Monday, June 30, 2008
We also seem to have become an irony-free zone.
Independence Day looms but the papers in Colorado, in what has become an annual ritual, are full of stories about a slew of new laws that become effective July 1st -- the “fruits” of law-manufacturers (a term I prefer to the vainglorious “lawmakers”) cranking out new rules and regulations like so many widgets. The media encourage this by measuring a legislature’s success or failure based on production. Quality control is an afterthought.
The widgets officially become law tomorrow. Whether we’re better off as a result is doubtful. On this issue I tend to agree with Tacitus, who said: “The more corrupt the state, the more it legislates.” Can a nation really be free that stamps out laws on an assembly line?
We have a new anti-ticket scalping law in Colorado: I’ll sleep better as a result. Massage therapists now need to be licensed by the state. Drivers exceeding the speed limit face stiffer fines. The state’s insurance commissioner has been granted new powers to deny health insurance rate increases he or she deems unjustified. A new Passenger Tramway Safety Board will keep tabs on the state’s 374 “tramways” — meaning it’s ski lifts – although there have been no recent ski tram disasters I can recount, and resorts that want to stay in business have every incentive to monitor their safety.
There are only two new laws on the books that expand, rather than contract, freedom in Colorado. Grocery stores are now permitted to sell a bottle of wine on Sundays, and art galleries may now serve complimentary alcoholic beverages at art shows or other events – though they can’t serve alcohol more than four hours a day and 15 days a year.
Shoot off some fireworks -- we can now have a cocktail at a gallery show. But be warned: The state’s art gallery police will be coming down hard on scofflaws who bend the rules.
Colorado is blessed to have a part-time legislature. While lawmakers in other states continue cranking out the widgets -- some do it year-round -- our citizen-legislators thankfully have gone home, to live under the often-inane laws they and the governor just approved. We’re vastly better off, therefore, than many other states. It’s undoubtedly true that a lot of damage can be done by a legislature in a hurry – we in Colorado can testify to that. But I would bet that there’s a direct correlation between the length of time a state legislature stays in session and how screwed-up the state is, in terms of the tax and regulatory burdens it imposes on its businesses and people.
A part-time legislature is something we in Colorado can celebrate this 4th of July. We can take a little solace in the fact that things could be worse.
Happy Independence Day everyone. Now go out there and Obey The Law!
Friday, June 27, 2008
What then typically occurs is that you have a small minority of narrow-interest activists advancing their aesthetic agendas with the government’s help and at the general public’s expense. Abuses of power and misuses of resources occur. Like many good ideas that morph into government programs, it’s bound to become a racket.
Equally ominous is the hijacking of HP by the anti-development, anti-property rights, pro-central planning crowd, including smart-growthers, new-urbanists and all-purpose NIMBYs. Declaring something “historic” grants local or state governments (not to mention busybody neighbors) power over the property owner that can be used any number of ways.
Here in Colorado, for instance, the elite enclave of Aspen recently re-defined “historic” to include any structure built in the 1970s – an obvious ploy to give city officials veto power over the demolition or alteration of buildings not covered by the previous ordinance. This wasn’t exactly an architectural Golden Age in America; one would think hopelessly charming Aspen would be anxious to see the shag carpets, kitch Swiss chalets and red brick blankness of the decade replaced with faux Victorians. But maintaining control over property owners, not preserving history, is the ultimate goal.
Back to aesthetics for a moment, by way of highlighting the absurdities.
We can all probably agree that Mount Vernon merits protection, as the home of the first U.S. president, but is a boarded-up Denny’s restaurant really deserving of equal protection? It is to some residents of Seattle, who tonight are grieving over a demolished Denny’s. Read all about it here.
