Wednesday, December 31, 2008

If Only They'd Been Wearing Seatbelts

A gash in one wing of the space shuttle Columbia, torn open by an errant piece of foam insulation during takeoff, doomed the spacecraft and 7 astronauts aboard to a fiery, violent, but mercifully quick death on Feb. 1, 2003. Everyone knows that. But a few morbid new details were made public this week, with the release of a new report from NASA. "The point of the 400-page analysis is to figure out how to make NASA's next spaceship more survivable," reports the AP. "The report targeted problems with the spacesuits, restraints and helmets of the Columbia crew."

What the report also shows, inadvertently, is a bizarre American proclivity to believe that all the risks in life -- all the risks in space flight! -- can be minimized or mitigated, if only we would take a few extra precautions, like installing better seatbelts on a doomed space shuttle, or making sure that astronauts have their visors down on re-entry -- even though neither of these precautions would have saved the Columbia 7.

"The NASA study team is recommending 30 changes based on Columbia, many of them aimed at the spacesuits, helmets and seatbelts for both the shuttle and the next space capsule NASA is building," reports the AP. ". . . Had the astronauts had time to get their gear on and get their suits pressurized, they might have lived longer and been able to take more actions."

But they were doomed, no matter what actions they took, as the report (and the AP story) eventually concede. So, it just seems silly to place so much emphasis on restraints, helmets and pressurized flight suits, when the reason for the disaster was an undetected tear in the shuttle's skin, caused by a piece of falling insulation. Preventing a recurrence of that fatal chain of events is what the agency should be focused on, if anything. Yet -- as with so much in the American way of risk management and mitigation -- an emphasis is placed on the relatively trivial and inconsequential.

It reminds me of those news stories one reads, recounting some horrific wreck -- a van full of Mennonites plunging into a crevasse, for instance -- in which it's always noted whether the occupants were wearing seatbelts, as if that would have made any difference! A story I read a few years ago, here in Colorado, told of a bicyclist who momentarily lost his focus and swerved into the path of an 18-wheeler, hurtling 85 miles-per-hour down the interstate. The results were obviously fatal, yet the reporter, true to form, felt compelled to add that the victim was wearing a bike helmet. Did it matter? No.

But that's the American way.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Union Dues . . . and Don'ts

This news story, indicating that the United Auto Workers plan to go down with the ship, along with today's guest commentary in the Wall Street Journal, sent me rifling through the way back file for a column I wrote at The Colorado Springs Gazette, recounting my own youthful experiences as a card-carrying member of the UAW.

It predates the present crisis, but still stands up, I think, in terms of what it has to say about unions. And since there seems little point in re-writing what's already been written, I thought I would re-run the piece, with the reader's indulgence:

Motor City memories inform opinions on labor unions

October 16, 2005

In a former life I was a rivethead. A factory rat. A grease monkey. A card-carrying member of the United Auto Workers. My attitudes toward labor unions — attitudes that creep into my editorializing on the subject, no doubt — aren’t ivory tower, therefore, but informed by a combined two years on “the line” in Detroit while working my way through college.

I’ve been thinking more about those days lately, when I watch from a distance as the economy of my grungy hometown, the once mighty Motor City, coughs, sputters and stalls out, with no jumper cables in sight. The latest body blow is the bankruptcy of Michiganbased Delphi, the world’s biggest auto parts supplier. As part of restructuring, the company wants its 24,000 UAW workers — who earn $27 dollar an hour plus benefits — to take a pay cut.

Another Detroit icon, General Motors, which spun off Delphi as a separate entity in 1999, last week saw its stock value fall by 10 percent and credit rating reduced by Standard & Poors to BB-, to “junk” bond status in other words. Mounting losses and huge health care costs ($5.6 billion this year alone) have the company reeling.

The city’s epitaph has been written before. But Detroiters are a stubbornly optimistic lot, as they show each fall by predicting a winning season for the ne’er-do-well Lions. But the situation today looks as grim as it ever has. And unions have played a major part in that sad saga, like it or not.

Both companies are hoping to dig themselves out with the help of wage and benefit concessions from the UAW. But they shouldn’t count on it. American labor unions have a history of helping to kill the industries off which they sponge, showing less common sense than parasites in the natural world, which at least know enough not to suck the life out of the host. Symbiosis isn’t a concept unions seem to grasp, at least not until it’s too late to pull a crippled industry back from the brink.

A harsh assessment, perhaps, but one based on personal experience as a lunchbox-lugging member of the UAW. I worked at two different plants in Detroit, both of which were union shops, meaning that joining wasn’t optional. There were significant, and instructive, differences between the two.

Chevrolet Warren, where I spent a year working the second shift, was what might be called a “hard union” shop. Here the UAW, not hated “management,” seemed to run the show. The foreman was only nominally my boss; the real bosses seemed to be the full time union stewards, whose job seemed to be making sure no one was fired, punished for lack of productivity or worked very hard.

I started out as a suburban kid with a work ethic, so the foremen took advantage of it, putting me on the dirtiest and hardest jobs, while guys with more seniority pushed brooms, shuffled around and drank coffee. It wasn’t just because I was a low seniority “kid” that I got tapped for the jobs. Some of the lifers were saboteurs, who monkey-wrenched the machines when asked to produce.

When machines broke down we were sent home with pay. Many days I would clock in only to be paid and let go. Union rules meant I couldn’t be sent to work elsewhere in the plant. It happened once, but my union steward quickly had me taken off that job and sent home, with pay.

Absenteeism was rampant. Everyone knew doctors who would write an excuse for a fee. Within six months, the suburban kid with the work ethic learned the ropes enough to slip into slacker mode, like everybody else. We worked sometimes, but like highly paid sleepwalkers.

The story was different at the “soft union” shop, an independent stamping plant that did piece work for the Big Three. We were all paying UAW dues, but management ran the show, not the union stewards, and productivity was monitored and required. “Making your numbers” for the shift was expected, unless your press broke down. And when that happened, there were other presses waiting. It wasn’t slavery. But it met the definition of manual labor.

Safety systems were in place to keep appendages from being folded, spindled or mutilated when one of the two-story presses cycled inadvertently. But we cranked out a lot of bus bumpers and wheel wells, often at a reckless pace.

Two years on the line taught me a few things about unions. I saw firsthand how union attitudes and tactics, when taken to extreme, undermine productivity, accountability and the work ethic. I saw how unions coerce support for political causes. I saw how a cadre of union honchos, rather than working for a living, sponged off the union dues of those who did work. I saw that unions mirror and mimic the worst traits of the corporate interests they claim to stand against. I watched American heavy industries be shut down or off-shored, even as labor unions refused to give concessions that might have kept them competitive and alive.

This was only part of my education about unions. The disappearance of former Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa from a restaurant near where I lived suggested the criminality and corruption percolating away behind the union facade. Later in my career, while working for Citizens Against Government Waste, the longshoreman’s union sent goons to intimidate people at a Capitol Hill press conference at which maritime subsidies were criticized. I had to laugh — my “Uncle” Johnny, a former prize fighter, was an enforcer for the seafarer’s union in Brooklyn

Unions today are different, but the same. With the country’s heavy industries and manufacturing base in sharp decline, most of the growth is in government employee and teachers unions. These are a god-send to a fading union movement, because they are virtually recession proof and well insulated against competition and market pressures. That’s changing somewhat in the realm of public education, thanks to a school choice movement aimed at injecting more competition and accountability into the system. But the union response is the same — to refuse to make concessions, to change, to take the steps that are necessary to keep “host” industries on the cutting edge.

Unions were a historical necessity. At one time, they performed a valuable role. But over time they have morphed into something that crushes productivity, accountability, creativity, innovation and individuality — all the qualities American workers need if the country is to remain an economic powerhouse.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Bitter Harvest

Detroiters (and ex-Detroiters, like moi) tend to develop a dark gallows humor about the city, because the only alternative is to weep at what the once mighty Motown has become. So I chose to snicker rather than cry when I ran across this story on a website called City Farmer News, indicating that some in the "urban agriculture" movement see a great future for my old home town -- as a fruit and vegetable stand.

That's because the Detroit diaspora has left about 30 percent of the city (or about 40 square miles) as vacant land, with little near-term prospect for redevelopment. The city's population is 900,000 and falling, from a peak of 2 million back in the early 1950s. Another estimate says the city will be about 50 percent empty before long. And things aren't likely to turn around soon, even if the U.S. auto industry can survive federal "help."

