was a course on the Great Depression, taught by Tom Woods.  I had been using some material on this subject in my money and banking classes for a couple of years (The Forgotten Man and Rethinking the Great Depression).  So, this was an excellent opportunity to add to my knowledge and to learn more of the Austrian perspective.  During the course, the topic of "nullification" came up, as Woods had just published a book on that subject.  He was also going to be teaching a class on the subject, so I decided to enroll in that one as well.

     It was a great class.  It is really a history class, which is Woods' expertise, and it is difficult for me to branch out beyond economics, especially in the middle of a school semester, but it was fascinating.  In the late fall of 2010, he spoke at Grand Canyon University, in Phoenix, and I drove down to see his presentation.

     Ever since then, I had thought about getting him to speak at NAU.  But, my enthusiasm waned a bit as the months rolled by and my attention was diverted to other matters.  Then, an Arizona state senator proposed that a committee be formed, in the legislature, that would consider whether certain federal laws should be nullified (which would then go to a vote before the legislature).  And, editorials popped up, along with misinformed letters.  So, I was re-energized, decided to strike while the iron was hot, and made arrangements for Tom to speak at NAU.

     So, on April 6th, he came to town.  Before the talk, I arranged to host him for dinner with some of the students in the NAU Conservatives (which I serve as the faculty advisor) and my new public choice class.  Pictured above (click to see a bigger image), clockwise from my empty seat, are Jacob, Shantell, Tom Woods, John, Beth, Christian, Carolina, Meagan, Rachael and Dustin.  It was a great time and I am sure that all of my students enjoyed this opportunity to meet with, and talk to, Tom Woods.  [They also liked the fact that I was subsidizing their meal!]

     The event was great.  About 175 people were in attendance.  I was hoping for more, but that's a good crowd.  Bob at Reclaim Liberty has posted a podcast of the speech!  Elisha at the Flagstaff Liberty Alliance was active in drumming up support and even staged a rally out in front of city hall!  And, the local paper featured a very positive story on the event, on the front page!  There were also a lot of letters and most were positive, which surprised me a bit.  Overall it was a great time, but it did wear me out with the logistics and arrangements.  I think I will content myself to being a follower while I restore balance to my life!

Related blog:  Nullification, AZ

Monday, March 21, 2011

   Banning Campfires - A group of residents has recently formed to push for the forest service to permanently ban campfires in our local forests from May 1 through to the start of our "monsoon" season, usually in early July.  It is an idea that presumes we can just legislate fires away and that we know with certainty that May 1 is the right date for such a ban.  That is the wrong way to address this issue.  There are smarter ways to minimize the risk, and I, for one, am also concerned about these fires.  To the right is a photo taken during last summer's "Hardy" fire.  It was within a couple of miles of my house and I had gotten a robo-call from the county to be ready to evacuate if it came to that!  The photo shows the billowing smoke rising above the nearby Little America hotel.  It was started by a transient who was camping out in the woods.  Since that is, in and of itself, illegal, how likely is it that this person would have obeyed any law that prevented campfires?  None.  But, if we can only wave our magical government wand, we can make all these problems disappear!  [Click on the photo to see a larger image.]  So, literally minutes before heading out the door for a six day hike in Grand Canyon, I sent off a letter, which ran in the local paper on the 17th: 

Don't ban campfires if volunteer patrols work

To the editor:

Calling for a mandatory campfire ban in the forest on May 1 illustrates the problem of government – finding the one single rule that pleases no one.  I hope we can all agree that any such ban will not prevent transients from starting campfires, nor kids from playing with matches in their forest back yards, nor campfires started by those who will just choose to ignore the law.

Mostly, the ban will constrain the activities of people who are well-behaved and responsible.  It is not clear to me that the Schultz fire wouldn’t have happened even with a ban.

Although I find the motivations of the forest service generally suspect, in this regard I would give them high marks for trying their best to accommodate the public without accepting too much risk.  Of course, people who live close to the forest probably prefer that the risk be kept close to zero.  If that was really our goal, then we would just clear cut the whole forest and the threat of a fire would be minimized.

A better solution would be to engage in some volunteer monitoring of major forest service roads during the peak fire season, in May and June.  There aren’t that many roads where you’ll have casual campers who may be the more likely to inadequately kill their campfires.  Volunteers can drive through during the morning and check on these places to insure that the fires are out.  I’d sign up.

A few notes . . .

Fixed rules frustrate everyone.  We have a fixed rule for winter-time parking on the street.  None is allowed beginning November 1.  Yet, many winters see little, or no snow in November.  So, why not park on the street then?  Well, the excuse is, "Just because."  Awful.  Why not just declare certain days as prohibited parking, based on the snowfall?  Indeed, can't we figure that out for ourselves?  If tow companies could earn a profit towing cars parked on the street after 8 pm, then I suspect people would be very careful about being cavalier about this.  Likewise, if we have a rainy late April and the forests are not especially susceptible to fire danger in early May, why have a mandatory ban?  Then, people will ignore the law, weakening its force.

Fires that won't be stopped.  As I alluded to in the letter, and wrote about, above, the Hardy fire was started by a transient.  The kids' fire was also nearby my house - a couple of miles to the northeast.  That was the "Christmas Tree" fire.  We may have been in a ban at the time, but how is that going to stop these kinds of fires?  Also, another fire we've had was started by a forest service employee, who was welding some equipment and a spark flew off to start a fire.  Another fire began from sparks from a blown out tire.  A few years back, we had a big fire which was the result of a prescribed burn done in the spring (where they burn off these piles of dead wood) that hadn't gone completely out.  And, then there was the huge Rodeo-Chediski fire that was started by a lost hiker and a fire fighter that wanted more work (it was two separate fires that merged into one).  Bans won't stop these fires, nor, of course, ones that are nature-caused!  A better general solution has been to promote forest thinning, with which we have had some success.

Monitoring is inevitable.  Even if there is a ban, someone will have to monitor it.  Presumably, that means the forest service, since I am sure there would be no end of conniption fits if citizen groups started patrolling the forest in search of violators!  And, if the forest service has the personnel to enforce a ban, don't they have the personnel to just go and check for inadequately doused campfires?  And, if they don't, how will such a ban be enforced.  I think my idea of a volunteer group that merely goes out to check on these abandoned campfires is far less likely to result in confrontations and some escalated police action.  A few of the comments on the web indicated support for this idea!

Related blog:  Fire as Failure.

Monday, February 21, 2011

   Nullification, AZ - State Senator Lori Klein wants to create a committee that would look at federal laws to determine whether or not they are constitutional, as viewed from the state's perspective.  If they have a suspect law, the legislature can vote on whether to "nullify" its implementation in Arizona.

     Wow!  I have had the chance to study this issue last year when I signed up for Tom Woods' class at the Mises Institute.  He had written a book titled, "Nullification," pictured to the right (and linked to Amazon).  I was thoroughly fascinated by the topic, about which I knew so little, not surprisingly, since I am a product of government schools.  He went over the origins of this idea, and I was easily convinced of its legitimacy.  The states formed the federal government to act on their behalf with regard to expressly delegated powers.  But, the federal government often oversteps its bounds (well, today, it is continuous).  So, who is to decide when this happens?  Most people would say that the federal courts, and, ultimately, the Supreme Court, are the final arbiters in these matters.  But, Jefferson, et al., argued that makes no sense - how can you trust an agency of the federal government to really be impartial in a dispute between a state and the feds?  That's not to say it can't happen, but there is a bias and conflict of interest here.  State nullification, whereby a state decides that a federal law is unconstitutional, is the solution, and one that is continuing to be practiced, even if rather informally.

     So, enter a host of local politicians, seemingly influenced by Woods' book, that have taken up the cause.  It will be interesting to see how this plays out in Arizona.  Still, there was a negative editorial in the local paper, and a couple of ill-informed letters.  Consequently, I decided to jump into the fray, and penned a letter that ran in Sunday's paper.  Here it is, along with the title the editor gave it:

States empowered to curtail federal power

To the editor:

How do you control a federal government that has an insatiable appetite, whose growth has an almost Newtonian equal and opposite effect on our personal liberties and freedoms?  You craft a constitution that limits its powers and add an amendment that declares that all other powers are left to the states.

Who will enforce these limits?  Clearly, federal institutions are unreliable.  The Kentucky Resolutions of 1798, drafted by Thomas Jefferson, declared that states are the ultimate arbiter by way of rejecting the heinous Alien and Sedition Acts.

The principle of nullification was most often used by northern states, but more famously by South Carolina in 1840 to oppose crushing federal tariffs.  That standoff lead to a compromise on these tariffs, and not to the Civil War as some have suggested.  A less famous case, although it shouldn’t be, occurred in the 1850s, when Wisconsin nullified the brutal Fugitive Slave Act.

Today, there are two de facto applications of the nullification principle at work.  The Real ID Act is the law of the land, but most states have refused to enforce it.  For now, the feds have dropped this matter.

Also, marijuana possession is still a federal crime, despite the actions of an increasing number of states, Arizona included, to allow for its use for medicinal purposes.  The Supreme Court ruled, in Gonzales v. Raich, that such use was in violation of the federal law, but California continues to flaunt this law, and I for one, give them my full support.  Likewise, kudos to Senator Klein for pushing Arizona in the direction of compelling the federal government to abide by the limits set out in the constitution.

A few notes . . .

These cases are hard to argue.  The health care debate may be the straw that broke the camel's back in this matter, but there are plenty of cases to cite where nullification was used to justify non-compliance.  Those that argue against this idea must accept the federal government's stance on all of these issues.

The Raich case.  Another in a string of awful cases, whereby the federal government uses (or, abuses) the commerce clause to regulate purely in-state activity.  Justice Thomas' dissent is especially powerful and worth reading.  In his opening paragraph, he notes, "If Congress can regulate this under the Commerce Clause, then it can regulate virtually anything–and the Federal Government is no longer one of limited and enumerated powers."

The Civil War issue.  One of the current public members of the Daily Sun editorial board penned a column blasting this nullification effort, claiming that the South Carolina case was resolved by the Civil War.  Of course, that is more than just wishful thinking, it is wrong.  That action created a lot of tension, but lead to a resolution of the tariff issue (which northern states used to harm southern states).  The issue of secession is separate from nullification, and, indeed, one of the major arguments backing up nullification is that it would make states less likely to invoke secession!

The Supremacy issue.  Left unsaid is anything about federal laws trumping state laws due to the "supremacy clause."  But, this is not true.  The trumping only applies to expressly delegated powers.  For example, the state of Arizona can't independently decide against NAFTA - the federal government is expressly granted the right to make treaties.  My letter was running a little long, so I had to omit a short paragraph on that topic.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

   Getting to Kolb Natural Bridge - In the fall of 2010, I had the good fortune of participating in the fourth Grand Canyon Hikers & Backpackers Association hikers'  symposium, titled, "Echoes & Reflections."  I had chosen to tell the story of a day hike I took up to Kolb Natural Bridge while on a six day solo loop hike through Nankoweap and Kwagunt canyons, at the eastern/northern corner of the main part of Grand Canyon.  Since I have pulled together photos from that trip and scanned them into my computer, I figure I should add a hiking page to my site with this story...

Read the full story:
Getting to Kolb Natural Bridge
in the Hiking Grand Canyon section of the Kaibab Journal

Sunday, November 21, 2010

   TSA - The Stupid Agency - The recent hullabaloo over the full body scanners and the invasive pat downs at airports is a classic example of the insanity we should come to expect from government bureaucrats who are given the power to make decisions that affect our lives.  They refuse to see the situation in its entirety.  They want to frame the issue only in a way that allows them to exert more power over us.  There are at least these three important points to make in this "debate:"

We know how to defeat terrorists.  When faced with a new threat, we learn and adapt.  Following the plane hijacking of 9/11, the passengers on Flight 93 acted to prevent a recurrence of what had happened in New York and in Washington.  It didn't take years of study to come up with a plan of action.  The lesson here is to rely on the individual action of the passengers themselves to prevent terrorist actions.  Given a suitable level of screening, to detect guns and knives, it is virtually impossible today for a group of men to take over an airplane "armed" with box cutters.  Indeed, the threat today is not that someone will find a way to take over a plane and use it as a weapon.  Instead, it is that a terrorist will do something to blow up the plane.  So, how do we stop that?  Simple - rely on the passengers to self-monitor their own behavior.  That is how the shoe bomber was stopped.  That's how the underwear bomber was stopped as well.  The solution to this problem is not to waste ever-growing amounts of money on these ridiculous scanners and a bloated government agency.  Instead, it is to scan for the big stuff, keep the pilots safe, and let the passengers and flight attendants use common sense curb any hostile actions.

Market solutions are better.  This is yet another example of why markets are better than government.  There have been plenty of people saying that they'd rather be safe than sorry (or, dead!).  That, of course, ignores the relative danger we'd face in the absence of these so-called security measures.  Let's keep the procedures in place to avoid a repeat of 9/11 style attack.  But, since only the individual plane is now at risk, let individual airlines decide on whether to use "enhanced" screening techniques.  If passengers demand these procedures, airlines will provide them.  If they don't, then airlines won't.  The market can better cater to our wide variety of tastes and preferences (even for risk) than can the government with its one-size-fits-all solution.

Why only airline passengers?  Noting that it is only the planes that are at risk, why is it that only airline passengers are subject to these searches?  Well, simply because they can, even if it creates an obvious disparity in how different people are treated differently.  That is, why not do similar screenings for people boarding a subway, or a bus, or a train?  Clearly, the inconvenience far outweighs the benefit.  Does anybody remember the Madrid bombings or the bombings in London?  These terrorist actions show that targets are fungible.  Who, after all, could possibly stop a suicide bomber from running into an elementary school and wreaking havoc?  Well, when it happens I am sure that we will then spend an inordinate amount of time, energy, and money on turning schools into fortresses.  [Although, mass shootings on college campuses hasn't resulted in that outcome . . .  yet.]  There are an almost infinite supply of terrorist targets.  We can't body scan everyone engaged in everyday activities.  Let's just do more to allow for individuals to act rationally.  And, get rid of these scanners, pat downs, and, while we're at it, the TSA!