The local Landmarks Preservation Board tried to help the cause by declaring the eyesore a preservation-worthy example of “Googie” architecture (I’m not making this up). “More than 600 people, including national experts on Googie architecture and staff members from the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation, supported the designation,” reports the Times. A nearby condo owner, Lauri Miller, also vouched for the structure’s historic significance: “One of her favorite waiters worked there, and she remembered the time he surprised her at the restaurant with cake, candles and balloons for her birthday,” according to the story. Miller told the paper she feels ashamed and guilty, fearing that her purchase of a nearby condo created too much “bad karma” to keep the bulldozers at bay.
I think I've made my point.
(I came across a news story on June 30 that adds an absurd new twist -- a house in Pensacola that preservationists are saving, at a cost of $200,000, due to its historic insignificance. "The thing about this house is that no one famous lived here," the associate director of West Florida Historic Preservation, Inc. told the paper. "These houses are significant, particularly because they're not significant." Read the rest of the ridiculous story here.
Most efforts to designate historic preservation zones begin innocuously enough: Some self-styled local historian or group suggests that one neighborhood or another merits special recognition for its charm and longevity. Many homeowners naturally are flattered to think themselves living in a local “landmark,” and hope such a designation might pump up their housing values, so they eagerly go along, while others may be wary, recognizing a latent threat to their property rights. The problem arises when the former faction attempts to drag along the latter group unwillingly -- which is how most of these initially innocent scenarios play out.
What begins in a spirit of voluntarism ends in coercion, with a majority in the neighborhood voting to approve a historic zone over the objections of a minority. Powers to dictate remodeling and maintenance decisions then are vested in an appointed board of preservationist busy-bodies, which must be consulted on most significant changes to a property. This way lies petty despotism. The facade of history is maintained, while historically-important American values such as property rights fall to ruin.
The trajectory I chart can be seen, in snapshot form, in three recent news posts I came across. The first story -- http://www.in-forum.com/News/articles/206130
-- illustrates the early, innocent stage of the process, replete with reassurances to property owners that designation is voluntary and will not impact their property rights. Folks in Fargo’s Oak Grove area are proud of their neighborhood and simply want to see if it merits listing on a national registry. Many may not know what they're getting into.
Fast forward five or six years and some of those living in Oak Grove may find themselves voted into a historic zone by their neighbors, against their wills, and the city of Fargo’s Historic Preservation Commission, whose members are unelected and unaccountable, exercising veto power over what they do with their property. A quick read of these two stories -- http://www.greeleytribune.com/article/20080626/READERS/496905059/1025/FEATURES%26parentprofile=-1 and http://www.southbergenite.com/NC/0/1421.html -- will bring home the point.
The first column was written by a woman who’s been fighting a designation for her neighborhood, against an implacable gang of preservationists in Greeley, Colorado.
In the second (somewhat Orwellian) situation, we see a historic preservation commission assuming greater and greater powers, even over homeowners who decline to participate. To deal with the rebels, a new historic preservation ordinance “creates two classes of historic sites: Class A and Class B,” according to the story. “Class A sites, in which the owner accepts the designation, are subject to stricter limitations on how the property can be modified than Class B sites, in which the owner declined the designation. However, both classes of sites will still need commission approval in order for any structure to be demolished in whole or in part.”
The commission is in control, in other words, whether you fall into "Class A" or "Class B."
What this country needs is another sort of historic preservation movement -- one aimed at preserving and upholding the rights of individuals against the tyranny of historic preservationists.
Thursday, June 26, 2008
Lomborg, as many readers may recall, has been dragged through the mud by unskeptical environmentalists and climate change alarmists for daring to question sensationalist dogma. Not only his ideas but his integrity and intellect were put on trial -- the same treatment that routinely gets doled-out to all other heretics and "deniers," in a campaign of vilification that can best be described as eco-McCarthyism.
It therefore must madden eco-inquisitors to see Lomborg and his ideas get play in such a prominent venue. Can't you just hear the teeth grinding? Let's hope a little respectful treatment emboldens other skeptics, inside the "scientific community" especially, to continue to act as voices of reason, sound science and dissent, at a time when hysteria seems to be carrying the day.