Straining to find the silver lining to this cloud, urban planners argue that all these empty lots -- all this unintended "open space" -- will help make Detroit one of the "greenest" big cities in America. Some consolation that is. Others imagine that farms might begin to spring up in the urban core, furnishing locals with farm-fresh produce and perhaps a few jobs. It will be homesteading in reverse; 40 acres (and a mule?) for anyone who has the nerve to set up a farm in Indian Country.

Few in the city will have work, but all will eat healthy. Motown will become Growtown! No one will prattle on about the need for more "open space." It will be the first major American city to revert to a village. Detroit will win awards for "sustainability."

But this proposal has stirred controversy. Some believe downtown Detroit should be farmed commercially, while others, like a group called Greening of Detroit, "supports small family and neighborhood plots of no larger than 3 acres," according to the Detroit Free Press. Greening of Detroit worries "that commercial farming would exploit Detroiters and their land," reports the newspaper.

Isn't that just like Detroit? The jobs don't exist, yet they're already worried about "exploitation." One possible answer to that is for the city's urban farmworkers to organize under the UAW, forming a new union called the UAAW, for United Auto and Agricultural Workers. They can produce $17 cucumbers right alongside their $36,000 lemons, and, as long as federal agriculture and automaker subsidies keep coming, Detroit might yet be saved.

Or maybe not.

Obviously, I think the whole scenario is pathetic and absurd. No one talks any more about a Detroit "renaissance," which boosters have been predicting for decades. Now, after all the other promises and gimmicks (like casino gambling) have failed to pan out, they're debating whether the urban meadowlands should be planted in soybeans or alfalfa or sweet corn. No matter what they plant there, it will be a bitter harvest, in my opinion, and always leave a bad taste in my mouth.

Who or what is to blame for Detroit's demise? That would take a book to tackle. But it's largely a man-made calamity I'm sure -- the result of failed policy-making at the federal, state and especially local level. My dad used to make this point, in his own inimitable fashion, when, after giving out-of-towners a cook's tour of post-apocalyptic parts of the city, or during general discussions about the deteriorating situation, he would ask: "Who destroyed Detroit?" This question confused some and discomforted others, so there was usually a pregnant pause, as everyone waited for the moment to pass. Then he'd diffuse the tensions the question created with a weird punchline. "Martians destroyed Detroit," he'd laugh. "The Martians are to blame."

Here's the entire post, for those with a morbid curiosity about the death of a great American city:

Acres of barren blocks offer chance to reinvent Detroit

By John Gallagher
Detroit Free Press
December 15, 2008

Detroit’s thinning population is vividly - some would say disturbingly - illustrated in a new map that is creating a buzz in local planning circles. The map shows how to tuck the land mass of Manhattan (23 square miles), San Francisco (47 square miles) and Boston (48 square miles) — and their combined populations of nearly 3 million people — into Detroit. All three urban areas fit snugly within Detroit’s 139 square miles with room to spare.

Detroit, where the population peaked at 2 million in the early 1950s, is home to about 900,000 today and is still losing people. The depopulation and demolition of abandoned properties has left the city dotted with thousands of vacant parcels, ranging from single home lots to open fields of many acres.

The map is the handiwork of Dan Pitera, a professor of architecture at University of Detroit Mercy. He says he created it as a simple and dramatic illustration of how underpopulated Detroit has become. To see for yourself: Use Google Earth or a similar computer program to fly over the city and see how many vacant parcels you can find. Pitera estimates that all that empty land adds up to about 40 square miles — nearly the land mass of San Francisco.

His conclusion: Hopes and plans to repopulate the city and to redevelop all the city’s vacant land, are unrealistic, at least for another generation. Some redevelopment deals will succeed, but realistic Detroiters should seize the opportunity to become a leaner, greener city for the 21st Century.

“What if a lot of the vacant land was allowed to begin to become green?” Pitera said. “Could Detroit truly become the greenest city in the United States?”

This abundance of vacant land has people talking about new uses, such as urban farming, reforesting the city, and large-scale recreational areas. Urban farming is getting the most buzz.

Michigan State University’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources is among the groups touting urban farms as a solution for Detroit’s vacant land. “Given the amount of open land, I think there’s a real opportunity for Detroit to provide a significant amount of its fruits and vegetables for its population and the surrounding area,” said Mike Hamm, the C.S. Mott Chair of Sustainable Agriculture at MSU.

Besides providing nutritional value for Detroiters, Hamm said, “I think it can help create jobs and some small businesses in the city, with the potential for spin-off businesses in processing and distribution.”

Good question for candidates

Detroiters are in the early stages of a spirited mayoral campaign. Pitera’s map shows the tough-love reality that candidates might consider as part of the debate about the city’s future.
“If I were the moderator at the mayoral debate, I’d put that question early on: How do we take some of the land out of the pipeline?” said Robin Boyle, chairman of Wayne State University’s geography and urban planning department.

The Free Press called several of the mayoral candidates to talk about the city’s vacant land but none returned the calls. Other Detroit leaders, though, told the Free Press that using vacant land for recreation, farming and other projects makes sense.

“If it comes to pass that there is a development that would be in the best interest of the city, then it could always be redeveloped,” former Mayor Dennis Archer said last week. “But in the meantime you could have great pocket parks, you could have children understanding how to raise a garden, harvest a fruit, vegetables. Those are invaluable things. I think it has a lot of merit.”

Finding the right words

Getting a debate started could be difficult because Boyle said Detroit lacks a vocabulary to create a new policy. Words like “shrinkage” and “downsizing” carry a whiff of defeat, he said. “Rightsizing” sounds bureaucratic and negative. “Wise use of resources” comes closer but is vague.

“So we’ve got a language problem,” Boyle says. “How do we talk about something that we don’t really know how to deal with? We can see it, we can feel it, but we don’t really know what to do about it.” Doug Diggs, director of the city’s planning and development department, says that “everything’s on the table” when it comes to finding new uses for Detroit’s empty spaces.
“The city had been built for up to 2 million people. Certainly we’re under a million right now. We have to think of new uses for those properties left behind to eliminate the blight.”

Onetime City of Elms

Ironically, Detroit during its mid-20th-Century heyday was then known as the City of Elms, a green city known for its parks. That reputation was lost as the city’s deteriorated. The city still has about 9 square miles of parks, including Belle Isle, but much more vacant land than parks. As far back as 1993, the late Marie Farrell-Donaldson, then the city’s ombudsman, sparked a tempest by suggesting that entire swathes of the city be cordoned off and returned to nature.

Farrell-Donaldson made her quickly ridiculed suggestion when Detroit’s population was still about 1 million. The regional planning agency Southeast Michigan Council of Governments now estimates that Detroit will have no more than about 700,000 residents by 2035.

89 square miles

Earlier this fall, some out-of-town planners recruited by the American Institute of Architects visited Detroit for a brainstorming session. The leader, Alan Mallach, research director of the National Housing Institute in Maplewood, N.J., concluded that Detroit needs no more than about 50 square miles of its land for its current population.The remaining 89 square miles could be used entirely for other purposes, he said.

Mallach’s group liked the suggestion of large-scale commercial farming, both as a way to put the space to good use and to generate new income and jobs for the cash-starved city.

Others aren’t so sure. Ashley Atkinson, director of project development in urban agriculture at the nonprofit Greening of Detroit, supports small family and neighborhood plots of no larger than 3 acres. But she says that commercial farming would exploit Detroiters and their land.Instead, she supports widespread use of open spaces for recreation, hobby gardens and other uses.
Opportunity to evolve

Something, though, must be done.

“We’re looking at a city that’s over 50% vacant within the next five to 10 years. It’s this huge, huge issue,” Atkinson says.

Whatever happens, clearly Detroit is evolving early in the 21st Century as a sort of blank slate. Instead of looking at shrinkage as a problem, many planners see it as an opportunity. Detroit has a chance to invent an entirely new urban model, they say.

Whether it’s farming or greenways or a network of thriving urban villages connected by transit lines, the solution could be uniquely Detroit’s. And the likelihood is that the rest of the world, already fascinated by Detroit’s urban drama, would take notice.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Greatest Gift of All

Two Christmas eve news items serve as a welcome reminder that, while many Americans are willing to surrender their fundamental liberties for promises of safety or security or economic stability, the spirit of rebellion that spawned the American Revolution still burns bright and hot in many of us -- even if we express it in funny or odd or technically illegal ways.

