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Random Fragments

January - March 2011

Random Fragments

Nullification, AZ

Banning Campfires

Sunday, January 16, 2011

   Random Fragments - Odds and ends, some serious and some not, to ring in the new year . . . 

Global What-ing?  We began the New Year in Flagstaff with incredible cold.  I couldn't believe it, so I snapped this photo from the TV screen showing the current temperature as -18 degrees.  Apparently the lowest measurement in the area was an unbelievable 30 degrees below zero.  And, by the way, this is Arizona!!!
     So, on New Year's I headed down to Phoenix for a couple of days.  On the morning of January 3rd, just before heading back to Flagstaff, I took the picture to the right, showing that there was still some snow in the back of my pick-up.  Really!  Snow remaining in my pick-up after three days while parked outdoors in Phoenix.

The reporting of numbers. Did you ever wonder about how different numbers are reported differently?  Well, it probably isn't that big a deal.  But, it crossed the threshold of my consciousness when I was listening to a radio report on the performance of the stock market.  The reporter said something like, "The Dow was up 54 points today..."  Of course, that has meaning to us.  The point is that if the Dow had closed at 11,723 it really wouldn't mean anything to us.  Now, that isn't always true.  When the Dow crosses some magical number (10,000 or 12,000), then that is how it is reported, because it seems more meaningful.
     Now, on the other hand, the weather is always reported in absolute terms - "The high today is forecast to be 53 degrees."  They don't say that the high today is expected to be 3 degrees more than yesterday.  That wouldn't help anybody understand what is going on.  So, interesting to think about how different numbers are reported differently depending on what it means.  Well, interesting to me anyway!

What does it take to be a Dean?  When the Dean of the W. A. Franke College of Business (here, at NAU) moved up to a VP position at the university, the administration embarked on a "nationwide" search for his replacement.  That was a few years ago.  Before the process got too far, the economy tanked, budgets were cut and the search was postponed for a couple of years, until now.  We are back in search mode, although, we have just heard that state funding for next year may be cut by 20%, so it isn't clear how this will all play out.
     Anyway, the Provost gave us an update a while ago and mentioned about how, as a former Dean, her having a degree in anthropology wasn't an impediment to her overseeing budgeting decisions for the Physics Department.  Okay, I get it.  But, then, in the next breath, she reviewed the requirements for our new Dean.  Here is part of the requirement:

The successful candidate will have an earned doctorate or equivalent degree in a discipline represented in the College; ... a record of accomplishment in teaching and research...

     So, while she could oversee a Physics Department, she couldn't be the business school Dean?  And, why does being a Dean require a PhD?  That's like saying that the head of Ford must have a degree in mechanical engineering.  And, when we think about how people become skilled, why would you expect that someone that has a "record of accomplishment" in teaching and research to have any level of competence in running a college?  Absurd.  And, people wonder why the education establishment is so messed up.  On my way out of this meeting, I commented to one of my colleagues, "Bill Franke, whose name graces our college, who earned millions by being a successful businessman, wouldn't be eligible to run our college, even though I bet he could do a good job."

The Arizona Shootings.  Of course, for the past week, the news has been dominated by the shootings in Tucson, aimed at Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, which resulted in the deaths of six bystanders, and the wounding of fourteen others, including Giffords.  Of course it was a horrible crime and one that everyone condemns.  Of course it is used by some to advance anti-gun, anti-conservative, anti-Tea Party and other agendas.  I get it.  Stupid.  Transparently stupid.  But, I get it.
     But, that's not my beef here.  I am more concerned with the unfolding travesty of our legal system that is likely to drag out and pervert the administration of justice in this case.  We all know that any trial is many, many months down the road.  It may ultimately take years.  And, that, I do condemn.  The talk of an insanity defense alerts us to the notion that as clear cut as this case is, we can expect the mockery of justice to be paramount.
     So, why not a speedy trial?  It seems to me that a trial could start right now, run about a week and an execution could be scheduled for next week.  That is justice.  That this case can't be handled immediately shows how broken the system is.  The killer was caught in the act.  Any "impairment" defense must crumble in the face of the fact that he knew how to acquire a gun, and bullets and aim and shoot.  Consider, by way of comparison, the assassination of President Lincoln.  He was shot on April 14.  It took a while to unravel the conspiracy, but not forever!  The trail began on May 1 and lasted seven weeks.  The verdict was issued on June 30 and the conspirators executed on July 7.  Less than three months.  On April 1st, the same amount of time will have passed in this case and I doubt that much will have been.  That it will also be April Fools Day will be too ironic.

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.

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.

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