Wednesday, June 25, 2008
That checks and balances were lacking in tribal constitutions – and that tribes have constitutions separate from the U.S. Constitution – might come as a surprise to many non-Indians. But the consequences of vesting too much power in tribal councils have been all-too-real for many American Indians. It has led to corruption, injustice and dysfunctional governance on many reservations, compounding the tragedies and injustices that have befallen Indians. Non-Indians have largely turned a blind eye to this situation, as they turn a blind eye to much of what takes place on reservations.
How do I know? Because I wrote about the effort to re-write tribal constitutions when I worked at The Washington Times – http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1571/is_20_16/ai_62401772 -- and over the years had other opportunities to revisit related issues as a journalist and editorial writer. That doesn’t make me an expert. But as an informed observer, I can’t help but see this as a major step ahead for the tribe.
No one believes that simply writing safeguards against concentrated power into tribal constitutions will fix everything that’s broken in Indian Country. But just as checks and balances in the U.S. Constitution have served as a bulwark against concentrations of power in the federal government, separating powers in tribal constitutions will perhaps do the same on the reservations. Assuming, of course, that rank-and-file Indians demand that the new guidelines be followed and enforced.
Now, we can only hope that happens.
I'm surprised there's no accomodation for donkey carts and rickshaws in Salt Lake City's plan.
Many Americans, no doubt, share in this vision and are willing to surrender their car keys, squeeze onto mass transit, cut down on their living space, go grocery shopping with burlap bags and in all other ways conform to the master planner’s vision of the ecologically-correct lifestyle. No one at the moment is preventing anyone from doing this. But it’s doubtful the Eco-Utopians, as zealous as they are to remake the world, will be content to live and let live -- meaning they’ll use what levers of powers they can to make the rest of us conform.
These are what Thomas Sowell called the “coercive Utopians.” And they are a clear and present danger to our personal liberties and lifestyle choices. These tyrants will arrive not with the obnoxious clanking of tank treads, but come quietly and stealthily, riding the crosstown bus.
The good news is that most lawmakers, when asked by WW whether they would at least review, and possibly rescind, the incentives, indicated that they would. A politician willing to remove a much-cherished (and widely abused) subsidy? Now, that’s progress.
Tuesday, June 24, 2008
The Kelo ruling thus-far has had a mixed impact. Many states, responding to the general public’s revulsion at the ruling, have taken matters into their own hands by trying to tighten up rules surrounding such “takings,” much to the displeasure of local politicos and professional planners, who have no qualms about intimidating and dislocating anyone who stands in the way of their grand “urban redevelopment” schemes. Yet many of those “reforms” have loopholes large enough to drive a bulldozer through. As well, there’s been a blurring of important distinctions in the public’s mind, in my opinion, between legitimate and illegitimate uses of eminent domain, since few people would argue that these powers should never, under any circumstances, be used.
Reluctantly using eminent domain to construct a major water project or a school, or some other project that benefits the public broadly, is arguably legitimate. Taking a person’s business or home and handing it to a private developer promising the city a tax windfall is not just an illegitimate use of power, in my view, but a crime.
Broadly speaking, Kelo resulted in a property rights revival of sorts. But that revival's sustainability is open to question, since the interests that stand to benefit from Kelo – developers, politicos and planners -- are well organized and highly motivated, while the general public, unless roused to action by some outrage, tends to doze off. And the bulldozing goes on. Stories can be found in newspapers almost weekly about another Kelo-like case.
Here’s an overview of Kelo decision published in Reason -- http://www.reason.com/news/show/127128.html -- and a slightly heartwarming/slightly heartbreaking story about how the little pink house at the center of the storm is being saved and relocated, as an unofficial shrine to America’s lost property rights: http://ap.google.com/article/ALeqM5j5_PvUZVe0WDoE0BEDoDA6VyAuVQD91ELUOO0
Finally, there’s an interesting story about the impact eminent domain abuse has had on one of my favorite American cities, Baltimore, Maryland: http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/local/baltimore_city/bal-md.domain24jun24,0,1428335.story.