Although it was banned as a "nuisance" and public safety hazard by authorities in Anchorage, Alaska, after complaints were voiced by Scrooges in the neighborhood, "Snowzilla" has returned, bigger and bolder than ever, miraculously reappearing in a front yard this morning. The owner of the home, who started the tradition a few years ago but this year was served with a cease-and-desist order, disavows any involvement in the illegal snowman-building caper.

Maybe it should be chalked-up as a Christmas miracle -- assuming there isn't some ordinance against those.

And from Phoenix comes this story, sure to warm the heart of every freedom-loving American, about a group of jolly old elfs who gift-wrapped a few of the automated traffic cameras that have been proliferating in the city, as a gift to motorists. The perpetrators videotaped the act of civil disobedience and posted it on YouTube, accompanied by the message, "lumps of coal to all of those who make it their business to watch and control.''

And while I'm certainly not in any way condoning illegal activity, I do appreciate the holiday message, and holiday cheer, they were attempting to share.

Merry Christmas, everyone. And remember that the most precious gift you can give or receive as an American is your freedom. It's a gift that will keep on giving, as long as you're deligent in defending it.

So Much for Consensus

Cracks are forming -- actually, they're more like chasms -- in the claim that most of the world's scientists and experts have reached a "consensus" position on the ultimate origins of climate change. Al Gore and other alarmists have convinced millions of people, and many working in the media, that temperature trends are caused by industrialization and over-consumption by human beings, requiring a dramatic regulatory response that could (further) cripple our economy. Most news outlets, having jumped aboard the bandwagon, now report this as fact rather than theory, lending weight to the popular perception that all the scientific questions have been settled and that any regulatory response is justified.

But a new report compiled by the minority staff of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works has an updated list of 650 highly-credentialed, highly-credible experts who dissent from the alarmist "consensus." Here's a link to the press release announcing the report, which serves as a good summary. The complete, 233-page document can be downloaded here.

Its Dec. 15 release was met with a big fat yawn from the "mainstream" media, which is now heavily vested in the apocalyptic story angle -- the suicide of the planet, now that's a story. And left-wing blogs started nit-picking it apart, questioning the credentials of some of the experts on the dissenters list -- although all of them have more standing to talk intelligently on the subject than Gore does.

A lot is riding on how the debate plays out in the public arena. If climate change can convincingly be laid at man's feet, and Americans accept the idea that a complete overhaul of the economy is required to avert calamity, imagine the regulatory power that will land in government hands. It will be the fulfillment of Al Gore's dream, as described in his book Earth in the Balance -- that environmentalism will become the central organizing principle of this society (with economic and political liberty becoming secondary or tertiary concerns). And that, I believe, could usher in a Green tyranny that will compare favorably with the Red tyranny the world knew in the 20th Century.

An extreme prediction? Perhaps. But the mainstreaming of extremism is what the environmental movement is all about. Climate change is their ticket to power. And they won't give up that ticket without a street fight.

If you don't mind killing a few trees, print the report out. Give the gift of sanity this holiday season by sending it out to open-minded family members and friends, wrapped up nicely in ribbons and bows. And keep a personal copy nearby, at the ready, as a rebuttal, when next you hear someone say that the scientific debate has been settled. If this person refuses to read it, hit him over the head with it (though not too forcefully) . Either way, it will serve as a welcome wake-up call.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Environmental Retardation

Tim DeChristopher succeeded in monkey-wrenching a controversial Utah oil and gas auction late last week, when he bid on $1.7 million in drilling leases with no intention of paying. He thus pioneered a new form of protest that's bound to breed copy-cats, and became an overnight folk hero to wackos the world over – ensuring that he’ll have a well paid position as a professional activist waiting for him after graduation, with Environmental Anxiety, Inc.

Whether he'll face criminal charges has yet to be determined. But he "tainted the entire auction," according to one official with the Bureau of Land Management. "We were hosed," added a bona fide bidder who lost out to DeChristopher. “It's very frustrating. I hope the guy is prosecuted."

I, too, would like to see him prosecuted. But that will only prolong his time in the limelight and make him a martyr, which is just what he wants. The coverage has been glowing: He couldn’t have scripted it better, had he written it himself. Check out the excerpt below, written by an obviously fan with The Salt Lake Tribune:

"Tim DeChristopher stood alone Friday when he placed bogus bids on drilling parcels near two Utah national parks, single-handedly sabotaging an oil- and gas-lease sale that caught the attention of Congress and the incoming Obama administration. Now, the 27-year-old University of Utah economics student stands with powerful new friends, including Pat Shea, former head of the Bureau of Land Management; Utah's most prominent defense attorney, Ron Yengich; and hundreds of supporters promising to contribute to his legal-defense fund.

Others led him to this point, inspiring DeChristopher to oppose a government he fears is leading the world to climate disaster. His mother, Christine, helped start the West Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club and took him as a small child to anti-coal rallies. Terry Root, a Stanford University scientist who worked with Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, put her hand on DeChristopher's shoulder and apologized for being too late to avert the worst effects of global warming. And Gore called on young people to commit acts of civil disobedience to stop greenhouse-gas belching coal-fired power plants."

Some who wrote responses to the story -- no kidding -- likened DeChristopher to the Rev. Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi. At least one mild rebuke could be found, on the editorial pages of The Grand Junction Sentinel:

"DeChristopher evidently considers himself a populist hero for his efforts Friday. But what he did wasn’t heroic. It was simply arrogant and thoughtless. Disagreement over a government decision is not a legitimate reason for dishonesty.

Here’s hoping the BLM goes after DeChristopher enthusiastically and forces him to pay with whatever assets he has, to show others such behavior won’t be accepted."

But the episode raises another question.

If Robert Redford and other drilling opponents place such high value on the lands in question, why don’t they put their money where their mouths are, become actual bidders and pay the fair market price for the minerals they want to deny the rest of us? It’s not as if the organizations who reflexively oppose drilling are lacking in resources – environmentalism is today an “industry” as big and powerful as those it uses as foils -- or lack supporters with deep pockets (like Redford). If Americans place a higher value on protecting "pristine" landscapes than they do on making productive uses of what’s underneath, the market is one way of determining that.

But greens can obstruct on the cheap simply by protesting, litigating and monkey-wrenching a process that’s supposed to serve the general welfare, by balancing economic and ecological ends, but which is too frequently hijacked by radicals. At present, all the costs of their knee-jerk obstructionism are borne by the rest of us, in a false scarcity of energy supplies, which leads to higher prices; in our growing dependence on foreign energy imports; in the limited utility of public lands that belong to energy consumers as much as they do to nature worshipers.

Having to pay for the oil and gas leases they want to idle would make them a little more discriminating -- at present, they simply oppose everything, everywhere, all the time, so they're blithely unaware of the need to make trade-offs, or of the economic hardships they are causing the rest of us.

Yes, I know these are environmentalists -- making them ignorant of, if not hostile to, economic concepts like markets, trade-offs and opportunity costs. Such utilitarian concepts don't compute in their simplistic world, where you're either a "saver" or a "destroyer" of the planet, and where the end ("saving the planet") justifies any means. They're suffering from a syndrome that might be called Environmental Retardation (or Enviro-mental Retardation). But if we could inject a little realism into their world, and a little economic awareness, the chances that reason might prevail over emotion in the energy debate might be improved, at least just a bit.

Friday, December 19, 2008

News Industry Labor Pains

Explanations for the death spiral of so many newspapers are familiar to most of us.

Loss of advertising revenue to the web: check.

Demographic and cultural changes: check.

Economic downturn: check.

Changes in reading habits: check.

Proliferation of information sources: check.

Perceptions of bias: check.

Labor unions: Huh? Labor unions? What do labor unions have to do with it?

More than is commonly recognized, no doubt.

It’s probably not happenstance that some of the most unionized newspapers in the country are also those that are sinking fastest. The Los Angeles Times; The Chicago Tribune; The Miami Herald; The Detroit News and Detroit Free Press; The Minneapolis Star Tribune -- these papers all are in mortal danger and they all are heavily unionized. The Detroit newspapers have 5 unions they are negotiating with in order to save a sinking ship. The Denver Newspaper Agency has 6 unions to contend with as it tries to do the same.

These unions drive up business costs and drive down productivity, while adding nothing to the quality of the product -- unless one can prove that a union reporter writes a better story than a non-union reporter. Some non-union papers are also in trouble, no doubt. And there is probably a unionized paper somewhere going strong, which could put a dent in my thesis. But a correlation undeniably exists.