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

   Biased "Inside NAU" - Senior Research Fellow Jay Greene just published a study through the Goldwater Institute titled, "Administrative Bloat at American Universities."  Using a government database, he finds that per pupil administrative employment/cost has been rising over the time frame studied, 1993-2007.  He argues (persuasively), that universities should be experiencing economies of scale so that these "overhead" costs should be declining.  [Not in an absolute sense, but in a proportional sense - that is, while student enrollment is rising, one would expect administrative costs to rise as well, but at a slower rate.]  Indeed, if they experience diseconomies of scale, then that means the university system is too big.  You can see his full presentation (45 minutes) at the Goldwater Institute home page as of now, or the copy posted up at YouTube.  It is well worth watching - he fills in some of the back story here as well as some of the controversy this study has generated.  His basic argument is that the subsidization of universities, by the state and federal governments, provides administrators the distorted incentive to grow their own budgets and salaries.  In a market economy, where students are paying the entire cost of these services, that wouldn't happen (because students wouldn't see any benefit and would go elsewhere).

     So, how do you think university administrators will react to this study?  Well, no surprise, they don't like it.  A short article on this study appeared on the front page of the Daily Sun.  Most of the comments on-line indicate that the writers didn't understand the argument, nor took the time to actually read the report.  The story also included comments from Tom Bauer, who is the director of the university's Public Affairs Office.  Shortly thereafter, his office, which e-publishes a weekly newsletter called InsideNAU, had their lead story blasting away at the Goldwater study.  That surprised me because this newsletter is generally the model of boring cheerleading for the university.  The newsletter characterized the GI as a "politically motivated think tank" and as "a special interest similar to those they are quick to criticize."  Instead of acknowledging that this can be a problem, and one that the university has to monitor, they have taken an aggressive stance of attacking the messenger to distract us from the message.

     Indeed, the justification for their disdain for the study, as it may relate to NAU, was stated in five bullets:  NAU's tuition is lower than peers, enrollment has grown quite a lot, NAU has a lot of residential students, it has extensive "distance learning programs," and that more research is being done.  The first three are totally irrelevant to the arguments of this study.  The last two seem relevant, but if the university isn't going to quantify their impact, all they do is lead to the false impression that administrative costs have risen faster than enrollment because of an ever faster growing distance program and research agenda.  If that were true, they would trumpet this result and say, "See, we are the good guys that have actually reduced administrative bloat."  But, sadly, they didn't.

     So, I got into this when a colleague sent me a note asking, "Why are conservative or libertarian think tanks the only institutions that are politically motivated?"  Exactly.  They would never characterize any other group this way, and it just goes to show you the inbred bias that permeates the university culture.  I penned an e-mail to Bauer and copied a contact of mine at the GI:

It may be that the purpose of the e-publication “Inside NAU” is to be a crass propaganda organ for the administration of the university, but I hadn’t previously suspected that such was the case.  The recent item criticizing the Goldwater Institute was both dismaying and embarrassing.  To characterize this non-profit think tank as “politically motivated” and as some kind of “special interest” is really nothing more than an ad hominem attack, and, I would think, unworthy of our institution.

I might note, by way of contrast, that Van Jones spoke on the NAU campus last semester.  The Inside NAU story on his appearance was nothing short of glowing, extolling him as a “pioneer in human rights and the clean-energy economy.”  [3/10/2010]  I didn’t read anything in that “story” about his association with Marxism, his support of a convicted cop killer, nor his obscene characterization of Congressional Republicans.  So, one must wonder, exactly what is the political motivation of the staff at Inside NAU?

Perhaps a better path to follow here would be to show some tolerance for differing opinions and engage in some open and honest debate on this issue.  Certainly, we can all agree that administrative costs are easy to inflate.  Are they too high?  Or, are they too low?  It would seem a worthwhile topic of further inquiry, rather than one that calls for us to circle the wagons.  Such an inquiry would seem to  be well within our mandate.

I know people at the Goldwater Institute.  I have given a presentation at the Goldwater Institute and I have published a policy paper through them.  Among their Senior Fellows is Vernon Smith, a Nobel Prize winning economist, whom I have had the pleasure of meeting at the Goldwater Institute.  As I look around the campus of NAU, I don’t see any Nobel Prize winners.

I would ask that the next edition of Inside NAU contain an apology to the people associated with the Goldwater Institute for the biased and unseemly characterization contained in this story.


    
The response by Bauer was disappointing to say the least, but not exactly unexpected:

Dennis,

Inside NAU normally avoids running institutional statements, but occasionally there is no other recourse.

The report released by the Goldwater Institute was not intended for honest and open debate. The report—hidden from  universities but provided to the media well in advance of a late afternoon program—was intended for headlines.

We welcome different opinions and honest discourse, but it’s difficult when a study is so obviously biased.

Tom


     Maybe he just doesn't get it.  Which tells me the bias is pretty deeply ingrained.  And, if you think an apology is coming, don't hold your breath!

Sunday, August 29, 2010

   The LCD Bumper Sticker - I have this feeling like I am the inventor of a few items over my life.  I don't know if it is some kind of evolutionary survival tool - that I have this feeling - or, if it is real.  When I was working the graveyard shift at the Colorado National Bank in 1976, I wore a set of headphones that tuned in radio stations.  I dreamed up an alternative, where you could play tapes.  And, according to Wikipedia, Sony developed their famous Walkman just a couple years later.  So, I am probably due huge amounts of money.

     At the same time, I also invented (in a virtual sense) the moped.  There had always been motorized scooters, but my vision seemed to presage the huge jump in demand in the late 1970s/early 1980s.  Well, at least I think so.

     And, in an earlier blog, I commented on the idea of self-orienting maps.  Since we now have a nice way to time stamp our ideas, I am pretty sure that when this comes into being, I will be credited as a co-creator.  Of course, I won't have been responsible for any of the real work, but, hey, it's still my idea.

     So, in that vein, I have recently invented the LCD bumper sticker.  Not a bumper sticker that has lousy looking LCD script, like they sell over at Zazzle.  Yeech.  [Although, I have bought some cool stuff from them.]  And, not the lame looking LCD license plate holders that apparently exist somewhere.  No, I am thinking about a device that would attach to your bumper, or car trunk, that would be an LCD screen.  It would be bright and clear, like cell phone displays are.  You can plug it into your trailer hitch connection to power it on when you drive, so it can be off (or removed for storage) while you are parked.  What is doubly cool about this is that you can program in new bumper stickers all the time!  I think it would sell like hot cakes.  Feel like a jerk for putting on that Obama/Biden sticker a couple of years ago?  Well, now you can remove it, or change it to something more appropriate, like "Don't build the Ground Zero Mosque."  Is your favorite team playing a tough game this weekend?  Then, change out your sticker to read, "Broncos Rule! Raiders Suck!"  [That was just an example.]    Maybe you'd like to display a cool scenic photo you took of the Grand Canyon.  The possibilities are endless.  And, you can download new stickers from the web and send them to your device wirelessly.  Or, hook them up to your computer to download new images.

     I suspect they'll be a bit pricey at first, which is why you won't see Ron Popeil pitching them.  But, I am sure that people will really snatch them up.  I did some web searching and found that VW had plans for a similar thing back in 2006.  But, it seems that it was built into the bumper, and I have never seen them.  I'll take two when they come out.

Friday, July 30, 2010

   Friedman Birthday Party - After Milton Friedman died in 2006, Tom Jenney decided to host a casual meeting of folks on the anniversary of Friedman's birthday - July 31.  Jenney is the State Director of the Americans for Prosperity - Arizona organization, which had been the Arizona Federation of Taxpayers.  I first met Tom back in the late 1990s, when he was working at the Goldwater Institute and they were publishing a monograph I wrote on transportation issues at the Grand Canyon.

     I had been thinking of emulating Tom's annual celebration.  Maybe next year.  This year, I decided to trek down to Phoenix to help mark this day.  Well, actually, a day early.  The meeting was held at Mama Java's on Friday night (the 30th) even though Friedman was born on the 31st.  Well, it's not a perfect world!   It was a nice small, intimate, venue and we pretty much took over the place for a couple of hours.  I had some kind of iced dark chocolate mocha something-or-other, with whipped cream, and it was fabulous.

     The night started off with an hour long video on Friedman's life.  Cara Lynn and I sat with Claire, a summer intern at Goldwater, and Robert Teegarden, a consultant/advocate of school choice.  [You can see a little bio on Robert, who is a board member of the ASTOA.]  Then, Tom turned it over to Clint Bolick, also from Goldwater, and Robert to talk about school choice issues, about which Friedman was heavily invested.

     We wrapped up the festivities with an old video that Tom dusted off.  He was doing a sound check on an upcoming interview of Friedman, and was operating the camera (at the Cato Institute).  Consequently, he decided to quiz Friedman on some economic issues, primarily economist Steven N. S. Cheung's take on the famous "Fable of the Bees."  Perhaps it will land on YouTube someday??

     Being an economics student as an undergraduate, I know I was exposed to Friedman's ideas, but I can't say that anything in particular stuck with me.  In graduate school, at the University of Hawaii, there were some strong Friedman supporters and, indeed, he had made a visit to the campus sometime in the years before I attended (so, before 1977).  But, I mostly fell in with the Keynesian types here, and didn't pay much attention to Friedman, beyond what was required in my coursework.

     In 1984, while on a year-long leave of absence from my Ph.D. program, I found myself in Flagstaff, teaching an introductory course in microeconomics at the local community college.  [Actually, it was an extension of a CC from another county - we didn't have a CC in our county at the time.]  The class was being taught by a local banker who got transferred off to another state barely a week into the class.  I happened to be around and got tapped to replace her.  She had scheduled video showings of Friedman's Free To Choose series.  She got the bank to pay for the loan of these videos, so I decided to keep them on the schedule.  I was mesmerized by them.  I would say that this was the beginning of my shift in philosophy, away from the Statist viewpoint and toward the individualist viewpoint.

     Later, I would say it was in the late 1980s, when I was finishing up my Ph.D. and teaching at the UH, I read Friedman's Capitalism and Freedom.  From the very beginning, I was bowled over.  I soon made it required reading in some of my classes.  I haven't continued to use this book, although I still have a high regard for it.  [These days, in my principles classes, I use Anthem and How Capitalism Saved America.]

     A great time had by all.  For some more on Milton Friedman, consider these links:

Friedman's autobiography, written for the Nobel foundation, upon the receipt of his Nobel Prize, but updated in 2005.

Rose and Milton Friedman started the Foundation for Educational Choice, to carry on his vision in this area.

An example of Friedman's clear-headed thinking doesn't get any better than in his famous essay, "The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase Its Profits."  Use it to tweak the noses of your liberal friends!

Go to BrainyQuote to find a boatload of cool things Friedman said.

And, finally, catch this short video on Milton Friedman's life:

 

 

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

   Fire as Failure - Over Father's Day weekend we had two big fires in Flagstaff which attracted quite a bit of national attention.  On Saturday (the 19th), the Hardy Fire was started about a mile from my home, although I don't think that it would have spread this far through residential areas.  Still, a local hotel (Little America) was evacuated, and we received a robo-call from the county that we should be ready to evacuate as well.  That fire was started by a transient, which is pretty much an annual thing here in the early summer.  As such, there isn't much we can do about this problem except bear the burden of fighting such fires.

     On Father's Day (the 20th), we had the much bigger Schultz fire.  It had erupted in a major way while we were having lunch at a local restaurant.  As we left, we drove up to Route 66, where I snapped the photo to the right when we were about a half block from city hall.  [No, I wasn't driving!]  We drove on up to McMillan Mesa, and parked in the lot of the USGS office, where we could more clearly see the origin of the fire - in the pass between Mt. Elden and the San Francisco Peaks.  That is where I took the picture to the left, showing the extent of the smoke pluming behind Mt. Elden. [Click on either photo to see a larger image.]

     This latter fire was started from campfire that was not properly put out.  It's still smoldering even now, nine days later.  And, it isn't surprising that the same old arguments are being made with regard to what should be done to prevent this from happening again - (i) increase education among campers, and (ii) close the forest during peak fire season.  The former is laudable, but doomed to failure, while the latter is an abject indicator of the failure of the Forest Service (and, by extension, the government) to adequately maintain the environment.

     We all know what must be done to prevent these fires - more monitoring and/or development.  But, without the budgetary resources to accomplish the former, we end up with awful choices like "close the forest down."  Here are some better solutions . . .

Provide developed campsites.  The camping in this area is mostly "at large," although there are some regular spots that campers use over and over.  Maybe some more developed camping areas (yes, for fees) would provide a better opportunity for the clueless to experience the outdoors without endangering everyone else.

Form volunteer forest caretakers.  We mostly have this problem for only two months - May and June.  Following a decent winter, May isn't usually a problem.  And, if the rainy season starts on time, July and August are usually better.  So, why not form volunteer groups that drive along the popular forest roads and take an inventory of campers in the evening, and then return in the morning to insure that all campfires are put out?  I am sure that plenty of people would sign up for such a group.  They aren't out to harass, or confront, anyone - just to make sure that nothing dangerous is left untended.

Revert to logging the forest, even if on a lower scale than the past.  One thing we can be sure of - people (or, firms) with private property at risk tend to take steps to reduce that risk.  Suppose that a firm had a contract to the timber in this area.  Wouldn't they find it in their best interest to provide the kind of monitoring necessary to protect their interests?  I should think so!  But, the politically correct way to think about this is that it is better to let 15,000 acres burn up than it would be to harvest timber on, oh, say 5,000 acres.

     I don't really expect any of the above ideas to take hold, because they go against the grain of sappy environmental thinking and the unwillingness for any government entity to reducing its power and authority.  Indeed, the local paper had a story about how a thinning project was to take place along Schultz Pass in 2007.  But, an environmental group appealed the project, and it never got off the ground.  Well, it's thinned now!  Too bad we can't sue these environmental groups for putting us all at increased risk.

Friday, June 18, 2010

   Atonement and Fear - The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has generated lots of heat, but little light.  The Congress had Tony Hayward, the CEO of BP (formerly British Petroleum, but, apparently, now just "BP") testifying yesterday on Capitol Hill.  In the grand scheme of things, it is useful to put BP's feet to the fire and do some investigating.  But, having Congress do this is . . . well, totally bizarre.  But, the whole event reminded me of something that Fox News Channel's Judge Andrew Napolitano always likes to say:

When governments fear the people, there is liberty. When the people fear the government, there is tyranny.