Read 'em and weep.
Monday, June 23, 2008
Ice cores drilled in Greenland suggest that the climate has over time undergone abrupt and dramatic alterations, even "in the absence of changes in greenhouse gas," according to SA. Research indicates, for instance, that one past climate fluctuation occurred when dust carried aloft from Asian deserts decreased. While this might cast doubt on the conviction among some that the changes we are witnessing today are definitely anthropogenic in nature, don't count on this information opening too many minds. Instead of seeing this as a justification for skepticism or caution, the catastrophists just keep wringing their hands.
"In view of the past instability—and sensitivity to temperature—of Greenland ice, serious concerns about its future under global warming stress do emerge," one researcher tells SA. But Greenland seems to have done just fine adapting to Mother Nature's sometimes erratic behavior. "Sediment cores from the ocean show that forests of spruce and even fern grew on Greenland just 125,000 years ago," reports SA -- long before that cancer on the planet, man, began belching pollutants and "greenhouse gases" into the atmosphere.
Since so many American policy discussions get reduced to bumper sticker bromides, why not this one? "Encourage Global Warming," one might read. "Help Make Greenland Green Again."
“No major rules changes or legislative actions are needed to permanently
end the earmarking epidemic. Members of Congress merely need to make a pledge,
individually and collectively, to strictly follow existing budget rules and stop
taking self-serving shortcuts.”
Tuesday, June 17, 2008
I honestly don’t know enough about commodities to speculate about what role, if any, traders are playing in high gas prices (though I would wager money that an unbiased analysis would find Congress far more culpable than commodities traders), but the Reuters wire service has done enough solid journalism to dig out the facts: Reuters News Wire.
It doesn’t seem to me, as a layperson, that this sector of the market is completely unregulated, or that a regulatory overreaction by Washington is warranted, given the high probability that government intervention will cause more problems than it solves.
Friday, June 13, 2008
But perhaps some of the more serious, objective scientists on campus don’t want to be associated with an institution that could quickly become the College of Environmentalism, rather than the College of the Environment, polluting pure science with public policy-making. Perhaps some fear that green ideology and sensationalized science will in time come to taint everything the department does.
Scientists should be scientists. Missionaries should be missionaries. But in the name of “saving the planet,” some radicals seem determined to co-opt science and conflate the two. Fear of this might help explain why “faculty in four out of the six schools and departments that would form the new college, including the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences and the Department of Earth and Space Sciences, have rejected the idea in advisory votes," according to the Times. “Some are concerned part of their research wouldn't fit within the mandate of the new college.”
A college with a “mandate”? That alone should give one pause.
Monday, June 9, 2008
One story profiles a longtime member of Congress who is damn proud of his ability to “bring home the bacon.” He even seems to have kept a tally of his raids on the treasury and brags of personally delivering $7 billion in pork to the district – that’s illion with a capital B, he says. And his constituents evidently loved him for it, given his long tenure. Meet retired Rep. Ken Gray: http://www.courierpostonline.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20080609/NEWS01/806090344/1006. Here’s a key quote. "If building hospitals, nursing homes and highways is pork, then I say pass the plate," Gray said, laughing. "Anybody who tells you that the greatest beneficiary of a pork barrel is the provider of the pork is wrong."
Perhaps I’m not alone in being thankful this guy retired.