Unions have been implicated in the demise of many American industries, including, of late, the auto industry, so it makes perfect sense that they're also to some degree responsible for the struggles of the newspaper industry. But why isn’t this being written about and talked about, as the UAW is talked about when the auto-maker bailout is debated? Why don’t unions appear on most lists of media industry maladies?

Maybe it's because many of the people who write about the industry’s travails are in the industry, and union members themselves. That makes them reluctant to take responsibility. It's also because anyone who writes candidly on the subject will be attacked by unionistas -- who know how to organize a hate campaign. I’m aware of one blogger who touched on the subject in a post and felt their wrath, even though he is not anti-union. Better to just steer clear.

And perhaps it's because the average American, though she may have heard of the Teamsters and the UAW and the AFL-CIO, knows little about the The Newspaper Guild or its affiliated organizations. Ignorance, as they say, is bliss.

And before anyone accuses me of knee-jerk union-bashing, they should know that, over a two year period in my misspent youth, I was a card-carrying member of the UAW. What I know about unions I learned first-hand.

When Prosecutors Become Persecutors

U.S. Attorneys in Minneapolis really wanted to nail somebody for the 2007 Ham Lake Fire. But the zealots killed a man instead.

Here's the whole tragic story, as expertly told by The Duluth News Tribune. If there's any real justice in this country, there ought to be an investigation into how this prosecution (or was it persecution?) was handled, and discipline should be meted-out to these overzealous Federal Avengers. All of us support law and order, and want to see serious criminals punished for their acts. But this is just wrong.

The man made a terrible mistake and initially lied about it when confronted. Was what followed really the pursuit of justice, or heartless government persecution of an otherwise honest and law-abiding citizen?

Defense lawyer says feds pushed too hard in Ham Lake Fire case

By: John Myers , Duluth News Tribune

There’s no doubt that Stephen Posniak was camped on Ham Lake on May 5, 2007, and was there when a campfire somehow blew out of control and ignited what would become Minnesota’s largest and most expensive wildfire in nearly 80 years.

Interviewed by authorities the day the fire started, Posniak at first said he was not camped on Ham Lake, but in interviews on following days he eventually admitted he was.

But Posniak and his attorney were set to argue in federal court next month that Posniak was the victim of overzealous prosecution — that there was no crime involved, and certainly no felony, in the campfire that turned into a forest fire.

As it turns out, there will be no trial.

Posniak, 64, was found dead by his wife on Tuesday in the back yard of their home in Washington, D.C. The career bureaucrat for the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission apparently shot himself.

His defense attorney, Mark Larsen of Minneapolis, said he believes Posniak was distraught over the case — over being prosecuted, over the prospects of going to jail and over being blamed for the forest fire that caused so much heartache and loss.

“To charge a person of his age, with his background and his frailties and his love of the Boundary Waters with essentially intending to start this forest fire was simply wrong,’’ Larsen said. “There are consequences when you push people too far and, unfortunately, you and I are talking about those consequences today.’’

Larsen said the U.S. Attorney “overcharged’’ Posniak with a felony statute that is tantamount to arson. The government refused to concede to a lesser, misdemeanor charge of starting a fire that incidentally caused a forest fire, Larsen said.

“Whatever it was that happened up there, it was not intentional. But they insisted on a felony,’’ Larsen said. “Here was a guy who loved the Boundary Waters so much that he came back almost annually for more than 20 years,’’ Larsen said. “And the government’s charge against him offers no distinction between what happened and arson, at least none that I could discern.’’

A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney in Minnesota did not immediately return a reporter’s phone call Wednesday.

As the case developed, Posniak described discovering a fire behind his campsite with some five acres already ablaze and having only a small pot to carry water. “Count two [in the indictment against Posniak] was failing to put the fire out. So how was he supposed to do that when all he has is a pot that carries two quarts?’’ Larsen noted.

Posniak eventually canoed out of the BWCAW and back to Tuscarora Lodge on the Gunflint Trail, where his vehicle was located. There, law enforcement officers were told Posniak might have knowledge about the fire.

Larsen said he would never concede to Posniak being guilty of any crime, or even being responsible for the ensuing forest fire that caused more than $11 million in property damage and cost $10 million to battle. No one was seriously hurt.

Larsen noted that federal sentencing guidelines, even for a person with absolutely no criminal record, called for prison time if Posniak had been found guilty of the felony.

Larsen was prepared to make the tinder-dry condition at the time part of the defense, saying the Forest Service was derelict in not having a campfire ban in effect during a record-dry spring and after the 1999 windstorm that left an unprecedented amount of dead and drying timber in the woods.

Larsen said he could not offer more details of Posniak’s account of how the fire started, saying it could taint any civil legal action.

It’s possible that insurance companies for home and cabin owners, and the U.S. government, could sue Posniak’s estate seeking restitution for some $11 million in damages to buildings and the $10 million cost to battle the blaze. The government also could seek restitution to any merchantable timber outside the BWCAW that was lost to the fire.

Larsen scoffed at that prospect, saying Posniak was on a fixed government pension and was not a wealthy man.

Larsen said he most recently talked with Posniak on Monday to inform him of developments in the case, including a judge’s decision that stifled part of their defense effort. Larsen said he had no indication Posniak was suicidal.

Posniak was married and lived in a middle-class neighborhood about five miles from the Capitol, according to neighbor Michael Collotta. He described Posniak as “a quiet guy who kept to himself, a little bit withdrawn.”

Washington, D.C., Metropolitan police told Collotta that Posniak’s wife discovered his body in the couple’s back yard early Tuesday evening.

Posniak worked in information technology for the federal agency and had received a master’s degree from the University of Minnesota, which is when Larsen believes Posniak discovered and fell in love with the BWCAW.

Those who live and work along the Gunflint Trail expressed sadness following Posniak’s death.

Several have noted they didn’t hold grudges and that finding the person whose campfire raged out of control wouldn’t bring back the burned buildings or the charred trees.

Sue Ahrendt, co-owner of the Tuscarora Lodge on the Gunflint Trail, heard the news on Tuesday night. The lodge, where Posniak had stayed before embarking on his BWCAW trip, is located near the end of the dead-end wilderness road that was hard hit by the fire. And though a number of nearby cabins, homes, and businesses were either destroyed or damaged in the fire, Ahrendt said she hadn’t heard much personal vitriol aimed at Posniak since he was indicted in October.

“I have not heard people wanting to crucify him,” she said. “I don’t feel like there was a lot of anger directed toward him.”

She declined to talk about Posniak personally.

“Right now, I’m just sad about Steve,” she said.

Nancy Seaton, co-owner of Hungry Jack Canoe Outfitters on the Gunflint Trail, had similar thoughts. “It’s just one tragedy after another,” she said.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The National Freeloader's League

It must be serendipity. Or maybe it's just confirmation of how completely out-of-hand and shameless the corporate welfare racket has become. But on the very day that I tee-off on the corporate welfare whores in high tech (see previous post), this story appears in the Kansas City Star, explaining how the Kansas City Chiefs are scalping the taxpayers in a $25 million "deal" that will bring their summer training camp back to the state from Wisconsin, where it's been held since 1991.

Given all the other taxpayer handouts that the millionaires who own and play in the league receive -- including, most egregiously, the public financing of football stadiums -- perhaps the letters "NFL" should stand for National Freeloader's League, rather than National Football League.

Yes, the Chiefs also are chipping in for practice facility upgrades. And yes, bringing the team closer to home will please fans, provide an economic boost for St. Joseph and (perhaps) help the franchise with slumping ticket sales. So what? None of this justifies dragging taxpayers -- many of whom couldn't care less about the Chiefs, can't afford to see a game in person and may even root for the Broncos -- into the "deal." The team owner stands to benefit far more from these changes than the average football fan does. He or she should foot the bill entirely.

It's a private, profit-making enterprise that has no business reaching into the citizen's pocket. Yet shrewd characters in the team's front office, working with wheeler-dealers on the Missouri Development Finance Board, shamelessly exploit fan loyalty and sentiment to orchestrate the shakedown. And it isn't the first time the Chiefs have scalped the taxpayers. "These new projects are in addition to the renovation work already under way at Arrowhead and Kauffman stadiums," notes The Star. "That $575 million project won $50 million in state tax incentives in 2006 and is financed primarily by a voter-approved sales tax."