He attributes this to Thomas Jefferson, although there is more than a little dispute on that accord.  Jefferson probably would sympathize with the sentiment, even if he never actually uttered/wrote those words.

     Anyway, I was thinking of this quote as I was watching Hayward testifying.  It seemed to me that he had the look of fear on his face.  As if the explosion of Deepwater Horizon oil rig isn't going to cause BP enough pain and suffering, he knows that our government can completely ruin him.  So, he comes to the Congress, with hat in hand, head bowed before the almighty "representatives of the people," to atone for his sin - he runs a big oil company - and beg forgiveness.  Clearly, he is sorry about the accident.  How can he not be?  And, clearly, he wants to find out why it happened so that they can take steps to reduce the likelihood of it happening again.  That's just prudent behavior.  And, clearly, he accepts that BP will have to pay out lots of money to those that were harmed by this accident.

     But, in an era where the government can take over banks and car companies, it surely looks like BP is poised on the brink of a different abyss.  One where the government imposes so many penalties upon them that they must fail.  At least, fail insofar as being a privately-held company.  I can far too easily envision a future where the federal government is the major stockholder in BP.  And, that is chilling.  Or, worse - tyranny.

Tony Hayward, CEO of BP,
testifies before Congress. 
Judge Andrew Napolitano, not to
be confused with our ex-governor.
Thomas Jefferson, to whom the quote is often attributed. 

     I suppose it was too much to hope for that Hayward would go to Congress and "give 'em hell."  But, that's just not in the cards these days.  If he spits in their eye, they'll just rake him over the coals and then take his company.  I am reminded of some of the capitalists in Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged that don't hold back in criticizing the government for its regulation and control of business.  Where are these capitalists today?

     Still, I must admit that I am getting a little satisfaction from BP's squirming.  They have been a leader in cozying up to the green movement and embracing the whole global warming nonsense.  And, they have contributed more to President Obama's campaign than they have to any other politician in the last thirty years.  So, if they do some twisting in the wind over this oil spill fiasco, I'm not going to be too sympathetic to their circumstances.

Friday, May 14, 2010

   Immigration Idiocy - The illegal immigration law that was recently passed by the state legislature has raised complaints from the usual suspects - those that can't read, or won't read, and want to put all issues into the framework of race.  Unfortunately, that included the esteemed members of the Flagstaff City Council who are clueless when it comes to understanding the proper role of government.  Also clueless is the Faculty Senate at Northern Arizona University.  But, that's nothing new.  So, can it be of any surprise that they voted overwhelmingly to condemn this new law, and characterized it (the law) as racist?  No.  So, I penned this retort to this action, which ran in the paper this past Tuesday:

To the editor:

What lessons do we draw from noting that polls show 70% of Arizonans support the new immigration law and that 70% of Americans support the intent of this law, while about 90% of the NAU Faculty Senate oppose this law?  I suppose that it is obvious.  The NAU Faculty Senate clearly lacks diversity.  It also lacks common sense.  It also lacks any pretense to intellectual inquiry.

When we add in the fact that this fringe group not only opposed this law, but also declared that it was “racist,” then we can be sure that they also have no intellectual honesty.  No wonder there are so many that look at the university with disdain.  Certainly, if the level of education that its students are receiving is correlated with this vote, the taxpayers of Arizona are being cheated.

On the other hand, we should all applaud President Haeger’s thoughtful remarks on this issue and encourage a more reasoned debate.  It would be better if opponents worked at resolving the fundamental problems here rather than resort to hate speech.  I, for one, oppose both substantive immigration controls and the welfare state that distorts people’s actions in this regard.  And, if I can use the Faculty Senate’s own twisted logic, if you don’t agree with me, you must be a racist.

Dennis Foster
Flagstaff, AZ


     Most of the web comments, both to the original article and to my letter, agreed with my basic contention.  Indeed, I don't think you can find a better example to illustrate the shallowness of the Faculty Senate than to go out to their website.  On the right-hand side, you'll see a virtual suggestion box.  Upon a moment's reflection, you will note that it is, in fact, a shredder!  So, that's where all the good ideas go.  Another letter ran today, also critical of the Faculty Senate, where the writer chastised them for this "[g]reat exercise in critical thinking."

Friday, April 23, 2010

   Free (Market) Health Care - The local paper ran a story about a freshman student at NAU that required expensive tests and surgery while being uncovered by any insurance.  Presumably, this was meant to show how bad the system is, and how much better it will be with under the reforms recently passed.  It quickly prompted me to pen a letter, which ran in the paper today:

To the editor:

The recent front page story about the ordeal of a young NAU student in needing some some serious, and expensive, health care when she doesn’t have insurance coverage illustrates what’s wrong with our current system: government rules that stymie competition and tie health insurance to a job.  A better system, and one that certainly would have benefited Ms. Bacigalupo, would be a free market.

Why?  Well, in a free market, where insurance wasn’t mandated through employment, she not only would have found it easier to shop around for insurance, but being in about the lowest risk pool imaginable (young), it would have been relatively inexpensive.

If we can end the nonsensical insurance coverage of regular medical care, like for routine doctor visits and shots, she would only have to buy the health insurance she really needed - catastrophic coverage.  This would also tend to keep her costs low.  Maybe even lower than someone her age buying auto insurance.  Over time, with a health savings account, she could save money to provide for health care between these two extremes, further keeping her actual insurance costs down.  Indeed, if her parents could have done this, and if such an account were transferable to their children, they might have had the wherewithal for the health care needed now.

The better system has more competition and more freedom, not more government regulation, more government intervention and more government mandates.  Yet, the so-called “reform” enacted by Congress moves us further away from a better system.

Dennis Foster
Flagstaff, AZ


The editor had written that he wasn't running many letters criticizing the health care reforms because he just wasn't getting any.  Maybe I'll start writing on this topic more regularly.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

   The 3 Foot Rule - Recently, a bicyclist contended that a city bus did not give him three feet of clearance, and videotape from the bus shows that this was, in fact, the case.  But, the cyclist was in a bike lane and the question that began to swirl about was whether he was due this minimum distance.  After some thought, the city attorney decided that the bicyclist  was right and asked the police to ticket the bus driver.  The local paper editorialized on the matter, and while the editor wondered if we weren't splitting hairs here, he didn't really dispute the city's conclusion.  But, they also published the relevant law, to wit:

A.R.S. 28-735. Overtaking bicycles; civil penalties

A. When overtaking and passing a bicycle proceeding in the same direction, a person driving a motor vehicle shall exercise due care by leaving a safe distance between the motor vehicle and the bicycle of not less than 3 feet until the motor vehicle is safely past the overtaken bicycle.

B. If a person violates this section and the violation results in a collision causing:

   1. Serious physical injury as defined in section 13-105 to another person, the violator is subject to a civil penalty of up to $500.

   2. Death to another person, the violator is subject to a civil penalty of up to $1,000.

C. Subsection B of this section does not apply to a bicyclist who is injured in a vehicular traffic lane when a designated bicycle lane or path is present and passable.


     Well, I am a reasonably smart person, and as I read the law, the city's conclusion seemed unwarranted.  I did some web searching on the meaning of "overtaking and passing."  I found a lot of references to this phrase, and a very good review at Wikipedia.  Interesting, much of this comes from other countries.  But, the bottom line seemed to be this - the phrase refers to making a maneuver where you go from being behind someone to being in front of them.  Driving by someone in another lane is not what "overtaking and passing" means.  And, if it does, then we need another phrase to describe the action I've just described.  So, I decided to post off a quick letter to the editor, which ran on Tuesday, April 6:

To the editor:

While I try to always give bicyclists a wide margin when I drive by them, I believe that the city’s interpretation of the “3 foot rule” is erroneous. 

As printed in the paper, the rule applies when a vehicle is “overtaking and passing a bicycle.” 

The phrase “overtaking and passing” means that the vehicle has to move onto a different path in order to continue.  On the highway, for example, when you overtake and pass someone, you move into the left-hand lane to accomplish this action.  In the absence of a dedicated bike lane, the law clearly applies to cars (and, buses) that overtake and pass a bicycle – you have to move to the left to get by them. 

But, in the presence of a bike lane, no such “overtaking and passing” action is required.  Hence, the “3 foot rule” does not apply.  Indeed, the fact that subsection C of the law suspends any penalty to a driver that has an accident with a bicyclist who is in a “traffic lane” when a bike lane is present would confirm this interpretation.

In that case, you are not required to have to make an “overtaking and passing” maneuver. 

I would encourage the bus driver to challenge his ticket.

Dennis Foster
Flagstaff, AZ

 
     I used to have a traffic engineering handbook around the house, but must have gotten rid of it some years ago.  One of the things I picked up from this tome is that, like lawyers, engineers are pretty careful with using words that have particular meaning, even if we often toss them around more casually.

     While I have written a number of letters and editorials on what I thought to be much more contentious issues, I was surprised that as of today, some four days later, my letter is in the "most commented" category, with more than twenty replies.  Some nice, some not.  I thought to jump in, but I thought my letter was, if anything, somewhat pedantic.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

   Ken Burns' Avatar - When PBS aired Ken Burns' 12 hour documentary, "The National Parks," I recorded it for later viewing.  This past week, I have finally gotten around to watching it - pretty much an episode each night.  I am through four episodes and have two left, but feel compelled to do a bit of blogging about what I have seen so far.

     On the one hand, at least this epic isn't all about race, which is the theme of his earlier works, The Civil War and Baseball.  I think that race has to be a major theme of the "The Civil War," but he pushes the agenda a bit far in that  documentary.  Still, I give him 5 stars for that film and I own a copy.  But, then he goes over the top with this theme in the later "Baseball" documentary, which led me to get tired of it and stop watching somewhere along the way.  At least in "The National Parks," the issue of race (primarily with regard to Native Americans) seems more muted.

     That got me to thinking about it a bit more.  Clearly, we can all despise the fact of the Civil War, so making it all about race and an indictment against white Americans works.  And, really, baseball is just a game, so who really cares if that story can also be made all about racial injustice?  But, the parks story presents a filmmaker like Burns with a dilemma.  While he could make this all about race, too, he is in a bind since he wants to extol the virtues of the National Parks.  Flawed though those virtues are.  So, I am glad that he had to squirm in making this film, and couldn't play the same race card he usually does.

     Still, he does have another card to play - businesses are bad and greedy and we should hate them.  So far, over the course of six hours, the drumbeat against business has been unremitting.  Even when a business seems to be getting good treatment, there is usually a twist in the end - for example, the railroads helped to preserve some places, but it was so they could profit, hence they could not be trusted.  A particularly memorable story involved James Hutchings, who built a hotel in Yosemite Valley.  He was roundly criticized in the narration, and one early tourist is quoted as complaining about the cloth dividers which separated the upstairs rooms.  The intent was clearly that Hutchings was trying to scam tourists by charging a lot and providing little.  Yet, in the next breath, the narration goes on to describe how Hutchings hired John Muir to build a sawmill and that one of the first things he built were walls to separate the hotel rooms!

     The story of the Grand Canyon is also long on indictment of business, especially in the form of Ralph Cameron.  Yet, there is no mention that Cameron actually bought the Bright Angel Trail from the previous proprietor - the implication is just that he owned the trail by being there.  And, while the Kolb brothers get generally good coverage, not a peep about Mary Colter, nor the Fred Harvey Company.  Indeed, I am quite astonished at how many spectacular shots of the eastern portion of the Grand Canyon have been shown without a single sighting of the Desert View Watchtower!

     So, it seems to me that this 12 hour indulgence in anti-business rhetoric is really just Burns' version of James Cameron's Avatar.  Really cool pictures, but the story drags on far too long, and no 3-D glasses.  I guess that expecting Ken Burns to be "fair and balanced" was just hoping for too much.

Friday, February 12, 2010

   SCOTUS for Free Speech! - The Supreme Court struck a blow for free speech with the recent Citizens United decision.  The case revolved around whether certain McCain-Feingold restrictions were constitutional.  The group, Citizens United, had put together a political video, but decided that circulating it would violate the law and took their challenge to the highest court in the land.  To my mind, the whole campaign finance reform movement has been a farce, at best, and wholly antithetical to the precepts of the first amendment to the constitution, at worst.  I can vividly recall seeing video footage of Warren Rudman (Rep) and Eugene McCarthy (Dem), both retired senators, walking up the steps of the Supreme Court Building, in contesting these laws.  But, I don't remember the specific circumstance, so I couldn't find a web link.  Still, McCarthy was an early opponent of these laws, and participated, at some level, in the reasonably well-known Buckley case.

     One might think that liberals would be more inclined to embrace free speech, but I am coming to the conclusion that the only two "values" liberals really have are (i) government is good, and the bigger, the gooder; and (ii) business is bad, and the bigger, the badder.  Still, the ACLU took Citizens United's side in this case, and the Huffington Post has an unusually cogent and thoughtful commentary up on its site by the former executive director of the ACLU.

     So, there are issues here that have been debated for some time.  The ruling by the Supreme Court is not especially broad, although there is talk that McCain-Feingold is headed for the trash heap.  In the local paper, they published a special commentary on this subject by an academic at NAU's Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice.  Given the venue (the paper's ad hoc "Coconino Voices" column) and the extended length, one might expect a polite and civil commentary.  Sadly, that was not the case.  Instead of taking the high road, Robert Schehr launched into a screed against the court, calling for the impeachment of the justices voting for free speech (i.e., in the majority).  Well, I couldn't resist penning a response, and the paper published my letter yesterday.  Of course, I don't get as much space as Schehr did, but I think I got my point across:

SCOTUS and campaign finance (Citizens United)

To the editor:

The constitution states that “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech …”  How the travesty known as McCain-Feingold has lasted this long is a puzzle to me.  Its partial dismemberment by the Supreme Court was like a breath of fresh air.

So, when I read Robert Schehr’s commentary, I was cringing when he called for impeaching justices who voted in the majority.  Unbelievable.

Schehr’s diatribe is false and disingenuous.  It is false to assert that “money is not speech.”  Of course it is speech!  If it wasn’t, the only speech we’d get is from the government.  Sort of like Hugo Chavez’ Venezuela, which is not my idea of a role model.

Schehr infers that we are talking about giant corporations.  We aren’t.  The case involved a corporation (non-profit) that was formed to make and distribute a critical video about Hillary Clinton.  That video could not be shown during the 2008 primary season because it violated McCain-Feingold.  If they had mass mailed these videos, then the government would have had to send out the police to round up the offending “speech” and destroy it.  That sends chills up my spine, even if that doesn’t bother Schehr.