The second story profiles what might be called the reluctant porker; a member of Congress who claims to oppose most earmarking on principle, recognizing that it’s a corruption of the budget process, but who indulges nonetheless, because he is a practical person. As long as everyone else is doing it, he figures, why shouldn’t I dunk my biscuit in the gravy bowl too? Meet New Jersey Rep. Frank A. LoBiondo: http://www.courierpostonline.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20080609/NEWS01/806090344/1006. Here’s a key quote: "I don't believe the people that I represent should be unfairly disadvantaged by my self-imposing a moratorium when everybody else will be advocating on behalf of their constituents," says LoBiondo, who hastens to add that every earmark he sponsors is carefully vetted. Vetted by whom? LoBiondo and his staff, of course.
Finally, you have the relatively rare member of Congress who finds the feeding frenzy repugnant and declines to participate, hoping his constituents will reward him for his fiscal restraint. He may manage to stay in office, but most colleagues give him a wide berth in the cloakroom and at cocktail parties; sort of like the one clean cop in a dirty precinct. Meet California Rep. Devi Nunes: http://www.fresnobee.com/263/story/654409.html. Here’s a key quote: "Earmark decisions are made in smoke-filled rooms by out-of-touch people who have a record of making poor decisions," Nunes said. "The process has enabled corrupt politicians to exploit their offices and is largely based on political patronage." Naturally, this sort of talk, though it has the ring of truth to it, doesn’t make Nunes popular with colleagues. Some suggest he’s even been targeted for retaliation, after crossing swords on a fiscal issue with Rep Jerry Lewis, a prodigious porker who chaired the House Appropriations Committee.
There you have it. Three different members of Congress, three different attitudes toward earmarking. And each tailors his position to fit a constituency.
Some Americans expect their congressperson to plunder at will. They seem driven by a sense of entitlement to get “their fair share” -- though it’s frequently much more than their fair share. Other Americans, though they understand earmarking is wasteful, corrupting and contributes to budget deficits, are pragmatists, who feel (with some justification) they’ll be taken advantage of by the plunderers if their man or woman in Congress doesn’t play the game.
Still others – a decided minority, in seems -- make the connection between high taxes, runaway spending and the total lack of fiscal discipline earmarking bespeaks. This latter group hopes, perhaps forlornly, that a modicum of fiscal discipline might be restored if their representative in Washington, while looking out for their legitimate interests, refrains from trying to bribe them with their own money -- which is what the earmarking racket amounts to.
Which mindset prevails will largely determine whether Congress ever kicks the earmarking habit.
Saturday, June 7, 2008
Friday, June 6, 2008
The theory falls apart because you can’t shame the shameless. And that’s why the vaunted earmark reforms we’ve been hearing and reading about, at least since the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal increased public awareness of the issue, will fail to deliver significant results. Though beneficial, the new disclosure rules being debated by the House and Senate won’t do much good because members, masterful spinners that they are, have succeeded in turning fiscal vice into political virtue. Nothing will change until the American people begin to see the issue clearly and consistently – and until they stop serving as accomplices.
I keep seeing media references to the “public outrage” earmarks supposedly evoke. Where is it? The most notorious pork-barrel practitioners in Congress are routinely and reflexively re-elected (it’s that longevity, in fact, that’s given them a front row seat at the trough). Most are lionized by their constituents for their ability to “bring home the bacon.” I used to read the newspaper clips that came in after our annual release of the Pig Book, a report designed to shame politicians and educate the public. Far from outrage, most of the home state reaction could be summed up as follows: “If this is pork, we want another heaping helping!”
I began to recognize that many Americans were indignant about the obviously-parochial, arguably-idiotic pet projects landed by other members of Congress, but saw similar projects scored by their own Congressperson as legitimate federal expenditures, not to mention just desserts. The report provoked rationalizing en masse. I never saw a member of Congress pay any political price for pigging out.
Back then, a few members of Congress bristled at being called out as porkers. But as years went by, I sensed that some members actually relished the Pig Book’s release, understanding that they and their constituents could take a certain pride in their pork barrel tally, since it served as one tangible measure of political clout. The sanguine editorial reactions, along with the willingness of constituents to justify their own representative’s raid on the Treasury, removed whatever stigma once attached to pork-barrel plundering. And it became a perverse point of pride. Until this changes, little else will.