All involved, including the gullible fans, ought to be ashamed of themselves.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

High-Tech Corporate Whores

I almost hesitate to write unflattering things about Google, given its Big Brother-like power as the world's most popular search engine -- and its NSA-like ability to monitor what we're all up to on the Web. It very kindly provides the template and system on which this blog operates, all for free. So if this blog suddenly vanishes tomorrow, and they find my body floating in the Arkansas River, you'll know where to look for suspects.

But it still has to be said, even if it gets me blackballed by a great search engine: Google is a shameless corporate whore that is ripping off the taxpayers. And it's not alone among highly-profitable high-tech companies. While most of the nation is debating whether to throw a lifeline to an old-style "heavy" industry based in Detroit, and focused on the shameless pleadings of Big 3 CEOs, Silicon Valley and the high-tech sector are also taking taxpayers to the laundry -- though quietly and stealthily, by calling the handouts "incentives" instead of "bailouts."

Google, for instance, though it recently made news by turning down a $4.7 million grant from the state of North Carolina, to help the company build a new data center in the town of Lenoir, still has commitments from the state for an "incentives package" worth more than $260 million, in electricity subsidies, sales tax exemptions and property tax waivers. All for agreeing to do business in the state. Read the complete story here.

This obviously isn't a company in trouble. Google is a highly profitable enterprise that could and should pay its own way. But like many American companies, Google can resist anything but temptation -- which means it isn't going to turn down the money states and localities are throwing its way, in a cutthroat bidding war for economic development and jobs.

These company-pouching activities create the illusion of "job creation," when, in fact, they're only moving jobs around the map, based on who is willing to pay more in corporate bribes. This does nothing to grow the economy as a whole. It fosters a mercenary mindset in corporate boardrooms, state legislatures and city halls, all across the country. And worst of all, it's exploitative of taxpayers, who ultimately foot the bill for these corporate welfare payouts.

But not all North Carolinians are thrilled about subsidizing one of the most successful companies in the world. "The Google incentives are being challenged in state court by the North Carolina Institute for Constitutional Law, which alleges that special breaks for the company violate the state constitution's requirement of fair and equitable tax treatment," reports the AP.

Few such objections are being heard in Tennessee, however, where Hemlock Semiconductor (an interesting name) just received a total of $200 million in state and local "incentives" to relocate to the town of Clarksville (read the whole nauseating story here.) Nor is much of a fuss being made in Utah, where eBay, the very successful on-line flea market that keeps me supplied with second-hand shirts, just shook down taxpayers for $27 million in "incentives," in order to bring a computer center to the Salt Lake Valley.

In fact, such corporate welfare scams are endemic today. If you doubt it, follow this link to the archive of "corporate welfare"-related news stories posted at It will blow you away. And it won't stop until the taxpayers rise up and collectively say they've had enough.

Polls indicate that most Americans are wary of a federal bailout of the Big 3, and understandably so, yet these same Americans seem sanguine, and sometimes even supportive, about the corporate welfare giveaways proliferating under the guise of "economic development incentives." We'll have to overcome this sort of cognitive dissonance if we're going to get the "panhandlers in pinstripes," of all stripes, out of our pockets.

Monday, December 15, 2008

The Bigger the Badder

Robert Samuelson, an eminently sensible man, succinctly explains in today's Washington Post why little will change in Washington with the coming of the Obama administration, in terms of curbing K Street lobbyists -- and why their numbers and influence might actually increase in the years ahead, as Obama increases the size and scope of the federal government.

What self-styled political reformers rarely concede, or apparently refuse to understand, is that the real corrupting element in Washington isn't lobbyists or campaign contributions, but the power, control and money concentrated in the capitol city -- meaning that nothing will change there until we de-fund, de-power and downsize Washington. The more influence Washington exerts over our everyday lives, the more influence peddlers it will breed and attract. It's that simple. Samuelson also does a public service in this column by putting the much-vilified lobbying business in context, pointing out that lobbying, in its broadest sense, is democracy in action.

The entire column is worth reading, but here are the key paragraphs (the first sentences of which should be committed to memory by would-be reformers):

"The only way to eliminate lobbying and special interests is to eliminate government. The more powerful government becomes, the more lobbying there will be. So, paradoxically, Obama's ambitions for more expansive government will promote special pleading. You need only watch the response to the expected "economic stimulus" plan -- totaling perhaps $700 billion -- to verify this eternal truth. "A Lobbying Frenzy for Federal Funds," read the headline of one Post story.

There's more to come. Obama envisions refashioning a third of the economy: the health-care sector, representing about 16 percent of gross domestic product; the energy sector, nearly 10 percent of GDP; and the financial sector (banks, securities brokers, insurance companies), about 8 percent of GDP. There will be a vast mobilization of interests: from radiologists to renewable energy producers; from mutual funds to hospitals. Says Bara Vaida, the respected lobbying reporter for National Journal: "This will be a bonanza for K Street" -- the symbolic hub of Washington lobbyists."

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Stimulus and Response

If there's going to be an orgy of federal "infrastructure spending," as a means of stimulating the economy, let's at least spend the money smartly, argues Joel Kotkin in this sensible piece in today's Washington Post. "Don't just stand there, spend something" seems to have become the consensus economic recovery strategy in Washington, all too conveniently. "Subsidy-side economics" might best describe Obama's program. But Kotkin argues that we should forego flashiness and fads, opting for practicality over pie-in-the-sky, if we want to get the most bang for our bucks.

I hope some of president-elect Obama's advisors are reading The Post this Sunday.

Make Sure All That Spending Is Well Supported
By Joel Kotkin

It's the new buzzword: infrastructure.

President-elect Barack Obama has promised billions in infrastructure spending as part of a public works program bigger than any since the interstate highway system was built in the 1950s. Though it was greeted with hosannas, his proposal is only tapping into a clamor for such spending that's been rising ever since Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005 and a major bridge collapsed in Minneapolis last year. With the economy now officially in recession, the rage for new brick and mortar is reaching a fever pitch.

But before we commit hundreds of billions to new construction projects, we should focus on just what kind of infrastructure investment we should -- and shouldn't -- be making. More important, we should think beyond temporary stimulus and make-work jobs and about investments that will propel the economy well into this century.

After all, it's not that we stopped spending on infrastructure over the past decade. It's that mostly, we haven't spent on the right things.

New York City, for example, has wasted billions on its bloated bureaucracy and on constructing new sports stadiums and other ephemera deemed necessary to maintain Mayor Michael Bloomberg's "luxury city." Meanwhile, many of its subway and rail lines have deteriorated. Over the decades, brownouts and blackouts, caused in part by underinvestment in energy infrastructure, have become common during periods of high energy use in the summer.

Similarly, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has extolled the Golden State as "the cutting-edge state . . . a model not just for 21st-century American society but the world." Yet California's once envied water-delivery systems, roadways, airports and schools are in serious disrepair.

Many even more hard-pressed communities -- Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Baltimore
and New Orleans -- have similarly wasted limited treasure on spectacular new convention centers, sports arenas, arts and entertainment facilities and hotels while allowing schools, roads, ports and other critical sinews of economic life to fray.

Convention centers and other tourist attractions create reasonably high-paying construction jobs in the short term, but over time, they create an economy dominated by lower-wage service jobs. Take New Orleans. It was once one of the nation's great industrial and commercial centers. But then the city turned its back for decades on its diverse economic base and invested not in levees, port development and basic infrastructure but in the arts, culture and tourism. The tourism and convention business surged, but the result was a low-wage economy. Nearly 40 percent of New Orleans households, or twice the national average, earned less than $20,000 a year in 2000.

Other places have followed a similar trajectory of folly, heavily subsidizing luxury condominiums, restaurants and other amenities to help lure the so-called creative class. Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm's 2003 plan to turn her state around focused on creating "cool cities" aimed at attracting hip, educated workers to Detroit and other failing urban centers. Instead of sparking an economic revival, Granholm has presided over a mass exodus of younger workers who can't find jobs in her state.

Perhaps no place epitomizes misplaced priorities better than Pittsburgh. Widely hailed in the media as a poster child for the urban "renaissance," Pittsburgh has suffered a precipitous decline in population: Its 310,000 residents are less than half its 1950 peak. It now shares with parts of the former East Germany the gloomy demographic of having more residents die each year than are born.