Interestingly, corporate contributions are permitted for local candidates in some states.  One such state is Illinois.  One such recipient was a state senator named Barack Obama.  And, at least one donor was a foreign corporation.  All legal.  And, I have no problem with that.  But, I wish that the Supreme Court had struck down the entire McCain-Feingold atrocity.

Dennis Foster
Flagstaff, AZ


A few other points are in order here:

The Barack Obama story.  The CU web site mentioned this tidbit, but I went web searching to insure it was accurate before including it in my letter.  Indeed, I sent the letter to the editor (rather than use the on-line submission) in order to include that support, because I feared that he would think it was nonsense and we'd have to dance around the issue, or that he would drop it out of the letter, and I didn't want that to happen.  So, the state of Illinois has a Campaign Disclosure site, where you can search their database for this information.  I did two searches - one for "Citibank" and another for "AstraZeneca" (in the "Last or Only Name" box) and got a list of their contributions.  They both made small ($1000 and $500) donations to the "Friends of Barack Obama," one in 2001 and the other in 2002.  These are exactly the kinds of corporate donations that have people up in arms.  They were, of course, for his campaign for state office, not his race for the U.S. Senate - such a donation would be, and still is, illegal.  AstraZeneca is a British-owned firm, although the donations came through their Delaware offices.  So, in his State of Union address, I don't know if Obama is being disingenuous, or just plain hypocritical, when he said, "I don't think American elections should be bankrolled by America's most powerful interests, or worse, by foreign entities."

Money as free speech.  When I first read Milton Friedman's Capitalism and Freedom, I was instantly convinced by his argument that political freedom is an illusion without economic freedom (although the reverse need not be true).  That is, you can't exercise any political freedom without economic resources.  So, if you don't have access to money, you don't have the ability to operationalize any political freedom.  Powerful stuff.  And, quite frankly, in a country where the political opinion is pretty much 50-50, the "money" isn't just on one side of the political spectrum.

There are risks from corporate donations.  Most opponents, Schehr included, make the mistake of thinking that giant corporations can just pour money into a campaign and win.  Laughable.  First, stockholders may react quite unkindly to this kind of expenditure, and even write restrictions into their own firm.  And, again, in a 50-50 country, can a firm, especially a giant firm, really afford to potentially alienate half its customer base?  I don't think so.  Consider the left wing opposition to advertisers on Glenn Beck's most excellent show on Fox News.  These advertisers never endorsed Beck's opinion of anything, and he isn't running for office, yet they were cowed into pulling ads on one of the most widely seen shows on cable - which is what advertisers want.  So, how likely is it, really, that they contribute money directly to a political campaign?  Slim and none.

Corporations need not be large.  The other big issue here, which I mention in the letter, is that the complaining about "corporate donations" only presumes large corporations.  As I just noted, these firms would be skating on thin ice to engage in much of that kind of activity (if legal).  More likely, you'd get small groups that have to incorporate in order to conduct their business.  And, they are the ones most likely to jump into the political fray - e.g., the Swift Boaters of 2004.  The "corporate" designation is legal necessity.  But, all you ever hear about is the scare tactic of the big corporation.  Indeed, here in Flagstaff, one resident has a business selling t-shirts.  A couple years ago, he was selling shirts that said, "Bush lied.  They died." along with the names of fallen soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Despicable.  But, the state legislature decided it should be illegal.  Also, despicable.  And, eventually overturned by a court.  The main argument was that he shouldn't be allowed to profit from his free speech.  Yeech!

Some large corporations are exempt from McCain-Feingold.  Surprised to learn that "media" corporations don't have to abide by some of the McCain-Feingold restrictions?  Well, not really, when you consider how politics is done.  And, I suspect that most people would probably agree with the exemption, but it is still a case of playing favorites - only certain corporations get free speech rights!  Indeed, over the last election cycle, there had been some talk of prohibiting bloggers from political speech as part of these ridiculous laws.  So far, that hasn't happened.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

   In Search of Dreamers Over the Thanksgiving break of last year, I was able to backpack into Trinity canyon, so that I could "finish" up my spring break hike that was cut short by an accident.  I was interested in being able to spend some time looking for traces of an old survey crew.  Bill Ferris and I found the sites I wanted to find and got some great photos.  Bill wrote up a great trip report on his blog, and I solicited the local paper for an opportunity to write about our little adventure.  The editor was quite interested and my story ran on January 19, 2010...

 

Read the full story, A Hike to Trinity Canyon: In Search of Dreamers in
the Hiking Grand Canyon section of the Kaibab Journal.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

   Hollow Avatar - The movie event of the season is the popular Avatar.  We saw the 3-D version at our local theater.  Of course, it was visually stunning.  The 3-D effect is quite good and the special effects are top notch.  The story, on the other hand, was a stinker.  The whole "bad guy industrialist" versus the "peaceful nature lover" is a tired theme, and not especially poignant here.  Better, on that score anyway, is Dances with Wolves, although I'd even rate that as "thick" on the sappiness scale.

     There are, however, two major complaints I have with the storyline, beyond the tired nature of the theme.  While watching, I was thinking that a prominent dimension was how a society with low/no technology can't co-exist with a society that has a high level of technology.  Wouldn't the story have been better if James Cameron had played this more as an inevitability?  Of course (spoiler alert!!), in the end, the "bad" guys lose, so that would have to change.  Still, I think that he could have done a better job of invoking our pathos by making the humans seem less "bad" and the aliens as less "noble."  Ambiguity on this score would make this a movie to remember instead of one that will likely be soon forgotten.

     But, there is a more fundamental shortcoming to this story.  Upon a little reflection, the Na'vi are a rather sad race.  They seem cool, but really it is only true insofar as Sully learns about these new and different people.  But, then what?  What do they do?  They seem only to produce body decorations.  They don't have industry.  No universities.  No research and development facilities.  They are, at the core, intelligent animals that refuse to use their intelligence.  Some have argued that the story is a metaphor for the clash of cultures that occurred between Europeans and Native Americans.  But, really it is more like the "clash" between Europeans and the buffalo.

     Indeed, I was reminded of my trip to Antarctica.  We visited many penguin colonies.  Instead of being struck by the awesome beauty of nature I was more struck by the fact that their entire existence is built around survival - breeding and eating.  The Na'vi, at least insofar as they were presented in the movie, likewise seemed to live their lives the same way.  Some may argue that they were living in "harmony" with nature.  But, that means stagnation.  No inventiveness.  No intellectual curiosity.  None of the (best) attributes that we would ascribe to our humanity.  Maybe a better movie would have painted these aliens as glorified plants, albeit with some intelligence.  Then, the moral conflict of how humans treat them would have been more ambiguous.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

   The GC Permit Shuffle - Last month, the Park Service announced a new permit policy for backpacking in the Grand Canyon.  It eliminates the walk-in request, in favor of mailed/faxed requests, for the first month that permits are available.  For example, on June 1st, one can apply for a permit to do a trip in October.  Because the park is deluged with fax requests on the first of each month (well, not every month), if you walk in on the first, or even on the second, day of the month, you are likely to get your request filled well in advance of all the faxed requests.  That will change on February 1, 2010.  Now, only faxed requests will be taken during June for October hikes.  Walk-in requests will not be accepted until July 1st, for October hikes.  [Well, the walk-in will be treated like a faxed request - drop it off and they'll add it to the pile.]  There were a few letters printed in the local paper complaining about this policy change.  I thought to write a letter as well, but approached the editor about possibly writing a longer commentary.  He agreed, and my "guest editorial" ran in the Arizona Daily Sun on Wednesday, November 25th, the same day I left for a six day backpacking trip in the canyon.

Reservation system wasteful and inefficient
Wednesday, November 25, 2009
by Dennis Foster

Is the existing system of issuing backpacking permits at the Grand Canyon fair? Of course not.

Is the proposed change, to a random lottery on the first of each month, going to be fair? Of course not. Will it be better, or worse? It depends.

Someone from New Jersey who faxes in their permit request will now have a better chance of getting the itinerary they want. Someone like me, who lives in Flagstaff and who made a lifestyle choice 20 years ago to forgo higher income opportunities elsewhere, will find it harder to get the itinerary that I want. It should not surprise anyone that the person in New Jersey thinks that this new system is fair.

While "fairness" is in the eye of the beholder, what we can say about the new system is that it will be inefficient, will waste resources, and will likely get worse over time.

The Park Service's proposal for hiking permits seems to be leading them down the same path that they have taken in issuing Colorado River permits. That lottery system was instituted in 2006 when their wait list for river permits had grown over the years to 40 times greater than the annual supply. Additionally, the Park Service will only allow recreational users to run the river once per year.

Not surprisingly, these kinds of rules and regulations waste the time, energy and effort of the applicants. But, park officials don't bear these costs, so they tend to ignore them in their policymaking.

Thankfully, when it comes to river running, there is still a major allocation of river use to commercial enterprises and the Park Service has allowed these trips to be priced at close to their true market value. When I took a commercial river trip in 2002, I made reservations three months in advance. Another couple made reservations a year in advance. And, one traveler made his reservation only a few days in advance. That is one of the beauties of a well-functioning free market. It shouldn't be the case that only people who plan a year in advance can get a reservation.

Conversely, the Park Service has dropped the ball when it comes to how it oversees Xanterra's operation at Phantom Ranch. Booking a cabin, or dorm space, requires you to play the phone game 13 months in advance. If you are lucky enough to get through, on the first of each month, you can be put on hold for hours.

Economists call these schemes "non-price" rationing. They are inefficient in that they not only allocate scarce resources in a manner that perverts the incentive of individuals to be productive and contributing members of society (i.e., by seeking out jobs that pay well), but it also generates that wasted time, energy and effort. In a world characterized by scarcity, this allocation mechanism is reprehensible.

A more efficient system would be to price the resource at its market clearing level. Then, you don't have to just hope for the best in a lottery. [However, you could hook up with other interested hikers, pool your money to buy an itinerary and have a lottery among yourselves.] With a real pricing mechanism, the most highly sought-after itineraries will command a high price to determine who will get them.

A better solution would be to have the Park Service privatize the management of the corridor campgrounds (Indian Garden, Bright Angel, Cottonwood) and have them compete with each other. I would expect quality and quantity would both increase. These actions would truly help to accommodate the increasing demand for a backcountry experience in the Grand Canyon.

Dennis Foster has a Ph.D. in economics, teaches at the university level and has been hiking at the Grand Canyon since 1979.

Some further comments: 

The "fairness" issue.  This drives me nuts!  The Grand Canyon Hikers group on Yahoo was full of comments about how this made the process more "fair" by making the odds more equal.  Nothing could be further from the truth!  They only see that they are getting better odds, hence that it must be "fair."  Really, it is all about greed, but people usually don't want to admit that!  I addressed this issue before, when I noted that rarely do these people take a holistic view of these matters.  Which brings me to my next point.

Changing rules negates our choices.  The worst part of this kind of change is that it penalizes people who have acted on the incentive structure created in the first place.  Maybe the old rule was "bad," but we have been living with it for quite a while and have adapted.  Now, the time, energy, effort and money we have put into this adaptation is made worthless.  And, does anyone at the Park Service factor that into their decision-making?  Of course not.

A market-based solution still "hurts" me.  Another point that few seem to get is that I am worse off with a market solution.  Prices rise, and I must compete with the fictional backpacker from New Jersey for a permit.  If he/she is willing to pay more, they get the permit.  That is quite likely if it is their once-a-year trip to the canyon, versus being just one of a half dozen trips I make annually.  But, I understand the "fairness" of such a system and am willing to support it, even if it reduces my chances relative to the current system.

My web rating was quite low.  I only got 1.4, out of 5, stars on the web, with an amazing 53 chiming in.  Too bad the web comments were down (while the paper migrates to a new platform), otherwise I might have been able to get a lively debate going here.  I suspect that most of the negative scores came from river runners that hate commercial outfits and wish that they had a much smaller allocation.  But, as I noted in my commentary, if it wasn't for these commercial services, you'd probably have to plan such a trip a year in advance, which is just wasteful.

Privatizing would raise quality.  Absolutely!  It certainly can't lower it!  For years, I have dreaded an overnight stay at the Bright Angel campground because the restroom facilities are just atrocious.  If these campgrounds were private and competitive with one another, I don't think that would be the case.  Indeed, the restroom at Phantom Ranch is in much better shape.  Hmm . . .  Lesson learned!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

   Can Obama Govern? - A little more than a year after he was elected to the most powerful position in the world, the answer is unequivocal - No.  And, really, we shouldn't be surprised.  People who are good at one thing are rarely good at something else.  For example, we really don't expect that an NFL quarterback can be a good running back, or receiver, and certainly not a defensive linebacker.

     Still, we oftentimes will try to project competence across differing areas.  Candidate Barack Obama showed us his superior rhetorical skills.  From that, many projected that aptitude onto the ability to govern.  And, that hasn't worked out.  Obama seems to relish the idea of being President without really having any serious interest in governing in a manner that leaves us better off after his term(s) in office than we were before he started.  He jets off to Copenhagen to make an Olympics pitch.  He travels around the world speechifying on what is wrong with America.  He takes his family on a vacation to the Grand Canyon and Martha's Vineyard.  He seems mesmerized by the spectacle of the presidency and not so intrigued by its hope and promise.

     He dallies on the war in Afghanistan.  He pushes us into more dependence on the government.  He is reckless with how the government should spend taxpayer money, be it on the stimulus or health care, or, coming soon, the cap and trade boondoggle.  He associates himself with the most radical of ideologues.  Yet, I recall his stirring words during the campaign, when he implored us to work together to solve problems, when he promised "change we can believe in," when he was adamant about bipartisanship and transparency.

     And, those things have not happened.  He did not take on the mantle of the stern schoolmaster and force the cantankerous children that populate the House and Senate to sit down and chart an agreeable course into the future.  Instead, it has been the Democrat leadership that has taken control of the process and is steering us into disaster and calamity.