Here’s my thumbnail reaction to the “reforms” being debated by Congress.
One provision in the House bill “requires any bill containing earmarks be accompanied by a list identifying each one and the member or members who requested it,” according to the AP. I just explained why that’s ineffectual. Creating such a list merely reduces the work load for Congressional press secretaries, who are spared the need to crank out the customary press releases bragging about how their bosses “brought home” this or that federal spending project.
Another provision requires the member who requests an earmark “to provide a letter identifying the earmark and the entity to receive the funds, along with a certification that neither the requesting member nor their spouse would benefit financially,” report the AP. Disclosure of financial conflicts could be useful, only if serious, perhaps even criminal sanctions result from failing to disclose. Referring such matters to the ethics committee will not serve as a deterrent. The most corrupt members of Congress may seek some direct financial gain from earmarks, but most are content to reap the real but far less visible rewards, including the gratitude of voters and patronage ties such projects generate. That's critical to the incumbency protection racket. Lining their pockets is less important to most members than remaining a lifetime member of this prestigious club. There's plenty of opportunity for cashing-in after retirement.
Another rule change would prohibit earmarks “from being used to influence other members,” according to the AP. But policing this would be nearly impossible. The congressional pecking order is obvious enough to most insiders, and so much of the institution’s business transpires behind closed doors, that overt acts of intimidation (or pork-barrel bribery) are rarely evident. Junior members don’t have to be told what might happen if they cross senior members -- who also happen to control appropriations committees. Catching one member in the act of influencing another, using earmarks as leverage, isn’t as easy as it sounds in an institution where influencing colleagues is a legitimate part of the game. And without adequate enforcement mechanisms, this won’t have much impact.
The only reform worthy of the name -- a proposed moratorium on earmarks until a bipartisan committee proposes new rules changes -- fell along the wayside late last week, regrettably. This isn’t the solution, of course, since the study committee, if it simply mirrors Congress at large, is likely to produce recommendations just as anemic as those critiqued here. But a moratorium, if it stuck, would at least grant taxpayers a temporary reprieve. And if the committee’s work, staying true to congressional form, took one, two or three years to complete, that would save taxpayers tens of billions of dollars in unnecessary, frivolous and wasteful government spending.
Given how endemic earmarking has become, and how hard it will be to change that as long as average Americans remain complicit in the corruption, even a temporary timeout is probably the best we can hope for.
Thursday, June 5, 2008
One CEO who early-on saw the profit-making potential in playing the green game was Enron’s Ken Lay, as this eye-opening column in the Houston Chronicle recounts: http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/business/steffy/5817644.html. “Under Lay, Enron championed a host of government-supported "green" energy initiatives, all designed to help its businesses, from natural gas to electricity trading to wind farms,” Loren Steffy writes, quoting a former Lay aide who says he wasn’t quite the free-marketer he seemed. Rather than fight government regulation and intervention, Lay the game-player embraced it, angling for ways to cash-in. Half-hearted energy deregulation meant huge profits for Enron, while imposing a lot of pain on energy consumers.
But the fall of Enron didn’t end the story (perhaps because this part of the Enron scam has been ignored or glossed over): on the contrary, the gaming of the political and regulatory system by supposedly “green” companies goes on -- and on an even grander scale than in Lay's day. A whole new “parasite industry” has been born, as the column suggests, thanks to the mania for "renewables" and biofuels. And it will only grow when Congress gets done with its climate change work.
Ken Lay’s Enron today stands as a symbol of political string-pulling, cynical market manipulation and unbridled greed. But most of the finger-waggers tell only part of the story. Perhaps, in the not-too-distant future, the same condemnation will be heaped on the spate of “parasitic industries” that are following in Lay’s footsteps and cashing-in by going "green."