Like other cities, Pittsburgh has sought to revive itself with billions in new stadiums, arenas and cultural facilities. Meanwhile, its roads and bridges are in a constant state of disrepair. Most recently, the city embarked on a scheme to create a 1.2-mile, $435 million transit tunnel under the Allegheny River to connect downtown's heavily subsidized towers with taxpayer-funded pro sports stadiums and a new casino. This "tunnel to nowhere," derided by a local columnist as the nation's "premier transit boondoggle," will no doubt be the sort of thing many states and localities will seek federal infrastructure funds for, justifying them on the basis of both short-term economic stimulus and some kind of "green" agenda.

Although some new spending on efforts such as developing alternative fuels could improve efficiencies, many "green" projects seem destined to devolve into little more than expensive boondoggles. A recent program passed by the Los Angeles City Council, for example, calls on the city-owned utility's ratepayers to subsidize installing solar panels on office buildings. This plan, heavily promoted by labor lobbyists, mandates that the project be carried out by the

Department of Water and Power, whose employees are among the most well-paid public workers in the nation. By some estimates, it would raise the price of electricity by as much as 8 percent. But it will do nothing to slow the continued flight of industrial and other employment from Los Angeles or its suburbs.

A "red-green" tilt to infrastructure programs -- essentially marrying the labor and environmental lobbies -- also seems sure to raise spending on public mass-transit projects. Some transit or rail spending can, of course, promote efficiency and productivity. A significant incentive to increase rail freight, for example, could boost productivity in the critical manufacturing, agriculture and energy industries because rail can generally carry far more goods on less fuel than long-haul trucking.

Spending on upkeep of transit systems in older centralized cities such as New York, Washington and Chicago also seems logical. But with few exceptions -- the heavily traveled corridor between downtown Houston and the Texas Medical Center, for instance -- ridership on most new rail systems outside the traditional cities has remained paltry, accounting for barely 1 or 2 percent of all commuters. Such projects are almost absurdly expensive on a per-capita basis; the Allegheny Institute, a Pennsylvania think tank that pursues free-market solutions to local questions, estimates that the cost to the taxpayer of each trip through the new Pittsburgh tunnel could be as much as $15.

Infrastructure investment requires a strong litmus test. Where the cash goes should be determined chiefly on the basis of how the spending will enhance the nation's productive capacity and raise incomes across the board. This also means looking beyond traditional brick and mortar investments to critical skills shortages. Businesspeople nationwide complain repeatedly of a chronic shortage of skilled blue-collar workers and technicians. More than 80 percent of 800 U.S. manufacturing firms surveyed in 2005 reported "a shortage of qualified workers overall." Nine in 10 firms said that they faced a "moderate-to-severe shortfall" in qualified technicians.

In sharp contrast to sports stadiums and convention centers, programs in skills training for U.S.-based industries such as aerospace, energy, machine tools and agricultural equipment tend to create high-wage jobs, which have expanded over the past decade even as the overall number of industrial positions has declined. Many industrial companies are increasingly desperate for skilled workers and often consider locating wherever they can be found. These companies also produce many jobs that, though not located on the factory floor, are critical to the nation's competitive edge. For example, the Manufacturing Institute estimates that manufacturers employ one-fourth of all scientists and 40 percent of engineers.

A forward-looking infrastructure program would also target places that would most benefit from new roads, bridges, ports and other critical facilities, including underperforming regions such as the Great Plains, Appalachia and rural Pennsylvania, as well as the depressed Great Lakes area.

These areas offer cheaper labor and housing, prime locations and access to natural resources. Making them more accessible to markets and more energy efficient could replicate the great New Deal success in modernizing much of the South and West.

Perhaps most critical, we need to look at how to combine new physical investments with new initiatives in skills training, incubating small companies and promoting better ties with local universities and research facilities. This "infrasystems" approach has been implemented successfully in places as diverse as North Dakota's Red River Valley, the area around Wenatchee, Wash., and in various Southern locales such as Charleston and Savannah.

The call for more spending on infrastructure represents a unique opportunity to rebuild our productive economy and create long-term middle-class jobs. But if the effects are going to last, the trick is to concentrate on the basics and forget the flashy, feel-good kinds of projects that have characterized many "infrastructure" investments in recent years.

Joel Kotkin is a presidential fellow at Chapman University and executive editor of He is finishing a book on the American future.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Confessions of a Puffer

Many a winter morning, sometime between that first cup of coffee and my drive to work, I break the law in Colorado. That's because I'm a "puffer," in police parlance -- meaning someone who leaves the car running, unattended, to take the chill out, warm the engine, and, on some mornings, save myself a case of ice-chipper's elbow. But until recently, when I read this story in The Rocky Mountain News, and this story in The Aurora Sentinel, I had no idea this made me an outlaw.

Puffing is against the law because an idling car presents an irresistible temptation to car thieves, which makes us (or is it we?) puffers accessories to crime. It's the upside down way America works today -- the law-abiding are penalized for the actions (and potential actions) of law-breakers. The cops can't or won't stop car theft, but they can stop puffers. It's a lot of hard work -- it's a big hassle --apprehending bona fide criminals, but easy deterring crime by punishing and hassling potential crime victims. It's profitable, too, at $75 a ticket.

And puffing cases are easily cracked: the cop spies a vehicle without a head in it, but with a tell-tale puff of exhaust (thus the name "puffer") rising from the tailpipe. Wham. Busted. Ticket time. Take that, car thieves! McGruff to the rescue.

When I leave a car idling in the driveway on an icy winter morn, I'm vaguely aware that it's a little iffy -- I understand that some creep could take it. But it's a calculated risk that I, the car owner, willingly take -- one of a dozen I take every day -- because the benefit that comes from getting into a thawed-out car outweighs the tiny risk of a carjacking. It's my property. It's in my driveway. And why it's the business of cops to override my judgment on such matters baffles me.

One woman snared in the anti-puffer dragnet described in the Rocky was warming up her car for an elderly aunt she was driving to chemotherapy. "She's dying of cancer," the woman said. "She can't very well get into a cold car."

Excuses, excuses: she got a ticket anyway. Shedding tears was to no avail. It's the law! If we begin bending the rules for chemotherapy patients, who else will want special treatment? Woman with sick infants? People with the common cold?

This sort of preemptive crime-fighting puts us on a slippery slope. Where does it end when the cops start ticketing people for engaging in actions that might tempt criminals? Why not ban purses, as a deterrent to purse-snatchers? Holiday shoppers make tempting targets; why not place limits on how many shopping bags they can carry out to the parking lot, since bag-grabbers might lay in wait? I leave my windows open on summer nights to let the cool air in. Should I be ticketed because a burglar could also climb in?

Absurd, you say? Read the newspaper -- all absurdities are now officially within the realm of possibility. America is an asylum -- most of the patients just don't know it.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Ferreting out Trouble

On the one hand, one has to wish the black-footed ferrets well that are being released into the wild on Fort Carson, in an innovative collaboration between the base, the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. They're such cute little buggers. No one wants to see them go extinct.

But the success of the reintroduction program could become a nightmare for property owners, ranchers, local governments and the state of Colorado as a whole, if these ferret populations flourish and migrate beyond the base, given the regulatory controls and property rights violations that follow endangered species wherever they go. If the test colony survives on Fort Carson, the plan is to replicate the experiment elsewhere. "If successful, the release could be a blueprint for other locations on the Front Range and eastern plains," reports The Gazette. And once those populations are established, they'll need to be protected by a "critical habitat" designation and a host of land control regulations that come with it.

Such is the nature of the Endangered Species Act. And this will have profound implications for everyone living, and working the land, along the Front Range.

Colorado got sucked into a similar situation in the case of the Canada lynx. The state agreed years ago to host a reintroduction effort, which is ongoing, with the condition that the feds wouldn't bring the full weight of the ESA down on our heads if it worked. But once the cats, which had been erased from the state, were back, the rules of the game changed. The fact that Canada lynx are back in the state now becomes a factor in almost every U.S. Forest Service decision. Those wanting to block expansion of the ski area at Wolf Creek, for instance, or to dictate a host of other public lands decisions, can and will use the lynx as a pawn in that effort. Check out this story in today's Vail Daily. And one can predict a similar scenario unfolding in the case of the ferrets.