     Now, I don't really believe that Obama disagrees with the other Dems in terms of the policies being pursued.  But, that is not what he promised during the campaign.  But, why should we have expected any different?  He had not a shred of governing experience.  He only had experience as a successful campaigner and articulate speaker.  The conclusion that must be drawn, and it is not a surprising conclusion, is that Obama is a typical politician.  He is not exceptionally gifted at telling the truth, nor at rising above the fray of politics-as-usual.  While one may argue that the hope and promise was our fantasy projection onto Obama, I still remember his words.  And, they were not words I put into his mouth. 

Sunday, September 13, 2009

   Flagstaff Tea Party - It is hard to believe that it has been two weeks since the Tea Party Express rolled through our fair hamlet of Flagstaff.  I think it must be our auspicious position on Interstate 40 - a few years ago we were also favored with a visit from the Ending Earmarks Express - since we are smack dab in the bluest of the blue areas in this otherwise red state.  I guess that makes sense, as the government is the largest employer here, and by a long margin!

     The party started in the early evening, but folks started assembling well in advance of six o'clock.  One of the highlights was that we were featured on Fox News, especially at the front end of both the Hannity show and On The Record with Greta Susteren.  I taped those shows and could see part of my sign showing though those closer to the camera.  The two sides of my sign are shown to the left and right, above.  Cara Lynn also made a sign (see below) as did a colleague of mine who retired a few years ago - LOL to the right.

     The crowd was large and enthusiastic.  The folks running the show have honed their message and staged an event that is informative and entertaining.  While we had some mighty dark clouds threatening, we stayed dry.  We also heard from some local voices, including Tom Jenney, the Arizona director of the Americans for Prosperity.  Tom and I go back to the days he was the Communications Director for the Goldwater Institute.  We also heard from Arizona State Treasurer Dean Martin, who is one of a small group of politicians that I really believe would be great for our state in a higher office.  While we currently have an unintended Republican governor (because Dem Janet Napolitano left to become Homeland Security Secretary in D.C.), I still like Martin's chances in the primary and general next year.

Click on any photo to see a larger image. 

The "manufactured" crowd had manufactured signs? Not!!  

I didn't even see this sign until near the end of the event. 

The rally was held at the Tea Party Express buses.  No rain on our party.
As dusk gave way to night, the crowd remained strong and attentive.  I guess Dean Martin is running for governor - I pegged it in 2006. Cara Lynn waves to passing motorists. 


     There were a handful of protesters and they lined up on the opposite side of the street.  I didn't realize that they were protesting until we were about to head home and decided to spend a few minutes on the street waving to passersby.  There were some catcalls going on back and forth across the street, but it seemed mostly in good fun.

     On the other hand, I did have an interesting encounter with one of the food vendors, who asked why everyone was opposed to health care.  At first, I thought he was just making a joke.  But, he went on, and despite my attempt to be both reasonable and courteous, wouldn't really listen to any other view.  His opinion was succinctly stated as, "The job of government is to take care of us."  I don't think he heard my reply that there is no such role for government spelled out in the constitution.  But, I think that his view is exactly what the left-wing believes and it is so antithetical to the founding principles of our country that it is a wonder their heads don't explode from their inability to resolve the contradiction between liberty and freedom, on the one hand, and the desire to take what isn't theirs, from someone else, and justify it as being somehow "just."

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

   Is It Health Insurance? - There is so much awful about the current efforts to "reform" health care, that it is hard to find a place to start any critique.  The presumed motivation of lowering costs and making it more accessible seems laudable, but then the solution should be more competition and less government.  And, anyone who is paying attention to this issue knows that this juggernaut is moving in the opposite direction.  One slice of the current debate that has me constantly cringing is the issue of insurance.  We hear all about the millions of people without health insurance.  The contention is that we can (partly) solve our problems by roping these folks into an insurance pool.

     First, let's dispense with the magnitude of the problem.  When it comes to the actual number of "uninsured" there are easy ways to deflate these figures into something a heck of a lot less than the 47 million we often hear hyped in the media.  Take out 10 million illegals, 17 million that earn more than $50,000 a year and those that choose no insurance because they feel healthy, and you may be left with 7 to 8 million people.  That is something on the order of 2% to 3% of the population.  It hardly seems like a crisis point for the country.  And, under a free and competitive environment, I suspect that 80% of these people could be adequately served.

     But, this still begs the question of what is meant by " insurance?"  Simply put, insurance is a mechanism to protect your wealth when you encounter some event that would otherwise wreak havoc on your finances.  You are not insuring your house, or your car, or your health.  It is your wealth.  If you have no wealth, then insurance isn't especially an issue.  When we hear the argument about "universal coverage," we aren't talking about insurance.  We're talking about defined benefits, that pretty much everyone expects to access.

     You buy insurance to protect yourself from unexpected calamities.  You don't buy insurance to gas up your car, or replace the tires.  You don't buy insurance to paint your house or have a new roof installed.  One of the problems with health insurance is that these are exactly the kinds of items covered - doctor visits, shots, etc.  That is not what I want to insure against.  I expect to make those kinds of payments.  I want insurance for the big things - like cancer - that I hope will never happen.  One reason that the cost of insurance is so high is that the wrong things are being paid for, and I am quite certain that will continue under "universal coverage."

     If we are all going to use the coverage, then it isn't insurance.  Over time, we will have to contribute as much into the system as we get out of it.  Now, that isn't perfectly true, since this will also be like "progressive" taxes - richer people will pay more.  But, insurance isn't about richer people paying more.  It's about individuals paying the expected amount of the weighted odds of "collecting" on the insurance.  That is, if you have a 1% chance of a total loss to your $200,000 home over a twenty year period (e.g., fire), then your insurance would cost $2000 over that time frame, or $100 per year.  If the odds are 100%, then there is no insurance you can buy!  That's the way it works.

     So, if we all expect to use health care, say to the tune of $500,000 each, then that is what we'll have to pay for.  You can't insure against it.  You can only tax people this amount in order to "cover" us.  That is a fraud.  Insurance is insurance.  Benefits are benefits.  Confusing the latter with the former is just another example of political doublespeak.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

   NAU Parking Newspeak - There are so many colossal issues to write about (health scare, cap and tax, and innovation-killing taxes, to name a few), that it is easy to be overwhelmed by such a task.  So, I'll defer on those for now, and focus on a local matter that has me especially irritated:  on-campus parking at Northern Arizona University.  Last year I paid $60 for a permit in an unpaved lot on the edge of campus.  This "yellow" permit was good only in that one lot, Monday through Friday, from 7:30 a.m. until 4:30 p.m.

     Right next to this yellow lot is a paved commuter lot, which requires a "black" permit.  During the summer, this lot is mostly empty.  Since it can rain a lot during the summer, the yellow lot can become quite a mess.  So, at the end of this past spring term I wrote to our Parking Services and asked if they wouldn't allow the yellow permit parkers to use the adjacent lot during the summer, which would help extend the life of the unpaved lot.  [I also blogged about this last summer - Spaces, Spaces, Everywhere]  The reply I got was disheartening - this lot was scheduled to close down this summer, paved, and turned into another commuter lot.  The yellow lot was to be no more.  The income effects on me are significant - today I bought the only kind of permit available to me, at a cost of $314.  That's more than a whopping 500% increase in parking fees for me!

     So, today I have been looking over the Parking Services' website, and I am just amazed at how good an example it is of fuzzy logic, misdirection, obfuscation, and, well . . . Orwellian newspeak.  To wit:

The purpose of meters.  The home page notes, "Meters on campus have been reduced to open up more student parking. Meters are intended for visitors. Student permit owners are prohibited from parking at meters."   Well, I understand that parking should be made available to visitors, and I understand the notion that the metered parking should be reserved for these visitors.  But, why is the prohibition only applied to students?  I wrote to Parking Services and asked if faculty could park at the meters and received a reply of "Yes," noting that, of course, we have to pay for the meter.  So, if they are intended for visitors, but employees can park there, but students can't, what do we conclude?  It's not rocket science.

The purpose of the "Park N Stay" lot.  From the home page, "Park & Stay, originally intended for residential students as a means to decrease vehicles driving on campus, was only being used by commuters. Therefore, it will be paved and converted to commuter parking."  This is false.  The lot was designed to do exactly what it says - get people to park in this one lot and walk, bike, or bus around campus.  The point was to reduce on-campus traffic.  And, the idea is sound.  The fact that a lot of folks like me (especially, the staff), who work on that end of campus, found this to be a nice choice doesn't negate the fact that I did not drive around campus to other lots (my permit wouldn't be valid).  Now that the lot is being paved over, the justification for it has changed in order to validate this decision.  I don't know if this would make Orwell proud, or have him rolling over in his grave.
     Also, I should note that declaring it as "intended for residential students" is also disingenuous.  Those students have to buy "red" permits and can only park in their residential zone on campus.  That is, they have no ability to drive around campus to other lots during the day anyway!

Efficiency is in the eyes of the permit holder.  We have only four categories of parking permits - employee ($314), student commuter ($324), student on-campus resident ($324) and our new parking garage ($418).  Insofar as the latter is concerned, the web page states, "Parking Garage permits will only be permitted to park in the garage to ensure this facility is efficiently used and vehicles are not taking a second parking stall elsewhere on campus."  How is it possible that a full garage is a meaningful measure of efficiency?  Well, it isn't.  But, it is symptomatic of the kind of "thinking" that goes on in government agencies.  Efficiency refers to how well we use our scarce resources relative to our needs and desires.  That's why my college dean has his own parking space, even though he is gone every other week on some kind of fund raising effort.  It would be the height of inefficiency to require him to stay at the college every day just so his parking space can be occupied.  [Of course, a better way would be to auction off spaces, maybe on a daily basis . . .]

The ecoPASS as fraud.  Don't want to pay to park on campus?  Well, there is another option - get an "ecoPASS" and ride the bus into school.  And, it's free!  Of course, it isn't free.  You have expend an inordinate amount of time, energy and effort to use the bus system, especially if you live many miles from campus.  On their ecoPASS page, they state, "Using your ecoPASS helps reduce campus traffic congestion, lessens the impact on employee parking, reduces air pollution, and expands the range of cyclists and walkers."  Does it?  Probably not.  You face increased congestion for on-campus bus services.  What lessening the "impact" on parking means is beyond me, but if it was something real, they wouldn't mind letting garage permit holders park somewhere other than the garage!  And, the last thing I want to see on campus is an increased "range of cyclists."  They are already a hazard to my health!  The web page touts the pass as a way to "Relax On Your Way To Work."  That doesn't sound like any bus system I've ever heard of.  In fact, I recently received an e-mail from a student of mine that just started working in Washington D.C. and has to take the not-so-relaxing metro to work every day.  Her take - "Being productive during the commute is tough, especially when you have zero personal space most days. Sometimes the occasional person tries to pull out a laptop and work on the train, and it never lasts long with how close people cram in. I generally just read the paper in the mornings, but a lot of people sleep, such as the fellow next to me this morning that I had to keep pushing off my shoulder."  Yeech!
     But, there is one more point here.  Not only is this a fraud insofar as our choice go, but it is an accounting fraud as well.  The passes are not free.  The university has to use taxpayer money to pay for them.  And, the bus line, also a government entity, will no doubt count this money as "revenue" rather than as part of its taxpayer support, thus claiming that they are moving closer to being a break-even operation.  I can already feel the chill running up and down my spine in anticipation of reading such a pronouncement. 

Friday, July 10, 2009

   Of Mules and Men - The National Park Service is considering whether to change property rights, with regard to mule travel, at the Grand Canyon.  There were some public "scoping" sessions back in early June.  I attended one, but there wasn't any formal decision to study and comment on - it was all very open ended.  I challenged one of the park spokesman here with the comment that there must be some agenda motivating all this time and energy.  I suspect it is an attempt to reduce and restrict mule travel in the canyon.  He said that the ongoing "conflict" between mules and hikers necessitated a periodic review of these conditions.  I suggested that the appropriate solution to dealing with any perceived "conflict" was to expand the trail infrastructure to accommodate more users, but that I doubt whether anyone at the park service would ever seriously consider such an outcome.  So it goes.  The photo, above, shows the mule barn at the Grand Canyon (click to see a larger image) - the oldest commercial facility currently being used in the United States, as I understand it.  Since the park finished its 1995 General Management Plan, this has been on the chopping block.  As usual, the idea is to preserve the structure and turn it into an interpretation site, while moving the actual operation somewhere else, mostly out of sight of the visitors!

     The deadline for commenting on this issue was June 22, and I didn't realize that until June 23.  Doh!  But, whatever action they decide to pursue, there will be another public airing, so I can comment then.  Still, I penned the following letter to the editor of our local paper, which ran on Tuesday, June 30:

To the editor:

One of the truisms that emerge when the government owns desirable resources is that special interests constantly seek rule changes that profit them, while disadvantaging and restricting others.  At the Grand Canyon, we see this process in perpetual motion, as some seek to curtail overflights, eliminate motorized travel on the river, destroy lodging and commercial activity on the rim and, now, there is an attempt to relegate mule traffic into that vast chasm to the dust bin of history.

The selfish behavior of such individuals and groups should be patently obvious.  Rather than embrace the concept of liberty, theirs is the morality of the gun.  They seek more and more restrictions, moving us towards a point of ultimate conformity with some grotesque “ideal” state of being.

I have been hiking in the Grand Canyon for over thirty years.  I have logged many thousands of miles on its trails and hundreds of nights camped in its backcountry.  Yet, I don’t mind the fact that some people would rather take a mule ride into the canyon.  And, I don’t mind if some people take a motorized raft trip down the river.  I guess that makes me tolerant of others who choose to see the Grand Canyon in different ways than I do.

If the park service really wanted to reduce hiker/mule conflicts, they would work to expand the infrastructure of trails at the park.  That sound you hear is the collectivist shudder at the notion that we can actually make the Grand Canyon more accessible!


A few other comments:

The selfish issue.  I am always amazed at how easily people fail to see the "selfishness" of their opinions.  Instead, they seem to think that their "vision" is a reflection of a true and just outcome.  I guess that makes them rather pretentious, and, as I infer, not at all tolerant of others.
     This issue is made even more awful, in my opinion, when I read some comments that mules should continue because they help those who cannot physically hike these distances.  The presumption is that if you are healthy enough to hike, you shouldn't be allowed to ride the mule.  Yeech!  I have only ridden the mules once, and clearly I am able to hike.  It was a fantastic trip - I was having a great time looking all around me at the Grand Canyon instead of looking down at the trail!