How might a growing population impact training at Fort Carson? What will it do to ranching on the eastern plains? How will it impact local land use rules along the fast-growing Front Range? All these issues need to be thought out and debated in advance, but they aren't. I follow these issues closely and this is the first I've heard of the black-footed ferret recolonization plan. It seems to have been hatched quietly, by a handful of government insiders. But the potential wider implications haven't been debated, and can't be well understood, by Coloradans as a whole.
Perhaps Fort Carson officials and folks at U.S. Fish and Wildlife have penned a memorandum of understanding -- at least I would hope they have -- ensuring that training can continue as usual, even if the base is crawling with ferrets. But what assurances do the rest of us have that doing the right thing now won't come back to haunt us in the future? None whatsoever.

And even if someone gave us such assurances, what faith could we have that they would be fulfilled, given that any such agreement could be taken to court and overturned by a judge, at the behest of the unreasonable people who use the ESA as a tool to curtail development, block water and energy projects, bludgeon property owners, etc.? Such guarantees aren't worth the paper they're printed on.

So while we should wish this experimental little colony of black-footed ferrets well, we should also monitor this effort closely, and with concern, given that no good deed goes unpunished under the ESA.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Paige Plugs Paige

This news segment from the Today Show, dealing with the Freddie and Fannie scandal, would be worth watching even if Leslie Paige -- yep, that's my big sister -- wasn't dishing up the sound bites. But she definitely adds a certain something (though you could ratchet-up the indignation just a bit, Les). And she actually has street cred on this issue, since she and CAGW were blowing the whistle on Fannie and Freddie long before the house of cards came tumbling down.

Way to go, Leslie. Keep on nipping at their heels!

The segment also does a good job of highlighting the Clinton connection -- how soon the public seems to have forgotten how scummy and morally-compromised this gang was. And now they're back, infiltrating the Obama administration like an insidious and incurable virus.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Don't Smoke the Kristol Meth

Whatever else Republicans do in trying to pull themselves up off the floor after a much-deserved drubbing, they ought to avoid like poison the political counsel of Weekly Standard Editor Bill Kristol, who would have the GOP abandon what shreds of principle it has left in a pointless quest to regain power.

I say "pointless" because that's what power is without principle -- as the GOP aptly demonstrated in the last 8 years.

Kristol, in two recent New York Times columns, unmasks himself as a non-con rather than a neo-con -- meaning he has nothing in common with conservatives except an empty label. It's the Kristol Republicans who helped sever the party from its traditional moorings, leading directly to the disaster at hand. Cut adrift, party insiders fell victim to every seduction that power can offer, from pork-barrel pigouts to reckless acts of nation-building, with Kristol cheerleading from the peanut gallery. And the party will be dashed on the reef, never to recover, if it doesn't disregard this new siren song.

Several weeks back, ably filling in for regular New York Times Columnist Paul Krugman (meaning that I couldn't tell their columns apart), Kristol argued that Republicans must abandon their slavish belief in free markets and free enterprise if they want to regain power. Wearing Adam Smith neckties is fine for the dweebs that hang out at Heritage Foundation events, Kristol all but said. But these ideas just aren't trendy at the moment -- and they certainly aren't worth losing congressional races over!

Kristol yesterday delivered another broadside -- and another dose of bad political advice -- arguing this time that Republicans no longer can win on the limited government platform. That, too, is passe in Kristol's view. Just as conservatives and libertarians must acknowledge that free markets and free enterprise need to be managed by the wizards in Washington, we must give up on the archaic idea that government should be modest in mission and power. "I can’t help but admire some of my fellow conservatives’ loyalty to the small-government cause," Kristol sneers. "It reminds me of the nobility of Tennyson’s Light Brigade, as it charges into battle: 'Theirs but to do and die.' Maybe it would be better, though, first to reason why."'

Most who ascribe to freedom philosophy already know the "reason why," Bill. We've thought the matter through and decided that political and economic liberty are practically and morally superior to their antipodes, statism and socialism. Kristol's attachment to these ideas is obviously more tenuous, conditioned on whether they help or hinder his party of convenience. I would rather see the Republican Party lose elections than see it lose its soul.

Remove economic and political liberty from the old-line Republican platform, as Kristol advises, and the platform will collapse. What will be left then, except a malleable mish-mash of "position statements" tailored to win congressional races but detached from any over-arching economic, political or moral philosophy. Knee-jerk support for Israel does not a party platform make, contrary to what Kristol and other neocons (oops, that's non-cons from now on!) seem to think.

Republicans don't need to repudiate these timeless ideas; they need to rediscover them, revive them, re-fashion them in a way that works in a modern context. If that takes years, and means they're out of power for a while, so be it. That will give the statists and collectivists the time they need to make an even bigger mess of things -- setting the stage for a revival of popular interest in the limited government virtues our founders espoused.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

A Shot in the Arm for the Second Amendment

Americans no longer will be asked to surrender their Second Amendment rights -- or their most potent means of self defense -- when they enter a national park, now that the Bush administration has lifted a gun ban that made no constitutional or public safety sense. The anti-gun crowd will of course claim that this will lead to a bloodbath in the parks; that it will be a scene right out of the O.K. Corral at the visitor center gift shop, when some hair-trigger touristas use guns to settle a dispute over the last rubber tomahawk in stock. But such predictions routinely are made when gun rights are restored or expanded, and they routinely prove unfounded.

National parks are not crime free zones, as this blog has repeatedly pointed out. And in fact, their remoteness can even be an invitation to lawlessness and criminal activity, as we've seen with recent efforts by Mexican drug cartels to turn federal parks and forests into pot plantations. Wild animal encounters, though rare, can occur. And if you've ever seen some of the spooky characters who haunt these places -- and I don't just mean the rangers (just kidding, rangers!) -- you can see why one might sleep sounder with a .38 tucked under the pillow.

There's absolutely no rational reason, in short, to disarm Americans simply because they cross a park boundary, unless one wants to argue, rather absurdly, that the Second Amendment and other parts of the Bill of Rights apply in some parts of America, but not others.

The fact that Reagan signed-off on the ban proves nothing, except, perhaps, that he was showing early signs of Alzheimer's.

This is one Bush executive action that Barack Obama may have a tough time reversing, politically speaking, since there is already a lot of fear out in fly-over country about the next president's position on gun rights, and he and his surrogates spent a lot of time and effort during the campaign reassuring folks that he isn’t a gun-grabber. They're still at it, in fact. The surge in gun sales since election day suggests that a lot of Americans aren't convinced. Reinstating the national park gun ban would confirm those fears, and be an early demonstration that Obama isn't the moderate he claims to be.

The write-up below portrays this as a “parting shot on behalf of the National Rifle Association” (and shot at whom the reporter doesn’t explain), but most Americans, and not just NRA members, would agree that there should be no double standard in the application and protection of our constitutional rights. This was the correct -- and the constitutional -- thing to do. It's just a shame the administration waited until the last minute to do it.

But better late than never.

Here's the write-up by The San Francisco Chronicle:

Guns will be allowed in national parks

Campers may now pack heat along with their sleeping bags when they travel to national parks.
The Bush administration on Friday struck down federal regulations banning loaded guns in most national forests, a move that was widely seen as a parting shot on behalf of the National Rifle Association.

The ruling overturned a 25-year-old federal regulation severely restricting concealed firearms in national parks and wildlife refuges. The new rule, which would take effect in January, would apparently allow anyone who already has a concealed weapons permit in his or her state to also tote a gun in federal parks within state boundaries.

Conservation groups, park officials and many politicians blasted the decision as a politically motivated slap against public opinion in favor of the gun lobby.

"This is something the park service does not want that is being driven by the political appointees in the Department of the Interior," said Bryan Faehner, associate director for park uses for the National Parks Conservation Association, a nonprofit group established in 1919 to look out for the interests of the national parks. "This is pretty outrageous. We're concerned that there is going to be an increase in gun-related accidents in parks and opportunistic poaching."

The decision shoots down a 1981 wildlife refuge and a 1983 national park regulation signed by President Ronald Reagan requiring firearms to be unloaded and placed somewhere not easily accessible, such as in a car trunk, when visiting federal parks. Faehner said folks will now be able to lock and load in 388 of 391 parks, refuges and sites in 48 states, including California.
Only the three national park units in Wisconsin and Illinois, which do not issue concealed carry permits, are excluded.

The idea behind the ruling, according to Lyle Laverty, the assistant interior secretary, was to foster the long-held tradition of having states and the federal government work together on natural resource issues. He said similar rules were recently adopted by the federal Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service.

"We are pleased that the Interior Department recognizes the right of law-abiding citizens to protect themselves and their families while enjoying America's national parks and wildlife refuges," said Chris Cox, the National Rifle Association's chief lobbyist.