Expanding the infrastructure.  While nobody with any authority will ever consider this, I do have a more specific suggestion here.  Improve the Hermit's Trail and re-establish the old Hermit Camp.  In other words, turn it into a "Phantom Ranch Lite."  Don't allow the mules back on this trail, so that it can be a viable alternative for hikers, complete with canteen, bunkhouses, et al.  Re-establish the old tram as the supply conduit.  That way, the park would not only honor the history of the area, but actually build on it!

I am not such an outlier on this issue.  One other letter was published by the newspaper on this topic, and also in favor of the mules.  And, some of the Yahoo group (Grand Canyon Hikers) seem fine with the mules as well (although, perhaps a minority).  Also, when I was up at the park on July 1st to stand in line for a November hiking permit, another local came up to me and commented that he mostly agreed with me on the points raised in the letter, and he is well-connected to the liberal side of this community.  And, my letter received a 3.8 rating on the web (out of 5.0) with 29 "votes."  That wasn't enough to crack my way into the top 5, but a very respectable score all in all.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

   Shamans' Gallery - For some years, I have been thinking about a return to Shamans' Gallery, so that I can take some digital photos.  After my first (and only) visit in 1996, I thought that this could be done as part of a really long day trip from Flagstaff.  Cara Lynn was interested in going, so off we went on the Sunday before Memorial Day, 2009.

 
For the full story:
Tuckup Trail to Shamans' Gallery
in the Hiking Grand Canyon section of the Kaibab Journal

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

   Self-Orienting Maps, et al. - This past Memorial Day weekend, Cara Lynn and I took a day trip to see Shaman's Gallery (or, is it Shamans? or Shamans'? or, call it Gordon's Panel).  Anyway, on the road we were listening to the radio and some commentator on NPR was whining about the demise of newspapers and how they would miss the tactile sense of holding the news in their hands, while sipping on their latte.  Give me a break!  That got us to talking about how innovations are, by and large, improvements.  So, while I am not inclined to sit down with my cup 'o joe and a Kindle, I can imagine that innovations will continue apace and we will have a suitable substitute for the "newspaper experience."  Some years ago, I had heard of paper thin LCD screens that would allow for downloaded material into a book that you could read as a book.  [And, when you were done, you can just clear the pages.]  The technology goes by the name of "electronic ink," or "electronic paper."

     So, with our thinking caps on, we developed how this would work to supplant newspapers.  First, pick the newspaper size that suits you.  Then, hook up to the internet (hmm . . . can this be done wirelessly?) and download whatever paper you want.  Or, some combination of papers.  And, you can tailor the paper as you see fit - sports first, or national news, maybe with a cartoon at the bottom of each page, instead of all on one page.  You can read it as four pages, and hit scrolling buttons to advance to later pages.  Or, you can jump to the rest of the story you are reading directly.  At first, I doubt that this faux newspaper will really feel like a newspaper, but over time, it may well resemble the real deal.

     And, that led us to another innovation:  self-orienting maps.  As we were traveling along dirt roads, mostly unmarked, I was armed with a topo map and estimating our position by noting when we would meet up with intersecting roads.  Remarkably effective, although there are more side roads than are shown on the old map!  Well, the dilemma here is that maps are oriented with north at the top and we were driving south.  I have almost always kept the map in its printed orientation and made mental notes that roads on "map left" were going to show up on my right, and vice versa.  Yeah, that gets confusing.  But, on my recent spring break hike, I noticed that Bill Ferris always held his map oriented to his direction of travel.  Then, he just needed to read labels and numbers sideways and upside down.  After a while, I decided I liked this approach.  So, on our drive to Shamans Gallery, I decided to orient the map with south at the top.  That worked great, but we still had to contend with reading information upside down.

     But, we got to thinking about the newspaper idea and decided this technology would also work for maps.  First, it would be cool to just download your map onto a standard sized sheet (bigger than 8.5 x 11, I would think).  And (a drum roll, please), as you turned the map to orient it in the direction you are traveling, the labels and numbers would rotate with you!  Sign me up.  And, if you could write electronic notes on your map (with a stylus), you can then download it to your PC when you get home.  Probably there are plenty of other accessories that people would want on these maps.  Perhaps, I'll solicit ideas from the folks at the Yahoo Grand Canyon group.

Monday, January 19, 2009

   Dismantling Our Heritage - We went up to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon for a day trip.  We had a few things we wanted to do.  More on that later.  While up at Powell Memorial, we were dismayed to see that the park service has finally gotten around to dismantling the headframe to the old Orphan Mine, shown to the right (click any photo to see a larger image), which is probably about fifty years old.  It is a sad commentary on the NPS, which extols the virtues of historic structures, but only as long as they think that these structures are worth preserving.  For years, they have also wanted to tear down the Thunderbird and Kachina Lodge.  Thankfully, that has not yet come to pass.

     So, why were we up at the canyon?  Many reasons . . .

Kolb Exhibit.  I wanted to see the exhibit at Kolb Studio on historic mapping of the Grand Canyon.  [Until 2/15/09, you can read more about this here - Mapping the Grand Canyon. Later, visit their archives to find out more on this exhibit.]  These exhibits usually last for many months, so I do have ample opportunities.  But, we missed out on this during our December backpacking trip to Phantom Ranch.  This day trip afforded us the time to really peruse this exhibit.  I give it 4.5 stars - alas, no copies of Walcott's maps from the early 1880s were included.  An oversight, in my humble opinion.  Also, it is interesting to note that when Emory Kolb died, the studio was turned into a bookstore for the Grand Canyon Association, ending its historic use in favor of something else that the NPS endorsed!

Drive new & improved Hermit Road.  I also wanted a chance to drive the newly reconstructed Hermit Road (aka, West Rim Drive), which runs the eight miles between the Bright Angel Lodge and Hermit's Rest.  The road had been in very poor shape for a number of years.  I think that the park service should have added a direct road from Hermit's Rest back to the South Rim Village, so that hikers could access the trail here year round, without having to rely on the awful shuttle service.  But, it was not to be.  The new road looks just like the old road, except it isn't crumbling nor wavy.  But, no wider than before!  No bike lanes!  And, parking for the 2+ months of its being open to the public is woefully inadequate.  The photo, to the right, shows parking at Powell Memorial, which is typical of the viewpoints along this road.  Wouldn't some angled parking here have doubled the available spaces at little additional cost?  Probably, but that's not the way the park service thinks.  But, there was one major improvement, which gets my full support.  The restrooms at Hermit's Rest have been totally redone.  Now, there are four little building (see photo), each with two units.  They are roomy and include hand sanitizer dispensers.  There are also some vending machines here (drinks and snacks) and a water fountain that works during the winter.  A vast improvement over the older facility, even though these are outhouses and not flush toilets.

Meal Ready to Eat - a field test.  We also used this opportunity to try out some MREs that Cara Lynn got from an old friend.  MREs are "meals ready to eat" and are used by the military.  I tried one at home, but those are rather ideal conditions.  [Even so, I mistakenly added a package of salt to my instant coffee.  Bleech!  All I can say is that it sure looked like a sugar packet.]  Cara Lynn had a chicken and noodles meal, while I had the beef enchilada.  Very good, with just a little bit of a learning curve on our part.  The meals heat up when some chemical pellets are activated by air and water.  Works well to generating a hot meal, although the staying power of the "heaters" is not enough to really get your hot drink up to speed.  Still, I am impressed with the quality and variety of items included.  A slight breeze caused us to make sure everything got tucked under something heavy.  You can see Cara Lynn's meal to the right.  Yes, it included the M&Ms.  I would say that they are a bit too heavy for backpacking purposes, but they were nice on this cold Saturday in January.  We ate at the picnic area by the Hermit trailhead, as did three other groups of visitors.  Too bad you can only drive out here in December, January and part of February.  You wouldn't expect the shuttle bus riders to haul out picnic supplies during the rest of the year.  So it goes.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

   Klaatu Goes PC - We went to see the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still last week.  I give it three quarters of a star, but I'm not really sure why.  Maybe it was just the neat twist of the alien/s having landed years earlier and snatched some DNA to use to make a human that can be sent to us for the purpose of interaction.  Yeah, in the original, you have to believe that Michael Rennie was a human from another planet, as if that was the natural order of things.  Beyond that, there isn't anything about this movie to recommend.

     But, that is not why I am writing about this film.  Instead, my beef is that the film has stood the premise of the original on its head.  In the 1951 epic film, Klaatu has come to Earth to issue a warning to us not to take our fighting, now that we have nuclear capabilities, beyond our planet, which would threaten other worlds.  [Hmm, sounds a lot like the current Israel/Gaza conflict!]  Although he "came in peace," he was rude not to have called ahead - maybe then he wouldn't have gotten shot at!  Still, his character was supposed to be naive about the specifics of our culture and a big chunk of the film shows him getting to know us better.  His only demand was that he present his message to a diverse group that represented all the various peoples of the Earth.

     The new Klaatu (Keanu Reeves) is, well, an idiot.  He is supposed to know all about us, and even seeks out another alien living among us for a report.  Yet, he doesn't seem to understand how to communicate with us.  Indeed, he doesn't really have a message to relay to us.  Instead, he is here to destroy us in order to "save the planet."  I guess you could say that he is a metaphor for environmental extremism.  If they hadn't played him so serious, but, instead, more delusional (or, even insidious, like the villain in the new Bond film, Quantum of Solace) then I might have given this movie a full star.

     After seeing the new version, I pulled out my DVD copy of the original and watched that, paying closer attention to the message of the film, because I was sure that it had been totally perverted by the remake.  And, that is certainly the case.  I jotted some of the key passages in Klaatu's final speech, which left me admiring that film even more:

"The threat of aggression . . . can no longer be tolerated.  There must be security for all, or no one is secure.  Now, this does not mean giving up any freedom, except the freedom to act irresponsibly."

"[The robots'] function is to . . . preserve the peace. . . At the first sign of violence, they act automatically against the aggressor."

"The result is we live in peace, without arms or armies, secure in the knowledge that we are free from aggression and war.  Free to pursue more profitable enterprises."

"It is no concern of ours how you run your own planet."


     To my surprise, I have just discovered that Klaatu is a libertarian!  While the filmmakers were not trying to promote this kind of interpretation, it is the inescapable result of how they sought to operationalize their anti-war sentiments.  Here is what we get from the passages quoted above:

Limited government.  This interplanetary association has only one purpose - secure individual freedom from aggression.  That is pure Ayn Rand material.  There isn't any aid and assistance to us, to help in our dismantling of weapons.  There isn't any interplanetary definition of marriage.   There isn't any common currency standard.  Nothing but just the protection of the individual from force of violence.  You can't get any more libertarian than that.

The state doesn't regulate behavior.  They just don't care what we do, as long as we're not violent.  No social conventions to enforce.  No behavior to criminalize.  A libertarian's dream world!

Free enterprise is embraced.  I love the line about pursuing "more profitable enterprises."  It doesn't have to refer to making money, but it explicitly allows for that outcome.  And, the concept of free enterprise is really the expression of capitalism.  I doubt that many viewers would walk away from the movie thinking that Klaatu's message is that capitalism is best, but that's what he said.

A strict enforcement of property rights.  The notion that the robot police force has a simple mandate, and that it is carried out automatically, and, apparently, swiftly, means that property rights are pre-eminent in this system.

A de facto encouragement of economic growth.  Capitalism requires property rights, lest there is no trade, and relies on voluntary transactions.  The threat of force and violence deter these transactions, so their elimination would sow the seeds of dramatic economic growth and development.

     So, while the new, politically-correct, version of this movie is a stinker, turning Klaatu into a bullying socialist tyrant, the original version gets five stars from me.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

   Financial Market Turmoil - With the recent turmoil in financial markets, and given my relative advantage in this area (I have been teaching a course in "Money & Banking" the last four years), I asked the editor (Randy Wilson) of the Daily Sun if he would be interested in an editorial on the topic under their "Coconino Voices" banner, which is an irregular platform for locals with expertise to spout off about things they know something about.  He was enthusiastic about this, and even though I finished it off on Friday (10/3), he got it on the main editorial page for Sunday.  While it has been a couple of days since then, surprisingly there are no web comments on my opinion piece.  That seems odd, although Randy told someone else that he did expect to see some letters come in on my editorial.  We'll see.  Still, my colleague Doug Brown, who is quite the polar opposite of me insofar as politics and economics goes, told me that he was asking his students to comment on my piece as part of a homework assignment.  So, that's good news and I'll be interested in hearing how they react to it.

Controlling financial markets a fatal conceit

'For the sins of the father you, though guiltless, must suffer," wrote the Roman poet Horace.  Today's financial turmoil has its roots in the Great Depression of the 1930s.  We have been suffering, and continue to suffer, the sins of our fathers. And the suffering isn't over yet.

The real sin of the Great Depression era was the notion that political control of the marketplace would curb "capitalism's excesses" and distribute long-lasting wealth more evenly.  This experiment was a colossal failure -- our economy went through the 1930s with an average unemployment rate of some 15 percent.  And, the sins of this grand experiment continue to be visited upon us.  That's why there was a savings and loan debacle in the 1980s.  That's why there are huge investment banks that can't diversify their activities, putting them at greater risk of collapse.  Although much reform has taken place recently, we have seen continued efforts to regulate financial markets, from requiring firms to make risky loans (because it's nondiscriminatory) to using oddball accounting rules for valuing highly illiquid assets (mortgages), wrecking balance sheets and casting a pall of uncertainty over credit markets.

Why do we care about credit markets?  Well, our economy runs more smoothly, and our standards of living rise more quickly the more robust is the credit market.  The business world constantly faces cash flow problems -- the outflow of expenses is hardly ever matched, on a timely basis, with the inflow of income.  Farmers, for example, earn all their income at harvest time, yet need to incur huge expenses months in advance if they are to have a crop.  Retailers do a huge volume of business during the Christmas season, yet they have expenses to pay on a regular basis throughout the year.  A freeze on credit will disrupt production, boost unemployment and can send us into a recession.  That is why there is so much concern about financial markets today.  We don't yet have a recession, but that will not last if this problem is not remedied.