The NRA lobbied hard for the change to the gun regulations, which Cox said were inconsistent and unclear. Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, and Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., had also supported the change, organizing a letter-writing campaign to Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne complaining about the gun restrictions. The letters were signed by half the Senate - 41 Republicans and nine Democrats.

As of 2007, there were 40,296 people with concealed weapons permits in California, according to Scott Gerber, spokesman for the state attorney general. Such permits are issued by police and sheriff's departments, usually to people in high-profile positions or to those who show a legitimate need for their protection.

The attorney general's office checks the fingerprints of all applicants and excludes people with felonies and violent misdemeanors on their records or who have been committed to mental hospitals.

Faehner said the new regulations go even further to loosen gun regulations than what was proposed earlier this year by the Bush administration. The earlier proposal, he said, would have allowed people to carry concealed weapons in federal parks only if the state parks allowed it.
California state parks do not allow loaded concealed weapons, but the newest ruling ignores the state parks and says that if state law permits concealed weapons, it is OK in a national park within that state's boundary.

"It appears that people who have been issued concealed carry permits will be able to travel into Yosemite with their guns, but they would be prohibited from entering the state parks in California," Faehner said. "So the bar has been lowered."

The change came despite more than 140,000 comments that were sent to the Department of the Interior after the earlier proposal was made. The overwhelming majority of those who commented opposed changing the regulations to allow concealed firearms in national parks, according to representatives of park rangers, retirees and conservation organizations.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., joined numerous organizations, including the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, in denouncing the move.

"This unprecedented rule change wipes out common-sense regulations originally enacted by the Reagan administration," Feinstein said in a statement. "There is simply no good reason why this administration would change a rule that has helped make our national parks among the most popular and safest places in the country."

The regulation, which will be published in the Federal Register Wednesday and go into effect 30 days later, was timed so it would be in the books by the time President-elect Barack Obama takes office on Jan. 20. Changing it would require a long bureaucratic rule-changing process possibly lasting years. Several groups, including the conservation association, are considering a lawsuit.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Wiggle Rooms

No more need for sneaking into cheap hotel rooms for Colorado state legislators, in order to dodge the prying eyes of ethics enforcers. And no, that doesn't mean adulterous affairs are permitted.

It's the AAA room discounts that were creating concern, since voters in 2006 approved an absurdly restrictive gift ban that has everyone walking on egg shells. It barred legislators from accepting any "gifts" exceeding $50 in value, and laid down a bunch of other ridiculous rules meant to curb corruption -- though there was no evidence whatsoever that Colorado legislators were corrupt. But now that dark shadow has been lifted by Colorado's Independent Ethics Commission, which has ruled that the gift ban doesn't apply to AAA and other hotel room discounts.

Getting a few bucks knocked off the hotel bill isn't likely to turn elected officials into puppets of hotel interests, commissioners concluded -- not like getting a steak dinner from a lobbyist might! That means legislators can march into hotel lobbies, heads held high, and unashamedly cash-in a room voucher. Even if they have their mistress in tow.

Friday, December 5, 2008

The Economics of Affordable Housing

I hope Seattle's David Schraer has an unlisted phone number.

Anyone with so much common sense, living in the midst of such a loony bin, is bound to get hate calls.

In a guest column appearing in Tuesday's Seattle Post Intelligencer -- which makes so much sense I'm surprised it wasn't spiked -- Schraer explains something that seems to have eluded most of the city's leaders: that you can't wage regulatory war on developers, and relentlessly drive up the cost of building and the cost of land, and still have affordable housing and a reasonable cost of living.

If you take steps that restrict supply, un-met demand will drive prices higher. If you impose regulatory burdens on builders, that's reflected in higher costs that get passed on to buyers. It's elementary economics, yet most elected officials can't grasp it.

A recent study showed that local government regulations added about $200,000 to the cost of a house in Seattle, according to this report in the Seattle Times. Here's an excerpt:

"Backed by studies showing that middle-class Seattle residents can no longer afford the city's middle-class homes, consensus is growing that prices are too darned high. But why are they so high?

An intriguing new analysis by a University of Washington economics professor argues that home prices have, perhaps inadvertently, been driven up $200,000 by good intentions.

Between 1989 and 2006, the median inflation-adjusted price of a Seattle house rose from $221,000 to $447,800. Fully $200,000 of that increase was the result of land-use regulations, says Theo Eicher — twice the financial impact that regulation has had on other major U.S. cities.

"In a nationwide study, it can be shown that Seattle is one of the most regulated cities and a city whose housing prices are profoundly influenced by regulations," he says."

Then people wonder why all the lower- and middle-income people have left town.

The Seattle Times article and Schraer's guest column (pasted below) should be required reading for elected officials in Colorado cities -- in all cities -- that still can't connect the dots between regulator causes and market effects, and who will do everything in their power to drive up the cost of building, and create a scarcity of affordable and buildable land, all while decrying the lack of affordable housing.

Their misguided response to the affordable housing problem -- an approach Durango just embraced, unfortunately -- is to force private developers to build affordable units, as a condition of zoning or permit approval, which they do by raising the price tag on un-subsidized units. This unjust form of coercion travels under the euphemism "inclusionary zoning." A lucky few get subsidized living space, while everyone else pays more and the overall cost of housing creeps skyward.

What Steamboat Springs is learning the hard way is that you can require that a developer build affordable units, which come with appreciation caps, deed restrictions and other strings attached, but you can't make the public buy them. Market incentives almost always work better than mandates do -- but that presumes that the people making the rules understand market dynamics and basic economics. A surprising number of elected officials seem to be economic illiterates. Maybe we should make the passing of a pop quiz on basic economics a prerequisite to running for office.

But I digress. Here's Schraer's op-ed:

Housing at risk in Seattle


When housing is in short supply, why are we making it more complex and expensive to build?

For more than a decade, Seattle has experienced an unprecedented building boom during which prices were always up, money was cheap and wealth was inflated by rapid appreciation.

The boom followed the anti-tax, anti-immigrant movements that slashed government revenue and led to policies requiring new developments to pay for every imaginable impact. Planning and building departments were ordered to cover their costs through fees, creating many new hurdles and passing the costs on to developers. Fees, professional services and interest now add thousands of dollars to the cost of every new house, apartment or condominium.

Cities once understood that development generates community wealth through sales and property taxes, construction wages and new economic activity. Permit fees were low, impact fees unknown and cities funded their planning and building departments from general revenues. Municipalities considered streets, sidewalks, utilities and public services as investments that would generate community wealth over time.

Today, Seattle penalizes new development rather than waiting patiently for taxes that flow in their wake, generating three problems.

First, additional fees and processes increase the initial project risk and costs. These costs are marked up and passed on to the buyer or renter. Second, the higher risk and costs inhibit development and reduce market supply, further increasing prices. Third, the city's enthusiasm to offload costs to the private sector results in policy gimmicks, such as incentive zoning.

The elephant in the room is the private sector provision of affordable older housing. Almost all work force housing has been and will be provided by older homes and apartments in the private sector. We need to remove barriers to housing development and build the large numbers of new housing units required to moderate rents and housing prices.

Public and philanthropic investment should focus on providing permanent affordable housing that maximizes the return on our investment, such as land trusts and mission-driven, nonprofit-owned housing. Housing levies, the primary traditional mechanism for local funding of affordable housing, are a good example. Seattle residents overwhelmingly have supported housing levies, leaving no justification for an end-run around voters.

During an economic downturn, pay-to-play barriers cobbled together during the boom will reduce our housing supply and rapidly inflate prices. With political will, Seattle can dramatically increase the supply of housing through policy changes. Significant increases in zoning capacity, new clarity and stability in codes and a return to funding infrastructure through broad-based taxes are all measures that will increase housing supply, moderate prices and lower the cost of mission-driven affordable housing, too.

Our primary strategy for affordable housing must be to build as much quality housing as possible to increase supply. Our secondary strategy should be to directly fund as much affordable housing as possible, all in permanent ownership by public and not-for-profit housing agencies.

Public policy that increases the cost of developing dense, green, quality housing equals more expensive housing overall and less affordable housing. There are times for cities to be pro-development. When the world, country, state and city are in recession, or worse, and housing is in short supply, that time is now.

David Schraer is a Seattle architect with in-plain-air architects and was the first executive
director of the White Center Community Development Association.