Our most immediate problem is the sea of poorly priced home mortgage debt.  This also has roots to Great Depression-era policy, when Fannie Mae was created, as a government agency, to redirect capital to home building.  Years later, Fannie was demoted to the status of "government sponsored enterprise," which combines the worst of the political and economic world -- it is a private firm, with private owners, but its debt is guaranteed by the government, so it can ignore the normal constraints of market discipline.  Later, Fannie got a brother, Freddie Mac, and together they own nearly half of the mortgage debt in the U.S.  They sold bonds to raise money to buy mortgages, which they could pool together in order to sell more bonds.  It's actually a creative and innovate way to promote liquidity in an otherwise illiquid market.  But, with no market discipline, and a keen desire to satisfy political demands, these institutions have propelled us into this current crisis.  As Ron Paul wryly observed recently, if Fannie and Freddie are the culprits in this mess, wasn't it foolish of Congress to charter them in the first place?  Of course it was, but mostly you hear opinion makers chattering about Wall Street greed, which is not the root problem.

What of the future?  Once the dust settles from this current massive government effort to establish liquidity and stability to financial markets, the task of restructuring the market landscape will begin.  And, that's when we will see whether we have learned anything from history.  The worst thing that can happen, and as of right now, the most likely thing to happen, is that there will be a new wave of regulation, oversight and control.  If we ratchet up the regulatory state, we will guarantee yet another day of reckoning as our children bear the sins of their fathers.

If you think this financial turmoil is the end of the story, think again.  We have yet to deal with the collapse of Social Security, yet another grand experiment of the Great Depression.  That will be a calamity.  And, then there is the Medicare time bomb.  When it goes off, I shudder to think of the consequences.  If change is coming, it better come quickly and it better be the right change.  Let's keep our fingers crossed and hope that Hegel was wrong when he opined that the only thing we learn from history is that we don't learn from history.

Dennis Foster has a Ph.D. in economics, has taught money and banking classes at the university level since the 1980s. He encourages readers interested in the Great Depression to read Amity Shlaes new book, "The Forgotten Man."

      As you can note, the theme here is that there has been too much regulation in this industry and that our current (and future!) problems stem from these regulations, not from "greed" nor from "poor oversight," hence the nod to Hayek with the "fatal conceit" reference in the title.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

   The Five Ring Circus - I have never been much of an avid follower of the Olympics.  I have only seen bits and pieces over the years, although I do remember catching some of the major events from time to time.  This is especially true of the summer version, when there is so much else to do with my time, energy and effort.  The winter version, on the other hand, fills up dead space in my schedule.

     So, since the games have begun in Beijing, I have tuned in a few times, on a sporadic basis.  And, what do I see?  Well, there is beach volleyball, some kind of handball version of soccer, some kind of stick version of broomball, archery, more beach volleyball, some "real" volleyball, water polo and some women's weight lifting.  I must say that I scratch my head and ponder exactly what the Olympics are supposed to mean.  And, then, there is the issue of how many medal opportunities a participant may have - for swimmer Michael Phelps it is quite high, while for a basketball player it must certainly just be one.  So, how do you compare the performance of the two?  Well, here are my suggestions . . .

Eliminate team sports.  To my eye, the Olympics should be about individual achievement.  So, team sports should be tossed.  No water polo.  No soccer.  No hockey.  No softball.  Those might be interesting games, but they should only appear in some other venue.
   Exceptions: 
Teams where the competition is not one-on-one, like rowing and relays.

Eliminate games entirely.  I don't think chess is an Olympic sport . . . yet!  But, tennis is, and it shouldn't be.  The Olympics are a competition, but not one in a game.  No tennis.  No ping pong.  No badminton.

Eliminate competitions based on judging.  Any competition where the participant must look up to see how they scored among a set of judges doesn't cut it with me.  There must be rules for competitors, and some enforcement mechanism, but let's just throw out all the "sports" that get scored.  No pommel horse.  No rings.  No synchronized swimming.  No diving.  No trampoline.
   Exceptions: 
Change the gymnastics "competition" into truly athletic events - who can jump the most pommel horses in one minute, etc.

Crown one champion.  Whoever wins the decathlon, or some variation thereof, would be deemed "the Olympic Champion."  Score this as currently is done, or come up with some alternative scheme that can produce an overall champion that excels across many fields.  The modern day triathlon is really a better indicator of who is "best" than is someone who wins nine medals in closely related competitions.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

   The Dirty Dozen - Such is the title of a new book by Robert Levy and William Mellor.  [The image to the right is linked to the Amazon web page.]  It is the story of the "worst" twelve Supreme Court decisions in the modern era, meaning since about the Great Depression.  Yes, way too many would otherwise come from the first hundred years!  Author Robert Levy was featured at the Goldwater Institute this past week as part of their "Who's Writing Now?" series, which Cara Lynn and I were fortunate enough to be able to attend this past Thursday.

     Levy gave a fascinating talk to the crowd of one hundred, or so, out on the patio behind the institute building.  He pursued a law degree in his mid-40s after having been a successful entrepreneur.  He clerked for Clint Bolick, who is currently the director of the Scharf-Norton Center for Constitutional Litigation at Goldwater.  Bolick said that Levy, now a senior fellow at Cato, was the most unusual law clerk they ever had - during his lunch breaks at the firm, he would be on the phone to his broker buying and selling stock!  And, apparently, doing quite well for himself.  In fact, the firm not only offered Levy a job, but put him on their board of directors.

     Levy was a very engaging speaker and had the crowd listening in rapt attention.  The stories of these cases, chosen in part from a survey he and his co-author conducted among other lawyers, were fascinating, if brief for this venue.  Still he talked to us for close to an hour and took questions at the end.  Afterwards, we got a copy of his book (not available at stores until May 1), and Cara Lynn got Levy to sign a copy for us.

     The book is great.  The chapters can be read in whatever order you wish.  I started with some of the more peculiar economics-related cases - Wickard v. Filburn (Congress can pass a law that you can't grow wheat for your own consumption because it interferes with interstate commerce!); the Gold Clause Cases (where a building owner in Des Moines had to keep the rent on his 143,000 square foot office building fixed at $23,000 from 1933 to 1993 because the government ended the gold standard!!); Whitman v. American Trucking Associations, Inc. (Congress can defer its legislative abilities to unelected bureaucracies - in this case the EPA - who can establish rules, determine penalties and adjudicate guilt!!!).

     Why is it that these cases are unfamiliar to me?  I am reasonably intelligent and well-read.  I guess that they just didn't make it into the educational curriculum at the schools I attended, probably because they are so crucial to the foundation of the current welfare/nanny state mentality that so infects the body politic.  Yes, we did cover the Dred Scott case, but that didn't make Levy and Mellor's book because it was an old case, and, of course, since overturned by constitutional amendment.  And, there is another thing.  Someone asked Levy if the notion that the constitution is a "living document" was legitimate.  Absolutely not, was Levy's response.  That notion denigrates the value of the constitution, making it meaningless.  Times do change, and the framers constructed a method by which we can amend the constitution to reflect those changes.  This has been done seventeen times.  Yet, we have been inculcated with the notion that the "living constitution" is some kind of special gift, when, in fact, it is a curse.  Two thumbs up.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

   All Quiet on the Western Front - In late October, we drove up to the Grand Canyon to attend the second annual Grand Canyon Hikers Symposium, sponsored by the Grand Canyon Hikers & Backpackers Association.  Great stories all day long.  On our way out of town, the sun was setting behind the helipad, in Tusayan.  We stopped and I was able to snag this great shot of the helicopters at rest. 

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

   When the Poor are Fat ... - The Trust for America's Health has issued its annual report on obesity in America.  I have no qualms with the bottom line (pardon the pun) - it is getting wider all the time.  Why, just last week, I was having breakfast with Sue and Tom, my sister and her mate.  Tom had just returned from a three week motorcycle cruise around a big chunk of the country and was noting how many fat people he saw on his travels.  I pointed out to him that the three of us had just ordered four breakfasts (at our favorite place - the Cracker Barrel), so we could split the order of pecan pancakes.  Well, none of us are obese, but we can each lose ten pounds.  Still, lifestyle is everything, isn't it?

     One thing that interested me about the report is the "connection" between obesity and poverty.  "Eight of the states with the highest poverty rates are also in the top 15 states with the highest obesity rates," according to the report (p. 15).  This observation should cause pause, not so much about the problem of obesity, but about the definition of poverty.  It seems clear to me that we have defined poverty in a dysfunctional manner if it can include people who eat too much.  I thought poverty meant that you didn't have enough income to properly feed, clothe and shelter yourself.  If poor people are fat, then they are, ipso facto, not poor.  There cannot be any other conclusion.

     A huge problem with the tenor and tone of this report is its advocacy for government involvement.  The report was funded by a private group, and, as best I can tell, it wasn't funded with any taxpayer money.  They seem to have a good handle on measuring the problem, and suggesting ways to combat it.  But, the report harps on the role of government, even to the extent of providing a host of public opinion survey results, showing how much people agree that the government should be involved.  Yeech.  Some of their proposals include:

-- "Restricting the sale of foods of poor nutritional value in schools."  [p. 45]
-- "Increasing the minimum food stamp benefit."  [p. 45]
-- "Providing subsidies to farmers' markets to accept Electronic Benefit Transfer cards."  [p. 46]
-- Provide "subsidies for growing fruits and vegetables."  [p. 46]
-- "Encourage new building design that encourages use of staircases rather than elevators or escalators."  [p. 79]
-- Use "[s]tate and federal transportation dollars ... for mass transit, sidewalk, and mixed use opportunities rather than be focused on highway construction."  [p. 79]
-- "The federal government should develop and implement a National Strategy to Combat Obesity."  [p. 93]
-- Require that "private employers and insurers ... ensure that every working American has access to a workplace wellness program."  [p. 94]
-- "Provide No or Low Cost Physical Activity Opportunities ... such as YMCAs."  [p. 97]

     There are many good ideas here, but using the government as the blunt force instrument to operationalize them is a huge mistake.  It is bad enough that we have to use government to deal with a host of real ills that afflict us.  But, this notion that something so controllable at the individual level must call into being a gigantic bureaucracy and boatloads of regulations is just mind numbing.

Monday, July 23, 2007

   Remembering Peppyr - For about a year, Peppyr had been feeling the ill effects of old age.  We celebrated her 15th birthday this month, with special dog treats from the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory.  But, her worsening arthritis, the loss of some forty percent of her weight, an increasing inability to stand, and a dramatic lessening of appetite, led us to have her put to sleep this past Friday.  She was a great companion and the first dog I've ever had.  The sadness felt by Cara Lynn, Eric and me is certainly a testament of how easily it was for us to project some of ourselves onto her.

      I have a great many fond memories of Peppyr.  I took her hiking a lot.  I can still see her trying to hop up the steep steps on her first hike on the Fatman's Loop at Mt. Elden.  She was to the top of Mt. Humphreys at least twice.  We would often hike up, and jog back, along the trails at Sandy Seep and the Inner Basin.  Our longest hike together was from the Inner Basin to the Mt. Elden trailhead parking lot.  We were both tired and sore for some days afterwards.

     She came along on many camping trips to the North Rim - Saddle Mountain, Jumpup Canyon, and Crazy Jug were favorite spots to camp.  The photo, on the right, shows us looking over a benchmark site above Hack Canyon in 2004.  I am reasonably sure that she was the first dog to walk across the old Navajo Bridge, below Lees Ferry, as we happened by there right after the new bridge opened for business (but, before the ceremony marking its use).  I also took her on some road trips - a couple of times to visit family in Denver, and once on a trip to Fargo.  But, mostly we spent our time together hiking, especially in Flagstaff.

     There are tons of humorous moments that I recall - like her chasing after snowballs in the deep snow of the front yard.  She would stick her nose into the spot where the snowball had landed and try to fathom what had happened to it.  She never did catch the LED pen light shining on the carpet.  Nor, did she ever manage to catch her tail, as I recall.  Also, she was great at holding a dog biscuit on her nose until I allowed her to lean over, let it slide off, and eat it.

     I got Peppyr from the Humane Society in August of 1992.  She, and two siblings, were the last of a large litter available for adoption.  Exactly what kind of dog she was, besides "Humane Society Special," was unclear.  She had a cool distinctive white tip to her always-curly tail, and her paws looked like someone had dipped her into white paint.  The short hairs on her spine would shoot straight up when she got into an attack mode, which wasn't very often.  She was very good at "fetch" but not so good at "let go."

     The decision to put Peppyr to sleep was not an easy one, but we'll have many good memories to keep with us.  During our final visit to the Canyon Pet Hospital, I should also note that the reception staff, the techs and our vet, Dr. Chris, showed us a great deal of kindness, consideration and professionalism.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

   Saving Places - A bout with the flu, a week backpacking in the Grand Canyon, and a boat load of grading have kept me relatively idle on the blog front.  Time to jump back in . . .

     In the 1995 General Management Plan, adopted for Grand Canyon, the Park Service planned to demolish the Thunderbird and Kachina Lodges, which are located on the rim of the canyon, between the El Tovar Hotel and the Bright Angel Lodge.  Why?  I suppose the short answer is, "Because they can."  I think, though, that this proposal speaks to a deeper character flaw in the people that run the NPS, in general, and the Grand Canyon, in particular.  They hate tourists.  They don't want people to go to the Grand Canyon, and, if they must come, they don't want to stay near the rim.  I guess that having people really close to these magnificent views would somehow harm the canyon.

     In the late 1990's, I circulated a flyer around during the Earth Day celebration on the campus of Northern Arizona University, which asked people to write to the superintendent to "Save the Kachina" and to "Save the Thunderbird."  OK, so it was a bit tongue-in-cheek, since the nutjobs that attend these "rallies" are not really interested in development that promotes tourism.

     Thankfully, the park service has been unable to carry through with this part of its plan.  So, the lodges remain.  A few years ago, while the Canyon Forest Village proposal was getting the approval of our county Board of Supervisors, the demise of these lodges was the focus of some attention.  The board decided that 900 rooms, at CFV, was enough, but allowed for the possibility of future expansion, contingent upon the removal of the Kachina and Thunderbird.  Somehow, the notion that tourists should stay overnight 7 miles from the rim, rather than right on the rim, was thought to improve the quality of their visits.  Or, not.

     Last week, there was a "listening session" held at the Museum of Northern Arizona, where local park officials, including the Superintendent from Grand Canyon, would hear what people had to say about the parks.  I wanted to attend, and actually planned on it.  But, the information on the timing of this session was incorrect in the local paper, so, alas, I was unable to go and have my voice heard.  But, I am sure that all the usual suspects (i.e., local activists) did attend.  In a follow-up article on this event, in the local paper, former Grand Canyon resident, Bruce Aiken, made some disparaging remarks about the Kachina and Thunderbird lodges.  So, I thought to pen a quick response, which ran in the paper this past Easter Sunday:

To the editor:

     In a recent article about conditions at the Grand Canyon, a former inner canyon resident is quoted as saying that the Kachina and Thunderbird lodges are “disgusting” and that “nobody likes” them.  I would beg to differ.

     These two lodges are hardly eyesores.  They are nestled between the El Tovar Hotel and the Bright Angel Lodge.  While they do not suffer from an overabundance of architecturally-stimulating features, I would challenge visitors to carefully consider these two structures from a nearby vantage point along the West Rim Drive.  Looking back at the South Rim, with the San Francisco Peaks in the background, you’ll hardly notice these lodges.  Their façade of buff colored stone-like panels make them blend in well with the Kaibab Limestone, the uppermost rock layer of the Grand Canyon.  They do not crowd the rim, unlike the Bright Angel, nor do they dominate a point, like the El Tovar.  Indeed, one would be hard pressed to find a better example of “environmental sustainability” in the park.

     I would bet that any visitor, staying at the Yavapai, or the Maswik, or anywhere in Tusayan, would love to trade up to a canyon-side room in either of these two lodges.  With occupancy rates in excess of 90%, it seems that plenty of people like these rooms.

     For years, officials at the park have pursued a policy to demolish these two lodges, to be replaced, not by another El Tovar, but, instead, to be replaced by nothing.  That would be a crime.  A crime not unlike ones committed by the Park Service in the past, like when they destroyed the Grandview and Summit, whose historical relevance was lost on officials that seem driven to deter visitation rather than embrace it.


     In 2018 and 2021, these two lodges will be 50 years old, and may become eligible to become historic sites.  It is not a slam dunk, and it is possible to get on the list earlier, but I will bet that the park service will continue to try to tear down these buildings before they can be officially recognized as part of our history.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

   The Unimportance of Education - For many years there has been an undercurrent of dissatisfaction with public education.  The basis for that discontent is the inability to produce students that are truly educated.  In the grade schools, the pressure to pass students through the system, without an education, can be somewhat tempered by vigilant parents.  And, the whole choice/voucher debate will, hopefully, push the system towards more and more competition.

     Education is, after all, a very personal and individual quality.  I often tell my students that I can't "teach" them anything; that "teaching" is a misnomer.  I can talk; I can cajole; I can threaten; I can entice; I can penalize; I can reward; I can even entertain.  But, I cannot "teach."  What is really happening is that students are learning.  Or, not.  I do try to help them, but, it really has more to do with them than it does with me.  I don't take any credit for the A+ student, but, neither do I take any blame for the F student.  I provide them with the opportunity to learn, and, then, I judge them accordingly.  Indeed, my primary task is to judge them, based on how they have demonstrated what they have learned.

     At the university level, where I "teach," we are constantly under pressure from forces that work towards an erosion of our educational standards for the students that we graduate.  The more robust the competition for students, and the less a financial role that is played by the state, the more likely it is that these forces will be effectively balanced by the desire, on the part of students and parents, that our college degrees actually represent the earning of an education.

     Of course, there have been critics.  The seminal work by Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind, is a powerful indictment against a system that places more value on self-esteem than on developing a reasoning faculty in students.  A recent essay by one of my favorites, Arnold Kling, laments the proliferation of "Wizard-of-Oz diplomas" - ones that looks good on paper, but are hardly worth the paper they are printed on.

     At the university where I "teach" we are being quickly propelled towards a world where all we do is give out Wizard-of-Oz diplomas.  Our president has said, over and over again, that every graduating high school student in Arizona should go to college.  And, we are becoming blindingly focused on the "retention" of these students, since every student in our university means more money from the state and the feds.  Now, the public choice economist in me understands full well why the president of a large state university would argue for more students and argue for keeping them in school longer.  What does dismay me is that there aren't more (or, any?) voices out there questioning such a transparent conflict of interest.

     It wasn't too many years ago that the mindset of the administration was much more focused on graduates that were well-educated.  At least, that was the case in the business college, where I work.  [In the education college, they don't seem to have focused on education for at least a generation; for a prime example see one of my earlier blogs.]  The classes I am primarily responsible for, were described as "weed-out" classes by a former dean.  That probably sounds rather impolitic, but the mindset was that our graduates would be better-served with a diploma that actually means something about the level of their education.  A marketing student would call this the "branding" effect.

     But, now, that has changed.  Our current charge is to "produce diplomas."  There is the addendum of, "but, not by lowering standards," but that is just disingenuous double-talk.  The quality of our students hasn't changed, in any appreciable sense, in many years.  We don't really have much in the way of an admission standard.  And, they are, by and large, the products of a pretty awful public secondary school system.  On average, the students I see don't know how to write well, don't like to read much and are not inclined to think.  They believe that hearing me say something is equivalent to their having learned something.  And, we seem to be on the crest of a wave that will validate this belief.  I now tell my students that there are two goals they may pursue at the university - getting a degree and getting an education.  One is easier than the other.  One presents the illusion of success.  One will short-change them in the long run.

     I don't know how this will all turn out.  I suspect that we will delude ourselves that our standards have not fallen, while we watch more and more skilled work being done abroad.  There may be some private sector responses that will help to alleviate this proliferation of the Wizard-of-Oz diploma, but that requires students pay again to get the opportunities that were missed the first time around.  Over the years I have been teaching, one suggestion that I would make, that would likely raise the educational attainment of students in a dramatic fashion, is to raise the minimum age for college to 21, or 22.  If someone wants to go at 18, or 19, or 20, they can pay a premium for that option.  If they are very smart and test well, they can earn scholarships to pay that premium.  Otherwise, most of the students I see really would be better off by making their college years the ones from 22 to 25 rather than 18 to 21.  After all, the collapse of the social security system will necessitate later retirement ages anyway, so why be in a rush to start a 40, or 50, year career?  It probably would be less of a burden on parents as well, as they can insist that their children provide more financial resources for their own college education.  Well, it's just an idea.

Tuesday, August 1, 2006

   Smug Localism - The local paper ran a story about "buying local" put out by the Christian Science Monitor, titled, "Buying local may not always be best."  I thought it was an excellent piece, because it actually treated globalism proponents as serious and reasonable!!  That's a far cry from how this issue is usually treated.  I was going to send a quick e-mail to the editor commenting on what a good story it was.  But, there appeared a few disparaging letters over the last week and the editor, in his weekly column, pooh-poohed these views as "contrarian."  Well, so much for an enlightened press.  So, while I thought to write a letter in response, it wasn't until another pro-local letter appeared, written by Becky Daggett, the Executive Director of the Friends of Flagstaff's Future, that I was motivated to respond . . .

To the editor:

   Kudos for running the article, “Buying local may not always be best.”  It was both well-balanced and a refreshing change.  It underscored a central feature to our high standard of living – specialization.  We don’t strive for self-sufficiency, because that makes us poor.  It’s really just a matter of common sense.

   Of course, common sense seems to be in short supply at the so-called Friends of Flagstaff’s Future.  Their executive director writes that, “each dollar spent at a locally owned business recirculates at least three times … versus a dollar spent with a chain store, which departs immediately to corporate headquarters.”

   That is patently false.  Of each dollar spent, both stores have to pay their employees and have to pay for the goods they sell.  Their employees live here, while the goods they sell likely come from outside Flagstaff.  The only difference is that the profit of the chain store is owned by the stockholders, only some of whom live here, while the profit of the locally-owned store goes entirely to its owner.  How big a difference is that?  Well, over the last year, Wal-Mart earned a 3.5% profit margin on its sales.  So, a net of less than 3.5 cents on each dollar spent at Wal-Mart flows out of Flagstaff, as compared to some locally-owned store.

   So, if you want to buy local, please do so.  If you want to feel smug and superior about it, fine with me.  Just don’t try (again) to use the government to force me to have to shop with you.

Dennis Foster
Flagstaff, AZ


    
There are other issues here worthy of mention.

Ad hominem attacks show weakness for "localism" argument.  Both Daggett and earlier letter writer, Ned Barnett, attacked the globalism argument by attacking the people who were representing the argument.  This is known as the ad hominem fallacy.  Why attack the argument when you can question the arguer?  Daggett's criticism was especially egregious in this regard by whining that a buy-local critic works for the Hudson Institute, which is funded, in part, by corporations like Wal-Mart.  She writes that, "This could be why Mr. Avery takes a dim view of supporting ... locally owned businesses."  Isn't it funny how these smug social activists cannot fathom the notion that researchers at conservative think tanks (like Hudson) actually believe in what they do?

What do we buy locally?  Clearly, we are quite motivated to buy goods and services that cost us as little as possible.  Some may get satisfaction from shopping at the local bookstore, versus the Barnes and Noble, but what they are buying is a bundle of services we can label as "ambiance."  Generally speaking, services are most likely to be provided locally, because it is costly for us to travel elsewhere.  Services like - lawyers, doctors, financial planners, realtors, auto mechanics, insurance agents, and so on.  Most of these services are provided for by locally-owned firms (perhaps sole proprietors) even if they are associated with regional, and national, businesses.  That is, my MetLife agent owns his own business. 

What is local?  Years ago, while serving a three month stint as the public member of the editorial board for the local paper, the Arizona Daily Sun, I was astounded that they (editors, reporters) didn't understand the concept of a locally-owned franchise.  That is, they thought any national chain business must be run by the corporation.  I tried to disabuse them of this notion, but I can't say that I was wholly successful.  I pointed out that the local Sizzler was owned by a second, or third, generation Flagstaff resident.  Conversely, a downtown coffee shop was opened up by a couple that had just moved to Flagstaff six months earlier from California.  Which is local and which isn't?  In fact, the California couple pulled up stakes the following year and moved on to Colorado. 

Beware the lazy social activist.  At the end of my letter, I reference the use of government to curtail our choices.  The background for this was the decision by the city council, a couple of years ago, to place size, and usage, limitations on retail businesses, expressly to keep Wal-Mart from locating a Supercenter in Flagstaff.  There was a petition drive to place the matter on the ballot, and voters overturned this decision.  But, I don't think that will satisfy these lazy social activists from trying to use government to restrict our freedoms in the future.

Some related blogs:
Wal-Mart Bashing - Critiquing the anti Wal-Mart movie, "The High Cost of Low Price."
Brown v. Foster - A comment on a debate I had with a colleague about the anti Wal-Mart movie.

Final thought - A remark from another colleague of mine, has lodged permanently in my brain, and seems apropos for this piece: "Why should I care about the Mom and Pop store?  Mom and Pop have been ripping me off for years."

Saturday, April 1, 2006

   Plenty of April Fools at Grand Canyon TrustWell, not just at the Trust.  And, not just in April.  But, the recent efforts by a group called the Just Transition Coalition, of whom the Grand Canyon Trust is a member, will surely put other April Fool pranksters to shame.  However, it should be noted, that the JTC did get an early start, and their hoax may not end any time soon.  Let's break it down ...

The issue:  The Mohave Generating Station used to pump out over 1500 megawatts of power.  But, not any more.  Years ago, the Grand Canyon Trust was a partner in a lawsuit against Mohave's owners, asking that they be forced to clean up their pollution or shut down.  [I blogged on this in Lumps of Coal for Christmas.]  The clean-up costs amount to over $1 billion.  And, the visibility improvements at the Grand Canyon are likely to be zip - indeed, it will take an estimated five years of scientific observations to determine if there is any net benefit in visibility!

The ripple effect:  As is typical in the coal-fired electric power industry, there was only one supplier of coal for the Mohave plant, and that was from the Black Mesa mine, located on the Navajo Reservation and operated by Peabody Energy.  As a consequence of the shutdown at Mohave, the mine has also shut down, costing many hundred Navajos jobs that paid very well ($70,000+, which goes a long way on the rez).

The Just Transition Hoax:  The hodgepodge of environmental and social activist groups that form the JTC issued a statement claiming that the value of Mohave's pollution credits should not go to the owner, Southern California Edison, but, rather, to the Hopi and Navajo tribes.  They want $20 million a year, for the next 20 years.  Yes, Alice, we've completely stepped through the looking glass on this one.

     My characterization just barely scratches the surface in capturing the bizarre nature of the JTC statement.  Let's take a closer look at that statement, at least at the one published in the Arizona Daily Sun on March 20, 2006.

For years, the Navajo and Hopi people made major sacrifices to enable the Mohave Generating Station to operate.  The people provided labor, coal, ... water and bore the burden of pollution.


One may be excused for thinking that, based on this statement, there was no compensation for these resources.  Of course, that would be wrong.  The workers got paid, and paid well.  The tribes got paid, for the coal and the water, and paid well.  And, at many hundreds of miles away from the Mohave plant (further away than where I live in Flagstaff), they didn't bear any "burden" of pollution.

Now that the facility has closed, we have a right to ask the owners of Mohave to help us transition to a better future, to repay the debt.


Well, let's see ... the groups of the JTC helped make it impossible for the plant to remain open, and now they want to be "compensated" for that action?  To make matters even worse, these groups opposed a plan to allow Mohave to continue to operate, at least temporarily.  And, there is no "debt" to repay - the tribes did not lend any resources to Mohave.

How will the Just Transition Plan work?  Funds secured from the sale of pollution credits by the primary operators of the Mohave Plant ... would go to the tribes for investment in local communities through renewable energy development.


One wonders why the tribes haven't already spend funds for these kinds of developments.  Over the last 20 years, they have earned at least $1 billion in royalties from their coal and water.  Couldn't they have put away $20 million a year for these purposes?  Yes, they could have.

It is time for a fresh plan to bring justice to Black Mesa and economic development to a people cheated out of decades of billions of dollars from lost coal and water royalties.


I don't know how spending $20 million, extorted from a company that has nothing to do with the contract between Peabody and the tribes, brings "justice" to people cheated out of billions of dollars!  This fanciful tale has not been endorsed by the tribal governments, which have benefited greatly from the coal and water royalties.  So, maybe this hoax will die a deserving death, sooner rather than later.  Meanwhile, the April Fools at the Grand Canyon Trust are most certainly busy working on some new scheme to bankrupt businesses, impoverish hard working families and denigrate the visitor industry in this region.

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